SPOT REDUCTION

SPOT REDUCTION

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What does “Fitness” mean?

Generally speaking, it means harmonious muscular development combined with good cardiovascular efficiency and, above all, with a low percentage of body fat in accordance with good health and with the current aesthetic canons.

Having been an operator in the sector for 25 years, what is the most common request on part of the clients of a Fitness centre? It is always the same: shaping one’s body, toning it up and developing it where necessary, and losing weight in the areas where fat accumulates more easily.

Yet, is this common and widespread desire pure utopia? And are the operators in the sector mere boasters when they let people believe in the possibility of achieving such results?

Are those perfect athletic bodies we see in magazines only genetic talents and fruit of chemical manipulation? According to the theoretical concepts of today’s Physiology I would they are. Yet, according to the latest demonstrations and to my experience in the field, I would say they are not.

Let’s formulate the question using specific terms: is “Spot reduction” possible? That is, is it possible to lose localized fat through muscle training in those areas where the fat deposit is present?

The current knowledge on energy supply shows that physical exercise stimulates fat mobilization thanks to hormones which act upon the fat deposits through blood circulation. The areas with a higher concentration of fat or with higher enzymatic activity probably provide the highest amount of energy. There is no evidence that fatty acids are released in a higher amount by the adipose areas above the muscles stimulated by physical exercise. In order to demonstrate the insubstantiality of the “Spot reduction” a comparison was made between the cutaneous folds (that is, the thickness of the skin-fat layer) of the right and left forearms of some high-level tennis players. The results showed that the amount of subcutaneous fat in the dominant limb – which was considerably more hypertrophic due to constant tennis training – did not differ from the one found in the other forearm which was far less used. Thus, this would be the clear demonstration that exercise does not cause a reduction in the fat accumulated in the trained area (from “Nutrition, exercise and health” Frank Katch – William Mc Ardle 1993).

I think this experimental approach has many limits.

First of all, the choice of high-level tennis players implies the athletes presented a low percentage of body fat. In this case, the fold on the forearm level is very modest regardless of the effects of the training, since the forearm is certainly not the main area of fat deposit. Moreover, the choice of comparing a limb to its contralateral in the same individual implies neurophysiologic mechanisms responsible for the exchange of information between the right and left part of the human body, in order to keep symmetry. I would have preferred a comparison between athletes showing more or less the same body percentage, divided into two groups: one for those who mainly use their upper limbs (for example canoeists) and the other for those who use their lower limbs more (for example skiers). It would be interesting to see if, considering the same weight and body fat, canoeists have less fat on the upper limbs and skiers on the lower limbs. I have always noticed manual workers who, despite their considerable amount of fat at the abdominal level, had lean muscular arms which were very different from the ones of sedentary overweight people. Furthermore, I have experimented on myself the effect of localized training on the loss of localized fat.

My story dates back to years ago, on a long period of very reduced training at the gym where I used to train only my upper limbs (training the lower limbs is very tiring!). Having planned in April my summer holidays in California, I realised that I had to get fit again. So, I set out a training chart including the training of every single muscular group once a week. It was divided as follows: Monday: pectoral muscles – Tuesday: dorsal muscles – Wednesday: shoulders – Thursday: rest – Friday: lower limbs – Saturday: upper limbs – abdominal muscles almost every day. I measured my folds: axillary: 12mm – mammary: 10mm – tricipital: 9mm – umbilical: 12mm – thigh: 11mm. I was surprised by these figures since the fold of my thigh was almost the same as the abdominal one. Yet, I did not worry that much since, my lower limbs being lean by nature, I was sure I would solve the problem in a short time. After about 3 months the plicometric values were the following: axillary: 5mm – mammary: 5mm – tricipital: 3mm – umbilical: 5.5mm – thigh: 8.5mm. My thighs were the area which had responded the least to the diet!

Which strange neuroendocrine-metabolic change had occurred in my body? Being aware that the different distribution of body fat mainly depends on sexual hormones – figures prove that android morphology (+ testosterone) is prone to accumulate fat at the abdominal level, while gynoid morphology (+ estrogens) is prone to accumulate fat in the gluteal area and in the thighs – did it mean my morphology was changing?

I know that at the age of around 40 man starts producing less testosterone and transforms it more into estrogens, but I thought it was a more gradual involution.

It was certainly depressing, so I decided to verify it through hormonal analysis. Result: normal testosterone and estrogens. Hence, the problem had to be found somewhere else.

I analysed my diet: it was the same old diet of about 2500-3000 calories which normally allows me to reach a low percentage of body fat. I analysed my training and here I found some differences compared to the previous years. For the first time I had taken up a definition programme by training my muscles only once a week, without practising aerobic activities (gym bike, step or running). While my upper muscles were directly or indirectly stimulated 4 times a week (for example my pectoral muscles trained also while doing tractions for dorsal muscles, or while doing slow forward for the shoulders or parallel bars for triceps), my lower limbs were only strained once a week, clearly not enough compared to the other times when I trained two times a week plus my daily aerobic activity.

Once I came back from my holidays, where I had taken some pictures highlighting the difference in my body composition between the upper and lower part, I decided to find a remedy for this situation.

I then outlined the following training chart:

Monday: quadriceps

Tuesday: dorsal – femoral muscles

Wednesday: pectoral muscles – triceps

Thursday: rest

Friday: quadriceps – deltoids

Saturday: femoral – bicipital muscles

Abdominal muscles: never!

In this way, adding the leg press at the end of my training for femoral muscles, I basically trained my thighs 4 times a week.

Since I wanted to increase my muscle mass in autumn, I followed my standard “off season” diet of 4000 Kcal. After 3 months the figures of the plicometric values were as follows: axillary: 6mm – mammary: 6mm – tricipital: 4mm – umbilical: 7.5mm – thighs: 6.5mm – with an increase in my body weight of 3 kg.

Therefore, despite the hypercaloric diet – which led me to a significant increase in my muscle mass and to a minimal increase in my global body fat – the enhancement of my training at thigh level had caused a decrease in subcutaneous fat in that area.

You may say a single case is not convincing. Yet, I assure you my experience goes beyond my personal case. Anyway, I am very happy about a study I found in literature, demonstrating the consistency of the “Spot reduction”.

The study – carried out by doctor Marco Neri, famous technician of the “Fitness” sector, together with Prof. Antonio Paoli of the Physiology Institute of the University of Padua – was published by the “European Journal of Physiology”.

Basically, two working groups composed of both men and women were formed (one was a study group, the other a control group). The groups underwent three-week trainings which were similar for exercise type but different in their planning. The study group followed a circuit training based on a three-set training of the groups where the possible loss of localized fat was aimed (tricipital, abdominal, hip muscles), alternated with an aerobic station (step or gym bike). The total aerobic work was of about 28 minutes. The control group, instead, trained through a circuit of aerobic stations only (step, gym bike, treadmill) for about 28 minutes.

Both groups at the end of the training trained the muscles which had not been strained in the previous circuit with 3 series and 60-seconds breaks.

Practically, the two trainings were as follows:

STUDY GROUP

Gym bike

Abdominal muscles: forward crunch

Bust torsion sitting

Tricipital muscles: push down

Step

Abdominal muscles: reverse crunch

Tricipital muscles on bench

Treadmill

“book” abdominal muscles: legs- bust

Torsions sitting

Triceps muscles with 90° body bending

Gym bike

Incline bench with 2 barbells

Side tractions machine forward

Side full lifts arms

Biceps alternation sitting

Gym bike

8′

1×20 rec. 1″

1×100 rec. 1″

1×20 rec. 1″

5′

1×20 rec. 1″

1×20 rec. 1″

5′

1×20 rec. 1″

1×100 rec. 1″

1×20 rec. 1″

5′

3×10 rec. 60″

3×10 rec. 60″

3×10 rec. 60″

3×10 rec. 60″

5′

CONTROL GROUP

Gym bike

Step

Treadmill

Gym bike

Step

Treadmill

Gym bike

Incline bench with 2 barbells

Side tractions machine forward

Side full lifts arms

Biceps alternation sitting

Triceps on bench

Abdominal Crunch forward

Torsions with bar sitting

8′

3′

3′

3′

3′

3′

5′

3×10 rec. 60″

3×10 rec. 60″

3×10 rec. 60″

3×10 rec. 60″

3×20 rec. 50″

3×20 rec. 50″

1×200 rec. 1″

At the end of the experiment, after 6 weeks, both groups had significantly lost weight. This proves that aerobic training combined with isotonic training significantly help losing weight. Yet, what is more interesting is that the fold thickness had decreased more in the muscles inserted in the study group circuit (triceps, abdomen, hips). This demonstrates the possibility of achieving localized weight loss. It is also interesting that in women the decrease of the thigh fold was really significant, too.

This result is probably due to the fact that the alternation of exercises for the upper limbs, the trunk and the lower limbs – like in the study group circuit – causes higher stimulation on the circulatory system, thus leading to a higher mobilization of liquids in excess. We have to bear in mind that often in women the so-called “localized fat”, above all in the lower limbs, is mainly “cellulite”. In this case the component of edema and water retention is very important, so any method favouring liquid elimination with draining effect has beneficial effect.

Whatever the cause of “localized weight loss” (Spot reduction) is – an increase in the local temperature or an increase in catecholamines (lipolytic hormones which melt fats) due to higher blood flux – it is still to demonstrate. Yet, it has by now been demonstrated that “Spot reduction” is a real phenomenon, and this surely makes us happy since it confirms our belief. It is the assurance, not just the hope, that our efforts at the gym are not vain.

California Sport & Fitness – April 1997

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