This ties in a little bit with a recent post about diets and the false notion that losing weight is all about eating “as little as possible” and that “calories make you fat”. A similar incorrect notion is that the primary purpose of exercise is to burn calories.
People will sometimes ask me “how many calories do you burn in a session?” in regard to my own training, or how I train my clients. I don’t know or care, really. You’ll see a lot of products (home work out dvds in particular) boasting about how many calories you’ll burn in 30 minutes, or people’s training blogs talking about burning a few hundred extra calories on the treadmill, or whatever else.
I don’t want to rain on people’s parades, but I always want to ask: “why is that good?”
I think this is a question you should ask before adopting any course of action. Why is it good? How is it advantageous in pursuit of your goal?
If the best answer you can come up with is “to burn more calories”, you might want to reconsider.
Just like my post about Very Low Calorie Diets, I want to change the way people think about calories. I want people to stop being afraid of calories, trying to avoid them and trying to get rid of them. We don’t just want to burn them off like they’re unwanted rubbish.
Let’s consider what calories are, and what we need them for.
BMR: Basal Metabolic Rate
This is the amount of calories required just to maintain your current weight, assuming absolutely no physical activity. We’re talking comatose here; the amount of calories used up just by being alive in your current state assuming you did not so much as roll over in bed all day. We often describe this as “energy required for bodily functions such as breathing and heart beat”… but there’s a little more to it than just that. I shall attempt to explain.
On a cellular level, your body is a constant state of regeneration. As far as muscle tissue is concerned, we are simultaneously in both an anabolic and catabolic state at all times, with tissue constantly being broken down and rebuilt. This is where a certain percentage of the protein we consume in our diet is utilised. Through appropriate training strategies we can increase anabolism (hypertrophy or muscle growth) and perhaps reduce catabolism as well. An inappropriate strategy may have the precise opposite effect, resulting in a reduction in lean mass. In other words contrary to the desired outcome from training, with an inappropriate strategy we actually burn muscle and retain body fat.
Just as the body constantly strips down and rebuilds muscle, the same is true for bones and other tissue. Further to this, the brain, liver, kidneys and other organs respond to intrinsic and external conditions to maintain a balance of hormones, regulate blood sugar, salt levels, flush out toxins, and a host of other crucial functions to keep you alive and as healthy as possible.
To do this, FUEL is required. When you consider all of the work going on in the body at every moment, I hope you are starting to understand why under eating is so damaging, and how severely it will hamper your attempts to build the body of your dreams. This is why I am trying so hard to campaign against these ridiculous Very Low Calorie Diets and the anti-food sentiment that goes along with them.
Your body requires energy (calories) to function, and we want those calories to be bundled with lots of vitamins and minerals as well. As a side note; since these processes are running around the clock you can disregard any of the myths you may have heard about not eating late at night. Even if you’re asleep, your body is using whatever fuel it has available.
We have touched on just some of what you body is doing with the calories that you take in throughout the day. Remember, this is all within your BMR calorie requirements, without considering what is necessary to get you through your day at work or school, and to recover and adapt to training.
We talked about how protein is required to support muscle growth, and since we are training to maintain or increase muscle mass at the expense of fat stores, our protein requirements are increased. What about carbs though? We’re constantly told by certain aspects of the industry, the media, and people in general who
don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about and should spend more time listening and less time talking, that carbohydrates make you fat, and we should cut back on them to lose weight and see results from training.
Carbohydrates are your main fuel source. When we train, we burn up all the fuel stored in our muscles and this is then replenished from stores in the liver. Now, let’s say that we listen to all of the bad advice we keep hearing and go with a low carb diet. What resources are left available to replenish these fuel stores in the liver and muscles? You might be thinking “body fat”, but you would be mistaken. In actual fact, the body will break down muscle tissue and convert it to energy to be stored in the liver. As described above, our inappropriate strategy has actually lead to reduced lean mass. In other words, you just got skinny-fat.
What I just described was the effect of refusing to consume enough calories (particularly from carbohydrates) to support basal metabolism + exercise requirements. When we over train by looking to burn more and more calories, the result is the same – we end up under fuelled and unable to to achieve a favourable response from training.
Sounds bad right?
It gets worse. How many of you are doing both of these things at once? Not eating enough to begin with, and then focussing on “burning more calories” during training? Can you see yet how disastrous this approach must be?
Understand this: your body is designed for survival.
When there is a shortage of fuel, it responds accordingly. Not by burning off excess energy stored as body fat as you might have hoped, but in actual fact by conserving and storing more energy, in the form of body fat. If you know someone (or are someone) who is overweight or obese despite not actually eating very much at all, this would be why.
Under these conditions. muscle is seen as the expendable tissue, as described earlier. Worse than this, the organs that have to produce the hormones to attempt to regulate homeostasis are so overworked that they can’t keep up, and eventually become fatigued and shut down. This is something I am only beginning to learn about and can’t elaborate on any further at this stage (short of just plagiarising someone else’s work, which isn’t my style) but suffice it to say some very serious health conditions can and will result.
The bottom line is almost always the same: train appropriately, and fuel yourself appropriately.
Like I always say; when it comes to total calorie consumption, you are either getting the right amount, or you are not getting the right amount. When you train appropriately and have an appropriate intake to support your goal weight, your body will utilise all of the fuel you put into it to become lean and strong.
This means health, happiness, and an attractive physique.