The Truth About Spot Reduction Exercises

Pointing to a small crease in her underarm a woman asked “How do I get rid of this?”

I inched closer to see what she was pointing at.

“Here,” she pointed again. “This piece of fat right below my armpit. How do I make that go away?”

Health magazines and social media “trainers” have us all conditioned to believe that spot reduction is a thing.

I too believed this once. My younger self researched every magazine out there to find exercises that could manipulate my lower body. Unfortunately, when our workouts morph into a mission to erase or minimize a specific body part, we set ourselves up for a lot of disappointment and failure.

That was the lesson I learned with spot reduction training.

The cold-hard truth about spot reduction

First, the bad news: There is no such thing as spot reduction.

Sure there are exercises that are targeted at certain muscle groups or that are more beneficial to specific muscles than others but it doesn’t make spot reduction a thing. Have you ever met a bodybuilder who was out to reduce their underarm fat?

Um, no. Yet somehow they manage not to have any.

Anyone trying to sell you on a spot reduction myth is out to take your money, not help you. The idea is that you can “treat” a specific part of your body, say your underarm fat, with a particular set of exercises or workouts that will reduce that area you dislike. Only problem is, that’s not how our body works.

And that brings me to the good news. You can get the result you’re seeking, be it less underarm fat or a tighter tush, if you train intelligently.

If you want to lose fat around your stomach area, doing hundreds of crunches won’t get you there. If you want stronger, more defined legs, running for multiple hours a week won’t get you there either. Sure, you’ll get some benefit out of it, it is exercise after all, but it doesn’t work in the way you think.

Our bodies are an intricate system of muscles, bones and ligaments. Nothing operates on its own so why train as if it were?

Consider your thighs for example. This is a common “problem” area for a lot of women. The spot reduction myth will call for multiple lunges, squats and one of those hip adduction machines where you try not to make contact while opening and closing your legs multiple times.

This misguided spot reduction approach fails to recognize how the muscles in our thighs help us move through multiple planes of motion, not just up and down like in a squat or front and back like in a lunge. It helps us stabilize the knee joint, it takes our legs off to the side, it helps us hop, skip and jump. It shuffles, it extends, it flexes, it rotates. The butt gets involved in nearly all of these movements too, so how can a single spot reduction exercise target all of those muscles in all of its ranges of motions?

It simply can’t!

Intelligent training systems

An intelligent training system for so-called spot reduction will cover two things: Strength training and cardiovascular exercise.

Cardio and lifting weights

The goal with cardio is “less is more.” We don’t need to “get better at cardio” before lifting weights nor do we have to do more cardio to lose fat (See my recent article on this topic HERE). Anything more than 3x a week of 45-60 min of moderate intensity cardio is overkill, and you risk losing muscle in the process. That’s the exact opposite of what we’re looking for.

Cardio is still valuable and I highly recommend incorporating it into your training. But let’s not kid ourselves and sign up for multiple half marathons in the hopes that we’ll “firm up” as a result.

An intelligent training system includes strength training and will include at least one multi-joint compound movement like the squat, deadlift or strict press.

Since spot reduction doesn’t exist, avoid thinking of exercise as “spot specific” but as an integrated, whole body approach.

Using exercises that recruit more muscle groups at once are not only more challenging and increase your overall caloric burn, but they’re an ideal way to see results faster than if you borrowed an exercise or two for each little body part you’re trying to focus on.

Pilates, the cherry on top

Now I’m a little bias here because I am a die-hard Pilates lover and instructor. But it took me a long time to buy into Pilates’ benefits.

Pilates may not be your cup of tea, which I understand. This is why it’s not a requirement in the intelligent training system I describe above. Look at it as the cherry on top.

While many of us view Pilates as a great way to tighten up our core (whatever that means), in an intelligent training system, Pilates serves to address imbalances, weaknesses and tightness that neither cardio nor lifting weights addresses.

Consider a woman with crappy posture. She slouches in her car, at the office and at the dinner table. She is committed to doing her cardio and strength training each day and never misses a workout. She may even do some foam rolling and stretching after each workout.

Where Pilates comes in is helping address her postural issues which have over years and years created flawed movement patterns and dysfunctions that lifting weights can’t address. Pilates will stretch and open up the pectorals minor, which is a small muscle in the chest that essentially pulls the shoulders forward (think computer guy posture) when it’s tight. Given our lifestyle of constant texting and slouching at our computer desk, a few barbell exercises won’t open up the muscles in our chest and shoulders to reduce this dysfunction. Training with dysfunction leads to more dysfunction.

A Pilates practice closes the gap between lifting weights and cardio, making us more functional, stronger and leaner individuals. Plus that feeling of being “long and lean” after Pilates is a real thing! If you have the resources and time to incorporate Pilates into your training, I highly recommend it.

4 Sample workouts 

So what’s an intelligent training system look like? Here are just a few workouts you can start doing right now!

2 Full-body strength training

Day 1

A1) Deadlift (5×5) *heavy*

B1) Chin-up (5×6)

B2) Stability ball hamstring curl (5×10)

B3) Resistance band pull-apart (5×10)

C1) Incline dumbbell press (4×8)

C2) Single leg Romanian deadlift (RDL) (4×8)

C3) Push-up (4×6)

Day 2

A1) Back squat (5×5) *work up to a heavy weight*

B1) Seated row (5×15)

B2) Offset alternating lunge Note: hold 1 dumbbell on the opposite side of the dominant leg (5×6)

B3) Lateral band walks (5×12)

C1) Front loaded kettlebell front squat (4×8)

C2) Push press (4×8)

C3) Farmer’s carry (4 x distance) Note: Select a distance that’s challenging for you but don’t go on a hike with it.

2 Cardio alternatives

Workout 1 on stairs:

Round 1 Singles – Run up the stairs x3, touching each step on the way down. Option to walk down.

Round 2 Doubles – Run up the stairs x3, two steps at a time. Option to walk down.

Round 3 Jumps – Jump 2 or 3 steps up. Walk or jog on the way down. Repeat that x2

Workout 2 with a jump rope and a kettlebell:

Round 1 – Set a timer for 8 minutes. Jump x20 every minute on the minute.

Rest 2-3 minutes

Round 2 – set a timer for 5 minutes. Hit 15 kettlebell swings every minute on the minute.

Rest and repeat for however you long you want to torture yourself.

Cliff Notes

Ok, if you got this far you have learned several important things. But if you skipped down to the end just to check out the free workouts, here’s what you missed:

1.) Spot reduction is a myth invented by greedy nimrods who want to sell you things you don’t need. Like waist trainers and Tracey Anderson DVDs.

2.) The body is a system of muscles, bones, ligaments and all the other stuff in between that I forgot from 9th grade biology. You can’t spot reduce because nothing works on it’s own, but you can improve your body composition with an intelligent training system.

3.) An intelligent training system incorporates strength training and cardio. Anything else like Pilates, yoga or drunk volleyball with your co-workers is extra.

4.) Pilates bridges the gap between cardio and strength training, creating a supersonic style of training system.

5.) Assuming your deit, sleep and stress management is taken care of, you can get away with 2 full days of full body strength training and 2 intense cardio sessions a week. See the sample workouts I provided to get an idea of how that looks.

6.) You are amazing. Don’t you forget it.

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