If you’ve been following Old Man Fitness for a bit, you may be starting to notice a trend in some of the topics covered: namely, that a great deal of the media associated with the fitness game is complete and utter bullshit, intended to mislead, confuse, or sell you stuff.
Or, more often than not, do all three at once.
This week’s column will continue in that thread, and once again, aim to shed some light into the darker corners of your own beliefs about fitness and the health challenges you may be facing. This time, my target is anyone and anything promising to help you to specifically reduce belly fat.
I get it guys. Just about everybody is self-conscious about their stomach at one time or another – men in my family, for instance, tend to gain weight in a distinctly pregnant looking fashion. The problem is, targeted fat burning, or “spot reduction,” as some people who claim to be experts call it, isn’t possible under most circumstances. The human body is a complex system designed for survival, not bikini season, and we don’t really get much say in where we burn fat when.
During my training days, I primarily heard these complaints from women – but that’s not because women are the more superficial sex (just ask the dude making direct eye contact with himself in the mirror while he does curls). Because people’s bodies tend to burn fat in different ways, many women working to slim up their mid-sections start to see the weight loss in places they’d rather keep it on first. After a few months of hard work, they find that their stomach looked just about the same, but their boobs had begun to disappear. Sure, some women don’t care about that sort of thing, but plenty do, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good for your own sake, regardless of gender.
So what do you do when you’re striving for an hourglass figure, but instead find that a healthier, fitter you is shaped a bit more like a bell? The hard truth of the matter is, you just have to keep at it. No matter what the box you bought at GNC tells you, no matter what the list of ab-exercises you find online claims to do for you, and no matter how effective you friend claims that sweat-strap is… you just don’t get to pick where fat burns first.
As always, I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so if you’d like to read that same conclusion put into far more technical language, here’s a peer-reviewed scientific paper published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that says the same thing. If you don’t want to spend money on PDF’s of nerd work, I’ll summarize it for you: the study claims that 6 weeks of intensive ab-specific exercises did nothing to expedite fat burning on the stomach specifically. In another study, 12 weeks of one arm-specific workouts did successfully tone the worked arm, but again, demonstrated absolutely no target specific fat loss.
I can supplement the findings of these experts with personal experience: if you devote a lot of time to core strengthening and ab work, you may even find that your stomach begins to bulge a bit more, as your abs grow as a result of all the work.
The reason “spot reduction” doesn’t work comes down to basic physiology. Fat cells are made up of triglycerides, which is in fact converted into fuel your muscles can burn, but not directly. Those fat cells your body is storing have to be broken down into glycerol and free fatty acids, which then dump into your blood stream as a fuel source for your muscles to use during prolonged exercise.
Think of fat as crude oil, and your muscles as an engine. Your body pulls the crude oil out of the spots its got stores of it, but the oil has to be converted into gasoline before it can power the engine. Where the oil comes from has nothing to do with where it’s burned. As you work your abs with another round of crunches, you are indeed burning energy, but that energy may be converted fat cells it pulled from your ass, rather than your gut.
Further, most exercises associated with “spot reduction” of midsection fat aren’t particularly effective as a means of weight loss. Crunches, for instance, don’t burn very many calories – and losing a single pound of fat translates to burning somewhere around 3,500 calories… so you’ll be down there for a while if you hope to see any real changes in your waist line. Core work is important, but if fat loss is your aim, you’ll want to incorporate other aerobic and weight training elements into your regimen.
There are, of course, ways to burn belly fat – the problem is, they’re the very same ways you already know, and it’s not easy to get you to click on yet another Men’s Fitness article when the headline is, “yeah, ya know that shit you’re already doing? That’s fine.” Worse still, how can companies hope to sell you products designed to somehow burn the fat off of your midsection simply be wearing them if they were honest about how fat burning actually works?
It is true that some people manage to burn belly fat with more ease than others, though that likely has more to do with the body’s specific makeup than the magnets they’ve been duct taping to themselves. Whether you’re in the quick-burning camp or lumped in with poor schmucks like me that just can’t ever seem to find that six-pack again after crossing 30, the real secret to “burning belly fat” is simple: keep an eye on your diet and keep working hard. If you burn more calories than you take in, your fat stores will reduce, and eventually, your stomach will get on board. For a lot of people, the belly fat is among the first to go, you just have to keep busting your ass until it does. Or, to put it scientifically…
“Some fat deposits are more metabolically active than others, and those may be more responsive to exercise interventions,” said Arthur Weltman, a professor of medicine and chair of the department of kinesiology at the University of Virginia. “Abdominal fat in particular is one of the most metabolically active fats.”
At the end of the day, just remember that when it comes to fitness, anything that sounds too good to be true, probably is. In the workout world, there’s an inverse relationship between miraculous claims and real-life results – anyone that’s selling you “easy” isn’t selling you “effective.”
Results take work. So get back at it.