I see this myth all over social media, particularly Pinterest, although a particular fitness e-newsletter I subscribe to is guilty of propagating it as well. And this myth is so pernicious because, not only does it promote bad fitness science but it also reinforces the adversarial relationship that many of us have with our bodies. I hate it and I wish it would die a quick and painful death, because the last thing we need is one more method with which to analyze and punish our bodies. The myth is spot-training and it has to go.
Spot-training, for those of you not familiar with it, says that by building muscle in one part of your body, that muscle will burn the fat that's sitting on said body part.
Any article you see that says something along the lines of "banish back fat with these five exercises," or "eliminate thigh jiggle with this series of lunges," is promoting spot-training.
It can sound appealing, right? Efficient, even.
It's a myth. It's junk fitness science. And it's the worst kind of myth, because it takes elements of something true and twists it into something that's not.
There is an overwhelming amount of exercise-related information flying at us at all times and a lot of it is useless. Some of it is dangerous. One of the reasons we started this blog is to have a platform to share what we know about health and fitness, and part of that is de-bunking fitness myths. That's what I'm going to do here today. So here we go.
The 4-1-1 on Muscle and Fat. Fat exists in the space between your skin and your muscles. We all have it in varying amounts and how easy or difficult it is to lose it when we want to depends on things like: our age, genes, lifestyle choices and gender.
Muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue--meaning a pound of muscle burns more calories than a pound of fat. Generally speaking, the more muscle you have the more calories you will burn, even at rest. On the one hand, it makes sense that if you focused on building muscle mass that you would lose body fat. Your body can and does use fat as fuel during exercise. So, you can see that there are parts of the spot-training concept that ring true.
However, your body doesn't care where the fat it burns comes from and your muscles do not just burn the fat that's adjacent to them. Other factors, including genetics, determine where you lose fat and in what order.
Your body decides and it doesn't take your preference into consideration.
The myth. Spot-training advocates that my leg muscles will burn the fat that's sitting on my legs if I work them hard enough. Like the burner on a stove, melting the fat away.
That is not how it works.
Several studies have discredited the effectiveness of spot-training, or spot-reduction, as it is sometimes called. Yet the myth persists, buoyed in part by anecdotal evidence and taking study results out of context.
There was a study in the 1980's in which subjects completed intense abdominal exercise for 27 days. The researchers measured the subjects' fat in three areas before and after the study--their stomachs, backs and glutes. The subjects did lose fat in their stomachs, but they also lost fat in the other two areas. This is not evidence that spot-training works. Rather it is evidence that when exercise is difficult enough to burn a significant number of calories, weight loss occurs everywhere, including the spot-trained area.
Some muscles are more visible much sooner than others. Which means that there are muscles you can train, and you'll see the results relatively quickly. Shoulders are one. Calves are another.
Why? Well, people generally have less fat on those areas--there's not as much tissue between those muscles and the skin. As much as our bodies are unique and function differently in many other ways, this is a fairly universal truth. So if you target those areas regularly, you will see the muscles much more quickly than your abdominal muscles or triceps, for example.
How visible your muscles are depends not just on your muscle mass, but on how much fat tissue exists between your muscles and your skin. So, you could build tremendously strong abdominal muscles through crunches, but you won't see your ab muscles unless you lose fat and your body decides to take enough of it from your mid-section to reveal them.
The worst bit. Spot-training isn't necessarily dangerous, just ineffective. But the insidious thing about it is that it cultivates an adversarial relationship between you and parts of your body. It says, "target those jiggly areas for destruction because they don't belong here." "A back shouldn't have fat," says spot-training. And if it does, we must annihilate it.
By the way, if I haven't said it before on this blog, I hate that we conflate having and being. You hear people say they "are fat," all the time. You rarely hear them say, simply that they "have fat."
I'm not saying that wanting to lose fat is bad. It's not. But losing fat, for many of us, isn't a simple proposition. And spot-training is based on the premise that it is.
So ditch the spot-training. Keep exercising. Keep strength-training. Lift more weight. Complete more repetitions. Keep improving. Do workouts that target every major muscle group, not just the ones that have some jiggle. You need all of your muscles to be strong and healthy so that your body can carry you through a long and happy life.