Stop wasting your time doing ab exercises - you can't choose where you lose fat
When you look in the mirror, do your eyes immediately go to the one “problem area” on your body that you just don’t like about yourself?
For many, your eyes might go right towards the stomach area, the under arms, or the inner thighs. You might gleam at those spots imagining what your body would look like without the extra flab that currently might be residing in that area.
I get it - we all have spots on the body that have historically been a place we maybe hold more fat, or just generally don’t feel great about.
The thought of “what exercises can I do to burn the fat around the spot” might jump into your brain.
This thought isn’t even a particularly harmful one - however once you start focusing on what exercises you can do to target that area, you might be in for a rude awakening.
What I want to do today in this post is talk about how spot training is a poor answer to honing in on losing fat in unwanted places.
What is spot training?
To put this quite simply, spot training can literally be defined as training one specific area, or spot, on the body in the hopes of making that one spot lose fat or look better due to a very specific exercise.
Take for example the stubborn lower stomach fat that is usually the last “spot” that sees changes after exercise and good nutrition habits.
If you see the extra fluff down there and think to yourself “Yeah I need to do more lower abdominal exercises” - you are in essence looking to spot train.
Spot training has been made popular by fad magazine diets and exercises. Think about those infomercials that have promised to get rid of that stubborn fat after buying their state of the art ab machine that specifically targets that SPOT.
The thinking is this : if you work the muscles beneath the problem area, this means that your muscles will somehow draw and eat up the fat that is in that area.
So the answer for many looking to lose fat around their waist might be to do 3 sets of 3 different ab exercises in the hope that this will burn the fat while doing the exercises.
Another example of spot training can be something like this: many women carry extra fat in the tricep or underarm area. This “extra jiggle” at times can be extremely frustrating for women to get rid of and to tighten up as they age.
The thought again might be to do lots of tricep specific work like tricep extensions, close grip bench, tricep kickbacks. Again this isn’t something that may seem far off - if you work the muscles around the area it would make sense that those muscles would “burn off” the fat.
As with everything - there’s more complexity to fat burning and getting lean than that. If all it took was some ab exercises to burn off that stubborn stomach fluff - we would be walking amongst six pack women and men who routinely perform their ab work every single day.
What does science say about spot training?
Let’s go over two different studies that tested this exact problem of trying to reduce fat in a specific area.
Firstly, in 2011 there was a study done with 24 healthy, sedentary participants who were broken into 2 groups (one control, and one active)
The active group was given an abdominal exercise protocol of performing 2 sets of 10 reps for 7 different exercises every single day. (This sounds like your typical “get shredded abs” workout plan)
The control group wasn’t given anything other than an isocaloric diet (hitting the same calories day in and day out).
After 6 weeks the study showed that there was no change in the body fat from the Active and control group.
The study did find however that the active group had better muscular endurance in performing abdominal exercises.
This makes sense as with anything, the more you do , the better your body adapts.
Now this doesn’t help the whole spot training idea as body fat is the main thing people want to get rid of while performing exercises that they believe will help a specific area.
Another study that was performed in the 1970’s which measured pro tennis players' dominant and non-dominant arm. If spot training was a real thing, it would make sense that the dominant hand that a tennis player uses would be leaner and have less fat than the non-dominant arm.
Skinfold assessments showed that there was no significant difference in body fat in each arm, only a difference in muscle thickness and mass (as they used the one arm more, they built more muscle).
For the majority of studies, spot reduction and spot training doesn’t work when the goal is to decrease body fat in a specific area on the body.
How burning fat actually occurs
So if you can’t just do 100 sit ups each night to burn that belly fat - what does burning fat cells actually look like?
So when you do any activity, be it walking, doing a chest press, doing a chin up, running on a treadmill or doing a sit-up your body needs to draw on energy to contract the necessary muscles.
Your body prefers to use carbohydrates for this movement because carbohydrates are more readily available in the body as glucose (the main ingredient to carbs) flows throughout your body and is easily sent into cells to perform different movements.
Fat cells have a ton of energy within them as well but it takes a bit more work for your body to break down a fat cell into glycerol and fatty acids which then can be converted into usable energy for you.
But all this is internal stuff that you can’t see - so let’s talk more about how fat actually breaks down and why energy balance is the key to burning more fat than creating more fat.
Calories in - calories out
You might have heard about this one before - the amount of energy that you consume into your body MUST be less than what your body uses to maintain itself on a given day to start drawing on fat cells for energy.
Think of it like this: your body needs energy to breathe, to think, to drive a car, to digest food, to swallow, to do every single thing that you don’t even realize is happening at this very moment. Your body and muscles need energy to perform these things.
The body has evolved in such a way where it can create its own energy from storage factories (think fat cells), as well as get energy from food.
If you take in more energy than your body needs to operate, the body will store this energy for later use in the form of fat cells.
This is quite a simple explanation of this , however I think it illustrates how fat can be broken down and how it is created.
Taking it back to the spot training idea - just because you perform ab crunches doesn't necessarily mean that your body will draw from the fat surrounding the area, to energize those abs to do their work!
The body unfortunately does not care about your six pack abs and will use the energy that is most readily available first, before digging into fat storages.
What really matters for true fat loss
So you might now be wondering if you can’t just do ab exercises to burn that belly fat away, what can you do?
Well, that’s why I’m here!
First and foremost : You need to understand how big an impact your diet and nutrition has on your ability to burn fat.
If you continually eat more than you should, the body will never need to draw on those fat cells to use for energy. You can stay on top of this in a few different ways.
If you like to track things, using a calorie counter like myfitness pal can be beneficial in seeing how far over or under you are for the estimated caloric needs to burn fat while still sustaining your body.
If you find yourself overfilled at most meals, you are probably eating too much.
If you find that you are eating when you are starving, you might tend to overeat.
If you find that you eat really fast and get a stomach ache 20 minutes later - your body probably didn’t need that much food.
This all goes back to the calories in, calories out balance. It sounds simple on paper, but can be more confusing when it comes to real life.
Food scientists have made delectable foods like brownies and ice cream that are high in fat and calories yet don’t leave you so full (lack of fiber).
This is why it’s very easy to overreact on cookies and such because they are meant to not fill you up, only to light up your taste buds with extreme pleasure!
Another important facet to know : You can increase the energy demand that your body needs by increasing muscle in the body.
You’ve probably heard the saying “muscle weighs more than fat”. Where this statement isn’t entirely true, I want you to think more about how muscle requires more energy to sustain itself.
Think about it : when you watch an athlete perform their sport at a high level, do their muscles look bigger, and more lean than you?
This is because they’ve trained those muscles to perform their sport, and in turn they need more energy, more food to sustain that level.
If you watch any of the “what I eat in a day” for an athlete, you’ll be shocked that they can eat 5000 calories + a day and still look lean as hell. Obviously they need that energy to perform their sport, but they also need that energy to sustain the muscle mass they have already.
AND they are lean as hell. It’s almost unfair but at the same time - they put all their attention into their body and performance.
There was an article some time ago that pictured Michael Phelps with all the food he eats in a day. He would eat up to 10,000 calories a day JUST to sustain himself!
It’s also important to recognize how full body, compound movements will elicit the biggest muscle gain and energy expenditure.
Exercises like Squats, deadlifts, pulls, pushes, carries...these multi-joint movements will need more energy and more muscle mass to perform rather than a simple ab crunch.
Lastly, it takes time and patience for those stubborn areas to lose fat. If there’s one thing to take out of all this, take this with you.
You aren’t doing anything wrong, you aren’t missing the secret diet or secret exercise that will morph that flab pack into a 6 pack.
It’s quite simple: don’t eat excessively, and make sure to grow muscle in all parts of the body.
If you do those things - your body will react in the way that “it's supposed to”.
Even if you’ve been doing this consistently for 6 months and still feel you want more progress : stick with it and be sure to keep the head up. You aren’t doing anything wrong : it just takes time for your body to adjust to the new muscle and the new energy demands.
I hope you now realize that spot training isn’t the go-to solution to get rid of a specific spot that you don’t like in the mirror.
Rather than wasting your time doing 7 ab exercises every night with the hope that you’ll burn that body fat - focus on your nutrition and focus on building strength and muscle.
The time you save worrying about doing enough ab work, or tricep work will be better spent focusing on those things that actually will make a difference.
Focus on those small wins each day, and try not to focus too much on staring at the scale, at yourself in the mirror and wishing that things would change. Wishing that there is that magic pill, that magic exercise or routine that will shred those abs.
It just takes time, and probably more than you think.
But if it’s just time that it takes, rest easy knowing that you are on the path to feel better about yourself and look in the mirror knowing you are making progress.
Progress over perfection - it will keep you moving forward rather than hitting roadblocks and buying those 7 weeks to shred abs programs that will not get you shredded in 7 weeks!