Spot reduction. Stubborn fat loss. Bad genetics.
Use whatever label you want, it’s undeniable that everyone has “trouble areas” that oftentimes make weight loss diets and fat loss workouts appear ineffective.
And while myths like “crunches shrink your waist” have been proven inaccurate (or maybe more the result of wishful thinking), it’s hard to deny that fat does seem to melt off certain areas of your body, while stubbornly clinging to other parts.
One of the most difficult aspects of the fitness industry is that the “experts” are divided. One group focuses on what works, and the one that can scientifically prove what’s effective. Ideally, you are able to marry the two. But oftentimes that takes time.
Is It Broscience…Or Results Before Research?
All scientific research needs to be funded. And earning that funding is a long, difficult process. Not to mention, a lot of the cool stuff that you do in the gym would never get funded because most research companies just don’t care about muscle building and fat loss the way the average guy does.
This led to a divide where being pro-research meant accepting an anti-bodybuilding slant on fitness techniques. For example, because it hadn’t been exhaustively concluded that incline pressing worked the clavicular head of your pecs, the very idea was considered foolish; study-dependent coaches maintained that muscles fibers run the entire length from origin to insertion and are activated by single nerves, and, as a result, it was not possible to preferentially recruit specific areas. Of course, that is possible, as every bodybuilder in history has known.
And now, research is clearly showing that some coaches and scientists owe those bodybuilders an apology. In a review paper written years ago, Dr. Jose Antonio began to dispel the misconceptions and demonstrated clearly that you could target areas of specific muscles.
In the time since that paper was published, much more research has emerged, substantiating Antonio’s position, and this is finally working its way into the public eye of the fitness industry, thanks in no small part to a group of fantastic coaches who are doing their best to get the information out there.
One such coach is Bret Contreras, who regularly produces scientific rationalization that explain the best training methods. In a past presentation, Bret said,
“It is now readily apparent in the literature that all muscle groups…contain functional subdivisions which are preferentially activated during different movements…recent research has showed that altering body position such as foot placement …can target different areas of muscles. Bodybuilders were right all along; it just took research some time to catch up to their wisdom. “
Contreras’s assertion makes clear the fact that part of being a scientist is considering all information with a critical but open mind. Just as importantly, before dismissing ideas as true or false, it’s necessary to first evaluate if certain concepts have been proven inaccurate or simply dismissed for lack of evidence. After all, science and research is the basis of determining what to do for diet and training, but you shouldn’t ignore results or blindly deny the validity of what works just because it hasn’t been tested.
That said, being able to target individual muscle–or even different portions of muscles–is not the same as targeted fat loss. Specifically, doing crunches to shrink your stomach won’t melt belly fat and more than doing neck crunches will remove excess skin on your face.
Why? Sohee Lee, a health coach and founder of Sohee Fit, provides a scientific and practical look at why you lose fat from different body parts, and if there’s anything you can do to help with faster fat loss.
Belly Fat and Big Thighs: The Role of Gender and Genetics
Women, in general, tend to have higher levels of body fat than do men (Nielsen et al., 2004). As well, women tend to store body fat in the lower body in the form of peripheral subcutaneous, whereas men tend to store body fat in the abdominal region in the form of visceral fat (Nielsen et al., 2004). This gives women more of a pear shape and men more of an apple shape.
Additionally, when body fat is lost, women lose more femoral FM (Mauriege et al., 1999) while men lose more abdominal fat (Farnsworth et al., 2003), highlighting a sex discrepancy when it comes to regional fat loss (though this goes against my experience working with hundreds of female clients who typically lose body fat in their upper bodies first and lower bodies last, but I digress). The physiological mechanisms behind this phenomenon are not fully understood at this point.
But here’s something that helps clear up the picture: genetics.
I understand that genetics can be a soft spot for many (Okay, I totally did not intend for that to be a pun, but now I see how accidentally clever that was, so I’m sticking with it. Please don’t click away?). I think it’s worth taking some time to at least touch on the topic, though.
Where’d I get my body from?
I got it from my momma.
Kind of. But also from years and years of dedicated strength training and proper nutrition. It doesn’t sound quite as sexy to say that, though, does it?
Bouchard found that the degree of truncal-abdominal subcutaneous fat is determined by a genetic effect of 30% (1993), and Perusse et al. attribute 42% to 56% for subcutaneous fat and abdominal visceral fat, respectively, to heritability.
And of course, there a number of other factors as well that contribute to regional bodyfat distribution, including hormones, exercise, diet, and more.
All of this to say that yes, genetics do play a role in where an individual stores fat on his or her body, and it also appears to largely determine where we lose body fat first and last from (and conversely, where we gain body fat). But it should by no means be used as a scapegoat. [After all, there’s plenty of real life evidence that you can overcome bad genetics.]
“My body looks like this because of my genetics, and there’s nothing I can do about it!” is a poor excuse (and an incorrect one, at that). There’s still a lot that can be done via behavioral intervention to change your physique.
The Illusion of Spot Reduction
Spot enhancement, or physique enhancement, is when you change the shape of your body by building muscle in specific areas. Weightlifters should be very familiar with this concept.
Because unlike body fat, muscle is site-specific (Wakahara et al., 2013).
For example, if you want to give off the illusion of having a smaller waist, then build wider lats by performing more lat-specific movements. If you want rounder, firmer, and/or more muscular glutes, then it would be in your best interest to perform exercises that target the glutes, such as hip thrusts, lunges, Bulgarian split squats, seated abductions, and glute kickbacks.
(Please note that I’m not saying that you should stick exclusively to bodypart splits or strictly to isolation movements. I actually tend to prefer full body or upper/lower splits for most people, though there is certainly a time and a place for other kinds of training programs as well.)
The cool thing about building more muscle all over is that having more muscle mass can actually give off the appearance of looking leaner overall. This applies to women as well, so ladies, don’t be afraid to build muscle. As long as you keep your nutrition in check (and we’ll cover that below), you will not look bulky.
Finally, it’s important not to overlook the three main mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy: mechanical stress, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.
You can thank Dr. Brad Schoenfeld for this discovery a number of years back. We won’t flesh that out too much here, but can read his first original paper on muscle hypertrophy here and you can also find an interview with him on Bret Contreras’s site here.
To learn more about stubborn body fat, read this post for an entire breakdown from Sohee Lee.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.