Can You Target Fat Loss?
The Spot Reduction Myth
The "spot reduction" approach to fat loss is centered around the general belief that you can reduce body fat in specific areas of your body through targeted exercises -- a good example of this would be doing crunches or other ab-focused exercises in order to target stubborn belly fat.
While it doesn’t seem like too crazy of a theory, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that spot reduction actually works. In fact, most studies failed to demonstrate any reductions in body fat through targeted exercises alone.
For instance, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research recruited overweight men and women to partake in a 12-week exercise program. (1) 3 days a week, study participants trained their nondominant legs, doing between 960 and 1,200 repetitions on the leg press in each session.
Following the exercise program, the researchers ultimately found that participants on average did see significant reductions in fat mass, however, those reductions were observed in the trunk and upper extremities. No difference was observed between the leg that was exercised and the control leg.
Another 2011 study, also published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, examined the effects of a 6-week abdominal training program on abdominal fat in 24 overweight men and women. (2) At the end of the study, the researchers found no changes in abdominal circumference, body fat percentage, or bodyweight in those that took part in the training program.
The Science Behind Fat Loss
The main reason that you can’t target fat loss in certain areas of your body has to do with the differences between intramuscular and subcutaneous fat. Targeted exercises don’t burn subcutaneous fat, which is the visible fat just under the skin, they oxidize intramuscular fat. (3)
Intramuscular fat can be found inside of your muscle fibers and it’s burnt up during exercise for additional energy; however, you can’t actually see it and it doesn’t affect your body composition.
Subcutaneous fat, on the other hand, is the main culprit when we’re talking about an overweight appearance. While exercise and diet may help you to lose subcutaneous fat, the research is clear that you can’t target specific parts of your body for fat loss.
Instead, different areas of your body may be more or less stubborn when it comes to shedding fat -- there are a number of things that affect where your body is more or less prone to storing fat including both genetic and environmental factors.
In general, people tend to fall into one of two basic categories when it comes to where they’re most likely to store fat. In one category, you have those who tend to store fat in their trunk and abdominal regions -- this is more typically men -- and in the other, you have those who are more likely to sore fat in their thighs and hips -- more typically women.
While it can be difficult to lose fat in the areas in which you are predisposed to store it, it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. There are several things you can do to maximize your fat-burning potential.
How To Shed Stubborn Body Fat
Perhaps the most impactful thing you can do when it comes to losing stubborn body fat is to get your diet dialed in. While there are a number of different avenues you can take, you’ll have to be eating in a calorie deficit if you want to lose weight.
A calorie deficit occurs when you take in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day. While everyone’s body is a little different, most people are able to see significant weight loss with a deficit of around 10 - 30%, meaning that you're taking in 10 - 30% fewer calories than your body needs to maintain your current weight.
One of the easiest ways to find out your calorie requirements is to use a total daily energy (TDEE) calculator, which will give you an estimate of your calorie needs based on your height, weight, age, sex, and activity level. Once you know your TDEE, you simply take 10 - 30 % off that number to establish your calorie target.
It's important to point out though that you'll need to continue to recalculate your TDEE and daily calorie target as you lose weight -- your caloric needs will drop as your weight drops, so you'll need to continue gradually reducing your calories to see steady, consistent weight loss.
⫸The Ketogenic Diet
On top of your calories, you can also focus on managing your macronutrient intakes in order to maximize fat loss in stubborn areas. In particular, many people have found success in improving their body compositions with the keto diet.
As opposed to most diets which are carb-dominant, the keto diet is based around consuming a very small amount of carbs in your daily diet -- only around 5 - 10% of your total calories will be coming from carbs. Instead, the vast majority of your calories -- in the vicinity of 75% -- will be coming from healthy fat sources.
While it might sound counterintuitive at first -- eating dietary fat to lose body fat -- there are actually several advantages to cutting carbs out of your diet.
By taking carbs -- your body’s primary fuel source -- out of the equation, your body is forced to turn to an alternative energy source -- fat. In combination with a calorie deficit, drastically cutting your carbs can help force your body to burn off more of its fat stores in order to meet its calorie demands, which, in turn, may come in handy for targeting especially stubborn areas.
In addition to restricting your calories, lifting weight can also help you to improve your body composition. Adding some additional muscle mass to your frame can help to boost your metabolism, which in turn can help you to burn more body fat.
More specifically, focusing on compound movements that engage large muscle groups is the best way to improve your body composition. On top of helping you get stronger and leaner, heavier compound movements like the squat and deadlift have also been shown to tighten up loose skin, which can further aid in improving your appearance, especially once you've already lost a significant amount of weight.
When it comes to aerobic exercise, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be more effective for shedding stubborn body fat compared to steady-state. Unlike steady-state cardio where you’re performing at lower intensities for longer periods of time -- think jogging on a treadmill for half an hour -- with HIIT your working with short intervals at or near maximal effort.
A good example of an HIIT workout would be sprint intervals, where you’re running at max speed for 15 -- 30 seconds followed by a short resting period. This process can be repeated for as little as 10 -- 20 minutes in total time.
In addition to burning more calories during your workout, high-intensity exercises also help to keep your metabolism elevated for longer after your workout compared to steady-state exercises. (4)(5) Raising your metabolism ultimately increases your body's caloric needs, which when combined with a calorie-restricted diet, helps to maximize your fat-burning potential.
While diet and exercise are the most important factors when it comes to shedding stubborn body fat,dietary supplements can also potentially aid in the weight loss process. In combination with a healthy lifestyle, several supplements have been shown to help with fat loss and body recomposition.
Β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate (HMB) is a leucine metabolite which can help to prevent muscle breakdown. When your calories are restricted, you’re at an increased risk of losing lean muscle mass, which can make improving your body composition more difficult. If you’ve been losing weight but you aren’t noticing much of a difference in your shape, it may be a sign that you’re also losing muscle, not just body fat.
However, some research has shown that HMB helps to preserve lean mass, forcing your body to focus on burning stored fat in order to make up for the calories that have been removed from your diet. (6)(7) Several studies have demonstrated that in combination with exercise and an adequate protein intake, HMB helped to improve fat loss and body composition amongst study participants.
Caffeine is the most popular psychoactive substance in the world and can be found in everything from coffee and tea to energy drinks and pre-workouts. While it’s best known for its mind-enhancing effects, it may also help with weight loss.
First, caffeine can increase your metabolic rate, which, in turn, can force your body to burn more fat in order to meet your calorie needs. It also stimulates thermogenesis, which increases your body heat, also causing you to burn off more calories.(8)(9)(10) Additionally, research shows that caffeine may also function as an appetite suppressant as well, helping to reduce food cravings and hunger.
Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) is a type of catechin (plant compound) and it's the most pharmacologically active ingredient in green tea. Amongst other things, EGCG has been found to increase fat oxidation during fasted states, resting states, and during exercise.
On top of that, some research suggests that like caffeine, EGCG is also thermogenic, ultimately helping to ramp up your calorie expenditure through the increased production of body heat.(11)
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⫸Alpha GPC Choline
Alpha GPC is a precursor to choline, which your body uses to produce acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter. While choline is mainly known as a nootropic,it also helps to promote lipolysis, which is the breakdown of body fat. In fact, it’s a popular weight cut supplement amongst those in sports with weight classes like boxing, wrestling, and judo.
That’s because several studies on choline supplementation have demonstrated significant reductions in body mass. For example, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics explored the effects on judo and taekwondo athletes.(12)
Athletes in the experimental group were given a daily dose of choline 1 week prior to a competition requiring them to make weight. Compared to the control group, the experimental group saw significantly greater reductions in body mass post-competition.
L-carnitineis an amino acid metabolite that plays an important role in your body’s production of energy. More specifically, it helps your body direct fatty acids into your mitochondria, where they’re burned up as a fuel source.
Some research suggests that because l-carnitine helps your cells burn up more fatty acid, it may also aid in weight loss. For instance, a 2016 study published in the journal of Obesity Reviews found that those who were given L-carnitine lost almost 3 pounds more compared to those who were only given a placebo.(13)
It’s important to point out, however, that a few other studies failed to find any significant reductions in body weight. While L-carnitine may help you to shed stubborn body fat, more research is need before we can really say anything for sure.
While it’s a popular myth, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that you can target fat loss in certain areas of your body. In fact, most credible studies have thoroughly debunked the spot reduction theory.
Although you may not be able to reduce stubborn body fat with targeted exercise, there are several things you can do to maximize your fat-burning potential. In addition to restricting your calorie intake, weight training and HIIT can help you to reduce fat in even the most stubborn areas of your body.
In combination with a healthy lifestyle, supplements like HMB, caffeine, choline, and l-carnitine have also been shown to help with weight loss and body recomposition.
- “Regional Fat Changes Induced by Localized Muscle Endurance Resistance Training” Ramirez-Campillo, R., Andrade, D.C., Campos-Jara, C., Henrique-Olguin, C., Alvarez-Lepin, C., Izquierdo, M. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Aug. 2013.
- “The Effect of Abdominal Exercise on Abdominal Fat”Vispute, S.S., Smith, J.D., LeCheminant, J.D., Hurley K.S. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Sep. 2011.
- “Does Cardio After an Overnight Fast Maximize Fat Loss?”Schoenfeld, B. Strength and Conditioning Journal. Feb. 2011.
- “Effects of high-intensity aerobic interval training vs. moderate exercise on hemodynamic, metabolic and neuro-humoral abnormalities of young normotensive women at high familial risk for hypertension”Ciolac, E.G., Bocchi, E.A>, Bortolotto, L.A., Carvalho, V.O., Greve, J.M., Guimaraes, G.V. Hypertension Research. May. 2010.
- “High-intensity aerobic interval training increases fat and carbohydrate metabolic capacities in human skeletal muscle”Perry, C.G.R., Heigenhauser, G.J.F., Bonen, A., Spriet, L.L. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. Nov. 2008.
- “Effects of leucine and its metabolite β‐hydroxy‐β‐methylbutyrate on human skeletal muscle protein metabolism”Wilkinson, D.J., Hossain, T., Hill, D.S., Phillips, B.E., Crossland, H., Williams, J., Loughna, P., Churchward-Venne, T.A., Bree, L., Phillips, S.M., Etheridge, T., Rathmacher, J.A., Smith, K., Szewcyk, N.J., Atherton, P.J. The Journal of Physiology. Apr. 2013.
- “Effect of leucine metabolite β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate on muscle metabolism during resistance-exercise training”Nissen, S., Sharp, R., Ray, M., Rathmacher, J.A>, Rice, D., Fuller Jr., J.C., Connelly, A.S., Abumrad, N. Journal of Applied Physiology. Nov. 1996.
- “Coffee, tea and diabetes: the role of weight loss and caffeine”Greenberg, J.A., Axen, K.V., Schnoll, R., Boozer, C.N. International Journal of Obesity. May. 2005.
- “Herbal ephedra/caffeine for weight loss: a 6-month randomized safety and efficacy trial”Boozer, C.N., Daly, P.A., Homel, P., Solomon, J.L., Blanchard, D., Nasser, J.A., Strauss, R., Meredith, T. International Journal of Obesity. May. 2002.
- “Relationship between basal metabolic rate, thermogenic response to caffeine, and body weight loss following combined low calorie and exercise treatment in obese women.”Yoshida, T., Sakane, N., Umekava, T., Kondo, M. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders : Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. May. 1994.
- “The effects of green tea on weight loss and weight maintenance: a meta-analysis”Hursel, R., Viechtbauer, W., Westerterp-Plantenga, M.S. International Journal of Obesity. Jul. 2009.
- “Effect of Choline Supplementation on Rapid Weight Loss and Biochemical Variables Among Female Taekwondo and Judo Athletes”Elsawy, G., Abdelrahman, O., Hamza, A. Journal of Human Kinetics. Apr. 2014.
- “The effect of (L-)carnitine on weight loss in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.”EPooyandjoo, M., Nouhi, M., Shab-Bidar, S., Djafarian, K., Olyaeemanesh, A. Obesity Reviews. Jun. 2016.