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When is Rapid Fat Loss Ideal?

Posted Jan 21 2010 7:44pm

Programs aimed at rapid fat loss are quite the rave nowadays.  There are some excellent programs out there (most notably Warpspeed Fat Loss, which we’ve discussed here quite a bit) that deliver some quick reductions in body fat over the course of a few weeks of absolutely hellish training and strict nutritional modifications.  There’s no doubt that it’s a effective way to drop body fat quickly.

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That said, the question is whether that degree of specialization - incinerating body fat at all costs - is what’s right for an individual.  For some people - particularly woman (who aren’t generally as concerned with carrying appreciable levels of muscle mass and strength), these programs are just fine; any accompanying losses in strength and muscle mass won’t be as disconcerting because they aren’t perceived as being as important.  Obviously, it’s also true for those who are morbidly obese, but they generally aren’t candidates for complete overhauls right away, as they have to get their feet wet first with the basics of regular training and better nutrition.

Most specific to this piece, though, rapid fat loss programs are most enticing to the more experienced trainee who carries a lot of muscle mass, but needs to shed some blubber quickly to get ready for a vacation, photo shoot, or scandalous make-out scene on live TV.

However, for every one of these folks (the experienced trainees - not the horny, drunk, bearded dudes with Confederate flag hats), there is another individual who is male, with limited training experience, subpar strength, and not enough muscle mass on him to really even demonstrate that he regularly trains.  He might be 6-1, 180 pounds at 20% body fat.  For those of you keeping track at home, that’s 144 pounds of fat free mass, and 36 pounds of fat mass.

Well, here’s a question: if this hypothetical guy dropped 10 pounds of body fat right now and somehow managed to maintain all his muscle mass (and recovered any water weight reductions he got from lower carb dieting), would he be happy with how he’d look?  That’d still put him at 144 pounds of fat free mass, but lower his body weight to 170 with 26 pounds of fat mass (15.3% body fat).  Sorry, but while respectable, 15.3% body fat isn’t super lean.  And, 170 pounds at 6-1 will only earn him points with insurance companies who calculate premiums based on body mass index.

Imagine taking about the ideal NFL cornerback, and then stripping 25 pounds of muscle off him and adding back 15 pounds of body fat.  Be sure to kill off all the athleticism in the process, too.  Not a very impressive picture.

In other words, a program that might have been perfect for a guy who was 30 pounds heavier with the same body fat percentage - but two more years of training experience - just isn’t a good fit for a guy who can become “skinny-fat” really quickly.

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I have just seen a lot of guys go on crazy fat loss programs only to get to a lower weight and realize that they look skinny because they aren’t carrying enough muscle mass in the first place.  And, along the way, they lose a lot of strength - so it’s harder to build up muscle mass quickly thereafter to right the ship.

For this reason, it’s been a long time since I resorted to a rapid fat loss program in my own training; I just am not willing to sacrifice the strength gains I’ve made just to see the scale weight go down quickly.  Rather, I’d prefer to do it gradually and retain the gains.

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This has also been a strategy we’ve employed with excellent success with athletes who come our way who need to lean out.  Often, body weight - and not body composition - are what predicts their success.  Pitchers are a perfect example; I’ve seen many who have just indiscriminately lost body weight, only to see their velocity drop considerably.  This may come from the actual loss of body mass, the increased training volume that caused it, the type of training (extra aerobic activity?), or - most likely - a combination of all these factors.  One thing is for sure, though; I would be my 2010 salary on the fact that if CC Sabathia “trimmed down” to 210, he wouldn’t be nearly as dominant as he is.

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Would some gradual weight loss and an emphasis on improving body composition help him?  Absolutely.  Would taking 80 pounds off him be a smart or specific off-season goal?  In my opinion, no.  The research has demonstrated that body mass is one factor that predicts velocity.

Baseball relevance aside, this is why I rarely go “exclusively fat loss” or “exclusively bulking” with a lot of general fitness clients who don’t have more than two years of strength training under their belt.  They absolutely, positively can add muscle mass and drop body fat simultaneously if they accumulate enough of the right kind of activity and eat the right stuff.  It just takes some individualization, adherence, consistency, and effort.  We’ve seen it hundreds of times already with the Maximum Strength program alone, and that doesn’t even take things to the level of individualized programming.

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To reiterate, I’m not saying that rapid fat loss programs don’t have merit; I’ve seen a lot of people get tremendous results when the program was the right fit for them.  However, I also know that handing a NFL running back’s training program to a 12-year-old Pop Warner running back isn’t appropriate in light of his experience.  The same can be said for novice trainees who try to drop body fat too quickly; they are skipping steps and missing out on crucial adaptations - including strength and muscle mass gains - that could bode more favorably for long-term progress.

As always, you have to fit the program to the individual, and not the individual to the program.

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