Why You Can't Target Fat Loss to Specific Body Parts

woman doing a sit-up on floor at gym

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Spot reduction is an outdated concept. The general theory is that doing specific exercises will reduce fat in certain specific areas of the body. For example, doing leg lifts will reduce fat around the hips and thighs, or doing ab exercises will lead to flat abs, or doing chest exercises will get rid of the fat under your breasts.

There is not enough evidence to support the idea that spot reduction is effective. If you want to lose fat in certain areas of your body, a comprehensive approach that addresses physical activity and nutrition is likely to be more effective.

The False Claim of Spot Reduction

To lose fat, you have to burn more calories than you eat. When you do that, you create a calorie deficit that causes your body to use energy stored in your cells in the form of fat. When those cells are used for energy, they start to decrease in size. As a result, the body may get smaller because it holds less stored fat.

Here's where things get frustrating. The body doesn't only draw energy from the cells in the area you're working. It gets energy from the body as a whole, which means that leg lifts alone won't do much for removing fat from the thighs. However, exercising your legs can increase strength and endurance in your lower body.

So, while targeting specific body areas during exercise can be effective to build muscle and shape those areas, it won't necessarily help you lose fat in that specific area. Instead, you'll need to address your overall diet to reduce the amount of fat that is stored, and increase your activity level to try to burn the fat that has already been stored throughout the body.

Alternatives to Spot Reduction

So, what do you do if you want to lose fat from a certain area of the body? The bottom line is that you may not be able to pick and choose where fat is lost on your body. Spot reducing doesn't work.

Instead, your genes, hormones, sex, body type, body composition, diet, and other factors determine where and when the fat comes off. However, there are some things you can do to make the process less frustrating.

Choose Compound Exercises

Compound exercises involve more than one body part. In fact, some of the best compound exercises involve many muscles throughout the entire body. Examples include a plank or a push-up. Engaging more muscles helps you to burn more calories and burn more fat.

For instance, you'll expend more energy doing a squat than doing a bunch of leg lifts. A squat is a complex exercise that works the glutes, the hips, the thighs, the calves, and even the core. A leg lift, (especially if you're lying down), only works the outer thigh of one leg.

You'll also burn more calories by involving the larger muscles of the body: the glutes and thighs in the lower body, and the chest and back in the upper body. You can even go further and do combination exercises like squats with an overhead press.

Replace "Body Part" Exercises

Abdominal crunches—once the most popular exercise for attaining a tight midsection—have been replaced by more effective exercises that work to strengthen your entire core. Core exercises using balance tools like an exercise ball (and even standing ab exercises) challenge your stability and force you to work muscles throughout the body.

Try to focus on working your entire body and try to involve as many muscle groups as possible for each exercise. During most strength training exercises, you'll be working your core and strengthening the abdominal muscles, as well.

Respect Your Body Type

When you lose weight, you may want it to come off in certain places, but it may not come off in that area. Take a look at your family members and evaluate their body type, it may tell you quite a bit about your own body. Does everyone tend to store excess fat around the middle? Or maybe there's a distinct pear shape in the family? 

Genetics influence how your body loses fat. Accepting and respecting your genetics might help mitigate the frustration you may feel when your body doesn't respond like you think it should.

Keep in mind that healthy, fit bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Your genetics may determine (to some extent) your body shape, but they don't determine your level of fitness, strength, or overall wellness. Embrace the body you've been given and then take steps to make it as healthy and strong as you can.

Focus on Consistency

No one can really know what their body is capable of achieving. The only way to know how much you can change your body is to set goals and take consistent steps to reach them. Perhaps your goal is to reach a healthy weight, improve your overall strength, or increase your cardiovascular endurance. If you are clear about your goals, then you can design a plan to execute consistent steps to make them a reality.

Practice your goal-related behaviors and don't worry if it takes longer than you think to get where you want to be. Once you get some consistency, your body will respond. When you see your body making changes, you can adjust your goals as necessary to continue to make progress.

Change Your Mindset

Untangle yourself from the idea that you can spot reduce fat—no matter how often you see it perpetuated in magazine articles, online, or in television infomercials. Some health clubs may even sell the promise of a perfect body to sell memberships. Once you're aware of it, you'll start to notice it everywhere and you'll be too smart to buy into these false promises.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."