Updated: Oct 16, 2020
You want to live a healthy lifestyle consistently but it can seem impossible to know what it takes to maintain it for the long run. Without creating healthy habits (versus quick, immediately gratifying changes), you won’t maintain progress in your health. But what habits should you set out to create? In this article, we’ll investigate whether or not “spot-reduction” is something you should focus on in your exercise routine.
The belief, or the hope, of spot reduction, has been around for some time. It is the idea that if we want to lose fat in a specific area, we should do exercises that target that area. There is a whole range of perspectives regarding this. For some people, they envision their fat just melting off while they do sit-ups, while others believe there may be a minor correlation between the blood flow to the area and the breakdown of fat cells.
The main thing I want to focus on in this article is the underlying desires and mindset behind why someone would want “spot-reduction” to be true. Our attitude toward health and our bodies, when gone unchecked, will affect other choices we make in the future and can show us a lot about underlying mindsets that could be damaging to our health journey in the future.
To get the full picture of this topic, we must look at it through three main lenses: historical evidence, biblical principles, and current evidence-based research. Many people set out to research a topic, but only get a partial picture because they leave one or more of these approaches out. It is only when we look through all three of these lenses that we see the full picture.
Biblical- What are the motives and mindsets behind the topic? How does it line up with biblical principles? Is this topic consistent with the Word of God and/or the proven character of God?
Historical- When and where did a topic originate? What are its results throughout history? Looking at the past reputation of a topic is crucial in determining its validity for today.
Current Research- Do current scholarly studies provide evidence to support the topic? What are the cold, hard, objective facts about the topic and its effects?
The idea of spot reduction has been around for a while and has become popular over the last 30 years or so. The belief that one could target fat loss has really become popular because of all of the weight issues that have become our new “normal” in recent decades. “The prevalence of obesity changed relatively little during the 1960s and 1970s, but it increased sharply over the ensuing decades—from 13.4% in 1980 to 34.3% in 2008 among adults and from 5% to 17% among children during the same period.”(1)
Throughout history, our ancestors never needed a way to target fat loss as being overweight was very rare. In ancient times, someone who was overweight was seen as a person of power because they had the means/money to acquire enough food to gain weight. For most, this was not the case throughout history. Even in the early-mid 1900s weight gain was nowhere near what it has become over the last 40 years.
Today most of us live in a world of plenty. If we want food, we can go to the store or drive through a fast-food restaurant and get that food immediately, and for relatively cheap. We are constantly feasting. While unhealthy foods tend to be easier and cheaper to obtain, it’s healthy food that is more expensive and inconvenient to prepare. This did not used to be the case.
For thousands of years, people have had to fast out of necessity due to inconsistent food sources - food was either hunted or gathered. They weren’t concerned with how they could lose fat in certain spots to look good, they were concerned about surviving. The challenge for our ancestors was getting enough food to survive, the challenge for us, and the next generation is making sure we don’t eat too much food, which will hinder our survival.
Now don’t get me wrong, just because we live in a land of plenty doesn’t mean we should downplay the struggles we face today. It’s a challenge to have self-control and discipline to eat the right way especially with little to no shortage of food and the current confusion concerning what foods we should be eating.
People in the health industry have taken advantage of this and try to make money any chance they can get. I have no problem with running a business or making money, but when you sell something to someone that doesn’t really benefit them in the long run or is misleading, that’s where I have a problem.
This is a main question I ask when looking at the history of any health issue: what are they trying to sell me? Is it a supplement, a program, a gadget that will burn off fat around only one area? The fitness industry will take advantage of a harmful mindset and capitalize on it - which leaves consumers lacking the results they want or need. Look to those who genuinely want to help you create healthy habits and transform your mind so you can live a healthy lifestyle for the long run.
Key takeaway: Spot reduction has only been around for the last 30 years or so; it is based upon the mindset of “looking good” instead of a desire to steward our bodies the way they were created.
Bro-science. When you’ve worked out for a lot of years, you learn your body well. You learn what works, what doesn’t; what hinders it and what propels you to your goals. The challenge is when people take what they’ve learned or what they think have allowed them to achieve a certain goal, and they sell it as the only way. This watered-down mixture of first person experience and uneducated opinion from the “bros” at your gym, when spread and presented as truth is what confuses the wellness consumer of today. If it can’t be replicated, if it’s not founded in evidence and the three lenses we talked about - it's all just opinion. And it’s a vicious cycle.
This is what is dubbed as “bro science” - and most of the time, it’s founded in anything but science. While some of the suggestions from your local gym rat may get a goal accomplished, it may not be beneficial long term or for other people who are just getting started. Spot reduction is one of the biggest bro-science myths of today. While there may be some truth to parts of spot reduction, the idea that fat will melt off of an area because you work that specific area is not exactly feasible.
Just listen to what the bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger has to say about this topic:
“When I got into bodybuilding most competitors believed in something called spot reduction, and there are a lot of people who still think this is possible. Spot reduction refers to training a specific muscle in order to burn off fat in that particular area. According to this idea, to develop abdominal definition, you do a lot of ab training, lots of high reps, and burn away the fat that is obscuring the development of the abdominal muscles. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. When the body is in a caloric deficit and begins metabolizing fat for energy, it doesn’t go to an area where the muscles are doing a lot of work in order to get additional energy resources. The body has a genetically programmed pattern by which it determines from what adipose cells to access stored fat energy. Exercise does burn calories, of course, but the abdominals are such relatively small muscles that no matter how much ab training you do you won’t metabolize nearly the energy you would by simply going for a walk for the same amount of time. But this is not to say that training a given area like the abs doesn’t increase definition. As I said, the abdominals get a hard workout when you do heavy exercises, but what they don’t get is quality training—that is, isolation, full-range-of-movement exercises. Movements that do this bring out the full shape and separation of the abdominals instead of just making them bigger. So although training the abs like this doesn’t do a lot to reduce the fat around the waistline, it does create very well defined muscles that are revealed once you are able to reduce your body fat sufficiently by means of diet and aerobic exercise.”(2)
Arnold is a legend because he didn’t just go by opinions or bro-science. He went by common sense and evidence-based beliefs. Men and women have different bodies and body types. As Arnold said, we have a genetic makeup that distributes and brakes down fat in a certain way - we must partner with our bodies to stay lean and healthy for the long run. Our bodies weren’t created to be like a clay sculpture with which an area can simply be smoothed out, because a particular muscle group cannot be isolated from the body, they all work together as a whole. God has made our body a certain way and we don’t get to change that just because we want to look a certain way.
Key Takeaway: We must educate ourselves on how our bodies are made and incorporate evidence-based practice in our lifestyle in order to partner with what our bodies are made to do!
Many studies have been done over the years to see if there is any truth to this concept of spot reduction. The overwhelming majority of the evidence seems to show that spot reduction does not work as we think. In a study of 24 individuals, researchers found that “Six weeks of abdominal exercise training alone was not sufficient to reduce abdominal subcutaneous fat and other measures of body composition.”(3)
The evidence tends to support that spot reduction isn’t as effective and fat loss tends to be dispersed throughout the whole body, especially when we train the entire body. This shows that instead of targeting specific areas, we need to use compound, functional movements that will expend more calories during our workout and stimulate muscle growth.
Another group of researchers studied the effects of the sit up to see if that exercise burned more fat around the abdominal region, or if the fat loss was dispersed around the whole body. Their results demonstrated that fat loss was not distributed more to the abdominal region as compared to other adipose (fat) sites in the whole body.(4) This shows that fat breakdown is dispersed throughout the whole body as opposed to one location.
Key Takeaway: The evidence seems to show that fat breakdown is dispersed throughout the whole body as opposed to one localized area.
There is one study that found an interesting correlation between exercising a specific area and fat breakdown in that area. They primarily looked at how the blood flow to that area could increase fat breakdown. They found that the increase in blood flow in the areas where muscles were contracting resulted in a slight increase of fat breakdown in those areas.5 This is an interesting finding. It makes sense that the blood would bring all of the nutrients and hormones required to break down the fat in that area so that energy can be distributed throughout the body.
The way fat breakdown works is simple. When a muscle group is in need of nutrients and energy, your body uses energy stored in the liver or breaks down fat cells into energy and disperses that energy into the bloodstream. Your muscles do not take fat directly from the fat cells that overlay that muscle. Fat is a nutrient to the body, and nutrients are distributed by the bloodstream to wherever it’s needed - This is why the idea that your muscles take fat from the fat cells that are directly over it, is false. When we exercise, our body brings blood flow to an area to refuel and repair that area. So an increase in blood flow when we exercise could increase the breakdown of fat in that area.
It’s all about blood flow - life is in the blood. The increased blood flow could increase the breakdown of fat in those areas by bringing fat burning hormones to the area following a workout. It seems that many people that believe in spot reduction believe that it has to do with blood flow and not just the crazy idea that fat will melt off.
Key Takeaway: Life is in the blood. Bringing blood flow to a specific area consistently could help the breakdown of fat cells in that area.
One key aspect that most of these studies do not consider is nutrition. Nutrition is a key aspect of health, especially when trying to lose fat. Burning calories and targeted exercises won’t get you anywhere if you aren’t taking in nutrient dense foods. Weight loss is achieved when your movement and nutrition are consistent.
Primarily, we eat clean and nutritious foods for fat loss and we exercise to build a solid muscle and bone structure. We must partner these two together to fully walk in a balance in our health. You can not exercise off a bad diet. While this may seem like a no brainer on paper, this is a mindset in the background of most health and wellness culture today: workouts are to offset a weekend of bad eating habits instead of partnering with consistent, healthy eating habits to get the best results possible. Seem familiar?
Do not underestimate the power of a clean diet and fasting, partnered together with a functional workout routine.
Key Takeaway: Nutrition is key to fat loss. Partner good eating habits together with a functional workout routine for the best results.
In health and wellness, mindset is everything. Doing something good with vain, prideful or self-deprecating motives does not turn out well in the long run. You may look or feel good for a moment, but eventually having the wrong mindset will corrupt any progress you have made. This is why I think the mindset is the most important thing when discussing spot reduction.
The purpose of everything we teach is to help you build a solid foundation in health for your whole life. We want you to build your health on a rock instead of on sand. The reason that many people are so inconsistent in their health is that they build their foundation on unstable mindsets like fitting into a certain size, having a thinner ____, looking good the next beach trip, etc. This type of thinking leads to a life of ups and downs, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
If you build your foundation in health on surface mindsets like this one, you will never maintain any progress and will always be looking to the “new thing” that will help you look better. Instead, focus on consistently creating habits and mindsets that will help you live to your full potential in every season of life and in every area of life.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be in shape for your spouse or wanting to fit into your favorite dress again, but these things are secondary goals - longevity in our health comes when we make the primary things, primary. Being in shape to run around with your grandkids, staying healthy to be a good example for your kids, stewarding your body well so you can lead others in it too… these things should be primary. Our “why.” When we keep primary things, primary, we usually achieve the secondary things too.
We must keep the main thing the main thing. Find your primary and long term “why”. What gets you up in the morning? What were you put on this earth to do? How can you be your best self for your family, children, and grandchildren over the long run?
These are the things that should be first on our minds when choosing to live a healthy lifestyle. Focus on the 5 cornerstones of health (you can read about those here), and you will live to your full potential in the things that matter and the secondary things will come too.
Key Takeaway: If you try to make secondary things primary you will lose both primary and secondary. But if you make primary things primary and secondary things secondary you will end up thriving in both.
Spot reduction stems from a desire to look good. Most people who want to do “spot reduction” are concerned with their looks more than their overall health. At the heart of this mindset is vanity. There are 2 main definitions of vanity. The first is about having a mindset of only caring or caring excessively about outward appearances and looks, the second definition is used when something is futile and produces no results.
I believe this mindset has to do with both definitions of the word vain. By caring excessively about how we look and wanting to only work on our appearance we end up getting no lasting results in our health.
Most of the health industry nowadays is vain. It appeals and capitalizes upon people’s desire to look good. No wonder our health as a nation has gone down drastically over the last 30 years! This way of thinking is so profound in the fitness industry, you may not even recognize it in yourself, but for most of us, a remnant is still there. This is where we can walk in freedom - living a life chasing after fleeting beauty and good looks, is exhausting and never satisfying. Freedom comes when know we have a choice - a choice to think differently.
It’s a given that you will be surrounded by this type of thinking and mindset. It’s everywhere. What’s behind the scenes of your favorite movie is the set crew strategically lighting a scene to enhance muscle tone and the gym right off set so the actors can get a muscle “pump” in before a scene so they can look bigger. Most of the people we look to as a standard for what health should look like are unrealistic for the every day person. And even the movie stars will tell you their results aren’t sustainable, it is almost impossible to maintain those results long term.
A couple of questions you can ask yourself to see your true motives are:
Do I think more about how I look in the mirror rather than how I feel and function?
Do I care more about if others perceive me as healthy rather than if I feel healthy?
Am I more excited about what I see in the mirror rather than the new opportunities and abilities that come with being in shape?
Am I exercising in an attempt to fix something else in my life like trying to erase the guilt of something unhealthy that I ate?
A key part of health is letting your outside body reflect your inside mindset and attitude. Keeping careful track of the “whys” behind what you do is how you’ll be able to spot an unhealthy mindset before it roots itself deep.