Many of us seek iconic six-pack abs—and to achieve this, we perform a thousand crunches per day. Others want big arms to fill out their t-shirts. To do that, they do biceps curls until the dumbbells fall out of their hands. Or perhaps we’re after a toned butt and thusly start walking around with an exercise band around our legs to swap cellulite for firm flesh.
All of these efforts, tragically, are for naught.
Nobody wants a beer belly or love handles, but science holds firm that we cannot control the distribution of fat loss. You can lose fat through exercise, of course—both cardio and weightlifting burn calories, after all—but just doing crunches isn’t going to reduce stomach fat any more effectively than just doing bicep curls will grow big guns.
There’s a better way. But first we need to understand how our body handles fat.
Emptying the Tank
“Fat in your body is like gas in your gas tank,” explains Todd Miller, professor of nutrition and exercise sciences at George Washington University, to the Washington Post. “Thinking you can reduce fat from your stomach alone is like saying you want to use gas only from the right side of your gas tank.”
The body stores fat—which is layered over top of muscle—wherever it feels like; this is genetically predetermined. Women typically hold more fat in their thighs and hips, while men tend to store most around their waistline. Those are focal points, but some fat can and will be stored all over the body, including our legs, arms, and face, regardless of gender and genetics. This is why one person may have visible abdnomial muscles at 14% body fat, while another must reach 10% in order to show off their abs.
To purge fat, you must compel the body to use its stores for energy purposes. Without an incentive, the body will leave its fat stores alone—and, if you so tempt it, will be all too happy to bolster them with even more fat. Emptying your tank, as Miller puts it, can be done through diet or exercise (ideally both).
Both methods work the same way: a caloric deficit forces the body to tap into its fat stores for the energy it needs to function. Don’t allow for a refilling of those emptied fat stores, and voila—you’ve reduced your total body fat.
Diet or Exercise?
In the end, the body only reacts to the energy deficit you place it in. As far as fat loss is concerned, creating that deficit via diet or exercise is not going to make much difference.
Researchers in the US conducted a study that looked at people losing weight via diet, exercise, or both—all at an equal 20% caloric deficit. The results may interest some: all three groups lost similar amounts of weight over the same time. This proves that the deficit is the ultimate deciding factor in how much, and how fast, you shed fat.
The study was looking strictly at weight loss, however. That is important—but it isn’t everything.
A nutritious, balanced diet allows the body and brain to function optimally. Without the right vitamins and minerals, we won’t perform well, whether in the gym or at work. Without enough protein, we may lose muscle mass in addition to fat. And exercise is just as important. Cardiovascular work improves the health of your heart and lungs, and improves blood and oxygen flow throughout your body, creating an efficient system. Meanwhile, resistance training builds lean mass—which passively burns extra calories—while improving bone density and, frankly, making you look better.
In the study, all groups lost the same weight, but the resistance training group retained all of its lean mass, while the other two groups lost some (1.6% for the hybrid approach and 2.5% for the diet-only group). For this reason and others, we highly recommend including resistance training as part of any fat loss program.
The Great Irony of Spot Reduction
The great irony of the spot reduction myth is this: to most effectively reduce fat in a specific area of the body, one should do full-body movements, and can safely ignore movements targeting just that area.
Total-body movements include the squat, the deadlift, the pull-up, and the bench press. High-intensity cardio drills and plyometrics are also strongly encouraged, as these have been shown to burn the most calories in the least amount of time (prepare to suffer, though).
Do you want to look better naked in front the mirror? Then skip the crunches altogether and focuses on building all-over strength and stamina. Not only will overloading isolation work do little for your overall physique, it can create muscular imbalances in the body, which can lead to poor posture or injury down the line.
Oh, and don’t focus too much on your weight. If you’re building muscle, your weight may not drop significantly. It could even go up. But your fat-to-muscle ratio will improve, as will your reflection in the mirror.
If you like to quantify things, many modern weight scales can estimate body fat percentage through electrical impedance. However, do not rely too much on these measures, as they are rarely spot-on accurate. A DEXA scan is a considerably more reliable (and more expensive) method of obtaining this information, and will also provide you with data on bone density, lean mass, and symmetry.
The best way to gain anything is to train everything.