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The Truth About Spot-Targeting Fat Deposits

Why it’s not possible to reduce fat mass in specific areas of the body, and what you can do instead.

Concentrated and determined senior woman and man with dumbbells excercising together with personal trainer. Coach adjusting workout according to client's physical condition.

Some of the most common questions I hear from clients involve specific problem areas. Perhaps it’s the belly, where many of us store fat, particularly as we age. And warmer weather often spurs us to tone our arms before wearing short sleeves. Unfortunately, spot-targeting fat deposits doesn’t work, which means there’s no easy way to focus on that one area of your body that bothers you. But there’s good news: you can change the way you look and feel in a more substantial way. And chances are, that so-called problem area will reap the benefits, too.

Why doesn’t spot-targeting work?

Let’s say you want to shed a layer of fat on your upper arms. You can do rep after rep of bicep curls and tricep dips and really “feel the burn,” but you’re not targeting the fat stores in your arm. Our bodies break down fat stores to turn into fuel while we’re exercising (or doing anything physical). But those fat stores come from all over the body, rather than just the body part that’s currently being worked. So yes, your arm muscle may be burning, but the fuel you’re using to power that bicep or tricep movement is drawn from fat stores that exist in the midsection, your buttocks—or anywhere fat deposits exist.

For example, a study of tennis players conducted in the 1970s used calipers to measure the thickness of subcutaneous fat on both arms. The results revealed that although a player’s dominant arm was indeed larger (due to more muscle mass), the amount of fat surrounding the muscles stayed the same from arm to arm. This illustrates the concept that you can build muscle in a targeted spot, but you can’t specifically lose fat in that same area.

Another example is a 2013 study in which both men and women exercised their non-dominant leg over several months. By the end of the study period, a significant decrease of fat mass was observed, but it was almost entirely focused on the upper extremities and trunk of the body. No significant change was observed in the trained leg.

So what can you do?

First and foremost, diet matters. Even if you’re spending two hours a day in the gym, it won’t make much of a difference to your overall appearance if your diet is high in processed or calorie-dense foods. To eat a healthy diet, consider the Mediterranean eating pattern. For example, you could start with eating less meat, more vegetables and making olive oil your principal cooking fat. While targeted fat loss isn’t possible, overall fat loss is—and a better diet will help you with your overall fat reduction.

  • Strength training
    Spending all your time on the treadmill won’t reduce fat loss. To really make a difference in your body composition, you need to lift heavy weights. Strength training is what builds muscle mass, and as your muscle mass grows, you’ll start to get that toned look people think of as “fat loss”.

    To grow and strengthen the muscle, you need to place a load on it. The muscle needs to be “damaged” so that it can repair itself. To do so, choose a weight that’s heavy enough that three sets of 12-15 reps is difficult, but not impossible.

  • HIIT
    High-intensity interval training is a great way to complement strength training for fat loss. Finishing a strength training session with a series of quick rapid bursts, such as ball slams (hurling a weighted ball from overhead to the ground) or sled pushing (a popular football exercise) will raise your heart rate in a way that’s more beneficial to overall fat loss than long-distance running, for example.
  • Don’t fixate on the scale
    Many people focus on losing fat rather than replacing it with muscle. If they do replace their fat with muscle, they become discouraged because the number on the scale stays the same, or even increases. That’s because muscle weighs as much as fat, but it’s much denser and takes up less space. Think of it this way: you’re pleased with your progress on your arms and midsection, and your clothes are fitting better, but the scale says you’ve gained weight. That’s because you’ve replaced fat with muscle, which visibly looks smaller but actually weighs more.
  • Making a lifestyle change
    It’s important to reconfigure your mindset when it comes to your fitness goals. It’s not about hitting a certain number on the scale; it’s about how you want to feel as you progress, and about creating healthy habits that become a sustainable routine. My final bit of advice is to approach fitness as a journey rather than an end goal that you reach and then quit. That way, you’ll be constantly challenging yourself, and getting the added mental and overall health benefits from your workouts.

Ready to create a lifestyle change for yourself? For more information on how Medcan fitness can support your exercise goals, contact fitness manager Anna Topali at annatopali@medcan.com.

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