Why weight loss requires strength training, even for women and seniors, Part 1
Copyright 2006 Truth Publishing
Did you know that strength training is crucial for successfully losing weight and keeping it off? I’m talking about weight-bearing exercise. It doesn’t have to be a huge, hulking workout where you’re trying to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, it just has to be some basic strength training.
Why is strength training important for losing weight? Strength training is important because many people try to starve themselves into weight loss. They think it’s all about controlling calories. Unfortunately, a lot of dieticians and nutritionists don’t really understand strength training, and they also think that it’s just about calories: Calories in, and calories out. You consume extra calories, you’ll gain body fat. If you have a calorie deficit, you’re going to lose weight.
While this may be true, this approach is only part of the picture. Sure, you need a calorie deficit to lose weight, but how does your body actually use calories?
It’s your lean body mass – that muscle mass underneath your body fat – that burns calories 24/7, allowing you to actually eat more calories without gaining weight.
Let’s say you happen to be quite obese and you have a high percentage of body fat. I used to be in that situation; I know what it feels like. Underneath that body fat you actually have a very strong skeleton and strong muscles. Your body has built up those muscles in order to carry all of that extra body fat when you move your body. Just the very act of standing up, walking across a parking lot, going up a flight of stairs or lifting your arms requires more effort when you’re overweight, especially if you’re obese. So the heavier you are, the stronger your muscles have to be just to allow you to do basic, everyday things.
Now this can actually work to your advantage – if you manage to keep all of that muscle mass and bone density in place while you are losing body fat, then you can maintain the high metabolism that’s associated with that lean body mass even while you are dropping body fat. But if you starve yourself, you’re going to lose all the muscle resources you already have. It’s a mistake a lot of people make. They try to lose body fat by starving themselves, and as the body fat vanishes from their body, their muscle mass also disappears. Why would the body get rid of muscle mass? Because, frankly, it doesn’t need it.
Your body adapts to the need. You see, the body is an adaptive system. It will adapt to whatever loads you place on it. So if you are a heavier person and you’re carrying around body fat, then your body will adapt by creating stronger muscles to lift your body. It’s almost like doing a leg press every time you get up out of the chair. If you weigh 300 lbs., you’re doing a 300 lb. leg press, you see? Now if you were to drop 150 lbs. of body fat, and end up at 150 lbs., your body wouldn’t need the same amount of leg muscle to lift you. It would eliminate those leg muscles through catabolic action.
While it is eliminating this muscle mass, your metabolism begins to slow. Remember, it’s the lean body mass that’s burning calories day in and day out, even when you’re doing nothing. If you reduce that muscle mass by allowing it to go away (by not challenging your muscles), then your metabolism is going to slow. A lot of people end up at a place where they’ve lost the body fat and they’re lighter, but it’s suddenly so much easier to put on body fat. They don’t have the muscle mass they once did, they’re not automatically burning calories, and if they overeat just a little bit, they’ll start packing on the body fat again.
Strength train while losing weight. The solution to all of this – the strategy I want to focus on here – is to engage in strength training while you are losing body fat. If you do this, then you will be able to maintain the muscle mass that you already have underneath your body fat while you are in the process of losing the fat. This will leave you with a greater proportion of lean body mass to body fat, meaning that you will be slimmer, yet you’ll have the muscles that you had when you were overweight.
If you get rid of enough body fat in this way, then those muscles may begin to show – if you’re a man. If you’re a woman, don’t worry. You’re never going to bulk up. A lot of women are mistakenly afraid of strength training. They think that if they pump a few weights they’re going to turn into Lou Ferrigno overnight. They think they’re going to have this competition muscle-bound body from lifting a couple of weights. Believe me, that is not the case at all. Most bodybuilding women have trained for years, even decades, just to produce that kind of muscle mass. Women are not built to puts on lots of muscle mass, so don’t be afraid that you’ll bulk up. Women who are afraid of exercising because they think it’s going to make them look bigger have it all wrong.
Women need strength training, too. Let’s take a moment to cover that myth here. Let’s say you’re a woman and you have more body fat than you want. You’re trying to decide, “Should I engage in strength training as part of my weight loss program?” Some women say, “No, because I’ll bulk up and it’ll make me look fatter.” That’s a complete myth; it’s totally false.
When you have a high percentage of body fat, that body fat is stored not only in the tissues that are obvious – such as your hips and your midsection, your arms and legs and so on – it’s also stored intramuscularly, which means it’s stored within the muscles of your body. It’s sort of like the marbling of beef from a cow. If you slice a muscle from a cow, there’s some fat inside the muscle that is the same kind of fat that’s in our muscles when we have a high percentage of body fat.
That fat takes up a lot of space in the muscle, so it actually makes the muscle look bigger, because there’s fat inside. When you start losing body fat, even if you’re engaged in strength training, that intramuscular fat will begin to vanish. So even if your muscle mass begins to grow – which, again, is very difficult for women to accomplish – your overall muscle size is probably going to be smaller when you’re at a lower percentage of body fat. The net change in your muscle size is going to be almost nothing, unless you really start to do strength training on a regular basis for a period of a year or two, and then you might actually begin to put on a little bit more muscle.
Don’t lose the muscle you’ve already built. So with that crazy myth covered, let’s get back to the main point, which is that engaging in strength training will conserve the muscle mass you have now. Now here’s why this is so important: It’s very easy for your body to shed useless muscle. So if you’re not using a muscle, your body will get rid of it over a few months. It’s gone. But to gain that muscle back – now that takes some effort! That could take months or years of strength training.
It is much harder for your body to engage in anabolic reactions (to build muscle mass) than it is for your body to catabolize and get rid of muscles. So, if you decide you’re going to starve yourself while you lose weight and get down to the minimum weight possible, and afterwards you engage in strength training, then you’re going to find that it’s a much more difficult process to gain lean body mass than it was to slim away what you had to begin with. Building lean body mass is a huge challenge.
It’s also important to note that when people talk about weight loss, they throw that term around without really understanding what it means. Everybody says “I want to lose weight,” but they don’t really mean that. They mean they want to lose body fat; they don’t want to just lose weight. A limb amputation will cause you to lose weight, but that’s not what people have in mind! People want to lose body fat. So be careful what you wish for – and don’t use that bathroom scale as a measure of your progress. There are a number of reasons why.
One is if you just starve yourself and you start losing lean body mass, then that counts as weight loss. But you’ve done yourself no good whatsoever, because now you’ve actually lowered your metabolism. The scale says, “Hey! You lost another three pounds!” But it could be 2 lbs. of fat and 1 lb. of muscle, and that’s not a good situation to be in. You want to lose maybe 2.9 lbs. of fat and 0.1 lbs. of muscle, or maybe 3 lbs. of fat and no muscle. But to do that, you’ve got to challenge your muscular system through some weight bearing exercise.
Don’t forget the glycogen fuel stored in your body. The other thing to keep in mind when you’re using the bathroom scale is that when you first start limiting your calories, your body is going to start burning through its glycogen stores. Glycogen is basically a fuel stored in your body. It stores sugars together with water and locks them up in the tissues and organs of your body like an energy battery, ready for you to use at a future time.
There’s water locked in with those calories. That water weighs a lot. So when you start restricting your calories, the first thing your body burns is this extra storage of energy, this extra glycogen. And the glycogen causes you, as it’s burned, to shed water. You might look at the scale and think, gee, I lost 5 lbs., but you really lost no body fat whatsoever. It was just water, because your body released glycogen. What usually happens to people when their glycogen store has reached zero is they get really hungry, they think they’re in a starvation panic, and then they overeat. Their glycogen stores fill right back up, they gain the 5 lbs. back, and usually they over ate to such an extent that they store another half a pound of body fat or so. Now they’re half a pound heavier than when they began and they lost no body fat whatsoever. It was just a game of glycogen and water storage they saw reflected on the bathroom scale.
Bathroom scales are useless. So ignore the bathroom scale. It is not useful for telling you how successful you are in losing body fat. I don’t use one at all. The only measure you should use is a “fat scale” or a caliper. A caliper is the best way to measure body fat. Body fat calipers measure the thickness of body fat in key locations around your body. For men, one location is on the upper pectoral area, another is the midsection and the third is on the top of the quadriceps of the leg. For women, it’s the back of the arm, the midsection and along the hip.
However, you’ve got to learn how to use a caliper correctly if you want it to be an accurate indicator of fat loss success. I just mention it as a tool for people who are really serious about losing fat. People who use bathroom scales to figure out how much weight they’ve lost are just playing a silly game of deception – the bathroom scale is useless. I mean, you could lose bone mass and you’d still look like you were having lots of progress on the bathroom scale.
How do you lose bone mass? Easy: you stop engaging in exercise, stop walking, and stop running. If you do all that (which I’m not recommending, by the way), then you would start to lose bone mineral density, and that would be reflected as weight loss. When you say you want to lose weight, be careful what you ask for. Your body has a number of ways to lose weight that have nothing whatsoever to do with losing body fat or enhancing your overall state of health.