One of the most common fitness myths is spot training, sometimes called spot reduction. Spot training is the idea that you can cause weight loss or muscle definition in one area without affecting other parts of the body. This myth is particularly persistent because everyone wants it to be true. Everything would be so much easier if only the infomercials promising “rock hard abs” and “buns of steel” after just a few minutes with a specific product were telling the truth! What’s the science behind spot training being labeled as a myth? And how can you achieve real and healthy muscle definition? Let’s break it down a bit:
How muscle and fat work. Understanding how both fat and muscle function will help you understand why spot training is anatomically impossible. Fat makes up a layer between your muscles and your skin. Although it is true that fat is used as fuel during exercise, your body doesn’t care where the fat it burns for fuel comes from — and muscles do not take fuel from just the fat immediately around them. Weight loss is a result of total body metabolism. Often, factors that are beyond your control, such as genetics, determine where on your body you will lose weight first.
Muscle definition, then, is a balance of muscle growth and weight loss. When people dedicate themselves to one form of training or focus all of their efforts on one muscle group, they are doing themselves a great disservice. For example, many people set out to have “six pack abs” and commit themselves to doing enormous amounts of situps. This will give them very strong and large abdominal muscles, but unless they change their diet and lose the fat that obscures those muscles, the six pack will never be visible.
What science says. There are no reliable studies that support the idea of spot training. There are, however, several that discredit it. One of the most well-constructed studies to provide evidence against the concept of spot training was conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts in the 1980s. During the 27-day program, 13 male subjects were required to perform 5000 sit-ups. Fat biopsies were taken from the subjects’ abdomens, buttocks and upper backs before and after the study. Although the subjects only trained their abs during the course of the study, the results showed that fat decreased similarly at all three test spots.
In commenting on this study, the American Council on Exercise (A.C.E) suggested that these results highlight a possible reason why spot training sometimes seems to occur. When the exercise is difficult enough to burn a significant amount of calories, weight loss occurs evenly around the body — including the target area.
How to really tone up. The spot training myth can become a discouraging stumbling block for people who want to increase their muscle definition. Although it’s not possible to tone just one specific area or muscle group, it is very possible to increase your overall muscle definition. Doing so is simply a matter of decreasing the amount of fat on your body, while increasing the amount of muscle.
One extremely effective method for accomplishing this balance is circuit training. This workout method involves a fast-moving strength workout that incorporates every muscle group, with no rest between exercises. This keeps your heart rate up, working your cardiovascular system much more than traditional strength training.
Spot training is a fitness concept that is simply not supported by any scientific evidence. Don’t let that discourage you, though: you can safely and realistically achieve a lean, defined body through a balanced routine of diet and exercise.