Spot-burning fat: The fitness myth that won’t go away

According to experts and research, spot-burning fat is impossible. Here's what that means for your workouts.

Refine Method

How often do you encounter promises like “Whittle your waist!” or “Trim your thighs!” or “Flatten your belly!” in magazines and marketing? Probably pretty often.

Which is why the fitness myth is so pervasive, and why it’s worth busting again: According to experts and research studies, spot-burning fat is impossible.

“There’s no evidence that working a muscle inspires your body to mobilize the fat next to that muscle group,” says Refine Method founder and exercise brainiac Brynn Jinnett, who went to Harvard and then studied kinesiology and the movement patterns of professional athletes. “You can’t decide where the weight is going to come off first,” she says. (Though it’s a bummer.)

How do we know? Some research has compared tennis players’ right and left arms. Theoretically, if working a muscle burned fat around that muscle, then the player’s dominant arm, which constantly works much harder, would have less fat, but studies have found that’s not the case. And a recent prospective study put subjects through a 12-week resistance training program in just one arm and then measured fat loss in both, with similar results.

So how can you work on getting more shapely abs if constant crunches won’t actually “melt your belly fat!” exclusively? “You want to work out at high intensity and use challenging and progressive resistance,” Jinnett explains.

Intense intervals that involve complex movements and jacked-up cardio (like plyometrics) put your body in fat-burning mode (both during and after the workout), which is one reason High Intensity Interval Training has become super popular. And while cardio is important, building muscle anywhere will increase your fat-burning potential everywhere.

“If you just do cardio and you don’t do any muscle work, your metabolism is going to drop,” says The Dailey Method founder Jill Dailey, who studied kinesiology before getting turned on to barre. “But if you’re going in and changing the structure of the muscle, you’re going to burn more calories. That’s how you’re losing the fat throughout the whole body.” In other words, building muscle mass creates metabolically active cells that will really serve you.

Plus, “You can spot tone,” she says. “Once the fat is gone, your shape is great underneath.” —Lisa Elaine Held

(Photo: Refine Method)

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