So what if I told you that you could have an organ in your body that increases your metabolism by a large amount? It would let you eat significantly more carbohydrates without gaining fat. It would lower your mortality rate significantly in advanced age and increase your quality of life. It would have the power to increase your fat burning. It would have the power to allow you to eat alot more calories in general. And it would lower your risk for all metabolic disease (dysregulated blood lipids, type 2 diabetes, etc) by a huge percentage.
And it’s called muscle. Before reading the rest of this article, I want you to wipe every pre-conceived notion that you have about exercise out of your head. Forget everything you’ve been told or seen on the covers of magazines.
First off, a quick blurb about our evolutionary history and why our body acts the way it does when it comes to adaptations in order to frame how to think about this correctly.
For 99% of our evolutionary history, we simply did not have the excess food, consumption, and convenience that we have now. We would go through lengthy times of famine, starvation, and fasting. And we would have brief periods of plenty. We had to kill or forage our food to eat. We had to build our shelters, or be nomads and consistently move.
This is what our bodies are used to. Because we’d go through times of less food (occasionally days without), our bodies have evolved to adapt very efficiently. We can adapt and survive on a very low caloric intake while still maintaining some energy reserves (body fat). We won’t feel particularly great during this time, but the body has evolved to be efficient.
With that frame in mind, let’s first take a look at endurance exercise. Any endurance exercise works, but let’s look at running in particular. When you’re running at a steady rate for miles at a time, what exactly does your body need to do to be most efficient at this activity?
Well, extra weight is counter-productive, so the signal it sends is to shed weight. With a little endurance exercise, this will be fat and maybe a bit of lean tissue. With alot of endurance exercise, this will be a lot of fat and a lot of lean tissue.
Because a lot of endurance exercise will also shed some lean tissue (muscle), a host of adaptations occur to increase oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, and mitochondrial efficiency of the muscle that remains in order to produce significant amounts of available energy.
When the uninformed want to lose weight, the first thing they think about is distance running or another cardiovascular endurance exercise. This couldn’t be further from what you need to do.
Don’t misinterpret, some endurance exercise is very good for you. But when trying to lose weight, many people take it to the extreme with a “More is better” approach.
They will cut calories significantly and begin to run 5+ miles a day. Then they’ll find themselves in a position where they’re cold all the time, have no libido, are tired all the time but are paradoxically sleeping terribly. They’re eating very low calories (sometimes consuming 1000-1500 a day) and finding a “skinny fat” physique in the mirror, wondering why they aren’t losing anymore fat.
That’s the body’s efficiency adaptations kicking in. You’re signaling that there’s only a very small amount of energy available with a lower intensity continuous activity demand. The body will hang on to all the fat that it possibly can, shed lean tissue, and down-regulate thyroid hormone (one of your body’s chief metabolism-regulating hormones).
Not only will the end result be a physique that you aren’t satisfied with, but you’re in a spot where if you increase your calories and eat more than the paltry amount that you do now, you’ll gain fat. If continued into older age, you have a much higher mortality rate given the smaller amount of lean tissue that you possess.
Again, I don’t want to vilify endurance exercise, as an appropriate amount is quite healthy, I’m just outlining common situations that people find themselves in taking things to an extreme level.
Now let’s put the analytical eye to resistance exercise. When you’re putting a large load on a muscle that can only be maintained for 30 seconds to a minute before the muscle gives out, what signal are you sending? That the muscle tissue needs to increase or get bigger in order to better deal with that same load or a larger load next time.
“Why would I want that?” Well I’m glad you asked. The benefits of extra muscle tissue are numerous.
First, let’s take a look at overall caloric intake. Muscle tissue is extremely metabolically active and expensive to maintain. In other words, the more you have, the higher your metabolism is, the more overall calories you can eat without gaining fat.
Now, a quick, simplified physiology lesson concerning carbohydrate. These days, carbohydrates have been vilified and if you listened to popular media, you’d think they’re the cause of obesity, every metabolic disease, early death, Alzheimers, and basically armageddon and the zombie apocalypse. This just isn’t the case. It’s all contextual.
When you eat carbohydrates, the sugar within your bloodstream rises. In order to remain healthy, your body has to maintain a tight blood sugar range, so it wants to get the excess sugar out of the bloodstream as soon as possible.
There are many ways it can do this. Movement (walking, or really any activity that causes muscle contraction) helps get the sugar that’s in your blood into the working muscle to produce energy for said movement. Insulin also helps get the sugar into muscle (or fat), and concurrently helps to a lesser degree along with activity. If you’re sedentary in the post-prandial (after meal) phase, you rely completely on insulin to drive sugar into muscle or fat.
If you’re chronically under-active, overeating, and consuming carbohydrates every few hours, this is when obesity and metabolic disease can begin to manifest.
You do have room to store carbohydrates in the body; but storage is quite limited. You have just a few hundred grams of stored carbohydrate in the liver in the form of glycogen, which will be liberated and used during a short (12-16 hour, usually overnight) fast to keep your blood sugar in the right range.
You also have stored carbohydrate as glycogen in your muscle tissue. However, this cannot be liberated to keep your blood sugar in the right range; your muscle keeps it so it can be used for muscular contraction during times of low or no food/carbohydrate intake.
Then, according to what I wrote above, what conclusion can you make? The more muscle tissue you have, the more room for carbohydrate storage you have in the muscle, the more carbohydrate you can eat without de novo lipogenesis (sugar converting to fat) or metabolic adversities. Muscle tissue is basically a huge glucose sink.
Let’s take a look at the main causes of death in advanced age. The top five, you probably could have guessed: cardiovascular disease, cancer, COPD, cerebrovascular disease, Alzheimers. All of which a healthy lifestyle that includes resistance training and some endurance training can mitigate.
But within the top ten are simply falls. Falling, with or without breaking a hip or another bone, with the inability to get back up. Increasing your muscle mass via resistance training and maintaining it into old age will mitigate this completely. Not only does proper resistance training build lean tissue, but it also increases bone density, which will help mitigate bone breaks as well.
The importance of possessing lean muscle tissue is becoming more and more prevalent such that its thought that within ten years, the amount of lean muscle tissue you have will be a regular biometric that is measured at the doctors office along with your weight and blood pressure.
And you may be thinking “Now don’t you need endurance training for heart health?” or “But I hear weight training is bad for your heart”. This is simply false. A 2018 study
by the American College of Cardiology highlights that weight training is -more- protective against heart disease than “cardiovascular” endurance training. Subjects that engaged in both activities were protected even more, but those who only weight trained had a larger protective benefit than those who only did endurance training.
Muscle is not only aesthetically pleasing, it’s an organ of health. It’s aesthetically pleasing for a reason; it signals a very healthy individual capable of work, provision, and protection.
Where to take this information depends on your current status. I’ll go through a couple scenarios.
First off, the fact that you “have to” do endurance training or some sort of cardio to lose fat is not a fact. It’s a myth. Now that we have that out of the way…
If you’re currently sedentary and quite overweight; don’t start with running. The high-impact on your joints may not be the best. Start with a proper resistance training program and a modest calorie deficit (eating less than you burn) in order to build lean muscle tissue and lose fat at the same time.
If you’re currently an untrained average weight Jane or Joe just looking to lose a bit of fat and get a more desirable physique (which includes putting on a few pounds of muscle); start with the same as above. You don’t need endurance training or “cardio” to lose fat. Just start with resistance training and a modest caloric deficit.
If you’re one of the women (or men…Women are just more likely to do this) which I outlined earlier in the post that is under-eating, engaging in chronic cardio, and still can’t lose fat… You’re not going to want to hear this, but you have to go through a phase of gaining weight (mostly muscle) to bring your metabolism back up. Start a productive, heavy resistance training routine and gradually increase your calories week over week. Yes, your scale weight will go up. But I can almost guarantee you’ll be happier with what you see in the mirror. You’ll also be maintaining your weight at significantly higher calories than you had been previous. Once you get to that point (this may take many months), THEN you can begin to slightly cut calories, lose fat, and maintain the muscle that you’ve put on.
If you aren’t a strength athlete or a bodybuilder…If you’re a human looking for the a good physique and the ultimate in health and longevity, the ideal week of activity would look like this: 3 days of fairly heavy/intense resistance training, 2 days of moderate intensity endurance training, and 1-2 days devoted to increasing your mobility (which will be covered in another post).
Although, if there was a gun to my head and I was forced to choose one modality of training…You’d better believe it would be resistance.