One of (if not the) single most pervasive myths surrounding exercise is the myth of spot reduction. This is the assertion that by working out a specific area of our body we can selectively lose fat in said area. This is most commonly applied to the midsection of the body with individuals desperately attempting to improve their abdominal appearance. Unfortunately, this concept has been misapplied and over-marketed to the point that it has usurped common sense and simple human physiology.
Human physiology dictates that each and every one of us has a resting metabolic rate (number of calories we burn at rest), and that this number is directly correlated to the amount of lean tissue (muscle mass) we have on our bodies. Furthermore, when we expend more calories than we consume (maintain a caloric deficit) we metabolize calories systemically (as a whole), not regionally based on activity level. If the latter were true, we would all have very small and lean legs while maintaining a much larger upper torso and arms.
Despite the relative absurdity of this myth, in 2011 a group of researchers from Texas A&M, BYU, and Ball State set out to examine the effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. They divided subjects into two groups: a control group which performed no abdominal exercise and an exercise group which performed 15 minutes of abdominal exercises five days per week consisting of two sets of seven different abdominal exercises for a duration of six weeks. Caloric intake was regulated for both groups throughout the duration of the study. At the conclusion of the six week intervention, researchers found no changes in abdominal fat, skin fold, or wait circumference between the exercise and control group. Their concluding statements were as follows: “In conclusion, abdominal exercise training was effective to increase abdominal strength but was not effective to decrease various measures of abdominal fat. Some individuals attempt to reduce their waistline by solely performing abdominal exercises possibly because of claims made by various abdominal equipment advertisements. The information obtained from this study can help people to understand that abdominal exercise alone is not sufficient to reduce waistline or subcutaneous abdominal fat.”
So now what? If training a specific muscle group is not going to help us lose fat in that specific area, how do I approve the appearance of those areas? The answer is simple in that we must take a holistic approach. We should train all of the muscles in the body to maximally stimulate our resting metabolic rate and reap all the benefits of resistance exercise. Meanwhile, we should also implement a caloric deficit so on average we are consuming less calories than we are expending. Additionally, we should make sure we are working the hardest on the exercises that involve the most amount of muscle tissue (i.e leg press, chest press, rowing movements, and overhead press) as this will have the most significant impact on our resting metabolic rate.