Stubborn Body Fat and Fat-Loss Myths

In this post I will specifically address the problem of stubborn bodyfat. If you are already relatively lean or have recently lost weight, there’s a good chance you still have stubborn body fat. You know what I’m talking about.. Lower abs, triceps, low back.. Take your pick. Naturally, this is frustrating for a lot of people, and it may seem hopeless at times. Let me clear up some of the frustration for you.

Don’t do this.

The process of fat loss can be analogous to the process of draining a swimming pool of water. No matter which diet or style of eating you follow, in order to burn fat you must consume fewer calories than you use. This is based on the law of thermodynamics which, unfortunately, no one has figured out how to break. As you reduce calories your body mobilizes fat (and potentially other tissues) for energy. Let’s return to the swimming pool analogy; if fat were water, the swimming pool would be slowly emptied. However, almost all swimming pools have a deep and shallow end and as you approached the bottom you would begin to see the shallow end a lot sooner than the deep end. In order to completely empty the deep end, you would have to completely drain the pool. Regarding fat loss, the deep end represents your stubborn body fat. In order to burn this, you need to drastically reduce your OVERALL body fat. Sounds simple right? Just keep eating less and less? Well.. In reality there are things that complicate this process. Here are a few of the most common complications (from baye.com):

1. Stubborn bodyfat is often a different “kind” of fat
This type of  fat often has less blood flow, is more sensitive to insulin, and has more of the receptors for hormones causing fat to be stored and less of the receptors causing fat to be released. Because of this, your body tends to draw on fat stores in other areas first,

2. Rate of fat loss is inversely proportional to how much you have
This simply means that the less fat you have, the harder it is to lose. This is because your body can only take a certain PERCENTAGE of its energy from fat each day. If you are familiar with the Law of Diminishing Returns from economics, you will find that it applies quite poignantly to fat loss also.

3. As you get leaner, the contrast may appear greater
This is an observation I made chatting with clients and through my own experience. As you start to lose body fat, these stubborn areas can APPEAR more visible, even though during measurements total body fat is lower. Understandably, this can be frustrating as despite all your hard work, it may actually feel like you are fatter when the opposite is true.

Fat-Loss Myths

I hope you now have a greater understanding of the intricacies of fat loss and particularly of stubborn fat loss. It all sounds pretty easy in theory, but the difficulty is in applying the knowledge. Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions about how to burn fat. Before I go into them, I would like to predicate this with saying that there is no “BEST” way. The optimal methods are individual and each person requires a different solution. That being said, there definitely poor strategies out there for fat loss, largely based on misinterpretations and myths. Here are the most common myths debunked:

1. To lose belly fat, I need to do abdominal exercises
This is such a common misconception that I need you to repeat after me several times“I cannot spot-reduce fat”. Fat loss is global, meaning that when you cut calories, you body loses fat all over, and finally in these stubborn areas previously mentioned. This is a proven fact and is not even up for debate any more. While there are a few rare studies that show it is possible to burn SOME fat by exercising the underlying musculature, the effect is so small as to not be worth your time.

2. To lose fat I need to do lots of “cardio”
This is another area where people are wildly misguided. Doing some sort of repetitive, rhythmic “cardio” (spinning, running, etc) seems to be the default mode of exercise for time-starved, frustrated men and women looking for a quick way to get “tired”. The problem is, getting “tired” and actually creating a favorable aesthetic adaptation in the body are two completely different things. The rationale for “cardio” is that people want to “burn off” the fat. While well meaning and technically correct, the amount of fat burned is so low as to be meaningless compared to the time invested during the activity. But Eddie you say, “the treadmill told me I burned 300 calories in that one hour I did on the elliptical machine!” Ok, well, before you pat yourself on the back, let’s REALLY find out what’s happening here. First, why do you think the treadmill asked you to program in your weight? Because it has to calculate how many calories you are burning, but it also calculates your BMR (basal metabolic rate), which is the amount of calories you burn to maintain basic bodily functions. Lets say, for instance, that you burn 60 calories an hour as your BMR (an average which depends on weight, height, etc). Given this, during your one hour “cardio” session you would have actually burned 240 calories, which is the equivalent of drinking a Grande Starbucks Frappucino, which can be consumed in 5 minutes. 240 calories is still something, but that one hour of cardio will inevitably make you much hungrier, and therefore much more likely to over-eat. The fat-loss benefit from such an activity is an incredibly poor investment of time. If this wasn’t enough of a deterrent to using “cardio” for fat loss, you also have to consider that some forms of cardio, like running, can lead to the accumulation of wear and tear on the joints and non-contractile structures of the body (like tendons and spinal discs). Why do you think Runner’s knee exists? Chronically performing cardio without strength training also leads to wasting of muscle tissue, which leads to a reduction of muscle, which leads to a reduced BMR (meaning a lower expenditure of calories on a daily basis). I personally use this type of cardio occasionally but for the opposite reason; to increase my hunger so I can eat more in order to GAIN weight when I’m trying to put on muscle. There are however, some uses for this type of activity, but are beyond the scope of this article.

Is this you?
 
3. You need to constantly vary the exercises to “confuse the muscles” to burn more fat: Whoever said this has no idea how muscle physiology works and THEY are the one who is confused. We have already established that activity is not the way to lose fat, diet is. The idea behind constantly changing the exercises is to “keep the body guessing” so it somehow has to work harder and thus receive a larger adaptation effect. The fact is, muscles are stupid. Muscles do what the brain tells them to do. All muscles can do is contract (either shorten or extend during concentric/eccentric muscle contractions). To improve the strength and/or size of a muscle it is necessary to work it; to expose it to a load. When this happens the muscle becomes temporarily weakened and the body reacts by strengthening it. The reason muscle confusion does not work is that for a muscle to structurally change (i.e. become bigger or stronger) you need to continually expose it to the same stress. In the first 3 months of training the muscle itself does not change. The improvements in strength are due to the nervous system becoming more efficient at recruiting motor units (muscle force output). After and ONLY AFTER the neurological improvements have been optimized does the body decide to change the muscle by either increasing its size, density, or both. Muscles are too stupid to be confused, so don’t try to.
Note: There will be a few smart-asses out there who will cite research stating that training a muscle in slightly different angles leads to development of different portions of the muscle fibers depending on muscle-fiber orientation. This is true to some degree, but it is only applicable to professional bodybuilders looking to “peak the bicep” or “shape the outer calf” and even these guys do not vary the exercises too much, they simply include more to target different areas. The same linear rules of adaptation apply, and for the average joe looking to cut fat, this level of precision is not only unnecessary, but impractical.
Now that you have an intellectual understanding of the fat loss process. I humbly offer a simple formula for you to follow in order to shave those slabs of fat off:

1. Measure your bodyfat percent and weight at the start of this process and every 2-3 weeks. This will allow you to make adjustments as needed and motivate you.

2. Slowly reduce calories by eating less. Focus on eating good quality, nutrient dense foods that increase satiety, with sufficient protein to maintain muscle. Avoid heavily processed foods and especially alcohol and refined carbohydrates.

3. Train 2-3 times per week and focus on high intensity resistance training with progressive loading. The purpose here is to maintain lean muscle mass as you reduce calories to burn fat. Traditional “cardio” can be helpful but for most people is unnecessary and only gets in the way of the process.

4. As you lose fat, you may have to actually increase your calories the leaner you get. See point #2 in the stubborn fat loss section above.

5. Continually measure and track progress. Adjust as necessary until you hit your aesthetic goals.

Conclusion

If you understand the theories above and the process, you will begin to see how simple it really is. The fitness industry profits by trying to complicate things for you, when in reality it is the simplification of the process that leads to results. The real difficulty is not in the theory behind fat loss, it is in the application of it. If we streamline and refine our principles, the application becomes easier and fool-proof. If you keep it simple, train smart, and eat sensibly, you will see progress. Logic and sense almost inevitably leads to positive outcomes.

3 thoughts on “Stubborn Body Fat and Fat-Loss Myths

  1. Hey man, thank you for the linkback. I appreciate it. My web site doesn’t do pingbacks, though, so if you’d like to get a link back to your site from the page make a comment on the topic and include your URL. Also, thanks for helping to promote sane thinking on this topic!

    Like

    • Thank you Drew! I’m a big fan of your work and I have shifted more towards a HIT based training philosophy over the past few years and have achieved great success with myself and clients I train. I really believe it to be one of the best and most effective ways to train 🙂

      Like

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