Over the past several years, I have worked with primarily female clients. Most of the time they come to me after seeing little to no results from their current exercise routine. Their goals typically include getting “toned”, building muscle, or looking better.
After inquiring about what they are currently doing, most women will say they are just doing cardio 5x/week or taking group exercise classes. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, performing cardio and taking classes alone will not get them to their goals of building muscle.
Your next question of course is why? Before we address this, let’s look at what body fat is. Body fat can be broken up into two categories: essential and storage. Essential body fat is the necessary body fat needed to perform reproductive and normal bodily functions. Storage body fat is what accumulates (called adipose tissue) partly around internal organs in the chest and abdomen. Recommended body fat guidelines always suggest a body fat above essential body fat guidelines.
Your body fat is different from your BMI (body mass index). The difference is that your BMI is calculated by simply dividing your weight in kilograms by your height (in cm) squared. It does not take into account your body fat. Used together, these are very useful measures to determine the health of an individual.
While it is hard to get an accurate body fat reading with conventional methods such as calipers and body impedance analysis machines, they can at least give you a trend if you use them regularly. If you can afford to get a DEXA scan done, get in a BodPod, or go to a place where they do underwater weighing, these are the most reliable ways to measure body fat.
Below is a body fat table for both men and women to give you a good reference point.
Now let’s go back to why just doing cardio alone will not get you to your fat loss goals. Whenever we do an aerobic activity like running, biking, swimming, or dancing, we are primarily working our endurance, primarily the heart. Cardio has a lot of benefits: it allows us to strengthen our hearts to reduce our resting heart rate, improves oxygen flow throughout the body, and lowers the A1C for those with Type II Diabetes. However, cardio does not build a substantial amount of muscle since it is primarily aerobic.
In order to reduce body fat, muscle must be built to replace the body fat. If you have been looking to lose body fat and have only been doing cardio, strength training is your much needed missing link. Strength training is not only important for body fat loss but also increases your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is amount of calories your body burns if you were to just sit all day and do nothing. Therefore, by getting stronger over time, you will be able to eat more calories each day. Sounds great, right? Strength training can also help those with Type II Diabetes, as it helps increase insulin sensitivity and improve glucose control.
Here are a few tips if you are looking to start strength training:
- Focus on compound movements (movements that use more than one muscle group). This will save you time, help you burn more calories, and create hormonal and neural adaptions needed.
- Perform different rep ranges. You don’t have to always stick to 10-12 reps. Vary rep ranges anywhere between 1-5 (if you are going for heavy strength), 6-8, 8-12, and 12-20 for example.
- Manipulate other variables such as rest time and tempo. Decreasing rest time or tempo for example can create a completely different workout and challenge you in new ways.
- Perform a total body resistance training program 2-3x per week to prevent overuse and injury.
In summary, remember if your goal is fat loss or to get leaner that you must prioritize strength training in your exercise routine. Cardio alone will not cut it. An exercise program should always include a mixture of the two for maximum health benefit. If you are unsure of how to get started on a strength training program of your own, contacting a credible, certified personal trainer in your area is a great way to learn.
Now get liftin’!