For the Millionth Time, Spot Reduction is a Myth!!!

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of being a fitness professional is having to inform people over and over that spot reduction is a myth.

When did this misconception originate? Interestingly, a journal article published by Checkly in 1895 proposed that the dissipation of fat is local and disappears in areas where the muscles are highly active in concordance with their daily activity. However, subsequent research failed to support the author’s contention of spot removal, as you’ll see below. In this article, I’m going to set the record straight, once again. There are two aspects of physique enhancement training that you need to be aware of: muscle building, which IS site specific, and fat loss, which IS NOT site specific.

1. Muscle Building is Site-Specific

If you want to build a muscle (or even a part of a muscle), then you need to highly activate that specific part. In other words, if you seek additional shape in a particular area, then you need to perform exercises that thoroughly work that area. See HERE and HERE for more information on that.

Older strength & conditioning wisdom purported that muscle-building wasn’t so site-specific and that elevations in hormonal production via resistance training contributed to muscular growth all over the body (see HERE and HERE). However, this notion has been debunked, and we now know that the hormone hypothesis was largely overrated (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Arnold Curls

Therefore, if you want to build shape, you should perform the best movements for the various muscle/muscle parts. Below are two lists that can guide you in this regard:

Primary Exercises

Deadlifts: traps, lats, forearms, erectors, glutes, hams, quads, calves, abs

Squats: erectors, glutes, quads, abs, calves

Bench press: pecs, front delts, triceps

Rows: lats, mid traps, rhomboids, biceps, forearms

Military press: delts, triceps, traps

Pull-ups: lats, biceps, abs, forearms

Dips: pecs, front delts, triceps

Hip thrusts: glutes, quads, hams

Muscles & Muscle Parts

Traps: upper – shrugs, mid – rows, lower fibers – prone trap raises

Delts: rear – rear delt raises, middle – lateral raises, front – front raises

Pecs: upper –incline press & incline flies, mid/lower – flies, crossovers

Biceps: curls, chin ups, hammer curls, concentration curls, incline curls, preacher curls

Triceps: tricep extensions, close grip bench press, overhead extensions, rope extensions

Abs/obliques: planks, side planks, ab wheel rollouts, sit ups, hanging leg raises, hollow body holds, crunches, side bends, crunches, side crunches, sit ups, Pallof presses

Glutes: upper – side lying hip abduction, lower – lunges, entire – bb glute bridges, band hip rotation, rounded back extensions, American deadlifts, RKC planks, band seated abduction, single leg hip thrusts, pendulum quadruped hip extensions, pull throughs, kettlebell swings

Hams: good mornings, back extensions, 45 degree hypers, reverse hypers, Romanian deadlifts, Nordic ham curls, glute ham raises, lying leg curls, seated leg curls, kneeling one leg curls, Valslide leg curls, single leg RDLs

Quads: front squats, leg press, hack squats, leg extensions, goblet squats, lunges, Bulgarian split squats, step ups, pistol squats

Calves: calf raises

2. Fat Loss is NOT Site-Specific

Although muscle building is site-specific, fat loss is not. Performing exercises that target a certain region does NOT cause fat to burn away in that particular region. For example, doing tons of abdominal exercise does NOT lead to preferential fat loss in the abdominal region (see HERE and HERE for further reading on that topic), nor does leg endurance training lead to preferential fat loss in the legs (see HERE for further reading on that topic).

Battle ropes

Therefore, if you want to burn fat, do the following things:

1. Eat at a caloric deficit so you lose weight

2. Consume a well-balanced diet with ample protein and whole foods so you optimize the thermic effect of food, optimize neuroendocrine signalling, and stave off adaptive thermogenesis (click HERE , HERE , HERE , and HERE , to learn more about adaptive thermogenesis)

3. Lift weights and get stronger so you retain a greater proportion of muscle as you lose weight, lose a greater proportion of fat as you lose weight, and stave off adaptive thermogenesis

4. Perform activities that heavily ramp up the metabolic rate so you expend more calories and achieve a greater caloric deficit (for example high-intensity interval training with battle-ropes, kettlebells, the rowing machine, or the Airdyne exercise bike)

5. Move around more, whether through long duration steady state cardio or N.E.A.T. (non exercise activity thermogenesis – click HERE to learn more about it)

I would like to mention that #1, #2, and #3 lay the foundation for successful body recomposition, and #4 and #5 are not always necessary and can be thought of as “icing on the cake.” Most of my bikini competitors did not do any cardio or additional conditioning and relied solely on diet and strength training to achieve their excellent physiques.

Notice that in this list you did not see any targeted isolation movements to burn the fat off of specific sites. Why? Because it doesn’t work that way! The amount of time that you might spend on the adductor machine or the tricep extension machine for the intention of burning fat in those regions would be better served performing squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, walking lunges, or even kettlebell swings because they activate more muscle and require greater energy expenditure. Fat loss through exercise is distributed throughout the body and is not localized to specific areas.

Conclusion

Localized fat loss through exercise is a myth. If you want a good physique, learn from the professionals who have mastered the art: bodybuilders. They focus on progressive resistance training, they adhere to good dietary principles, they sleep well, and they’re consistent. Spot reduction of fat does not occur in the human body and people need to stop propagating this myth.

Booty18

41 Comments

  • Stefano says:

    I would not be that sure. You can deal with spot reductions.
    Topic is “breathe training” RME, up coming, years (month if you’re smart).
    Appetizer: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22307889

  • Emily says:

    Dynamite Bret. I am working towards another photo shoot right now and the biggest part of the whole process has been dialing in my eating #1, eating ONLY whole foods (eggs, egg whites, vegetables, lean meats, more vegetables, Skyr and cottage cheese, some fruit) #2 and continuing my weight training. It’s paying off. Down in body fat by 3%. I can “complain” all I want about why my legs and butt are giving me the most trouble while my upper body is looking the way I want….but it is what it is. 😉 Fat comes off where it wants to and that is just the way the body works. “Butt”……my glutes are strong and so are my legs so to that extra layer around my legs and butt….fat be damned! I will take a little extra to be able to glute bridge 315 for reps. 😉

  • spot the spot says:

    Forgot to mention this one http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16985258
    according to this research spot reduction is not a myth, but its not an effective way to loose fat from specific spots.

  • Strini says:

    Yo Brett! You do know that no matter how much you drum this beat this is sure to come up in the next few months! However i do love the references to publications (awesome)and i too hope that fitness professionals out there stop selling this to trusting clients. Thank you for the article.

  • Polina says:

    Hi Bret,
    I started to read your blog two months ago, after I saw a link at Marianne’s site.
    So I am trying to read your newst+oldeat posts , to get more knowlodge:)
    I’ve read a post recently, I don’t remember it’s name but it was something about ethical considerarions I think. I rememeber that you gave there a lot of credit to various s&c experts, and they all were men. I am new to all the thing of fitness blogs and I am just starting to learn about different coaches and their point of view on s%c.
    I have a question for you, is there a reson why I didn’t see the word “expert” near a woman’s name?
    I am just curios/… Is that somehow related to the number of women that choose to enter the s&C field as apposed to the number of men ?
    Or maybe women are just not that interested in there more expert/scientific side of fitness?
    Maybe it’s a men’s “field”? It’s interesting to hear what you think about it.
    It’s funny how I sometimes contradict myself. As a women I feel like have more in common with women, cause they can identify with my own problems regarding training and nutririon, but somehow I myself sometimes feel more secure about training tips providen by men. I also feel more confident to perfom a “heavy” exersice when a man spots me. It’s wierd:)

    • Bret says:

      Polina, good question. 1. Many more men enter the profession than women, 2. Men realize that they can make shit up and be idolized for their guru b.s. (some women do it too – Tracy Anderson and Jilian Michaels come to mind, but many more men in this category). I recommend that you find some good people that you relate to, some more for scientific info and some more for practical advice. Marianne Kane, Kellie Davis, Joy Victoria, Sohee Lee, Christine Marie, and many other great women to listen to!

  • Polina says:

    The saddest thing about the fact that you can’t choose where the fat comes from,
    is that sometimes it comes off from places you didn’t want. Like the chest.
    In my opinion it’s much easier for man, they don;t have to worry about it.:)

    • Bret says:

      Yep, in order for many women to get their legs as lean as they like requires them to reduce bodyfat to the point where their boobs drastically reduce in size. Sucks!

  • Strini says:

    Hi Polina . I beg to differ guys also have these type of issues. I personally have very skinny ankles 🙂 . Strength to body weight ratio i am strong as hell. I tried a Hypertrophy programme to grow my little calves and with much work going through them i got it but as soon as i got into the cardio routine my calves where no more. Guys may not state it but they have this problem too…… 🙂

    • Bret says:

      We all have our stubborn areas. Even pro bodybuilders with the best genetics and drugs have them!

    • Polina says:

      Hi Strini,
      I guess that everyone of us have some more weak spots, maybe you just need to put some more direcct work on them ( like myself on the glutes) and find the balance between your cardio/diet/strengh training.
      But also don’t become too obsessed with it! v Do the best you can and the rest is up to genetics/:)

  • Dustin Oranchuk says:

    BIO-SIGNATURE.

    certainly not perfect, but i have seen it work time and time again with myself and several others.

    • Bret says:

      Dustin, many of my esteemed colleagues (as well as I) feel that Bio-Sig is a joke, that research doesn’t support it, and that the people who fall prey to it are suckers. How can you be sure you’re not victim of the placebo effect? Poliquin makes a fortune based on this system – the certifications, all the supplements, and all the trainers who buy into it themselves and also put their clients on it. I have a hunch that every one of these people would be better off (in terms of hormone optimization and fat loss) spending their money on quality food rather than all of the supplements. Have you had pre and post bloodwork conducted? If so, did the hormones that were supposed to increase or decrease do so? And did this coincide with the specified site-specific regions in terms of fat loss?

      At any rate, this article is about exercise and spot-reduction, not supplementation.

  • mick says:

    to achieve caloric deficit you have to starve yourself. Isn’t this counter productive metabolically?

    • Bret says:

      Mick, you don’t have to starve yourself. Those seeking to lose weight can cut down gradually over time, for example 100 less calories each week.

  • Kiko says:

    Long time fan. I completely agree with all of
    This. I do have a question though.
    Every person body will distribute fat according to their genetics. So hypothetically if a person has 10 and stores 10% in their arms that would be 1 lb of fat. And let’s say they also have 1 lb of all muscles. That would be 50% fat in the arm.
    If they double their muscle without changing fat level. Then would be 33% fat in arm. A form of spot reduction?
    Overly simplistic I know.
    Sorry for the poor writing, stuck in my phone.

    • Tim says:

      Hi Kiko, yes someone might look relatively leaner and more muscular in that spot (which can actually help in real life), although they wouldn’t have actually reduced just that spot (and we’re talking about reduction). That’s using a sort of relative % method, not absolute value (so it can be misleading in several ways, and even in different fields – just finished reading “Achieving Victory Over A Toxic World” by Mark Schauss where a type of relative % analysis can even result in incorrect blood work interpretation). Anyways, back to spot reduction – they would still have the same absolute value of fat in their arms and wouldn’t have spot reduced. (Or if they lost, it wouldn’t have been just that spot).

  • Amanda says:

    Great post with a lot of great info, I especially like the primary exercises!
    I have your Strong Curves book and just pre-ordered your new one. I’ve been incorporating weighted glute bridges and love them already feeling a difference. I workout at home so I don’t have a weight bench, do you need that height in order to get an effective hip thrust or would using a step on risers work okay too?

  • Jake says:

    Hi Bret,

    Really enjoying reading your stuff over the past few months. Was talking with a chiropractor whom I generally respect about spot reduction months back and he pointed out that morbidly obese people are generally gigantic everywhere except for their forearms and wrists–where most of their limited movement occurs, while the rest of their body is stationary. While he stopped short of saying this proved spot reduction, he was implying that musculoskeletal activity can limit the accumulation of fat. Sounds somewhat broscience-y, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

    • Bret says:

      Well…if this was true then people’s legs would always been lean as everyone walks around throughout the day and stands, etc. I feel it’s bro-sciencey indeed. Interesting though!

  • Marcy says:

    Hey Bret,

    I know that a woman can’t be fat all over and expect to have a flat stomach because she does crunches. However, I’m not completely ready to throw out some kind of targeted focus on an area. Maybe it’s all about muscle building, like you said. Do we know all the things that building a muscle in an area can change? I’m obviously not talking about drastic changes, but maybe the muscle eventually causes a change in the fat composition over that area?

    In the 90’s I asked a trainer how to get rid of my saddle bags. She told me to do what I now know are side lying abductions (Thank you Strong Curves!). I lost the saddle bags, which I assume were fat. I didn’t lose any weight, but my outer thighs / butt area had a better curve than before. That, to me, was spot reduction…I don’t know the composition of fat / muscle lost / built, but it worked. Even though I gained weight with subsequent pregnancies, I never got those saddle bags back.

    Thanks for Strong Curves & for being the Glute Guy! Glute work was frustrating for me before reading your research. I never felt squats in my glutes (and still don’t). I hip thrusted 245×11 (and squatted 165×10) this week thanks to your program! I’m loving it!

    • Bret says:

      Hi Marcy! Interesting anecdote. There were indeed some studies that indicated that spot reduction works (as “spot the spot” mentioned above), but I didn’t delve into them as I was focusing on the two papers that I’ve carefully read in the past couple of years on the topic. Anyway, I’m glad you succeeded in ridding your saddle bags, that you’ve kept up your training for many years, and that you’re still achieving PRs!!! Nice work!

  • Dunkman says:

    I think some of the anecdotal “evidence” of spot reduction is misinterpreting development of improved muscle tone as having “replaced fat with muscle”. A friend of mine has improved the muscle tone in her arms and mistakenly attributed it to spot reduction of fat because of the improvement in appearance.

    I also think that a lot muscle and fitness articles and magazines are based on introducing the newest and best “targeted workout” and would lose a key source of revenue if people understood that six packs are built in the kitchen.

  • Binny says:

    Bret,
    Good article but there’s no closure to this topic. As someone mentioned about this research http://ajpendo.physiology.org/content/292/2/E394.full which is certainly not an old one to write.

  • Karin E. says:

    Thank you! I really appreciate this post. It is precisely what I needed.

  • Bill says:

    Definitely good guidance. The interesting thing is that fat creation is often site specific. Different conditions and hormones create fat in different regions for different reasons. For example, the stress-induced hormone Cortisol tends to take fat from healthier areas, like your butt and hips, and move it to your abdomen which has more cortisol receptors. Likewise, Insulin can cause the creation of fat deposits called visceral fat to form around the internal organs of the liver, pancreas, heart and kidneys. Exercising a specific body part may not promote targeted fat loss in that area, but the engineer in me suspects that if a hormone can selectively place fat in one place, there should be a biochemical way to do the reverse.

  • Rose says:

    I definitely agree with u here on exercise based ‘spot reduction’ lol doesn’t work and never will……however as a side thought I’ve been looking into cool sculpting and the science behind it…. There’s been quite a few ‘at home’ experiments attempting to replicate similar results without the hefty price tag and it looks like it could possibly offer real results…. I’ve started doing it in combination with a structured diet and workouts and have noticed a difference in the amount of retained fat in the areas I’ve been treating. Any thoughts on using cold treatment in conjunction with workouts/diet to help target extra fluffy areas??

  • subduedjoy says:

    Many believe that it is a fallacy that you can increase the number of muscle fibers through exercise because you can’t grow new muscle fibers. However, they are overlooking one thing. If you workout enough, then muscle fibers can split in two creating more muscle fibers. So while almost all muscle growth is due to an increase in the size of muscle fibers, not all is.

    I believe it’s the same with spot reduction. Your key argument is that spot reduction does not cause fat to burn away from targeted areas, and I agree with you. However, spot reduction does improve circulation to targeted areas. For those who have cellulite due to poor circulation, spot reduction should be able to reduce the dimpling effect of fat in those areas. Plus, spot reduction can tone muscles in those areas, further helping to improve the look of those areas. So while spot reduction does not cause fat to burn away from targeted areas, spot reduction should improve the look of targeted areas.

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