Thanksgiving is fast approaching and turkey enthusiasts can't wait to prep their birds and feed their loved ones. Can you imagine putting your bird in the oven, and having those loved ones ask, "Can I get a crispier leg?" or, "Can I get a wing that is less well done than the other? The chef might laugh as hungry ones assumed that their designer turkey parts could be parsed, spliced and cooked as they preferred. Whereas in a microwave, you might get some hot-spot uneven cooking, in an oven, you've come to expect even, proportional baking from all angles-inside and out.
Such is true in fitness regarding the body's potential for thermogenic response and weight loss. Some people seeking to lose weight think that they can reduce fat in certain areas of their anatomy more than in others. For example, an ex-athlete in decent shape (but who now has excessive abdominal fat) might do tons of sit-ups and rotary core work to target that problem area. That person, like many others, might think that if he/she just triages the body--spot-selecting that area of body fat for work--then ab fat will be eliminated and adipose distribution through the whole body will match congruently. If it were only that easy.
Speaking of the whole body, therein lies the answer to our tissue issue. Whereas it is myth that you can spot-reduce fat, you can increase your resting metabolic rate and your body's sum fat-burning efficiency/ability through wholistic, compound movements. Let me explain...
When a person attacks one muscle (or muscle group) through strength training for the sake of fat-reduction, the fitness-seeker is making that muscle stronger, but is not optimizing the body's ability to tap into a synergistic thermogenic effect between muscles. The movement is very focused, yet singular and localized. The body wasn't designed this way, for all you have to do is just think about how often you do just an arm curl in everyday life. Moreover, how often have you done a bench press type of movement outside of the gym? This is not to say that specific and targeted lifts are bad. It's still okay to have your arm days, your leg days, so on and so forth. Those are beneficial, but they just miss the mark when trying to integrate all muscular anatomy, strength, and fat-melting potential.
The word integrate(related to the word integrity), is actually connected to the concept of wholeness, and we work out our body with the most integrity when we work it out in a holistic fashion of unified kinetics. By performing whole-body compound lifts, different surrounding muscles work together on an increased workload, lifting more weight, incorporating more muscle fiber at once, creating a catalytic effect on lift poundage capacity and thus the whole body's fat burning ability. The body's whole oven is heated, not just the back burner, and more calories are burned in less time. Furthermore, workouts are more efficient, providing more rest and thus the ability to work those muscle groups out more frequently in a given week (dailyburn.com).
Again, taking this back to the Thanksgiving turkey: Would you end up with a beautiful, evenly-baked golden bird if you sought to cook it in its' parts, separately, and then put it back together again like it was humpty dumpty? The answer is no, because there is power in the collective: "...compound lifts engage more muscle groups, skyrocket your heart rate, and burn more calories. "'Hitting your full body all the time from a conditioning aspect is great...'"(Men's Journal). The turkey parts heat up, insulate and cook each other, and the bird cooks much faster that way too. The juice or fats that drain from the bird drain from all of its portions.
So why do we think our bodies cook differently? In human physiological terms, the body derives energy in part from fat cells all over the body; it doesn't choose according to what your motives or trouble spots are (www.acefitness.org). When we elect to do bigger, multi-muscle lifts (ie. squats, lunges, pull-ups, etc.), working more muscle fiber together at a given time, all muscles involved are like car cylinders firing together, burning fuel and performing at peak capacity. It's like your body becomes a kiln, and it's universal fat-burning ability soars. You can't push a button that says "Burn fat, but only from fat cells in the abs today... tomorrow will be thigh-reduction Thursday." The answer to losing fat here or there is losing fat everywhere. "Most scientific evidence shows that spot reduction is not effective and that fat loss tends to be generalized to the entire body, not the body part being exercised"(healthline).
Spot-reduction theory in fitness is a comfortable and enticing theory in fitness, but it is fallacious. If I want to lose fat specifically in my abs or another body part, then my best approach is to raise the whole body's metabolism or fat-burning ability. By focusing primarily on lifts that incorporate more muscle groups at once, more muscle fiber is incorporated, muscles use more energy in their coordination, more weight volume is often lifted, and it all creates a steam engine response that transforms your fat-burning power from a 4-cylinder into a V8! Compound lifts, combined with cardiovascular exercise(sometimes simultaneously) and a good diet, speed up fat loss both at rest and while working out. Fat flees not only your abs but other trouble spots like the infamous angel wings, intercostal/pectoral region, etc… By injecting whole-body, compound lifts into your strength-training regiment, you might not get the disproportionate body that you may be looking for, but you'll get the proportional one, that's meant to be.
Don't miss the forest for the sake of the trees. See the body as a whole, it's parts designed to work hand-in-hand to create a better result than the sum of its parts. Other examples of whole-body, compound lifts include powercleans, straight-leg deadlifts, and burpies. Compound movements can take shape in the form of calesthenics involving dynamic movements with mere body weight (ie. push ups, modified planks, etc.); they don't have to involve weight resistance. They do, however, and by nature, have to compound the body's overall fat burning prowess. It's a well-rounded approach to those that find themselves overly well-rounded.
Muscle crossover doesn't just hit the spot...it hits the spots. Here's to cooking off the fat, and Happy Thanksgiving at that!
Written by: Aaron Adams, Personal Trainer at the South County Family YMCA