Too often I see people (women more often than men, thanks to society’s skewed ideas of gender roles) coming in to the gym thinking that all that they need to do is lose weight. I see women who weigh a hundred and fifteen pounds tell me that they feel that if they can hit a hundred, that’s a good place for them.
Unfortunately, the fitness industry is ultimately to blame. For years, we’ve taught people that weight is an indicator of health, and that being in shape and being skinny are synonymous. Here’s the truth:
There’s no such thing as being overweight.
The very concept of “overweighted-ness” stems from our use of the BMI scale, which classifies men and women into weight categories based on an equation which relates our weight to our height. In an adult individual, height stays relatively fixed. This means that weight is the single number with the most power to affect this equation. That also means that we’ve focused on weight to the exclusion of all else in determining personal fitness.
But BMI is actually a pretty poor predictor of overall health; it only takes into account height and weight, and it ignores a much more accurate predictor of health, body composition, which is tailored to an individual’s own muscle/fat balance. As a result, healthy individuals with more muscle mass tend to have inflated BMI numbers, while new exercisers simultaneously losing fat and gaining muscle tend to see their BMI number (and scale weight) stall endlessly.
Furthermore, recent studies have shown that the 25-30 “overweight” BMI range is actually healthier than the 20-25 “normal” range, implying that our idea of normal “weighted-ness” is equally flawed.
What the BMI scale fails to overlook is that it’s completely possible to be skinny and unhealthy, or fat and healthy. If you look at pro strongmen and powerlifters, you’ll see men and women who, despite scoring in obese ranges in the BMI scale, are in perfect shape and exercise regularly, also having a high amount of muscle mass for their weight.
Conversely, you have “skinny-fat”, a term for people who have low body fat percentages but still lack in muscular definition and tend to have potbellies.
I know plenty of guys who, at a younger age, were able to eat nothing but fast food all day without gaining weight, since their metabolisms were still high. There are plenty of people out there who, either by starvation or some quirk of genetics, get to remain skinny despite piss poor diet and complete lack of exercise.
Does this make them healthy? Not in the slightest.
Society tells us that in order to get lean and good-looking, we have to lose weight. What they aren’t telling us, and what they should be, is that weight really doesn’t matter. There’s no such thing as being overweight, there’s only such a thing as being “underexercised.”
It is extremely possible to remain at the same weight, or even to gain weight, while simultaneously building a lot of muscle and burning a lot of fat, and still look much leaner. Since a pound of muscle occupies a lot less space than a pound of fat, gaining muscle should be the primary focus of any gym-goer. Losing fat isn’t bad, but it’s only half of the equation.
Unfortunately, for most people it’s the entirety of the equation. Since we’re taught that losing weight (losing fat) is the only thing that matters, we get an abundance of people doing nothing but cardio in the gym. We’re taught that cardio is the way to lose fat, while lifting is the way to gain muscle, and of course that old straw man argument, “I don’t want to get bulky” is always around to discourage muscle gain.
You know what’s bulky? Fat. You know what’s lean? Muscle.
In order to build the sort of bulk you see on professional bodybuilders, these people have to jump through a lot of hoops in terms of nutrition and diet in order to get there. It’s not like lifting weights is going to suddenly cause you to balloon up to their size.
Another issue with doing nothing but cardio is that while cardio is the best for weight loss in the short term, it’s much worse for you in the long run. Sustainable weight loss is all about maintaining a high metabolism. The two primary ways to increase this are to build more muscle (raising your base metabolism naturally) or to do more work (temporarily raising base metabolism).
Diet also plays a huge role, as even a strong metabolism can’t beat an excess of calories, but restrictive diets can often cause your body to go into “starvation mode,” thereby reducing your metabolism. That’s why dieting is often unsustainable and people overshoot their initial weight when they put weight back on.
Lifting weights will increase your muscle mass, raising your base metabolism, while cardio will increase your calories burned, temporarily inflating your metabolism. The problem here is that cardio is unsustainable. As soon as you stop doing your cardio, your metabolism returns to normal levels and you balloon back up to your old weight. The only way to keep the weight off, then, is to continue to increase your intensity and to do more and more cardio.
Muscle, on the other hand, isn’t temporary. Once muscle is built, it can take years to go away, during which time it continues to burn calories and raise your base metabolism. As such, while cardio is better in the short term, lifting is much better in the long term.
Cardiovascular activity is also catabolic, meaning that it burns muscle rather than building it. Your body will catabolize muscle in a dose-dependent fashion, which means that the more cardio you do, the more muscle it will break down. This means that while small doses of cardio (HIIT, smaller sessions of 30-45 minutes) won’t be too much of a problem, larger doses, such as the kind required to lose large amounts of weight, will. In addition, as your body gets used to the cardio, it will become more efficient at air consumption, leading to fewer calories burned.
These two factors combined lead to a net decrease in your metabolism over time: great if you want to be as efficient as possible at burning calories during a marathon, but pretty crappy if you’re trying to lose weight.
You can always beat out this decrease in metabolism by further increasing the intensity and duration of your cardio, but there’s always a limit. When you’re doing four hours of cardio a day, for example, it’s clear that you should be doing something else. As a result, cardio works great for de-conditioned individuals looking to lose weight (they have little muscle mass to lose in the first place) but after a certain point weight loss stalls because the decreasing metabolism always catches up with them.
Here is a point I can’t reiterate enough: the vast majority of people would be better off doing traditional weight training, or some combination of weight training and cardio, in terms of achieving their weight loss goals.
I would also like to reiterate that scale weight is unhelpful in assessing fitness. Go buy a $30 body composition tester, or see if they have one at your local gym. You can look good at any weight, provided you have a superior body composition.
There’s no such thing as overweight, only such a thing as not lifting enough.
Adam is a personal trainer and fitness coach currently based out of the Detroit area. When he isn’t lifting heavy objects, he’s really into trolling the interwebs and Asian philosophy. You can find him on his website, Fitocracy, or Twitter.