“Tone up those abs! Melt that fat! Feel the burn!” Sound familiar? Phrases like these are common in fitness settings, but are they meaningful? Or are they distracting us from more important aspects of fitness and distorting our understanding of the most effective and efficient ways to reach our goals? Unfortunately, some commonly held beliefs and practices—like spot reduction and feeling the burn—might be doing exactly that.
Myth: Spot Reduction
The concept of spot reduction follows the false belief that training a specific muscle will result in fat loss in that area of the body. Not only does the fat not go away, this method never seems to go away either. For years the word has been out that spot reduction doesn’t work, yet popular workouts and recommendations continue to suggest that it does. Targeting “trouble areas” through isolated exercises in lieu of a comprehensive training approach is just as popular and ineffective as ever. Worse still, these workouts are sometimes administered by the very sources that tell us spot reduction doesn’t exist. Consumers are guided by magazines, the Internet and even trainers with programs that target “muffin tops” with side bends, “spare tires” with lower abdominal crunches, “granny arms” with triceps kickbacks and “saddlebags” with outer thigh exercises. If you are already lean, these exercises may be fine for defining muscles in the respective areas. But if the purpose is to get lean—meaning build or tone muscle and burn fat—this approach will likely leave you feeling frustrated and, ultimately, unsuccessful.
Spot reduction doesn’t work because it usually targets muscles that are relatively small through exercises that are relatively insignificant in terms of enhancing overall fitness, strength and energy expenditure—regardless of how much you “feel the burn” when training them. Overall fitness, not small muscle fatigue, is a stronger determining factor of your body’s fat-burning effectiveness. People who are very fit burn fat more efficiently during workouts and while at rest than people who are less fit.
Here is the reality—fat doesn’t melt. Technically, it doesn’t actually “burn” either. But “burning fat” is a more accurate depiction of the process (although it is completely unrelated to the “burning” sensation felt through some forms of exercise, which is discussed below). Fat does get released from fat cells for energy. Unfortunately, the systems responsible for this process do not take into consideration the parts of the body you would most like the fat to be drawn from.
Misconception: Feeling the Burn
As indicated above, “feeling the burn” is not all that it is hyped up to be. The burning sensation sometimes felt during workouts is simply a chemical reaction that takes place during some types of training intensities. It is not wrong and sometimes it is unavoidable, but its overall impact on fitness can be very misleading and should not be the primary focus of a workout program.
It is understandable how “the burn” gets its reputation. While uncomfortable, it is often viewed as immediate gratification and positive feedback that an exercise has been effective. But its presence may not be all that indicative of a successful workout. Some exercises may elicit a tremendous burning sensation yet have very limited benefits, while other exercises that do not cause this sensation may be significant contributors toward your goals.
The difference can be explained by comparing local fatigue and global fatigue. Local fatigue can be very intense at a specific area of the body—such as your “trouble areas”—whereas global fatigue produces a general sense of fatigue and is typically spread across multiple muscles. For example, local fatigue can be felt in your deltoid (shoulder muscle) when you hold your arms straight out in front for one or two minutes. The “burn” may give the “illusion” of a highly effective exercise. The problem is your arm weight is not enough resistance to generate a sufficient amount of muscular development in the shoulders. Plus, the movement targets just the shoulders. Push-ups, on the other hand, are not necessarily known for its intense “burn” as we fatigue, yet push-ups can influence muscular development in the shoulders quite sufficiently, not to mention the pectorals (chest), triceps (back of the arms) and core (abs), as well.
If “the burn” happens, don’t question it. But if it doesn’t happen, you don’t have to chase it, especially if an exercise and/or a workout resulted in a healthy, general fatigue.