By Sam Abrams
We help clients in many ways here at Atlas. Some clients come to us to decrease pain in their back, knees, or neck. Others are looking to add some muscle or strength. Others still want to improve their performance in a specific sport. Often clients simply want to “feel better,” a desire that comprises several objectives at once. Perhaps the most common objective among Atlas clients is fat loss. Many of us are carrying around more weight than we’d like, as age, sedentary jobs, and Washington’s ever-expanding restaurant scene conspire against us. Despite it being a common goal, though, fat loss is the most difficult to accomplish. Often clients who train for performance or general health remark that while they feel better, move better, and are stronger, they have not lost much fat. This is because fat loss requires vastly more time and effort to accomplish than other goals.
For most Atlas clients, many fitness goals can be accomplished by training for them two to three times each week. For clients who want to move better, usually a combination of static stretching, active and dynamic stretching, mobility drills, and stability exercises are the primary focus. The extensibility gained from stretching and the neuromuscular control obtained through other movements does not lessen between training sessions. Similarly, clients looking to deal with specific pain can find relief in training only a couple times a week. Training for these clients would look similar to the “move better” client, but their program would be geared toward their specific problem: upper back, shoulder, and neck mobility and stability for upper extremity issues; hips, upper and lower back, and abdominals for back issues; and hips, knees, and ankles for lower extremity issues, etc.
Muscle growth and strength improvements occur by different mechanisms, but these goals too can be accomplished in only a few hours of work each week. Muscle growth and strength gains occur as adaptive responses to stimuli: they are the processes by which your body recovers from a particular type of training session so that it can better deal with that training session in the future. Muscle growth is primarily a metabolic process in which muscle tissue increases in mass. Strength increases are primarily neural in nature and are a function of the nervous system’s improved ability to recruit available muscle fibers at one time. (In the training world, strength is defined as the ability to produce force; because some muscle fibers fatigue quickly, the most force one can produce is the amount of weight one can lift once, which in turn requires all available muscle fibers to fire at once.) There are numerous protocols that allow trainees to train only a couple times each week, spending the days between sessions recovering from the previous one. In fact, maximizing recovery is as important as training hard, which means that the less physical activity you get, including the elimination of extraneous training, the greater your muscle building and strength gains can be.
Performance training usually consists of training to improve movement, build muscle, develop strength, and increase power. Power is the ability to produce force quickly, which means its training follows many principles of strength training. As such, performance training too can be achieved with only a few hours in the gym.
Fat loss is different from all of these other training objectives. When a trainee is trying to lose fat, it is necessary to get the body to use fat stores for energy. This requires consuming fewer calories from food than are expended, forcing the body to dip into its fat stores to make up the difference. Recommendations for dieting fall into two basic categories: counting calories or counting macronutrients. The former requires a trainee to determine his or her basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy required to keep the body functioning at rest) and energy required for daily activities, and then consume around 500 calories less than that combined number. The latter requires a trainee to focus on which macronutrients he or she is consuming. These approaches are usually based on the idea that not all calories are equal: protein helps build muscle and requires a relatively high amount of energy to digest; fat is essential for a variety of digestive, hormonal, and nervous system functions; and carbohydrates, especially fast digesting simple ones, provide energy and an insulin spike, both of which tend to promote weight gain. With this in mind, macronutrient-centered diets usually limit carbohydrates in favor of protein and fat.
Energy expenditure techniques fall into two categories as well. The first calls for expending energy and burning fat during exercise. Such protocols often call for trainees to perform aerobic activity in the relatively low intensity “fat burning zone,” which is the intensity that maximizes the fat used as energy to fuel the activity. The second technique is to raise the trainee’s resting metabolism. This can be done by building muscle (muscle requires additional energy to maintain even at rest), or by provoking excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or “EPOC” in exercise science parlance. EPOC occurs in the aftermath of intense exercise and its impact on metabolism has led some to call it the “afterburn” effect.
Despite the range of fat loss approaches available to trainees, they all require significant commitments of time and effort. Adherence to a well-formulated nutrition plan is essential because it is easy to consume more calories than are expended even when a trainee is eating a generally health diet. Consistency is fundamental to all nutrition plans, which means whether the trainee chooses to count calories or focus on macronutrients, planning, preparation, and self-control are required throughout the day, every day. Exercise techniques also require relatively high amounts of time and effort. Rarely are fewer than 3-4 hours of exercise required to meaningfully contribute to fat loss. Sometimes 5-6 hours of exercise are necessary.
Despite its challenges, or perhaps because of them, fat loss can be one of the most gratifying fitness achievements. Although it is difficult, the processes laid out above are not overly complicated. Atlas trainers have helped many clients lose weight over the years and stand by to help you too!