Fitness influencers often claim that their workouts can help you grow or shrink certain parts of your body. Aside from the problematic assumption that we’d want to change, experts are now calling time on what they say is a physiological impossibility, writes Letty Cole.
Flick through YouTube, TikTok or Instagram, and you’ll come across workout videos from online fitness gurus who promise to help you build a bigger butt, build abs or get a tiny waist, if you follow their plans.
Problematic goals and language aside (waist size almost entirely down to genetics, and we’ve spoken before about the fact that visible abs aren’t a sign of fitness), there’s now a growing movement of experts working to dispel the myth that you can reduce or grow a specific body part.
Personal trainer and fitness advisor Ruth Stone tells Stylist:“the biggest issue [with videos like these] is that not only do they perpetuate a negative body image, they also encourage a misguided notion that you can simply target one area of the body through exercise to achieve a desired outcome. This phenomenon is called ‘spot reduction’.”
Here’s why spot-reduction (and spot-gaining) is not all it’s cracked up to be.
What exactly is ‘spot-reduction’ and why doesn’t it work?
Why do people believe in spot reduction? “It follows the premise that training specific muscles or performing certain exercises will result in change body composition in that area alone,” says Stone. But that’s not how biology works.
“Spot reduction doesn’t work, largely because it usually targets smaller muscle groups through exercise, which is largely insignificant when compared to a rounded workout. People will, of course, feel the ‘burn’ if they are simply overworking one muscle group persistently, but this does not equate to spot reducing body weight from this area.”
‘Tone’ is one word that is particularly problematic. “Scientifically speaking, muscle tone means the unconscious low-level contractions of your muscle when you are at rest. More simply, it means the firm feeling of muscles. If you had no muscle tone, your body would be just jelly. We cannot ‘tone’ our muscles – we can only increase or decrease the size of our muscles, as is the case with our fat cells,” says PT Emily Servante.
These myths around ‘toning’ specific areas of our body come from a widespread misunderstanding about our biology. “What most people do not understand is that fat is not literally ‘burnt’ or melted,” says fitness expert Natalay Komova. “It is released from cells and used as fuel – a mechanism that does not choose specific areas.”
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What about spot gaining? Can you build muscle in specific areas?
The next question is: can you strengthen or gain muscle in specific areas? “Spot gaining is commonplace as most workouts utilise a muscle split to some degree or another,” says Stone. “If you only trained your chest and consumed the requisite calories and protein to support growth, this would indeed lead to spot growth”.
But it’s not that simple. As Stone explains, attempting to spot-gain muscle can be hazardous: “Muscle imbalance can lead to many injuries, bad posture and detrimental performance across your future workouts. Correcting muscle imbalances through an evenly distributed workout regime will successfully address any potential for uneven growth.”
It’s also worth flagging that, often, exercises don’t just use one single muscle. Think about: if you did want to work on building a visible rack of abs, you might be tempted to spend hours doing core exercises like sit-ups and Russian twists. Rather than targeting your rectus abdominus, however, you’d end up activating a host of different muscles including transverse abs, pelvic floor, obliques and back muscles. Instagrammers might make out that squats are the way to target the glutes, but they also strengthen the hamstrings, quads and core (and upper body if you’re carrying heavy weights).
Why performance fitness goals almost always serve you better than aesthetic ones
Fundamentally, our approach to fitness has to be wider and focused on what our bodies can do and how our mind feels, rather than what we look like. These faux-scientific trends always seem to focus on changing how we look; they play on our insecurities.
Our best bet, Stone says, is to make sure that we eat enough to support our goals and that “your training is not limited to the area you want to change”. That might mean tweaking your goals to be more holistic. Instead of going for aesthetic goals, think about whether having a stronger set of glutes might be linked to squatting a new PB or running a 5K faster. Could building more developed arms lead to nailing a set of pull-ups at the gym, or managing 30 press-ups in a row?
By setting performance rather than body goals, you’ll have a more quantifiable end result.
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