Do you want to lose fat? The misconceptions about how to lose fat are extensive and are commonly spread by both uninformed fitness professionals and the mainstream news media.
For example, a research study from Duke University that was featured on many of the popular mainstream news sites reported that aerobic training is significantly more effective at burning fat than resistance training alone and equally as effective as resistance and aerobic training together. Maybe, if you’re comparing resistance training on Cybex machines with intense aerobic training for 40 minutes a session!
What many of the news reports don’t clarify is that the resistance program consisted of eight Cybex machine exercises three times a week, whereas the aerobic training program was at 75 percent of maximal oxygen uptake for a total of 12 miles a week.
Once we know that the resistance program used Cybex machines with what appears to be a muscular endurance training program (8-12 reps, 3 sets— or is it hypertrophy? The weight or percent of the 1RM isn’t mentioned in the study, so we don’t know for sure), while the aerobic training group exercised at a fairly vigorous intensity (75 percent of the max oxygen uptake is 80 percent of heart rate max) it’s not surprising to hear that the aerobic exercise was more effective at burning fat than machine lifting.
Another concern with how the study results were presented was that most of the news reports shouted that jogging or cardio was best for burning belly fat. This implies that cardio will help you lose the fat that you can grab that covers the abdominals. This fat is called subcutaneous fat, but the study actually tested the effect of the different training programs on visceral fat—the kind of fat that is deep inside the body and surrounds the organs or even gets into organs such as the liver.
This fat can make your stomach stick out, but it’s not what most people think of when they talk about losing abdominal fat. The study is actually valuable and provides insight into strategies for losing fat to prevent disease; the concern is how it is misrepresented in the media.
In fact, there are a number of recent studies that can guide you in designing the best fat burning programs for health and a lean physique. I review them here, and will also clarify the differences between visceral and subcutaneous fat for anyone who remains mystified by the distinction.
What is Subcutaneous Fat?
Subcutaneous fat is right below the outermost layer of skin. This is fat you can pinch with your fingers and can be tested with calipers. Subcutaneous fat in the stomach area covers the abdominal muscles, and if you have too much of it, you won’t be able to see your ab muscles.
In comparison, visceral fat is located between organs, deep inside the body. You can’t grab
it, although it will make a stomach stick out if you have a lot of it. There is evidence that men tend to have more visceral fat than women, who tend to have more jiggly subcutaneous fat.
Once women reach menopause they begin to develop more visceral fat as well on account of having less estrogen.
What is Visceral Fat?
Visceral fat sits deep behind the abdominal wall and surrounds the organs, within the peritoneal cavity. Visceral fat negatively affects health by increasing inflammation in the organs, in part because it releases substances called adipokines, which are cell-to-cell signaling proteins that increase blood pressure and mess with insulin health. Visceral fat also decreases the amount of adiponectin in the body, an essential hormone for fat burning that helps speed up metabolism, which means there are more triglycerides getting into the blood stream.
The combination of decreased insulin sensitivity, hypertension, and elevated triglycerides often result in atherosclerosis, higher LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and is an important factor in the development of diabetes.
Are There Other Particularly Worrisome Fats?
Epicardial fat is a type of visceral fat that should be mentioned due to its serious negative health effects. It is deposited around the heart and is considered a metabolically active organ, which significantly alters heart function.
What is the Difference Between Adiponectin and Adipokines?
Adiponectin is secreted from adipose or subcutaneous fat and it helps with glucose uptake and insulin sensitivity. It has anti-inflammatory effects that support healthy blood pressure and heart function. Diabetics and overweight people have lower levels of adiponectin, which means that the more fat you have, the more fat you will have—ugghh!
As mentioned above, adipokines are released by visceral fat and include IL-6 and TNF-a, which raise blood pressure, decrease insulin sensitivity and cause inflammation. Basically, fat builds fat, and it appears that fat, particularly visceral fat, can also degrade muscle, leading to more fat. Not a good situation.
What Are Other Negative Effects of Visceral Fat?
More visceral fat leads to lower testosterone and poor health in men. One study found a link between greater visceral fat and lower total and free testosterone, and lower sex-hormone-binding globulin. Additionally, C-peptide levels, a marker of chronic inflammation, and insulin were elevated, indicating a pre-diabetic state.
Testosterone will almost certainly be lower in men with more visceral fat, which leads to diabetes, less muscle mass, and less bone mineral density.
What Is the Best Workout For Getting Rid of Fat?
The MOST effective way to get rid of visceral fat is to do high-intensity intervals and strength training. Of course, for best results, you should do what you enjoy most because there’s more chance you’ll stick with it, and luckily the evidence shows there are a variety of effective options.
Some individuals won’t stick with a workout program that is extremely hard, and overweight or novice exercisers may not be ready for high-intensity intervals, meaning it is valuable to present alternatives that can help decrease visceral fat.
Sprints Shown To Be Most Effective
A research review of high-intensity training (HIT) programs noted that “the effect of regular aerobic exercise on body fat is negligible” whereas research into high-intensity exercise “indicates that it may be more effective at reducing subcutaneous and abdominal (visceral) body fat than other types of exercise.”
One study that compared the effect of high-intensity exercise (60 sprints of 8 seconds each, 12 seconds rest) with aerobic exercise (60 percent of maximal oxygen uptake for 40 minutes) found that HIT resulted in significant decreases in overall fat mass, while the aerobic exercise group had a fat gain of 0.44 kg on average.
The HIT group also had a significant 9.5 percent decrease in visceral fat, whereas the aerobic group had a non-significant increase of 0.2 kg or 10.5 percent. Of related interest is that the HIT group decreased fasting insulin significantly more than the aerobic group (31 versus 9 percent).
A second study found that in men with type 2 diabetes, an eight-week program that mixed aerobic and anaerobic exercise (twice a week of 45 minutes of aerobic exercise at 75 percent of max, and once a week of 5 sprints for 2 minutes at 85 percent) had a significant 44 percent decrease in visceral fat, with a 58 percent improvement in insulin sensitivity.
They had no change in bodyweight but did have a 24 percent increase in thigh muscle cross sectional area, indicating muscle development, which accounted for the fact that they didn’t decrease bodyweight.
A third study performed on obese women compared a 16-week low-intensity protocol with a high-intensity protocol, based on rating of perceived exertion—not a very scientific indicator. The protocols produced comparable volumes of work as well as almost equal calories burned and miles completed. Despite this, only the HIT protocol yielded significant changes in metabolic markers or visceral fat loss.
They lost significantly more total and visceral fat than the low-intensity group. Interestingly, both groups had similar exercise adherence to the program with 80 percent of each group completing the study, indicating that the high-intensity protocol was not too demanding for an obese, previously untrained population.
High-intensity exercise is effective because it increases exercise and post-exercise fat burning and may yield decreased post-exercise appetite. During exercise and after HIT, fat burning increases to remove built up lactate and hydrogen ions. Elevated growth hormone also supports fat burning and is a result of HIT programs.
The Best Workout Protocol: Build Muscle to Prevent Fat Attacks
The very best protocol for visceral fat loss and a lean physique is high-intensity interval sprints and a resistance training program. This will allow you to burn visceral fat and build muscle. More muscle will elevate metabolism and support a better hormonal and biochemical environment by lowering adipokines—remember that evil chemical that creates more fat and breaks down muscle.
A dual program that combines HIT, or at least strenuous aerobic training in conjunction with resistance training, is clearly essential for health. You’ll be getting rid of the unhealthy fat and building up an arsenal of muscle to protect against future fat attacks. You’ll also release more growth hormone and you’ll have the benefit of acute elevations in testosterone if the volume and weight lifted from the training program is significant.
What Else Works?
The Duke study shows that steady-state aerobic training at a vigorous intensity such as 75 percent of the maximal oxygen uptake does burn visceral fat and can improve metabolic biomarkers, and that such a protocol is better than a machine resistance training protocol. But that doesn’t mean that it’s better than all resistance protocols.
Based on the clear evidence that high-intensity anaerobic-style exercise is best for burning visceral and total body fat, it’s reasonable to make the conclusion that high-intensity resistance training would be effective as well.
For example, circuit training with heavy weights can be effective for hypertrophy, and it triggers a potent growth hormone release, leading to more fat burning. And as mentioned above, it’s clear that pairing both aerobic and anaerobic training with weight training will provide the better long-term overall results, despite the fact that the Duke study pushes just aerobic training for visceral fat loss.
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