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Burn the Fat Not the Muscle

Burn the Fat Not the Muscle

Your objective is to get as lean as possible but not make your hard-earned muscle mass the sacrificial lamb to excessive cardio. Let's look at some conditioning strategies to minimize body fat and keep muscle mass.

What Science Says
In 1994, Angelo Tremblay and some of his colleagues at the Physical Activities Science Laboratory at Laval University in Canada, tested the long-held belief amongst most exercise and medical professionals that long, slow cardio at a low intensity is superior for fat loss. In fact, they compared the impact of moderate/low intensity to high intensity interval training in hopes of finding what was superior for fat loss.

One group did 20 weeks of endurance training while the other group did 15 weeks of high intensity interval training. The cost of total energy expenditure was much higher in the endurance-training group than the interval group.  Additionally, Tremblay and his associates found that the endurance group burned nearly twice the amount of calories during training than the interval group. And yet, skin fold measurements showed the interval training group lost more body fat than the endurance-training group.

This may not seem to make sense at first glance, but the team found, "When the difference in the total energy cost of the program was taken into account . . . the subcutaneous fat loss was nine fold greater in the HIIT (interval training) program than in the ET (endurance training) program."
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In layman's terms, interval training trumped long, slow cardio for fat loss.
The interval trainees got nine times the fat loss for every calorie burned during training.  The researchers from Laval University found that metabolic adaptations that were a result of interval training may lead to enhanced lipid utilization post exercise, effectively accelerating fat loss.

Fat is the fuel for lower-intensity exercise and carbohydrates is the fuel for higher-intensity intervals. While excess dietary fat can cause unwanted fat gain, so can an excess in carbohydrates. This study confirms the need to look beyond the scope of what macronutrient is fueling the workout, or how many calories are burned during the workout. We must also look at what happens post-workout. Intervals stimulate your post-workout metabolism much greater than long, slow cardio. Additionally, studies have shown intense intervals have increased anabolic hormones post-workout.

This is why interval training has so many die-hard advocates and supporters.  Science confirms interval training is highly effective for fat loss.  "Compare the physiques of top-level sprinters to top-level distance runners," is a simplistic, logical response many give when asked why they feel interval training is superior.

Izumi Tabata has conducted research for the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan. In terms of aerobic benefits, Tabata demonstrated that a program of 20 seconds of all-out cycling followed by 10 seconds of low intensity cycling for four minutes was as beneficial as 45 minutes of long, slow cardio.
Tabata training is now a popular form of interval training that includes performing an activity all-out for 20 seconds, followed by a 10 second rest interval. Some popular methods of Tabata training include jumping rope, burpees, and kettlebell swings, along with many others. Numerous studies also confirm the effectiveness of interval training enhancing aerobic capacity.

Steady State Cardio
High level distance runners are far from great physical specimens.  Actually, many appear sickly and emaciated. Excessive aerobics can decrease testosterone production, decrease immune system efficiency, increase cortisol production and put a serious halt to any sort of strength or muscle gains. But things are not so simple when it comes to muscle increase.

The studies that show the ill effects of muscle hypertrophy, anabolic hormonal deficiency and decreases in strength have some commonalities. What it comes down to is that intense cardiovascular exercise for more than 30 minutes at above 75 percent max heart rate intensity, with a frequency of three times or greater per week, will be counterproductive to strength and muscle gains.  An easy way to estimate max heart is 220 minus your age; so if you are 20 years old, 220-20= 200 max heart rate.

Long jogs are out as a way to optimally increase strength and muscle mass. Walking is great, but it does not constitute intense aerobics. And if your heart rate is over 150 simply when taking a leisurely walk, most training articles on ProSource will be much too intense for your current physical condition.

Walking is a great leisure activity. Make it fun instead of slaving away on the treadmill. On days you are not training, go outside, get some fresh air, and even take the dog along. There is no need to spend hours on the treadmill to get lean. Interval training a couple times a week coupled with 20-30 minutes of walking 2-3 times a week will keep you healthy, happy, lean, and mean. Shoot for keeping your heart rate in the 55-70 percent range of your max heart rate.

Here are some benefits of aerobic activity, like moderate walking a few times a week:

  • Increase General Physical Preparedness (GPP)
  • Decrease Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS enhancing recuperation)
  • Increase heart health
  • Decrease stress
  • Help maintain healthy joints/muscles
  • Decrease body fat
  • Increase energy levels

The key is moderation. Below I have listed some of my favorite interval loss conditioning strategies.

Barbell Complexes
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You want to find out what you are made of? Try barbell complexes. These are not only one of the greatest metabolic conditioners and fat loss modalities, they are also one of the best tests of pure guts. Time to "put up or shut up!"  

If you are doing barbell complexes and that they are not challenging, you are not loading the bar with enough weight or not giving a sufficient effort. Barbell complexes potentially serve as a very viable alternative to sprints for heavier athletes.

Barbell complexes are performed as quickly as possible, moving exercise to exercise with no break. To construct a complex, you may do five to eight squats, followed by five to eight squats to presses, followed by five to eight good mornings, followed by five to eight power cleans, followed by five to eight bent over rows and finally finished off with five to eight deadlifts. 

The beauty of barbell complexes is they can be arranged somewhat specific to the muscle group being worked; if you train legs Monday and chest Tuesday, it would be counterproductive to do very intense intervals that emphasize legs and lower back, this will not let the muscles recover.
On a leg day, a barbell complex might look something like: Overhead Squats, Squats, Reverse Lunges, Front Squats and Romanian Deadlifts.  On a back day, it might look something like: Good Mornings, Power Cleans, Hang Cleans, Deadlifts and Bent Over Row. Sound tough? Your fortitude will be in for a test.

Some points to remember when performing complexes:

  • Use compound exercises
  • Perform exercises as quickly as possible while maintaining proper technique  
  • Do not rest between exercises
  • Try your best not to drop the bar
  • Start with an empty bar and add weights in increments of five to 10 pounds
  • Do five to seven exercises per complex, each set consisting of five to eight repetitions
  • Rest one to three minutes between sets, do not exceed four sets, total duration should be no more than 15 minutes
  • Barbell complexes are intense interval workouts and are included in your total of interval workouts

Barbell Complex Example

Strongman Events
Watch any strongman competition and it is amazing how well-conditioned these enormous competitors are. Competitors are not lean by bodybuilding standards, but are very lean for being 300-400 pounds, contrasted to much less svelte NFL linemen.
Svend Karlsen and Juoko Ahola look like lean, off-season bodybuilders, while Mariusz Pudzianowski basically looks like a competition bodybuilder year round, but bigger. Still need proof? Google images of Derek Poundstone or Bill Kazmaier.
Strongman events are heavy interval training!

A whole book could be written on strongman events for interval training. A ton of different events and combination of events can be used if you have access to strongman equipment. Below John is doing five stone rolls; after he completes five rolls he rests 25 seconds. This is done for eight minutes. 

Stone Conditioning Example

Jumping Rope
Newer is not always better!  Pugilists have reaped the benefits of jumping rope for centuries. Jumping rope can burn up to 1000 calories per hour, making it one of the most efficient fat-burning workouts available. Unlike other forms of interval training that are much more stressful on the CNS, muscles and connective tissues are also spared significant stress while jumping rope.

Furthermore, jumping rope tones muscles throughout the entire body and develops lean muscles in all major muscle groups.  Of course, jumping rope optimizes conditioning and maximizes athletic skills by combining agility, coordination, timing, and endurance. Most importantly for you, it can help burn body fat.

Jump ropes are portable and inexpensive and can be purchased for less than $10. If you go on vacation, throw your jump rope in your bag and you have no excuse to not do your conditioning work.

Jump Rope Program
Start by jumping rope 30 seconds and resting one minute for six sets. Depending on ability, add 10 seconds per week or workout. Make it your goal to complete six sets of three minutes of jump rope, with a 30 second rest interval. When you are able to complete six sets of three minutes, body fat will have melted off and conditioning will be at a whole new level.

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Parting Thoughts
Intense interval training can be a huge ally in the war on fat loss.  Like intense weight training, your body and central nervous system will need time to recover from the demands of interval training.  Two days a week of intense interval training and two day a week of 30 minute leisurely walk is a great place to start.  Fat loss is primarily a result of diet; interval training can be a helpful adjunct.

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