Countless Americans hit the gym each day striving to achieve their body goals. In an effort to flatten their stomach, some might do hundreds of crunches. Others might churn out set after set of biceps curls to tone their arms.
The idea that exercising one specific body part will result in shedding fat in that particular area is called “spot reduction.” And though many people use and believe in this approach, it’s nothing but a myth.
“You can spot train, but you cannot spot reduce,” says Tiffany Rothe, C.P.T., founder of the online gym The Tiffany Rothe Fit Club. “With resistance training, you can train your arms, abs, legs, or back by specifying which muscles you want to strengthen and define. People have translated this concept into thinking they can also lose weight in one area, but that is incorrect.”
Over the years, scientific studies have debunked the spot reduction theory. Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported that adults between the ages of 18 and 40 who performed abdominal exercises for six weeks showed zero reduction in abdominal fat. Another study found that overweight and obese women who followed a structured ab resistance training program did not lose any abdominal subcutaneous fat after 12 weeks.
You see, numerous factors are involved in where and why the body holds fat. Things like genetics, your nutrition and caloric intake, sleep habits, hydration, hormones, and stress levels all play a role in how much fat your body holds onto.
“It’s a delicate balance of working with all of these parts to achieve your desired result,” says Rothe.
Ready to say goodbye to the myth of spot reduction and focus on what works? Here’s what to do during your workouts to actually torch fat.
Lean Into Full-Body Workouts
Since countless sit-ups won’t melt abdominal fat, to reduce weight around your middle (and everywhere else), you’ll want to focus on full-body workouts. Basically, “the more muscles you use, the more calories you burn,” says Christa Dellebovi, C.P.T., director of training and education at CLMBR.
Dellebovi’s personal favorite full-body, calorie-burning exercise is vertical climbing. “It’s self-regulating, so you can go as fast or slow as you want. There’s no lag time and you can activate all the major muscles,” she says. Otherwise, focus your workouts on movements that get as many muscles as possible involved, like squats, burpees, mountain climbers, and pushups—and spend less time on isolation exercises like biceps curls and triceps extensions.
Take on Resistance Training
Though cardio might seem like your best bet for dropping body fat, resistance training (which you can do with your body weight, resistance bands, or weights like dumbbells) builds muscle, which boosts your metabolism. In fact, research published in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports has linked this effect with fat loss. Of course, it burns calories in real time, too—but by boosting your resting metabolic rate, resistance training means you’ll automatically burn more calories every day, says Rothe.
Though exercises like leg extensions and biceps curls do build muscle, incorporating a full-body strategy into your resistance training sessions will produce the best fat-loss results. For upper-body, try moves like overhead shoulder presses, bent-over rows, and chest presses. For lower-body, try lunges, squats, and hip bridges. If you want to show your core some love, too, Dellebovi recommends planks, flutter kicks, and supermans.
Not to mention, the benefits go way beyond physical appearance. “Strength training is also important for improving heart health, enhancing mood, reducing risk of injury, increasing energy, and supporting strength and confidence,” says Dellebovi.
Give HIIT a Shot
When cardio calls your name, instead of slogging away on the treadmill at a steady pace for an hour, go for high-interval training (HIIT), which involves quick bursts of high-intensity effort followed by periods of recovery.
“With short, intense interval training, the metabolism remains elevated for hours after you complete the workout, which results in more calories burned compared to a steady-state cardio,” she says. Case in point: Research published in the Journal of Obesity found that HIIT has been shown to promote fat loss while significantly increasing both aerobic and anaerobic fitness.
Research from Liverpool John Moores University, meanwhile, suggests that the most effective HIIT workouts involve a one-to-one work-to-rest ratio. For example, you’ll go all out on the tread for 60 seconds, then walk slowly for 60 seconds. You can perform HIIT on pretty much any cardio machine at the gym, or swap in exercises like jumping jacks.
If you’re really crunched for time, though, try Tabata, a type of HIIT in which you perform a 20-second bout of all-out work, followed by a 10-second bout of rest eight times. (That’s just four minutes!)
The Bottom Line
There’s no scientific evidence to support the concept of spot reduction. However, incorporating full-body exercises, resistance training, and HIIT into your routine can help you burn calories, build muscle, and shed fat all over.