CB: Hi Alwyn. What is your general approach to helping people lose fat?
The basic concept for any fat loss program is to burn as many calories as possible and maintain or increase lean tissue (which is what burns the calories in the first place). Regardless of how many calories you burn in training - once you lose lean tissue (a typical problem) you burn less calories overall - so your focus has to be on burning calories while trying to offset that problem.
A study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition (8(3): 213-222, 1998) showed that 5 days a week of 45 min aerobic training for 12 weeks had no effect on body composition over dieting alone. Obviously even at these high levels of activity there is still a problem.
CB: Where do you start working with an overweight person?
With a full lifestyle and structural evaluation. Typically the overweight person has so little structural integrity that a resistance training program to target their weaknesses and imbalances is my first approach. By manipulating rest periods I can always get a cardio workout without the overuse injuries that often occur in the untrained.
Research (Jones et al., Sports Med. 18(3): 202-214, 1994) has shown that the intensity required by the average sedentary person trying to improve their cardiovascular system will likely create an excessive structural overload - in fact in this study there was a 50-90% injury rate in the initial six weeks of training.
It's interesting that the typical program for an overweight person is usually 1000's of reps (i.e. aerobics) which will cause more problems. A superior system would be to target the muscular system and control set duration and rest periods in order to create the same metabolic and cardiovascular demand.
CB: What type of questions and lifestyle review do you do with overweight clients? Are there any common factors among overweight clients?
Primarily we see people with more structural weaknesses - it's their ability to move their body that is the biggest problem - not just their ability to transport oxygen! So we need to begin with a full body strength and stability program.
Trying to address purely the cardio system is like trying to put in a new engine in a car while the front end is still out of alignment. We can increase engine "output" by working on alignment first.
Common factors: structural weaknesses, flexibility issues (i.e. they would be unable to walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes continuously), lack of nutrition (funnily enough we see overweight, almost malnourished people all the time).
CB: What physical concerns do you have to be careful of when working with overweight clients and how do you take these into account?
Typically the biggest physical concern is that they are overweight and reconditioned. That's a big enough problem right there.
But it's not just overweight clients - it's EVERYONE! Every client is different and presents different challenges - the one size fits all cookie cutter approach is long gone.
Everyone should have a full evaluation performed by a qualified professional. Any serious health and medical issues should be cleared by a medical professional first.
Most trainers have a program in mind when someone walks in the gym. I have NO IDEA what I'm going to do until I see the client and evaluate them. If you're not assessing - you're just guessing!
CB: So for beginners, a good nutrition program is possibly the most powerful factor?
Obviously a nutrition program is vital - you must create a caloric deficit through a combined exercise and nutrition approach.
So the key for the fat loss programs we use is exactly that - how can we force the body to burn as many calories as possible, and continue to burn them between workouts. The idea is to demand as much work from the body as possible - and maintain that caloric burn for as long as possible (by EPOC, increasing LBM etc).
Now the ONLY reason the body burns calories is because the muscle tissue is working. It doesn't matter what activity you are involved in - aerobics or weight training - its muscular demand that determines caloric burn. So you have to begin with that in mind.
Let's think about this:
You can run a mile in ten minutes.
You can swim a mile in twenty minutes.
After a year of swimming every day and not running - you can now swim a mile in 16 minutes.
Without running - how much has your running improved? Very little.
Why? We only have ONE cardiovascular system - so why doesn't improving your swimming (and cardio system) automatically improve your running?
Because the ONLY reason your cardio system was involved in the first place was because of demand from your muscular system. So you adapted to the SPECIFIC MUSCULAR demands of swimming which by default then involves the cardiovascular system - it's not the other way around as most people think. The muscles don't move because of cardiovascular demand - the cardio system is elevated because of muscular demand.
CB: What's the takeaway message?
Hopefully the readers can understand - that we need to program the body based on the movements it's going to perform - not based on the cardiovascular system. That's an upside down method.
CB: So what methods work for fat loss? What methods are ineffective or inefficient for fat loss?
Circuit weight training and interval training always work. Steady state aerobic work never works long term in the real world. Now for those of you out there who will no doubt get caught up talking about health, cardiac heart disease, cholesterol etc - I'm not arguing with you. Craig has asked about fat loss and that's all I'm addressing.
However - for fat loss, the research is unequivocal - high intensity work is superior.
I think the problem is this:
Aerobic training by nature is lower intensity. At some point you get so good at it that it just doesn't burn as many calories, and in effect, you are burning fewer calories than you used to for the same time investment. So what do you do? Go for longer and inevitably run into the same problem? Or increase the intensity? Increasing the intensity is the obvious answer.
CB: You have commented that aerobics were useless for fat loss. This caused a lot of controversy. What did you mean?
I'm sure you'll agree Craig that it only seemed to cause controversy with people who don't do this for a living. Most of the good practitioners in this area didn't even blink. It's not controversial at all in terms of fat loss and I'm getting bored going over it.
I don't think anyone who has trained themselves or anyone else has ever seen low intensity cardio to be a very effective fat loss tool. The loss in lean mass that is typical in most weight loss programs needs to be offset - and steady state aerobic training (despite it's plentiful health benefits) only adds to that problem.
So let me expand on what I meant:
When I said "Aerobics are useless for fat loss" what I meant was "aerobics are useless for fat loss". Is that clearer?
Ok - to be less antagonistic, let's just say that aerobic training for fat loss is the most overrated and overemphasized method in use today. It's completely outdated as a fat loss modality.
Here's a quote from Paul Chek:
"First of all, lifting weights in the intensity zone of 8-12 reps coupled with short rest periods has been shown beneficial for releasing the androgenic hormone testosterone and growth hormone. These important hormones encourage development of lean muscle mass, which is a metabolically active tissue consuming calories 24 hours a day. Fat, on the other hand is just along for the ride! Aerobic exercise has been linked with the release of the catabolic hormone cortisol, which is antagonistic to the development of lean muscle mass. Cortisol also promotes conservation of glucose and encourages the use of fat. This might sound good on the surface, but you also become as efficient as a Honda Civic running for 80 kilometers on one gallon of gas. Then you are just like those people going for hours at a time on machines, only to utilize minuscule amounts of fat!"
The efficiency argument is interesting. Does weight training build muscle? No. It breaks down muscle and the body ADAPTS by building more muscle. So in aerobic training - when we "Encourage the use of fat" - do we force that same body to adapt by storing more fat? Interesting...guys like Poliquin, Chek, Jim Liston, Eric Serrano, etc., etc., all seem to think so. And most of the spinning and aerobic instructors at the local gyms in my area who've hired me to get them lean can anecdotally tell you that the more aerobic training they do - the harder it is for them to lean out.
Seriously - there are thousands of overweight individuals each year who complete marathons. Now completing a marathon is damn impressive to me. However it shows that the aerobic fitness needed to complete a marathon doesn't have anything necessarily to do with creating a fat loss effect. So if you are capable of two to three hours of steady state running and still not be burning enough fat - we can either go to a higher intensity or you can try four hours of running. Any takers for the latter?
In terms of fat loss - calories burned are the most important factor. And aerobic training burns less calories than anaerobic training and weight training overall (besides doing very little to increase your metabolism -your body's calorie burning engine).
So if we accept that lean mass is a major factor in your fat burning engine - and aerobic training makes that engine smaller (i.e. less muscle) and more efficient at burning fat (remember more efficient means it burns LESS) - how can having a smaller more efficient fat burning machine burn more fat? It doesn't.
CB: So you are saying that cardio is the least important component?
I don't think I explained why I think cardio is the least important variable. So I've been trying to come up with a better statement as to "why" I do strength training prescription before I do aerobic prescription.
The basic systems of function that react together within the body are the nervous, muscular, and skeletal systems, as supported by the cardiovascular system. (Ex: Running on a treadmill with over pronation syndrome will eventually cause injury and will therefore defeat the purpose of a fitness program).