If you were to ask me to choose the one thing most people could improve in their workout, my answer would be “intensity.” Problem is, when I suggest workouts need to be harder, most interpret that as meaning more sets, reps, or hours in the gym. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Intensity doesn’t hinge necessarily on what you do (although it can), but oftentimes it’s how you do it. Your focus, your energy, and your devotion to push past barriers and challenge your body.
To help you understand the difference between a good workout, working harder, and training smarter, I interviewed Sean Hyson, C.S.C.S, fitness director for Men’s Fitness and Muscle & Fitness, and the author of The Truth About Strength Training. You won’t learn any new exercises or magic bullet workout secrets, but the strategy you’ll gain will be as valuable as any other lessons you’ll find. -AB
Should Your Workout Kick Your Ass?
It’s a funny irony that while we want everything else in our lives to be easier, we expect our workouts to be absolute torture. Listen to people talk about their personal trainers and watch their eyes light up when they say, “our last workout kicked my ass!” Meanwhile, TV shows like The Biggest Loser advertise by showing people on all fours, crying and pleading to make the workout stop so they can catch their breaths. There are even best-selling workout DVDs with names like Insanity, promising to deliver the toughest routine you’ve ever tried.
On the one hand, we want mobile devices that do our banking, cars that run on vegetable oil, and complete pre-packaged meals where all we need do is heat and eat, but when it comes to exercise, we insist on the most excruciating experience possible.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to change my body that way.
It goes without saying that losing weight takes hard work, but somehow, the modern world has become convinced that the only way to see results is to grin and bear it while you hold your feet to the fire. The way fitness is depicted on television and elsewhere in pop culture leads you to believe that losing fat means endless cardio, taking little to no rest between sets, working till you puke, and severe dietary restriction. The message is clear: to look good, you need to make yourself feel bad; you need to endure suffering.
But what if you don’t?
First of all, the idea that you need to burn an enormous number of calories through exercise—or that you even can—can be considered a myth. Eric Ravussin, a weight loss expert and professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., told the New York Times that “exercise by itself is pretty useless for weight loss.” His point was that people easily consume more calories than they can burn, and that the extra strain of exercise stimulates appetite, making it even easier to replace the calories you worked off.
Just look at the numbers. According to research done by the Mayo Clinic, a 160-pound person performing high-impact aerobic exercise will burn only 533 calories in one hour. (Note that most people aren’t capable of sustaining an intense pace anywhere near that long.) Now consider that a healthy dinner of four ounces of skinless chicken breast and one cup of rice contains 385 calories. That’s right: Eat one light meal and you’re a stone’s throw from breaking even with the calories you burned in that day’s workout.
Does this mean exercise is useless for fat loss? Of course not. Aerobic training taps into fat as a fuel source and weight training builds muscle, which increases metabolic rate, so there’s plenty reason to work out, and work out hard. Research even shows that exercise aids in keeping weight off once it’s lost. A 2009 study looked at 97 women who had lost an average of 27 pounds each and then returned to their old eating habits. The exercisers—those following a walking or weight training program—regained less weight than those who did no training and, interestingly, the weight they did gain back didn’t go to their midsections.
The take-home is that exercise isn’t nearly as important as diet for pure fat loss, so no matter how hard you work, you won’t see results until you’re eating smarter. (However, exercise is still an important part of the equation.) And starving yourself isn’t the way to go either. Diets that promise weight loss faster than one pound per week aren’t to be trusted (yes, it can happen, but go in with realistic expectations), and if you do use one to lose weight more aggressively, you can be sure it isn’t all fat.
5 Ways To Lose Fat (The Safe, Efficient Way)
I radically transformed my body in 12 weeks, losing 30 pounds while gaining significant strength. I wouldn’t say the process was a breeze, but I didn’t dread my workouts or curse my diet. Here’s a five-step program that summarizes what I did and will let you lose weight with minimal pain and suffering. In fact, it’s designed to let you do as little as possible.
1. Create a Realistic Diet
Consume 12 calories per pound of your body weight daily. So if you weigh 180 pounds, start eating around 2,100 calories. Get in one gram of protein per pound of your body weight and let 20% of your calories come from fat. The rest of your calories can come from carbohydrates. This is the diet I recommend in my e-book, The Truth About Strength Training, and the one I follow. It will work for anyone
2. Lift Heavy Weights
Compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench press were at the center of my own weight-loss program. Together, they stimulate virtually every muscle in the body, preventing that muscle from being lost when calories are low. (When the body gets the message it needs to hold on to muscle, it does, even when resources are scarce.) Reps don’t need to be any higher than eight on your main lifts, and should often be closer to five.
I can hear your screams. “What? Five reps is too little. I can’t burn any calories with a set that short.” That’s true, but you’re not trying to burn calories with weight training, as that’s largely a waste of time anyway (see above). Rather, low reps imply heavy weight, and when you’re dieting hard, you don’t want to perform long sets with a heavy bar on your back, believe me. Lack of energy leads to a lack of focus, and then accidents happen.
3. Focus on Recovery
Heavy training is tiring and stressful to the central nervous system—the control center in your brain for all your muscle actions. Even when you’ve caught your breath, you often need to wait longer before performing your next set, as your nervous system isn’t recovered enough to recruit all the musculature needed. This can mean rests of up to two or three minutes between sets, especially when calories are low and recovery ability is compromised.
I’m not saying there isn’t any value to the fast-paced circuits that some trainers set up for their clients—they boost growth hormone naturally and do increase calorie burn—but I recommend making them a smaller part of your program. Put in your time on a squat or press, and then you can follow it up with a two-to-four exercise sequence where you perform higher reps with little to no rest between sets. Just be sure to pick exercises that aren’t affected by your fatigue. Breaking form on rope slams and kettlebell swings isn’t as dangerous as losing it on stepups and bentover rows.
4. Limit (or Stop) Jumping
The Biggest Loser seems to have everybody doing plyometrics these days. The trouble is, plyos aren’t for everybody. Explosive exercises, such as jumps onto a box, clapping pushups, and single-leg hops and bounds are advanced exercises best used by athletes who need to be quicker and more agile. If all you need to do is drop 20 pounds, there are safer ways to go about it. And the heavier you are, the greater your risk of injury when performing plyometrics.
So why do we see them being done by overweight people all the time on TV? As far as I can tell, it’s because it makes for good TV. That is, if you like watching people suffer.
5. Start Sprinting
Box jumps require a bit of experience and athleticism to do properly, but sprinting up a hill is doable for almost anybody. Find a fairly steep grade and dash up it. Walk back to the bottom and, when you’re ready, charge up the hill again; repeat for about 20 minutes. (You don’t need to go again right away—in fact, this may cause you to break form and get hurt, so don’t.) While running on flat ground can cause pulled hamstrings or hip flexors in beginners, sprinting on an incline slows you down so you don’t put the same pressure on your lower body. You can still work hard and not get hurt. Imagine that.
A form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), sprints allow you to burn calories at an accelerated rate for days after the workout. They also increase your conditioning, which will help you perform better overall in the gym and in any recreational sports that you may be doing to stay active and fit. While fat loss comes mainly through dietary changes, increasing your overall activity level carries you the rest of the way, and sprinting can play a big part in that.
In addition to sprints, I’ve also done longer cardio sessions—i.e., walking—to burn extra calories and improve general conditioning. Walking can actually help enhance your recovery from weight training sessions, making it a multifaceted tool in your overall fat-loss program, despite the fact that it doesn’t kick your ass.
In fact, it’s kind of nice.
Sean Hyson is the Training Director of Men’s Fitness and Muscle&Fitness magazines. He is the author of The Truth About Strength Training.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.