by Heidi Stevenson
It’s a common reaction. You decide a certain body part—your stomach, the back of your arms, the inside of your upper legs—is too big, and you seek out exercises to make it smaller. You do endless crunches, tricep kickbacks, and inner thigh lifts, only to find that said body part is stubbornly retaining its size. Why is this so? Why can’t that fabulous ab machine on TV eliminate abdominal fat as it promises to do?
When you attempt to change an isolated area of your body like your abdominal region, your triceps, (the muscle running along the back of your arms), or your adductors, (the muscle running along the inside of your upper legs), by targeting it with strength training exercises like crunches, tricep kickbacks, or inner thigh lifts alone, it’s called spot training, or spot reduction. And alone, it doesn’t work. If you are unhappy with the size of your stomach, you cannot attempt to change the shape alone and hope the problem will go away. You may already have strong muscles in that area. You might already really like the shape of those muscles.
Often though, those muscles are underneath accumulated body fat. In order to change this, you need to burn body fat. You need to focus on making your body smaller and leaner overall. If you are interested in “whittling your middle,” getting rid of the little thing swinging on the back of your arms, attacking that inner thigh jiggle, and if it is safe for you to lose weight, you need to combine the exercises targeting those areas with two things: sensible eating, and ample cardiovascular activity, which increases your heart rate—like running, biking, or swimming. In a very basic sense, taking in more calories than you burn results in accumulated body fat. Burning more calories than you take in results in loss of body fat.
Determining how many calories you should eat, and of what sort, as well as how much and what kind of activity is appropriate for you, is a complex task. You should consult professionals for help in these areas: physicians, nutritionists, personal trainers, etc. Once you have determined that your eating plan is sensible and your activity is ample for weight loss, then yes, go ahead and include those exercises to strengthen your muscles.
But make sure you are also strength training in a balanced, healthy way. Work opposing muscle groups: work your back muscles along with your abdominal muscles, your biceps along with your triceps, and your abductors along with your adductors. Work your upper body, if you’re working your lower body. Consider trying a discipline like Pilates, which includes a lot of integrative strength training (exercises in which you work a lot of muscles at once). Gaining balanced muscular strength and endurance will not only help change the shape of those underlying muscles. You’ll also be bringing that stronger body into your cardiovascular activity, making it easier to do more.
So now you are eating sensibly, including an appropriate amount of cardiovascular activity in your life, and including balanced strength training. Once you have done these things, the rest is up to your body’s natural shape and tendencies. We all have to accept that with which we are born. But you will see your body change. You will feel healthier and stronger. And really, that’s the most beautiful and perfect any of us need to be.
Heidi Stevenson is a certified group fitness instructor, currently teaching yoga, Pilates, and aquatics for the HPER Department and Recreational Sports program at Northern Michigan University. She has taught a wide variety of group fitness classes in Michigan and Pennsylvania over the last 14 years.
Reprinted from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Spring 2010. Copyright Heidi Stevenson, 2010.