By Dave Werner
The standard prescription for fat loss is “eat less and exercise more”. You can tell, just by looking at the people around you every day that this approach has failed. Either we are using an incorrect approach or most people are too lazy and delusional to follow a pretty simple set of guidelines. According to the CDC 35.7% of American adults are obese as of 2010. This is up from 13% in 1962. Current estimates have obesity contributing to at least 100,000 deaths per year in the United States, while $117 billion in direct and indirect costs are attributed to obesity related health care. I don’t believe for a moment that our nations ballooning waistlines and growing medical problems are caused by a sudden lack of intelligence or will power. No, we are following bad advice.
The first half of the bad advice is “eat less,” which can cause a whole host of problems because people who diet tend not to eat enough to support their body’s basic functioning. Under eating calories usually goes hand in hand with under-consuming nutrients. The lack of essential nutrients compromises digestion, immune system function, tissue repair and energy levels. Your body thinks it is starving and holds on to the fat you so desperately want to lose.
The second half of the bad advice is “exercise more”, which many people take to mean long periods of aerobic work such as jogging, biking, or grinding away on some boring machine to burn calories. These exercises can have a place in your fitness program, but many people overdo the cardio which elevates cortisol (a key stress hormone) levels and causes muscle loss, fatigue and fat gain rather than loss. One potential benefit of exercise is the signal to your body to rebuild tissue. This rebuilding signal is a function of how hard you work and hard work is, by definition, not sustainable for long periods. If all of your workouts last 30-40 minutes or more, and consist of moderate output exercise, you will elevate cortisol levels enough to interfere with blood sugar control, tissue repair, and immune system function. The end result of too much cardio is a weak, flabby, low energy, stressed out body. Which is exactly what we have seen from people struggling to exercise their unwanted fat away.
If your goal is fat loss you have to train to gain muscle and improve strength. These are not the same thing; gaining muscle means building new tissue, while increasing strength is the result of improved control of your muscle fibers. Strength is actually a neurological quality, a skill. Increasing both muscle mass and strength increases your basal metabolic rate, which is the amount of calories needed just to maintain basic bodily functions. Think of this as revving up your metabolism. Your body will burn more calories and stored fat, around the clock.
You have to give your body a reason to stay strong and get stronger. There are two important requirements for signaling your body to get stronger. The first is to steadily increase the weight and the difficulty of your training movements. The second requirement is fatigue. You have to work hard enough to exhaust your muscles. If instead you reduce the weight you are using, choose easier movements, and use higher repetitions you are removing the signal to maintain muscle. This is another reason excessive aerobic training causes muscle loss. You will have to strike the right balance between training intensity, volume and nutrient intake. Too much training volume while reducing calorie intake will overwhelm your body’s ability to recover, adding to stress levels and causing you to retain fat. Too little training intensity (load) will not cause a strength adaptation.
So, how can you best structure your workouts for fat loss?
- Use heavy enough loads to promote muscle growth and strength gains.
- Work hard enough, for just long enough, to create real muscle fatigue.
- Do not work too long though, or you will elevate cortisol levels too much.
- Give your body what it needs to rebuild by ensuring adequate nutrition.
- Tissue repair and growth happens mostly in your sleep. Make sure you get enough sleep.
- When done correctly your training will signal your body to rebuild, causing you to feel and look better than ever. With such positive results your workouts become something to look forward to!
Dave Werner is the founder and co-owner of the world’s first CrossFit affiliate gym, Level 4 CrossFit Seattle, and is founder and co-owner of the fitness website moveSKILL.com. After working as a Navy SEAL for 12 years, Dave worked as an engineer and then became a strength and conditioning coach in 2002.