I always feel the need to mention the difference between losing weight and losing fat when I write articles like this because the “weight loss” mindset is so prevalent in our culture. In short, I don’t want you to lose weight, I want you to shred fat and I talked about this at length in The Ten Pound Problem.
This distinction is really important because the wrong types of exercise cause you to lose weight (which often means muscle) instead of just fat. Perhaps the most pervasive myth in this regard is that “cardio” is the number one fat burner. That’s a belief that’s leading a bunch of people to failure and poorer health.
When I use the term cardio, I’m talking about any routine or program that puts you in the “target heart rate zone” for extended periods of time (typically 30 minutes or longer). This could be running, Tae Bo, certain P90X workouts, ellipticals, Jillian Michaels, and the list goes on and on.
I’m not going to spend this article tearing down cardio, though. Instead, I’m going to tell you what kind of exercise really shreds fat and helps you sculpt the body you want so you can focus all of your time and energy there rather than on something that’s counterproductive to your goals.
Caution, paradigm shift ahead.
Pick any DVD fitness program and check the workout length. It’s almost certainly in the 30 minute to 60 minute range. This is the “normal” that’s been programmed into us by the fitness industry.
But, as with calories and “weight loss”, it’s not the quantity that matters, it’s the quality. 10 minutes of the right exercise is light years better than 30 minutes or more of the wrong exercise.
This is not true in EVERY case, because duration is king when choosing low intensity activities like walking. But, as good as walking is for health and some fat loss, it’s not going to make you faster, stronger, and leaner any time soon.
Learn to love intensity.
The key to burning fat without cannibalizing muscle is high intensity, short duration training. It’s the foundation of body recomposition: losing that pesky fat while maintaining precious muscle mass.
I define high intensity as maximal effort. You either do that with heavy resistance or simply exertion.
Jogging at 40% of maximal effort is not high intensity. Sprinting at 100% of maximal effort is.
In weight lifting or strength training, this looks like focusing on heavy weight (and I recommend putting the most emphasis on the eccentric phase of your movements).
Instead of biking 10 miles, do 20 minutes of high intensity interval training on a stationary bike against resistance.
Instead of swimming 100 laps in a pool, do 20 minutes of swim sprints in a high drag swimming suit. And don’t think you have to be that fancy either…just sprint the laps!
You get the idea.
Your mitochondria love intensity.
Mitochondria are like the engines of your cells. Increasing the health of your mitochondria and their quantity increases the oxidative capacity of your muscles.
In essence, you’re increasing your metabolism through increased cellular production and muscle growth. It’s all about engaging the most muscle fibers and increasing the production of hormones that queue growth.
Steady state cardio — the “traditional” cardio — engages the low hanging fruit of muscle fibers. And because the intensity remains proportionately lower than alternative forms of exercise, you can do this type of cardio for 20 minutes or two hours without positive results.
Even worse, steady state cardio becomes catabolic, meaning it promotes the loss of muscle. This is counterproductive to increasing metabolism, losing fat, and achieving that lean, athletic body.
Steady state cardio may encourage fat loss in the beginning, but your body will quickly adapt to that training intensity and create a new set point. Once this occurs, fat loss will slow, muscle loss will be encouraged, and other negative side effects like increased hunger and systemic inflammation (even injury) begin to occur.
Your hormones love intensity.
Intensity works because it engages more muscle fibers and promotes the release of muscle building hormones. This burns fat without chewing up muscle. And best of all, you can infinitely increase the intensity: add more weight to the bar, throw a parachute on for sprints, increase the resistance on the stationary bike, and so on.
Hormones are the key here. There are hormones that love to store fat and there are hormones that love to burn it. There are hormones that love to build muscle and hormones that love to chew it away. Your mission — should you choose to accept it — is to engage in the activities that promote the muscle building, fat burning hormones and not the other kind.
If you want to toss all the science aside and come at this from a purely observational standpoint, compare the physique of Olympic marathoners to the physique of Olympic sprinters. Which one would you rather be? Case closed.
Want to know how important hormones are? You can actually grow the muscles in your upper body solely with effective lower body strength training. Why? Because the hormones produced when working the large muscle groups in the legs promotes muscle growth everywhere.
I know it’s tough for runners to stop running. But, the science is telling you that it’s best — and healthiest — to put your focus elsewhere. Listen to it!
Additional thoughts and benefits…
Intensity doesn’t mean speed: If you’re in the weight room, I’m not advocating for moving the weights faster. I’m advocating for lifting heavier and I’m advocating for focusing on the eccentric phase of the movement. And for the record, I’m always advocating for the safest possible form of effective exercise.
Efficiency: Focusing on intensity over duration makes training more efficient. You get the same or better results in less time.
Lower Risk of Overuse Injury: Steady state cardio is notorious for overuse injuries. 50-75% of running injuries are overuse injuries and the overall injury rate for running is 2.5 to 12.1 injuries per 1000 hours of running. Running has a higher incidence of injury than most dynamic and/or contact sports. Stop!
Want more specifics on what you should be doing? Check out these two articles:
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Founder of Rebooted Body and host of The Rebooted Body Podcast. Kevin helps men and women finally get a body and life they love with his unique blend of real food, functional movement, and psychology. To work with him personally, choose a program.