written by Nate Miyaki
There are only two types of people I hate in the fitness world: (1) people who are intolerant of other people’s exercise choices, and (2) runners!
I should qualify that second part. I hate people who dogmatically insist that any form of long duration, sustained cardio activity is the best and only way to lose fat and change a physique. Actually, I don’t really hate anyone (although I would like to slap a guillotine choke onto a few people), but I’m going for a little Hollywood dramatic effect here.
Anyone who’s been in the physique game long enough — as an athlete or a coach – will tell you that the hierarchy of body composition transformation goes something like this: nutrition is by far the most important, weight training is next, and the “C” word is a distant third.
Traditional cardio is at best a minor importance in the physique enhancement game. And under many circumstances, it becomes the worst form of exercise a relatively fit body type could do for body composition enhancement.
So if you chose to run, make sure you understand the real reasons why you’re running. You’re running for performance enhancement, or sport specific training, or stress relief, or general health, or endorphin rush, or to prove something to yourself, or just because you like to do it.
But if you’re running to drop body fat, remove that last little layer of flab from around your midsection, or look good at the beach, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons — unless your last name is Hasslehoff.
Cardio in the Real World
Most strength trainers, or anyone who’s ever taken a physiology class, have heard the ol’ sprinter vs. marathon runner comparison a thousand times. You know the drill. Marathon runners that engage in primarily low intensity, aerobic activity are usually skinny-fat, jiggle when they wiggle, and are so injured and beat-up that they look like they’ve come straight out of a Resident Evil movie. Sprinters that engage in primarily high intensity, anaerobic work are generally more lean and muscular.
It’s amazing to me how many intelligent people understand this on a conceptual level, but don’t practically apply it within their training protocols. “Yeah, marathon runners are losers.” Then that same allegedly intelligent person will go out and do cardio three times a day to try and reach low single-digit body fat percentages.
No physique athlete has any business spending two hours on a stationary bike, unless there’s a hot chick with a nice ass on the elliptical machine sweating in front of you. And even then, either man-up and make your move or go home and cry to your buddies about what could have been, but don’t waste your time on a glorified coat rack.
The fittest “looking” people in the world, and the smartest coaches in the world — the Testosterone crew, bodybuilders, figure girls, fitness models, etc. — base their exercise programs around strength training. They all lift weights — both the men and the women. Cardio may be a part of the plan, but it’s not the foundation. Christian Thibaudeau didn’t become The Beast (as an athlete or coach) on an elliptical machine.
And on a side note, I would say most physique athletes do cardio out of tradition rather than necessity. Diet and strength training are what changes physical appearance. Cardio is supplemental at its very best.
Traditional cardio is for pussies, and sucks for fat loss, period. That’s the end of today’s lesson, my young apprentice. I wish you could just take my word for it, go out, lift like a madman, eat with the discipline of a warrior, and travel down the most efficient path to “rippedness”.
But I know the Nation followers are more educated than the average fitness population and need a little more science to back up those claims. Cool with me. And besides, I wouldn’t take me at my word either.
I’ve fallen asleep in many scientific lectures in the past, and watched the clock drag in several others, so I’ll save you the dissertation and give you the cliff notes version of the science behind why the majority of your training should be anaerobic (strength training/interval cardio) vs. aerobic (traditional cardio) in nature:
- The physique transformation process is more complicated than the simple calories in vs. calories out theory. The real keys are to use your diet and exercise protocols to elevate your resting metabolic rate AND manipulate your anabolic, lipolytic hormones and enzymes. Strength training has a much more powerful effect on these processes than aerobic training.
- Many who focus on just “calories” and the slash and dash mentality end up with destructive patterns — extreme calorie cuts and/or excessive aerobics. This sets off an alarm state in the body where the body sheds muscle tissue to lessen energy demands and stores/hoards body fat as a survival response. Once this physiological state is reached, it becomes impossible to lose any more weight no matter how many calories you cut or how much aerobic work you try and add. What you end up with is someone who is on starvation level calories and performing excessive exercise, yet is still flabby.
- Muscle loss due to excessive aerobics drastically lowers the resting metabolic rate and inhibits natural hormone production. When this type of person goes back to even just normal, healthy calorie and exercise levels, they gain all of the weight back plus a few extra. This generally results in a vicious cycle of huge swings in body weight and appearance. Whether it’s housewives following fad diets or bodybuilders alternating between competition shape and off-season obesity is irrelevant, it’s still “yo-yo’ing.” Sometimes the damage to the metabolism and hormones becomes so great over time that it’s irreversible without medical intervention.
- The calories burned during an exercise session are relatively small compared to the amount burned the other 23 hours of the day during the recovery process (at rest). Most fat oxidation occurs between training sessions, not during. As such your exercise sessions should primarily be geared towards building muscle and boosting the metabolism, not “burning fat.
- Upon cessation of an exercise session, strength training raises the metabolic rate (the after-burn effect) for longer periods of time than aerobic work — up to 48 hours. This is because all of the steps involved in the recovery process from strength training (satellite cell activation, tissue repair, protein synthesis, etc.) require energy (calories).
- Aerobic sessions elevate cortisol levels. Long sessions can lead to excessively high levels, and too frequent sessions can lead to chronically elevated levels, neither of which is good for body composition enhancement. Cortisol can force the body to break down its own muscle tissue, convert it to glucose (gluconeogenesis), and use it as fuel. It also leads to increased fat accumulation, especially around the midsection.
- Strength training raises cortisol levels, but it also raises Testosterone and growth hormone — potent muscle building/fat burning hormones that offset cortisol. The net hormonal effect (assuming proper dietary support) is protein synthesis/lean muscle gain.
- The body burns predominantly fat during aerobic work. As a result, the body adapts by up-regulating the enzymes that store body fat. The body burns predominantly glucose/glycogen during strength training. As a result, the body adapts by up-regulating the enzymes that store muscle glycogen.
- Strength training has more powerful, positive nutrient partitioning effects than cardio, meaning nutrients are diverted more towards muscle cells (where they can be used to build/maintain lean muscle tissue) and away from fat cells (where they can be stored as body fat).
- There are certain “intermediate” muscle fibers that can take on the properties of either slow-twitch or fast-twitch muscle fibers, depending on different modes of exercise. Endurance-based training leads to the conversion of those fibers into slow twitch fibers. Strength training leads to the conversion of those fibers into fast twitch fibers. The latter is the more desirable result for physique enhancement because fast twitch fibers have the greatest potential for hypertrophy. This process is what firms and shapes the body, boosts metabolic rate, and leads to increased fat burning even at rest.
Cavemen and the Lost Art of Walking
We can even look at our evolutionary past for clues. In terms of “formal activity” or “exercise,” our bodies were designed to be anaerobic in nature. Yes, for most of the day we performed sub-maximal (and what could technically be termed aerobic) activities. We walked around, gathered food, tracked prey, cooked, cleaned, etc. But we didn’t run to keep the heart rate up or reach some type of fat burning/aerobic zone. None of what we did was formal exercise; we just completed the necessary tasks of the day, whatever that may be. In fact, we used as little energy as possible during most of the day in order to conserve energy for when it was absolutely necessary for survival.
And when it was time to move, we frickin’ moved, baby. We sprinted away from predators or towards prey. We climbed trees, hoisted objects, swung weapons, and clubbed stuff to death with maximal exertion. These are all predominantly anaerobic activities. We’re not meant to reach arbitrary fat burning zones for arbitrary amounts of time. We’re meant to alternate periods of kicking back with periods of kicking ass. That’s how you efficiently build an attractive, functional body.
So we can take two things away from our cavemen brethren: (1) the majority of our formal exercise sessions should be anaerobic in nature, and (2), walking is one of the most underrated forms of activity around. And I don’t mean walking on a treadmill or anything “exercise” specific. I just mean real, outdoor walking as an informal activity. Remember, that’s what we did in our evolutionary past. We walked every day to hunt, gather, travel, track, etc., all just as part of our regular day. We didn’t sit at a computer all day eating M&M’s.
Walking gives us many of the same benefits as traditional aerobic activity (calorie burning, lowered blood pressure, lowered resting heart rate, lowered cholesterol, increased cardiac output, increased capillary density, increased nutrient/oxygen delivery, etc.) without all of the drawbacks (musculoskeletal injury, joint wear and tear, elevated cortisol, muscle loss, lowered metabolic rate, etc.). Simply put, it’s the aerobic activity we were meant to do.
Just like everyone can benefit from a little more Nate Miyaki in their lives, everyone can benefit from a little more walking in their lives. This covers the entire spectrum, from the severely overweight and deconditioned beginner to the advanced physique athlete looking to peak.
What, being entertained and educated isn’t enough? You actually want to know how you can apply this information to your own training protocol? Okay, if you’re ready, let’s get this thing rolling:
Fat people (over 20% body fat)
- If you’re over 20% body fat, you need to start being honest with yourself — you’re not bulking up or retaining water or using the extra mass to your advantage in a sport (unless it’s sumo wrestling or competitive eating). You’re fat, plain and simple.
- Diet has and always will be the biggest factor in the fat loss equation. You need to get your ass on a targeted nutrition plan. This is where 80% of fat loss comes from, and amazing fat loss results can be achieved with diet alone. I would check out one of Christian Thibaudeu’s carb cycling diets and/or one of John Berardi’s fat loss plans.
- Walk 30-60 minutes a day — 5 days a week. This will help you burn some calories and get some of the fat burning hormones and enzymes going (hormone sensitive lipase, catecholamines). Go first thing in the morning, at lunch, after work, or after weight training, whenever you have the time. And if you can’t fit it in, then (a) you’re either lazy as shit or (b) you really don’t give a shit. Either way, you probably shouldn’t be reading T-Nation. Try Vagina-Nation.
- If you’re fat, you’re probably putting a lot of extra weight on your joints, are out of alignment, and are suffering from some type of chronic pain. I’d check out one of Mike Robertson’s mobility/stability, corrective exercise routines.
Fit People (10%-20% body fat)
- Train 5 days a week. All of your training should be anaerobic in nature.
- I prefer all of my training to be strength training, but that’s my personal bias. I’d rather wear the 80’s MC Hammer jam pants and string Gold’s Gym tank top than the sac-showing, high-and-tight running shorts. But if you’re a cardio-junkie, that’s cool too. You can do a mix of strength training and interval-based cardio.
- So 5 days of strength training, 4 days of strength training + 1 day of interval cardio, or 3 days of strength training + 2 days of interval cardio. I would do a minimum of 3 days a week of strength training. Remember all of the metabolic and hormonal benefits of strength training?
- Interval cardio essentially means alternating periods of sprinting/maximal exertion with periods of recovery. You go hard for something like 30-60 seconds, then back off for 60-120 seconds, and then repeat, i.e. wind sprints. Do a 5-minute warm-up, 20-40 minutes of intervals, and a 5-minute cool down.
- If you have more fat to lose, then walk, not as a formal exercise session, but simply to increase non-exercise induced thermogenesis. This will help you burn off a few extra calories without catabolizing muscle tissue. This is an individual-thing, so add in as much walking as it takes to reach the desired body fat result. What’s worked best for myself, and a good percentage of my clients, is 4-5 days of strength training coupled with 2-3 45-minute walks per week.
- This article is more about getting you to back off on traditional cardio than it is about specific strength training protocols. But you do need a plan designed by experts to get results. If you’re a bodybuilder-type, check out one of Scott Abel’s plans. If you’re a power and strength-type, read Christian Thibaudeau’s or Dave Tate’s stuff. If you’re a sport performance-type, look at what Charles Poliquin or Eric Cressey have to say.
Competitive Physique Athletes (Less than 10% body fat)
- Don’t take advice from anyone who hasn’t gone through the process themselves. What looks good on paper doesn’t always work in the real world. At the same time, just because someone competes or is ripped doesn’t mean they have any clue about the physique transformation process. Learn from people who have both a scientific background AND practical experience.
- We’re back to diet as the most important factor to get to low single digit body fat percentages. Check out Scott Abel’s, Dr. Clay Hyght’s, or Shelby Starnes’ diet advice.
- Ditch cardio work completely, even interval work. At this point you don’t have a lot of body fat left to burn, and are more susceptible to tapping into muscle tissue as a reserve fuel, which results in a loss of muscle and a soft, flat appearance.
- You should be strength training 4-6 days a week. Focus on building, preserving, and maintaining your muscle mass with your training. Let your diet “burn off” the body fat.
- Again, if you have more fat to lose, then walk, not as a formal exercise session, but simply to increase non-exercise induced thermogenesis. This will help you burn off a few extra calories without catabolizing muscle tissue. This is an individual-thing, so add in as much walking as it takes to reach the desired body fat result. What’s worked best for myself and a good percentage of my clients is 4-5 days of strength training coupled with 2-3 45-minute walks per week.
Heading to the gym tonight? You better be heading towards the gym floor and not the stationary bike!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nate Miyaki is a competitive physique athlete and coach. He is the owner of Senshi Fitness, a private personal training and nutrition consulting practice based out of San Francisco, CA. He is also an expert in Samurai Philosophy and its application to strength and physique sports. Visit his site at www.natemiyaki.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/SenshiFitness.
source: T NATION