Weight Training: The Best
Way to Get Lean By Steve Edwards
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When it comes to reshaping your body, nothing is quite as
effective as lifting weights. Cardio is great for your heart, Pilates will help
you get stronger, and yoga will balance you out; but nothing compares with a
well-designed resistance program for getting lean.
This is in contrast to our weight lifting
cultural icons. Arnold, Hulk Hogan, and the WWE are who and what we tend to
associate with pumping iron. It may be more accurate, however, to associate
those massive bodies with anabolic steroids and turn our attention to the real
cultural icon for weight training: Jack LaLanne. The guy who practically
invented "lifting" as we now know it is well into his 90s and can still ace the
fitness standard designed for a 30-year-old. Once considered a bodybuilder, his
legacy has far more to do with his fitness exploits than his brawn. His feats
include things like swimming with his hands and feet shackled and towing 70
people in 70 boats across Long Beach Harbor on his 70th birthday. The key to
Jack's success over all these years has been lifting weights.
his intro to P90X's Chest, Shoulders & Triceps workout, Tony Horton tells
us, "It's just good old-fashioned weight training that's gotten lost in a lot
of fancy gidgits and gadgets and things that don't work." But weight lifting is
making a comeback. As scientists look for the latest way to halt a growing
obesity epidemic, the research still leads them back to the same simple fact:
resistance stimulates the muscles to work, which causes an effect throughout
the body that keeps it strong, healthy, and lean. Let's take a brief look at
The basics of body composition
The science of how our bodies work is
complex. However, the basics of body composition, and why we get obese and out
of shape, are very simple. Due to the former, we can see how it's possible to
believe that one magic nutrient, drug, or movement might transform us from fat
to fit. But once we understand the latter, we see how this is highly unlikely,
if not impossible.
A simple overview of body composition looks like this. At the
base is a skeleton that is held together with connective tissues. This encases
most of your organs and circulatory system. Muscles surround the structure and
enable it to move. Body fat protects the organs and joints. It's all covered by
your largest organ, your skin. We're leaving out some obvious functionality but
this is basically what makes up your body composition, which determines your
While there are different body types, all of
them look good when all of the above are in the correct proportion. We look
worse when our body fat percentages exceed their intended uses. Excess body fat
inhibits the body's natural ability to function, and, hence, leads to myriad
health problems. To correct this, we need to reduce the amount of body fat in
our bodies. There are many ways to make this happen. Eating less, eating
better, and exercising moves the process in the right direction. But the
easiest way to do this is to add muscle. And the best way to add muscle is to
exercise using resistance.
Weight training basics
Most weight training is what we call anaerobic. This
means, simply, that the intensity it takes to do it exceeds your body's aerobic
(oxygen-carrying) capability. Anaerobic training relies on something called the
Krebs cycle, which is a process in each cell that puts the body under stress.
This stress forces your body to adapt and works nearly every human function we
associate with fitness, including your body's aerobic system. So, oddly enough,
a well-crafted anaerobic workout program is all the work you need to have a
perfectly healthy aerobic system. This is because recovering from anaerobic
work requires your aerobic system to work. If you can understand this concept,
it will be easy to understand why weight training is so vital.
The fat-burning misnomer
Many less intense programs, like aerobics
and most "cardio" programs, focus on training in what some people call the "fat
burning zone." This term is misleading because what it really means is
utilizing fat for fuelnot burning body fat. Wellwaitit does
actually mean that. The process is a little complicated, but I'll simplify
At low-level outputs, your body burns its stored fat
as fuel. At higher outputs, it burns sugars that have been stored in your blood
and liver, called blood glycogen. It's important to do both, but targeting fat
mobilization as your primary fuel source in your workout makes little sense,
unless you're training for endurance sports.
Your body has a limited store of
glycogenabout enough for an hour or so of hard work. It attempts to save
this for intense exercise (and brain function) and tries to do low-level tasks
by burning body fat. Training at low intensity has a benefit, but it's only a
fraction of what high intensity can accomplish in the same amount of time. And
even though you are burning stored fat instead of glycogen, you aren't
stimulating your muscles in the same way. This lack of stimulation means that
you aren't creating the same level of hormone release, organ function, or
muscle growth. The result is that you get far less fitness improvement in a
given amount of time.
The metabolic process
This is, at its most basic, the speed at which your body engine
runs while resting. The more fit you are, the higher your metabolic rate is
likely to be. Excess muscle on your body takes more energy just to keep it
there. Body fat doesn't have the same requirements. In fact, it sort of does
the opposite, by gumming up the works and inhibiting the metabolic process.
Remember that muscle is there so that the body can move and do stuff. Fat is
there to protect the body, especially the organs. It is similar to having a
spare tire sitting inside of you. It adds weight and slows you down but does
nothing helpful for your metabolism. This means that the most effective way to
burn body fat is to add muscle to your frame because it burns fat around the
clock. That is precisely what Chalene Johnson's new program will doand
you'll be hearing a lot more about "muscle burns fat" in the coming weeks.
Why your scale is lying to you
Using the above body-composition basics,
it's pretty easy to understand why losing weight should not be your ultimate
goal. Instead, you should focus on losing body fat, which means that you'll get
smaller at the same weight. By volume, muscle weighs far more than body fat. So
much so that by adding muscle you can actually gain weight as you shrink. This
isn't true for most people, but many "skinny fat" people find that all of their
health indicators improve as they gain weight.
This is especially important to consider if you're
highly de-conditioned, because not only do you have more fat on your body than
you should, you probably have less muscle. As this ratio comes into balance,
the scale may not be dropping, but your body can be making substantial changes.
Furthermore, weight training can change your bone density. This does not
increase the size of your bones but increases their weight and strength. For
this fact alone, it's recommended that everyone add some resistance training
into their lifestyle as they age.
What to do if you want lean muscles instead
of bulky muscles
The bad news is that there is no such thing
as a lean muscle. The good news is that there is really no such thing as a
bulky muscle. We use these terms to describe a body type, not a muscle. Lean
muscle is also a term that means, well, muscle. All muscle is lean. Body fat is
not lean. So the only non-lean muscle is one that has excess fat around it.
You can't really change a muscle's shape. It
either grows, called hypertrophy, or shrinks, called atrophy. Weight training
programs target muscle growth. All muscles are lean and shapely. To look lean
and shapely, you want to build your muscles so that your metabolism increases
and your body-fat percentage decreases.
"Bulky" (in quotes, because it's a matter of opinion)
is a term used for muscles that are larger than normal. These are much harder
to get than most of us, especially women, tend to believe. Bodybuilders
certainly wish it were a lot easier. But adding excessive muscle takes an
almost obsessive amount of work. Due to gravity, our bodies don't like to weigh
too much and resist adding muscle. It's easier to add excess fat because not
much can be done about overeating. Adding bulk is so difficult that steroids
have become a huge societal problem.
It's also easy to control whether or not you
become "bulky" through the number of repetitions (or time spent) doing
resistance work. Sets that are longer than 12 or so repetitions (or about 30
seconds) self-limit the muscle's ability to grow. Therefore, those looking for
a "lean" look should target higher reps once they've decided that their muscles
are large enough.
And the added benefit of antiaging
Finally, nothing helps you age more
gracefully than weight training. There are other ways to stay lean, but using
resistance training creates hormonal releases that offset the aging process
better than anything else. Furthermore, you lose muscle as you ageabout 1
percent or so per year beyond the age of 30. Antiaging medicine is often
prescribed in the form of injections of the very same hormones that are
released when you do intense resistance workouts. Weight training is a cheaper,
and arguably more effective, alternative to spending a lot of money on doctors.
Just ask Jack LaLanne. (And stay tuned for more information about our new
weight training program . . . ChaLEAN Extreme!)