Q: Erika, I see you always talking about lifting weights and muscle and yadda yadda… what’s so wrong with just doing cardio? Lots of people do cardio, lose weight and look fine. Am I missing something?
The good thing about becoming a trainer is the fact that I have my own experiences to use as a springboard for creating my training philosophy that I’ll share with clients.
The bad thing… is that when you have over 1,200 posts full of material for that philosophy… you get a little long-winded.
The best way for me to explain this, I’m sorry to say, requires that I sort of have to talk around your question to give you your answer.
Eating serves two purposes – energy and nourishment. All food contains components that regulate processes in the body – yes, even processed food… what? your body needs salt, too… just not that much – but the important part, at least in terms of weight loss, is that all food, when ingested, passes energy into the body. We measure that intake in terms of kilocalories… lovingly referred to as calories on our nutrition labels. From here on out, when I say “energy,” I’m referring to calories.
As many of us are aware, when we take in energy in excess of what we need, the body stores it for later use. Continuously taking in excess energy, among other things, results in weight gain.
If weight gain is consistent, that means there’s a habit in place contributing to the consistent gain, and the more the weight you put on, the more likely it is that the habit has been thoroughly reinforced and become a part of you. Furthermore, the more the weight one has put on, the more likely it is that there are multiple habits and contributors, not just one – everything from doing “extra taste testing” during dinner to expecting your plate to look a certain way when you make it (read: full from rim to rim) to the kind of cereal to the snacks you keep in your car for your hellish commute – that’d need to be addressed.
Say your “comfy” weight is around 154, but you’ve shot up to 204 in the past year. No matter what weight you’re at now, you have something called a “basal metabolic rate,” which is the amount of calories your body burns by merely going through its regular systems – breathing, pumping oxygen and nutrients through the system, etc – each day. Let’s say that you’ve decided you want to work toward getting down to your “comfy” weight. That means you’ve set 50lbs as your goal to lose. At your height of 5’8″ and age of 30, you’re eating about a minimum of 1,700 calories each day, on average. Some days you might eat 2,000 and some days you might eat 1,300… but either way, you’re averaging about 1,700 calories a day. Once you get down to 154, you’ll need to get down to eating about 1,450 calories. That’s a 250 calorie difference. Keep that in mind.
Suppose you bust your tail doing cardio every day, and you burn those 50lbs off in a good six months. BOW! You come out looking and feeling even more fierce, fifty pounds lighter. Now what?
Well, for starters, you have to eat 250 calories less. Did you change your eating habits? Do you even know all of the times of day or random things you might be eating throughout the day that you might not be accounting for? Between the random snacking – tasting a co-worker’s food, the candy bowl at the office, the extra fries the cute fry attendant gave you because you smiled a little wider today – and the extra calories that come from life’s little unexpected happenings… what’s your maintenance strategy? Are you still going to do cardio with the same fervor that you had while you were losing? If the cardio was what was facilitating that weight loss, that means there might not be enough of a decrease in calories to ensure that weight gain doesn’t happen. What if you’re 254 and wanting to get down to 154? Then it drops from 1950 down to 1450. A four hundred calorie drop. The more weight you have to lose, the greater the decrease in how many calories you can eat without weight gain.
This is why muscle is important.
Developing and maintaining muscle is absolutely, without question, crucial to both weight loss and weight management, particularly because behavior modification is challenging for so many of us. Why? Simple: muscle weight alters your metabolism in a way that allows you to eat more calories without gaining weight.
Look at it like this – to carry each pound of fat on your body, requires an estimated 2 calories of energy per hour. To carry each pound of muscle on your body, organs included, your body requires an estimated 6 calories per hour. You can lose 30lbs of fat, build 10lbs of muscle across your body, and not lose the ability to eat a little more. Get my drift? (Also see why the natural inclination for women to shun the idea of lifting is so problematic?)
Metabolism is complex, and there are many things that alter it… and even a few of them – like age, hormonal concerns, nutritional trauma at an early age – are beyond our control. None of this changes the fact that there are tons of things you can do, and muscle development is a huge one. As you can see, gaining 10lbs of muscle (in the same place, even) looks nothing like the 30, 20, or even 10lbs you might’ve lost.
Truthfully speaking, it doesn’t require you to be bodybuilder-style cut to experience benefits. 10lbs spread across your body – a few pounds spread throughout each leg, a pound or three spread throughout your back, a pound throughout your abs and a pound in your arms – says and does a lot.
Whenever you create a plan for weight loss, you have to also create an “exit strategy.” What does the future look like at this weight? How do I plan to maintain it? Am I realistic about that maintenance plan and how that affects my life? Will I continue to do a cardio hour every day, even though I’ve lost the weight and I wanna go party? Lack of “exit strategy” almost always results in yo-yo weight gain, and very unhappy campers. Pick up a weight [repeatedly] and do yourself right!
(Oh, and I can assure you – you’re going to need to be lifting well into the 25lb and up range to bulk up. Those ten pounders won’t do it, but they’ll definitely help with your metabolism. Besides… squats count. Aren’t y’all soooo concerned with having fit booties?)
Help me out here, y’all!