What is one of the most damning fitness advice that you have ever heard? I bet it is eat less workout more. It is a sound advice, when we just push deeper into this advice it's ugly head is revealed. In this post I'm going to talk about how to workout in a way that does not leave you broken and without joy.
The dark side of becoming obsessed with eating and dieting
Though working out more and eating less is a sound advice, but then again moderation is required. Going extreme, even with a well meaning advice can and will do some damage that may take a long time to resolve.
For example, a woman who works out intensely but does not eat properly. She is going to have a hard time to lose any fat because the body is trying to protect her from consistent lack of food. Overtime, she will reduce her food even more and increase the intensity or duration of her workouts even more, thus seeing teeny-tiny change which will convince her to keep doing that.
But, the body is smart, it senses that the energy which is being spent is not being restored again and it adapts to this new lower energy state. Thus prompting her to reduce her food intake once more and increasing her workouts workouts again.
The drop in weight that she sees is more likely due to the muscle tissues that is being wasted away to make up for the lack of energy due to reduced food intake. She will slowly lose her shape, although she'll we thin, but without any semblance of her feminine figure.
As the cycle of reduced food intake and over exertion continues her body is adapting to this in the following manner.
Reduced expenditure of energy. Lower Resting metabolic rate, and reduce energy expenditure in day to day activity (NEAT). The body becomes more energy efficient. Energy efficient body is bad for fat loss.
Increased number of fat cells because the body does not understand that the lack of food is voluntary and not because of a famine. It fortifies itself by increasing its fat carrying capacity.
Finally, the body's hormonal profile become such that it favors muscle wasting and fat gain. Such as low thyroid function, insulin resistance, increased glucagon, cortisol, and adrenalin.
In this manner this woman is set up for rapid weight gain due to fat gain whenever she decides to return to her normal eating habits. Because eventually the body will no longer be able to cope with the stress of reduced food intake and very high energy expenditure from long high intensity workouts.
Later on she may also develop mental health issues due to rapidly deteriorating shape of the body which may culminate in a full blown eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia which may put her life on risk directly or indirectly.
A lot of people, both men and women, are suffering from eating disorders that have a direct link to their obsession with "dieting and exercising". Their intentions weren't misplaced but their efforts were.
The sane and easy way to do fitness
So is it necessary to kill oneself in the gym to get results? Not at all. There are sustainable ways to go about fitness, ones that are guaranteed to give better results, and the results will stick this time around.
Prioritizing muscle building over losing fat
To understand this, we need to understand the bio-energetics of the human body. Human cells utilize different substrate for providing energy during activities of varying intensity.
Very high intensity and very short duration activities (activities lasting 3-5 seconds) the body relies on a molecule called phosphocreatine. Examples of such activities - Max effort snatch, 40 yards sprint, max vertical jump effort, running up a very short flight of stairs.
High intensity and short duration activities (activities lasting 30-40 seconds) body prefers to utilize carbohydrate to provide energy. Examples of such activities - 100m and 200m sprint, a set of jump squat, a set of 10 pullups etc.
Medium intensity and medium duration activities (activities lasting 2-3 minutes) body relies on carbohydrate again to provide energy. Examples of such activities - All out set of kettlebell swing, a set of 15-20 burpees, 400m-800m sprint etc.
Low Intensity and long duration activities (activities lasting >3 minutes) body relies on fats to provide energy. Example of such activities - jumping rope for 15 minutes, running 5km, a marathon, working on elliptical trainer for 10 minutes, sitting at your desk and working on your laptop.
Of course these separations are not like a switch, at any given time all 4 energy systems are at work. The description above only states the most dominant energy system during any given activity.
Therefore, the notion that you can burn fat during exercise is not so powerful, and you cannot run a marathon everyday. The activities that all of us do the most are very very low intensity activities, stacking things on the shelf, reading a book in the park, working in your office, fixing your car, playing with your child.
As the muscles use fat for very low intensity exercises it makes sense to increase that utilization as far as fat loss is concerned. Therefore, it should be our imperative to build more muscles.
Losing fat can quickly spiral out of control leading to metabolic disorders. Therefore building muscles is a smarter approach to sustainable fat loss. The key points of this approach are given below.
Prioritizing strength and hypertrophy workouts
Rather than chasing the burn, soreness, and breathlessness of the huff and puff workout invest your time and money into building more muscles. As was mentioned earlier, the muscles utilize carbohydrates to fuel short intense effort. Having bigger muscles that are worked hard will soak up blood glucose like a sponge thus giving you better blood sugar levels.
Bigger muscles are also very energy intense for the body to maintain, i.e., the body spends a lot of energy from fats stored in the body to maintain muscles at rest. Doing cardio with bigger muscles place a larger demand for energy thus utilizing more stored fat.
Multiple studies done on obese and diabetic people has shown that HIIT cardio is superior to steady state cardio for increasing fat loss, clearing sugar from the blood stream more effectively compared to steady state cardio.
HIIT is High Intensity Interval Training, where you work at very very high intensity for very short duration. As we learnt that this kind of effort relies on glucose, thus increasing the demand for glucose in the muscles converting them into sugar hungry sponges that clear your blood of the excess sugar.
The benefit of HIIT is also observed up to 48 hours of concluding the session. One of the features of HIIT is work is that you don't recover completely between the intervals thus making the internal state slightly hypoxic, which then increases the demand for oxygen in muscles for up to 48 hours. This results in increased utilization of stored fat towards muscles recovery thus you get leaner.
When you are stuck in the cycle of losing and gaining fat you are condemned to dieting, picking this eliminating that controlling your portions which can become maddening. On the other hand, building muscles require all the macro nutrients. Yes carbs, and fats too and you do not have to remain hungry too to meet your goals.
Carbs and fats have a protein sparing effect, i.e., when adequate carbs and fats are present the body then no longer has to rely on protein for meeting it's energy needs. Protein is then put to use to build bigger muscles, replenishing enzymes, and hormones which are all essential for health and longevity of the human organism.
Although the body won't build anything if it is being underfed. When you engage in HIIT and Hypertrophy based workouts the body's demand for nutrition is increased which it announces by making you hungry. You will be wise to heed to it and not undereat. Eat to your satiety.
Include diverse food groups, meat from poultry, lamb, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, grains, fruits, and vegetable to ensure that your body is properly fueled.
Please note that building muscles is not an excuse to binge eat, or eating junk. Not all calories are made equal. Calories derived from junk food are devoid of any nutrition, it is more conducive to making you fat rather than muscular.
If you are not sure, follow a nutrition plan that has portions measured out for you and have proper ratio of macronutrient to ensure your optimum growth. You can use various tools to ensure that your nutrition is on point.
Because the body adapts very quickly to huff and puff style of workout, these workout require you to work harder for even longer. But the body is smarter than we are, thankfully.
We can either work hard or work long. But not both together.
Therefore, whatever energy expenditure you may achieve is not substantial enough to cause any significant increase in fat loss. But, because you're underfed and already overworked the amount of effort required to increase the intensity manifests as elevated heart rates, increased blood pressure, elevated rate of breathing thus giving an illusion of hard work.
Building muscles on the other hand require your body to be relaxed. The easiest way to do this is by sleeping 7-9 hours per night. This is a non-negotiable. During sleep the body increases a number of hormones that increase muscle protein synthesis such as GH, and testosterone.
Also, if you've slept well you wake up the next day very fresh and thus the quality of your effort in the gym the next day is many orders of magnitude better thus providing more stimulus for your body to build more muscles.
Sacrificing sleep quality and quantity manifest very quickly as reduced insulin sensitivity, increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, poor will power, poor decision making thus indulging in activities that promote poor health.
It is then your constitutional duty to prioritize sleep and aiding any recovery effort by napping. Now, who doesn't love napping in the day.
Another crucial and overlooked aspect of recovery is spending time away from gym, both mentally and physically. On few days, make time to indulge in activities that make you happy, these can be as simple as going on a walk with friends, playing with your kids, going on a long bike ride. It is important to let the mind and body decompress so you are motivated to come back to do the process again and again, till the goals are achieved.
Set Attainable Process Goals
It is easy to make ridiculous goals like putting on 20kg muscle in 3 months. We all know where is this headed, disappointment and disillusionment. Not only is this totally bonkers, the idea behind it assumes that there's some kind of magic that guarantees direct conversion of food to muscles, which is equally bonkers.
A better way to set goals is having the desired result as a one long term goal, let's say gaining 20kg muscles in 24 months. Then setting process goals for the 24 months that'll help us reach our long term goal such as doing weight training 3-4x per week, or eating 500 Cals more than maintenance etc.
The benefit of setting goals in such a manner is that it gives us a direction to move towards while at the same time gives us things to do that are totally under our control. If we follow the process for the stipulated amount of time, we may not gain 20kg muscles, we may only gain 15 or 17kg muscles but it is better than being disappointment and quitting the journey in 3 months and don't worry people are going to notice 17kg of extra muscles on you.
So that is it guys, do let me know if you found the discussion useful. I know that the post is really long, however it couldn't have been made shorter than it is right now, and it didn't sit well with me to have you clicking different posts to get the message. Thanks for reading :) Cheers.