Originally published in New Zealand Fitness.
There are many fads and fallacies regarding fat loss. The bottom line is this; you will not lose fat if you cut calories dramatically, and you will only lose body fat (and keep it off) if you burn calories through regular exercise! It really is that simple. The part that everyone finds so challenging is figuring out this balance between calorie consumption and calorie expenditure; what do I eat, when do I eat it and what kind of exercise will optimize fat loss. Then the only hurdle is actually doing the work!
One thing I know for sure after years of clinical experience treating back pain patients who had become overweight from inactivity secondary to pain:
DIETS DON'T WORK!!
This is particularly true with females. In the book "Outsmarting the Female Fat Cell", Debra Waterhouse makes it very clear that females come equipped with significantly more lipogenic (fat storing) enzymes and significantly less lipolytic (fat releasing) enzymes than their male counterparts. She also cites studies showing that a female's lipogenic enzyme count increases and lipolytic enzyme count decreases after a calorie-restricted diet, making it increasingly harder to lose weight with each and every successive diet!
A man's body doesn't appreciate dieting either. I have seen many male back pain patients undergo hospital directed diets, lose 60 pounds, and gain it all back in as little as a month. Coming off a diet to start eating "normally" again is like the tide coming in!
Instead of starving your body to shed fat, a more effective method is to increase the amount of energy you expend. Muscle cells are fuel hungry machines. Consequently any exercise that increases the size of muscle cells and makes them work more often will increase metabolism for optimal fat loss. Sounds to me like resistance training tops out again! It is well known among strength training professionals and researchers that there is a significant post-exercise elevation of metabolism, lasting up to 3-4 hours after your weight training session ends. This is an important consideration when deciding between cardio work or resistance training for fat loss. Since cardiovascular exercise provides very little post-exercise elevation of metabolism, your cells stop burning extra energy when you get done with your run, bike, swim, etc. Compare this to a good, solid weight training session where your metabolism keeps nibbling away at that fat for hours.
To see this in action, look at any group of athletes whose predominant exercise consists of resistance training, or short, high intensity sprint work. Sprinters are some of the very leanest athletes in the world. Olympic Weight lifters would rather be castrated than go for a run, yet they are predominantly a very lean group. Bodybuilders, by simple observation, are far leaner than those trying to lose fat by aerobics alone.
When visiting New Zealand, I filmed a special on the PUMP program at Les Mills World of Fitness for my video magazine. PUMP (or Body Pump as it is called in the USA) is a highly popular free weight training class choreographed to music and taught in a group setting. I was amazed at the incredibly lean, fit looking bodies in the room. If you view an aerobics class, you just don't see the same thing. In fact, IDEA released a study a couple years ago indicating that aerobics instructors had an average body fat of >20%, which is suprisingly high for what could be considered a professional athlete.
The whole physiology of someone who lifts weights is geared up to burn calories. The opposite is true of aerobicisers, whose physiology is like that of a Honda Civic; stretching a gallon of fuel for 40 miles. When you want to lose fat, you want to be like a Cadillac or a Hot Rod; you want to be fuel inefficient! Therefore you want to do exercises in such a manner that fuel efficiency is sacrificed. When serving as Trainer of the US Army Boxing Team, I used to implement weight lifting circuits of 12-18 exercises performed at maximum speed and effort for 30 seconds with intensities of 50-60% 1RM. The fighters hated me for it, but I assure you they were strong, could handle lactic acid build-up in the third round, and were lean, VERY LEAN!
In the past three years I have had very good results using a circuit concept I learned from Charles Poliquin: 5 compound exercises back to back with < 1:30 rest. The rest periods become progressively shorter as the clients’ condition and tolerance for lactic acid improves. Initial weight loss may be due to the fact that they are woofing their cookies between circuits, but within a few sessions clients learn to come rested and with less in their stomachs! This format causes huge caloric expense during and after training because the exercises chosen are predominantly closed chain with free weights. This type of program causes your body to reach states of near meltdown, which activates your thermo-regulatory system, burning even more calories. The program is done 3-4 times per week with intensities of 70-80% 1RM, cycling various exercises in and out to prevent injury.
Another useful method I used to keep the US Army fighters lean was not letting them eat dinner within three hours of going to sleep. I highly recommended a large protein-rich breakfast, a well-balanced lunch, and dinner as the smallest meal of the day for those needing to "shake some weight".
So there you have it, if you want to lose fat, do the following:
1. DON'T DIET! Eat a nutritious well balanced diet to discourage "survival" fat storage.
2. Make your first two meals of the day the largest. Eat snacks as needed to convince your body you're not starving, so you don't activate lipogenic enzymes
3. Eat your smallest meal of the day for dinner, remembering to give three hours between eating and hitting the sack.
4. Use resistance training to increase muscle mass, increase cellular metabolism and become FUEL INEFFICIENT
5. Apply periodic cycles of high intensity circuit training. Format your circuits with 5 compound exercises, short rest periods, bring a towel so you don't sweat all over everyone and prepare to up-chuck if you eat too close to your training session.
I have been applying these principles with great success, as have my interns all over the world. I am sure you can create the body you've always wanted with them if I can!