How to Strengthen 5 Common Trouble Spots

Spot reduction is a myth, but targeted muscle building is a truth.

Photo: Ian Travis Barnard

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Okay, so first things first — spot reduction is a myth. (Now repeat that until it sticks permanently to your gray matter.) Time and time again it has been proven that you can’t physiologically channel all your weight-loss efforts into melting away a specific area of excess body fat.

Think of it this way: You can’t scoop one cup of water out of the center of a lake and expect a divot to remain. The overall water level will go down, but no one certain area will have less water than another. Your body works in the same way, and the signals that increase the breakdown of fat during exercise are hormonal; hormones have a total-body effect — they don’t care that your belly pooch is annoying.

Case in point: A study done at the University of Connecticut found that when subjects exercised just one arm, the amount of fat loss in both arms was the same. And another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that after 12 weeks of training only their lower body on a leg-press machine, participants saw a reduction of fat in their upper bodies.

If you simply want to lose “weight,” then this article won’t matter much to you because all you have to do to accomplish that goal is to reduce your caloric intake and increase your activity level. But if you want to change your body composition and specifically lose fat — no matter where you want to lose it — you have to take a different track.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

The upshot is that you can reshape your body — as long as you think of your training as targeted building rather than targeted reduction. Because, in essence, the more you sculpt an area you hate, the more it will turn into a shape you love. It might take some time, though, so be patient. “Usually the area that a person is most concerned about is the last place that they’re going to see results,” says Kira Stokes, NASM-CPT, creator of Kira Stokes Method on Demand. “But if you put in the work and effort throughout your entire body, there will come a point where that particular area will respond.” (Remember the lake analogy?)

Stokes and Nathalia Melo, founder of the Mother Strong League — an online postnatal coaching program for busy athletic moms — revealed their favorite moves to work the muscles that lie directly beneath your most abhorrent trouble spots, helping you shape and build your body from the inside out. Arranging these moves in a circuit format — doing each for 12 to 15 reps — will up their caloric ante, helping burn off the body fat that makes an area “troublesome” while building sleek, smooth muscle underneath. Do the calorie-torching cardio finisher at the end of your strength workout to incinerate even more fat and soon your trouble spots will be so 2019.

Helpful Hints

While the majority of the science indicates that there is no such thing as spot reduction, a few small studies argue otherwise, and researchers came to some interesting conclusions that may or may not be factual. Either way, their suggestions and strategies won’t hurt you any in your efforts, so try them if you like.

Heat up your irksome area. If you touch an area where you have a lot of fat, you might notice that it’s colder. This is because fat deposits have very low blood flow. One study hypothesized that by making a fatty area physically warmer, therefore increasing blood flow to the surrounding tissues, the fat in that area was more likely to be broken down and used to fuel local working muscles

Do high reps. Is the burn you feel when you do high reps more than just lactic acid? Back in the day, Arnold Schwarzenegger did thousands of crunches in order to lean out for a bodybuilding competition, and though it was more likely his diet than his crunches that helped him strip fat from his core, if you use high reps and heat up an area over and over (see previous tip), you’ll continually increase blood flow to that area and might increase fat breakdown. At the very least, you’ll get in your core work

Try intermittent fasting, or do cardio on an empty stomach. Some research indicates that fatty acids have a traffic pattern, traveling into cells after you eat for storage and coming out of cells when you’re fasting for fuel. Either of these techniques may work to your advantage when it comes to fat burning, so go ahead and give it

Trouble Spot: Weak Upper Arms

If your upper arms keep on waving long after you’ve stopped saying “hi,” it might be time to hit your triceps. Here, Stokes recommends moves like skullcrushers and close-grip bench presses to do the trick.

Try superseding these moves — doing one after another with no rest in between — to make them more metabolic.

Dumbbell Skullcrusher

Dumbbell Skullcrusher

  • Lie faceup on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms extended over your shoulders perpendicular to the floor, palms facing inward. Bend only at your elbows to lower the dumbbells toward your forehead until they nearly touch. Return to the start, squeezing your triceps hard at full extension.
Dumbbell Close-Grip Bench Press

Dumbbell Close-Grip Bench Press

  • Lie faceup on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms extended over your shoulders perpendicular to the floor, palms facing inward. Keep your arms in close to your sides as you bend your elbows and lower the weights toward the sides of your chest. Extend forcefully to the start.

Trouble Spot: Back

That unsightly bubble of flesh that peeks out from underneath your bra could be due to slack or weak back muscles. Melo’s prescription for bra-strap bulge are any sort of row or pulldown that works the latissimus dorsi, the muscles responsible for creating that flattering V-taper.

Tip: Try doing rows at different angles using different equipment to keep things fresh and incite progress.

Banded Wide Row

Banded Wide Row

  • Loop a resistance band around an anchor at shoulder height. Hold the handles shoulder-width apart, palms facing downward, and your elbows bent 90 degrees and lifted in line with your shoulders. Keep your hands wide as you drive your elbows back, pinching your shoulder blades together, then return slowly to the start.
Landmine Barbell Row

Landmine Barbell Row

  • Secure one end of a barbell in a landmine device or in the corner of a room. Load the other end with weight and straddle the bar facing the loaded end with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Keep your back flat as you push your glutes back, and then hinge forward at your hips to take a firm grip on the bar just below the weight collar. Drive your elbows up and back to pull the bar toward your chest, drawing your shoulder blades together, then slowly lower to the start.

Trouble Spot: Midline

Aside from getting bigger jeans, some concentrated core work that engages the transverse abdominis — the innermost ab muscles that act like a corset — could help rein in that waistband once and for all. And even though it can be argued that you constantly work your core with moves like squats and deadlifts, it still needs some dedicated time under tension if you want to get stronger, Stokes says.

Tip: Do these moves slowly and with focus, exhaling on exertion and inhaling on release.

Dead Bug

Dead Bug

  • Lie faceup with your legs over your hips, knees bent 90 degrees, and extend your arms straight up over your shoulders. Press your lower back into the floor, and keep it there as you slowly lower your right arm overhead and extend your left leg to hover just above the floor. Return to the start and continue, alternating sides.
Pallof Press

Pallof Press

  • Loop a large exercise band around a rig or pole at chest height, and hold the handles together at your chest with your elbows bent. Step away until you feel tension in the band, then stand sideways to the anchor with your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly press the band forward at shoulder height until your arms are fully extended, then return slowly to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching.

New mom with ab woes? Melo suggests checking in with a doctor or pelvic floor physical therapist. “The issue might be an abdominal separation and not just a ‘muffin top,’” Melo says. “A separation may require rehabilitation work instead of going straight into regular core exercises.”

Trouble Spot: Backside

When it comes to building a well-defined rear, the hamstrings are just as important as the glutes, according to Stokes. “Think of your butt as the roof of the house and the hamstrings as the walls,” she says. “You can’t have a roof without solid walls to hold it up.”

Medicine-Ball Split Squat to Single-Leg Deadlift

Medicine-Ball Split Squat to Single-Leg Deadlift

  • Hold a medicine ball at your chest and extend one leg behind you, placing your foot laces-down on a bench. Shift your weight to your front foot, then bend your knee to lower into a deep split lunge. At the bottom, your forward leg should make a 90-degree angle. Stand and then extend your arms so the ball is in front of your thighs. Keep your standing knee straight but not locked as you hinge at your hips and reach the medicine ball toward the floor, back straight. Return to standing. Do all reps on one side, then switch.

Doing one-legged moves challenges your balance and further engages the gluteus medius, which helps build that bubble butt.

Barbell Hip Thrust

Barbell Hip Thrust

  • Sit with your back against a bench, and roll a loaded barbell up over your legs and across your hips. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, holding the barbell with both hands to keep it in place. Drive into your heels and press your hips up until your shoulders, hips and knees are in line and parallel to the floor. Pause and then lower slowly to the start.

Tip: Keep your feet flat on the floor and drive straight down through your heels for the most power.

Trouble Spot: Inner/Outer Thighs

Love ’em or hate ’em, your thighs are a powerful body-part, and chances are you do plenty of squats and lunges to keep them in shape. But those moves don’t directly work the inner or outer part of your thighs, which — no matter how awesome your quads are — steal the spotlight when you look in the mirror. But fear not, you don’t have to resort to the “good girl/bad girl” machine at the gym — these two moves work your thighs 360 degrees around while also building core and glute strength.

Tip: Challenge yourself — lift your leg and hold it in the raised position as long as you can on both sides.

Adductor Side Plank

Adductor Side Plank

  • Lie on your left side perpendicular to a flat bench with your left elbow underneath your shoulder and your right leg extended with your foot on top of the bench. Lift your hips to come into a side plank, and keep them stacked as you slowly lift and lower your left leg for reps. Do on both sides.
Banded Lateral Walking Squat

Banded Lateral Walking Squat

  • Loop a resistance band around your thighs just above your knees and stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Step to the side with your left foot, push your glutes back and bend your knees to lower into a squat, then step your right foot in to meet your left and stand back up. Repeat for several reps in both directions.

Tip: Push your knees apart continually to engage your outer thighs.


For a next-level physique, some dedicated cardio is in order. This 18-minute jump rope/bodyweight high-intensity interval training circuit is perfect after a strength workout, or on days when you’re pressed for time and want to get in and out quickly.


Complete three rounds of the below workout. Do each move for one minute and rest one minute between rounds.

  • Jump Rope
  • Mountain Climber
  • Switch Kick
  • Burpee
  • Jumping Lunge
  • Rest