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Spot Training the Problem Areas..Effective or Impossible?


The “spare tire,” the “arm curtains,” the “love handles…”chances are you’ve used these clever nicknames to refer to your “problem areas” at one time or another. I get it, you want better arms! Now stop waiving those things in my face. Once again, we can blame a wide variety of things for our spot training misconceptions. Pick up the latest issue of Women’s Health, Cosmo, or Shape Magazine and you’re sure to find countless articles on targeting abdominal fat, toning your legs, and tightening your arms. “Lose abdominal fat with these new and exciting moves!” Please, more like lose $6.50 buying this magazine 😉 The truth is that we’re all guilty of working a little harder on certain areas of our bodies, myself included. It wasn’t until I became educated on the differences between fat loss and hypertrophy of skeletal muscle that I stopped wasting my time. Read on and hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

Why My Thighs??

First, we need to identify (and come to terms with) why we have “problem” areas. Everyone has at least one area on their body that they are not happy with. For men, problem areas seem to be centered around the mid-section and through the torso. For women, fat mass seems to be concentrated in the hips, thighs, and upper arms. Why? The number one culprit is genetics! Everyone is genetically predisposed to be shaped a certain way. I know this can be hard to hear, but it’s the truth. If you genetically have more fat cells in your lower body, you may never have the legs of the model pictured on the cover of Shape Magazine, and that’s ok! Don’t get me wrong – fitness models work very hard, but they are also “genetically gifted.” That’s why they get paid for it! They look great in pictures because they have very little fat mass, not because they did 8000 bicep curls to tone their arms.

Muscle vs. Fat

Targeting a specific area on your body through resistance training exercises will work the underlying skeletal muscle; it will do nothing for the overlying fat mass. So what actually happens to the muscle when you “spot train” a certain area? More than likely, you will experience growth of that specific muscle group. The muscle is able to adapt to the stress of exercise by a mechanism called hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is essentially increasing the size and amount of contractile proteins within the muscle fiber, leading to an increase in size of the whole muscle. This muscle growth is a good thing! What people need to realize is that you can increase muscle mass from head to toe, but if you have an inch of subcutaneous fat on top of it, the only results you will see are larger girth measurements. If you want to “tone up,” you need to LOSE THE FAT on top of those muscles. Or be like me and just love yourself for the sexy, slightly soft human that you are! 😉

Feeling the Burn?

As most of you know, fat loss comes from a calorie deficit. It does not come from crunches, curls, squats or push-ups – it comes from eating less energy (calories) than you expend during the day. Just because you have very sore arms after a workout does not mean you burned extra fat in that area. The burning sensation you feel in your arms while exercising is due to a lack of oxygenated blood getting to your muscle tissue. That burning is not a magic oven that melts fat away from your arms (in fact, the burning you’re feeling is the breakdown of carbohydrate, NOT fat, and the more burning you feel, the more carbohydrate you’re breaking down). The consequent soreness is due to the damaged muscle fibers and lactic acid that builds up during exercise.

Snowman Problems

If you’re in a calorie deficit, you can expect to lose fat mass consistently from head to toe. This doesn’t mean that you’re going to visibly “tone up” from head to toe at the same rate. For example, if you have a 10mm triceps skin fold and a 40mm abdominal skin fold, you are going to notice a 3mm drop in the triceps site before you will notice a 6mm drop in the abdominal site. Here’s why: picture a snowman slowly melting in the sun. It always seems like the head of the snowman is melting at twice the rate of the bottom snowball. We know this is not true. They are melting at the same rate, but since there was less snow in the head of the snowman to begin with, it appears to be melting much faster. Same goes for your body. You are going to lose fat mass consistently, but the areas with less fat at the start are going to SEEM like they are changing at a faster rate. Make sense?

Rest is Best!

Now that we have established that you can’t target one specific area for fat loss, let’s talk about the potential dangers of spot training. Spot training can lead directly to overuse injuries. Take a teenage male for example, who does “curls for the girls” every time he steps into a weight room. Over time, he doesn’t give his muscles the proper amount of time to rest and repair. This can lead to cramping, muscle strains, muscle tears, tendonitis, or even worse, the complete rupture of the biceps muscle or the surrounding connective tissue. An injury to this degree could potentially set him back months! Worth it? I think not!

Bigger Muscles, Bigger Burn!

Another thing to consider when trying to “spot train” is the size of the muscle group you want to work. If your goal is weight loss, the absolute best thing you can do is burn the maximum amount of calories in a specific timeframe. People often ask me, “Why so many squats?” or “Why are we doing more lunges?” or “Why do we do wall sits all the time?” The answer is to burn calories! The more muscle fibers you can activate during a workout, the more calories you’re able to expend. You will not find a larger group of muscles than your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes (all of which are worked by squats, lunges and wall sits.) You can have two people side by side with the same height, weight, age and gender. Person #1 is doing bicep curls and triceps extensions; Person #2 is doing squats and lunges. They both appear to be working equally hard, but who do you think is burning more calories? Person #2! He/she is working a larger muscle group, which requires the body to use more stored glycogen and burn more calories.

Eat Less and Move More

In a nutshell, if your main goal is WEIGHT LOSS, spot training will not work for you. If you reach a point where you have no more fat to lose, you can spot train certain underdeveloped muscles to enhance their appearance through muscle growth. Until then, you are not doing yourself any favors by doing extra sets of curls, extensions, crunches, or the most notorious – hip adductor/abductor machines at your local gym. Want leaner arms? Try a squat! Need to blast that tummy fat? Try a lunge! Want to battle the bulge in your thighs? Eat less and move more… Sound familiar!?

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