Written by Calvin Sun
I’ve spent the better part of a decade earning a living by training clients and working with athletes. In that time, the biggest misconceptions that I have seen over and over have been related to training for fat loss. I hate to generalize, but most women (and some men) believe that they should avoid all weight training and only perform “cardio” and abdominal exercises to get their ideal physique. I see this manifest in our group classes in the form of going through the motions during the strength portion and then only focusing on the conditioning portion of the workout – and often followed up by a few sets of sit-ups or something similar. My guess is that if you are guilty of this approach, you probably haven’t seen very good results with it. Maybe you lost a few pounds initially, but now you have plateaued and you may have even gained a pound or two. This faulty approach is perpetuated by novice trainers, workout routines published in “fitness” magazines, and a few common exercise myths. In previous blog posts, Mark and I have addressed both the myth of the fat-burning zone and the myth of spot reduction. Take a minute to go back and review them if you aren’t familiar.
The hour or so you spend in the gym accounts for a very small portion of your daily caloric expenditure. Unless you are a professional athlete that trains and practices for several hours each day, the large majority of your daily caloric expenditure comes from your Basal Metabolic Rate (or BMR), the calories burned to sustain your bodily functions on a daily basis. One of the most effective ways of increasing your BMR is through increasing the amount of lean muscle mass on your body. This is, of course, only achievable through weight training, preferably in the form of deadlifts, squats, presses, and other multi-joint, compound movements. You see, for every pound of lean muscle that you add, you will burn approximately 50 calories more per day. That might not sound like much but keep in mind if you swap out 5 pounds of fat for 5 pounds of muscle, you will burn close to 300 extra calories a day before you even hit the gym. Furthermore, intense weight training results in an afterburn effect where your metabolism is elevated for up to 38 hours after your training session. This is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, and you can read more about it in Mark’s post here. Doing cardio alone will only decrease your BMR as time goes on. This turns into an uphill battle as your BMR keeps dropping, you’ll need to increase the amount of cardio you do to create the same deficit. Without weight training, you’ll lose muscle which will actually account for some weight loss, and you might even lose a few pounds of fat if your diet is decent, but it’s unlikely you will achieve (or maintain) the level of fat loss you desire.
“Won’t weights make me bulky?”
Getting big and muscular is very hard to do. Just ask any average male. It takes years of hard work, the right training program, and a lot of food . . . it just doesn’t happen by accident. Weight training will add a few pounds of needed lean body mass which will in turn make you leaner and give you a better looking physique. Women simply don’t have the levels of testosterone needed to support the type of muscle growth you fear. Unless you are taking anabolic steroids, gaining too much muscle is probably the least of your worries. And if you are taking steroids, gaining muscle is still probably the least of your issues.
“Marathon runners are skinny, shouldn’t I run to become thinner?”
That makes as much sense as playing basketball to get taller. This logical fallacy is commonplace in fitness as many people are quick to make hasty generalizations. In any sport, genetics certainly play an important role. The best runners are thin because skinny people make for better runners. Just as the best basketball players are tall, the best runners are thin. In fact, many people who take up running end up “skinny fat”, a physique denoted by a lack of lean muscle mass and often accompanied by a noticeable amount of fat or “doughy” appearance. These people are known to complain about being unable to lose the last the few pounds of fat around their midsection while sipping on a fruit smoothie or over a lunch of whole grain pasta.
“So how do I go about increasing my lean body mass and improving my body composition?”
Definitely focus on the strength component in our group workouts. If you want to get more experienced with lifting, consider signing up for the Performance Clinic. You’ll focus on the core lifts, increasing strength, lean body mass, and overall performance. Many of the clients in the Performance Clinic have leaned out while getting stronger at the same time. Also, look into signing up for a nutritional consult or even the upcoming nutrition clinics. You’ll get some useful instruction on how to dial in your nutrition so that you can improve your body composition and performance with a sustainable approach.
Take a look at your current approach to training and be honest about how well it has worked for you. If you are less than 100% satisfied with your results, I hope you’ll consider my recommendations. And as always, feel free to consult any of your coaches if you need further guidance.