Editor’s Note: This post was updated on November 25, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on March 17, 2016.
Love Handles. Turkey Neck. Bat Wing. Muffin Top.
Your body weight might be normal, but you may have that one problem area that you wish you could target and get rid of. That is why spot reduction is so alluring – if we just use that weight shaker, wear that abdominal sweat band, or drink that tummy flab blaster smoothie, we can target those problem areas and finally achieve that perfect body.
But does spot reduction actually work? If build muscle groups with certain exercises, surely you can target abdominal fat in the same manner, right?
In order to clear up any misconceptions let’s first cover how fat is created and stored, then we will cover which problem areas you can and cannot target, and effective strategies you can employ to finally lose that belly fat (or any area) and finally achieve that lean body you want.
How Fat Mass Is Created and Stored
Body fat by itself is not a problem; you need it to survive. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would need this storage of energy when food was scarce. However, carrying excessive amounts can cause health problems ranging from diabetes and hypertension to metabolic syndrome and other serious problems.
Body fat mass is created when you are in a caloric surplus – taking in more energy than your body needs, or in plain speech: “overeating.” This is true for all humans, regardless of whether you’re male or female.
Here’s the thing: it’s actually a lot easier to get into a caloric surplus than you might think. Just because you’re eating until you feel full doesn’t mean you’re eating what will keep your body weight stable.
The 2,000-calorie diet you’re likely familiar with was designed to be the best estimate of people’s daily caloric needs, but since everyone has an unique body composition, 2,000 calories may be too little – or give you a caloric surplus that will be converted into storage, especially if you’re sedentary.
How can 2,000 calories be a surplus? Take the example of someone who is metabolically obese but has a normal weight – someone popularly termed as “skinny fat.”
Body composition analysis reveals that this female has a normal body weight of 135.3 pounds, and you would never categorize this person as obese. However, a closer look at her body composition reveals that has an excess of 47.4 pounds of fat mass, which divided against her body weight would be a body fat percentage of 35%, over the normal range for women. Put it together and she displays the hallmarks of a skinny fat individual: “normal” weight caused by underdeveloped muscle mass and too much fat.
What would happen if she kept living the same lifestyle? She has 88 pounds of Lean Body Mass (which includes your muscle mass and other components), which after simple calculations converts to a BMR of 1231 kcal.
Assuming she lives a mostly sedentary lifestyle with no exercise, her Total Daily Energy Expenditure would be roughly 1477.2 calories.
This would mean that if she kept to a 2,000-calorie diet, she would be in a caloric surplus of 522.8 kcal per day – meaning she could expect to gain roughly a pound of fat every week if she remained consistently on this diet every day.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or women; accumulation occurs in the same way. Where it ends up, however, can be a different story for both men and women.
Android obesity is a subset of obesity that most frequently occurs in men. It is characterized by weight gain in the midsection and upper chest and gives men a more rounded look. This is sometimes called “apple-shaped” obesity.
Men store more of their fat here because of their hormones, specifically, their testosterone levels. Women can also experience android obesity after menopause due to the decrease of estrogen in their bodies relative to testosterone.
Gynoid Obesity is another subset of obesity that most commonly occurs in pre-menopausal women. It is characterized by fat accumulation in the hips, legs, and buttocks. Because the accumulation generally takes place in the lower half of the body, gynoid obesity is referred to as “pear-shaped obesity.”
While everyone gains it the same way, fat accumulates in different places depending on gender, hormones, and other factors.
Now that we know how fat is created, how do we target it?
Here’s What You Can and Can’t Target
What actually happens when you work out a muscle group? You challenge your muscles. Muscle fibers get torn and rebuilt, and with proper exercise and nutrition, they become more developed.
Although this can lead to localized blood flow in the exercised muscles leading to some interaction with the subcutaneous fat, the effects are very minimal.
Here’s the bad news. Targeting fat, or “spot reduction,” is a myth, and there’s no shortage of clinically-validated studies that disprove it.
In 2007, researchers at the University of Connecticut examined a group of 104 subjects and had them perform resistance training on their non-dominant arm (so if a subject was right-handed, they exercised their left arm).
At the conclusion of the 12-week study, MRI scans revealed no fat loss between either arm.
So arms are out (as are legs), but what about the one a lot of people really want to target: belly fat?
Well, in a recent (2011) study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, participants were divided into two groups and asked to perform abdominal exercises. The control group was allowed to train relatively unsupervised, while the experimental group was put on a controlled abdominal exercise workout plan.
The results for both groups?
“Six weeks of abdominal exercise training alone was not sufficient to reduce abdominal subcutaneous fat or other measures of body composition.”
No matter how many crunches or planks you do, you can’t target only the abdominal fat. You might develop some very strong ab muscles, but the belly fat will stay put.
So what can you do to get rid of stubborn fat in your problem spots? Are we to conclude that there is no point in working out different parts of your body when you want to lose fat?
When you lose fat, you generally lose it in across your body at the same time. You can’t target any particular area over another.
But here is some good news. Fat loss does occur in some areas more rapidly than it does in others. Case in point: visceral fat.
Visceral fat is stored in your abdominal area and surrounds your internal organs. This type of fat is very dangerous in large quantities, and as associated with several serious health complications including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Metabolic Syndrome, high blood pressure, and more.
While subcutaneous fat (subcutaneous means situated under the skin) is more visible, Visceral fat is more dangerous people can have significant amounts of visceral fat but not know it because their weight/appearance doesn’t give it away. This common for “skinny fat” individuals.
So what should you do if you are skinny fat (or obese) and you want to target that abdominal pudge? Visceral fat is particularly responsive to cardiovascular exercise, so if you start significantly increasing your running, biking, swimming, or whatever your cardio exercise of choice is, you will experience visceral fat loss. One study has even shown that for people whose BMIs exceed 25.0, cardiovascular exercise alone, even without a caloric deficit, can have a positive impact on visceral fat reduction.
To Target Your Fat – All of It – Get Back to Basics
Even though you want to just target certain problem fat areas, your focus should be on overall fat loss and creating “caloric deficit.” For example, if your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is 2200, and you consume 1800 calories, you’re in a caloric deficit of -400 calories. If you can maintain this over time with proper nutrition, you’ll experience fat loss.
Of course, this is easier said than done, so here are three strategies to help you get started.
Get a Body Composition Analysis
This is an important first step and one that a lot of people skip: get your body composition determined. This will allow you to learn your body fat percentage, which will reveal valuable information about your body, including:
- How much Fat Mass you have
- How much Lean Body Mass you have
With that information, you can find out even more useful information, such as:
- Your Basal Metabolic Rate
- Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure
These two are particularly important because they’ll help you determine how many calories your body needs in a day. If you need help with figuring that out, here’s a guide to get you started on planning a diet using your body composition data.
Using Your TDEE, Plan a Diet For Fat Loss
Your TDEE will be an extremely useful number for you. You can think of it like a “calorie budget.” You can “spend” your “budget” on different foods and beverages throughout the day, with the goal of “saving” calories at the end of the day (your caloric deficit). How you “spend” your budget is up to you, but you will still want to make healthy choices throughout the day.
There are numerous diets that you might follow. Don’t follow any diet that asks you to eat a certain number of calories or restrict entire macronutrients (like no carbohydrates) just because they worked for someone that you know. These won’t necessarily work for you. Use your own, personal TDEE as a guideline to determine how much you should be eating in a day.
If you plan to work out to increase your TDEE, include cardio and strength training.
Cardio, particularly HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) cardio, can be an effective way to increase your TDEE, and if your diet holds constant, will increase your caloric deficit and lead to fat loss.
However, just focusing on cardio alone, and neglecting your diet, isn’t a good idea. If you only run, bike, or other types of cardio exercise without any strength training, you can start to lose Lean Body Mass (which your Skeletal Muscle Mass is a part of).
Losing Lean Body Mass and Fat Mass at the same time will make it a lot harder to improve your body composition and will keep you from getting the lean body look you want. Fortunately, studies have shown that incorporating full-body strength training exercises can preserve Lean Body Mass while you’re in a caloric deficit to lose fat. So don’t neglect the weights!
By getting back to the basics of dieting and exercising (incorporating both cardio and strength training to increase muscle mass), you’ll chip away at your problem areas slowly but surely. Avoid any shortcut diets that advertise “abdominal fat shedding secrets”, workout equipment that promises to “blast” your arms, or any spot reduction gimmicks. The only guaranteed way to get rid of problem areas is to get back to basics by improving your overall body composition.