Fat loss can be a fickle beast. Picture this scenario; a client confesses they’ve managed to lose a considerable amount of weight but – shrugging their shoulders in despair – they grab at their stomachs (if they’re an man) or thighs (if they’re a woman) and declare they’re frustrated by this last little bit. Sound familiar?
These are the people I generally feel deserve sympathy because they’ve obviously put in some hard work and made considerable lifestyle changes and yet their end goal still seems out of reach. In this instance it’s not uncommon for the individual to either modify their goals to something more “attainable”(read average) or give up altogether.
This need not be the case, assuming no underlying pathology, the mechanics of fat loss remain the same no matter who you are, where you live or what you do. Granted there are nuances to consider; genetics, exposure to environmental toxins, training history, lean body mass and so forth but none of this alters the basic physiology of fat loss.
If you’ve been tempted to believe that a chiselled torso or taught athletic butt is not in the cards for you, you need to put that idea to rest. If, however, it doesn’t come naturally, you’ll need to combine your passion and desire with some fundamental knowledge to achieve your goal. It’s not going to happen by accident.
There are three basic processes that need to happen for fat loss to occur: mobilise fat, transport fat and oxidise fat. In plain terms this means get fat out of the cell, transport fat through the blood stream into the mitochondria of another cell where it can be oxidised for energy. Hey presto, fat disappears.
I imagine you’re wondering why the magic seems to happen in some areas of the body much more easily than others. More to the point, why is it that the sexiest areas, the abs and arse, are often the most resistant? This tends to be visually transparent when someone loses considerable weight and realises, much to their dismay, that fat is not lost uniformly from all areas of the body.
The areas most reluctant to give up excess body fat are typically thwarted at ground zero. Which is to say the fat is not readily being released from the cell and transported into the blood stream. There is a very good reason for this; you see fat cells have a number of receptors that dictate how the cell behaves. Receptors can be considered like locks and the keys to turning them on are various hormones and neurotransmitters.
The ones that are of most interest to us are called beta 2 and alpha 2. Beta 2 receptors are stimulatory in nature and increase fat-usage, conversely alpha 2 slow and inhibit fat loss. The comic irony is that the areas that are the most covetous from an aesthetic point of view tend to be much higher in alpha 2 receptors and have much poorer blood flow. Notably, women have a much higher distribution of alpha 2 in the lower body whereas men find them proportionately higher around the abdominals and lower back. If you’ve ever seen a women with a noticeably lean midsection and still slightly pudgy bottom or a guy with rippling arms and a chubby tummy now you know why.
Once we are aware of nature’s perverse sense of humour we can make some pretty good assumptions around what it takes to combat stubborn body fat. Going beyond mere calorie restriction we need to:
Stimulate beta 2 receptors
Inhibit alpha 2 receptors
Increase blood flow
Create a metabolic demand so fat can be oxidised for energy
Within these broad parameters there are so many possibilities for application it would be literally impossible to discuss them all. It is for this reason that we see so many seemingly differing methods for fat loss appear each year in the market place. They’re all orbiting around these same general principles, just finding novel ways to present the information. Hopefully by understanding how these processes actually work you’ll be able to make more informed decisions on the method most suited to yourself.
The keys to unlocking beta 2 receptors are hormones/neurotransmitters called catecholamines. Two of these, adrenalin and noradrenalin, are the primary agents for fat and glucose mobilisation. Superficially most people will be familiar with adrenalin as the excitatory “fight or flight” hormone. This, of course, is true insomuch as evolution provides us with the means for heightened awareness, performance and usable energy in times of crisis.
Physiologically this means increasing blood flow to the heart and extremities, dilating of the pupils and dumping huge amounts of fat and glucose into the bloodstream. Whilst personal threat is an obvious catalyst for catecholamines, manipulating diet, training and certain supplements is a more manageable option for fat loss. Alpha 2 receptors on the other hand are frequent friends with insulin and oestrogen. It follows that higher circulating catecholamines along with lowered insulin and oestrogen equates to greater usage of fat for energy. Ok, so how do we achieve this?
Let me leave oestrogen metabolism alone for now, complexity requires it to be discussed in a separate article. Insulin, however, can be quite easily manipulated through lowering carbohydrates, particularly those that contribute to concentrated blood sugar surges. Limiting carbohydrates to 20 percent of total calories for 3-4 days naturally inhibits alpha 2 receptors. Additionally this will increase blood flow to recalcitrant fat areas and increases catecholamine levels. This partially helps explain why so many people have such success with low-carb diets and various forms of intermittent fasting. In saying that there is an important qualification that should be considered. Extended periods of very low carbohydrates have been shown to decrease thyroid hormone, a powerful regulator of metabolism and inhibitor of alpha 2 receptors. Furthermore, if you’re really training hard and interested in performance and looking at all athletic, you’ll have to factor carbohydrate intake into to your nutrition somewhere.
Of course if you’re considerably overweight and not training intensely or at all, lowering your high energy carbohydrates and emphasising quality proteins, fibrous vegetables and plenty of health fats is about all you need to know. That’ll be $1000 thank you. However, individuals whose goals are more ambitious need to look at the other side of the equation: creating metabolic demand and jacking up their catecholamines as much as possible. The secret way to do this – which is really no secret at all – is to train hard, like really hard!
Ok I accept this last point needs some clarification, what actually constitutes hard training anyway? Generally speaking, if you’ve been dieting and training for a while and you’re still not ripped, the answer is to train a lot harder than you are currently. So from an initial point of view the answer is always going to be relative. Intense training is a game changer both metabolically and hormonally. It shifts the way that you preferentially store nutrients and access body fat in ways it’s difficult to do through diet alone. Looking at professional athletes it’s quite obvious that the leanest and most muscular are rarely playing lawn bowls. Should it really come as a surprise that getting into jaw dropping shape takes more than a pedestrian effort?
In saying that the more intensely you train, particularly while in a calorie deficit, the more intelligent you need to be. Training to the point where you’re unable to recover isn’t the point, nor is risking injury. In terms of metabolic cost the training variables you’re working with are strength training, high intensity cardio and low to moderate intensity cardio. These can be manipulated in various directions according to goals, nutrition and recovery ability.
Contest prep coach, John Meadows, advocates increasing the frequency of strength training for fat loss. Likewise, Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin has written extensively about the supremacy of lactic acid inducing resistance training over aerobics. This might seem counterintuitive to many because we often associate some kind of repetitive cardio activity with getting lean. The reality is hard strength training is one of the best ways to naturally increase catecholamines in the body. It also has the added advantage of causing micro trauma in the muscles, which in itself will have an ongoing metabolic cost.
For people who don’t like spending all their time in the gym and just want to get into “beach ready” shape one accessible and easy to manage strategy is to incorporate a number of brief high intensity metabolic sessions into your weekly schedule. In terms of intensity you want to make sure these are activities that do two things: stimulate plenty of lactic acid and get your heart rate up around 80% max.
My favourite methods for accomplishing this are through various forms of sprinting, metabolic circuits, sled pushes, barbell complexes and high-tension bike sprints. The upshot is these sessions should be brief – 20 minutes is plenty and often 10-15 is enough to elicit the appropriate metabolic response. Short frequent sessions throughout the week provide plenty of stimuli whilst maintaining intensity. Additionally, performing these types of sessions when blood sugar levels are low will yield an acute fat burning response.
From a purely fat loss perspective if you’re looking to get the most out of metabolic style training your best bet is to choose modalities in which you are just god-awful. For this reason things like bodyweight conditioning circuits and barbell complexes can be highly effective tools. Most trainees are so familiar with most conventional forms of cardio, particularly if they’ve already lost weight, that it’s difficult forcing a consistent adaptive response. Being efficient at something, whilst great from a performance aspect, means your body has become very economical expending energy in that activity. Even though I’m touching on this point lightly, it’s quite possible to break through fat loss plateaus by simply rotating through unfamiliar styles of conditioning without changing total training volume.
With all this in mind coming to terms with that last little bit of fat we can see that the main points that need to be addressed are:
Establish a controlled calorie deficit relative to training load
Control insulin levels through nutrition
Increase general activity when insulin levels are low
Train with sufficient intensity to trigger a favourable hormonal response. Ideally using activities that put you outside your comfort zone
Use carbohydrates strategically to maintain training intensity, metabolic rate and recovery.
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