Friday 19 April 2013

The Greatest Fitness Myth of All Time

Is this your short-cut to a six-pack?
In this information age, I find a huge part of my job is dispelling myths that my athletes, students and clients believe are true. Of all the fitness myths out there, one myth reigns supreme as the greatest and most widely spread fitness myth - the myth of spot reduction. Spot reduction is training a certain area of the body (e.g. abs) hoping to magically melt fat off that area. As a trainer, I wish spot reduction worked because it would make my job a lot easier. However, it doesn't work and you need to know why and what really does work. 

Throughout my 15 year career, I have had so many people come to me patting their stomach or grabbing their sides and asking, "how do I get rid of this?" I know they want me to do. They want me to take them over to the floor mats, lie them down and give them some silly little crunch or side crunch exercise that they can do for a few minutes each day and by next week have a mid-section ready for a photo shoot. However, because I went into this profession to actually help people, I sit them down and give them the truth. I explain why spot reduction doesn't work, what happens if you believe it does and what actually does work to melt fat off those problem spots. 

Why Spot Reduction Doesn't Work
The Scientific Reason
Resistance exercise is anaerobic exercise. This means that the body produces most of its energy without the assistance of oxygen. It uses ATP (a molecule that is broken apart to release energy) stored in the muscle and glucose to produce energy. Therefore when you are lying on the ground doing your crunches to flatten your stomach, your abdominal muscles are not sucking fat from on top of them as fuel. Note: please do not misunderstand me - total body resistance training is very helpful for fat loss. (click HERE for more info on this).

My Trump Card Reason
Lean everywhere
If someone is not buying my scientific reason, then I move straight to my trump card - real-world observation and logic. Take a look at the world around you. Who are the only people that have 6-pack abs? They are the people that are lean everywhere. If spot reduction really did work, we would have some interesting-looking people. We would have obese people who have six packs because the religiously devoted 3 minutes each day to their crunch routine. 

Or what if I use the phrase "problem spot"? Why do you know what I'm talking about? The reason is that it is always the same spots. Despite all the core & glute exercises out there, why are the gut and butt the main problem spots. If spot reduction really did work, we would have weird problem spots. As a trainer, I would have people coming to me saying, "hey I did the 3-minute ab miracle program and bought a butt blaster contraption from the infomercial so now I've got 6-pack abs and buns of steel, but can you help me with my fat hand?"

What happens if you believe spot reduction works?
The obvious answer is that you waste your time - which no one seems to have enough of these days. However, it also results in over-working certain areas of the body which leads to over-use injuries and muscular imbalances. Take the low back for example. Research by Dr. Stuart McGill shows that repetitive lumbar flexion (i.e. crunches & sit-ups) are actually a risk factor for low back pain. Believing that spot reduction works pulls you away from what actually does work strip fat off your body and gets you to focus on the most ineffective exercises. 

What really does work for those problem spots
The real secret to attacking those dreaded problem spots is to look at getting lean everywhere. Focus on losing fat and eventually you will notice changes to your problem spots. Because fat seems to be noticed first on the "problem spots" and these same spots seem to be the last to go, it is easy to get impatient and want to devote more time to these areas. Resist this temptation!

Nutrition modification is hands-down the single most important thing you can do for fat loss! I already have a lot of information on eating for fat loss on this blog so check out the following posts for more information:

When it comes to exercise, beginners should use low-intensity cardio (e.g. brisk walking or cycling) to build up a base level of fitness. Also, during this time they should learn how to do resistance training exercises (such as the ones I'll suggest below) correctly. 

Those who are at the intermediate or advanced level of training should crank up the intensity. Once your are skilled and strong, resistance training is great for getting lean if you do the following:
  • Emphasize big, hard exercises that use multiple joints and a lot of muscles (e.g. squats, deadlift variations, presses, lunges, push-ups, rows, pull-ups, etc)
  • Use circuits or alternate between upper and lower body exercises
  • Use a moderate rep range (e.g. 6-12)
  • Use short rest intervals (e.g. 30-60sec)
  • Focus on progression (i.e. gradually getting stronger at these lifts)
For cardio, use intense interval training (e.g. sprints, hill sprints and sled pushing/pulling) 2-3 days per week. If you still have more time, add in some low intensity work (e.g. brisk walking) on off days to burn a few extra calories and facilitate recovery. 

Note: I have lots more information on this site under the "fat loss" category to assist you.

A few more questions for you to ponder...
I’m sure a lot of you are reading this are saying to yourself “I know this and I don’t try to spot reduce.”  If this is you, take a look at your current training routine and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many direct ab exercises do you have in your routine? 
  • How many small, single joint isolation exercises are you currently doing? 
  • Are you coming in and devoting a whole training session to abs (this is huge waste of time)?
  • Are you focusing on feeling a burn and being sore in your problem spots or getting better at the best exercises?
  • Do you know someone who needs to read this? If so, please share it 

Whether people believe in spot reduction or not, many popular fitness routines are geared for spot reduction. Is yours?

Coming soon: now that the university semester is winding down, I'm excited to finish my new "Athletic Fat Loss" ebook and program. Stay tuned for more details...

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