It is very common for personal trainers get asked questions about spot reducing fat in specific areas of the body. Equally common is targeting exercises to change the shape of specific body areas. The majority of research doesn’t support the myth of spot training. In order to get a real answer we can go into a detailed breakdown of why spot fat reduction doesn’t work. Furthermore, we can leverage some tips and tricks from the worlds of psychology and bodybuilding to cheat our way into some of the appearance goals we might have.

What we wish was true

Before we get into why this is a myth, let’s uncover why we want it to be true. Generally speaking, most of us want to have simple solutions to all of our problems. It almost feels like the obvious solution for wanting a slimmer waist is to do core exercises, or to do arm exercises to reduce the weight around your arms. Unfortunately, the question of how to lose fat around a certain area doesn’t have an easy answer.

Say you want to lose weight around your stomach so you start doing 15 minutes of ab exercises every day. If your weight stayed consistent before you started, then you might be able to create a small calorie deficit and start losing weight. Admittedly, you would be losing weight in probably one of the most inefficient and sub-optimal ways possible. However, you might eventually reach your goal of losing some belly fat. Doing 500 sit ups every day would technically help you lose weight, but you could also do 500 reps of nearly any other exercise to get essentially the same results. The issue arises when you could have gotten to your goal much faster and with way less effort doing a more well rounded full-body strength training routine. A well-rounded routine will benefit you in many other ways including building more lean muscle by working larger muscle groups than those located in your core. This will, in turn, boost your metabolism by burning more calories at rest and utilizing glucose more efficiently making it less likely that you’ll store unused glucose as fat around your middle.

What does the research say?

The myth of spot fat reduction has been something scientists have actively been failing to validate for quite some time. Studies ranging from 1971 to as recent as 2023 have contributed to the discourses disproving targeted fat loss. Here are some of the major research highlights that have come out within the last 5 decades.

  • If you restrict calories compared to restricting calories plus do ab workouts, you aren’t likely to see any noticeable or measurable differences.
  • If you only strength train 1 half of your body, you will build muscle on that one side, but lose fat evenly amongst your body.
  • Exercising a muscle does not directly affect the size or thickness of fat cells adjacent to it.

There are a few studies of note that can be used to support spot fat reduction and all of them have a few shared problems, usually pointed out by the authors of their own studies.
1). They don’t have a large enough sample size to make any firm conclusions. Ten people just isn’t robust enough sample size for one study to make a statement that conflicts with the findings of dozens of other studies.
2) The second flaw is a weirdness in the workout design that each study followed. One of the more egregious designs had people perform a circuit core workout that lasted nearly an hour and a half compared to 45 minutes of steady state cardio. Additionally for that study, the treadmill group lost nearly twice as much weight, showing that there are more efficient ways to use your time over doing abs for 90 minutes.

What can we learn from this?

What these studies do tell us is that doing high intensity, explosive exercises and some cardio, be it interval work or steady state cardio, is good for you. No study can give us firm statements as to whether there is a way to target fat loss. Most actively disprove it. Thankfully, there are thousands of studies that show us the right way to achieve our goals.

So what do we actually do?

So, you can’t target fat loss, but what can you do? If you’re trying to lose weight, everything comes down to a calorie deficit. You can create this calorie deficit either through diet, exercise, or some combination of the two. While there are certainly many people who struggle to lose weight due to hormone imbalances and many other factors out of your control, you can still take charge by establishing healthy habits and building skills to help you succeed in your health and fitness goals. You can also build up your metabolism by focusing on strength training and building lean muscle that burns more calories at rest. Gaining significant lean muscle can lead to dramatic changes, but they happen over time and with consistency. Metabolic health is the heart of overall health and the reasons to gain muscle, or prevent muscle loss are innumerable.

There are lots of ways to measure the benefits of strength training that have nothing to do with how you look. Instead of getting a flat stomach, you can try to hold a plank for a minute or deadlift your bodyweight, two things you can’t do without a strong core. Rather than having toned arms, you can try to build up to 10 push ups on the ground or your first pull up, two things you can’t do without strong arms. Don’t worry about chasing a number on the scale, focus on eating another serving of protein or veggies each day, two things that can help you lose fat and gain muscle. As you get stronger and make healthier choices, you will likely find yourself achieving your aesthetic goals along the way.

What it all comes down to

The answer to most fitness questions is to have a consistent strength training routine that works the whole body while simultaneously having a sustainable diet that you enjoy eating. Quality muscle tissue is dense, compact, and takes a long time to build, so consistency is the key. Can you spot reduce fat? No. Can you “lift” a part of your body? Not really.  Will gaining strength and muscle change the shape of my body? Yes. Can you make small, incremental changes that will have a massive impact over time? Yes. There are lots of things you can do that might seem insignificant that you can actually leverage to your advantage. You just have to put in the work and accomplishing your goals will surely follow.


Hyatt Training Portland personal trainer Travis RobeAuthor Travis Robe, CSCS, is a Personal Trainer at Hyatt Strength + Wellness with a BA in Kinesiology. In addition to his experience with strength training, he is also a lifelong martial artist. He believes in using fitness as a way to build discipline and confidence to overcome any challenge life may present you. Learn more about Travis, or get in touch with him by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com


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