Sunday, November 15, 2009


Lots of people who are trying to lose weight/change their body composition talk about ‘getting toned’. Often in terms of lifting some light dumbbells two or three times a week! The purpose of this blog entry is to spell out in no uncertain terms that no such thing is possible! I don’t say that in any way to dismiss what people want but knowing that what ‘getting toned’ means and how to do it takes a good deal more work and knowledge and thinking about that would make much more sense than scoffing over the language.

What do most people mean when they talk about getting toned? For the purposes of this entry I will assume that what ‘getting toned’ means is where you can see more muscle definition and thus look leaner (because you usually are) and fitter (not always the case but likely!).

For most people definition is a combination of low (or very low) body fat and muscles that have sufficient size to create contours between them. The lower the body fat and the bigger the muscles the greater the definition will be.

Before getting into the physiology I want to give a real world example of why just building muscles will not automatically lead to greater definition.

Imagine a sheet of corrugated material such as is used for certain roofs. On it’s own it is clear what it is. It’s visual contours are easily apparent. So it is with muscle. If we took our skin and subcutaneous fat off, we would all look ‘well defined’.

So what happens when you put a two inch thick sheet of foam rubber over your corrugated plastic? If you stuck it down to the contours I doubt your would have much idea of what is underneath. What about a one inch thick sheet of foam rubber? You might see some definition but some would have been lost. Now imagine that same corrugated plastic with say a huge sheet of cooked lasagne, or a sheet of cling film!

That is what definition is all about. Subcutaneous fat (the stuff under your skin) acts on the contours of your muscles like foam rubber would on a sheet corrugated plastic, the more you have the less you will see of what is underneath.

What about the other side of the equation, muscle size? Well in many ways the extent of definition is not determined in any way by muscle size. Visit any ‘normal gym’ and go to the free weight area and you will see guys there that have built quite huge muscles but have little or no definition. Now I don’t know if that is what their objective is, I know some guys (doormen etc.) like to just have bulk so that they look a bit more forbidding, others will be working their little socks off lifting heavier and heavier weights and wondering why they are not getting better definition.

As Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said great abs are made in the kitchen. So it is true of a defined body, you cannot get it in the gym alone, it MUST be done in conjunction with a good nutritional regime.

A good way to think in terms of what you might like to look like and how you will need eat and train to get there is look at certain types of athletes and how they train to get a steer on how you can do it.

What you need to do will be determine what outcome you are after, some things are easier than others:

The lean look with little muscle bulk:

This look is going to take lots and lots of cardio. Sufficient cardio burns fat but will take with it lean muscle. Take a look at competitive marathon runners. They will carry very little body fat but legs aside they will not have much in the way of muscle bulk. So yes, Paula Radcliffe has a six pack but is probably not what most people think of in terms of ‘toned’. No disrespect intended to ANY marathon runner as they have my total admiration!

This is not a way many non athletes would go to get a really toned look as it takes considerable dedication to get to that level as you are by losing muscle bulk decreasing your metabolism. Not a problem if you are training real hard and creating a need for calories in the way that distance runners do but for us in the real world the likelihood is that it will not be possible to get down to the levels of body fat required to look really ‘toned’ by this method.

The lean look with some muscle bulk:

This is probably the approach that most people who are interested in this subject from an aesthetic point of view will and to come at it.

If you want to lose body fat you will need to lose body fat. This can be done by a combination of running a calorie deficit, burning off the body fat you already have and maintaining/building your muscles. OK more detail:

How much Cardio? I am not sure there is a specific answer to this but certainly 30/40 minutes 4/5 times a week will (combined with good nutrition and resistance training) will see a measurable effect on body fat.

What sort? Again there does not seem to be a definite do this or do that. Research seems to point to working the body to the point where heart rate is raised to a reasonably high level and that activity is maintained for at least 30 minutes. I also believe it to be true that too much cardio exercise can be counter productive as after a certain point the body stops burning fat and starts catabolising muscle. Not a problem for long distance athletes but probably not what most readers here are after.

So having done your running/cycling/cross trainer what then?

If you do nothing else then you will lose muscle mass and while you might get a lower body fat and get more definition than you had you will not have much in the way of contour to be apparent, which is where progressive weight training comes in.

Progressive weight training is as the name implies ‘progressive’ on either number of repetitions and/or weight. Let us assume you start on dumbbell curls with 5kg in either hand. How many repetitions should you do? The consensus seems to be somewhere between 8 and 12 where it is becoming impossible to lift the weight fully on the 11th and 12th reps. (Lower reps higher weight will build more strength and muscle bulk, higher reps will build less muscle bulk but more endurance).

What you are aiming for is muscle hypertrophy, which in simple terms is stressing the muscles sufficiently that microscopic fibres ‘snap’ and need to be rebuilt. It is this ‘snapping and re-building’ that means the muscle gets stronger and under certain circumstances bigger.

If you are ‘failing’ at the 6th or 7th rep you might want to decrease the weight, once you get to the point where the 12th rep becomes ‘easy’ it is time to increase the weight.

The objective of progressive weight training is that you never let your body become used to what you are asking it to do. As soon as it can do what you ask it to do you ask it to do more.

One other vital note here the amount of weight you use should always be the maximum with which you can maintain good form. It is better to do the exercise properly with a lower rate than to do it poorly with a heavier weight. That way lies injury and poor results.

So you are happily burning off fat and weight training for muscle. But may women will say ‘but I don’t want to build huge muscles and look like a body builder’. Which is fair enough, however, if you are thinking that way let me put your mind at rest by pointing out three important points:

1) If you are in calorie deficit (and you certainly should be if you want to lose body fat) it is highly unlikely that you will build any appreciable amounts of muscle. Building additional muscle takes a good deal of energy and as you are not giving your body enough to maintain it’s current composition it is not going to find it easy to build more.

2) Muscle building require certain hormones the major of which is Testosterone, which women on the whole have much less of than men.

3) It takes a lot of very hard work with heavy weights over months with a very strict dietary regime of bulking and cutting (more of that later) to get a ‘bodybuilder’ physique. You will NOT wake up one day looking like Arnie!

What about the diet?

Anyone who knows anything about it will tell you that in terms of losing weight it is a matter of calories in calories out, which is true. You could just eat a Mars bar a day and lose weight. You would not be very healthy.

If body composition is what you are interested in then it is not that simple. In terms of body composition all calories are NOT created equal. If you are looking to get better definition and maintain/build muscle you WILL need to wise up on what to eat and when (now is not the place for that). As every I would recommend Tom Venuto’s Burn The Fat Feed The Muscle as an excellent guide on how to achieve your goals.

In terms of sporting role models, footballers will often have a lean but muscular physiques, think David Beckham or Daveed Ginola with their shirts off. For female examples 400 metre runners such as Kelly Holmes will have low body fat but will need decent upper body strength so are likely to have reasonably developed core, shoulder and arm muscles.

What about the very muscular very lean look?

Well if that is what you want (though personally though I admire those guys dedication it is not a ‘look’ that I particularly like’), you are going to have to put in a great deal of very hard work and dedication. Body builders go through periods of ‘bulking and cutting’. Bulking is a period of calorie excess where they will look to put on as much muscle as possible, but accept that at the same time they will also put body fat on as well. They will then go through a period of ‘cutting’ when through a combination of diet and cardio they will look to lose as much of that excess body fat as possible.

Examples? Any major body builder or the mens 100 metre runners will be an example.

So what is a healthy level of body fat?

We all have to have a certain level of body fat to stay alive, it serves a number of essential functions. It differs between men and women and will differ with age. But absolute minimums would be 2-4% in men and 12% in women. Healthy range in males would be somewhere around 15% for men and 22% for women.

So, still want to get toned? It can be done but it DOES take a good deal more time effort and attention than just doing 200 reps with a light dumbbell in the gym.

Is it worth it? Only you can know that but speaking as a 51 year old that can now wear tight fitting t shirts without looking like the Michelin man I would say yes!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Follow up to the Lean or Light debate.

I thought it might be useful to explain in a little more detail about what happens when we deprive our bodies of calories. Most people who look even superficially at the whole problem of weight loss/getting lean will have hear of the term ‘starvation mode’ and will have some idea of it’s effects. However starvation mode is really only a prolonged catabolic state. Catabolism as the article below explains is happening all the time, as is anabolism, it is really all about which gets the upper hand.

First some science. The following is reproduced from newsletter by Analytical Research Labs of Phoenix Arizona. I am not saying their information is any more or less accurate than others but the basic thrust of what is reproduced below is in agreement with much of the other research information available on the web, and as far as I can tell it not in dispute among the scientific community:

Article extracts start:

Anabolism And Catabolism

Metabolism, the sum of the chemical processes of the body, may be divided into two phases. Anabolism refers to chemical processes which are constructive, or synthesizing of body tissues, enzymes and other body components. Catabolism generally refers to those processes in which body tissues and components are breaking down into simpler metabolic constituents. These two processes always coexist, although one may dominate at times over the other. For example, at night during sleep, anabolic processes tend to dominate, while catabolism tends to dominate during the day. Childhood is a more anabolic time of life, while old age in general more catabolic.

Causes Of Catabolism

Anabolism and catabolism can become quite involved. Dr. Emanuel Revici based an entire metabolic typing system on these two aspects of metabolism. His system is somewhat similar, but not the same as Dr. Paul Eck's distinction of fast and slow oxidizers. When we refer to a catabolic state we are referring to a specific condition in which catabolic processes are dominant. The main cause of this is a prolonged stress response. In response to stress, the body secretes epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol and other hormones. The glucocorticoids (such as cortisol) have a catabolic action. That is, they suppress the synthesis of protein, glycogen and triglycerides. Instead, these are broken down into fatty acids, glucose and amino acids and mobilized from storage. This process is necessary to counteract a stress. However, if the process is prolonged, the resulting catabolism is very damaging to the body and causes excessive tissue breakdown. Also, a prolonged stress response suppresses the immune system, the digestive organs, growth hormones and other important body systems. There are numerous causes for a prolonged stress response. They include attitudes of fear, guilt, worry, resentment, frustration and hostility. Another cause is nutritional deficiencies. These can lower one's stress threshold and impair the production of cellular energy within the cells. When a body is not able to properly metabolize sugars, starches and fats for fuel in the glycolysis and Krebs energy cycles, it will digest its own tissue proteins in order to produce energy. Also, fatigue and other health conditions may cause a catabolic state.

Catabolism And Health

A catabolic or tissue breakdown state can affect any organ or body system, depending on one's particular weaknesses. For example, if excessive tissue breakdown occurs in the joints, the result may be painful joints or arthritis. If excessive tissue breakdown occurs in the stomach, the result may be an ulcer. If it is in the heart muscle, cardiomyopathy can result. Similarly, tissue breakdown can affect any organ or system. Correction has less to do with the particular affected organ and more to do with reducing stress and improving cellular energy production so that the tendency for catabolism or cannibalizing tissue can be reversed. This involves dietary and lifestyle changes and the use of nutritional supplements to help restore energy production.

Correcting A Catabolic State

Correction includes getting plenty of rest and sleep, learning to accept and trust what life brings and letting go of fears, guilt, worries and resentments. Diet can play an important role. Many people, for example, place great stress on the body by eating excessive carbohydrates and not enough protein. Natural therapies may also be very beneficial. Specific supplements are often critical to raise the threshold for stress and help improve cellular energy production. Often Limcomin will be recommended for a catabolic state. It contains zinc, an important nutrient for protein synthesis and manganese, important for cellular energy production. In addition it contains vitamins A and C, magnesium and vitamin B6. These are very important for energy production as well. Finally, it contains lymph, thymus and spleen glandular substance to support the immune system. Immune system dysfunction is common in the catabolic state. Copper and iron may also be added to the program, as these are important for the electron transport system, where most energy is produced. In addition, digestive enzymes are recommended to facilitate digestion and the absorption of nutrients.

End of extract.

What is clear that catabolism does not only occur when we go into ‘starvation mode’ . The body will become catabolic if any of us goes too long without food. Which is why missing out meals may be superficially attractive (as it saves calories) but will mean that catabolism has the upper hand for a while. This is particularly true of breakfast. As the article states sleep tends to be an anabolic time, which id why any athlete or body builder knows it is vital to get rest and sleep to let the body do it’s ‘repair’ work. Once we wake up and start moving around this stops and if there are no available calories around the body will go catabolic and start hunting for them from bone organ and lean muscle!

What is also interesting is that mental stress promotes catabolism therefore those that stress about weight loss are likely to become catabolic easier than those that do not.

I would also like to put right a misconception; it is almost impossible to build muscle while in a calorie deficit (before anyone argues, it IS possible but it is really not easy and you would have to work very hard at it with carb cycling).

So the aim is to be as anabolic as much of the time as possible and as catabolic as little of the time as possible.

What promotes anabolism? Clearly sufficient sleep, as little stress as possible and proper nutrition with sufficient macro nutrients required for anabolism. If you are promoting anabolism through weight training this will mean having sufficient protein available to your muscles while re-building is taking place.

Regular eating seems to restrict catabolism, as your body is in effect 'kept busy' with digesting food every three hours. All the evidence I have seen is that people have more success in losing body fat byeating between 5 and 6 smaller meals a day.

Such a method of eating also has the beneficial effect of meaning that you are never hungry. If you are trying to lose body fat hunger is to be avoided. the desire to eat (anything!!!) can more easily override the more sensible 'conscious' choices that we 'should' make.

Though I have not seen any specific research I would not be at all surprised if water comes into this. A body that is de-hydrated is stressed and more inclined towards catabolism. Proper hydration removes that stress.

Weight training is by it’s very nature catabolic as it stresses the muscle, however properly approached and with good nutrition the resulting anabolism will replace that lost muscle. If I can maintain my lean mass while losing fat I will be one happy bunny.

From a weight loss/leanness perspective what is important is that lean mass burns around 8 times more calories than fat!

From my point of view I have no doubt, I want my metabolic rate to be as high as possible because I am really not into being hungry! The higher my metabolic rate the more of the things I love to eat are available to me while maintaining a healthy body composition.

As that nice little meerkat in the advert says ‘simples!’

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Lean Not Light!

Some of the threads on have moved me to write this blog entry for two reasons. Firstly there seems a lot of confusion out in the big wide world about the whole subject of weight loss, and more than a few mixed up ideas about how it all works.

Anyone who read this blog knows that I often refer to Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). One of the things that John Grinder (one of the first developers of NLP) discovered was the effect that language and the language we habitually use has the way we create our ‘map of the world’ and how we interact with the world.

Which brings me to the word ‘weight’! Indeed the very site I use (and thoroughly recommend is call!

But is it weight we want to lose? If that were the case it would be easy we could hack off a limb and immediately be many pounds lighter!

Is it weight that is an indicator of poor health to come? I suggest not. I have seen no evidence whatsoever of increased heart problems or incidences of diabetes among bodybuilders and figure athletes, rugby union players, male sprinters all of which would be considered over weight by any conventional measure.

I suggest that what we want to be rid of is FAT. Certainly speaking personally my goal is for the first time in my adult life to be lean. I really don’t give a hoot what the scales say!

So what is the difference and why does it matter?

It matters because of all the research indicating obesity will lead to health problems and possibly premature death not one study I have seen indicates that an excess of lean mass is a problem.

Our bodies have not evolved to be fat! We evolved over hundreds of thousand of years to live in times of scarcity and then relative plenty. Therefore we have evolved mechanisms to both conserve resources (fat stores) in times of famine and lay fat stores down in times of plenty (just like many other species do). Our problem in the developed world is that in the last 40 years we have moved out of anything approaching that cycle into an era of super abundance! We are surrounded by calories! You cannot put fuel in your car without walking past racks of fuel for your body! However this has happened (in evolutionary terms) in a twinkling of an eye and there is no way we can evolve quick enough to adjust.

So consequently people are laying down more and more fat as we sleep walk through this eternal autumn of plenty into a train wreck of obesity in the future.

Luckily many have woken up. They know too much body fat is not good, either from a health or an aesthetic point of view. So what to do?

Firstly understand a little of how the body works. The body likes to store fat and it likes to hang on to it for as long as possible. It is programmed by evolution to do that.

Many people’s first thought when wanting to lose weight is to drastically cut down the intake of calories as after all it is an excess that is causing the fat isn’t it?

The problem with this is our evolutionary programming has equipped us with a mechanism so that when famine comes we give ourselves the best chance of survival. That is the processes of the body slow, neuro transmitters are produced that make us feel tired and lethargic so that we slow down activity and save our resources. The mechanism also releases a hormone that seeks to make up the deficit in our energy intake/output from our lean mass. After all if you are going to crawl into a corner and wait out the famine you won’t be needing all that muscle.

Also fat is natures energy store. That is why nuts and seeds are so calorie dense it is also why squirrels and birds like them so much! Nature stores what it needs the most.

And here is the kicker muscle is much more metabolic than fat. So every ounce of muscle we lose we lose some ability to burn food. Your needs go down and your ability to create a deficit goes down!

So if you do the standard ‘diet’ you will lose weight, of course you will! But what are you losing? Fat or lean?

Who is going to be healthier a 200lb man with 120lb lean mass and 80lbs fat or a the 260lb man with 240lbs lean and 20lbs fat (assuming the same height). I know which I would rather be.

What is the alternative? THINK LEAN!

I believe we need to have a radical shift of how we think about obesity and take ‘weight’ out of the conversation. Re-address goals. Rather than find out how to lose weight find out how to get lean! Rather than spend every day on the scales see how the clothes are fitting. Follow a PROVEN strategy for fat loss. The best people in the world for losing body fat are competition body builders and figure athletes. Not that I would go to the extremes they do, if only from an aesthetic point of view (it is just yuk!) However they can write the book on how to take fat off. So why not borrow a bit from these guys?

As I see it, if you follow the three paths of: cardio to burn fat, weight exercises (heavy enough to cause muscle hypertrophy) and nutrition such that you have a smallish calorie deficit but concentrating on giving your body the best nutrients you can there really is no way you will NOT get lean.

On this positive side of the coin our bodies have also evolved the mechanism that allows us to retain our lean mass and use up our fat if there is an adequate supply of food (even though it might be in deficit to our needs) as long as we are also using our muscles. In this circumstance a very different hormone is produced that allows the deficit to be made up from fat.

However I can almost hear people saying, but I am not a competitive body builder or a super fit athlete! To which I reply there is no need to be. I am not Jimi Hendrix but if I learn from the master a bit about guitar playing I will be a better guitar player!

We do essentially all have the same physiology. It is not as if when I take in excess energy it turns to fat and with someone else it turns to lemonade, is it? Of course there are different genetic types and some find it easier to be lean than others. However as one well known body builder was heard to remark “the more I work at it and the better I eat the better my genetics get!”

So let’s hear it for lean! Let’s get a bandwagon going ‘Lean not Light’.

There is a theory of memes which says that ideas can evolve spread and mutate like genes. I think this is a meme that we should set lose into the world!

I see so many people working themselves into a stew over a pound not lost this week, when I suspect it is not really even what they want. I suspect what they want is to be leaner, look better and feel better about themselves! And nothing wrong with that say I!

Of course the funny thing is if you do concentrate on getting lean, retain your lean mass and lose unwanted fat you will get lighter!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Getting ripped in 4 weeks!

Is anyone else sick and tired of seeing these ads all over the web? Virtually every page I load has spurious before and after pictures of a blob turned into six pack heaven!

There is no way known to man that will turn a blob of tummy tat into ripped abs in 4 weeks. If there was we would all be doing it.

As Arnie once said great abs are made in the kitchen not the gym.

Muscle tone is all about how much fat obscures the muscle shape. Imagine a piece of corrugated iron such as you might find in an old shed roof. Now cover it in a 1 inch thick layer of foam rubber. Even if you stick the foam as lose to the metal as possible much of the detail will be lost. Now cover the same metal with cling film. I think you get my drift.

The same is true across the rest of the body. At the gym I attend there are quite a few guys that lift quite prodigious weights but have little muscular definition. I wonder how much attention they are paying to their nutrition. Of course they may just want to look 'big and smooth' in which case good luck to them, but my guess is they are wondering why are not getting the definition they thought they would get from weight training.

Of course the asthetics of body building are highly subjective. Personally I am aiming for a lean look without huge muscles. I ahev never thought the extreme bodybuilder look is a particularly desireable one, but hey that is just me.