It’s absolutely amazing to me how the gates of the Ripped Palace opened wide when I began doing literally the exact opposite of what I (and I think most people) think is the way to get it done. In the following three-part series, I’ll detail what I consider the top three actions that defy logic on the surface, but make complete sense when explored more deeply.
Do No Structured Cardio
Take a pair of twins. Same body type, same age, weight, height, bodyfat %, metabolism, caloric requirements, etc. They both want to drop fat, so they both create a daily caloric deficit of 500 calories. Twin #1 creates the deficit by engaging in vigorous cardio for an hour. Twin #2 does no cardio, lifts very heavy weights for 40 minutes (let’s say that burns around 200 calories), and cuts caloric intake by 300 calories. Twin #2 loses fat much more quickly than twin #1 and develops a more muscular physique in the process. What gives?
I’ll get straight to it: cardio creates hunger and and diverts precious resources from muscle retention and development processes. I’ve said in many past posts that I was a chronic cardio addict until only a couple of years ago. During that time, I struggled to hold muscle. Cardio was why. When you put your body into a chronic energy deficit, it wants to do whatever it can to reduce its energy needs to accomodate the deficit. Analogy: your body is a cargo plane. You’re half way across the Pacific Ocean, full of cargo when you realize that one of the fuel tanks is punctured. The puncture is your energy deficit and the more cardio you do, the bigger the hole. You can do one of two things: dump your cargo or dump your fuel. Simple choice, right? Dump the cargo to preserve the fuel you have so you don’t splash into the ocean, which is exactly what your body does when you engage in chronic cardio, but the cargo is your muscle. MUSCLE. Your body requires energy to hold muscle, but requires virtually nothing to hold fat. Fat = fuel. So in an effort to reduce energy demand, your body happily scarfs down muscle before it burns fat (it’s not all-or-nothing, but the majority of what’s metabolized will be muscle). Fat is precious to your body because it’s pure energy, and very energy dense, so–get ready to have your mind blown–your body will attempt to retain fat at all costs. This explains “skinny fat” syndrome, i.e. when an individual looks slim but carries less muscle and more fat as a result of putting his or her body into a caloric deficit and either lifting no weights, or not lifting the right way. Accordingly, the body has no reason to retain muscle, so it dumps as much as it can and retains fat for what it’s treating as an emergency (the energy deficit). Since there’s a lower limit to muscle loss because muscle is used for everyday activities (like walking and washing your hair), the body will have to spare a base amount of muscle. But the bodies of people who engage in chronic cardio without hitting the heavy weights will shed mainly muscle until the next best option becomes fat (think of Gumby. Gumby is slim, but, well… gumby.). But even if a person who performs heavy cardio also lifts heavy weights, the body will still burn more muscle than it will when lifting heavy in the absence of heavy cardio. I think it’s clear now why Twin #1 is having a problem losing fat and shaping up.
So if you’re truly interested in dropping fat, try your best to ignore “common sense” and forget the structured cardio. Don’t get me wrong–activity is still really important for general health (lymph movement, overall mobility, sanity) which is why walking throughout your day is more beneficial, easier, less stressful and more productive overall than banging out an hour of hard cardio out in the gym. Just get your 10,000 steps.
What is ‘lifting the right way’ ? I know I need to lift heavy..but what does that mean? How many reps am I aiming for at my selected weight?
(p.s. I am actively searching personal trainers in my area, so hopefully I wont be ignorant for much longer! haha)
Ashleym, great question (the next post in the series touches on this). There’s no hard and fast rule, but the generally agreed upon guidelines are that the weight should be set so that you are struggling somewhere in the 5-8 rep range. [Struggling doesn’t mean always going to failure. I think that failure is beneficial when used judiciously, like on one set of a particular exercise.] The caveats are: 1) that proper form should [almost*] always be used, and 2) that you should be focusing on keeping the muscle under fairly constant tension, i.e. not resting between reps at the top or bottom of the motion.
*A handful of more advanced lifting techniques sometimes require form to be broken, as is the case with the “forced rep”, or “negative” sets that focus on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the motion and use a weight that is too heavy to raise with good form.
Great info! Thanks. Looking forward to your next post!