Ken Kinakin recently wrote a book called “Optimal Muscle Training” which is all about biomechanics, anatomy, muscle testing, resistance training technique, and injury prevention. I consider it groundbreaking, because Kikakin did something rarely seen in the mainstream fitness literature: Rather than making sweeping generalizations about exercise safety or usefulness, he analyzed 125 popular weight training techniques and rated them according to risk and benefit. Understanding risks and benefits enhances your training experience by giving you clearer distinctions, providing you with more choices and helping you make better decisions. For example, some exercises have low risk and high benefit, making them excellent choices for almost anyone. Others have high risk and low benefit, which usually indicates a poor technique best avoided. There are also exercises with high risk and high benefit, which means the exercise, while risky, could have high value to advanced trainees under certain circumstances.
Here’s an example: If you asked a typical Personal Trainer at a health club whether it was okay to perform squats with your heels elevated on a board or wedge, 99% of them would cringe and scream, “That’s terrible for you! You’ll blow out your knees! NEVER do squats with your heels elevated – always do them flat footed.” This is a typical “good or bad” judgement, which neglects to acknowledge the risk to benefit ratio.
The risk is greater stress on the knees. The benefits include greater quad development, less hip involvement, more emphasis placed on the medialis portion of the quadriceps, a more comfortable position for those who lack flexibility, and a more upright torso with less stress on the lower back.
So what does all this have to do with losing fat? Well, I see the same phenomenon among fitness professionals and practitioners alike when it comes to judging the usefulness of fat loss techniques (training or dietary), especially today with the anti-aerobics pendulum having swung all the way to the right.
Many people take an all or none attitude, such as “You should NEVER do cardio on an empty stomach because that causes you to lose muscle” or, “cardio is completely worthless,” or “Low carb diets don’t work because they deplete your glycogen and kill your energy so you can’t train hard. Always eat plenty of carbs.”
A better approach would be to analyze each nutrition or training technique according to its risk to benefit ratio (rather than focusing only on risks, and denying that any benefits exist). Just like all strength training activities carry a risk, so do most fat loss techniques. What makes an exercise or Nutrition technique worth including in your program is whether the benefits outweigh the risk given your goals and situation.
What I’d like to do is review a group of aggressive, extreme and/or controversial techniques for fat loss which some bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts embrace as safe and highly effective, while others claim they’re worthless, dangerous or counterproductive. By weighing the risks and benefits of each technique, you’ll be able to make a much more educated decision about whether to use these techniques yourself.
THE RATING SYSTEM
In Kinakin’s book, he outlined a simple three-point rating system with low (1), medium (2) and high (3) risk-benefit ratings, which I have adopted here for fat loss techniques. An exercise that is low risk (1), low benefit (1) might safely provide benefits to a beginner, but would do little for advanced trainees. An exercise with high risk (3) and low benefit (1) shows poor technique with high potential for negative effects (such as muscle loss, overtraining or injury), which are not balanced by any substantial benefits. Low risk (1) and high benefit (3) generally indicates an all-around excellent method with great benefits and virtually no downside. Techniques can also fall somewhere in the middle (medium risk and medium benefit).
After seeing how risks and benefits can be weighed against each other, the lesson becomes clear: Many high risk methods do have applications under the right circumstances – provided the benefit is also high. Kinakin used the skiing analogy to illustrate this point: Ski trails are marked with different colors and labels; the green circle for the beginner trail offers the lowest difficulty and lowest risk of injury, but offers the least benefit or gratification during the experience. The black diamond slopes are for expert skiers with the highest degree of difficulty and highest risk of injury, but they also provide the greatest benefit and gratification during the experience. A beginner to exercise and dieting who hasn’t even mastered fundamentals would not be any wiser to use the high risk, “advanced” fat loss or training technique any more than a novice skier would to take a plunge down a black diamond ski slope.
With risk management and careful tracking of results, high-risk Fat Loss techniques can often be used very successfully. The ratings of each technique that follow will help you decide which ones best apply to you.
Fasted cardio in the morning One of the most controversial fat loss techniques is performing cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. This method is widely embraced by bodybuilders and recommended by many Personal Trainers and nutritionists. Other experts claim that the risk of muscle loss is too high and they argue whether workout timing makes any difference in the overall scheme of 24 hour energy expenditure. With low blood sugar and low glycogen levels on awakening, it appears that the body is in a perfect state to burn fat preferentially, but combined with high a.m. cortisol levels, it may also be a perfect state to burn muscle. Therefore, the benefit is high, but so is the risk. Body composition must be carefully monitored when using this technique.
Cardio in the morning after protein consumption
One of the biggest concerns brought up by opponents of fasted morning cardio is the potential for losing lean body mass. One way to help combat the possible loss of lean body mass is to eat a small protein-only meal or to consume a protein drink (no carbs) immediately upon awakening, then perform the cardio shortly thereafter. This decreases the risk by suppressing cortisol and preventing muscle breakdown, while maintaining the high benefit by keeping your blood sugar and insulin levels low.
RISK: 2 (moderate)
BENEFIT: 3 (high)
Cardio at night
Many bodybuilders and Weight Loss seekers perform cardio late at night and then do not eat afterward in an attempt to increase fat loss. There are benefits to this method, but they are moderate at best, and the risks are high. Late night training may also keep you awake, disrupting your sleep cycle and recovery. Once you do fall asleep, your metabolic rate decreases rapidly, so you don’t reap the full value of the post workout metabolic increase that is achieved with exercise earlier in the day. Risk of muscle loss is high, so body composition must be monitored very closely.
Short duration, high intensity interval training
One of the most popular trends in fitness today is high intensity interval training (HIIT). These workouts consist of short periods of high intensity work intervals followed by short periods of lower intensity recovery intervals. Generally, the intervals are 30 to 120 seconds in length and the total duration is in the 15-25 minute range. Research has shown that H.I.I.T Training causes a larger increase in post-exercise energy expenditure than moderate intensity, steady-state exercise, which keeps you burning calories at an elevated rate for an extended period even after the workout is over. There are risks, especially to the beginner, the deconditioned or the person unaware of his or her health status. However, because intensity is relative to each individual, risk is moderate and easily managed, while the benefits are high. For someone who is already highly fit, the risks are lower