Almost everyone would like to change certain parts of their body.

The waistline, thighs, butt and arms are common areas in which people tend to store excess body fat.

Achieving change through diet and exercise takes time and effort, leaving those who desire a quick fix in search of a faster solution.

Targeted fat loss, also known as “spot reduction,” is a type of exercise that many people turn to when trying to slim down specific areas of their bodies.

However, there is quite a bit of controversy surrounding this method.

This article takes a detailed look at the science behind spot reduction.

What Is Spot Reduction?

The theory of spot reduction has been promoted in the health and fitness world for some time. However, there is not much evidence to support it.

Spot reduction is a type of targeted exercise intended to burn fat in specific body areas.

An example of spot reduction is exercising the triceps in order to get rid of excess fat on the back of the arms.

This theory of targeting specific body parts is popular, leading many people to focus only on troublesome areas, rather than exercising their entire body.

Burning fat using this method can be particularly appealing to those who have had a hard time losing weight in the past or failed to get the results that they wanted using other methods.

Why Some People May Want to Reduce Fat in Certain Areas

There are countless reasons why people want to lose weight, including improving health and reducing the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes (1, 2).

Some people tend to carry excess weight proportionately, while others hold onto weight in specific areas like the butt, thighs or belly.

Gender, age, genetics and lifestyle all play a role in weight gain and the accumulation of stubborn areas of body fat.

For instance, women have a higher percentage of body fat than men do and tend to store excess fat in the thighs and butt, especially during their childbearing years.

However, during perimenopause and menopause, hormonal changes can cause weight to shift to the belly region (3).

On the other hand, men are more likely to put on pounds in their midsections throughout their entire lives (4).

Weight gain can be very frustrating and cause many people to look for easier alternatives than going on a diet or increasing their activity levels.

Spot reduction is promoted as a way to quickly reduce fat in problematic areas.

This method appeals to the belief that working the muscles in problem areas is the best way to burn the fat in that specific spot.

Yet, fat loss doesn’t work that way, and there is little scientific evidence to back this claim.

Summary Spot reduction is promoted as a way to reduce fat stores in specific areas through targeted exercises.

Is Spot Reduction Possible?

Although targeting fat loss in specific areas of the body would be ideal, the theory of spot reduction has not been proven effective by scientific studies.

How Fat Loss Works

To understand why spot reduction may not be effective, it is important to understand how the body burns fat.

The fat in your cells is found in the form of triglycerides, which are stored fats that the body can use for energy.

Before they can be burned for energy, triglycerides must be broken down into smaller sections called free fatty acids and glycerol, which are able to enter the bloodstream.

During exercise, the free fatty acids and glycerol used as fuel can come from anywhere in the body, not specifically from the area that is being exercised.

The Majority of Studies Have Debunked Spot Reduction

Aside from not correlating with how the body burns fat, a number of studies have shown spot reduction to be ineffective.

For example, one study in 24 people who only completed exercises targeting the abdominals for six weeks found no reduction in belly fat (5).

Another study that followed 40 overweight and obese women for 12 weeks found that resistance training of the abdominals had no effect on belly fat loss, compared to dietary intervention alone (6).

A study focusing on the effectiveness of upper body resistance training had similar results. This 12-week study included 104 participants who completed a training program that exercised only their non-dominant arms.

Researchers found that although some fat loss did occur, it was generalized to the entire body, not the arm being exercised (7).

Several other studies have resulted in similar findings, concluding that spot reduction is not effective for burning fat in specific areas of the body (8, 9, 10).

However, a small number of studies have had conflicting results.

One study in 10 people found fat loss was higher in areas close to contracting muscles (11).

Another recent study including 16 women found that localized resistance training followed by 30 minutes of cycling resulted in increased fat loss in specific areas of the body (12).

Although findings from these studies warrant additional research, both had potential reasons for conflicting results, including measurement techniques and a small number of participants.

Despite these outlier studies, most scientific evidence shows that it is not possible to lose fat in one specific area by exercising that body part alone.

Summary Most scientific evidence shows that spot reduction is not effective and that fat loss tends to be generalized to the entire body, not the body part being exercised.

The Difference Between Spot Fat Reduction and Targeted Toning

Although spot fat reduction is most likely to be ineffective at burning fat in specific body parts, targeting troublesome areas by toning the underlying muscle can have beneficial results.

While you can’t necessarily choose where your body loses fat, you can choose where you want to look more toned and defined.

That being said, it’s important to combine targeted toning exercises with cardio workouts in order to burn fat.

It’s true that muscles are strengthened and defined by toning exercises like abdominal moves and hamstring curls. However, these exercises don’t burn a ton of calories.

For instance, doing lots of ab exercises will result in stronger stomach muscles, but you won’t see definition in that area unless you lose overall body weight.

This is why cardio, whole body workouts and a healthy diet are necessary to truly see results.

Summary Though targeted toning exercises will strengthen and build muscles, in order to see definition, weight must be lost through calorie-burning workouts and a healthy diet.

How to Reduce Fat and Tone Problem Areas

Although spot reduction may not be the best use of your time, many evidenced-based methods can help you lose fat and tone your entire body.

For example, high-intensity workouts and exercises that engage the entire body have been shown to be most effective at shedding pounds (13).

The best exercises for overall fat reduction include:

  • Cardiovascular exercise: Cardio, such as running and cycling, uses large muscle groups and has been proven to be effective at torching calories. It may be particularly effective at melting stubborn belly fat (14).
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT): HIIT involves short periods of intense activity immediately followed by a recovery period. Studies show HIIT may be more effective at burning fat than steady-state cardio (15).
  • Whole-body exercises: Instead of focusing on one area of the body, whole-body exercise like burpees have been shown to burn more calories and lead to more fat loss than targeted muscle toning exercises (16).
  • Combining exercises: Combining resistance training and cardiovascular exercise has been shown to be more effective at shedding pounds than just focusing on one type of exercise (17).

High-intensity training, whole-body movements and cardiovascular exercise are very effective for losing weight and toning up.

If you aren’t able to participate in the activities listed above, there are many other ways to effectively lose weight and tone up.

For example, low-impact exercises like swimming and walking have been shown to be extremely effective for weight loss and are easy to do (18, 19, 20).

Summary Adding high-intensity training and cardiovascular exercise to your routine will likely result in overall fat loss. However, simple exercises like brisk walking or swimming laps can also be effective.

Diet Is Key When Trying to Lose Body Fat

While increasing overall activity and adding new exercises to your daily routine is important for weight loss and your overall health, following a healthy meal plan is key when trying to shed body fat.

In fact, choosing unhealthy foods or overeating can quickly undo all your hard work in the gym.

Studies have shown that exercise alone is not effective for weight loss unless a conscious effort is made to control calorie intake and make healthy food choices (21, 22).

To lose weight and keep it off, combine the following diet tips with an exercise routine:

  • Control your portions: Keeping portion sizes in check is key when trying to lose weight. One way to reduce your food portions is to use smaller plates or measure out serving sizes to train your eye (23).
  • Fill up on fiber: Foods high in fiber, such as veggies, beans, fruits and oats, make you feel fuller and can reduce overeating. Eating a fiber-rich salad before your meals is an effective way to shed pounds (24, 25).
  • Limit processed foods and added sugar: Cutting back on processed foods like candy, chips, cakes and fast food is a must for weight loss. Ditching sugary drinks like soda, juice and sports drinks can help as well (26, 27).
  • Eat protein-rich foods: Protein helps keep you feeling full and may help reduce overeating. Studies have shown that eating a protein-rich breakfast can reduce snacking throughout the day and help you lose weight (28, 29).

Following a healthy meal plan that includes lots of fiber, healthy fats and protein in controlled portions is a great way to slim down.

Furthermore, in order to lose weight, it’s important to create an overall calorie deficit. Eating healthy, minimally processed foods is the best way to do this.

Although overeating is most often associated with unhealthy foods like cookies, chips and ice cream, it is possible to eat too many healthy foods as well.

This is why controlling portion sizes and having a healthy awareness of both your hunger and fullness is important.

Summary Following a healthy meal plan and creating a calorie deficit is crucial for weight loss. Limiting processed foods, eating more protein and fiber and practicing portion control are all evidence-based ways to lose weight.

The Bottom Line

Many people want a quick and easy way to lose fat, especially in troublesome areas like the hips, belly, arms and thighs.

Spot fat reduction has been shown to be ineffective in many studies. Luckily, there are other proven ways to lose body fat and keep it off.

While resistance training may strengthen, build and tone muscle in a targeted area, a healthy diet and calorie-burning activities are necessary to burn fat and get a defined look.

Ultimately, focusing on working towards a healthier, more toned body overall may be more beneficial than attempting to lose fat in one particular area.

With hard work and dedication in both the gym and kitchen, you can achieve your weight loss goals.