When most people think about dropping fat, they immediately think in cardio-terms. Oh, I’ll get out there and run every morning or I’ll hit the treadmill/bike/elliptical machine more often. Yet, I’m telling you this is not the most efficient, productive approach. What gives? Cardio as potentially counterproductive to fat loss and body composition change is completely contradictory to what most of the fitness world, and general population for that matter, believe.
I can’t just state my personal opinions and be done with it. I know I need to bring out the big guns if I expect to get my message across, help you ditch your preconceived fitness notions, and finally get results from your training efforts. That’s where diving into the scientific process of physique development can help.
Part 2 is all about the science behind my beef with traditional cardio for physique development. It’s for all of the people who can’t just take my word for it, and need a little more research to back up those claims. That’s good, because I wouldn’t take me at my word either. Don’t I just look like a scumbag? I mean honestly, what type of douchebag poses with his shirt off for the photo on his website home page?
THE TEAM OF EXPERTS
In a battle as intense as this, you can’t just go in it alone. There are too many people dogmatically married to the idea of traditional cardio. A man apart can’t sway the pack.
That’s why I’ve decided to bring in a team of physique experts to get their opinions on the topic. I’ve always been told that to be successful in any endeavor, or in this case argument, you should surround yourself with people who are more talented and intelligent than you are. Makes sense to me. And trust me, these folks are just that.
Here are some cardio quotes from various experts via their books and articles on the topic. My added commentary follows each quote:
“The calories burned while exercising are relatively few in quantity and small in significance. The major benefits of exercise are metabolic and hormonal, and they accrue after the exercise session has ended.” Rob Faigin, Natural Hormonal Enhancement
Too many people think of the fat loss process as simply calories in vs. calories out. It is much more complicated than that. There comes a point where cutting calories and/or increasing calorie burning activity can become counterproductive. The body has internal survival mechanisms (mainly hormonal, metabolic, and enzymatic) set in place to protect itself. One of those mechanisms is to burn off active muscle tissue and become more efficient at storing/hoarding body fat. This is why people who crash diet on extremely low calories or perform excessive activity, especially aerobic activity, end up flabby with no muscle tone.
“Aerobic exercise burns more fat than resistance exercise, while you are exercising. But that is not the end of the story – it’s the beginning. The greater portion of fat loss benefits accrue between [not during] exercise sessions. The hormonal and metabolic forces set into motion as a result of your motions in the gym can have an effect for many hours after your workout ends. Both aerobic and resistance exercise raise metabolic rate for a period of time after exercise ceases. But studies show that resistance exercise is substantially more powerful in this regard, with post-exercise metabolic elevation persisting for 15 hours and sometimes for as long as 24 or even 48 hours after a resistance training session ends. Remember, the adaptive remodeling process occurs mainly during rest not during work. In other words, the physical improvements you seek, though they are prompted by what you do during your workouts, are brought to fruition during the period of time between workouts. Moreover, the beneficial restructuring of the body – a function of recovery* – requires energy.” Rob Faigin, Natural Hormonal Enhancement
To repeat, changing your physique is much more complicated than calories in vs. calories out. That’s part of the equation, but not all of it. Using exercise and diet to manipulate muscle building/fat burning hormones and elevate your metabolic rate are the real keys to physique transformation. Strength training has a much more profound effect on these processes than aerobic activity, which is why strength training should be the cornerstone of your program. And more importantly, if overdone, aerobic exercise can have a negative impact on hormones (reducing testosterone, elevating cortisol) and metabolic rate (due to loss of lean muscle mass).
“In light of the foregoing discussion, it is clear that, whether male or female, building a calorically “high-maintenance” body is the best strategy for achieving maximum permanent fat loss – and that means a high muscle/fat ratio. Women are limited in this regard, due to their relative lack of testosterone. Nevertheless, within this narrow window of muscle growth potential, building muscle will greatly assist a woman in her effort to lose fat permanently, while giving her a firm, toned, shapely look to go along with low bodyfat. Relying solely on aerobic exercise to reduce bodyfat, which many people (especially women) do, can actually have a negative long-term effect, by reducing muscle mass. Prolonged, high-volume aerobic exercise is catabolic, raising cortisol levels and causing muscle loss in both men and women.
* And it appears that women, who can less afford to lose muscle than men, are more susceptible to the catabolic effects of endurance training. Even the loss of one ounce of muscle reduces your metabolic rate and your ability to burn fat. Hence, those highly motivated men and women who spend hours laboring-away on the treadmill or stairclimber, rather than allocating an appropriate proportional amount of energy to this mode of exercise, are committing a costly error.” Rob Faigin, Natural Hormonal Enhancement
Changing your body composition involves reducing body fat AND increasing lean muscle mass. Too many fitness enthusiasts focus solely on the former, and neglect the latter. This lose at all costs can result in destructive patterns such as overdoing aerobic work and/or cutting too many calories from the diet. This happens more commonly in women, who often shy away from weight training for fear of bulking up, and use cardio-based activities as their sole form of exercise.
Excessive aerobics and calorie cuts cause a loss of lean muscle mass, destroy the metabolism, and inhibit natural hormone production. Once this physiological state is reached, it becomes impossible to lose any more weight no matter how many calories you cut or how much aerobic work you try and add. What you end up with is someone who is on starvation level calories and performing excessive exercise, yet is still flabby with a less-than-ideal physique.
Even worse, with a suboptimal metabolism, this person is setting up the perfect environment for a huge weight rebound. When they go back to even just normal, healthy calorie and exercise levels, they gain all of the weight back plus some because of the slow metabolism. This generally results in a viscous cycle of yo-yo dieting and training protocols, and huge swings in body weight and appearance. Sometimes the damage to the metabolism and hormones becomes so great that it is irreversible without medical intervention. I bet you can think of a few celebrity examples of the above scenario.
“Even where little or no growth hormone is stimulated (because intensity is too low), cortisol will gradually rise and can reach excessive levels if the exercise session is prolonged. This is why I recommend against a workout program that primarily consists of high-duration, low-intensity exercise. This is also why long distance runners tend to be weak and skinny – their “muscle axis,” is skewed toward catabolism (promoted by cortisol) as opposed to anabolism (promoted by growth hormone and testosterone.” Rob Faigin, Natural Hormonal Enhancement
Chronically elevated cortisol levels are the reason why many aerobic athletes have little-to-no muscle tone and often struggle with body fat. Cortisol can force the body to break down its own muscle tissue, convert it to glucose, and use it as fuel. It also leads to increased fat accumulation, especially around the midsection. So with excessive aerobic work, even though you are potentially winning the calories in vs. calories out battle, you are losing the hormonal/metabolic battle. And if you are losing that battle, you are losing the fat loss war.
“Feeling soft around the midsection? Can’t see your abs anymore? Feel the need to get lean in a hurry? Slacking off on your diet and workouts can do that to you. In my case, training for an Ironman triathlon can do that, too. What? Yeah, you heard me right. This is exactly how I felt after training for and completing in my first Ironman. My body was soft, with no definition, and had definitely changed due to spending the majority of my training in the steady-state aerobic zone — the same “fat burning zone” many books and magazine still talk about. I was in great shape as far as my endurance and cardiovascular system were concerned, but I had less noticeable muscle tone and didn’t have the definition I was used to having in my abs and arms. Put it this way: I didn’t even want to wear a crop top at my race because I didn’t have abs, to show. In fact, I felt like I had rolls for the first time ever! My body had started to look like that of a flabby endurance athlete.” (Source)
Just another practical example from the real world, from a woman who has trained both as an endurance athlete AND a physique athlete. This further cements my stance that training for performance is different than training for appearance.
“During a steady-state workout (when you move at the same pace for a certain amount of time), your body does burn a higher percentage of calories from fat. This is where that “fat burning zone” myth comes from. On the surface, it sounds like you’re burning more fat calories. There are two big problems with this. 1: As I explained earlier, you burn fewer total calories as your body adapts. So even if you’re burning a higher percentage of fat, you aren’t burning as many calories overall. It’s like winning 80% of a Lotto jackpot. It sounds good until you realize that the jackpot is just fifty bucks. 2: Your body actually becomes efficient at storing fat. Since you’re now burning fat as your primary source of fuel, your body adapts and becomes very good at storing fat. Blame it on a dumb self-preservation mechanism built into the body’s operating system.” (Source)
With excessive aerobic work, the body becomes very efficient at storing body fat. It must protect itself and ensure proper fuel based on activity demands. The opposite is true with strength training. The body becomes more efficient at storing glycogen, which is the primary fuel for high intensity activity, and can burn off more body fat rest. This happens because: (1) The body burns predominantly fatty acids during rest. (2) The metabolic rate is elevated after a strength training session primarily because all of the physiological steps in the recovery process from weight training require energy (calories).
“Go easy on the cardio. If you want your cortisol under control, stay away from excessive cardiovascular work. I’m utterly convinced that if gym rats cut down on cardio, they’d be leaner. Humans aren’t aerobic animals. We’re designed to throw a rock or spear at the prey; not run six miles to get the food. Aerobics works only for about six weeks. Once the enzymatic response is maximal, you’re wasting your time. It’s a myth that cardio burns bodyfat only. That’s based on antiquated studies that couldn’t measure all fuels contributing to exercise. Amino acids have been underestimated for the longest time as fuel sources for cardiovascular exercise. Cardio burns not only fat but muscle as well.” – Charles Poliquin
Often times, looking at our evolutionary past is a great way to figure out what we should be doing to become healthier and fit. No caveman just ran long distances for the hell of it. We walked for miles to complete daily tasks, sure. But most “activity” was anaerobic: sprinting towards or away from prey, climbing trees, lifting rocks, bashing things with a club, etc. Training for physique development should mimic these evolutionary patterns. In other words, most “training” should be anaerobic (ie weight training) in nature.
I remember falling asleep in more than one lecture in college. I remember staring at the clock in several others. Are we headed that way? Is this enough science to at least slightly convince you that there may just be a more effective and efficient way for fat loss? Can we get to the fun stuff?
Good. In Part 3, we’ll be back with the practical strategies you can apply to your own training routines.