Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a person could get rid of excess fat found on one specific part of their body by working the muscle directly beneath the fat? That is exactly what many of our fitness clients believe will happen. You will see many working the muscle beneath an area of excess fat using so many repetitions gorging the muscle and producing a terrific pump and “burn.” They believe this attempt at spot reduction will cause the fat to “melt” away.

This has proven to be ineffective!

spot reduction

It may be that some trainers also still believe this method of spot reduction is possible. In my many visits to gyms in my area, I often ask trainers the question, “How can someone train to rid the excess fat on the back of the upper arm?” Invariably the answer I get most frequently is to do isolation exercises for the triceps, such as triceps extensions, triceps push-downs and triceps kickbacks, to name just a few. This type of answer reveals a lack of knowledge of basic physiology.

Occasionally, I do get the correct answer. One trainer, a woman who looked very fit and apparently low body fat, replied that one needs to do high-intensity interval training using compound exercises that involve the recruitment of many muscles. I asked, “What about triceps exercises?” She replied, “No way, they are wasting their time!” 

Busting the Spot Reduction Myth

The belief that spot reduction is possible is most likely a result of observing champion bodybuilders who are incredibly defined and free of body fat, but most likely used steroids and other drugs to obtain their physique. They do the isolation exercises to develop maximal hypertrophy response for stage competitions but still would achieve their high degree of leanness without them.

Studies indicate that only a minimal amount of energy is pulled from the fat stores closest to the working muscles—never enough to melt inches of fat away from one area. The body doesn’t discriminate when it comes to energy stores; it pulls it from everywhere and sends it to where it’s needed.

Leaving diet out of the equation for now, employing exercises that speed up the entire metabolic rate of the body will result in the highest calorie burn and greatest fat reduction. Compound movements are multi-joint exercises that work many different muscles together in a chain of movement, such as full squats, deadlifts, pulls and presses. Work these muscles with great intensity will generate heat for hours after the workout that moves like bicep curls and tricep pushdowns most likely will fail to. This increased metabolic rate, or EPOC, can continue even into the following 48 hours but at a decreased intensity. Nevertheless, the body is utilizing body fat as the fuel to repair and affect muscle growth.

The most effective exercises for producing growth hormone which increases muscle growth in all muscles are full squats and deadlifts. However, the added bonus is that growth hormone also equally reduces overall body fat! This means that one could spend only fifteen minutes on a few sets of full squats worked to the point of gasping for breath and effectively lose body fat provided it is performed at least twice a week. This loss of fat would is accompanied by a great increase in muscle – even in the upper body!

The same loss of fat and additional muscle gains could be achieved by doing intense interval training on an elliptical machine for only fifteen minutes twice a week. Alternatively, employing a circuit-training program like German Body Composition training or taking HIIT classes will also burn body fat more effectively than isolation exercises ever can.

Guest Author Gary Knepper is an NFPT certified Advanced Strength Training Specialist and an Advanced Endurance Training Specialist.