Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss:
When discussing programs for getting leaner, we need to be concerned about fat loss rather than weight loss. A typical calorie restricted diet without exercises often leads to loss of more lean muscle mass than of fat. Those using traditional cardiovascular exercise fare a little better, but still tend to lose muscle along with the fat.
Maintaining our muscle mass is imperative because it is the main engine that fuels our metabolism. If you lose muscle, you effectively reduce your metabolic rate. This means that the same diet and exercise that previously would have maintained your bodyweight will now make you fatter.
On the other hand, if we can increase our overall muscle mass through strength training, and increase our cardiovascular fitness in a way that has positive hormonal effects, we will increase our metabolism. Additionally, strength training increases our growth hormone levels, which also leads to being leaner. This doesn’t mean we need to “bulk up” like a bodybuilder to benefit from weight training. Women in particular don’t need to worry about getting too muscular because they generally don’t have enough testosterone to look like Arnold.
Hormones Control Everything:
Hormones control virtually every aspect of our physiology and have a profound effect on our physiques. We can exercise in a way that increases anabolic (ones that build us up) hormones like testosterone and growth hormone or we can exercise in a way that increases catabolic (ones that tear us down) hormones like cortisol.
Hormonally sound exercise also increases our HDL (good cholesterol) levels. As usual, the factors that make us healthier also make us leaner, or vice versa.
When most people think of exercising for fat loss, they think of “aerobic” exercise like walking on the treadmill. In actuality, properly done strength training is more effective for fat loss. As mentioned earlier, two of the biggest factors affecting our body fat levels are our muscle mass and our anabolic hormones. The third factor is our level of cardiovascular fitness. It should come as no surprise that the former are positively affected by strength training. Most people however, are unaware of how effective strength training can be for improving cardiovascular fitness as well.
The key to improving all three factors is to train intensely enough with the right exercises. Going through the motions on the curl machine is probably not going to stimulate much in the way of muscle growth, cardiovascular fitness, or fat loss. Using free weights for compound movements, on the other hand, is an entirely different way to exercise. No one who has ever performed 15 reps of squats to “failure” will ever doubt the cardiovascular benefit!
Compound exercises are ones that use more than one joint and muscle group. Examples would include squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, clean and presses, and any type of rowing motion. An example of an isolation exercise would be the curl machine.
Compound exercises mostly target larger muscle groups. By working larger muscle groups, we burn more calories and rev up our metabolism more, increase HGH (human growth hormone) production, and allow for more muscle increase then if we did isolation exercises for smaller muscles.
Performing compound exercises with free weights and sufficient resistance can also be a type of high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT, we will see when we get to the section on aerobic exercise, is the optimal way to train for both cardiovascular fitness and fat loss.
Heavy compound exercises with free weights are hard work. Hard work is how we get results, but it is important not to over train and put yourself into a catabolic hormonal state. Three sessions a week is adequate and many people will do better with two, especially if they are doing one or two sessions of HIIT type aerobics.
Free Weights vs. Machines:
Generally speaking, using free weights for fat loss is more effective than using machines. Free weights require us to use more of our body to balance and support the weight. On the other hand, machines sometimes let us do an exercise we couldn’t otherwise do.
Squats vs. the leg press machine is a good example. Squats are arguably the most demanding and beneficial strength exercise there is. Unfortunately, they can also be complicated and difficult to perform properly. The leg press machine might not call into action quite as much of the body, but it is a relatively simple exercise and most trainees are able to exert a beneficial amount of energy using it.
Another example would be the lat pull down machine or the assisted chin machine. Chins or pull ups are fantastic exercises, but most people are unable to perform several sets of adequate repetitions. Using the above mentioned machines allows us to use less resistance than our body weight.
Sets and Repetitions:
Perhaps nothing is more confusing to the average person who reads about strength training than what repetition scheme is the most beneficial. Some writers argue that 25 reps is best for fat loss. Others say that you need lower reps to build more muscle and therefore boost the metabolism. According to my friend and world champion bodybuilder Dave Draper, who says after more than 50 years of training, “The secret is that there are no secrets.”
In other words, “Just Do It.” The biggest mistake most people make when lifting for fat loss is to confuse using higher reps with using light weight. Obviously, if you were performing 25 reps you would use less weight than if you were attempting 8-12 reps. However, the weight should not be so light that you could perform more than one or two repetitions past 25.
Doing several sets of 20-25 repetitions per exercise with an appropriately heavy weight can be very effective for fat loss. It can also be too brutally difficult for most people. 12-15 reps is normally a better choice and using the traditional beginner routine of 3 sets of 8-12 reps will actually work well for those of any level of fitness or experience.
There are a myriad of ways to arrange you workouts, as anyone who has spent time reading muscle magazines can tell you. Mr. Draper also says that anything works as long as you do. In other words, it doesn’t matter so much what rep scheme you use, the most important thing is that you find a program that you enjoy working hard on and will stick to.
Keep It Simple:
There are really only five or six strength exercises that you need to perform. The deadlift is an exercise that most people can perform and it stresses and strengthens virtually the entire body. Some sort of squatting movement should also be part of your fat loss program. Front squats, goblet squats, or leg presses are easier and safer for most trainees than traditional back squats.
When choosing exercises for the upper body, I like to think of pushing and pulling in both the horizontal and vertical plane. Some type of bench pressing and rowing (bent over rows, seated pulley rows) takes care of the horizontal. The pulling down movement (chins, lat pulldown) and overhead pressing takes care of pulling and pushing vertically.
A simple routine, made up of several compound exercise and taking 30-45 minutes can reap tremendous benefit. Providing you exercise with sufficient effort and stick with it. Using machines and doing more exercises can be okay as long as you don’t neglect the compound exercises. Just make sure you don’t take on more than you will do permanently. Choose exercises you like and can perform without discomfort, have fun, and stay at it.
Increased cardiovascular fitness boosts our metabolism and allows us to burn more fat all the time. Our level of cardiovascular fitness, rated as VO2 max, is actually the biggest predictive factor for heart disease, cancer and mortality as a whole. Again, what makes us healthy makes us lean.
Aerobic exercise is actually a meaningless term. “Aerobic” simply means with oxygen and all activity, exercise or not, requires oxygen. Normally, what we consider aerobic exercise is done by performing an activity like walking or running at a low level to warm up and then at a more intense level for the remaining time, perhaps with a period of decreased intensity to cool down at the end.
Numerous studies have shown that this type of exercise is beneficial for reducing premature mortality. The more intensely one exercises in this fashion, the greater the benefit. It is now known, however, that a much more effective way to increase our VO2 max, which you will remember has the greatest impact on reducing heart disease and premature death, is HIIT. Increasing our VO2 max also has the biggest impact on our ability to burn fat and become lean. Additionally, HIIT trains our heart to react instantly and appropriately to whatever demand we place on it, vastly decreasing our chance of cardiac arrest.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT):
A good example of HIIT that many of us may be familiar with is wind sprints. Pushing yourself as hard as you can for a brief period, backing off, and then repeating is the essence of HIIT. Such exercise is by necessity brief. Twenty minutes is more than adequate to do a totally productive and exhausting session and the results are far more impressive than those from plodding along for hours at moderate intensity.
HIIT can be done out doors or on cardio machines and, as I mentioned previously, can be done using free weights. The hill and interval routines on the treadmill, elliptical, or lifecycle are one way to go. The bottom line is to find a way to push yourself as hard as you can for 30-60 seconds and then back off for 60 seconds. Repeat this 8-10 times after a brief warm up, add a brief cool down, and you are all finished!
The beauty of HIIT, and why it is appropriate for anyone who can exercise, is that everyone’s 30 seconds are different. If you are badly deconditioned, walking briskly for those 30-60 seconds may be working as hard as you can. On the other hand, an elite athlete may cover several hundred yards during the same time. Another benefit of this type of training is how instantly it elevates your mood. If you raise your heart rate high enough you don’t have to exercise for hours for the “runners high” to kick in.
HIIT is hard work and there is a danger of overtraining and negatively affecting your hormone levels. Twice a week is adequate if you are also lifting weights two to three times a week. Some people do well with only one HIIT session a week and some lower level activity other days.
You probably understand by now that I am advocating brief and intense exercise for effective and permanent fat loss. Such activity gives us optimal cardiovascular fitness and gives more youthful hormonal profiles that lead to being more muscular and leaner.
Any exercise, however, is a positive for losing fat and, generally, the more active we are the better we feel. The trick is to neither let this activity take away from your energy to do your more intense exercise nor cause you to over train and switch your hormones into a catabolic state.
Along with one or two sessions a week of HIIT aerobics a week, my program of six basic strength training compound movements is all you need to do, and you should do them as intensely as you can. You may have noticed this doesn’t include any specific exercises for your arms or other isolation movements. The key to whether or not you should add any of these to your routine is whether you can do so without taking away from your ability and motivation to work intensely on the basic movements.
Adding low intensity, higher duration exercise like walking to your weekly program can be of benefit in burning additional fat. Again, however, you have to look at how much of this you can do without detracting from your other exercise, both weights and HIIT.
Keep it Fun:
Exercise is the single biggest factor that increases our chances of being healthy and productive for a long lifetime. If we are going to be doing this for a lifetime we really should have fun with it! Intense exercise is not always fun when we first start, but relatively quickly the enjoyment factor should over take the discomfort factor.
There are so many ways to lift weights, do HIIT, and just be active that none of us should force ourselves through workouts we don’t want to do. Find the way that works for you. If you find yourself really not wanting to come to the gym, take a good look at the total amount of your training. It’s far better to do less then to burn out and either loath your time in the gym, or worse, give up. Train hard, get out of the gym, and enjoy the rest of your life.