For the Last Time: You Can't Spot Target Fat Loss

Magazine cover lines that promise you can “lose belly fat with just two exercises” or “get rid of arm flab in one week” are lying to you as much as the promises of 267 new ways to have a mind-blowing orgasm. There are only 193 ways, everyone knows that.

These splashy phrases draw readers in by giving the impression that you can achieve the seemingly impossible, but the actual evidence behind targeted fat loss is bullshit. It’s time to put this old, recycled, and downright false fitness concept to bed once and for all.

Fat won't magically melt away from one body part

By themselves, all the crunches in the world won't make your stomach disappear any more than doing triceps dips will torch your arm flab. “When we work specific body parts, we develop the muscle underneath the body fat, so it can affect what that area looks like,” explains personal trainer Rob Sulaver, CSCS and owner of Bandana Training. “I think people confuse muscle development with fat loss because muscle development can change how a certain area looks.”

So targeted exercises can certainly help with toning and muscle definition, but they’ll do nothing to shrink the fat cells in the area. A 2013 study discovered as much when it looked at how training just one leg affected fat tissue composition compared to the other, non-exercised leg. There was virtually no difference in the amount of fat each leg had, even after 12 weeks and a shit ton of leg presses. The participants showed an overall reduction of body fat, just not in the exercised leg specifically.

Your body fat has a mind of its own

If you notice you tend to store fat more in your belly or thighs than anywhere else, you have genetics to thank for that -- not a lack of sit-ups or squats. “In the simplest of terms, where we lose fat is genetically determined, so we all have a unique built-in roadmap for fat loss,” Sulaver says.

So when you start to lose weight, you can’t will it away from specific areas. That’s up to your body to decide. However, your hormones could impact where you tend to store fat over the long term. He says people who have more estrogen tend to store fat in their butt and thighs, while an increase in belly fat can be linked to cortisol, the hormone that’s released when you’re extremely stressed out. It’s not like you’ll lose your stomach fat after just a few carefree days, but managing chronic stress could help with fat storage in that area in the long run.

In the future, Sulaver believes the study of epigenetics, or how environmental factors can change the way genes are expressed, will be huge in the field of health and weight loss. But for now, it's something we have little control over.

So how do I lose my beer gut or arm flab?

It would be amazing if getting rid of unwanted fat were a simple process. In reality, there’s a lot more that goes into shedding the blubber you don’t want from certain areas.

“Your top priority is excellent nutrition, which is going to affect your body fat the most, then aggressive full-body exercise,” Sulaver says. He adds that rest and recovery also play a huge role, making that the third biggest priority in losing body fat. At the bottom of the priority list is cardio, which is still important, but not the fat-burning powerhouse most people think it is. Cardio is only effective if your nutrition, full-body exercise, and rest are all on point.

Personal trainer Joe Kekoanui, NASM, ACSM recommends high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as a good full-body workout because it can be done with just your bodyweight, or a mix of free weights and other fitness equipment. He says when clients come to him looking to target a specific body part, he also looks at nutrition first, then focuses on full-body workouts and cardio. "Anything that will keep the whole body under tension and burn the most amount of calories in the shortest amount of time," he says.

So even if you're unhappy with the fat on your thighs or upper arms, it still takes a full-body approach to get rid of it. The good news is that you can stop doing endless crunches in an effort to get rid of your beer belly. Cutting back on all that beer is probably not a bad idea, either.

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Christina Stiehl is a Health and Fitness Staff Writer for Thrillist. She's still waiting for her six-pack to appear after she bought an Ab Roller from a late-night informercial. Follow her: @ChristinaStiehl.