Fat Loss & Strength Training

February 20, 20190

A rather common desire for many is to lose fat in a specific area of their body. Basically, I will receive questions like this:

“What do I need to do to lose fat in my ….?”

It would most certainly be nice to choose or target where you would like to lose fat. Unfortunately, our bodies do not function in that manner. Fat loss is ultimately decided by our genetics. One person may lose fat in their stomach first and thighs last. And for another it may be the opposite. There is no dietary strategy or exercise that is going to make you lose more fat in one place over another. Spot reduction simply does not work. Therefore, the focus should be on consistently adhering to a caloric deficit and you will eventually lose fat. Regarding where that fat loss will occur, it can at times be as complicated as the following graphic:

If spot reductions do not work for fat loss, what can we do?

Enter in strength training and why I recommend it for all my clients. A calorie deficit is inherently catabolic – your body begins to use its own stores as energy because it’s not getting enough through dietary intake (calorie deficit). Strength training is inherently anabolic – it tells your body that you need your muscle tissue, preventing it from being broken down and used for energy. The concept “use it or lose it” applies here. Therefore, you should be strength training. Many people approach training with the belief that cardio is preferential for fat loss, and strength training is reserved for building muscle. To be honest, no matter how much weight you must lose, you NEED to be strength training.

While we cannot spot reduce fat, you can most certainly spot increase muscle. This will lend to sculpting those trouble areas. On a similar note, the old philosophy for female training was one that recommended a high number of repetitions with light weight or even just body weight to “tone” muscle without making it bigger. In addition to my pet peeve over the use of the term “tone”, this philosophy is a myth (although still followed today). If you don’t use enough weight to challenge your muscles, they won’t grow. If they don’t grow, they won’t look any better than they currently do, even if you lose a large amount of weight. This is where the term “skinny fat” derives. An individual may not have much fat on their body, but they don’t have any muscle to speak of, either. Without strength training, your body will never look the way you want, no matter how little fat you’re carrying. And before the fear of being “bulky” enters the conversation, let me state that like fat loss, genetics determine the actual shape of each person. The training methodology merely determines the rate of muscle growth.

How important is muscle mass?

New research shows that medical professionals should also be promoting this message to their patients. “Muscle mass should be looked at as a new vital sign,” said principal investigator Carla Prado, PhD, RD, associate professor at the University of Alverta, Canada. “If healthcare professionals identify and treat low muscle mass, they can significantly improve their patients’ health outcomes.

Prado based her comments on findings from a review of over 140 studies in inpatient, outpatient and long-term care settings that looked at the relationship between muscle mass and health status. Investigators found that people with less muscle mass had more surgical and postoperative complications, longer hospital stays, lower physical function, poorer quality of life, and shorter lives overall.

This review appeared in the Annals of Medicine (2018; doi: 10.1080/07853890.2018.1511918)

A few more reasons why strength training is important during a fat loss plan:

  • Strength training helps preserve your metabolic rate (mainly through the preservation of muscle mass)
  • Strength training is the most functional thing you can do. There’s a lot of talk about functional training these days. Being strong is the most functional thing you can do, and you’ll find with increased strength everything in your life will improve
  • While not related to fat loss, being stronger also means being more resilient to injuries due to increased muscle, connective tissue strength, and bone mineral density

In closing, cardio does have a place in fat loss and overall physical fitness, however I feel it should be secondary or supplementary to a solid nutrition and strength training plan to optimize results.

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