This fat-freezing treatment has been around for a few years, but it's still as popular as ever. But does CoolSculpting really work, and if so, what are the ~real~ CoolSculpting results? One writer shares her experience.

By Rachel Jacoby Zoldan
Updated August 26, 2020
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You may think CoolSculpting (the non-invasive procedure that freezes fat cells and supposedly has no recovery time) sounds too good to be true. No sit-ups? No planks? A slimmer stomach just a few weeks later? But does CoolSculpting work?

Here's some context on how CoolSculpting supposedly works: Also known generically as cryolipolysis, CoolSculpting is performed by doctors and aestheticians. By freezing fat, the process naturally eliminates dead, frozen fat cells throughout your body. Proponents say you can see CoolSculpting results in just a few weeks-though sometimes it takes up to three months.

My stomach has always been my trouble area. I'm also willing to try almost anything once, so when I was given the opportunity to test out the treatment, I figured I'd give it a shot. As an avid runner with a penchant for pizza, I figured I had nothing to lose. Since CoolSculpting promised "no downtime," I could get right back to training for the back-to-back 10K and half-marathon I had on the calendar about eight weeks later. (Signing up for your own race? Try our 12-Week Half Marathon Training Plan.) I wouldn't need to take any time off work either-and would hopefully soon be gifted with a firmer six-pack. Win-win, right?

So I crept into a sleek Tribeca medispa on a quiet Saturday morning. But with no one else in the waiting room, I suddenly felt alone-and nervous about my random decision to do CoolSculpting on my stomach. "As a reporter, I should have done more research on this before agreeing to it," I thought to myself.

I realized I had no idea what I was getting into — not my typical, OCD-like way of handling anything related to my health or body.

The Assessment

A technician whisked me into a sterile room and gave me a glorified paper bra and set of panties to put on instead of my own. (They were really glam.)

After I changed, she instructed me to stand in the corner under a few harsh lights so she could snap a few photos for my CoolSculpting before and after shots and to figure out which parts of my stomach were best for the treatment.

Grabbing my stomach, my technician happily exclaimed, "Oh, you're going to be a great candidate. This roll is the perfect type of fat for CoolSculpting." Gee, thanks.

Not quite something you're excited to hear while someone holds onto your stomach roll.

I've struggled with my body image my whole life, but I tried to agree with her sentiment and nodded. But that was before she pulled out the marker (yes, a marker). Sorority-style, she took some sort of branded ruler to my belly and drew lines to mimic where my fat peaks.

OK, maybe I should have expected that at a fat-freezing treatment. What I wasn't expecting: to feel as crushed by her assessment of my stomach as I did.

We picked my lower abs and I hopped in the chair, not quite ready for what was next.

The Procedure

The technician gave me the rundown of how CoolSculpting works: She'd place a towel dripping with a freezing agent on the drawn-upon area. This would then be clamped down on by the CoolSculpting device. The device hums for an hour, killing fat cells, and I'd be able to watch Netflix (score). Then, she'd come back in, spend two minutes rubbing my fat back out, and we'd repeat on the other side. All-in-all, this would total to two hours time. A bit faster than a gazillion crunches, right?

I was already feeling defeated by my assessment, but at her description of the procedure, I became straight-up terrified. She explained the clamping of your stomach can feel like someone is taking your breath away, but it was so much worse than that. The sharp pain of a huge machine sucking your stomach (imagine a vacuum) is kind of indescribable in the worst possible way.

Thankfully, you go completely numb after about 10 minutes (which is when I turned on an episode of SVU). The rest of the hour is a blur of Mariska, chilly temps, and intermittent pain. I watched the countdown clock second by second on the CoolSculpting machine.

As for that two-minute massage? Well, after the hour, your once roly-poly roll of fat has condensed into what feels and looks like a hard stick of butter. The technician returned to spend what were the 120 most painful seconds of my life rubbing my right lower abdomen. This, she explained, would help minimize swelling and aid in the lymphatic drainage of the now-dead fat cells. (So much for any future cozy connotation with the word "massage.") With tears streaming down my face, I told her the pain was too great. I'd have to come back another day to do the other side, I told her. (By the way, this is The Best Tool for a Deeper Self-Massage.)

The Side Effects

Shaky and emotionally drained, I returned to my apartment, where I had laid out my running clothes, thinking I'd bounce right back and be OK to jog. When I walked in the door, my husband asked how it went, and I pulled my shirt up to show him massive bruises the size of grapefruits on my right side.

He didn't say much — I think he was in complete shock — but I gasped, realizing just how much pain I was in. Despite bruising and swelling being two of the more common side effects, I didn't realize just how beat up I'd be. Was this really worth it for the promise of a "flat belly"?

Even more: Another possible side effect of CoolSculpting is lingering, tingling nerve pain. But you can't take a handful of Advil for it: CoolSculpting causes an inflammatory response in the body, and any ibuprofen stifles that desired inflammatory response. The nerve pain, which can last up to six weeks, was random, stabby, and anxiety-inducing.

Thankfully, the pain and bruising subsided after about three weeks. And when I went back for my left side (where I learned my fat peaked far less, hallelujah), I didn't experience the same post-treatment nerve pain. I did have another set of major bruises, though. Sigh.

My Takeaway

CoolSculpting is said to be a non-invasive treatment with no downtime. The truth? I couldn't run, do yoga, or strength train for two weeks — and I've never felt my personal space more invaded than during the treatment. I was hyper-aware of my stomach fat and somehow felt more self-conscious than ever. The inflammatory response also causes a bit of swelling in the first week or two, so your stomach actually gets bigger before it gets smaller.

Which brings me to the results: the slimmer stomach I was after. Did I get it? Three months later, I'll admit it: My stomach is seriously flatter. My once-familiar round belly was more akin to a washboard, and muscle cuts were emerging near my more now-pronounced hipbones. (The spa never followed up to take after photos, so I never got the exact deets of how many inches I lost.)

Two points worth adding: The weeks off the streets and out of the yoga studio (due to the pain of the treatment) don't help anyone's fitness goals. Plus, a family vacation at the three-month mark (when the best results from CoolSculpting are seen) made my abs far less washboard-y. The familiar old curvature of my belly reappeared. And despite many sweaty runs, planks, and downward dogs, I couldn't get my stomach as flat it had been before that trip.

So yes, in my experience, CoolSculpting works, but only if you're really strict with your diet and exercise regimen, which I was, for the most part. And remember, just a few weeks off completely derailed project six-pack.

Considering how badly the procedure made me feel about myself, I'm also not sure I'd ever do it again. Despite my slightly flatter stomach, I'd tell you to skip spending thousands of dollars for CoolSculpting and spend some extra time on your ab routines (like this 4-week  plan for flat abs) instead.

No one needs their fat peaks highlighted with Sharpies — ever.