Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Everything Works, Until it Doesn’t: How being BAD at Exercise makes you BETTER at Fat Loss

This blog post, which originally appeared on my friend Andy Van Grinsven's website here, really struck a chord with me, partially due to the swimming reference and partially due to his informative and witty writing style. I think the idea that NOT being good at something is actually BETTER for fat loss is under appreciated. Thus, I was elated when Andy agreed to let me re-post his piece on my blog. Enjoy!
Everything Works, Until it Doesn’t: How being BAD at Exercise makes you BETTER at Fat Loss
The fitness and nutrition world has gone insane. Like bat-shit crazy.
And much of it thanks to social media and the internet, where everything is true and everyone is an expert. And if you don’t agree then you can go eat a bowl of liquid mercury, because heaven forbid you have a different perspective.
Gluten will kill you. GMO's will kill you. Vaccines will kill you.
I’m of course being facetious and I don’t believe any of those things. But spend 5 minutes on Facebook and someone will try to convince you otherwise. Hell, even as a fitness professional I find my head spinning from all the “information” and “facts” found on the interwebs.

That’s why I don’t get my fitness information from social media and instead follow respected strength coaches that work in my field and put out great information.
One coach is Dan John, who has been around the S&C world for decades. He is a brilliant coach, talented writer, and all around fun to read and absorb his wisdom.
His most recent book is Can you Go? Assessments and Program Design for the Active Athlete…and Everybody Else.
In it he talks about program design for fat loss clients, and it dawned on me that his extremely simple solution is something I’ve known for a long time, but never quite pulled together.
In addressing these types of people (those who need to improve their body composition) you need two things:
1.) There must be some caloric restriction
2.) The person must do some inefficient exercise
That second point is the topic of this blog post:
How being BAD at exercise makes you BETTER at Fat Loss
In the early Spring of 2010 I signed up for an intermediate swimming class.
It was one of those half-semester PE classes to get an easy A in. Or at least I thought, because it wasn’t until Day 1 of the class that I recognized the whole intermediate swimmers part. You mean doggy paddle doesn’t count?
I got my ass handed to me. The other swimmers were experienced dudes and chicks who probably lived in the pool their whole lives. I’m a land animal. Not a damn fish. So I got lapped and lapped until my pride was hurt and my stomach was in knots (bowl of cereal was a bad choice).
On the first day we did a 10-minute lap test. I got a 6 measly laps.
Outside of class I had continued my strength training into the spring, and also began lacrosse practice, which was 5 nights per week.
Two weeks into that miserable swimming class and all of a sudden, I’m much stronger, much faster, AND much leaner.
I had dropped 10 lbs in the first two weeks of that class.
So why did that happen?
As you can probably infer, your body isn’t very good at things it doesn’t know how to do.
Think about it:
The first time you rode a bike.
The first time you thought “I’ve never run 5 miles before, I should try that!”
The first time you picked up a heavy dumbbell and tried to impress the ladies in the weight room.
Probably sucked during and afterwards, am I right? If you didn’t tuck your tail and walk out in defeat, and instead kept at it, things probably got a little easier.
That 5-mile run got less strenuous, and you took fewer breaks. That dumbbell you picked up got to feeling light after awhile, so you picked up a heavier one.
Adaptation: Makes you Great at Exercise, and BAD at Fat Loss
So you lose some weight and lean out a little at first, but then things plateau. Your weight (fat) loss slows or even stops. The weights on the bar seem to stay the same, regardless of how many times you’ve done it.
The truth is that your body doesn’t like being inefficient. That’s why we adapt. We were designed to hold on to calories, not burn them. Our ancestors went days or weeks without food, so it was in our best interest to adapt to storing energy rather than burning it.
So running gets easier after awhile. Without getting in too much depth, it’s like a what my Exercise Physiology professor Dr. Thompson used to say:
“It’s like turning a 4-cylinder into a V8.”
In cellular terms, we have mitochondria that produce ATP for our bodies to use to do work. When we run a lot (or do other cardiovascular exercise), our bodies make more mitochondria, which make more ATP, which gives us more fuel to burn. Our muscles also get stronger and more efficient at contracting, which makes them burn less fuel to work.
In other words: we become more efficient over time. A once-strenuous activity is now pretty easy. And because of adaptation, you burn fewer and fewer calories to complete the activity -- like being a 4-cylinder on day 1 and a V8 after week 8 (at least in terms of power output).
With regard to my swimming class: while I lost 10 pounds initially, I didn’t lose any more weight after the first 2 weeks. However, at the end of the 8-week course when we retested our 10-min lap test, I completed 16 laps (up 10 laps from day 1).
Pretty perfect example of how being inefficient at an exercise works great for fat loss, at least for awhile, and how well we adapt to a stimulus. Thank you, swim instructor, for helping me morph into the V8 I knew was in this body.
So bringing it home: everything works, until it doesn’t.
With training, you WILL adapt and you WILL get better. That’s a great thing.
Your Extremely Simple Solution to Being BETTER at Fat Loss
However: If your ultimate goal is FAT LOSS, I suggest that you do things differently:
A) Get pretty good at something for about 4-8 weeks (like running, swimming, cycling, etc.), then change it up.
B) Don’t get good at anything in particular (mix it up all the time: cycle, run, swim, cardio kickboxing, whatever..).
Either way, you’ll succeed in burning off some fat and leaning out, provided there is a small caloric restriction and the stimulus is great enough to induce a response.
So go ahead! Be the BEST BAD EXERCISER you can be. Do like Dan John says and try some inefficient exercise. You’ll burn some fat and feel pretty good about it!

Disclaimer: this works well with aerobic exercise and fat loss but not well with actual training for something. For example, I would not suggest this approach if your goal is to run a marathon or even a triathlon. Additionally, if your goal is to build muscle mass and strength, “random exercise” is a horrible approach also. You simply cannot build strength and mass by randomly picking exercises and never specializing. “Muscle confusion” is a marketing term, not a physiological one: if you want to get big and strong, find a program and stick to the plan.
About the Author

Andy Van Grinsven, MS, CSCS, CPT, USAW SP1, is a Nashville native, beer and BBQ lover, independent personal trainer and volunteer high school strength coach. When he's not training, he enjoys reading, writing, and working to become a little bit better every day. He also loves college football, deadlifting, and his dog, Jane.

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