Do you guys ever go off an idea for a while, like a few years maybe? And then slowly you come back to it again?
It doesn’t seem like it’s all that long ago, to me, but for some of my younger readers this might be a few years before you started to take an interest in fitness. So let’s begin with a little history lesson, shall we?
A while back, people in the business were big on talking about the different heart rate zones and how they were useful in pursuit of different goals. If you’ve ever been on one of the older treadmills for example, they might have a little sticker on the side that tells you what heart rate you should train at to be in the fat burning zone, or the cardio zone, or… whatever.
So, this theory lead to the popularisation of “Low Intensity Steady State” exercise, aka LISS. In other words, a lot of people were told they could drop a significant amount of weight just by pacing it out slowly on a treadmill, or taking a walk in the park, or whatever. It’s a pretty nice idea, isn’t it? A little effort to get up and be more active, but not really anything strenuous or exhausting.
By the time I started studying to enter the industry, they were already starting to move away from LISS and towards HIIT aka “High Intensity Interval Training”. I’m trying to remember where “High Intensity Steady State” fits in here but to be honest, I’ve been hit in the head a lot of times since then and things are a bit of a blur. Suffice it to say, different approaches have been favoured at different times, for different reasons.
Let’s consider why.
Your body has several different energy systems it relies on. It is quite a few years since I studied this stuff, so I won’t attempt to get into it in any real scientific level of detail due to the likelyhood that I’ll mess up some of the finer points. To put it simply though, your body uses different sources of energy for different levels of exertion. There isn’t a clear cut off where one system clocks out and other clocks on, so it is more correct to say “your body relies more on different energy systems at different rates of exertion”. It uses them concurrently though, you understand?
So back in the olden days (aka the 90s – early 2000s I guess), people liked the idea of LISS not just because it was non-objectionable and reasonable to expect from people who might not be so enthusiastic about more rigorous forms of training, but because at this level of exertion your body draws upon a higher percentage of energy from fat stores.
This is good in theory, but in practice there are a few issues which seem somewhat obvious now. Even though a high percentage of the energy you burn is pulled from body fat stores, it’s a high percentage of a relatively small amount over all. And if you’re not paying attention to your diet, you’re still likely to be storing more than you’re burning off.
For this reason, people started to move to variations on the “High Intensity” theme, as it burned more calories over all… and if I remember correctly, I seem to remember seeing some graphics showing more calories burned from fat despite being a lower percentage of over all calories burned while participating in this form of exercise.
Now… this is undoubtably better, but there are still issues. For one thing, this type of training isn’t for everyone. It is HARD and a lot of people aren’t going to find it enjoyable. Even the best approach is only any good if you’re actually going to stick to it. Also I’m not a fan of the “exercise to burn calories” strategy in any case for reasons I’ve covered in detail elsewhere.
Suffice to say here, the purpose of cardiovascular training should be as the name implies; primarily, to build a strong and healthy heart, and increase lung capacity. Not just to burn off energy as if having it was a bad thing. Taken to extremes, this idea morphs into “exercise bulimia” and the idea that you need to obsessively “burn off” as many calories as you take in, or they’ll be stored as fat. This is actually quite a widespread issue these days that you can probably imagine leading to even more serious problems.
So while some higher intensity cardiovascular training should be included as a component in an effective training program as part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve your goal, the benefits are as described above and not just as a means to expend the maximum amount of energy. Something I talk about a lot is that best results from training come from fueling appropriately to allow the body to recover and adapt favourably. To perform an excessive amount of High Intensity exercise, beyond what is adequate to improve cardiovascular conditioning with the sole intention of “burning more calories” is quite literally depriving the body of the resources that it needs to make those favourable adaptations to training, especially if you’re also on a restrictive low calorie or low carbohydrate intake.
This is getting a bit long and I want to go train! So let’s cut to the chase.
There was a conversation in one of my industry networks the other day, and one of the boys made a comment about how we used to believe in this stuff about the fat burning heart rate zone, and “if that was true, the best way to burn fat would be laying flat on our backs”. He was trying to be ridiculous, and he was mostly correct, but something about it set off a little light bulb above my head and i thought to myself “he’s actually right though, that is how to burn fat”. I’ll come back to this point and explain why in a minute or two.
Let’s assume we’re starting from scratch with a new client who’s oh… let’s say “actually overweight” at 90kg, and for their height and age we feel that around 70kg is an appropriate goal weight. Now, I can crunch the numbers and determine what is an appropriate approximate calorie target for this client to maintain around 70kg, and if they meet that target consistently the weight will come off. It’ll work, eventually… but not terribly efficiently on it’s own.
What do we need to do for more efficient results? Well, we’re providing enough energy and other resources through food to support a weight closer to 70kg. What we now need to do is ensure that all of those resources are utilised to preserve, create and maintain lean mass. This means strong, healthy and dense bones, and more lean muscle tissue. Remember as well that muscle takes up less physical space than the equivalent weight in body fat, and it will be the difference between arriving at goal weight in more athletic “toned” condition rather than just arriving at goal weight in more or less the same condition as you started in.
It’s also important to note that training strategically towards this aim will actually increase those calorie targets that we talked about, as we’re now thinking “adequate resources to produce best results from training at goal weight”, rather than just trying to starve and burn the weight off. This means there’s more room in your plan for your favourite foods, and we don’t need to feel like we’re on a strict diet. Ease of adherence really is the key to long term success, not willpower or discipline or anything else… make it so easy that you can’t fail to succeed.
So at this point… we know we’re consuming enough to maintain our goal weight of around 70kg, which is therefore not enough to maintain our starting weight of 90kg. Therefore the weight is going to come off. You could screw it up by UNDER eating but I’m going to assume you hit your targets properly, enjoy your meals and fuel appropriately for great results, and therefore it is inevitable that the weight comes off, and we have absolute certainty that all of the resources going in via food are utilised to recover and adapt favourably to training as well as simply to allow your body to function. At this point your body is prioritising the maintenance of lean mass, at the expense of body fat stores. 24/7.
Getting back to that earlier point though as promised. When I first got into the business and started writing blogs and articles, I probably talked a lot about increasing “incidental activity” to burn more energy throughout the day. Things like getting off the bus a block early and walking the rest of the way to work, or taking the stairs instead of the lift, and so forth. I moved away from that line of thought for reasons described above, being more focussed on effective training to really change your body condition, rather than on burning calories.
In this set of circumstances though, let’s reconsider. Walking an extra block on the way to work requires energy, but where is it coming from? It is not enough to having you puffing and panting, so we know oxygen is not the major source of energy. It isn’t a strenuous activity, squeezing the energy stores out of your muscles and requiring replenishment, either. Really, we’re back in that “mostly from fat stores” zone that went out of fashion five or ten years ago.
This is different from for example over-training with higher intensity forms of training, which would excessively burn or discard resources that we would prefer be available to recover and adapt to training. With the strategy described here, we’re training as effectively as possible with more strength based training and an appropriate amount of cardiovascular conditioning, while providing adequate resources to recover and adapt, producing best results at goal weight. Under these conditions all other, less strenuous daily activities will be fueled chiefly at the expense of body fat stores, just the way you would like them to. Even just sitting (or laying, as per my colleague’s example) around requires a certain amount of energy, hopefully by this point you can clearly imagine where that energy is most likely to come from.
Make no mistake here. Effective training and appropriate fueling is always the key, but increasing your overall, general, or incidental activity levels throughout the day can help make the process more efficient, and perhaps be that little 1 or 2 % extra “icing on the cake” in results.