Spot Reduction is Real: Here's How To Do It
Non-surgical spot reduction is a myth – a fat housewife's fantasy; the fodder of infomercials selling ridiculous ab training gadgets at 3AM.
Arnold was wrong, too. You can't "whittle fat off your middle" with countless sit-ups! It's preposterous!
Except maybe it isn't. Dr. Lonnie Lowery – believe it or not – is doing it. And he's backing it up with science.
Spot reduction is real. And Dr. Lowery is going to show you exactly how to do it.
– Chris Shugart
Ice-Cold Body Fat
Reach down and touch the fattest part of your body. If you're male, that's probably your belly and love handle area. Okay, now touch a leaner part of your body.
What do you notice?
The fat area is cooler to the touch, isn't it? It may even be cold. I noticed this myself while performing my morning fasted "cardio." Even with a loose sweatshirt on, my gut was cold to the touch. What was going on here?
Ever snuggle up with your wife or girlfriend and notice that her backside and thighs are noticeably colder than the rest of her body? And sure enough, that's where most females preferentially store their body fat.
Coincidence? No, it's not.
Science tells us that blood flow is crucial for fat extraction. (Frayne 1998, 1999) Poor blood flow to certain areas of the body – obliques and lower abs for example – equals poor fat loss from those areas.
As researcher K. Frayne notes in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society: "There is evidence that adipose tissue blood flow does not increase sufficiently to allow delivery of all the fatty acids released into the systemic circulation."
But can we manipulate that? Sure, we can make our body burn calories, but can we tell it where we want those calories to come from? Can we actually spot reduce?
You bet your ice-cold glutes we can.
Myth Busters and Legendary Bodybuilders
Spot reduction was always considered to be a myth because people burn fat systemically, meaning "whole body." That's true enough, for both cardio and whole-body resistance exercise. You have circulating adrenaline and mitochondrial furnaces in all of your muscles throughout your body. So, spot reduction is impossible, right?
Well, I'm glad no one told Arnold, Frank Zane, Franco Columbu, and Corey Everson that. All of these legendary bodybuilders believed they could spot-reduce, and they did hundreds of sit-ups to achieve it. Franco Columbu worked up to a 1,000 sit-ups a day! Sure enough, he was ripped, with flat, fat-free abs.
Was this just extra calorie burning, or were these bodybuilders really onto something?
Calorie balance (and thus whole body exercise) does matter, of course, but new research is supporting what the old-school guys used to do. Calorie-burning is part of the equation, but calories come from difference sources.
Would you rather the calories you burn in a cardio session come from the fat area around your navel or from the glycogen and triglycerides in your muscles? (Note: Burning intramuscular triacylglycerol is good too, as these fats ultimately get replenished from elsewhere in the body – it's just less direct than straight-from-the-love-handles fat breakdown.)
We're bodybuilders; we care about body composition and shape. The average person wants to lose "weight." They probably don't care where the calories come from. They're smaller so they're happy. But I want my calories to come from the areas of my body holding onto the most fat. Don't you?
Science shows us there's a way to do this. I've been using these methods to prepare for my upcoming bodybuilding show, and I'll share them with you below.
In short, the secrets to targeted fat reduction are:
- Redirecting blood flow to the fatty area
- Contracting the muscles adjacent to that fatty area
- Timing aerobic activity and midsection work properly
Let's break it down.
If cold fat doesn't mobilize very well, it only makes sense to warm it up. Increase blood flow and you can extract more fat from the troubled area.
With techniques like microdialysis, you can actually see this occurring. Microdialysis involves sticking super tiny tubes into subcutaneous fatty areas like the lower stomach and measuring fat breakdown products, like glycerol and fatty acids, in the interstitial fluid. Increase the blood flow to that area (providing, at the time, your hormonal milieu is right) and localized fat loss increases. That's spot reduction, kiddies.
And here's the really interesting part: A fairly recent study states that blood flow and lipolysis are generally higher in subcutaneous adipose tissue adjacent to the contracting muscle. (Stallknecht, 2007) They actually say in plain English: "In conclusion, an acute bout of exercise can induce spot lipolysis and increased blood flow in adipose tissue adjacent to contracting skeletal muscle." Wow, paradigm shift!
Another paper notes that there are well-documented regional variations in lipolysis: "...the subcutaneous abdominal has an intermediate rate and the gluteal-femoral depots have relatively sluggish turnover." Collectively these mean when you contract a muscle, the adjacent body fat starts to break down more – and this could impact stubborn areas.
Sounds a whole lot like ab work – training the muscle adjacent to the fat belly – does indeed lead to preferential fat loss in that area!
By the way, I know this sounds like a weird bit of comparative physiology, but I was once told in a nutrition class that fatty cuts of meat are fatty because of the very low muscular activity in that area of the animal. Makes sense!
For my bodybuilding competition, I need to maximize fat loss, especially from stubborn areas, while preserving muscle mass. That means fasted "cardio" first thing in the morning: treadmill walking for about an hour, as outlined in my last article.
Fasted morning cardio is the ideal time to use these spot-reducing tricks. As one Oxford study notes: "In adipose tissue, the flow of fatty acids across a cell membrane is bidirectional. It's outward in times of net fat mobilization, such as fasting and exercise and inward during the postprandial (just fed) period." (Frayne, 1998) Of course, most of the day we bodybuilders are in a fed state.
Other research by Moro and colleagues (Obesity, Silver Spring, 2007) concludes: "...lipid mobilization relies less on catecholamine [e.g. adrenaline]-dependent stimulation of beta-adrenergic receptors than on the decrease in plasma insulin." Others have pointed out that pre-exercise carbs and insulin do indeed inhibit either fat breakdown or fat "burning" to some extent during optimal, moderately-paced exercise. (Lowery, 2004; Turcotte, 1999)
Timing is critical. Thus, when I'm in a hormonal state conducive to fat breakdown, like after a fast, then that's the time to put these tactics to work. Here's exactly how I do it.
Step 1: Keep the fatty area warm
Before getting on the treadmill, I put on my weight lifting belt backward so the part that's normally on my lower back is on my belly. This will warm up the area and keep it warm as exercise begins.
Ideally, you could also try one of those old-fashioned tummy belts. These rubber belts "worked" in the short term because they caused a local dehydrating effect: they made your belly and loves handles sweat.
The dehydrating effect was temporary of course, but the warming effect and the increased blood flow may have indeed aided in fat loss over time.
If you get one of these things, just remember not to keep it too tight. It could actually push blood out if overly snug. Not good. I just stick to my reversed weight belt.
Step 2: Work the muscles adjacent to the trouble spot
We know that muscular activity near a fatty area increases the breakdown of that fat. To accomplish this, I hop off the treadmill about halfway through my exercise session and perform two sets of ab work: crunches, planks, twists, sit-ups, hanging leg raises, whatever. I keep the intensity low – little to no added weight, mostly just body weight exercises – and shoot for 30 to 50 reps each set.
Then I get back on the treadmill and finish my aerobic session. At the end, I once again perform two sets of ab work for 30 to 50 reps each set. For contest preparation, I'll begin with a lower number of reps, then work my way up to 50 per set. I'll also add a set or two as things progress. Gotta get up closer to those Franco rep numbers!
Step 3: Properly time your aerobic activity and ab work
As noted above, timing your light treadmill activity and at least some of your ab work to be in a fasted state is smart. It's critical in order to have any enhanced blood flow carrying in the right lipolytic substances (catecholamines like adrenaline, caffeine, GH, etc.) to those love handles, as opposed to fat-protective insulin after a meal.
Will This Method Work for You?
If your body fat percentage is in the mid-teens or below – if your fat layer is an inch thick or less – then this method should give you visible results over time.
No, this method will not help the guy with the giant paunch to develop a six-pack in four weeks. No one is saying that you don't need cardio, lifting, and a good diet plan.
But if you already have those in place, then this method can help you target stubborn fat deposits rather than having to get damn-near emaciated in order to see your lower abs.
It's not the end-all-be-all of body fat reduction, but it works for me and science backs it up. And for my upcoming bodybuilding competition, I'm going to stack as many cards in my favor as humanly possible.
Give it a shot. Your lower belly fat and love handles won't stand a chance.
References and Further Reading:
1. Frayn, K. Regulation of fatty acid delivery in vivo. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology. 1998;441:171-9.
2. Frayn, K. Macronutrient metabolism of adipose tissue at rest and during exercise: a methodological viewpoint. The Proceedings of The Nutrition Society. 1999 Nov;58(4):877-86.
3. Lowery, L. Dietary fat and sports nutrition: a primer. J Sports Sci Med 2004; 3, 106-117.
4. Lowery, L. Chapter Four: Fat. In: NSCA's Guide to Sport and Exercise Nutrition (Campbell and Spano Eds.). Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL; 2011.
5. Mick, T., et al. Comparison of sports drinks on substrate oxidation during exercise. (Abstr) CCF Dept Orthopaed Surg12th Ann Res Day, Cleveland, OH 2002.
6. Moro, C, et al. Sex differences in lipolysis-regulating mechanisms in overweight subjects: effect of exercise intensity. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.). 2007 Sep;15(9):2245-55.
7. Ormsbee, M, et al. Regulation of fat metabolism during resistance exercise in sedentary lean and obese men. Journal of Applied Physiology. (Bethesda Md.: 1985) 2009 May;106(5):1529-37.
8. Stallknecht B, et al. Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans? American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2007 Feb;292(2):E394-9.
9. Turcotte, L. Role of fats in exercise. Types and quality. Clinics inSports Medicine. 1999 Jul;18(3):485-98.
Dr. Lonnie Lowery is an exercise physiologist, licensed nutritionist, T NATION writer, lecturer, university professor and competitive bodybuilder. He can be reached through his free web site and podcast at www.IronRadio.org.