As a personal trainer, I am always getting asked questions like how do I get rid of my love handles? How do I slim my inner thighs or what exercises do I need to do to get a smaller waist? The idea behind exercising a certain area with the intention of making that area leaner or more toned is called “spot reduction.” However, what is spot reduction? Is it possible and if so, how does it work? And what are the factors that determine why you have fat in certain places?
If we’re going to talk about how to reduce fat in a certain area of the body, let’s first discuss how fat is broken down due to exercise. Chemicals called catecholamines are responsible for “burning” the fat tissue on the body for energy. These chemicals do this by attaching to two types of fat cell receptors: alpha-2 and beta-2. To keep this simple, the more beta receptors a fat cell has, the easier it is for a catecholamine to burn it. So, the theory is that the “stubborn” fat that seems so difficult to get rid of in places (usually the butt, hips and stomach) have more alphas than betas. So, how do you get more beta fat cells? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Genetics and gender play a major role in what kind of receptors you have and where. For example, African Americans have more alpha cells in their buttocks and more beta cells in their abdominal area than Caucasian women and men tend to have more beta fat cells than women.
Genetics aside, what happens when you train with the goal of spot reducing? The hope behind spot reduction is that by training an area, you will eventually break down fat in that spot. However, training just one muscle area can actually make that area even bigger. This is because what will end up happening is you’ll gain muscle in that area (especially if you’re eating too much) while the fat just sits on top, resulting in an even bigger midsection and legs. Don’t let this scare you off from lifting weights, though, ladies; it still won’t make you “bulky” which is what most women are afraid of. Women don’t have enough testosterone to get big from moderate resistance training.
The solution to reducing body fat in your trouble areas is by reducing overall body fat. Despite what the magazines say about “tightening your tummy” or “slimming your thighs,” it simply doesn’t work that way. The best way to reduce overall body fat is through a sensible diet with a calorie deficit, full body weight training at least 2-3 days a week and high intensity interval cardio 2 days a week. By training the full body with weights, not only are you increasing your calorie burn by working as many muscles, both big and small, as you can, the gain in muscle mass also revs up your metabolism.
The bottom line? The concept of spot reduction is a myth as it simply cannot happen in the way it is presented. When the body burns fat for energy during exercise or in a calorie deficit (i.e. eating less than you are burning), your body doesn’t pick and choose where it wants to burn this fat. The body simply doesn’t work that way. Granted, due to genetic and gender factors, some people lose fat in certain areas faster than others even with the same workout regimen. Generally speaking, though, when you start losing fat all over, you’ll begin to see it disappear from the areas in which you want it gone the most.