By: Greg Pignataro
“You can’t ‘spot reduce’ body fat,” is a phrase you may have heard or read. What the heck does it mean? Put simply, you cannot choose where on your body visible fat will disappear when you lose weight. To illustrate with an all-too commonly seen example, this means you can do hundreds of crunches or planks each day and still not make a dent in the layer of fat covering your abdominal muscles.
Unfortunately, this belief that spot reduction is possible persists as stubbornly as a post-holiday belly bulge, particularly when it comes to training certain areas of the body. You know which ones I’m talking about. For women, it’s often the hips, buttocks, thighs, and back of the arms. For men, it’s the dreaded beer gut. Logically, we may understand that specifically exercising those areas won’t reduce the amount of fat there, yet in almost every single gym, you can find people with excess belly fat performing crunches until they’re red in the face. Why? It often has to do with misunderstandings of the following key concepts:
Let’s examine these in order, after a crucial bit of background information. Weightlifting has been an Olympic sport for men since the very first games, in 1896. However, it wasn’t added as an event for women until 2000. Let that sink in. Over 100 years passed before women could officially compete in the sport at an Olympic level. This meant that strong societal influences conspired for a long time to tell women that they shouldn’t lift weights, or that doing so was only for men. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and has thankfully changed quite a bit in the past few decades.
However, this welcome increase in the prevalence of women participating in strength training is still a relatively recent phenomenon. One consequence of this is that for too long, (and arguably still today), women are underrepresented in the world of strength training. Thus, many bad habits and/or male-centric tips persist. What does any of this have to do with spot-reducing fat? Well, it has everything to do with a misunderstanding around the first bullet point above...
Where Body Fat is Stored
For the average man, the main place his body stores fat is in his abdomen. As body fat percentage increases, he will start to see fat stored in his neck and face. With even higher levels of body fat, it will start to be stored nearly everywhere else, even the hands and feet.
However, below 25% body fat, which is pretty typical for the average man, a vast majority of body fat is stored in the midsection. Minimal fat is stored in the chest, and, unlike with women, at this level almost none is stored in the arms. Here’s why this matters.
This pattern of fat storage means that men who frequently exercise their upper body with common exercises like bench presses, biceps curls, shoulder presses, and triceps pulldowns, can easily see impressive gains in their upper body musculature, whether their body fat is 8% or 28%. Note the large pectorals, biceps, deltoids, and traps in the man on the left.
So, a simple association is made in the minds of most male lifters:
This fools people into thinking that spot reduction could work, because they see results of training a specific muscle group directly. In reality, all that’s happening is that they are building muscles in areas with minimal fat covering them. This doesn’t work for muscles in areas that commonly store fat, like the midsection.
This truth affects women differently than men, because the typical patterns of female fat distribution mean that most women have multiple areas of the body that store fat, rather than just the belly. To be sure, all strength training will make targeted muscle groups stronger and larger, but none of these changes will be visible, and won’t make someone look more “toned” if body fat percentage is too high. With that understood, let’s dive a bit more into why body fat percentage is so important.
Body Fat Percentage and Appearance
Body fat percentage is arguably the biggest controllable factor in determining your body’s appearance. The lower your body fat percentage, the more lean, dense, and toned your muscles will look. At very low levels of body fat (below 20% for women; below 12% for men) you’ll start to see the following:
Because males store such a high proportion of fat in their midsections, almost no man will have visible abdominal definition over 15% body fat. Abs don’t start to become extremely well defined until nearer to 12% body fat and lower. For women, 22% and 18% represent similar targets for visible abs. For that reason, you can train and strengthen your abs all you want, but the muscles won’t show until your body fat percentage is suitably low. This is also why people with extremely low body fat percentages who don’t do a whole lot of heavy strength training, like cross country runners, can have ridiculously defined midsections despite lower levels of muscle mass.
How This Specifically Affects Women
As mentioned previously, women tend to store fat in different parts of the body than men. Unlike men, fat storage isn’t concentrated in one area. The female body most readily stores fat in the hips, buttocks, thighs, and triceps. So, there are more areas where strength training alone isn’t enough to see results. Despite this, similarly incorrect assumptions commonly result. “If I want less fat on my arms and inner thighs, I must need to spend more time doing triceps kickbacks and working my legs on the adduction machine.” While strengthening these muscles absolutely is necessary, the hard work won’t become truly visible on most women until their body fat is reduced to the 20-25% range.
Intuitively, this can be hard to understand, and frustrating. If you know or are coached by a man who spends a lot of time doing biceps curls, and he has jacked arms, it’s easy to think that the same thing will work for you. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. Just like men need more than crunches to see that coveted six-pack, women who want a firm backside, toned thighs, and svelte arms need more than hip thrusts, squats, and triceps kickbacks. We must remember that gains in muscle will only show if that muscle isn’t covered by a layer of fat.
What’s the point of all this?
Simple. If you are trying to improve the appearance of certain areas of your body, reducing your overall body fat through proper nutritional practices will have a bigger effect than simply training particular muscles. Don’t get me wrong, strength training is still vital, as strength is the other major controllable determinant of your appearance. However, regardless of the size of your muscles, reducing your body fat percentage will go a long way to helping you achieve the sculpted results you want!
About the Author:
A former NCAA Division-I soccer player, Greg Pignataro is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), accredited by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Previously, Greg gained experience in Corporate Wellness while working for Baxalta Incorporated, a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company. For the Baxalta CFO, he designed and lead the “Functional Finance Fitness” program, a health and wellness initiative centered around joint health and maintaining mobility while working long hours at a desk. He has also worked as a Strength Coach at Acceleration Sports Performance near Chicago, where he helped supervise offseason training for athletes in the NFL, CFL, US Women's National Soccer Team, and NCAA Division-I football, baseball, and soccer. Greg’s work is soon to be featured in Weight Watchers, Healthline.com, and the My Fitness Pal Blog.
Jake Coyle, the Founder of GRINDSET FITNESS, is a certified National Academy of Sports Medicine Personal Trainer, a Corrective Exercise Specialist, a Precision Nutrition Nutritionist, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise & Wellness, minor in Nutrition from Arizona State University.