Fat targeting, or spot reduction is the idea that you can reduce fat in a specific area by targeting it with exercise, often with a high training volume (lots of sets and reps) or increased frequency (multiple sessions a week).
The concept certainly makes sense at face value because a muscle that works hard will require more energy, most of which will come from the fat around it, won’t it?
People also tend to conflate spot reduction with targeted toning. Firmer muscles can make an area look firmer, more toned and shapely, which is often mistaken for area-specific fat loss.
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Unfortunately, though, the fat-loss process is not that simple. In essence, working a muscle doesn’t necessarily burn more fat in the immediate area around it.
While you can burn more fat stores near active muscles, as this is more efficient than mobilising stored fat from regions that are further away from active muscles, fat loss tends to be generalised.
This happens due to numerous basic physiological factors, such as the way the body mobilises and metabolises stored fat (via a process known as lipolysis) to produce glycerol and free fatty acids inside fat cells.
These components then enter the bloodstream and circulate around the body to meet our energy needs. As a result, the fat broken down for fuel during exercise can come from anywhere in your body, not just the working muscles.
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This energy is also usually derived for the most abundant sources (those areas with the most fat to spare).
Hormones play vital roles in where you store fat and how efficiently you can burn stored fat (various enzymes also play a role).
Therefore, a hormonal imbalance can make it harder to lose weight from a certain area, regardless of how often or how hard you target it. This is particularly relevant to those who try to spot reduce their midsections or muffin tops with thousands of sit-ups, crunches or side bends.
Other factors like gender, age, genetics, and lifestyle also impact where your body stores and loses fat first.
As such, while some degree of localised or regional fat loss is certainly possible, total energy expenditure and creating a negative calorie balance are far more important.
That means regularly performing intense exercise using predominantly weight-bearing exercises and multi-joint compound movements that incorporate multiple muscles (rather than single-joint isolation exercises that target individual muscles or areas) and eating a calorie-controlled diet will be far more effective.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.