Perhaps the oldest, most commonly held myth in bodybuilding is that of spot reduction. In order to explain why this is considered a myth, I will first explain what it is, then why people believed it, and finally how we know that it isn’t true. But before that, I would like to point out how widely believed in it is.
How many of us haven’t heard ads for a sit up machine or the latest incarnation of the thigh master that promise to “shape and tone” or “beat that flab”. CSN would bet there are still a lot of people who still believe in this silly myth, which fitness enthusiasts have long rejected. So here is the story:
What is spot reduction?
Spot reduction is the idea that exercising a certain muscle group would cause the fat surrounding those muscles to shrink i.e.sit ups will lose your belly fat. This would happen because it was thought that the body would use the fat stored closest to the working muscle for energy.
Another version is that the fat surrounding a certain area would morph itself into muscle with sufficient work done. Early bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly believed in it.
He mentions in Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder that he invented special anterior deltoid exercises to burn the last bit of fat hiding the separation between his shoulder and chest. He says elsewhere in that book that he believes the tanning could “sizzle away fat”. Granted, that was 1977 and in the face of scientific evidence against him, he recants in his 1998 update of the The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.
Why would anyone believe such nonsense?
Simply put because they wanted to. Because it sort of makes sense in a way. Because they didn’t know as much about human anatomy and physiology. Because bodybuilding was not the most scientific sport at that point. So many reasons. CSN would probably say the primary reason was that there was so much ignorance and superstition going around bodybuilding circles back then.
We chalk it up to the fact that so many were ignorant of the role of steroids and other drugs in the sport. The average fan saw huge guys on a stage and didn’t know why he wasn’t able to get his body to react the same way. There seemed to be some sort of magic to it; tricks that the pros were privy to.
In an environment where few health experts were consulted, and people seemed to be growing to gigantic proportions by luck or magic, it makes sense that all sorts of foolish ideas would seem possible. Any doctor in the world could have told them that fat cells are not related to muscle cells and that caloric deficits cause fat loss, but they were more interested in listening to the ideas of champions, not some nerd in a lab coat. I think that it is only the past twenty or so years that bodybuilders have taken an interest in science and how it can help them, and without science, all they had was hearsay and superstition, so CSN see why they could believe in spot reduction.
How do we know that spot reduction is a myth?
Quite simply, it doesn’t work. The body does not even utilise fat for energy during a workout, it uses pre-metabolised glycogen stored in the muscles. Fat is taken from all areas of the body equally in a genetically programmed order. There is absolutely no research to show that sport reduction works, and the only people who claim it has were also eating low-calorie diets to begin with.
If you want to lose your gut, and you cut down calories and do a lot of sit-ups, guess what? You will lose belly fat. You would have without the sit-ups, but most people aren’t so savvy. Certainly, everyone who has spent 3 hours in a gym in their life knows that fat and muscle are not the same substances, so one cannot simply “morph” their fat into muscle.
This all begs the question, why would anyone believe this? Who even came up with this idea?
“Golden Age” era bodybuilders all believed in it, so what were they thinking? Well, it is not fair for us to sit in judgment. Sure, it is tough for us to relate to, but they simply lacked the knowledge we have today, and instead of attributing their successful weight loss plans with calorie reduction they associated it with crunches. Science changes and every generation has a hard time relating to the previous generations notions of science and logic.
Aristotle and Maimonides believed that the planets (such as Mars and Venus) were gaseous, spiritual (meaning alive and thinking) bodies which orbited the Earth and that all matter was made of the four elements (earth, fire, air, and water), scoffing at atomic theory as hogwash. Both of these men were far more intelligent than anyone reading this, and very few after them even came close to rivaling them. They simply had a different scientific paradigm than we do today, and we cannot relate to how they viewed the world.
Professor Thomas Kuhn at Princeton University writes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that scientists from different eras cannot communicate, calling such a dialog “incommensurable conversation”- meaning that the dialog does not even begin. Even if we could travel through time to explain it to them, they would never be able to agree with us because their assumptions were so different. Perhaps we should view the health and training myths of old the same way because had we been there we would have believed them too.