The Truth About Targeting Stubborn Body Fat

Targeted fat loss is the pinnacle of body recomposition. The ability to decide from where fat is utilised would go a long way to sculpting a perfect physique and the idea resonates with many. 

To understand the the topic we need to answer two questions:

  1. Is spot reduction possible?
  2. If so, how does it work?

During the next four minutes you invest into this article, you will learn how fat is burnt, where this fat comes from, when spot reduction works and how to assess poor blood flow via foot hairs.

But first, do we really want to target fat loss?

 

The Paradox of Targeted Fat Loss

If we want to lose body fat, we need to create an energy deficit to coerce the body to use stored fat as a fuel source. We have little control of where this fat comes from, so we must focus on maintaining a deficit and losing body fat all over until our physical goals are reached. Full body workouts are the most effective resistance training method for these body recomposition goals. 

The concept of targeted fat loss is an ability to direct fat loss within a certain area, which is achieved via exercise that use local muscles. The classic example is doing sit-ups to melt abdominal fat and reveal a six-pack. However, if this was possible we would still need to train the entire body, or else have an unbalanced distribution of fat. In the end, we would train the full body to ensure even distribution of fat loss, making the training very similar to the methods listed above.

The paradox of targeted fat loss is that even if we could target one area at a time, we would still have to adjust the entire physique to ensure balance. People who want to target fat loss generally want to see their abdominals. Therefore, the real goal is getting lean enough to see abdominal muscles, as opposed to being able to target fat loss.

 

Understanding Fat Loss

How is fat burnt?

Fat burning follows three steps - mobilisation, transportation and oxidation. This process has been outlined previously (Fitzgerald, 2015) on this blog. Referencing your own work may be considered academically vain, but I digress.... for those who don't want to read the article, here is the summary.


Three Stages of Fat-burning

  1. Mobilisation
    1. Body requires stored fat as fuel - signalled via low-energy state & catecholamines
    2. Fat cells release fatty acids into the blood stream
  2. Transportation
    1. Fatty acids travel in the blood to their destination
  3. Oxidation
    1. Fatty acids enter the cell and are oxidised
    2. Energy (ATP) is created

Fat is preferentially used for fuel during low intensity activity such as sitting and walking. For high-intensity activity, carbohydrate is the predominate fuel source.

High-intensity exercise burns little fat during the training session and instead carbohydrate is used. However, high-intensity exercise stimulates catecholamines which mobilise fatty acids. These fatty acids are transported and then oxidised after the training session when activity moves back to a lower intensity. 

 

Where is this mobilised from?

Muscles typically use locally-stored carbohydrates (from inside the muscle) to fuel activity. The muscle can also use limited local fat stores (intra-muscular fat) but this supply is limited and rapidly depleted. Therefore, fatty acids must come from elsewhere and be taken to the muscle for conversion to energy. 

I have often explained fat mobilisation sites as it being the last place it was distributed, which is a good guide but not exactly true. A better description is that the body has a preference for distribution and that fat is typically taken from the last area it was stored. You won't necessarily burning last night's pizza if you go for a run today, but if you do create a deficit, fat burnt will likely be from a similar area that pizza went to.

 

The result: you cannot spot reduce fat

When we have a stimulus for fat mobilisation the fat will be recruited based roughly on last stored, first used. Therefore, whether it is squat, shoulder press or finger extension exercise that is requiring the energy, the fat mobilised will come from roughly the same area. The idea that abdominal exercises will burn abdominal fat does not stack up. 

 

EXCEPTIONS, SEATS & TOES

Losing stubborn fat

It it important to discern between stubborn and excess body fat. Stubborn body fat is when you are lean and pocket of fat remain, despite loss in other areas. Typically, these are in areas of areas of poor blood flow such as the top of the hips or lower back. 

Excess body fat is simply that, excess energy stored as fat tissue. If body composition includes 20% or more body fat, stubborn body fat should not be an issue. Although the terminology is unflattering, excess body fat is preferable over stubborn body fat as it will be lost through managing energy balance. 

Blood flow is an important component of fat loss. Blood delivers catecholamines that trigger mobilisation and transports fatty acids for oxidation. Remember that stubborn body fat is commonly found in areas of poor blood flow.

In the case of stubborn body fat, increasing blood flow to these areas may help mobilise and eliminate fat from this area. Exercises that utilise local muscles can aid this blood flow and thereby assist with fat mobilisation. Therefore, fat can be removed from the fat cells to be used as fuel source.

It is important to recognise that the majority of people they need to focus on getting leaner and losing excess body fat, as opposed to spot reduction of stubborn body fat. Referring to excess body fat as stubborn body fat can be tempting for fitness professionals who find discussing fat confronting. However, disillusioning your clients - whether intentionally or not - can lead to developing solutions to the wrong issues

 

Seated exercise for obese individuals

Sitting on an exercise bike may be suboptimal for fat loss for some obese individuals. The forward tilt and excess abdominal weight can impair blood flow to the lower body via suppression of the iliac artery. Less blood flow can cause earlier fatigue due to accumulation of metabolic byproducts and impaired nutrient delivery that leads to decreased work output. 

Elliptical machine and full body resistance training is optimal for these individuals.

 

Look at the toes

A lack of hair on the toes can indicate a lack of blood flow and nutrients delivered to the area. If blood flow is impaired, full body exercise and avoiding seated exercise becomes more important. Thanks to Phil Learney for that one!

 

Summary

While spot reduction of stubborn body fat is possible, targeted fat loss is not applicable for most body recomposition clients. Adherence and managing energy balance will deliver results for any client, you just need to work out a program that can deliver both.