Focused Weight Training Beats Mushy Middle Cardio
There are quite a few myths floating around out there about the relationship between weight training and weight loss. Here are three that I’d like to debunk right away:
- You’ll get injured. While there’s a certain amount of risk associated with any physical activity, you won’t get injured lifting weights if you have proper instruction.
- Weight lifting will make you bulky. Sure, you can bulk up with weights. But that will only happen if getting bulky is your goal. When you follow a well-organized plan, lifting weights will make you stronger, fitter, and help you lose fat. And that’s probably what you’re after.
- Cardio is better than lifting for losing weight. This is simply not true. Two things to address here: when most people do cardio, they spend most of their time in the moderate range. I call this the mushy middle. Training in this zone works up to a point, but it’s not as effective for weight loss as weight training.
For over twenty years, research in exercise physiology has shown that strength training is one of the best things you can to burn fat and lose weight. Recent studies comparing aerobic exercise to resistance training yield complex and often conflicting results, but when we examine the data closely, it’s clear strength training is more effective than aerobic training at increasing lean muscle mass. When we combine this with the fact that muscle burns more energy than fat, the conclusion is there for all to see: in a head to head match-up, weight training beats moderate cardio for fat burning and weight loss.
Think of weight training like investing in a low cost mutual fund with a guaranteed return of 4% annually. When your financial adviser says you can leave the money in your account, reinvest the dividends, and make more money over the long run, you’d jump all over it. It’s a guaranteed return. Now, think of me as your fitness adviser telling you the same thing about resistance training: if you invest your time and energy in weight training and keep at it over time, the long-term returns—i.e. weight loss and fat burning—will beat the same time and energy spent on cardio.
The smart choice is to jump all over it.
Weight Training Tips
The fastest way to burn fat is by lifting heavy weights. This is true for both men and women. Use these four keys to lift heavy and lose weight:
- Do it safely. For best results, always follow the instructions of an expert trainer.
- Concentrate on the eccentric phase. The easiest way to explain this is with a simple bicep curl: the concentric phase is when you lift the weight up, toward your shoulder, and the eccentric phase is when the weight is on its way down. Caveat: we prefer compound, multi-joint exercises as opposed to single joint exercises like the curl; this is simply a quick way to explain what we mean by eccentric—we’re not talking about quirky or off-beat, here.
- Use your own body weight. Body weight exercises are exactly what they sound like: exercises that use your weight as resistance to create a strength response. Fundamental bodyweight exercises are squats, planks, pull-ups, push-ups, lunges, and dips. You can do these exercises anywhere and anytime. They’re efficient and incredibly effective.
- Personalize It. Whether you’re in college, a busy professional, a stay-home parent, an empty-nester, or a retiree, you can benefit from situation-specific strength training. Did you catch that? Situation-specific. That means you find a trainer or coach, tell them your goals, and work with them to create a plan that works with and for your life.
I want to take a moment to elaborate on what I mean by personalizing your routine. I understand you might have a few aches and pains restricting your movement. You may even have some significant injuries in your past that directly affect what you can and can’t do. The thing is, there is always a workaround. No matter what issue you’re facing, you can still tailor your program to the needs of your body. It doesn’t matter how much you lift, but how often you lift and the relationship of the weight to your maximum capacity.
How to Really Get Toned
Getting great muscle tone is not about how many calories you burn, but by how much subcutaneous fat your body uses as energy to fuel both your workout and the recovery from your workout. The problem with using cardiovascular exercise to reduce fat and improve muscle tone is that it doesn’t trigger the types of physiological processes weight training does. Weight training triggers metabolic and anabolic reactions that alter your body composition. It increases your lean muscle mass while burning fat, and the net effect is both weight loss and improved muscle tone. Cardio alone does not do this.
Here’s another problem: using weight as your primary objective measure. If all you have to go by is the number on a scale, then you’ll never understand why you’re not getting the tone you’re looking for. You may lose weight, true enough. But if you want to change how your muscles look, you have to lose excess body fat—which is different than simply shedding pounds—and increase the size, type, and number of your muscle fibers. This is what changes the shape of your muscles and gives you a toned and taught appearance, if that’s what you’re after. Muscle and fat are different types of tissue, which grow and burn at different rates. To lose fat and increase muscle mass at the same time, you have to include anaerobic workouts in your plan. You have to cut down on the amount of mushy middle-zone cardiovascular sessions you perform in a given week, while simultaneously increasing the amount of strength training or high-intensity work you do.
And you have to do this at your own level—meaning your anaerobic and strength work should be performed at a pace, intensity, and weight that’s right for your body and your goals.
Imagine two body types: a sprinter and a marathoner. One runs an event that lasts for less than ten seconds, while the other runs an event that lasts over two hours. Their bodies are completely different; like night and day. It’s no surprise their training programs are completely different, too. A sprinter’s training program activates muscle fibers that many people never use, and a marathoner taps endurance reserves most of us never come close to. The point here is specificity: both these types of athletes tailor their training to meet their needs, and that’s what you should do, too.
By lifting heavier weights and focusing on the eccentric (downward) phase of a strength training movement, you stimulate more muscle growth in a shorter amount of time than you do with light weights done quickly. This causes rapid changes in body composition and results in the toned, taught looking muscles you may want. To burn fact quickly, it’s best to activate all of your energy pathways during a workout, throughout your week, and over the long-term course of your training plan. This means varying the exercises you do, working at different levels of intensity, and allowing for ample recovery time so your body can make the adaptations that lead to fat loss. Stress and recover—forget about doing more.
Speed Up Your Metabolism
Research proves roughly one pound of muscle burns about the same amount of energy as three pounds of fat. This means the amount of lean muscle mass you have increases your resting metabolic rate, i.e. the rate at which your body processes energy by default. As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass, so if you’re not doing any strength training to maintain that muscle mass, your body composition will gradually change, and your muscles will lose the natural tone they once had. Unfortunately, bike riding, running, walking, and using an elliptical trainer don’t teach your body to burn fat with anything close to the efficiency weight training does. The secret to speeding up your metabolism lies in learning the right strength training exercises, then adding load (work or weight) at the correct time and in the proper amounts.
Improve Your Hormones
Weights are the simplest way to change body composition; however, in-depth, targeted research shows high-intensity cardiovascular intervals combined with functional bodyweight and/or weight training exercise might lead to fat-burning adaptations in the body you can’t get from performing continuous cardiovascular activity alone. A combination of high-intensity intervals and weight training may also reduce insulin resistance, which means your body becomes more efficient at reducing both subcutaneous fat (directly beneath the skin) and visceral fat (the fat around your organs, a.k.a belly fat). Insulin is the hormone that controls whether your body holds onto fat in your cells or releases it for energy. If this thread of research is verified over the next couple of years, it will mean a huge step forward in exercise theory and practice. By pairing strength training and short duration cardio intervals, you’ll improve insulin sensitivity—the real key to burning fat. This means quick changes in aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, and skeletal muscle mass. In short, you’ll be able to get fitter, healthier, and toned faster than ever before.
Weight Loss Action Plan
Start lifting weights or performing bodyweight exercises 2-3 days per week.
If intensity is not your jam, pick 2 lower body, 2 upper body, and 2 core exercises. Perform 3 sets of each exercise, with 4-8 repetitions per set. Focus on the eccentric phase of the movement as described above—make it last 6-10 seconds. Let’s use squats as an example. With perfect form, slowly lower yourself down with your weight in your heels. I mean sloooow. Make it last six seconds minimum. Then fire back up! By the 6th or 8th repetition you’ll feel the burn—I promise.
Do sprint intervals every 10 days.
Another way to increase force and promote fat burning is to implement safe sprint intervals. For our new exercisers, we’re not talking about running; we want to focus on safe intensity over volume. We’re talking about doing 6-8 all out sprints on a low impact cardio machine, but they only last 20 seconds. Recover for 60-80 seconds, then get after it again. The set will be over before you know it, and the results are amazing. These sprints trigger a stress response that ultimately improves glucose tolerance, meaning your body will learn when it needs to use stored glucose as opposed to stored fat. Sprint intervals also improve the balance of hormones in your body.
The Secret to The Secrets
Remember, this entire series—Skyterra Fat Loss Secrets—is about sharing information about fat loss that’s not widely known and not widely practiced. Yet. That’s why these tip seem unexpected: at Skyterra we strive to stay at the cutting edge of our industry, combining passion and practicality with the latest advances in exercise science and research. And the secret to the secrets? Well, that’s simple: there are no secrets. None of our articles are meant to be a magic bullet. We never claim to have the one answer that cures everything, nor should you think any of our recommended strategies will automatically result in weight loss.
Here’s what we want you to take away from this series: prioritize strategies that burn fat efficiently so you no longer have to spend hours in the gym without getting the results you want. Way back in 440 B.C. Hippocrates had it exactly right:
“The right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little, not too much, is the safest way to health.”