I wrote this article in order to educate women and some men who believe that doing cardio and abs will help them shed pounds on their midsection. I also think it will help out trainers who have a hard time getting clients to understand the benefits of lifting moderately heavy weights, which is the best thing for them to do to lose weight.
Everyone knows that cardio is the best thing for you when looking to burn extra calories. Or is it? What most people don’t know is cardio can be the worst thing for cutting fat when it isn’t paired with weight training. If you ask the girl (or even the guy) on the ab machine what she’s trying to do, nine times out of ten she will reply with “lose my stomach fat.” Ten times out of ten, she won’t lose stomach fat. The number one reason for this is that you can’t spot reduce an area. When you lose body fat, the fat will be reduced throughout the body, not just from the area you’re working. If we could lose weight in just one area, don’t you think we’d look a little funny? People would walk around with rock hard abs, saggy glutes, and flabby arms. All beach guys would have fat legs because they only do chest, arms, and abs.
The following is a short story between the girl on the ab machine and me. We will call her Jenny Abs. If you dig deeper, you’ll find out that her full name is Jenny Cardio and Abs. I asked Jenny what she did before the ab machine, and she said, “I normally do an hour of cardio on the treadmill or a cardio class.”
My reply was, “Awesome, you must have burned a lot of calories. How is your eating?”
She said, “Oh, I ate really good—egg whites in the morning, chicken and a salad for lunch, and dinner was something light. And no carbs after 6:00 pm.” Jenny said that as if she had taught me a lesson.
Seems Jenny has listened to all her uneducated group fitness class groupies. In case you haven’t guessed by now, I had my work cut out for me. I wanted to touch on three main things here, and I wanted to do it delicately without hurting Jenny Cardio and Abs, who is now unable to function because she is carb depleted from over an hour of high intensity cardio.
So I said, “That is stupid and you must be too if you believe that.” Kidding of course. It isn’t her fault that everyone who reads a fitness magazine is a professional now. I asked Jenny if she had a minute because I wanted to help her maximize her gym time and of course her goal of weight loss. Jenny didn’t really want my help because she thought that most trainers were either hitting on her or trying to sell her something. However, she agreed to sit down and have a chat with me.
We sat down and I opened with a bunch of nice complements on her workout routine. I then asked her how long she had been working out for and of she had been making much progress.
She was all smiles and said, “Yeah, I have lost eight pounds so far, and I want to lose another ten, but it’s getting tough to drop. I don’t really know why. I’ve been eating even less and upping my time on the cardio. See, I lost five pounds the first week and three pounds the second week. Now, it’s week seven, and I actually gained a pound. It’s pretty frustrating.”
I cut right to the chase. I’m not one to waste time or sugar coat anything.
“You’re working too hard and burning too many calories. Your body is eating your muscle, which is slowing your metabolism down, and you aren’t strength training.”
Jenny’s mouth opened wide and said “Oh, yes I do strength train. I took that extreme weight training class with Krissy with the amazing body.”
“Ok, cool. That isn’t strength training. That’s basically cardio with weights, and it only adds to your overtraining. Let me explain how the body works. Let’s start with this—your body needs a certain amount of calories throughout the day in order to function, and more importantly for you, to maintain muscle.”
Jenny cut in with, “I don’t care about my muscle. What does that have to do with me losing weight.”
“Jenny, it has everything to do with you losing weight. Your muscle is going to be what regulates your metabolism. Your metabolism is going to be the amount of calories you burn at rest throughout the day. Now this is where muscle comes in. Your muscle determines your metabolism. A pound of muscle can burn anywhere up to 50 calories a day depending on its health. The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn throughout the day. This is known as your basal metabolic rate, an estimated amount of calories you burn throughout the day. If you don’t take in enough calories throughout the day, your body will have to get the nutrients it needs from somewhere. If you had to choose between eating fat or meat, what would you eat?”
“Umm…meat. Duh!” Jenny replied.
I smiled and said, “That is exactly what your body would do. It would get the nutrients from your muscle, which makes your muscle lose its density and size. Over time, it will disappear and make the scale go down, although that isn’t a good thing. Your metabolism can drop as much as 50 calories for every pound of muscle you lose.”
“Wow, that isn’t good! So what I’ve been doing is wrong?” Jenny asked.
“No, it isn’t wrong. It just isn’t the right way to do it,” I said with a smirk.
Jenny laughed and said, “So what else can I do the right way?”
“How about we talk about meal frequency? You said you eat three meals a day, correct? That is ok if you’re eating the right amount of calories and your metabolism hasn’t been damaged like yours has. The trick to keeping your body burning calories or keeping your metabolism moving is to constantly put food in to be used for fuel for the body. An easy way to understand this is to think of your body as an old furnace that needs wood for fuel. The wood represents the food. To turn on the furnace, you must put wood in it. The wood will burn for a few hours, but in order to keep the furnace on, you must add more wood. The same thing goes for the body. If there isn’t any food to fuel the body, the metabolism slows down. If you are to eat every two and a half to three hours—four being the most—you will keep your metabolism constantly working. Five to six small meals should do the trick.”
Jenny nodded and said, “Ok, do you mind if we go get a shake at the juice bar. It has been six hours since I last ate.”
At that point, I knew I had Jenny’s complete attention. We decided to get a shake. I got mine with a banana in it. She stopped me and yelled, “Are you crazy? It’s after 6:00 pm.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t turn into a pumpkin, and the carbs won’t turn into fat” I responded. “Carbs are good for you, especially after a workout such as yours. You have been in here for over an hour. Any exercise over about 45 minutes can be long enough to completely destroy your carb or glycogen storage. Glycogen is what carbs are stored as in the body. It is stored in muscles and organs. After an intense cardio session, Have you ever noticed that your muscle are flat or you feel thinner? That isn’t just from sweating out fluids. It is also from using your energy storage. This is where the whole low carb diet thing came about.
After one day of cutting out carbs, most people will lose one to two pounds, mostly from water. Not only do you lose weight, but you also feel thinner. That’s because you’re depleting your muscles of glycogen. Carbs will keep your muscles hydrated, making you feel like your muscles are bloated, hence the name carbohydrate. Cutting carbs will decrease your performance physically and mentally. About two-thirds of your carb intake is used for the brain. That is why most people get light-headed until of course they get used to operating on less carbs. You will be able to function but not at your max.
People will tell you that they are carb sensitive, which is bull. They just eat too many carbs and move too little. I say eat carbs and keep your muscles full. It’s what is on top of the muscle that is the problem—fat! The fat stays, and your muscles will constantly inflate and deflate. Most bodybuilders will carb load and deplete all through their training. The reason this works is because normally on low carb days, they take in less calories than they do on high days, which brings us to weight loss 101. If you burn off more calories than you take in, you will lose weight.
Don’t get me wrong—too many carbs are bad, but so is too much of anything. If you were able to have 2000 calories and ate 2500 calories of all protein, you wouldn’t lose weight. The same thing goes if you ate 1800 calories just from cake. You wouldn’t lose weight. Each macronutrient, protein, carb, or fat has its own job. Protein is great because it is the most versatile one. But don’t send a hairstylist to do a make-up artist’s job if you want it done right.”
“This is a lot to take in. How am I supposed to know what to do?” Jenny said.
“That is the tricky part” I said with a sigh. “It is all trial and error. There are many different ways to go about it. For you in particular, I would start by adding a carb in at breakfast and lunch and then two small, healthy snacks in between lunch and dinner.”
“What kind of snacks?”
“ Well, you just had a shake. Those work great. You can do fruit and maybe some almonds.”
“Almonds?? Those are all fat!”
“Some fats are good for you. The body needs fat for certain things, and you shouldn’t deprive your body of it. It is the secondary source of energy and also helps with joint health. There are other things your body uses fat for. But no matter how good it is for you, fat is fat in the end. Too much of any one thing isn’t any good, especially fat. It contains nine calories per gram as opposed to protein and carbs, which both have four calories per gram. That’s why fat should be kept to two servings per day in my opinion. So, yes, almonds. I would have about ten to fifteen as a snack.”
“Ok, got it—some fruit and almonds for a snack” Jenny said firmly.
“No, not together. Separately” I jumped in. “As a general rule of thumb, to help portion meals, I recommend having a small amount of protein with each meal with a serving of carbs or a protein and a serving of fat. It will balance out to about the same amount of calories. If you do a fruit or almonds by itself, that is ok to start. It is a step in the right direction.
Now that you have somewhat of an idea of how to keep your muscle from being used as food for your body, let’s talk about how to increase that muscle mass to make you a calorie burning machine. Follow me to where the little boys curl and the real men move mountains—the squat rack!”