Exercising for weight loss

by Matt Mecham on May 14, 2007

in Health & Fitness


The first thing people think when you mention the words “fat loss” and “exercise” in the same sentence is running. I know I did.

It makes sense too. Running makes you sweat and leaves you puffing for breath. Professional runners are skinny. Case closed. Where’s my running shoes?

It’s actually not that simple. Running for long distances is an aerobic endurance exercise. Endurance exercise will put your body into a catabolic state. A catabolic state is where your body stops taking energy from your glycogen supplies, stops taking energy from your fat supplies and starts breaking down muscle for energy. Your metabolism will slow down and you’ll find it harder and harder to lose weight.

I know this from recent education and long-term experience. I ran off almost 100lb over two years. On some weeks I ran 40km (24 miles) over four days with each session lasting 60-70 minutes. I didn’t realise it at the time but I was burning more muscle than fat which made it harder and harder to lose weight. I was also left with excruciating sciatic pain down my left side.

The good news is that you don’t have to kill yourself running to lose weight and I’d actually advise against it. Aerobic exercise has its place for fat loss in shorter controlled sessions as we’ll see later.

More muscle means quicker weight loss
If we accept that the more muscle you have the higher your metabolism will be. The higher your metabolism, the easier you’ll lose weight. With that in mind, it makes sense to build your lean tissue and muscles. Resistance training or weight lifting is a anaerobic exercise. It’s a great cardiovascular exercise and will strengthen your heart and lungs just as much as casual running will do. It will build muscle and it won’t put your body into a catabolic state although it will cause muscle damage which is our aim. When you damage your muscles your body sets about rebuilding them a little stronger and a little thicker if you have the right nutrition — which we’ll get to later.
Also, weight lifting has a great “After-burn” effect where your metabolism is raised for up to 48 hours after your session.

A lot of people fear weight training because they assume that they’ll end up like Arnie in his prime. That’s simply not true. Arnie put in years and years of hard 6 day a week training to achieve his physique. Our aim is to increase our muscle mass and definition, commonly known as ‘to tone’ even though that’s a misnomer guaranteed to annoy body builders.

We’ll concentrate on a total body workout plan, three times a week based on my own routine. Working your whole body in one session will keep your metabolism raised high and it’ll promote growth proportionately. A lot of beginners don’t bother training their legs and concentrate on the “mirror muscles” (chest, shoulders and biceps). This is a flawed plan because your legs contain the most muscle mass. When you put your largest muscles under repeated strain your body reacts by releasing a growth hormone which is your body’s natural steroid.

If you can stretch to it, purchase a barbell / dumbbell set like this one. Aim for around 100kg (220lb) or more. That might seem like a lot of weight, but it won’t be long before you need it. Trust me on this. Barbell weights stack neatly and don’t take up much room. You don’t need a lot of floor space to train in, either. Just enough for you and a 6 foot bar is ideal. If you can’t get the barbell set, at least get a set of dumbbells like these ones. You can lift around 30% less with dumbbells so even a 20kg/42lb set will keep you going for a while. Ideally, you’d also have a weight bench, like this one although that’s not essential.

If you don’t want to purchase any weights then you can do a lot with just your body weight. I do recommend that you get a chin-up bar that fits in your door way. I have this one and it doesn’t require permanent fixing.

Whatever equipment you have, follow the basics outlined below.

A quick word on machines
Most gyms these days are kitted out with all kinds of different weight machines. This is mainly because it’s easier to get someone to sit on a seat and push a lever or bar than teach them how to use free weights.

I’d strongly advise against using machines and instead use free weights. Machines force you into a single range of motion that may be unnatural for your body shape and size. Your connective tissues and assistance muscles will also be unworked leaving strength imbalances that could lead to injury. I’d opt for a decent bench with lat tower every time over a smith machine or a “multi” gym.

The only time machines are of any use is if you’re recovering from an injury and want to isolate a muscle group. Of course, if all you have access too are machines and don’t want to purchase a weight set then it’s better than nothing.

A quick word on nutrition
Good nutrition is key to your success. You simply cannot out-train a poor diet. Ideally, you’ll be following the suggestions in my other blog entry. When you’re exercising, you have some other nutritional requirements. You’ll want to make sure you’re in a positive protein balance going into exercise. After exercise you’ll need a good source of protein with refined carbs to repair any muscle damage. If you don’t have any, I suggest you stop right now and order some whey protein powder. It’s hands down the best way to get important nutrients into your system pre and post workout. If you’re in the UK, I recommend ‘Express Whey’ from Boditronics and if you’re in the US I recommend this. If you’re elsewhere in the world, let me know your recommendations.
Both the listed products have excellent amino acid (BCAA) profiles and around 20g of protein per scoop. Have a scoop with water 10-15 minutes before you start exercising. Immediately post-exercise (and I mean *immediately* – you have 30-60 minutes for your post workout meal before you miss the window) have a scoop of whey with a scoop of dextrose (called glucose in the UK, available at all pharmacies) with water. The dextrose is a refined carb which causes an insulin spike. Usually that’s bad, but post-workout it speeds the amino acids to your damaged muscles. After you’ve showered, you’ll need some more protein and refined carbs. This is the *only* time I’ll recommend “white” carbs. A white bagel with chicken and tomato is ideal.

The jargon
First off, lets get the jargon out of the way. A “rep” (or repetition) is a completed movement of an exercise. In a bicep curl, a “rep” will be the action of moving the bar from your waist to your chest and back down again. A “set” is a number of repetitions done without rest. If you were to do “3 sets of 10 reps” for bicep curls then you’d move the bar from your waist to your chest and back down ten times before taking a rest. You’d do that three times in total.

A few words on technique
This is the important part. You have to nail your technique before you get carried away with yourself. Start with a light weight and practise the movement until you’re sure you have it perfect. You have to leave your ego at the door and forget about piling on loads of weight to impress your parents. That will lead to muscle or ligament tears and a rise in your medical insurance.
The most important rule is to never round out your back, ever. This goes for whatever you’re doing including picking up the weight before use. Concentrate on keeping the base of your spine in a natural curve by keeping your shoulders back and your ass poking out. It’ll become second nature after a while.

The rules
Perform this routine three times a week with a non-weight day between workouts. I do this on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The non-weight (commonly known as a “rest” day) is imperative to your success. Your muscles will need a day to recover if they are to rebuild stronger and thicker.

You can mix up the order of these exercises for each workout and I suggest you do. You have to constantly out train your body’s natural urge for efficiency. If you do the same exercises in the same order with the same weight you’ll stop growing new tissue because your body will have adapted to the motions. Switch between workout A and B. So, for example, do workout A on Monday, B on Wednesday and A on Friday. If you don’t have access to weights, try the body weight exercises across all three days. Each workout should last between 45-60 minutes.

Try and add a little weight to your barbell or dumbbell each week. You have to really push yourself and take yourself out of the comfort zone. If you’re not pushing yourself hard then you’ll not see any gains.

Take a 60 second rest between sets. Try not to leave it any longer otherwise your heart rate will drop and your body will start sending out hormones to repair your tissues which will leave you lethargic and unable to continue effectively.

The routine: Weights Workout A
You can use a dumbbell or barbell for each of these. If don’t have a bench, substitute the chest press for press-ups.
Click each exercise to see a demo in a new window.
4 sets of 10 Chest Press
4 sets of 10 Deadlift
4 sets of 10 Front Squat
4 sets of 10 Bent Over Row
4 sets of 10 Military Press

The routine: Weights Workout B
You can use a dumbbell or barbell for each of these. If don’t have a bench, substitute the chest flye for press-ups. If you don’t have a chin up bar, substitute chin-ups for bent over rows.
If you can’t manage 10 pull-ups (and not many people can, starting out) then concentrate on the ‘negative rep’. That is, do as many as you can and then jump up and lower yourself down slowly for the rest of the reps.
If you don’t have a barbell, substitute the front squat with dumbbell lunges.
Click each exercise to see a demo in a new window.
4 sets of 10 Chest Flye
4 sets of 10 Deadlift
4 sets of 10 Front Squat
4 sets of 10 Pull-ups
4 sets of 10 Arnold Press

The routine: Body Weight Exercises
4 sets of 10 Press Ups
4 sets of 10 Prisoner Squat
4 sets of 10 Chin Up
4 sets of 10 Back Extension

The routine: Notes
Do as close as you can to the number of reps for each set. Choose a weight that you can complete all 10 with but start struggling on the 8th or 9th rep. The last rep should be a real effort. Make sure you go slowly when pushing/pulling/raising/lowering the weight. Try and move the muscle through the complete range of movement and don’t allow inertia or body rocking to assist in the movement.
Notice how we don’t have any abdominal work or bicep curls? The aim here is to lose weight by using our largest muscles and the compound movements will do that. Your biceps assist in many of the exercises also, such as the chest press, bent over row and military press. Your abdominal (“core”) also gets a work out with squats and deadlifts. I’ve never seen any value in sit-ups / crunches or any other ab isolation work so I don’t include any in my program. A sit-up won’t burn many calories either, so it’s almost useless for fat loss.

Aerobic exercise on rest days
If you want to speed up your fat loss then you can do 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise on your non-weight days. This can be running, cycling or any sport (football, tennis, etc). 20-30 minutes is ideal – anymore and you risk a catabolic state which will eat away your lean tissue. I do 30 minutes (6k) on the treadmill on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

You should see some definite muscle definition coming through with this program in around four weeks. Just make sure you’re eating and resting well to supplement the plan. Good luck and let me know how you get on!


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