Spot-burning fat: The fitness myth that won’t go away

Refine Method

How often do you encounter promises like “Whittle your waist!” or “Trim your thighs!” or “Flatten your belly!” in magazines and marketing? Probably pretty often.

Which is why the fitness myth is so pervasive, and why it’s worth busting again: According to experts and research studies, spot-burning fat is impossible.

“There’s no evidence that working a muscle inspires your body to mobilize the fat next to that muscle group,” says Refine Method founder and exercise brainiac Brynn Jinnett, who went to Harvard and then studied kinesiology and the movement patterns of professional athletes. “You can’t decide where the weight is going to come off first,” she says. (Though it’s a bummer.)

How do we know? Some research has compared tennis players’ right and left arms. Theoretically, if working a muscle burned fat around that muscle, then the player’s dominant arm, which constantly works much harder, would have less fat, but studies have found that’s not the case. And a recent prospective study put subjects through a 12-week resistance training program in just one arm and then measured fat loss in both, with similar results.

So how can you work on getting more shapely abs if constant crunches won’t actually “melt your belly fat!” exclusively? “You want to work out at high intensity and use challenging and progressive resistance,” Jinnett explains.

Intense intervals that involve complex movements and jacked-up cardio (like plyometrics) put your body in fat-burning mode (both during and after the workout), which is one reason High Intensity Interval Training has become super popular. And while cardio is important, building muscle anywhere will increase your fat-burning potential everywhere.

“If you just do cardio and you don’t do any muscle work, your metabolism is going to drop,” says The Dailey Method founder Jill Dailey, who studied kinesiology before getting turned on to barre. “But if you’re going in and changing the structure of the muscle, you’re going to burn more calories. That’s how you’re losing the fat throughout the whole body.” In other words, building muscle mass creates metabolically active cells that will really serve you.

Plus, “You can spot tone,” she says. “Once the fat is gone, your shape is great underneath.” —Lisa Elaine Held

(Photo: Refine Method)

6 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. March 8th, 2014 at 6:45 am

    So true! I’ve been working with clients for 15 years and still I find that people really believe in spot reduction. It simply cannot be done. High intensity interval training is the way to go!

  2. March 16th, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Interesting info.

  3. March 19th, 2014 at 9:27 am

    The only way to get rid of belly fat is to stop eating wheat! After that learn a proper way to do core strengthening with Pilates Mat. Most people do it all wrong.

  4. March 28th, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    I’ve heard this idea before but it doesn’t match my experience. When I started rollerblading (very slowly at first, not much cardio there) I lost four inches off my upper legs. Ab Ripper X, not a cardio workout, completely changed the appearance of my mid-section. Cardio is the best for burning fat but other exercises seem to work too.

  5. April 8th, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    What actually gets you into fat-burning mode is making sure your insulin is not constantly elevated. Eating six meals a day and replacing all the fat in your diet with starch and sugar carbs will get precisely the opposite result from what we’re aiming for here.

    Exercise will increase the rate at which the fat is burning, yes, but if you don’t do something about your insulin level, get it down to normal, what’ll happen is your body will hang on to the fat stores and just turn your muscles into sugar instead, since you’ve got it burning sugar already. Which is why you see chronic exercisers who are still just this side of overweight by bodyfat percentage but their muscles are wasting away.

  6. April 9th, 2014 at 11:55 am

    ” spot-burning fat is impossible.”
    Well, yes and no. There are areas (hips, thighs, chest) on the human body where the fat is more difficult to mobilize than others. This is due to the preponderance of alpha receptors on fat cells (which block fat mobilization) and low blood flow (which carries the mobilized fat to muscles) in those areas. Alpha blockers such as yohimbine HCL can be effectively used to reduce the fat in those areas. There are conditions that must be met however. 1.) The person must already be lean: 12% bf for men and 17% bf for
    women. 2.) The person must be on a calorie restricted diet so that fat mobilization can be readily achieved. 3.) The yohimbine must be taken (or topically applied) while in a fasted state when insulin is low. 4.) Intense exercise for 40 – 60 minutes should follow step 3.
    The yohimbine will both attach to alpha receptors stopping them from blocking fat mobilization and dilate blood vessels increasing blood flow. Oral yohimbine can be difficult to tolerate with effects similar to those of cold medicine (which also contain alpha blockers). Topical yohimbine reduces the side effects and concentrates the positive effects in the areas where needed.
    You can spot reduce fat, but it is certainly not easy and not for everyone.

Leave a Comment (* required)