The short answer is no and not only is this myth misleading and confusing, but it makes people train ineffectively and inefficiently in the hope of proving it wrong.
Cast your mind back to the last time you were in the gym and I’m sure you’ll be able to spot someone who has fallen victim, perhaps due to headlines in popular fitness magazines like “do this one exercise and see you abs in 4 weeks” or similar bullshit, to this myth.
You can tell who they are because they’re the ones who spend hours in the gym training their abs from every angle possible with every conceivable piece of equipment and still don’t have a six-pack.
Surely if you are working your abs that much you should be able to see them, right? Surely, you’ll be stripping off ab fat faster than you can count…
I’m afraid not. It just doesn’t work this way.
This fact is backed by the current scientific evidence on the topic. A 1971 study (1) conducted by the University of California looked at the difference between subcutaneous arm fat in Tennis players.
The researchers want to see if there was a measurable difference between their dominant and non-dominant arm. What they found was that there was no statistical difference in fat levels in any of the player’s arms.
This is significant as the difference in the usage and activity level between the dominant and non-dominant hands of tennis players is huge. If spot reduction were true, you’d expect to see it here, but they didn’t.
More recently, in 2007 a study (2) by the University of Connecticut recruited over 100 participants for a 12-week period. During this time, the participants performed a supervised resistance training programme in which their non-dominant arm was trained selectively.
The results, measured by MRI, again showed no discernible subcutaneous fat loss difference between arms, and in fact, showed that fat loss tends to be from across the whole body regardless of what part you trained.
This is directly in line with what we know about fat loss and how we lose fat.
Yet the prevailing myth is that using targeted training you can reduce body fat in specific areas of the body.
When in fact the truth is you will lose fat from across your body as a whole and can’t influence which part you lose it from directly.
What’s more, as you lose fat you will find that you lose it from different areas at different rates with the lower abs and back the stubborn areas for men and the upper thighs and obliques (love handles) the stubborn bits for women.
This begs the question, how do you lose fat, specifically fat from those stubborn areas?
You need to get this in order first as without a calorie deficit you will not lose weight. To this end, the best place to start is with a small to moderate calorie deficit and a goal of losing 1 – 2 pounds per week.
But what about stubborn fat, that annoying fat that covers your abs even when you’re looking pretty lean everywhere else or that annoying hip and back fat that just won’t seem to go?
This is where the strategic use of fasted cardio can come in handy.
Fasted cardio is, as it sounds, doing exercise in a completely fasted state i.e. your body is no longer digesting or processing food.
This means your body is better at accessing and then burning fat when it’s in a fasted state.
Perhaps most importantly for stubborn fat, research (5) shows that exercise in a fasted state increasing blood flow to the stomach.
This is important as it’s this area that usually has a lower blood flow which means in normal circumstances less fat burning chemicals reach your abs and less total fat is burnt.
Fasted cardio flips this on its head and can allow you to burn more stubborn fat when compared to fed cardio (6).
Which means that whilst you can lose fat without fasted cardio if you’re trying to burn stubborn fat then fasted cardio might be the tool you need to get it done and get it done quickly.
For more information on fasted cardio including the best type of cardio to do and when to do it, check out the post below.
Ok, we know that you cannot spot reduce fat in one area of the body at will, but this doesn’t mean it’s the same for building muscle.
In fact, it’s the opposite.
You can target one specific area of the body and train it to get bigger independent from the rest of your body.
Now, whilst you wouldn’t want to do this in pure isolation (huge arms and a small torso might look pretty weird) you can use this principle to strategically focus on building muscle in certain parts of your body.
Doing this can allow you to build more muscle in the areas that make the biggest difference in how you look. Of course, this will vary from person to person depending on their current physique, but examples are;
In the end, it’s all about balance and whilst I don’t recommend you only train one part of your body and ignore the rest, you can certainly give a particular area a little more attention to get the results you want.
To build muscle whether you’re targeting one area or not comes down to the same 4 things;
If you can do these 4 things, then you’ll be able to strategically add muscle to your physique and radically change how you look without needing to build a lot of muscle or get anywhere near your genetic potential.
When trying to build muscle you want to eat a small calorie surplus of 100 – 300 calories over your maintenance. This helps provide your body with the fuel and nutrients it needs to maintain your current muscle mass and add new muscle.
The easiest way to do this is to take your body weight in pounds and multiply by 16. This will give you a good starting point and you can track and adjust from there.
Related: 7 Reasons You Shouldn’t Dirty Bulk
In addition to a small calorie surplus, you also want to be performing regular strength training as this gives your body the signal to build new muscle. However, this doesn’t mean you need to train for 2+ hours 7x per week.
Doing 3 – 4 workouts a week is enough to build muscle. None of your workouts needs to be longer than 45 – 60 mins and you want to focus on big compound movements and building strength over time.
Protein is an important part of your diet for both muscle preservation and muscle growth. As such this is one area you want to be sure you’re not lacking in as it will have an impact on your results.
Aim to get at least 0.8g and no more than 1.1g of protein per pound of bodyweight and you’ll be well covered.
As part of your regular strength training, you want to be sure that you’re getting stronger over time as it’s this continual increase in stimulus that will tell your body it needs to continue adapting by getting bigger and stronger.
You can do this in a number of ways including increasing your training intensity, frequency or load.
Spot reducing fat or targeted fat loss as it’s sometimes called is not something that’s possible. Fat loss comes from across the whole body with the abs and hips being the stubborn areas for most people.
If you want to lose fat, then you need to focus on maintaining a calorie deficit and if you want to speed up
However, when it comes to building muscle it is entirely possible to selectively gain muscle in certain areas by focus more (or exclusively) on that area. This means you can build a little muscle in a few areas and radically change how you look.