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Spot reduction is one of the fitness industry's biggest myths. Some new evidence suggests that it might actually be possible, though only for relatively advanced trainees. Most of us will still need to shift that weight systemically.

Spot reduction is the kind of idea that you'll see on TV late at night, on one of those shopping channels shot in a gym full of mirrors and inflatable balls, where a spray-tanned, muscular person tells you that you can attach electrodes to your midriff, or that a thigh trainer or other piece of eleven-minute-miracle merchandise can tone and shape the parts of you that you're most insecure about.

It's a disparaging term, but it means losing fat from a specific part of your body by exercising that part of your body.

If you have a spare tyre round your waist, spot reduction would be doing abdominal exercises to reduce that spare tyre. Meanwhile, systemic "across the whole body system" fat reduction would be using diet and whole-body exercise to encourage your whole body to consume that fat around your waist.

For years, people who know about fitness have been trying to educate their clients, readers, friends, partners, and well, anyone else who will listen, to understand that fat isn't lost in just one place. The muscles under your spare tyre don't reach up and start eating your belly when you do sit-ups. When people use "spot reduction" protocols effectively, what's really happening is that stronger abdominal muscles with better tonus (resting length) are giving them a flatter abdominal wall and better posture, while the extra calories they're consuming are eating into their reserves of body fat. So when famous bodybuilders attribute their chiselled midriffs to a thousand sit-ups a day, we mutter about how they're obviously huge, and, yes, they're strong, you must admit; but still, how much do they really know about training science? Aren't they just genetic freaks with a crazy work ethic?  And most of them are on juice too, right?

Which is true.

But it's not the whole story. Because what's also true is that spot reduction might not just be for late night shoppers with a Krispy Kreme problem. It might be real.
Earlier this month, Dr. Lonnie Lowery published results indicating that fat reduction might be possible in a focused way, with specific parts of the body losing the most fat.

Researchers have the facts to back up the good doctor's hypothesis. In The American Journal of Physiology, Stallknecht and colleagues found that "an acute bout of exercise can induce spot lipolysis and increased blood flow in adipose tissue adjacent to contracting skeletal muscle," answering the team's own question: "Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans?"

So there's more to the science of spot reduction than initially meets the skeptical eye. But what should that mean for our training?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Lowery, Dr. Lonnie, ‘Spot Reduction is Real: Here’s How to Do It,’, January 2, 2014
  • Stallknecht, B., et al, ‘Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans?’ American Journal of Physiology, 292 (2), February 2007, stored with the Us National Library of Medicine at
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  • Photo courtesy of tableatny by Flickr :

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