Cardio is great at losing weight, but it doesn’t really discriminate between muscle and fat. Your body doesn’t care about your goals. I am sorry to break this to you. It simply wants you to survive.
As a species we have survived by adaptation. When you perform long, steady state cardio, like jogging, your body adapts by reducing the stress placed on the body the next time this stress is encountered. It does this by improving your cardio capacity and lighting the load, if possible. To lose weight, you must create a caloric deficit.
When you combine covering long distances with a restricted diet that creates a caloric deficit, your body is forced to use stored energy for fuel. The two sources it has to choose from are stored body fat and our lean muscle mass.
You don’t get a vote in which is used. Essentially you have told your body that food is scares and that you need to cover long distances each day. Based on the circumstances you have placed your body in, it is going to choose to use a combination of both stored body fat and muscle to meet its daily energy needs to survive.
From a survival perspective, burning muscle is actually a better option. Let me explain why. Every pound of muscle you retain will cause your body to burn approximately 50 calories a day, while stored body fat, doesn’t place any such demand. Since covering long distances doesn’t tax your strength capacity in a meaningful way, if it did, you wouldn’t be able to sustain it for more than a minute or two; you aren’t forcing your body to maintain muscle mass.
(c) Aberdeen Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Without strength training to mandate your need to maintain your calorie burning muscle mass, you will become a smaller, weaker version of your former self. A useful analogy is two ships crossing an ocean. Each ship has the same weight capacity limit. The loads at your discretion are the crew and provisions. The first ship is a sailboat that allows you to have a small crew. The second ship is a trireme with three banks of oars to help propel the ship. It requires a much larger crew, forcing you to sacrifice provisions. In this analogy, the ship is your body, the crew your muscles, and the provisions your body fat. The wind driven sailboat is your low intensity cardio training, and the trireme is your high intensity strength training. From a survival perspective, the sailboat would be the better of the two options since you will be able to carry more provisions for the journey and you’ll have fewer crewmen eating those provisions. Your body would rather maintain body fat and sacrifice muscle much the same way to survive a famine, which is how your body perceives a calorie restriction.
Part of the reason why sprinters are so much more muscular than marathon runners is that the sprinter’s training requires them to generate explosive power over short distances. The marathon runner’s training, on the other hand, just requires them to cover long distances at a relatively slow and steady pace, compared to the sprinter. As a result, the marathon runner will have a scrawny frame, especially in their upper body, because big strong muscles are a liability. Any weight, muscle or fat, will only serve to slow down the long-distance runner.
As far as your body is concerned muscle and fat is just weight that has to be carried. The type of weight you lose is more important than the amount of weight you lose.
Looking good isn’t a number on a SCALE; it is based on your body composition, your ratio of lean body mass to fat. If you want to transform your body, replace the mindset that cardio is how you burn fat. Exercise burns fat and strength training helps build and preserve muscle. If you don’t maintain lean body mass while dieting, your body composition will not improve and you will hit a fat loss plateau because your basal metabolic rate decreased as you lost muscle mass.
Cardio training promotes weight loss better than strength training, BUT, strength training is better at promoting fat loss, as demonstrated in this STUDY. The 12-week study found that the cardio group lost more weight, than the strength training group (32 pounds vs 28 pounds), but the strength training group had lost a lot less lean muscle mass
The study concluded “the addition of an intensive, high volume resistance training program resulted in preservation of lean body weight and resting metabolic rate during weight loss with very-low-calorie diets.”
Muscles are responsible for all the pleasing curves of the body. Strength training reshapes your body, cardio doesn’t. If you have a pear-shaped body and you only perform cardio training while restricting calories, you will end up with a smaller pear-shaped body. Strength training transforms your body shape and is the best form of training for improving body composition; cardio merely shrinks your existing body shape. Building muscle will help you to lose unwanted body fat and keeps it off without having to spend time doing cardio every day. When you are dieting, your goal should be to burn more calories and maintain muscle. Any exercise burns calories, not just cardio, and strength training will ensure you end your diet with a leaner harder looking physique.
If you want to look better, focus on fat loss not weight loss.
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