Monday, November 7, 2011


Physical Reasons
(Continued from May 3rd, 2011 post)

By Monika Tarkowska-Carter, CPT, LWMC, HLC 2
I have promised a while back to spend some time explaining how to get around the weight loss hurdles, and how to address specific reasons why you might not be losing weight. Some of you have been asking for more specific pointers and ideas for quite some time so I will devote the next few posts to this very subject. In this post I am going to start with the explanation of the most basic reasons for failure which, so often, is the source of frustrations for many.

1. You exercise too little

This is a very obvious one, yet so many people still can’t grasp the fact that it is NOT enough to follow the minimum daily guidelines for exercise, which is 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity activity, 5 days a week. Yes, if you have been sedentary for years and are totally out of shape, it’s a good start, but this amount is not enough, by itself, to start losing serious amounts of weight. I am going to be very cautious here and refrain from giving specific amount of exercise time recommendations, since all of you are different, eat a different diet, have different metabolism, daily activity level and lifestyle, as well as different conditions that might preclude you from intense or prolonged exercise. Your diet is still at least 80% of your weight loss success, but this does not mean exercise is not important. It is, and very much so. Keep in mind, however, that in order to lose 1 pound of body fat you will need to have a deficit of 3500 calories. An average person weighing 150 lbs burns about 150-200 or so calories during a 30-minute brisk walk (and I mean brisk! – at the speed of about 4 mph). Let’s call it a power walk to distinguish it from a leisurely stroll. If you walk 5 days a week, you will burn +/- 750-1000 calories. That’s not even 1/3 of a pound. The rest has to come from somewhere else. You will still have to cut back an additional 2500-2750. I will talk about the nutritional factors in the following posts devoted specifically to that subject, but in general, cutting your calories too low is not good either, because you will constantly be fatigued and grumpy.  Depending on your initial weight, the best solution is to cut between 250-500 calories from your diet daily (this number will depend on your overall calorie allowance for the day), and make up the rest of the difference in slightly longer, or more intense, workouts. Your weight training sessions should generally not be longer than 1 hour (plus a short warm-up and stretch), and your cardio sessions between 20 and 60 minutes; 20 for those who are total beginners, or those advanced ones who can really push at high intensity; and 60 for those who need to burn some serious calories but are not yet capable of working out doing high intensity interval training. I am generally not a big proponent of endless cardio sessions, (unless you’re an endurance athlete, of course) as they are catabolic in nature, make you lose muscle and, as a result, slow down the weight loss. They also very often lead to overtraining. My advice would be to limit your cardio to no more than 40-45 minutes, but put forward your best effort and really kick up the intensity. Also, do more lean- muscle-building weight training that will shape your body better than any cardio.
2. You exercise too much

This is as bad as doing too little and still quite common. I am not contradicting what I just said in the previous point, but more is NOT always better. Burning fat is very energy consuming for your body and you simply cannot fatigue it to the point where it has none left. Your body will outsmart you any time and will stop losing weight to protect itself from more abuse. You will also most likely find yourself looking puffy and retaining water, since it can’t keep up with clearing all the metabolic waste products out of the system. Use your common sense, listen to your body and let it rest if you feel exhausted. You will have more energy for your next workout and you can make it harder.
3. Your exercise is inappropriate for your age, fitness level and goals

I encourage all of you to invest in a few sessions with a good personal trainer. He/she will be well worth your time and money. Nothing can be more frustrating than wasting your time at the gym and not seeing results. Stop doing things you are not sure of or have no idea about. Your exercise program has to have arms and legs, be appropriate for you at the level you are currently at, be consistent with your goals and be performed according to a well designed plan that will progress you in the right way. Otherwise, not only will you not see much in terms of results, but you will be going in circles, and will eventually give up.
4. Your exercise intensity is too low or too high

Results oriented exercise is actually a science. Many people forget about it completely and think that anything will do. If you’re serious about results, ask someone who is trained in this area to figure out what intensity you should be working out at. This applies as much to cardio as strength training. If the intensity is too low, you are not going to challenge your heart or your muscles enough to get much benefit; if it’s too high, the chances are you will overtrain very fast, and might get injured in the process, which will only delay any possible progress.

5. Your exercise program lacks the proper balance of cardiovascular exercise and strength training

With all the knowledge out there on the importance of both, some people still often choose one over the other. From my observations, it’s usually the cardio lovers that tend to shun strength training and not so much the other way around. Keep in mind that both types of training affect the amount of calories burnt, and have the ability to increase your metabolic rate for quite a few hours afterwards. How much, depends on the intensity of the training itself. Cardiovascular workouts can burn quite a few calories during the session, while weight training builds muscle, and this in turn increases the metabolism overall, since muscle is a more metabolically active tissue than fat. The elevations in metabolism don’t seem very impressive in numbers, but add up considerably over time, so don’t ignore them. As a general rule, however, the more intense the workouts, both cardiovascular and strength training, the more additional calories your body will burn afterwards.
6. You are overdoing cardio

If you want to have a low percentage of body fat and look really lean, stop overdoing cardio. Your body gets very efficient at doing something you subject it to for such long stretches of time and will burn fewer and fewer calories the more you beat it up. Just look at so many “skinny fat” aerobics instructors who, though not heavy in a true sense, have a pretty high body fat. The same goes for long distance runners. Though lean due to pure amount of training, they look like famished skeletons with no muscle at all. Long aerobic workouts almost always guarantee that you will be burning precious muscle tissue, which is the last thing you want if you’re trying to lose weight. Also, it is almost a given that if you can do something for very long, you are not working out intensely enough.
7. Your exercise program is poorly designed or lacks any specific design to begin with

So you have read a few magazines and try to follow a routine described in the latest Men’s Health or Shape. Though some, or even all, exercises may be good, they may not always be the best for YOU. They don’t take all your particular circumstances into consideration and are almost never designed as part of a smart program, based on YOUR needs and goals. Or maybe you have designed your own routine, based on what you have observed in the gym – an even worse approach. Just because someone has a body you would like to have, does not mean you should follow everything they do. Their genetics are different, they may not have muscular conditions or imbalances that maybe you have, and you don’t know what else they do, or what they eat, to achieve the body you’re admiring. Exercise program design is a science and an art. Don’t just guess, or you’ll get nowhere.
8. Your form is incorrect on pretty much everything because you never learned how to perform the exercises appropriately. You think it’s OK because you’ve watched others do it

There is no substitution for working with a qualified trainer, at least for a few sessions. It is very hard to get the right feedback on whether you are actually performing the exercises correctly, especially if you have never done them before. It may seem to you that you are doing things exactly as they should be done, but only a qualified professional can spot where you’re lacking in form.  Invest in a few sessions and learn proper form. Otherwise, you are not going to achieve the results you are looking for.
9. You have no idea about proper intensity, load, sets, reps, tempo, rest periods between sets, etc. and how they affect your workout outcome

As I said in point 7, program design is a science. It takes years to study the human body and how it responds to various ways of training. Do you really know what intensity in a weight training session is? It is a degree of one’s applied strength relative to their current level of maximum strength. Probably not what you thought it was. How about load, tempo or rest periods? Do you know that when you change the rest periods just slightly, your whole program has just changed and you might be getting completely different results than you actually intended? If you plan on working out on your own and not wasting your time, make sure you learn about all the factors that affect your workout BEFORE you hit the weights.
10. You simply don’t have the knowledge when it comes to exercise and workouts

This is a very common problem, yet I see people in gyms all the time that insist on using weights and machines having absolutely no clue how to do so correctly. Please, please spend a few bucks and learn first. It will not only prevent an injury but is the ONLY way for you to get some benefits out of your workout.

11. You lift weights that are way too light to make any significant difference in gaining lean body mass and losing fat
This applies mostly to women, but not entirely so. In order to achieve strength gains, increase muscle size or just shape and tone your muscles, you need to challenge them enough so that they could respond by adapting to the new level of effort and thus changing the way you would like them to. This can only be done with a proper overload. If the weights you’re lifting don’t provide much of a challenge, you are wasting your time. For those women who are afraid of bulking up, I have a few words of assurance: we don’t have enough testosterone to build giant muscles that easily and you would have to lift very heavy weights in order to do so. If, however, you have a sizeable fat layer on your muscles, and you gain even a little bit of lean body mass, without losing any fat, it may look like you’re getting big. Extra muscle is a good thing, but you also have to look at your diet, incorporate cardiovascular exercise and stretch, in order to lose the fat and look really lean.
12. You don’t get enough recovery

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they get too eager to lose weight fast is forgetting that their bodies are not ever-ready batteries. Your muscles, and your cardiovascular system, need a sufficient amount of time to recover. Your muscles grow and change during that time, NOT when you put them through hundreds of contractions under heavy resistance. Remember to allow yourself enough rest days. It’s different for everyone. Some people can work out 5-6 days straight, and then take a day off; others might do 2 very intense sessions and have to rest on the 3rd day. All depends on your fitness level and your body’s ability to recover. There is no golden rule here.

Stay tuned for Part 3 – the Nutritional Reasons for not losing weight – coming soon.