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Can You Target Fat Loss or Is It Down to Luck?

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: July 28, 2022

Many of my clients come to me with certain ideas of what they want to look like and where they want to lose weight. As a personal trainer,  I tell them that can be a challenge, as there are many factors that influence how and where you lose fat.

To figure out if there are ways to use a mix of high-intensity training and strength training to target a very specific area of the body, I got together with a physiology and metabolic doctor.

We went through scientific research in this area to see if it’s possible to reduce fat in certain areas.

Quick Summary

  • Some people believe that doing high-intensity interval training that isolates body parts will target fat loss in the same areas.
  • While this is a good approach for your overall body fat percentage, the body doesn’t work in that way when it comes to fat mass.
  • Understanding how toning impacts your physique and how you lose weight can help to get into a much better shape.

Can You Control Where Your Body Burns Fat?

Compressing belly with measuring tape

No, you have very limited control over where your body loses fat. There is a theory in the fitness industry called spot fat reduction.

Proponents claim that this is an effective method to lose fat in a certain area by focusing on muscles in the same place.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and there are no reliable studies that have been able to prove that it will actually work.

One of the main reasons for this is that weight gain and fat loss are dependent on age, gender, genetics, and hormone balances.

And even just looking at men and women reveals that fat cells react very differently [1].

For example, men will generally find that they gain weight around the belly. But for women, it tends to shift from the thighs to the belly depending on hormone balances, especially during menopause [2].

I’ll get to some studies on spot reduction shortly, but first, let’s take a look at how people believe it works.

The theory is good, but it’s all about evidence for me.

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What Is The Theory Around Spot Fat Reduction?

A woman jogging

The theory around spot fat reduction is that exercising a certain muscle or muscle group can help with targeting fat loss in the same general area.

For example, women who have some excess body fat at the back of their arms are told that they can do triceps exercises to target fat loss in that same area.

That would mean doing some resistance training and high-intensity workouts like triceps extension or cable push-downs.

And I have to say that this theory sounds good.

Wouldn’t it make sense that muscles get their energy through targeted fat loss in the reserves that are closest to the muscle you’re training?

Unfortunately, that’s not how the human body and fat burning work.

While losing weight is all about doing high-intensity interval training or cardio, your body will metabolize fat from the upper and lower body no matter what part you're training. And it does this by transforming fat into fatty acids and glycerol [3].

So, whether you're doing cardio workouts or highly targeted upper body isolation exercises, it’s highly likely that your body will get energy from subcutaneous fat all over your body.

Why Do People Target Certain Areas?

We all have visions of what we’d like to look like.

Whether it’s an image of a celebrity or you just want to get rid of some obvious love handles and belly fat, most people have something specific they’d like to change.

And just like everything in life, we tend to prioritize certain parts of the body that we’re most conscious about.

As a personal trainer, I get many men as clients who just want to get rid of excess fat on their bellies.

At the same time, many women come to me looking for help with fat loss on their thighs and arms.

It almost never happens that someone says they want to target their entire body. And that’s the main reason I believe that people always have a specific goal in mind.

What Does Science Say About Spot Reduction?

A woman with loose pants

Science says that spot reduction as a tool for body fat loss doesn’t work.

For example, one study found that six weeks of highly targeted abdominal exercises didn’t result in significant belly fat loss [4].

That’s quite a damning result for anyone that might tell you you can get those six-pack abs by doing their body weight training for targeted weight loss.

And another larger study focused on women who did abdominal exercises for 12 weeks, and ultrasound imaging didn’t reveal increased weight loss around the abdomen compared to a test group [5].

“Spot-reduction (losing fat in one place) is not possible[1][2]. Your body distributes fat across the body. It is commonly said that "abs are made in the kitchen". By focusing on fat loss you will allow your abdominal muscles to be seen.”

- Kamal Patel, Co-founder, & Editor of Examine.com. 

It almost seems like the body burns fat wherever it is easily available. In my opinion, it’s a lot more important to focus on finding the right intensity to burn fat reserves into free fatty acids.

See, your metabolism will primarily rely on carbs and fat for energy. And the more intense you train, the more it will try to process carbs and turn them into blood sugar [6].

This higher intensity will also increase your calorie burn rate and bring you to fat-burning processes sooner.

Spot Reduction Vs Toning

So, we’ve addressed the whole spot reduction approach, and that scientific studies have shown that it doesn’t work.

Does that mean there’s no place for targeted training?

Absolutely not.

When it comes to weight loss, you have to consider that you probably want to look better and fitter once you lose weight.

And the best way to do that is by burning fat and building up muscle mass.

I don’t mean that you have to look like a bodybuilder. But when you reduce how much fat you have under your skin and then bulk up the muscles under the fat layer, you’ll look a lot leaner because of it.

I’ve seen countless clients achieve this leaner-looking effect even while their BMI is still not in the ideal range they’re aiming for.

And that impact can be a huge motivational booster when you can see that your efforts have a direct impact.

But all that will be wasted effort if you don’t fix your diet first.

How Important Is a Healthy Diet?

A healthy diet close up image

Most dietitians will tell you that 70% of fat loss could be achieved with a healthy diet.

You can have the most carefully planned and targeted exercise routine of cardio and lifting weights, but if you’re not eating healthy, it can all be a wasted effort [7].

Basically, you can’t out-train a bad diet.

And that means you need to look at the amount and the quality of your food to achieve weight loss [8].

If you’re eating more calories from simple sugary carbs, you’ll still cause blood sugar spikes that can result in weight gain.

This also means you need to burn more calories through exercise, which increases your effort and reduces success rates.

So, if you’ve been trying to shed a few pounds with no success, then start with the quality of your food. Cut out all the processed stuff and simple carbs, and then reduce your calories to a deficit level.

You’ll be surprised by how effective that approach can be.

“Depending who you talk to, these words are either dirty or sacred. There’s no doubt that they’re both vitally important to good health, but do they carry equal weight when it comes to losing weight? The Verdict: All the exercise in the world won’t help you lose weight if your nutrition is out of whack”

- Alia Hoyt, Writer at WebMD.com.

FAQs

Which Body Part Burns The Most Fat?

The body part where women tend to burn the most fat is the thighs and buttocks, and for men, it tends to be the belly. However, your metabolism will likely target fat from your whole body during a weight loss journey.

Why Do You Store Fat In Your Thighs?

You mainly store fat in your thighs because of certain hormone balances.

It’s mainly been tied to female hormones, and women can experience different levels of fat loss and gain in their thighs at different stages in life [9].

Aim To Burn More Fat Rather Than Target Specific Areas

Based on all my physical conditioning research and experience, and a conversation with a metabolism specialist, I recommend that my readers and clients focus on the entire body, not specific areas to lose weight.

Spot reduction has been shown to have little to no effect on overall outcomes.

And if you want to speed up the progress to your ideal weight, then add a fat burner without stimulants to your supplement stack. These can help increase your energy expenditure throughout the day to burn calories more effectively.


References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11706283/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3411490/
  3. http://www2.csudh.edu/nsturm/CHE452/07_Fat%20Met-%20Overv.%20Synth.htm
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21804427/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25766455/
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1877117315001520?via%3Dihub
  7. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/diet-vs-exercise-the-truth-about-weight-loss
  8. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/20/well/eat/counting-calories-weight-loss-diet-dieting-low-carb-low-fat.html
  9. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-fat-deposit-on-t/

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