Why Your Ab Workouts Aren’t Working

Spot Reduction Crunches
Photo: Pond5

It seems logical — a toned tummy is the by-product of a million sit-ups. At least that’s what the late-night infomercials lead us to believe. Plus, gym-goers everywhere appear to be using Swiss balls, ab wheels and crunch machines to craft a chiseled core. Case closed: Targeting the midsection is the secret to a shredded stomach.

Not so fast.

When we focus our attention on the science, this convenient way of thinking is not so convincing. The idea that we can pick and choose the part of the body we’d like to shape-up is misguided at best. Truth is, targeted fat loss — also known as spot reduction — is a total myth.

According to a 2007 study from the University of Connecticut, participants who underwent a single-arm strength training program didn’t just lose fat from one arm, their fat loss was generalized; meaning it came from all over. Similarly, in recent study conducted by Los Lagos University in Osorno, Chile, exercisers who complete single-leg exercises were able to reduce fat mass, though not necessarily in the singled-out body part.

The Facts on Fat Loss

“Yes, exercise can burn fat. Trouble is, the body is not selective about where this fat, or fuel, comes from.”

Spot reduction implies that the best way to terminate body fat is to target it. That would mean that any less-than-desirable body part gets special attention; triceps extensions for the underarm area, leg extensions for the legs and crunches for the core. Exercise those trouble areas intently and fat will vanish in no time. On the surface the logic might appear to make sense. But, just beneath the skin, the process is playing out much differently.

Yes, exercise can burn fat. Trouble is, the body is not selective about where this fat, or fuel, comes from. Or, as JC Deen, the creator of JCD Fitness, writes, “The pattern in which fat leaves your wondrous bodily temple is all up to Mother Nature.” When a muscle contracts the brain gets a message that there’s a demand for energy somewhere out there. As the heart pumps and hormones kick in, fat is being sourced from all over the body. Deen sums it up by saying that, “there’s absolutely no way” to target specific areas for fat loss. Our genetics make that decision for us.

If our brain only knew how badly we wanted a shredded stomach, then it would use up that belly fat first. Science sends its sincerest apologies, but it’s just not possible.

A Bigger Bull’s Eye

Selecting a single body part that needs shrinking can lead to a let down. Because exercises associated with spot reduction burn fewer calories, the ideal fat loss formula targets a bigger bull’s eye – the entire body, though an effective mix of strength training, cardio and nutrition.

Strength training: Starting in the weight room, Deen recommends heavy, compound movements,  such as barbell squats, deadlifts or power cleans. Next, he suggests mixing in some conditioning exercises like kettlebell swings, sprints, sled pushes and HIIT training to maintain muscle mass while leaning out. Conditioning doesn’t just entail high-intensity intervals, though.

Cardio: For fat loss, fitness and nutrition expert Ben Greenfield recommends “a mix of long slow cardio sessions on an empty stomach and high-intensity cardiovascular intervals.”

According to Greenfield, running in the fasted state, or on an empty stomach, allows the body to tap into fat stores. Similarly, he too suggests interval training for its calorie-burning, fat-targeting effects. By alternating between periods of all-out effort and brief periods of recovery, interval training revs up the metabolism, torches fat and improves overall fitness.

Plus, these calorie-burning benefits can have a lasting impact, Greenfield says. “Depending on how hard you’ve worked … you burn anywhere from a few dozen to over a hundred extra calories each hour after you exercise, for up to 24 hours after you’ve finished.” Think of it as the exercise afterburn effect, or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) if you’re fancy.

Nutrition: When it comes to fat loss, diet is often the deal breaker. Don’t sabotage your workouts by disregarding how you fuel your body. Stick to a diet that’s high in protein, and includes fresh vegetables, some fruit and healthy sources of fat, such as almonds and avocados. Limiting consumption of processed foods, refined sugar and alcohol can also make a big difference when it comes to body composition. Certain techniques, such as carb cycling, might also be effective at preserving muscle and helping the body burn more fat.

Science Says…

While targeted fat loss might be a convenient truth, researchers and experts agree that the science suggests otherwise. Paying special attention to one spot versus another won’t pay off. But, a big picture approach will. From strength training to interval-based cardio to proper nutrition — going three for three is the best bet for reducing fat everywhere.

Originally posted on September 24, 2013. 

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