Chris McGrath by Chris McGrath

“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.

The bottom line: You can try to cook a turkey with a candle, or you could use the oven. Prioritizing the smaller muscles without addressing the bigger ones is a pennywise and pound-foolish way to train. But if it makes you feel better to train the smaller muscles, save it for the end of your workout if you have time and energy. If you run out of time, you haven’t neglected anything, and if you run out of energy it’s because the other exercises worked!

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.

Bottom Line: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you want to burn more fat and “sculpt” more muscle, increase your fitness level. This can be accomplished through a comprehensive strength and cardio program that doesn’t take any more time than other workouts. In fact, it may take less time yet accomplish more. With strength training, focus on larger muscles through bigger movements like squats, lunges, pushes (e.g., push-ups), pulls (e.g., pull-ups, rows) and integrated/combination movements (e.g., a dumbbell lunge/curl/shoulder press). These movements incorporate large and small muscles, giving you far more bang for the buck. Work them in a circuit fashion that promotes non-stop movement and you can improve your fitness even more. With cardio, focus on progressive intervals. When anything seems too easy and you feel like you are just going through the motions, focus on new challenges. If the body doesn’t experience a sensible challenge, it will stay where it is. And remember, while high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be very effective, intervals do not need to be high intensity, just higher intensity for brief, manageable periods.

When you place your efforts on sensible and comprehensive fitness training, not only will you see greater improvements in your fitness, muscles and physique, you are more likely to improve hormone levels (which can help increase metabolism and reduced stress), structural changes (such as increased bone density), energy levels and overall health and wellness.