Did you know that strength training is crucial for successfully losing weight and keeping it off? That is... weight-bearing exercise. It doesn't have to be a huge, hulking workout where you're trying to build big muscles, it just has to be some basic strength training.
Why is strength training important for losing weight? Because a lot of people try to starve themselves into weight loss. They think it's all about controlling calories. Calories in, calories out. If you have a calorie deficit, you're going to lose weight, if you consume extra calories, you'll gain body fat. While that's true, it's only part of the picture. Sure, you need a calorie deficit to lose weight, but how does your body actually use calories? It's your lean body mass, that muscle mass underneath your body fat, that burns calories 24/7, allowing you to actually eat more calories without gaining weight.
Let's say you happen to be quite obese and you have a high percentage of body fat. I used to be in that situation; I know what it feels like. Underneath that body fat you actually have a very strong skeleton and strong muscles. Your body has built up those muscles in order to carry all of that extra body fat when you move your body. Just the very act of standing up, walking across a parking lot, going up a flight of stairs or lifting your arms requires more effort when you're overweight, especially if you're obese. So the heavier you are, the stronger your muscles have to be just to allow you to do basic, everyday things.
Now this can actually work to your advantage -- if you manage to keep all of that muscle mass and bone density in place while you are losing body fat, then you can maintain the high metabolism that's associated with that lean body mass even while you are dropping body fat. But if you starve yourself, you're going to lose all the muscle resources you already have. It's a mistake a lot of people make. They try to lose body fat by starving themselves, and as the body fat vanishes from their body, their muscle mass also disappears. Why would the body get rid of muscle mass? Because, frankly, it doesn't need it.
Your body adapts to the need
The body is an adaptive system. It will adapt to whatever loads you place on it. So if you are a heavier person and you're carrying around body fat, then your body will adapt by creating stronger muscles to lift your body. It's almost like doing a leg press every time you get up out of the chair. If you weigh 300 lbs you're doing a 300 lb leg press, you see? Now if you were to drop 150 lbs of body fat and end up at 150 lbs, your body wouldn't need the same amount of leg muscle to lift you. It would eliminate those leg muscles through catabolic action.
While it eliminates this muscle mass, your metabolism begins to slow. Remember, it's the lean body mass that's burning calories day in and day out, even when you're doing nothing. If you reduce that muscle mass by allowing it to go away (by not challenging your muscles), then your metabolism is going to slow. A lot of people end up at a place where they've lost the body fat and they're lighter, but it's suddenly so much easier to put on body fat. They don't have the muscle mass they once did, they're not automatically burning calories, and if they overeat just a little bit, they'll start packing on the body fat again.
Strength train while losing weight
One solution to all of this is to engage in strength training while you are losing body fat. If you do this, then you will be able to maintain the muscle mass that you already have underneath your body fat while you are in the process of losing the fat. This will leave you with a greater proportion of lean body mass to body fat, meaning that you will be slimmer, yet you'll have the muscles that you had when you were overweight.
If you get rid of enough body fat in this way, then those muscles may begin to show -- if you're a man. If you're a woman, don't worry. You're never going to bulk up. A lot of women are mistakenly afraid of strength training. They think that if they pump a few weights they're going to turn into Lou Ferrigno overnight. They think they're going to have this competition muscle-bound body from lifting a couple of weights. Believe me, that is not the case at all. Most of those bodybuilding women are using steroids, and they've trained for years, even decades, just to produce that kind of muscle mass. Women are not built to puts on lots of muscle mass, so don't be afraid that you'll bulk up. Women who are afraid of exercising because they think it's going to make them look bigger have it all wrong.
Women need strength training, too
Let's take a moment to cover that myth here. Let's say you're a woman and you have more body fat than you want. You're trying to decide, "Should I do strength training as part of my weight loss program?" Some women say, "No, because I'll bulk up and it'll make me look fatter." That's a complete myth; it's totally false.
When you have a high percentage of body fat, that body fat is stored not only in the tissues that are obvious -- such as your hips and your midsection, your arms and legs and so on -- it's also stored intramuscularly, which means it's stored within the muscles of your body. It's sort of like the marbling of beef from a cow. If you slice a muscle from a cow, there's some fat inside the muscle -- that is the same kind of fat that's in our muscles when we have a high percentage of body fat.
That fat takes up a lot of space in the muscle, so it actually makes the muscle look bigger, because there's fat inside. When you start losing body fat, even if you're engaged in strength training, that intramuscular fat will begin to vanish. So even if your muscle mass begins to grow -- which, again, is very difficult for women to accomplish -- your overall muscle size is probably going to be smaller when you're at a lower percentage of body fat. The net change in your muscle size is going to be almost nothing, unless you really start to do strength training on a regular basis for a period of a year or two, and then you might actually begin to put on a little bit more muscle.
Don't lose the muscle you've already built
So with that crazy myth covered, let's get back to the main point here, which is that engaging in strength training will conserve the muscle mass you have now. Now here's why this is so important. It's very easy for your body to shed useless muscle. So if you're not using a muscle, your body will get rid of it over a few months. It's gone. But to gain that muscle back -- now that takes some effort! That could take months or years of strength training. It is much harder for your body to engage in anabolic reactions (to build muscle mass) than it is for your body to catabolize and get rid of muscles. So, if you decide you're going to starve yourself while you lose weight and get down to the minimum weight possible, and afterwards you engage in strength training, then you're going to find that it's a much more difficult process to gain lean body mass than it was to slim away what you had to begin with. Building lean body mass is a huge challenge.
It's also important to note that when people talk about weight loss, they throw that term around without really understanding what it means. Everybody says "I want to lose weight," but they don't really mean that. They mean they want to lose body fat; they don't want to just lose weight. A limb amputation will cause you to lose weight, but that's not what people have in mind! People want to lose body fat. So be careful what you wish for!
If you just starve yourself and you start losing lean body mass, then that counts as weight loss. But you've done yourself no good whatsoever, because now you've actually lowered your metabolism. The scale says, "Hey! You lost another three pounds!" But it could be 2 lbs of fat and 1 lb of muscle, and that's not a good situation to be in. You want to lose maybe 2.9 lbs of fat and 0.1 lbs of muscle, or maybe 3 lbs of fat and no muscle. But to do that, you've got to challenge your muscular system through some weight bearing exercise.
Don't forget the glycogen fuel stored in your body
The other thing to keep in mind when you're using the bathroom scale is that when you first start limiting your calories, your body is going to start burning through its glycogen stores. Glycogen is basically a fuel stored in your body. It stores sugars together with water and locks them up in the tissues and organs of your body like an energy battery, ready for you to use at a future time.
There's water locked in with those calories. That water weighs a lot. So when you start restricting your calories, the first thing your body burns is this extra storage of energy, this extra glycogen. And the glycogen causes you, as it's burned, to shed water. You might look at the scale and think, gee, I lost 5 lbs, but you really lost no body fat whatsoever. It was just water, because your body released glycogen. What usually happens to people when their glycogen store has reached zero is they get really hungry, they think they're in a starvation panic, and then they overeat. Their glycogen stores fill right back up, they gain the 5 lbs back, and usually they overate to such an extent that they store another half a pound of body fat or so. Now they're half a pound heavier than when they began and they lost no body fat whatsoever. It was just a game of glycogen and water storage they saw reflected on the bathroom scale.
So don't make the bathroom scale your god. It is not always useful for telling you how successful you are in losing body fat. You can use a "fat scale" or a caliper. A caliper is a good way to measure body fat. Body fat calipers measure the thickness of body fat in key locations around your body. For men, one location is on the upper pectoral area, another is the midsection and the third is on the top of the quadriceps of the leg. For women it's the back of the arm, the midsection and along the hip. However, you've got to learn how to use a caliper correctly if you want it to be an accurate indicator of fat loss success.
How do you lose bone mass? Easy: you stop engaging in exercise, stop walking, stop running. If you do all that (which I'm not recommending, by the way), then you would start to lose bone mineral density, and that would be reflected as weight loss. When you say you want to lose weight, be careful what you ask for. Your body has a number of ways to lose weight that have nothing whatsoever to do with losing body fat or enhancing your overall state of health.
Engage in weight training when losing body fat
Now let's get back to the main point, strength training and why it is so important. Underneath your body fat you have a strong musculoskeletal system. There's a lot of muscle mass and good, strong bones underneath all of that body fat. If you find a strategy to conserve that, even while you're losing body fat, then you can have a much more successful weight loss experience and end up with a strong skeleton and strong muscles at the end of your regimen as well.
The way to do that is to engage in basic weight-bearing strength training while you are pursuing a diet. And it turns out that you don't have to go crazy on this. It turns out that you don't even need to stress your body very much to maintain the current muscle mass that you have.
One way to strength train is with weights. Start slowly and build up.
Resistance training with resistance cords helps with strength training as well.
Here is another way: 15 seconds of stress creates new muscle
In fact, there's a system of strength training called static contraction training that is outstanding for maintaining current muscle mass and even enhancing it if you choose to go that far. The best thing is that it takes very little time. How much time am I talking about? You'll be amazed to hear this, but literally, it's true: 15 seconds per muscle group per week. Only 15 seconds per muscle. If you engage that muscle for 15 seconds with high intensity contraction, then your body gets the signal that, hey, it needs that muscle. It needs to keep it around. And your body decides NOT to let that muscle go. It just keeps it, because it figures you need it.
Remember, your body has a lot of wisdom, and it's trying to conserve calories. The body wants to get rid of muscles it doesn't need, and in order to keep those muscles, you have to prove to your body that you need them. Now the thing is, your body doesn't know why you need them. It could be that you're engaged in some kind of competition, it could be that you need to lift heavy things to survive. Your body doesn't really know the reason why. You can essentially fool your body by engaging in strength training, giving it the message that it needs to hold on to those muscles in order to survive. So in as little as 15 seconds per muscle group, you can tell your body to hold on to your muscle mass. That's a 15 second bicep curl, for example, or a 15 second chest press, or a 15 second leg curl…you get the idea.
Women are additionally benefiting from this system -- when you're dealing with the potential for osteoporosis when you get up in your years, bone density becomes crucial for your overall health. There is no better way in the world to make sure you have strong bone density than to engage in high intensity, short duration strength training exercises. Static contraction training is, in my view, the very best system of exercise for maintaining not just muscle mass, but also bone mineral density. You will also strengthen your ligaments and tendons.
The key is, as with all forms of exercise, to be sure to work with a qualified health professional before attempting this, especially some of the more high intensity exercises. You may want to ease your way into it and check with your naturopath, doctor or physical therapist to make sure you're ready for this. You don't want to injure yourself -- that would set you back weeks. So take it a little bit at a time. Remember, your body will adapt slowly, so ease into it slowly. By doing all of this, you'll be able to conserve the incredible muscle mass that you have underneath that body fat right now.
Accelerated weight loss
The other benefit to doing this is that strength training will greatly increase the speed of your weight loss effort. It will double the effectiveness of any weight loss program you're on. Losing weight by calorie restriction alone is much more difficult. Engage in exercise that includes both a strength training component and a cardiovascular component. It is harder to keep weight off just by modifying your diet alone, unless you happen to be extremely gifted with just the right genes that don't ever turn on the hunger signal for you. If you're in that situation, good for you. But you should probably think about exercising anyway, because of the other cardiovascular health and brain chemistry benefits that are derived from frequent exercise.
Alternative training: Pilates
Now, some people say "Well, I can't join a gym, I can't exercise, I don't want to go to that website and look up static contraction training, I don't want to do that, I don't want to pump weights. What do I do instead?" There's a great solution for people who don't want to pump weights, and I understand a lot of women are in this situation, nothing wrong with that. You can be very strong without pumping weights if you follow Pilates.
Pilates is a form of body movement and flexibility training that was pioneered by Joseph Pilates almost 100 years ago. The movements require a lot of strength, but not so much that you can't get started. There are simple ways to get started with Pilates on a mat that would greatly boost your muscle mass and your overall strength -- especially your abdominal strength and your lower back strength. And then, as you gain comfort with that, you can move up to the more advanced movements in Pilates.
What does this Pilates system do for you? It will give you strength training all over your body -- in your hips, adduction and abduction muscles, abdominal muscles, lower back, traps, biceps, triceps, chest, upper body, lower body and especially in your midsection. It will do all of this for you -- I should say with you -- without using any weights. So you don't have to set up a bench press with 200 lbs and see how many reps you can bang out. Pilates can be done in a more artful way. It is a form of body movement that can be very yoga-like if you choose, or it can be done with more power. This is why both men and women find Pilates to be a fantastic system of strength training. A lot of people in the performing arts community rely on Pilates to maintain core strength and flexibility throughout their body, including in their arms, legs and neck muscles.
May help joint pain
If you engage in Pilates, you may experience one of the benefits that many experience when they do this for a couple of months: joint pain begins to disappear.
The body is designed to be healthy, it's not supposed to hurt. If you feed your body right and if you use and mobilize all those joints, they will not hurt, even to the age of 100. There's no reason why we can't live to 100 in a state of perfect health with outstanding cognitive function, free of chronic pain. But to do that, you have to use it. I firmly believe in the concept of "use it or lose it." If you're not using those joints, then you're going to lose their range of motion.
Just ask any physical therapist, they will tell you much the same. You have to have range of motion in order to be free of pain. The difficulty is that as we get older, we tend to stop using all of those muscles and joints in their full range of motion. A lot of people who say that chronic pain is related to aging are really confusing cause and effect. It's not related to aging, it's related to the number of years that they've stopped using their body.
For example, take a person who is a dancer or someone engaged in yoga, Pilates or flexibility well into their 80s or 90s, and they won't have joint pain. If aging causes joint pain, then how is it that these people have no pain? The answer is because they keep mobilizing those joints, they keep using their body. They engage in Tai Chi or other gentle body movements. And they are free from pain. By the way, Tai Chi is another outstanding way to get range of motion, but it won't do quite the same thing for you in terms of muscle mass as Pilates training or other weight bearing exercises. Tai Chi has many other energetic benefits though.
The bottom line is if you are attempting to lose weight, or more specifically to lose body fat, then engaging in some form of strength training is crucial to your success. A few people have success with only altering their diet, but I think the vast majority of people don't really meet their weight loss goals just by changing their foods.
What's missing is that body component, the strength training, the movement, the flexibility, and also the cardiovascular training.
But the catch is that you actually have to do it -- right?
None of it is going to happen automatically, and if you whip through a strength training routine, and you don’t feel like you've done any work, then you probably haven't. You're not going to get any benefit from that. At some point, it's going to require some effort to get these results.The bottom line is, if you don't engage the physical body, if you don't do some strength training and some cardiovascular training, you're not going to get the results you want.
You've got to engage in strength training, you've got to engage in cardiovascular exercise, even if it's just walking for 5 minutes a day. If you can't walk, even just lifting your arms for 10 minutes a day, or lifting a 1 lb dumbbell over your head 50 times will benefit you.
Find a way to start strength training today, and your body will immediately start showing results.
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