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Can You Reduce Body Fat in One Specific Spot?

It would be awesome if there was a way to take one specific part of your body, like your belly or the back of your arms, and make all the fat in that area burn away, wouldn't it? Sadly, that is not how the body works. 

By
Brock Armstrong,
Photo of a man targeting his belly fat

As you likely guessed or found out the hard way (like me), there is no one special exercise or workout program that you can do to target a specific spot or body part and make all the fat there disappear. If choosing a body part and simply focusing all your attention on it by performing a specific exercise on it actually worked, then you could just do a few (hundred) crunches each day and have washboard abs. But there are some very simple reasons why that doesn't work. 

How We Burn Fat

Let's pretend your car has a big bucket of crude oil in the trunk. Obviously, your car uses gasoline as fuel, and crude oil is used to make gasoline, so all that oil in your trunk is not really helping power the car (in fact it is weighing it down) until it somehow gets converted into gasoline and then directed into the engine.

This is roughly how your body works too. Think of the crude oil in the car's trunk like the fat around your, um, trunk. It's not possible to simply take your trunk fat and burn it right where it sits due to the fact that your body has to convert the fat into a form of fuel that your body can actually use for energy. Your body does this by taking the fat, sending it to the liver, and breaking it down into something called “free fatty acids” which, voila, can be used for energy.

Your body is so efficient at taking fat randomly from all different areas of your body, that the dent made in your waistline is pretty small.

In a nutshell, when your body needs energy it uses fat from everywhere on the body. So, when you’re doing all those crunches, you are indeed using some fat from your waistline but you are also using fat from your thighs, your calves, your forearms, your chest, and anywhere else you have fat deposits.

The final result is that your body is so efficient at taking fat randomly from all different areas of your body, that the dent made in your waistline is pretty small.

What Can We Do?

In a study from 2013 called Regional Fat Changes Induced by Localized Muscle Endurance Resistance Training, researchers looked at "...whether specific exercises can reduce local adipose tissue depots and thus modify fat distribution ..." More specifically, the study looked into whether exercising one muscle group over and over again would actually cause the fat in that muscle group to go away faster than muscle groups that weren’t being exercised.

In the study that had seven men and four women exercise just one leg, for 12 weeks, three times per week. Each training session consisted of one set of—hold on to your hat—960 to 1,200 repetitions of the leg press exercise with just one leg. Despite the ridiculous number of reps, that one leg did not lose any more fat than the leg that was just hanging out watching the show. Adding insult to injury, the participants didn't actually lose any leg fat from the exercise, the only measurable amount came from their trunk and arms.

The study states, "In conclusion, the training program applied effectively reduced fat mass, but this reduction was not achieved in the trained body segment."

So, if you want to tone and lose fat, you need to go above and beyond just exercising that one body part. You need to:

  1. Above all else, eat right. For info on that, I direct you to my colleague, The Nutrition Diva
  2. Add in some high-intensity cardio intervals. For info on that, I have a bunch of articles you can check out. 
  3. Do resistance training on those larger and more calorie-burning muscle groups. For info on that, don't skip leg day!

As the study concluded: "We recommend muscle endurance resistance training programs that include big muscle groups, which may result in more time efficient energy expenditure and corporal composition modification." Or, in non-researcher language, instead of doing 1,000 light single-leg presses, go and lift something heavy with your entire body.

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