(I’m still on the road with the family. We’re somewhere in Arkansas tonight, and I’ve got internet access for the first time in a couple of days. That gives me a chance to post a guest column by Josef Brandenburg, who I first heard about when Jimmy Moore interviewed him for a podcast show. Josef’s column follows …)
Exercise Bologna – The Single Biggest Exercise Myth
by Josef Brandenburg
Pretty much everything that you’ve been told about exercise is bunk. (Everything beyond the fact that you need to do it.) It’s this misinformation in your head that is killing your results and probably your motivation too. Who likes doing something when you don’t actually get rewarded for it?
Tom Naughton Does Something Stupid (Besides Letting Me Write for His Blog)
In the movie Fat Head (which rocks), Tom steps up his workouts by walking for an hour every single day because he thinks that this will actually do something to accelerate his weight loss beyond his reduced carb all fast-food diet. Tom’s walking was probably a complete waste of time. Time he could have spent working on his stand up act – which he desperately needs :-).
(Note from Tom: Mike Eades told me the same thing … the extra walking is fine, but it does diddly for weight loss. Oh well; I listen to books when I walk, so it was extra reading time.)
When I was a fat guy – 236 pounds (at 5 foot 10) with a 40.25 inch waist, and 26% body-fat (technically obese) I worked out for 11+ hours per week. (Sorry, I was too embarrassed to have anyone else take this picture. I had to do it in the mirror.)
I would wake up at 5am, drive to the gym, hop on some machine and go hard for an hour. Then I would come back at night do some body-builder weight lifting, and another 35 to 45 min of steady state aerobic exercise. (In case you’re wondering, that does NOT leave time for a life.)
The funny thing is that I got fatter doing these twice-a-day workouts, but the whole time I was thinking to myself, “Damnit, you fat bastard, you need to work out more! You need to burn more calories!”
How could I have possibly exercised any more?
Jogging Is BS
The whole idea that endurance exercise, like jogging, will make you thin came from the observation that elite endurance athletes are thin. Without any reason for doing so, folks in the exercise “science” community concluded that endurance athletes were thin because they did lots of slow, long distance work.
This kind of “logic” is like Tom’s post about his plan to start playing basketball until he hits 6 foot 5. You know: basketball players are tall, so if I play ball long enough I’ll get tall too.
The “endurance exercise makes people thin” is fine as a theory if you plan on testing it and then responding to the actual evidence, but not as religious doctrine.
So, What Does The Research Have To Say?
The USDA came out with their recommendation to do 60-90 minutes of aerobics for fat-loss in 2005. The first ever research study on the efficacy of their advice didn’t come out until late 2007. Do you know what the study said?
Men who did moderate to vigorous (think your target heart rate zone) exercise for over 60 minutes per day, 6 days per week, for an entire year lost only 6.5lbs of body fat! That is a half pound per month, for more than 6 hours of exercise per week. Women barely lost 4lbs! (1)
So, if you’re a woman with 20lbs to lose, all you’d need is 20 hours of aerobic exercise per week and you’d be set in 12 months!
So, What About Getting Fat Folks To Run Marathons?
The Danish thought of this in 1989 – if 2 hours per week won’t fix ’em, then we’ll make them run a marathon. After a grueling 18 month training program to get their subjects ready for a marathon (26.2 MILES) here are the results:
• The men dropped 5 pounds of body fat
• The women dropped no body fat at all (2)
So, if you’re a man looking to drop 40 pounds, then you just need to work up to a leisurely 210mile run by quitting your job and abandoning your family. And, if you’re a woman, it just seems hopeless – sorry. (Actually, it seems ironic, but a good chunk of my female clients come to me after having done a marathon or two. They usually end up fatter a few months after the event.)
Well, What About Real Life?
How well does endurance exercise work for regular people who are only going to go to the gym three days per week? How well does “sensible” advice like “do 40 min, 3 days per week in your ‘target heart rate zone’,” work?
Not very well. Researchers in Australia had their subjects do 40min of steady-state aerobic exercise, 3 days per week (you know, 40min in your “target heart rate zone”). Well, they gained a pound of fat on average over the course of 15 weeks. (3)
Is All Exercise Worthless For Weight Loss?
No. The good news is that there is exercise that works really well for improving body composition (less fat, more muscle), and it’s more fun, takes less time, and can actually enhance your ability to move. Its called metabolic resistance training (MRT). (Whereas treadmill jogging is actually horrible for your knees, messes up the way your muscles are supposed to function, and reduces flexibility. But, that is another post.)
10 months after the above picture of me in my parent’s bathroom mirror I looked like this:
* 195 pounds
* 9% body-fat
* 31.5 inch waist
* same pair of blue Nike shorts
In addition to getting on a low-carb diet (on which I ate more calories), I also completely changed my workout program. I went from aerobic (endurance) exercise twice-a-day to never doing aerobics at all. My 11+ hours of gym torture turned into only 3 or 4 hours a week of relatively fun MRT workouts.
I know that a lot of you reading this are thinking, “oh, that’s just anecdotal. What if it was just the low carb diet? I want references!”
You’re right, it is anecdotal. I don’t have published references to support this theory.
However, I do have lots and lots of anecdotal experience with clients over many years. I’d be living with my parents if I couldn’t deliver on my promises, so the fact that I can pay my mortgage has to be good for something. I also know a lot of other coaches with 10 and 20 years of records with their clients who’ve come to the same conclusions.
For example, Alwyn Cosgrove has owned Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, CA for 10 years. He’s got 300 members that are all doing MRT workouts based on his system, and he’s been tracking their results the whole time. That is a lot of data. If you consider the fact that most University exercise studies are done with 30 people for 12 weeks, its probably better data.
What Is MRT?
An MRT workout would look like this:
First do 12 squats with a weight you could only do 15 reps, then with no rest, go do 12 push-ups (pick a variation you could only do 15 reps of). Rest 1min. Repeat for 4 or 5 rounds. That should take 10 to 13min.
Second do 12 lunges with a weight you could only do 15 reps, then with no rest go do 12 rows with a weight that you could only do 15 reps with. Rest 1 min. Repeat for 4 or 5 rounds. This will take you about 13 to 17min.
Third, finish up with a nice interval workout: Go outside and run really fast for 30sec, then walk for 1 min. Repeat for 6 rounds. This will take you about 10min.
Cool down, stretch, and you’re done.
Here’s my theory on how it works: It’s not about the calories burned. Your body is going to put them back by making your hungry, reducing your spontaneous movement, reducing your body temperature, and/or some other means or combination of methods. (The 24 hour graphs of activity levels of overweight people on exercise programs are really neat – you can see their body compensate by reducing all other movement unconsciously. Of course the ass@#$% who publish this stuff – who are all thin – interpret this by telling these fat people that they need to exert more conscious effort to move more all day long.)
Its mostly about carbs and hormones. Your body has three energy sources – super-short, short and long term. For over-simplification all we care about is the short term – anaerobic glycolysis – that is the zone in which your body just burns carbs for fuel. Long term burns a lot of fat (not actually useful for fat-loss), and the super-short term uses up the ATP (energy) that your cells have on hand.
We want to do workouts that will drain the carbs (glycogen) out of your muscles. When we deplete your glycogen stores you will have increased insulin sensitivity for the next 36 hours (or your next high carb meal). Since body-fat is fundamentally regulated by insulin, if we can get your body to secrete less insulin for a day and a half, you will be leaner. (4-7)
Short bursts of intense exercise that exhausts you in the 30-90 sec range will maximize glycogen depletion, and thus body-fat lost.
There is also some icing on the cake stuff – like that intense exercise will release fat-burning catecholamines like adrenaline and noradrenalin. But, if insulin levels are high, then the catecholamines won’t do anything.
Low carb diets work really well alone, but low carb + MRT works really fast.
Josef Brandenburg is the author of The Body You Want and The Body You Want A to Z, and an award-winning Washington, DC based personal trainer who specializes in helping people create the bodies they want in the time that they actually have. You can get a free copy of his new CD “Why ‘Eat Less and Exercise More’ Is The Worst Advice Ever” right here.
1. McTiernan, Anne, et. al. Exercise Effect on Weight and Body Fat in Men and Women. Obesity (2007) 15, 1496-1512
2. Janssen, G. M., et al. Food intake and body composition in novice athletes during a training period to run a marathon. International journal of sports medicine, May 1989; 10(1 suppl.):s17-21
3. Trapp EG and Boucher SH. Fat loss following 15 weeks of high intensity, intermittent cycle training. Fat Loss Laboratory, Faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
4. Joslin. Elliot. Et al. Joslin’s Diabetes Mellitus. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 13th edition, 1994
5. Nussey, Stephen. et al. Endocrinology: An Integrated Approach. Informa HealthCare, 1st edition, 2001
6. Kronenberg MD, Henry M. et al. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. Saunders. 11th edition, 2008
7. Lehninger, Albert. Et al. Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry. W. H. Freeman. 5th edition. 2008