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If you want to burn fat, you need to focus on doing “cardio”, right? If you answered “yes”, you are not alone. For many years doctors and fitness experts promoted cardiovascular training as the most effective means of burning fat. However, current research shows that this simply not true. Unfortunately, many people still don’t know or have a hard time believing that cardio is not the fastest path to fat loss.
First, let’s clarify what I mean by “cardio” for purposes of this article. I’m talking about activities that get your heart rate elevated, and then maintained at a steady state – what most of you would think of when you think of cardio exercise. Things like running, jogging, walking, treadmills, elliptical machines, aerobics classes, dance fitness classes etc.
Second, I’m not necessarily saying that type of training is bad for you. Some of our Breakthrough members just competed in a 5k and we had a blast! So if you love running or if zumba classes make you a happy camper, you should definitely keep doing the activities you enjoy! Just bear in mind that this type of steady state cardio training should be at the bottom of your priorities when it comes to fat loss.
In presentations I have made on this topic, I always share various research studies, but most importantly I share my story because I have experienced this first hand. You see, when I was in my 20s, my only focus was on aerobic exercise. I would jog, do cardio machines, and aerobics routines that focused on isolating small groups (think leg lifts and triceps kick backs). I would get my heart rate up, and get sweaty for an hour or so, and I would “feel” like I had a great workout. The few times I tried doing strength training workouts with weights, I wouldn’t get that same euphoric feeling, so I assumed it must not be as good.
As the years went by, my workouts remained the same, but my body started to change for the worse. I was gaining weight, and felt tired and sluggish all the time. I figured I just needed to up my cardio, so I built up from doing around 4 workouts a week to around 10 workouts a week over the course of a couple of months (yes, 10 workouts a week was sometimes two a day!) After several months of this, not only had I not lost the fat I wanted to lose, I had actually gained a couple of pounds and felt worse than ever.
I was frustrated because although I had always heard that aerobics exercise burns the most fat, it wasn’t proving true in my results. At this point, I knew I needed a big change, so I hired a coach who introduced me to strength training. Within a few weeks of getting my technique dialed in, and following a solid training program, I was seeing results that weren’t happening in all those months of endless cardio. I was experiencing physical changes, as well learning how great it feels to be strong – discoveries that led to a career in fitness where I get to help others experience the same things.
So, why did strength training succeed where aerobics was failing? Here are a few things you need to know about “steady state” cardio:
1. Training aerobic exercise makes you more efficient at doing aerobic exercise. This is a great thing if you are an endurance athlete, since you would want to be able to cover the same distances in less time. But for fat loss, the last thing we want is to be “efficient” at burning fat – to lose fat you want your body to be fuel inefficient, meaning you have to use more of your stored energy in your training. As I discovered over my months of cardio, I kept having to increase my exercise time just to maintain my weight to the point that I was sometimes jogging or doing aerobics twice a day!
2. Aerobic exercise does very little to build or even maintain muscle mass. Having more lean muscle mass is a big factor in keeping your resting metabolic rate high, since muscle tissue makes your body work hard (burn more calories) to maintain. We tend to lose muscle mass as we age, so it becomes increasingly important to focus on activities like strength training as we get older so that we can prevent our metabolism from slowing down too much.
3. While aerobic exercise burns more calories and fat during your workout, more intense activities like strength training continue to burn calories for many hours after you finish training, resulting in more total calories and fat burned overall.
When looking to get fat burning results from adding strength training, it’s important that the exercises you perform involve large ranges of motion and working multiple muscle groups at once. This will not only get you strong, but also get you a bigger “bang for your buck” by having your body do more work and burn more fat in shorter workouts than when you isolate muscle groups and use smaller ranges of motion (bye bye leg lifts and triceps kick backs). Here are two of my favorites:
The deadlift – Hinge your hips back, keeping the spine long. At the bottom, your knees should be over your ankles, and your hips should be higher than the knees, shoulders higher than the hips. Hold the bell with your hands, dig your heels in and push the floor down to stand up. At the top you will become a vertical plank, squeezing the glutes, pulling the kneecaps up into the thighs and bracing the abs.
The squat – holding the bell by the horns, pull yourself down into the bottom position with tension. As you descend, pry out from the hips to keep the knees tracking the ankles, and keep the spine long. At the bottom, the hips can descend below the knees provided the back doesn’t round and the knees don’t collapse in, and the shoulders should be as close to over the hips as possible. To come up, give yourself a grunt or a hiss to ascend, and assume the vertical plank at the top.
Of course deadlifts and squats are only part of a balance training program, and having proper form is key for safety and results – which is why good technique and programing are so important to us at Breakthrough.
And if you are worried about not getting your cardio, next month I will share the types of cardio training that are more beneficial for fat loss. So, don’t worry, we’ve got your cardio covered!
Strength and love!