I'm killing myself with cardio and diet. Why am I not losing weight?!
For far too long, cardio and dieting has been lifted up as the way to lose unwanted weight.
If you ever watched “The Biggest Loser” or any other number of extreme weight loss shows, you often saw the contestants grinding out epic cardio sessions on a treadmill or stair climber machine and pairing this style of exercise with intensely calorie-restrictive diet plans.
While cardio and cutting back on calories certainly have their place, they are far too often misused when it comes to producing sustainable weight loss results.
A master of adaptation
Let’s talk about your body’s ability to adapt to a situation or a stress or some sort of action that you’re putting it through. In short, it’s really, really good at it.
In the case of cardio, when you consistently perform long-state cardio — getting on a treadmill or elliptical or going on a bike ride to increase your heart rate for a long period of time — a few things happen to your body:
You send a signal to your body that says you need a lot more energy stored up to be able to perform this task or action.
In response to this, your body adapts to become as efficient at storing energy as possible. Basically, your body gets really good at holding on to energy in your fat cells — the source of your long-distance endurance energy.
You also begin to lose muscle mass. It takes a lot of energy and effort (i.e. calories) to feed and sustain muscle. Muscles are in a constant state of movement, motion, burning calories, etc., throughout the day; and so, by triggering your body with a lot of long-form cardio that requires a lot of energy, your body is going to try to shed the muscle you’ve built because it takes up too much energy.
So you start to lose muscle mass, and your body doesn’t burn as many calories throughout the day because your body wants to keep them for as long as possible. This is your metabolism slowing down.
As you begin a cardio regimen, you might see initial weight-loss results. But then those results begin to taper off. And so you do more and more cardio and consume fewer and fewer calories to try to lose weight; meanwhile, your body continues to get better and better at storing calories as fat. In some instances, your results stall out completely, and simply maintaining your progress becomes harder and harder.
Where it all goes wrong
This cycle of increasing your cardio output and decreasing your caloric intake in an effort to lose or even just maintain your results is not sustainable.
Worse, at the moment when you aren’t on top of your game nutritionally — you have a big meal at a friends’ barbecue or you go on vacation and indulge (as you should) — and you go into a caloric surplus, because your body is so good at storing calories, all of a sudden, your body blows up. You flood your system with an increase in calories that your metabolism simply isn’t set up to handle. And you lose all of the results and progress that you’ve made to lose that weight — in some instances, you lose your results and then some.
Lift weights to lose weight
Let’s look at a different approach: resistance training.
When you resistance train and work to build muscle, you increase the percentage of muscle within your body. More of your body becomes composed of muscle.
Just as your body adapts to increased cardio output, your body also adapts very quickly to resistance training. As you increase your muscle mass, you burn more calories throughout the day, as more muscles in your body cause your body to act like a car in idle — it just continues to burn energy throughout the day because your muscles need a constant stream of energy in order to function. This is your metabolism ramping up.
When this happens, to simply maintain your weight, you must consume more and more calories as your body becomes more efficient at using energy.
But we’re talking about losing weight, right?
When it all comes together
Here’s the key. As you build more muscle and slowly continue to ramp up your caloric intake to support your muscle-building efforts
At a certain point, when your body has become incredibly good at burning calories because of the adaptations it’s gone through, you drop into a caloric deficit for a period of time while increasing your cardio just a bit and still resistance training.
This can produce staggering weight loss results.
And its far, far more sustainable. After dropping into a caloric deficit for a couple weeks, you reset the process by jumping back up to maintenance mode with your caloric intake. You reduce the cardio again and continue to build more muscle to keep your metabolism performing at a high level.
No more hangry “cheat days” that derail your progress. No more counting every, single calorie for fear that you might blow up your progress.
Now, I fully understand that the cardio area of the gym is far less intimidating than the weights, which is why working with a coach in the beginning is critical to ensure proper form, function, and usage.
But your body is a machine, and to make it a machine that is incredibly efficient at burning fat, resistance training and properly feeding your body is the way to go, not burning yourself out with cardio and a super restrictive diet.