The vast majority of the potential clients that contact me are interested in losing some body fat as either a primary or at least secondary goal of their training plan. And a majority of those people have been trying to do so for a very long time on their own – with mixed results.
Ok, the results aren’t actually that mixed. Most people haven’t made much progress in the body fat reduction department.
Why not? Well, there are a whole host of reasons – too many to cover in a single short article, but for now we can focus on factors that have to do with misconceptions about exercise.
First and foremost it comes from a lack of understanding as to how body fat is actually lost and how it is kept off. There are two main myths associated with body fat reduction that have to be purged from your thinking if you are going to be successful in the long term. And “long term” is an important concept to understand. Long term doesn’t just mean getting the weight off, but also keeping it off with a sustainable plan. There are lots of fad or crash diets that work well in the short term. But if what you do to lose the weight isn’t something that can become a lifestyle, then it isn’t a long term solution.
The first myth that a lot of people fall for is that you can “spot train” body fat off of a certain area of your body. For an example – people might start doing a lot of sit ups or crunches or buy some sort of infomercial gadget off of the TV in an effort burn the fat off of their stomach. It doesn’t work that way. Body fat is lost systemically. You can’t burn fat off of just your stomach or under your arms with isolated exercises. When we lose body fat, we lose it all over the body, and we don’t control where the body fat comes off first. Our genetics determine that. When you engage in lots of sit ups or crunches you might build some muscle across your abdominals but it doesn’t do a single thing to reduce the body fat on the surface. Many women wish they could get rid of body fat pockets on their underarms directly on top of the triceps. In error, they engage in in a lot of localized tricep exercises thinking it will melt the fat away from their arms. It won’t. It might build the muscle in the arms and even improve the appearance of the arm, but it does not melt away fat from that specific area. Spot training is a myth. It is propagated continuously by the fitness industry and equipment manufacturers because the consumer doesn’t know any better. Now you know.
The second trap many people fall into is that each and every workout you do should be focused on simply “burning calories.” This leads people to focus on activities like running, cycling, treadmills, elliptical trainers, etc in an effort to get really hot, sweaty, and tired, and melt the fat off. And this is fine if body fat reduction is the goal. But if this is all that you do you are missing out on another hugely important part of the equation – muscle mass. A muscle building workout (i.e. strength training) doesn’t burn very many calories in and of itself. But that isn’t the point of lifting weights. When we lift weights we do so to build muscle, not burn calories. But it is very important to understand that the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism will run. If you are weak and have very little muscle mass, you aren’t taking advantage of the metabolic effects of your muscle. This is especially true in aging populations that are losing their muscle mass at a very rapid rate. As older adults starts to lose muscle (an inevitable consequence of aging) their metabolism will slow and body fat will accumulate easier. You can keep that metabolism high if you can maintain your muscle mass through strength training.
If you decide to ignore this and only involve yourself with lots of aerobic activity you will still probably lose weight. But a lot of that weight will be muscle mass as well as fat. So while you are losing weight, you are also doing damage to your metabolism as well as your basic functional strength. This is not a good idea for an aging population. With just 1-3 simple strength workouts per week you can continue to lose weight but you can maintain your muscle mass and ensure that the weight you lose is predominantly body fat.