The bout: Fat loss.
Contenders: You vs. your body fat
Body fat throws a straight left to the face, right uppercut, jabs you into a corner, and throws a hefty overhand right. You’ve got your fists up, your chin down, you’re bobbing and weaving, just like you were taught, and your opponent is tiring himself out, but you haven’t won the fight until you throw a punch, until you turn the tables.
Here’s the thing: like defensive technique in any sport, nutrition will only take you so far. You need to mount an offense. If you don’t, then you’re going to plateau, and perhaps even gain some weight back. Even with the most pristine diet, nutrition will only help you lose so much fat. If you want to lean up, you need to move like your life depends on it.
What is the purpose of fat? We all know that fat stores energy. If you eat too many calories (energy), you will store fat (energy). Aside from that, fat helps regulate internal temperature, cushion organs and bones, regulate hormone levels, and store fat soluble nutrients. And who knows, they’re always discovering some new function of body fat, or what hormones are affected by body fat, that in another five years, this list will have doubled.
So you want less fat than you have now? Convince your body that you don’t need it. Turn the tables, and make a case against that stored energy.
A body with a high percentage of fat that is no longer responding to nutritional recommendations needs a reality check. The bottom line is this–you are not living in a world where food availability is lacking. You don’t need the extra body fat, you have three square meals per day, with ample snacking (albeit healthy snacking, I’m sure)–you are not going hungry any time in the near future.
But you know what your body thinks? “Man, I’ve accumulated all this weight, lucky me! If there’s ever a famine, I’m set for at least three months without food. And there’s no need to tap into my energy stash, all I do is move from one seated position to the next seated position for my 18 waking hours, easy peasy.”
Or maybe it’s thinking “I’ve got all this energy stored up as fat, all I do every week is walk around the house a little bit, pick some things up, cook or clean, maybe walk from the car to the store from the closest possible non-handicapped parking spot. And every couple of days I’ll walk really fast on this thing with a moving floor while we watch Days of Our Lives on the gym TV monitors.”
Your body’s internal dialogue instead needs to be “Oh god! The apocalypse is really here! Mobilize energy reserves! What the hell is going on out there?! Need energy now!”
My favorite thing to recommend for fat loss is high intensity interval training. This kind of exercise is characterized by short bursts of highly intense exercise, followed by a moderate or light exercise, rotated for the duration of the workout. Highly intense exercise is any exercise that you perform at 90-100% of your maximum ability. I call it the “Pre-Vomit/Post-Speech Grace Period.” It’s that fine line when you’re doing something so intensely that you couldn’t keep a conversation with somebody, and you feel that funny twinge in your stomach and your mouth begins to water as if you’re about to throw up everything you had for breakfast. Now I’m a big baby and hate throwing up, so I rarely push it beyond that point, but plenty of people do and are no worse off for it.
My high intensity interval training is 2 minutes on a heavy bag, followed by 25 kettlebell swings, some kind of core exercise (Russian twists are a favorite), and weighted lunges. When I say two minutes on the heavy bag, I’m talking about spit flying out of my mouth with every punch, floating around the bag like an erratic ballroom dancer, fantasizing about beating up the kid from 4th grade that pushed me into the mud when I was wearing white jeans trying to save an earthworm from being trampled by some rowdy classmates of mine. That kind of intensity. Kettlebell swings are a reprieve. Core exercise is a cat nap, and lunges are part of my rest period before I start the whole circuit back at heavy bag.
This kind of intensity was inspired by my 6 month 1x per week rendezvous with Crossfit, which is the most popular program that utilizes some form of high intensity interval training. They definitely know how to challenge you, and having a group of peers to push you is motivating. (And even going one time per week, with my heavy bag circuit on another day, and maybe one day of straight lifting, I couldn’t keep weight on. I literally had to go out and buy myself new work pants and eat as much snack food as I could before bed to maintain my weight above 105lbs).
Want to try high intensity interval training? Try this easy little routine: go to an outdoor track. Walk briskly or jog around the track twice as a warm up, get in a couple lunges and toe touches. Identify your start point at the beginning of a curve. Walk or jog the curve. At the straight away, book it. Run like you’ve got sprinting zombies on your tail. When you get to the curve again, slow back down to a walk or jog and catch your breath, but keep moving. At the next straight away, book it. Do 6-8 laps, or as many until you hit the Pre-Vomit/Post-Speech Grace Period. When you are all done, you better stretch those legs out. I mean it. And wolf down a protein shake. Throw a banana in for good measure.
Recreate this on an exercise bike if running isn’t your forte: warm up with some gentle cycling for 2 minutes. Then go into an all out sprint on the bike for 60 seconds. Pedal like it’s the last day of summer before grade school starts up again, and the ice cream man just turned the corner in your neighborhood heading away from you on your bike. Then back to the gentle cycling for another 60 seconds. Do this for 8-10 circuits, and cool down with 2 minutes of slow pedaling. That’s about 30 minutes of exercise. Do this as little as even 2-3 times per week and you will see results.
I don’t care how you reach the Pre-Vomit/Post-Speech Grace Period–I don’t care if you doggy paddle in a pool until you swallow enough water gasping for breath that you could fill up a kiddie pool. I don’t care if you travel lunge your way into a fit of tears. I don’t even care if you bicep curl until you can taste your dinner from yesterday in the back of your throat. Hit that grace period and convince your body the end is near, spare no expense, utilize anything you can get your hormones on for sustenance… then go out and buy new work pants. You’ll need them.
Boucher SH. (2011) High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss. J Obesity. doi:10.1155/2011/868305.
Gibala MJ. (2006) Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptation in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. J Physiol. 575: 901-911.
Hood MS, Little JP, Tarnopolsky MA, Myslik F, Gibala MJ. (2011) Low-Volume Interval Training Improves Muscle Oxidative Capacity in Sedentary Adults. Med & Science in Sports & Exerc. 43(10): 1849-1856.