Struggling to get and/or stay fit? There’s so much bull and ignorance out there so let me stimulate your thinking on fitness with some research backed facts.
I’m providing my take on fitness, three common misconceptions, and scientifically supported tips on how to get fit in the most efficient way!
However, most efficient doesn’t necessarily mean fun.
And if you don’t think it’ fun you’re not likely to stick with it, so then it’s better to something less efficient but that you enjoy!
This is a long read but I do believe it will expand your view on how to get and stay fit. So here we go!
The three common misconceptions are:
- Myth 1: Running is great for fat loss
- Myth 2: Running makes you fit
- Myth 3: Lifting weights makes you bulky
MYTH 1: RUNNING IS GREAT FOR FAT LOSS
This is rubbish fuelled by the companies earning money on selling running shoes.
Actually, the more overweight you are the worse running is because of the heavy impact on untrained joints.
This misconception started with research by Doctor Kenneth Cooper suggesting that aerobic exercise decreased cardiovascular disease and he devised a standard test on aerobic activity (The Cooper test).
Dr Cooper later revised his position on aerobic training, and stated that more than 20 min aerobic training at a time was unnecessary, and added that strength training is very important for health, but the jogging craze had already taken off so nobody listened.
There’s been a number of studies trying to answer the question of what is the best type of exercise for fat loss, and if you only read the news paper headlines these studies generate you are led to believe that aerobic training, i.e. running is the best way.
However, take your time to look at how the study was made and exactly which type of anaerobic exercise (weight training) they compared to running and you’ll find a different answer.
Take for example the Duke University study that often is referred to in claims that running is the best exercise for fat loss. The study has a number of flaws in design and presentation of the findings and the only thing the study actually proves is that aerobic activity is inefficient for fat loss but better than a poorly designed weight-lifting program.
A better informed review by Journal of Obesity in 2011 concluded that “the effect of regular aerobic exercise on body fat is negligible.” and that “given that the major reason given for not exercising is time, it is likely that the brevity of HIIE protocols should be appealing to most individuals interested in fat reduction.”
The body adapts quickly to aerobic training and learns to be as efficient as possible using the least amount of oxygen and energy to perform the work. This is why when a runner has found his stride it’s much easier to extend the distance of the run from session to session than it is to increase the tempo.
The reason long distance runners can run longer and longer is that the body quickly adapts to perform the same amount of work with less and less energy so that a runner can go longer and longer in the same tempo.
So extreme endurance feats such as 100 mile runs is not an achievement of fitness but an achievement of mental resolve!
So if running is so inefficient for fat loss how come endurance athletes are so skinny, you may ask?
Of course endurance athletes burn calories during their hours of exercise each week and in addition they lose muscle tissue due to the long term elevation of cortisol.
The body produces cortisol, a stress hormone, when you exercise, and when you stop exercising the body stop producing cortisol and go back to normal.
There’s a clear link between extended high levels of cortisol and our most common causes of death – cancer and heart failure.
From Precision Nutrition: “Aerobic endurance training, particularly running, is linked with protein loss from muscle (partially induced by cortisol). Endurance trained individuals typically have a higher cortisol response, while resistance trained individuals have a higher testosterone response. Cortisol causes atrophy in muscle (mainly fast twitch type 2) and bone. The anabolic effects of testosterone and insulin oppose cortisol’s catabolic effects.”
Actually, research shows that long-term cortisol level is higher in long-term endurance runners than in a control group with sedentary life style.
Another important consideration for efficient fat loss is to look at how your exercise choice impacts metabolism. Research presented in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise state that your body is burning 143% more calories 1 hour after your exercise if you’re doing high intensity intervals compared to low intensity long duration exercise.
MYTH 1 SUMMARY:
Of course you burn fat jogging and running for distance but it’s very inefficient. If you love running go ahead and have fun but if your desire for fat loss is greater than your love for running I suggest skip the run and read on for some tips on how to efficiently lose fat and get fit in the process!
MYTH 2: RUNNING MAKES YOU FIT
How many times have you heard something like: “I need to get in shape so I’m signing up for a marathon to have a goal!”. It’s complete BS, a total misunderstanding of what “being in shape” is and ignorance of what distance running does to your body.
Let’s start with running. Running is a broad concept including anything from a 100m dash to a 100 mile (4 marathons) race, and beyond. Most people, especially non-athletes, probably mean jogging when they say running and think of running as a 5-15km run depending on fitness level.
So what is fitness?
Some people consider triathletes fit.
World champion triathletes Mark Allen, Dave Scott and Paula Newby-Fraser fit are amazing athletes in the highly specialised discipline of endurance but are they fit? Well, they certainly have cardiovascular endurance and stamina but…
If we do consider mentioned triathletes fit what about decathlete Ashton Eaton and heptathlete Carolina Kluft? They also have impressive cardiovascular endurance and stamina but would most likely outperform any triathlete in strength, power, speed and coordination.
So to explain my point here we must first define ‘fit’.
CrossFit claims to “Forge Elite Fitness” and since CrossFit is very much about measured results (you can’t improve what you don’t measure) the founder Greg Glassman scorched the earth for a relevant definition.
He settled on adopting a definition based on the 10 general physical skills of fitness set by the team behind the Dynamax ball workouts. CrossFit has a three pillar definition of fitness but in short their definition of fitness is the ability to perform across all of the 10 skills of fitness.
10 GENERAL PHYSICAL SKILLS OF FITNESS
- Cardiovascular Endurance – The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.
- Stamina – The Ability of body systems to process, deliver, store and utilize energy.
- Strength – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
- Flexibility – the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
- Power – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
- Speed – The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.
- Coordination – The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
- Agility – The ability to minimise transition time from one movement pattern to another.
- Balance – The ability to control the placement of the bodies center of gravity in relation to its support base.
- Accuracy – The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.
List from CrossFit Journal Oct-2002
CrossFit does stir up emotions but irrespective of your thoughts on CrossFit I believe most people involved in fitness would agree that this definition of fitness really makes sense – fitness is much more multi-facetted than just your endurance.
Distance running is detrimental for fitness but sprints are great!
The longer your runs the more specialised you become. Running beyond a half-marathon is primarily conditioning of your joints, not your cardiovascular endurance. Running beyond a marathon is primarily conditioning of your mental resolve, not your stamina.
There are endurance athletes who recognise this as well and take a more holistic approach to fitness. One example is Alex Viada, a ultra-runner, triathlete and powerlifter with a 705 lbs (320kg) squat and a 4:15 min mile (1.6km)
Running can be very beneficial for fitness but make it a high-intensity workout. Look at the body of a 100m runner versus a marathon runner and compare their training programs and you’ll find that the sprinters do plenty of strength training.
MYTH 2 SUMMARY:
Running doesn’t make you fit. Running makes you a runner. If you love distance running that’s what you should do but I would suggest that you incorporate sprints and weight training to increase your general level of fitness and thereby longevity and general ability to cope with life. If you don’t love running just let it be and focus on getting fit instead!
MYTH 3: LIFTING WEIGHTS MAKES YOU BULKY
I don’t know where this comes from.
Maybe it’s just ignorance that makes people associating all strength training with the physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
There are obviously different approaches to lifting weights depending on your desired outcome. Even if you compare highly specialised weight lifters like Olympic lifters, powerlifters and bodybuilders they have very different programming to achieve their specific goals.
As with distance running lifting weights can make you very specialised as well. Just as I don’t consider world champ triathletes fit I don’t consider world champ powerlifter Andrey Konovalov fit. They are both highly specialised but at the opposite sides of the spectrum.
For the purpose of getting a fit and toned body you want to lift moderate weights in a moderate to high tempo. Just to illustrate the difference in programming weight lifting for muscle size versus strength versus general fitness allow me a rough generalisation.
- Lifting for mass (bodybuilders): Moderate to heavy load, 5-8 reps per set, 3-5 sets per exercise, 3-5 exercises per muscle group. These guys and gals aim at exhausting the muscles in every session by attacking it with different exercises and “reps until failure” to allow for maximum growth as the muscle repairs between workouts. And eat, eat and eat (until a few months before competition)!
- Lifting for strength (powerlifters): Heavy load, 1-5 reps per set, 5-8 sets per exercise, 1-3 exercises per muscle group. The objective here is to focus on the core movements of squat, deadlift, bench press with fewer reps and a bit longer rest between sets to allow higher load in every set. And eat, eat and eat!
- Lifting for fitness (you!): Moderate load, 8-12 reps per set, 3-5 sets per exercise, involve as many muscle groups per exercise, shorter rest between sets to keep the intensity high.
MYTH 3 SUMMARY:
Lifting weights doesn’t make you bulky unless you want to – it’s all about a combination of programming and diet. Lift for fitness and be conscious of your diet!
THE MOST EFFICIENT WAY OF GETTING FIT
To get fit and toned fast is as simple as 1, 2, 3!
Simple that is. Not easy.
In parallel to taking control of your diet just follow these three simple guidelines.
- Multi-joint movements,
- … using moderate weights,
- … with moderate to high intensity.
1. Multi-joint movements
The single most effective exercise in weight lifting is the squat. To the squat you add other multi-joint movements like the deadlift, overhead presses, cleans, and rows. Pretty much in that order.
Use a barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells and make sure you learn proper technique! Multi-joint movements takes skill so invest the time it takes to learn to perform the movements correctly to optimise the movement for you so you don’t injure yourself.
Be very critical of the personal trainers out there, especially if the have a commercial gym background (‘commercial’ as in lots of fancy machines and little or no free weights). Weight training in machines can be beneficial for training specific muscles after you’ve built a strong foundation using multi-joint exercises. Not the other way around.
2. Moderate weights
Use a weight with which you can perform 8 to 12 reps in your first set. In your final set of an exercise you should only be able to perform around 80% of the reps with the same weight. Mix it up! For example rotate the load so that for the same exercise you use 12 reps in the first workout session, 8 reps in the session thereafter and 5 reps in the third session then you go back to 12 reps and keep cycling the load.
3. Moderate to high intensity
Intensity is ideally measured as a percentage of max heart rate with a range from 55% to up to 70% considered moderate intensity and from 70% and up high intensity. Calculate your max heart rate with the Karvonen method and then your 55% and 70% heart rates.
For a fantastic workout do Complexes, credited to Javorek and popularized by Dan John. A complex is a series of barbell exercises that you perform in flow without letting go of the barbell as you transition from exercise to exercise.
Here’s my favourite complex.
Choose a weight based on your military press and perform all 25 reps in a flow as one set. Do 3 sets with 1 minute rest in between.
- 5 deadlifts
- 5 romanian deadlifts
- 5 hang cleans
- 5 front squats
- 5 military presses
It will burn fat, build strength, tone your body and there’s no way it will make you bulky.
Feel free to add sprints!
If you want add some running to your workouts try these sprint exercises:
- 3 times 1km: Run 1km in max tempo, rest 5 min, run 1km in max tempo, rest 5 min and finish off with 1km in max tempo.
- 4 times 400m: 400m in max tempo, 4 times with 2 min rest in between.
- 10 times 100m: 100m in max tempo, 10 times with 20 sec rest in between.
Measure total time and try to improve.
HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
In his classic article “The Hierarchy of Fat Loss” on T-Nation from 2007 Alwyn Cosgrove makes a recommendation, backed by available research, on how to most effectively lose body fat and in short the hierarchy is as follows, starting with the most effective method first and then adding other methods for variation the more time you have available to spend on it.
1. If you have 3 hrs per week do only metabolic resistance training (barbell work, complexes, kettlebells, etc.)
2. If you have 3-5hrs per week add high-intensity interval work to your metabolic resistance training.
3. If you have 5-6 hrs per week add aerobic interval training to the above.
4. If you have 6-8 hrs per week then you can add some intensive aerobic training.
5. Finally, if you want to work out more hours per week you add the low intensity aerobic work such as jogging or moderate tempo cycling.
Note that it’s not efficient to do metabolic resistance training for 8hrs a week because you’re body fatigues after approx 3 hrs and you need other types of training to not impair recovery and regeneration of muscle and joint tissue.
Running makes you a runner!
Distance running is inefficient for fat loss and detrimental to fitness. But you don’t need to throw away your running shoes – sprints are great for fitness!
Lift weights fast!
Learn the basic multi-joint movements and do them in moderate to high intensity with moderate weight. This will burn fat, tone your muscle, increase your cardiovascular ability and do so in a very time-efficient way!
Let me know what you think in the comments