Lean body mass not only shapes your body and makes you more esthetic, it also helps fuel your metabolic fire. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, so if you are losing weight that includes a lot of muscle, it’s likely you will begin to stall as your basal metabolic rate slows and you begin to burn fewer calories. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens to many on their quest for fat loss.
When trying to find the most effective way to accomplish anything it helps to know the ineffective ways first so you can avoid common pitfalls. The average person tends to make three common mistakes when trying to lose weight:
Usually the large deficit is created by almost complete avoidance of fats. This large deficit and lack of healthy fat are a surefire way to trigger food cravings, negatively impact hormones that regulate metabolism, and cause muscle catabolism. It’s not advisable to go below a 1000 calorie daily deficit for any extended period (although there are benefits to a periodic fast). Instead, try to stay between a 500-1000 calorie deficit.
Weight loss will be slower, but it will be coming from fat instead of muscle and more sustainable long term. Crash dieting always leads to a rebound and weight gain, often past your original starting point. It is important to not avoid healthy fats just because they are calorically dense. The vast majority of people feel better and have more sustained energy levels on a cut when they take in at least .5g fat per lb of LBM. So someone who is 200lbs at 20% bodyfat should take in about 80gs of fat.
More is not better when trying to lose weight. Don’t get it wrong. Cardio is important and can aid in fat loss, but too much (or too intense cardio) will raise cortisol and inflammation. High levels of inflammation hamper recovery from hard workouts and will hinder muscle gains. Also, when dieting, cortisol levels will already be elevated, and doing tons of cardio in an underfed state will compound the problem.
High cortisol levels elevate blood sugar (and thus cravings) and encourage fat storage. In addition to these problems, the effect on mood and food cravings often leads people who are dieting to fall off track. It’s important to remember that when you are in a caloric deficit you should be in a fat burning mode most of the day. Whether you’re sleeping, walking the dog, watching tv, or at work you should be primarily using fat for fuel. This is because you have lower amounts of muscle glycogen and glucose in the blood when in a moderate deficit. When you are at caloric maintenance or a surplus, your body will use these other energy sources before fat. Performing cardio can deplete these sources and dip into fat stores for fuel, but what happens if these stores are already depleted? The body has no choice but to break down lean muscle.
Somehow people got the idea that when trying to lose weight it’s better to do light weight, more volume, and more reps instead of lifting heavy. This is often accompanied by shorter rest periods as well. Using light weights, and high reps is a sure fire way to lose muscle when in a caloric deficit. Lifting heavy will preserve more lean muscle mass than using light weights. When you go heavy and hard on your workouts it’s as if you are telling your body:
“Hey, I know you aren’t getting all your energy needs through food, but we can’t sacrifice muscle because we get our ass kicked multiple times a week through intense and heavy lifting. Let’s opt for breaking down fat instead?”
You also must keep reps low, so you avoid dipping into energy systems that require large amounts of glucose in the blood. If you are lifting in the 1-6 rep range, you will likely be using the creatine phosphate energy system that does not require the glucose you are lacking.
When you have a goal of fat loss, you must rely on energy systems that will not cause a breakdown in lean muscle. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the end form of energy used for all cellular functions. How we produce this ATP can determine if we are at risk of losing lean muscle, so let’s break down the three different energetic pathways:
This energy system relies on creatine phosphate (CP) and ATP stored in the muscle for immediate energy needs. This will fuel explosive activities ranging from 1-30 seconds. There is no need for carbohydrates, fats, or oxygen when using this energy system. The supply of ATP and CP in the muscles are low, so there is limited energy availability. One way to increase this availability is to supplement with Sheer Strength Labs Creatine.
ATP requires CP in order to reconstitute itself once it is broken down for energy. Because you are in a deficit, the available CP is lower than optimal. Supplementing allows you to store that extra creatine in the muscles so the ATP-CP cycle can last longer. Even if you only prolong the time in this energy system by a few seconds, you may have staved off the breaking down of muscle that could occur when using the glycolytic energy system. Also, the extra ATP can enable you to get one or two extra reps in, further preserving lean muscle mass.
This energy system relies on glucose for its needs and is the primary one used for intense activities ranging from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. It doesn’t require the presence of oxygen, but one way or the other your body will need glucose to use this system. This is typically done by utilizing glucose in the blood, and converting stored muscle glycogen to glucose as well. But if you don’t have adequate glucose or glycogen to fuel this source what happens? Your body will produce glucose through the process of gluconeogenesis.
This is when your body converts things other than carbohydrates to glucose. Things like amino acids. This is not a problem if you are in a surplus as you will have excess levels of calories and protein from food to convert into glucose. But if you are in a deficit much of this conversion will come from breaking down your lean muscles and using the available amino acids to form glucose.
This is why we want to avoid spending much time using this energy system. Remember the common mistake people make when resistance training? When going higher reps and lighter weight this is the primary energy source used. This explains why we want the majority of our resistance training workout to be quick and explosive taking place in the phosphagen system rather than the glycolytic. Try to avoid spending too much time using this energetic pathway.
This system requires the use of oxygen to convert fat and carbs into usable energy for lower intensity activities. The process of synthesizing ATP is slowest using this energy system, but provides the largest amount of usable energy. Hence why it is the preferred system for longer duration activities. The good thing about operating in this energy system is that you can directly dip into fat stores for fuel if you don’t have adequate carbs to supply the required ATP. This is the energy system you need to spend the majority of the time using if your goal is to lose body fat
So we have established that the majority of our time should be spent utilizing the phosphagen and aerobic systems. The following protocol accomplishes this and will aid in your fat loss while limiting muscle catabolism.
Weights should be at or near failure, with a long rest between sets of at least 2 minutes. If you do not rest long enough, you risk spending too much time in the glycolytic energy system and breaking down muscle. Remember you likely don’t have the glucose or glycogen required to do the amount of volume necessary to stimulate new muscle growth. During a cut, the sole purpose of lifting weights is to preserve lean muscle mass, and this is best done through low volume and using heavy compound movements. If you are an advanced lifter you could add some auxiliary work for your arms.
Since we want to spend most of the time in our aerobic energy system, this is where we should perform most of our cardio. Longer duration, lower intensity is preferred. Keep it to around an hour at about 65-75% of your maximum heart rate. This can be done through jogging, biking, swimming, any activity that is not “explosive” in nature like sprinting and jumping. Another good way to utilize this energy system is to go even longer at a lower intensity like going for a hike or a long walk. Spend three days a week doing some low intensity cardio on days you take off from resistance training.
The vast majority of fat loss will occur through manipulating your diet. Cardio can aid in weight loss when used sparingly but too much will hinder progress. Resistance training is only for shaping and preserving lean muscle and must be done using low reps and heavy weights to avoid spending too much time using the glycolytic energy system.
DO NOT TRY TO USE YOUR RESISTANCE WORKOUT TO BURN FAT.
Circuit style training will not preserve your lean muscle, and you will slow your metabolism down halting fat loss. Unless you have recently had a refeed or consumed carbs immediately pre-workout limit the amount of time you spend doing work that primarily relies on the glycolytic energy systems. Some examples would be HIIT or a higher volume more bodybuilding style workout.
Remember more is not better when trying to lose fat. Don’t let your determination and drive become a detriment.
Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.
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