Fat Loss

"That's A Load of...." Debunking Media "Fitness" Terms

Glance at the front of the magazines at grocery stores and you'll see a variety of "fitness" or "health" claims such as "tone," "fat-blasting," and other such nonsense as that. I find myself rolling my eyes so much that my occipital (eye) muscles are as big as a body builder's biceps. Sorry, strength coach joke.

Moving on, today I'm going to rip through debunk a few of those outrageous claims so that you too can strengthen your occipital muscles as you wait in the grocery check-out line. I can not possibly cover all the silliness out there, but I've narrowed it down to a few of the common ones (that seem to appear month after month on magazines such as "Self" or "Woman's Day"). A lot of these claims are found on women's magazines, mainly because I think we're fed more crap than the fellas, but they apply to both genders.

CLAIM: "Tone," as in "tone those jiggly arms"- First off, let me remind you that everyone's arm jiggles; that's what happens when a muscle is relaxed. The main definition of "Tone" in exercise physiology is: the normal state of elastic tension or partial contraction in resting muscles. For example, the postural are constantly contracting and relaxing to keep you upright (or slouched...stand up straight!). The fitness magazine "tone" refers to the ability to actually see the muscles' shapely form. (So really, they should say "definition" not "tone.")

In order for a muscle group to be defined, say your arms, two things must occur: 1) the muscle is big enough to be seen (so those stupid tricep kick-backs or bicep curls with 5 pound weight ain't gonna cut it when it comes to muscle growth.) and 2) there needs to be less subcutaneous (under the skin) fat. How does one accomplish bigger muscles with less body fat? Why, picking up heavy stuff and eating a vegetable and protein laden-diet! Glance through a women's magazine at those "arm toning" exercises and you tell me if you think they would actually succeed. As for eating healthy, the details look different for each person (i.e. paleo, vegan, omnivore, etc.), however it should be 90-100% REAL FOOD with minimal crap (though a Christmas cookie or two is ok.) 90% of the time.

FACT: "Tone" means: less fat, bigger muscles. 

CLAIM: "Fat-blasting" food- The media makes it seems as if these foods (and it's a new one each week!) has heavy artillery and upon entrance to the body, starts blowing up fat cells left and right.

Uh, sorry, that's not how the body works. Fat cells, once formed, don't go away. They do however change size depending on how much fat is stored in them. So, in order to reduce the amount of fat in each cell, the body needs to be in a caloric deficit. This means you need to eat LESS than what you're using up, for the basic metabolic functions, exercise, and other activities. The body will burn it's excess energy, aka stored fat, to make up for the lack of energy intake. Altering body composition is a life style change; I guarantee you that just eating a serving or two of "fat blasting" foods will NOT be enough to reverse years of bad eating habits. There is a wealth of solid (and scientific) advice out there, and there are definitely more details than I plan on elaborating in this post (maybe another time...) however it boils down to this:

Stop eating crap, eat real food, and pick up heavy things. Take note that I put the nutritional advice first. You can not out-train a crappy diet, so clean that up first! There will be a blog post later on this month regarding that whole aspect of fat-loss.

FACT: Eating a whole-foods based diet, with minimal crap, and exercising regularly OVER TIME will reduce body fat levels.

CLAIM: "Target" body part, usually for fat loss- This myth just won't die! It keeps reappearing week after week on the covers of magazines and on the interwebz. People, YOU CANNOT SPOT REDUCE!!! The body doesn't say, "Oh, I see that you are doing thousands of crunches, I should reduce the body fat I store there so you can have a flat tummy." Really, it says, "For the love of all things iron, STOP CRANKING ON THE SPINE ! It HATES that!" Targeting is about as effective as trying to grow eye-stalks.

Oh, if grunting made it so!

For "targeting trouble areas" see the above two points: an overall body fat reduction will promote definition of muscles and those "problem areas" will be not so problematic. Again, it's a life-style change, not a quick fix.

*This is not to say that isolation work has no purpose. How else are you supposed to have guns for the ladies? Some isolation work thrown in to an already compound-movement heavy (lots of multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, pushups, pull ups etc) work out can provide some extra stimulation to a muscle group that can lead to hypertrophy (growth).

FACT: Compound movements should be the bulk of you training program. That combined with a diet of whole foods will reduce body fat levels and thus reducing the need to "target" certain areas. (anyone picking up on a theme?)

CLAIM: This is an actual quote from a celebrity trainer, who is a disgrace to our industry:

"Oftentimes, heavy weights can tear the muscle fiber causing it to bulk, but using a lighter weight for a longer duration and allowing your body to move in many different ways to target all of the muscles will lengthen them without tearing."

-Tracy Anderson

Multiple other coaches and trainers have ripped into this (and other nonsensical claims that spew forth from her mouth). Sadly, she is not the ONLY trainer out there who thinks this is true, she just happens to profess this poop where more people can read it. I'm not going to touch the first half of that statement except to say, uh, that's the method by which the body grows stronger...by tearing and repair muscles. Oi!

The phrase "lengthening muscles" is also found, unfortunately, in other fitness "experts" mouths and in their writings. It is physiologically impossible to lengthen a muscle without breaking the bones and extending them or altering the attachment points of the muscle. Yes, the muscles lengthen and shorten during normal movements, however, the actual length of the muscle doesn't change. Got a problem with that? Take it up with your parents, they passed the genes along.

I think that term is really just "tone" said in a different way. Ultimately, the phrase is intended to indicate "definition" just like the word "tone." If a trainer says/writes that claim, it's a pretty solid indication that the trainer/coach has absolutely NO idea how physiology works and therefore you should turn and flee. I'd also like to note her splendid use of the buzzword, "target."

FACT: "Lengthening" a muscle is impossible, and the intended implication is "definition" which is attained via the methods described ad nauseam above. 

Now, my SAPT readers, you are armed with the knowledge to see through the baloney that fitness magazines and products proudly display and you have the ability to recall the truth: a great, healthy body is created by... do I really need to say it again? Don't allow the stupidity of the outrageous claims dissuade you from thinking that anything but consistent hard work (both in the kitchen and in the gym) will accomplish your performance and/or physique goals.

Maximize Each Workout: 3 Practical Tips on Mindset

The mindset associated with any training plan is really what makes the difference in achieving your goals. Sets, reps, exotic exercise selection, equipment, etc. doesn't make a drop of difference if you are only 60% engaged, focused, and mentally committed. Here are 3 practical tips to get you in the zone - and keep you there - for your next workout session:

 

  • Music: I think everybody knows about this one, but it bears repeating. Music is so powerful because it has the ability to change your mindset and push you in the direction you want to go or need to be for a great training session.
  • Environment: Make sure your training environment is conducive to you achieving (and be able to focus on achieving) your goals. Constantly getting stopped by other gym members to chat? Always feeling ashamed of making any noise whatsoever? Tired of being harassed for breaking out chalk? Well, all these are signs that you may need to reconsider your training environment and get into one that supports your focus and goals.
Planet Fitness Lunk Alarm

Alright, you've got at least two of three tips that you can implement TODAY to get your training dialed up and instantly more productive.

Circuit Training for Fitness

Picture this:

You got out of work later than ususal... perfect timing to hit rush hour at its height and extend your normal 20-minute commute to the gym into an all-out 45-minute crawl full of frustration.

By the time you get to the gym, you only have about 25 minutes before you need to leave.

What do you do? Do you literally throw in your towel and just go home? How can you possibly salvage a decent training session out of the train wreck that was the afternoon?

Circuit Training is waiting to save the day! Well, so are Time Turners, but pretty much no one has one of those things...

What is Circuit Training?

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination (and your physical capacity. I know from personal experience that performing box jumps after a barbell sumo deadlift is a baaaaad idea).

Typically, circuits are comprised of 5-8 exercises and you want to work with weights about 75-80% of your max. Translation: pick weights that you could probably perform for 8-10 challenging repetitions. String them all together, and work through the circuit with minimal rest between exercises.

In terms of time, you can set up your circuit a couple of different ways:

1. Set a particular rep goal per exercise and then set your time for 15-25 minutes and see how many rounds of the circuit you can perform.

2. Pick a number of rounds to complete and try to finish as quickly as possible. Usually, if you have about 5-8 exercises, 5 rounds will be around 20-ish minutes.

Benefits of Circuits:

1. They're a great way to improve overall conditioning without watching  your hard earned muscle mass wither away. Two recent research reviews (abstracts here and here) have found that steady state cardiovascular training can a) decrease power output (yikes! Not good for athletes that need to produce power aka: everyone) and b) compromise muscle mass (and thus strength) gains. This effect is seen most prominently when aerobic training is 3x/week for greater than 20 minutes. The metabolic pathways that aerobic and anaerobic (think strength training and sprint/interval training) are conflicting. It's very hard to maintain a large amount of muscle mass and be a long-distance runner!

Circuit training is similar, metabolically, to sprint/interval/hill training in that it preserves lean muscle mass.

Steady state cardiovascular training, on the other hand, can lead to elevated levels of cortisol (stress hormone) which can decrease the effectiveness of muscle-building hormones such as testosterone and insulin-like growth. It also encourages muscle protein break down.

While strength training too breaks down muscle tissue, the anabolic  (building) environment produced by strength training encourages repair more than the catabolic (break down) environment of aerobic training.   Strength coach Charles Poliquin says:

Whereas endurance exercises compromise anaerobic performance and body composition, anaerobic training modes such as sprint intervals and weight lifting will benefit endurance athletes if programed properly. To improve endurance performance, do a strength-type resistance training program with loads of 80 percent of the 1RM or heavier. This will train the type IIA muscle fibers so they increase the rate of force development and get faster.

Type IIA muscle fibers = strong, powerful muscles. We want those!

So if you're still with me, we'll move on to the second point.

2. It's time-efficient. After a quick dynamic warm-up and maybe a warm-up set or two of the planned exercises, the total time of a circuit should be no more than 25-minutes start to finish. 15-minutes would even be sufficient depending on the intensity of the exercise selection and weights used. Nice huh? It's just long enough to make you feel like you've worked out but not too long that you're home late for dinner.

3. (but really 2.5) Not only are they time-efficient but they're efficient in the sense that a circuit can hit a lot of muscle groups, through full ranges of motion, in one fell swoop. While a jog will really only get your legs (and, I would argue, not very well since the range of motion is small, the force production is low, and the intensity isn't that high either) and maybe some low level core activation, a circuit can be full body. Take a look at this sample:

Goblet or barbell squat x 6-8

Pushup x 8-10

Step back lunge x 6-8/side

3 Point Row x 8/side

Kettle bell swing x 10

Can you see the total body genius in that? We have lower body (both bilateral and unilateral movements), upper body (push and pull) and a delightful amount of full range of motion exercises. All of which, if one wanted, could be done with just one kettlebell.

Run through that baby 5 or 6 times and try to tell me that's not cardio. Oh wait, you can't. I can't hear you over your screaming lungs and gasping breaths.

4. Because circuits demand so much from your muscles and cardiovascular system, they're pretty calorically expensive, which means your body will be burning calories longer post-workout than they would after a lower intensity training session (aka: low-intensity, steady state cardio). On those above-linked research reviews, it was found that athletes reduced body fat when they performed high intensity exercise (sprints or circuits).

So, if you're looking for an efficient way to reduce body fat, preserve lean tissue, AND improve your cardiovascular fitness, circuit training is definitely a tool you want in your toolbox!

I feel obligated to note that strength training, solid strength training sessions, need to make up the bulk of your training week. Picking up heavy things repeatedly is the best way to build muscle and get stronger. Circuit training, while it won't make you weaker and can aid with strength gains, is inferior overall to 80-90% max lifting in terms of producing maximal strength gains. While I don't recommend basing your entire training plan around circuits, they are beneficial and even fun (yes, fun.) to throw in every once and a while.