Maximizing Fat Loss with Exercise

This is the 5th and final part of my series of posts on the role of exercise and fat loss. For the most part, I strongly believe that you lean out in the kitchen and not the gym. I think the role of exercise in fat loss is vastly overrated. The benefits we see in the short term tend to disappear when we account for increased appetite as a response to the exercise and the increase in downtime due to exercising too much.

Post summaries for Part 1-4:

  1. Walking Didn’t Lean Me Out – I showed how it was diet alone that caused me to lose 20 pounds of fat and keep it off.
  2. How Exercise Indirectly Kept me Fatter – I go through 20 years of my personal exercise experience to show that appetite and injury risk increase when exercise volume increases. What appears to be effective in the short term for fat loss isn’t sustainable or effective in the long term.
  3. Fat Loss and the Case For Less Exercise – In the post, I explain why I traded exercise duration for exercise intensity.
  4. Fat Loss and High Intensity Exercise – This blog post digs into the science of fat loss that comes from High Intensity Training and why it is superior to steady-state cardio. These are concepts I learned from Dr. Doug McGuff.

Maximizing Fat Loss with Exercise Prerequisites

I know I’m repeating myself here, but I believe you get healthy to lose fat not lose fat to get healthy. If you remove the toxins and eat highly nutrient-dense foods, the body will become more healthy. A healthy body that is well nourished will drop excess fat. If you are not healthy yet, focus on that first. Adding a caloric deficit to an already undernourished body might result in short-term fat loss, but that weight often comes right back once the body senses its survival is being threatened.

Enough with the disclaimer, here is the prerequisite list.

  1. Remove Toxic Food – Grains and Vegetable Oils. Dairy for some people. Perform 30 Day elimination tests to figure out what foods make your body tick.
  2. Fix Your Sleep – Sleep is extremely important for fat loss. Our society glamorizes the athlete who sets their alarm to get up at 5 AM to exercise. Not me. I know that sleep leans you out. Recommend reading: Review highlights several mechanisms through which lack of sleep can cause us to put on weight.
  3. Eat Nutrient Dense Food – It isn’t enough to remove the toxic food. You will want to load up on nutrient-dense food to send a signal to your body that you are surrounded by nutritional abundance. See the post High Velocity Super Warrior Foods.

Choosing Exercises For Maximum Fat Loss

  1. Safety – Your bias towards safety is the most important exercise decision you can make. There are many exercises that may lean you out more in the short term but have a higher risk factor for injury. Professional football players are amazing athletes, but have you ever seen these guys when they hit 50 or 60 years old? Their bodies are broken down and bloated. Be kind to your future self. Choose exercises that allow you generate high levels of intensity on the muscles without stressing the joints. I have found SuperSlow HIT on machines, interval cycling, and uphill sprinting to be the three most effective and safe methods of exercising. 2017 UPDATE: replaced rowing with interval cycling.
  2. Minimize Appetite Increases – I know someone who spends 3 hours every week doing Cardio Dance. She is constantly eating grains because she is hungry all the time. She wants to lose an additional 5 pounds, but can’t seem to do it. Her appetite now exceeds her activity level. She is not alone. Long-duration low intensity exercising is highly stressful to the body. The body responds with stronger hunger signals. I could never eat enough when I was a cardio junkie or doing high-volume weight training. High Intensity Exercise doesn’t result in an ever-increasing appetite. It goes up a bit on work days but falls back below baseline on rest days.

Exercise Timing and Nutrient Timing For Maximum Fat Loss

  1. Train Fasted – Don’t drink a smoothie or eat a Cliff Bar before you exercise. This is a topic too large to cover in this post. The short reason is your body is primed for fat loss and muscle gain when you train fasted. This is how nature works.   UPDATE 2017: I’m less certain training fasted is a good idea – especially for ectomorphs, women, and people over 40. Do what is best for you. 
  2. Train Recovered – It is during our rest periods, not the time we spend in the gym, where the body gets stronger. Going back into the gym before you’ve had time to recover interrupts this process. When we return to the gym prior to full recovery, we increase our risk of injury. And it is during this down period when you’ll gain back the fat you lost. Minimizing injuries is critical to getting the fat loss benefits of exercising. The young, genetically gifted, and pharmaceutically enhanced individuals can sometimes get away with more frequent training, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can. Recommended reading: An interview with John Little (Conditioning Research).

The Limiting Factor To Maximum Fat Loss From Exercise

Once we get past nutrition, sleep, safety, exercise selection, nutrient timing, and understanding how to generate high levels of intensity while exercising there remains a single limiting factor to exercise and maximum fat loss. It isn’t exercising more. It is recovering faster. The limiting factor to fat loss from exercise is recovery speed. If we want to get the maximum fat loss benefits of exercise, we should be focusing our efforts on decreasing recovery time.

Right now it takes me 5 days to fully recover from a SuperSlow HIT workout. This means in a typical quarter, I can engage in 18 workouts. If I could figure out a way to reduce my recovery time to 4 days, I could engage in 22 workouts per quarter. This is not about gutting it out and pushing myself to return to the gym. Been there, done that. It doesn’t work in the long run. This is about training the body to recover faster. Some ideas that have come to mind include:

  1. Specific Nutrition and Supplements – What foods or supplements can measurably improve recovery times? I’m getting good results drinking beef bone broth at the end of my workouts. What else works?
  2. Cold Water – I have noticed that cold showers at the end of a workout decrease muscle soreness. I have not measured if this is the same as faster recovery, but I suspect it helps.
  3. Even More Sleep – Adding in additional naps or longer sleep post workout might increase recovery speed.
  4. Stress Reduction – This was the idea Keith Norris talked about in his podcast interview on the Latest In Paleo Episode #35. A stressed body takes longer to recover. This lines up with my own personal experiences, which I discuss in Health Goals – Late 2011 Edition (#2). I’m guessing that one could time stress reduction exercises (meditation, yoga, nature exposure, etc) post workout to speed up recovery.
  5. Massage – I can’t afford to add massage into my weekly schedule, plus I’ve had mixed results with it. I am interested in practicing more with my foam roller to see if it provides benefits.

I still believe dietary tweaking will still yield the most benefit when it comes to fat loss. However, I am interested in learning how to decrease recovery time from brief intense workouts. I think it is the key to maximizing fat loss potential from exercise. If you have ideas on speeding up recovery, please post them in the comments.


Add yours

  1. Stuart Gilbert

    Apr 13, 2012 — 1:29 pm

    I so agree with the point made about safe exercise choices….I used to squat, then I discovered Congruent Exercise and Bill DeSimone. Now I do exercises that he recommends in his 2 books. The aches and pains I used to wake up with are getting better. I have so much to thank Bill for. The exercises that he recommends aren’t as challenging to the metabolism as a hard set of squats, but I’m sure I’ll be able to train hard into old age following his advice.

  2. Stuart Gilbert

    Apr 13, 2012 — 1:40 pm

    Also just want to mention…an excellent set of posts…

  3. @Stuart – Glad you liked the series.

    The best leg workout I’ve experienced is doing the zero-rep max Pyramid protocol developed by John Little. I was able to hit a much greater level of fatigue without compromising my knees or having any spinal compression.

  4. Stuart Gilbert

    Apr 13, 2012 — 2:04 pm

    As I mentioned in a previous comment….a trainee can train too long and also perhaps too hard. Training too intense could have similar negative consequences in the long run. Stopping just short of failure on sets and on the cardio HIIT using what Clarence Bass describes as the encore principle…performing a workout and finishing it knowing that there was a little bit more left to give…for next time, and not making it a near death experience, which is not conducive to long term training and progress.

  5. @Stuart – I just noticed I read your comments out of order. I did 2 posts on the consequences of training to failure.

    Since I’m an office worker, I feel OK training to failure. If I were a lifeguard, in-season athlete or police officer, I would train differently.

  6. Stuart Gilbert

    Apr 13, 2012 — 3:14 pm

    Training up to…or just a rep short of failure is still training hard, and according to several prominent ex extreme trainees, more conducive to long term progress. I used to be one of those who felt the pangs of guilt if I didn’t feel exhausted after a session full of sets to failure and more. However experience has led me to think that just reigning back a bit helps with progress. I’ve been able to add half a kilo per session to the leg press for example, for months on end doing this, while achieving the same number of reps with the same form and rep speed. Also I read somewhere that Bill DeSimone is a bit sceptical about the effect on long term joint health with the use of such intensifiers such as end of set static holds and forced reps etc….

  7. @Stuart – I’ll give it a try and see how I feel and respond. Thanks.

  8. Stuart Gilbert

    Apr 14, 2012 — 3:07 am

    I find it motivating to use Stuart mcRoberts single progression method…..hunt down some small weight plates ( quarter, half and a pound ) and a method of attaching them to the machine.( Some companies.on the web,one called PDA I think make magnetic micro plates ) Depending on the machine add whatever weight per week allows the performance of the designated reps chosen. This form of progression can be maintained for up to months on end. There might be sessions where the reps aren’t made…stick with that weight for a few sessions. If stuck though for several sessions it might be time to drop back to about 90% of the best weight and work back up, or change rep range or exercise and work up to a new best and another period of progress. Clarence bass has been doing something like this ( without the micro weights ) for ages…seems to work well for him.

  9. I love all these links. And the book in the last post is in the library here. Yay!

    For me stretching post workout is essential to prevent soreness.

    And stress reduction makes me laugh. You need to be happy more than anything. Find things that make you happy and do them. I have PTSD and am on disability, and am constantly torn between being overwhelmed and being bored out of my mind, so my recovery time is rather slow. (Plus it’s harder to eat healthy.) Finding things that make me happy (including fun new books and links to check out!) helps way more than things like yoga or meditation. Also, relationships. Never underestimate the importance of the relationships in your life. Happy people train better. (I suppose you could use meditation to tweak things, though.)

  10. @Anemone – Great idea about the stretching. I have read great things about post-lifting stretching. I like your other ideas as well. When I first thought about meditation it stressed me out, because I feared doing it wrong. These days I don’t sit and chant, I go for slow walks along quiet streets. It seems to work best for me right now.

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