Running From One Problem to Another
So when do I start offering up canned routines guaranteed to boost your bench by 40 pounds in six weeks? Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Me writing about it, that is. Could it happen? Sure, but it’s either going to involve needles, pills, and some insane training or wiggling into an impressive bench shirt. Now technique changes can also drive the numbers higher, but that’s advanced stuff and I don’t plan on tapping that resource for a while yet. Like ketchup, good things come to those who wait.
So back to the basics then. I’ve babbled about intro to weight lifting enough that the benefits are in your face. Or, if they’re not they should be: more strength, more confidence, more fat burning, looking good nekkid, impressing people at parties by shoulder pressing an adult woman until she can touch the ceiling (yeah, I did that, it’s a pic on my Facebook profile), stronger bones to help offset bone density lost with aging, increased immune system function, and a lot of more generic benefits that come from any sort of exercise.
I mentioned fat burning, but let me dive a little deeper into that. Anaerobic exercise, which is what weight lifting is, burns a similar or perhaps even slightly lower amount of calories than an equal amount of time spent doing high impact cardio exercise. What? Why would I admit something inferior about lifting weights? Because it’s not inferior – there’s more to it. Sixty minutes spent lifting weights could burn 500 calories. Sixty minutes jogging at 6+ miles an hour could burn 500 calories (incidentally that’s fewer calories than many fast food sandwiches have in them). Now when that sixty minutes is up the treadmill bunny is done burning calories. The person lifting weights continues to burn for another 12 – 36 hours. Not at the same rate, but those muscles just got their collective asses kicked and your body is going to be working hard to refuel them, repair them, and make them grow stronger. Some days you can even feel it, especially if you’re working areas you don’t normally do. That’s called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Oh, and afterwards those stronger muscles require more calories to maintain them, which boosts your base metabolic rate (read: calories burned on a daily basis just because you’re alive).
While I’m dogging on cardio, let me take it a step further. Cardio is catabolic. After twenty minutes of cardio exercise the oxygen is depleted from the body. At that point it starts to pull the fat out of cells and use it for energy. That’s the simple part and good news, if you’ve got the stamina to make it twenty minutes without passing out. It’s never just that simple though, is it? When the body does cardio it looks for ways to optimize the process. It looks at itself and reasons that if it has to run / bike / spin / whatever then why not make it easier and get rid of this stuff that makes it harder to move efficiently? “This stuff” is not fat. The body likes and wants fat. It knows fat is energy it can use, and especially in a starvation state or emergency condition it can turn to that, so it wants to keep it as long as it can. “This stuff”, therefore, is muscle. Cardio is a catabolic activity. Catabolic means a breakdown of materials (protein, aka muscle tissue) for the release of energy. Ever seen a buff looking marathon runner? Hell, they don’t even look all that lean, at least not compared to people who understand the art and science of lifting weights.
So does that mean all cardio is evil and should be avoided? Not so much. Sure, I may grumble and mutter words to that effect but even I will do some treadmill interval training to keep my energy systems in shape. Interval training is not for this article though, so swear at me for mentioning it then move on.
Likewise cardio can be used to warm up for a lifting session. When I started in at the gym and was focusing on losing weight without knowing any better, I ran a mile, worked out, then ran another mile. I lost weight too, lots of it and in a timely manner. The problem was I was basically wasting 50% or more of my lifting sessions because the cardio stripped away the materials (nutrition / calories) needed to help the muscles recover and grow. Instead it broke muscle down. I lost fat and I lost muscle, but the end result was I lost weight.
The secret to The Biggest Loser is this process. They take people who don’t even know how to spell exercise in most cases and hit them with a hefty dose of it. They run them into the ground with cardio and spend time doing some borderline ridiculous weight training with light weights and super high reps to try and fatigue the bejeezus out of the muscles and turn even weight lifting into an aerobic activity. Because they are beginners their CNS (Central Nervous System) does get trained to recruit more muscle fibers and in better ways, that shows a strength increase and an increase in muscle definition. The high levels of aerobic activity, on the other hand, cause fat and muscle both to break down. That’s the secret to double digit weight loss – and also the reason why they go from being morbidly obese to skinny fat.
One of my greatest problems with The Biggest Loser is how the contestants are judged. They are judged on pure weight loss, which is unhealthy. They should be judged instead on fat loss. There are several methods to determine bodyfat percentage, with a few of them even reliable. There’s one method that involves immersion in a tank of water, and another that seems to be the best method that involves x-raying the patient (DEXA). Another involves taking multiple skin fold measurements with calipers – that’s the one I use. Scales and other methods are less reliable but as long as the same consistent method is used it can still chart progress (or a lack of).
So say a 200 pound woman loses 100 pounds, she’s lost 50% of her bodyweight. Is that a good thing though? How about we look at her LBM (Lean Body Mass – the weight of the body without fat accounted for, e.g. bone, muscle, organs, etc.). If she starts out at 200lbs and 40% bodyfat that means 80lbs are pure fat and the remainder (120lbs) is what the woman inside the fat suit weighs. I’m not showing the calculations – if you can’t figure out what 40% of 200 is go back to junior high school.
So our vixen to be wants to drop down to around 20% bodyfat or, if she’s really itching to have a bikini body she can go for around 10% – 15%. That’s a reduction of 40 pounds or, at most, 60 pounds. I do not recall the exact number, but I believe it’s in the 10% – 13% range where woman who are beneath that number begin to lose their monthly cycles. Not a good thing, even though many might prefer it that way. Those hormones do what they do in a cyclical nature for a reason.
A woman can start to display her abs at around 15%. Shadows only really, but the real cut look begins beneath that in the 12% and under league. And individuals will vary. We all have genetics that determine where our fat is predominantly stored. For women it tends to stick more in the butt and thighs. For men the abdomen gets the majority of it.
Men can drop lower more safely though, with no major concern for their hormone and health until they get beneath 5% – 6%bodyfat. To be fair getting to that level of leanness is an incredible effort accomplished by very few people, and often with the support of thermogenics that may or may not be controlled substances.
So back to our 200lb victim. If she drops 50 pounds of fat and maintains her LBM of 120, she’ll look pretty damn good. Sure, she’ll still weigh 150lbs, but it’s pretty lean and I reckon she’d draw appreciative second and third glances on the beach. I can’t remember her name but I remember a figure competitor who went from being excessively heavy down to 202 pounds. She was also 5’11” or 6’ tall. At that weight and the minimal bodyfat she had on her she was winning competitions. Not bodybuilding contests, figure competitions.
I’ve strayed from my Biggest Loser rant too far to really attempt to drive it home. Still, the moral is that weight is just a number. Composition of that weight is what matters. LBM means burning calories and shaping your body to look and do what you want it to do. Fat means you’re good at floating in a swimming pool and sweating like a pig on a summer night even with the air conditioning on.
Cardio, therefore, is a tool that should be used carefully. I have a friend named Andres who dropped to around 6% bodyfat last year without any cardio. All natural, he just planned and executed his workouts properly and ate the right kind of nutrition. I myself have been between 8% and 9% in the past, though I typically maintain a 10% – 12% rating. Truth be told I have to work hard to maintain my weight these days, and twice as hard to gain weight. If I don’t pay attention I lose weight! Hate me if you feel like it, but wouldn’t you like to have that kind of a problem?
Pick up some weights and make that lifestyle change and you can. Anybody can. Just remember that fat loss happens faster than lifestyle changes do, so don’t be a drone and do what somebody tells you, understand what it is you’re doing and why. Once you truly understand what you’re doing and the consequences of those actions (good or bad), you can make lasting changes.