There are many reasons someone might embark on a fitness journey: general health, enjoyment, to build strength, to build endurance, speed training, enhance sports performance, fat loss, and more. Achieving certain fitness goals is more difficult than others. Enhancing sport performance, increasing speed, and building strength are some of the more difficult fitness goals to achieve. What fitness goals are easier to achieve? General health, increasing endurance, and fat loss. Yes, that's right! FAT LOSS is one of the easier goals to achieve in the realm of fitness, and that's because we know what works. What holds people back on their journey to lose weight are inefficient exercise behaviors. Now let's dive in and determine how to get the best bang for your buck when exercising, while acknowledging the common pitfalls that will result in a lack of progress.
PRINCIPLE #1: Consistency
Fat loss results are strongly tied to the consistency of exercise behaviors. So be consistent, no IFs, ANDs, or BUTs. If you want to lose weight you will need to exercise anywhere between 3 to 6 days a week. I try to avoid programming people to exercise more than 5 days a week because exercising more than 5 days a week is a difficult exercise behavior to maintain. So how many days a week is right for you? Well that depends on how many days a week you can comfortably commit to exercise. If you are saying to yourself: "I think I can do 4 days a week." Then you need to do it 3 days a week. Why? Because what a good fitness coach wants to hear is: "I know I can exercise 3 days a week." Again, consistency creates results; spreading yourself too thin and skipping a day of exercise here and there will result in inconsistent behavior. When behaviors become inconsistent, they are more likely to degrade to the point where the behavior no longer exists. Other factors that will influence the number of days an individual must exercise a week to lose weight are the quality of the exercise programming and what exercises are being performed. We will touch on these factors later.
PRINCIPLE #2: Strength Training Over Cardio
Holding the variables of intensity and duration constant, 1 hour of strength training will result in greater fat loss than 1 hour of cardio. Yes, I know at your annual physical every year the doctor recommends you do cardiovascular exercise for your health. While your family doctor is highly skilled and educated, they are not an exercise physiologist. Simply put, your family physician does not necessarily understand the intricacies of how the body responds to exercise, and that is why we have exercise physiologists. There are a few reasons why strength training is superior to cardiovascular exercise.
Strength training results in increased muscle activation. Generally speaking, we have three different types of muscle fibers: Type I, Type IIa, Type IIx. On average, 50% of the muscle fibers in the human body are Type I. Type I fibers are our endurance muscle fibers, and they are responsible for most of the non-strenuous movement we perform throughout the day. They are also the muscle fibers we utilize when performing cardio exercise because they don't fatigue like the Type IIa and Type IIx fibers. The problem with only performing cardiovascular exercise is that the Type IIa and Type IIx fibers fatigue quickly and their activity becomes silent, which means they aren't contributing to burning calories. Therefore, when performing cardio, you are only utilizing half of your muscle fibers to burn energy which results in less weight loss.
The Type II muscle fibers utilized in strength training are larger and less energy efficient than Type I, therefore they require greater amounts of energy to remain active. This results in you burning more calories. Strength training such as curling a dumbbell causes activation of all three muscle fiber types, so closer to 100% of your muscle fibers will be actively burning energy. Would you rather have 50% of your muscle fibers burning energy for 30 minutes or 75-100% of your muscle fibers burning energy for 30 minutes? If your goal is fat loss the answer is certainly 75-100%, so perform strength training.
Another benefit of strength training for fat loss is that it takes more energy to recover from strength training than it does cardio. The maintenance of muscle fiber health and integrity requires the body to take proteins, break them down into amino acids, and then build them back into proteins for the structure of the muscle fiber. When your body has to complete this activity for a greater number of muscle fibers, as it does with strength training, you burn more calories and lose more fat.
PRINCIPLE #3: Stay Off Machines!
Exercise machines are typically ineffective for fat loss for two primary reasons. The first being that they do not encourage full body movements. Most machines are for isolation exercises meaning they are only working the muscles around one or two joints. When the goal is fat loss, it is imperative to select exercises that will work as many muscles in the body as possible.
Secondly, machines tend to only allow movement along a fixed path; because of this the body does not have to work as hard to remain stable. For instance, when shoulder pressing a dumbbell overhead, the dumbbell is free to move in any direction. So to ensure the dumbbell doesn't fall the lifter must keep it stable. The ability to keep the dumbbell stable during the shoulder press requires hundreds of split-second reflexes and the core muscles to remain active. The increased core activation and reflexive activity will ultimately result in the lifter burning significantly more calories and building significantly more strength.
PRINCIPLE #4: Select Exercises That Work the Whole Body
You may be noticing a trend here, but the overarching goal is to engage in exercise behaviors that activate more muscles throughout the body. The activation of more muscle burns more calories and will make you stronger. Therefore, it is imperative to choose exercises that are considered full body exercises. This principle is simple. Would you rather work just your biceps with a bicep curl? Or work your biceps, lats, serratus anterior, trapezius, rhomboids, abdominal muscles, and more with an assisted chin-up?
Here are some examples of good and bad exercises for fat loss:
Bad: sit up machine
Good: assisted chin-up machine
Bad: bicep curl machine
Good: goblet squat
Bad: leg extension machine
Good: standing military press
Bad: seated shoulder raises
Good: kettlebell swings
Bad: seated hamstring curl
Bad: chest press machine
Good: farmer's carry
Bad: seated dumbbell shrugs
PRINCIPLE #5: Maintain an Appropriate Exercise Intensity
The training stimulus must be strong enough to cause your body to adapt, so don't make it too easy. Rate the difficulty of the exercise you are performing on a scale of 0-10. Zero is no difficulty at all. 1-3 is low difficulty, 4-6 is moderately difficult, 7-9 is difficult, and 10 is maximally difficult (I can't do any more......make it stop!). The sweet spot for training will be a difficulty of 6-8/10. If the difficulty is less than a 6/10 increase the weight, number of reps, or time of the hold. If the difficulty is greater than an 8/10 decrease the weight, number of reps, or time of the hold. Work hard and work smart!
PRINCIPLE #6: High Intensity Interval Training
You just finished 40 minutes of strength training (which is what I would recommend). Now it's time for cardio, but not just any cardio. High Intensity Interval Training cardio. Get on a bike, an elliptical, treadmill, or rower. It's time to finish the workout with 15 to 20 minutes of cardiovascular training. Part of this cardiovascular training will be high intensity and the other part of the training will be low intensity. The low intensity portion is known as the recovery interval. Alternate between a short high intensity interval and a longer recovery interval for 15 to 20 minutes. I recommend that you keep the recovery interval 3 to 5 times longer than the high intensity interval. In other words, your HIIT ratio is 1 : 3-5. For example:
- 30 seconds high intensity to 1.5 minutes low intensity (HIIT ratio 1:3)
- 60 seconds high intensity to 4 minutes low intensity (HIIT ratio 1:4)
- 60 seconds high intensity to 5 minutes low intensity (HIIT ratio 1:5)
The closer your HIIT ratio is together, the more difficult it will be and the more you will benefit. The first example above is the most difficult. Now how do you set the intensity for the intervals and know how intensely you are working during each interval?
- Option 1: Use a 0-10 difficulty scale (also known as the RPE or rate of perceived exertion scale). For the high intensity interval use a difficulty of 8-9/10, and for the low intensity recovery interval use a 5-7/10. Keep at least a two-point spread between the high intensity interval and recovery interval.
- Option 2: Use heart rate as a gauge for intensity. First estimate your max heart rate with the following formula 220 - Age = Estimated Max heart Rate. Then for the low intensity interval multiply your estimated max heart rate by either .60 or .70. For the high intensity interval multiply your estimated max heart rate by either .80 or .90.
Example for a 45-year-old: 220 - 45 = 175 estimated max HR
Low intensity interval: 175 x .60 = 105 heart rate (exercise at this HR during the interval)
High intensity interval: 175 x .90 = 157.5 heart rate (exercise at this HR during the interval)
What does HIIT do and how will it help you lose weight? High Intensity Interval Training results in an extended recovery period after you finish the exercise session. Your body will consume extra oxygen for up to 2 hours after performing HIIT. The phenomenon is known as EPOC or excess postexercise oxygen consumption. During this time period your body will continue to burn calories as it recovers from the training session. Many studies suggest that people who engage in HIIT will burn more calories in their sleep, as well.
Now you know the key exercise behaviors to get the best bang for your buck at the gym. I suggest to everyone to check in with their doctor or health professional to ensure you are healthy enough to safely engage in these exercise behaviors. Lastly, changing the way you do things can be hard, but it is much better than spinning your wheels. Embrace the change in your exercise program, so you can embrace the change in your body.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.