fat loss

Why Tabata Won’t Make You Strong or Lean (And Why You’re Probably Doing It Wrong Anyway)

In case you’ve never heard of it, Tabata is a form of HIIT that requires 20 seconds of ultra high intensity exercise to be followed by 10 seconds of rest and repeated eight times. Tabata was created to condition the most elite of elite athletes. But in my estimation, the vast majority of non-elite individuals who think they’re following the Tabata protocol are not. In fact, they’re not even close. Why do I think this? Because I can virtually guarantee that nobody, including myself, has ever been able to get anywhere near 170% of their V02 max. That’s what Tabata really is. V02 max is basically a measure of the amount of oxygen your body can use per minute, normalized to body weight. So at 100% of your V02 max, your body is using all the oxygen it can possibly use. 170% of V02 max means that your body’s oxygen processing capacity is being outstripped by 70%. Any idea what that feels like? Searing pain. Absolute agony. Three years ago in my cardiovascular prime (I was in the top 1% of the population for my age), I could complete only two rounds of real Tabata before collapsing. It is extreme, severe, virtually impossible. This is why most recreational fitness enthusiasts partaking in Tabata aren’t really doing it. They might be getting up to 90% or [less likely] 100% of V02 max, but nowhere remotely near 170%, I promise.

All that said, even it its unadulterated form, Tabata is inefficient for fat loss and strength development. It can be more effective than steady state cardio because it does create a modest anabolic stimulus, but it doesn’t hold a candle to heavy lifting. Let’s first look at why Tabata isn’t nearly as efficient for fat loss as heavy lifting.

I’ve mentioned in several other posts that if you want to lose fat, like if you really want to lose fat and stop believing what you see on TV, heavy lifting is the only way to go. Fat loss is almost blindly attributed to burning more calories than you eat. Yeah, you might lose fat if you eat less than you burn, but that’s usually not the case. You will DEFINITELY lose WEIGHT if you eat less than you burn, but generally that weight is comprised of a lot of muscle. Your body is efficient; when it’s in a chronic caloric deficit, it will preferentially use muscle over fat for fuel if there is no reason for it to hold it. Since muscle is metabolically active and requires energy to maintain, your body wants none of it when faced with the choice. This results in skinny-fat syndrome i.e. when someone who does lots of cardio and eats at a deficit is slim, but flabby.

If you’re really serious about losing fat, your job is to not give your body the choice between using fat or muscle as fuel. Your job is to force it to burn fat to the greatest degree possible. How do you do that? Lift very heavy weights. This simple thing creates a powerful anabolic signal that tells your body that the muscle is critically needed for something, meaning that you must metabolize more fat and less muscle to meet energy demands. There’s far too much fat-loss misinformation that treats fat loss as something acute, i.e. that you must burn lots of energy exercising to lose fat. It’s just flat out wrong and counterproductive. Weight lifting doesn’t acutely burn many calories–maybe like 250 in an hour for the average sized male. What it DOES do is to create the conditions necessary for your body to prioritize fat metabolism when you are in a caloric deficit.

Tabata (the real version of Tabata) is meant to develop superior cardiovascular capacity. That’s it. It’s not a tool for fat loss and it’s not a tool for muscular development (well, maybe smooth cardiac muscle, but that’s not what we’re talking about here). It is one of several exercise modalities that professional athletes use to endure longer in their sports. The cardiovascular fatigue Tabata or even a more moderate HIIT routine creates competes with your ability to create the type of anabolic stimulus necessary to force your body into fat-burning mode.

Take-away: just stay away from HIIT, lift heavy, and reduce your calories if you want to lose fat.

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Getting Ripped: “The Opposite of Common Sense” Series, Part III — Eat Plenty of Carbs

The trend of vilifying carbs is hotter than the dot com boom and shows no signs of letting up. Yeah, and it’s totally wrong. Energy balance is the only thing that matters. You will lose weight if you burn more calories than you consume. That’s it. It’s the first law of thermodynamics. But notice, I said “weight” not “fat”. “Weight” could mean any combination of muscle and fat. I explained in part II of this series that the key factor involved in regulating the type of weight you lose (i.e. muscle vs. fat) is heavy resistance training in addition to an energy deficit. Technically, you could eat only Saltine crackers and still lose weight, and specifically fat.

Having a large proportion of your calories come from carbohydrates is really important while cutting because we know that it’s super important to keep lifting heavy and with a lot of effort during a cut. But remember, you’re going to be in an energy deficit, meaning that your capacity to move the weight will be diminished. The problem with cutting carbs while cutting is that your muscles will quickly become depleted of their favorite and most accessible fuel source, glycogen. If you reduce carbs, you reduce muscle glycogen and your capacity to move the weights right along with it. When lifting, if your body is depleted of glycogen, energy will come from fat. But fat and glycogen metabolism each occur through two mutually exclusive pathways. The bottom line is that the fat pathway doesn’t provide anywhere near the immediate energy that muscle glycogen pathway does. You will be at a real disadvantage if you rely on fat metabolism for the acute energy requirements of a set of heavy squats.

But what about the people who say carbs are different that the other two macronutrients (fat and protein) because they just somehow make you fat? There’s been a classic argument going on between Jillian Michaels (of Biggest Loser) and Gary Taubes (an anti-carb researcher); Jillian says carbs are just like any other food and losing fat is about energy balance, while Gary basically says carbs are the enemy. Check out this YouTube vid for some clips of the argument. The way I see it is that they’re talking right through one another and they’re both right. If you you eat lots of carbs, but accurately monitor your calories in and out and eat below your maintenance calories AND lift heavy, you will lose fat. I’ve done it many times while eating ice cream, cereal, fruit, potatoes, oatmeal and rice. So clearly this would indicate that Gary Taubes is wrong and Jillian Michaels is right, right? Yes and no. Taubes’ entire argument against carbs is based on the mechanism of autoregulation, whereby the body sends the appropriate satiety signals to the brain at the appropriate time. In essence, it’s the body’s natural “stop eating” signal. With a diet comprised of the right foods, this autoregulation mechanism works well, and people won’t become fat. I agree completely. Taubes says that when carbs–particularly foods made with refined cereal grains–are introduced into the diet, the autoregulation mechanism breaks because these foods create disproportionate insulin responses, which drives blood sugar through the floor and creates more hunger that is out of line with real energy requirements. That false hunger breeds more eating and potentially fat gain. I agree with all of this. I can feel this… like what happens to my body when I eat rice, which makes me hungry. I know this, but I like rice and I eat it with other stuff to buffer those effects and I also know what “false hunger” feels like and when to ignore it.

The point is that if you if you understand your body, if you understand how different foods work, if you calculate calories and maintain an energy balance, you can eat whatever food you want and override the autoregulatory inhibition that some carbs cause (although from the micronutrient standpoint, it’s not a good idea to eat refined foods). With the right carbs in your diet, you’ll have to do less overriding and more letting your body guide you.

Want to Stop Being Fat? Want to Get Ripped? I have the secrets.

Secret 1: Stop eating.
Secret 2: Start walking.
Secret 3: Lift really heavy weights.

Six small meals a day is highly overrated. 2,500 calories in two hours right before bed is highly underrated.

The day I realized that the common wisdom of “six small meals a day” was keeping me from dropping below 10% body fat was the day I began an intermittent fasting routine. Lots of small meals keeps your insulin levels nice and your tummy steadily grumbling for more food. Since I started fasting nearly five months ago, I haven’t looked back. Now I fast for 21 hours straight every single day, and it’s easy. I swear. I’m not a freak of nature. I’m not a wizard. I’m not a wombat. I’ve never been leaner, never been stronger, and I’m still dropping fat AND gaining strength even in my current sub-7% state (albeit slowly) at a caloric deficit. If you search my blog for posts on intermittent fasting, you’ll find an explanation somewhere.

And I'm bloated in this photo from red wine and ice cream!

And I’m bloated in this photo from red wine and ice cream!

Walking is the king, queen and royal baby of “cardio”, hands down

Because it’s freaking easy and it can be done anywhere. I wrote a post on walking a couple of weeks back–you should be able to find via search. Look at my beautiful and indispensable best friend, my FitBit One in the photo below. I’ve topped 18,500 steps today, and the day’s not over yet. That’s almost nine miles worth of steps. I work a full time job, have a wife and young son, and do all the cooking. Next time you think you don’t have time to exercise, think of this post and feel your legs begin to itch.

I credit 63% of my ripped-ted-ness to this little, beautiful device.

I credit 63% of my ripped-ted-ness to this little, beautiful device.

Master your hormones. Lift heavy.

Lifting very heavy barbells using compound movements in a fasted state is my holy grail of hormone control–more specifically, very naturally forcing my pituitary gland to pump lots of fat melting, muscle growth-signaling growth hormone into my bloodstream until the moment when I drive my blood sugar levels through the roof at the end of the day with lots of good food, spiking insulin and directing all those nutrients into my muscles and liver that had been depleted of glycogen from the prior 21 hours of fasting. I know I’m not explaining much here, but if you’re interested, lots more on this can be found on the pages of rippedforever.com.

There’s No Such Thing as Cheating

I see a good number of mentions of the concept of “cheating” during a diet. Many individuals who are cutting plan for what they refer to as “cheat” days or meals, a time during which eating guidelines are loosened. I never cheat because I don’t believe that there’s such thing as cheating when it comes to food. For example, I eat ice cream and chocolate and drink wine several nights a week. But it’s not cheating. How does that make sense?

According to Mirriam-Webster online, cheating is “to break a rule or law usually to gain an advantage at something.” Considering that, I see cheating in relation to whatever activity, whether it’s on an exam, on a spouse, in a sport, on a resume, or whatever else as just plain wrong. So then why would I program cheating into my lifestyle? If cheating provides an unfair advantage, how does eating “bad” or “dirty” food provide an unfair advantage? If anything, foods typically on the “cheat” list are nutrient sparse and sugary or fatty. Wouldn’t eating those things set a person back on the path toward their goals?

Here’s another question: assuming that there was some sort of pill that could make a person ripped overnight, providing a truly significant time advantage over getting ripped via traditional diet and exercise, would taking it constitute cheating? In my opinion, definitely not. Who would that person be cheating? Perhaps if he or she were competing in a “get ripped naturally” competition, then yes, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be cheating. It’s like saying that someone who has their stomach stapled is cheating to lose weight. So even if the logic of a “bad” food being a “cheat” held water (i.e. that it somehow was a hack for losing fat faster) the concept that it is cheating to hack a process that is unique to the individual and affects nobody else is illogical on its own.

All this is to say (if I hadn’t made my opinion clear already) that nothing about the concept of cheating with regard to food makes sense, which is why I don’t schedule cheat meals. They simply don’t exist in my mind. For me, a food is either ok to eat regularly, ok to eat occasionally, or not ok to eat ever. I’m not a proponent of the “If It Fit Your Macros” (IIFYM) paradigm, since I prefer to eat foods with a high nutritional content, but it’s still important to me to have some freedom to eat something less nutritious if I want it. For example, I enjoy having a serving of full fat, sugared ice cream a few times a week or 20-30 grams of 100% dark chocolate (yes, I love baking chocolate) with some red wine, but I would never eat, for example, a soy-based product, margarine, or a product sweetened with agave. I draw an eat/ no eat line and stick to it.

I also think that applying the concept of cheating to food can be detrimental because it puts a negative slant on the act of eating. It means that by eating that thing, you’re doing something bad or wrong. In my opinion, that’s the type of psychology that can provide conditions conducive to the development of an eating disorder.

How I reconcile eating less nutritious foods with my goals

On several pages across rippedforever.com, I explain that my philosophy about diet and exercise revolves around sustainability. Physique goes along with this; my interests are not in bulking and cutting cycles, since by definition that practice means that each condition is not sustained. My diet is part of my lifestyle, not something that comes to a halt, so maintaining it had better be as close to effortless as possible. I include less nutritious foods in my lifestyle because they allow relief from periods when I might be too low on calories or not be taking in enough fat or whatever. They provide psychological grease by effectively addressing the natural phenomenon of cravings.

Dietary Periodization

Just as I believe that the most effective lifting programs employ a periodization protocol that cycles the type of lift, load, set volume, rep volume, rep speed and rest interval at multiple scales (intra and inter-day, week and month) — see the RF Strength Method here, eating should be the same. Periodization in the gym is highly beneficial because it can help reduce fatigue, improve recovery, prevent psychological staleness, and reduce plateauing and stagnation. I find periodization as it relates to food consumption to be beneficial for the same reasons. I cannot eat below maintenance for months on end while lifting heavy if I want to slowly drop to 5% body fat. Although I might not adhere to the more strict periodization guidelines I set for my lifting, I might need a day or two each week to eat at my maintenance level to offer my body a break. I might need some good food high in naturally occurring saturated fat and cholesterol, like a few eggs cooked in a couple of tablespoons of lard to allow my hormone levels to reset. I might need an enormous bowl of oats with coconut oil and honey and dark chocolate to replenish glycogen stores sometimes. Ice cream is just something I love, so it’s a great psychological treat. Maybe I’ll have a double serving of red wine one night because I just enjoy the ensuing relaxed state. Does this sound like I’m doing something bad to myself (like a “cheat meal/ day” implies) or am I creating the ideal environment for mental and physical growth and progress? You know what I’d say.