Today I’m going to take you through all you need to know about building muscle and burning fat – I hope you find this stuff as fascinating as I do!
It’s only been in the relatively recent past that we homo-sapiens have begun actively trying to lose weight and build more muscle. To accommodate that, there have been many, many different programs and concepts set forth from both amateurs and professionals alike.
It can be frustrating to realize that while there are so many books, DVDs, and programs out there, people are still having a hard time losing that fat and building that muscle. The truth is, it’s best to think of your body as an adapting machine that has evolved to hold onto its most basic need: survival.
Most of us are stuck on the idea that if we just go to a gym and randomly lift some really heavy weights, we’ll get great results; unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way, and here’s why.
Basically, your body doesn’t really want to put on muscle. One of the things we often forget is that our bodies aren’t designed to do what we now find appealing in our modern lives. For instance, while our modern society praises lots of muscle and a lean build, evolutionarily our bodies fight against this.
The body is equipped to adapt to what we need it to do, which for our purposes means building muscle when it needs to have it. When you go to the gym, you are essentially fooling your body into “believing” that you need this muscle for survival. Your body doesn’t realize that you aren’t out there in a fight for your life against a bear for those 45 minutes every other day.
It just knows that you’re counting on it to deliver strength, so it accommodates that need the best it can. It’s important to remember though that your body is only doing this for survival purposes, and just like it is designed to adapt to situations for survival, it has certain preferences in its blueprint to help meet those adaptations.
One major preference is to not hold on to muscle – because excess muscle is expensive to our bodies’ survival. We know that muscle burns more calories than fat, and to us in our modern lives, that’s a good thing: we’re deliberately building that muscle to counteract our sedentary lives and the processed foods in our diet.
Your body, however, isn’t designed for your modern life; it’s designed for survival in the wild. It wants to store as much excess energy as possible, and it does so by storing fat.
Therefore anything that burns excess energy (calories), such as too much muscle, simply by being there is a bad thing. When your body needs energy that is not immediately supplied by food, it can take it from two primary places: from fat or muscles.
If it feels it needs the muscle for survival it will keep them intact, but if that muscle is causing too big a drain on its resources without providing enough benefit, it will cannibalize the muscle even before it goes for your fat stores.
If most people could have their way, they would have their body easily build and keep as much muscle as they wanted, and have it destroy all fat stored and ingested into your body like a school of hungry piranhas on the attack. Most of us don’t fully understand why we can work out and eat healthily and still not be an Adonis.
So try to think about it from your body’s perspective: what you’re essentially asking for is your body to fill itself with excessive, virtually worthless-to-your-survival muscle that does nothing but drains the precious energy your body has tried so hard to acquire.
It would be like going to the bank and getting a loan, then burning not only the money they gave you but also your life savings. You’d have to work day and night to put in enough money to keep from bankrupting (or dying in your body’s case) and you’d have nothing to show for it – remember, your body doesn’t care that you look good at the beach!
To your body, fat (energy) is a good thing and excess muscle (a drain on your energy) is a bad thing. If you are trying to build muscle and burn fat, you are fighting against nature, and nature is going to do everything in its power to stop you or at least slow you down. It’s important to know this going into any fitness program so that you have a full understanding of the demands you are putting on your own body.
Now of course I’m generalizing to some extent, and of course too much fat is more detrimental to your health than too much muscle. It would seem to reason that your body would shut off excess fat gain just as it tries to ward off excess muscle gain, but keep in mind where it’s coming from.
If you are running around in the wild, fighting animals and procuring your own food, you aren’t going to get huge and fat. Your body therefore has no reason to have that emergency shut-off switch; your very lifestyle is supposed to be the shut-off switch.
What with the primal lifestyle our bodies are still evolutionarily used to (finding and preparing your own food, fighting for territory rights, building your own shelter), the human body’s problem is not supposed to be storing too much energy, it’s supposed to be not having enough – and all that muscle you’re putting on now is simply a drain on its precious energy.
What I want to do today is dive a little deeper into the fascinating processes of the body, and then we will get into some actual real life examples of how you can use them for your goals of building huge muscles while burning truckloads of fat.
So let’s start out by taking a concept I brought up earlier: your body’s survival instinct. Because your body really has only one purpose – to survive so it can pass on its genes–and because ANY excess muscle past the necessities of survival are really just seen by your body as a drain on its precious energy supplies, it will decimate that excess muscle as soon as it gets a chance.
On the opposite side of the equation, because your fat is your body’s built up supply of that precious energy, trying to get rid of it will be met with challenges. Your body will want to hold onto every drop that it can. This is built directly into the blueprint for your body, your DNA. What I’m telling you is that fighting it is futile. You will not win.
“But lots of people have the body that I want. Lots of people have lost a ton of fat and built lots of muscle. It can’t be futile. You’re not saying that all those people are just blessed with incredible genetics are you?”
And the answer to this is of course no. It’s very true that it is highly possible to accomplish these goals for you or for anyone else. Not everyone, at least with today’s technology, can be Mr. Olympia but almost everyone has the ability to look pretty damn good, and EVERYONE has the ability to make positive changes to what you already have. So why then would I say it’s futile?
Because it is. You can’t fight your body. You can’t fight its design. You can, however, work with it. In your DNA, there are rules to be followed. These have evolved for millions of years into what they are today, and it’s what makes our bodies and brains so amazing.
These rules are what allow us to change and adapt and what has allowed both our survival and even dominance in the animal kingdom. Yes, it’s true that some very big rules are things like “fat (energy stores)= good” while “muscle (energy wasters)=bad,” but that’s not the entire equation.
If you were to highly simplify it, the true equations look more like this :
Excess muscle=bad (unless) X .
You’ll notice that there was no (unless) with the fat rule. Your body didn’t evolve having to deal with excess fat, so there is no real rule for it in your DNA – even though we are now seeing that it can kill you. This is why you can be 300 pounds and your body will go into starvation mode. The important rule then when dealing with fat is this…
If fuel is not provided, I will take from excess muscle over fat stores (unless) X .
I know it’s not much of an equation, but work with me here.
So what is X? X is the phrase “I need it for survival.” And even more so it’s “if I need it for survival in a more significant way than I need the fat (energy stores).” There are other complexities such as what whether it needs just energy or whether it needs protein to build new cells but that is past the scope of this article.
The problem is that in today’s modern world you really don’t need all that extra muscle for survival, so why would it keep it over fat stores? This is where the body’s design can trump our conscious wants.
Your body has no concept of what the modern world is. It doesn’t know it’s the 21st century and that you’re going to the gym to impress a girl any more than it knew that you might be running from a lion a few thousand years ago.
All it knows is that when it is exposed to certain stimuli, it should react in a given way. That reaction is what has given it the evolutionary advantage for you and I to be alive today. Most people think of these actions in very large steps, such as “I will now build a bigger bicep.” The truth however, is that your body is not really trying to build a bigger bicep.
That’s really just an after-effect of the processes it’s always done, the processes which have allowed humans to be awarded survival.
Instead of “building a bigger bicep,” your body will release a chemical or hormone. This hormone will stimulate something else, which will then have another effect, and eventually, you will have muscle.
Even if you don’t believe in evolution, you should be able to agree that the body is not actually “thinking” about what it’s going through; it is reacting. It’s these reactions we need to be able to control if we want success. Of course, you can’t just tell your body what reaction to have next.
What you can do is set the stage, give it the right tools, and watch it work its “magic.” Give it a hammer when it needs a screw driver though, and depending where you are in the process it will either try to use the hammer and actually cause damage, or its more common response is to just abort the mission leaving you with little to no results.
Next, I will go more into how you can know what the right tools are for the job you want your body to do, and give you some real life examples of how to use them.
Now that I’ve gone through all of that, for brevity, I’m going to jump back into to the simple assumptions.
So earlier I made mention of the fact that when you hit the gym for those 45 minute, three to four days per week, you are telling your body that you need muscle for something. So, it will give you some extra muscle.
Its got rules but it’s flexible. It will also allow you to burn a percentage of your body fat before it starts to think danger and tries to shut it down. After all, one of the main reasons you have fat is for energy when you don’t have the nutrients coming in so it will utilize it without much fight up to a point.
What I mentioned before is that the reason your body will give you that muscle is because it doesn’t know what you really need it for. There could be a small bear that comes by your cave a few times a week and you have to fight it off or die. It doesn’t know you’re sitting in a gym lifting weights to look good at the beach. This is exactly where you want to try to work with your body’s assumptions and NOT work against it for your own goals.
If your workouts suck; if you go in week after week and lift the same weights and take long rests, and do a bunch of isolated movements as opposed to compound movements that get your entire body involved, your body is going to yawn and go back to sleep. You’re fine the way you are and you don’t need anything else for survival.
However, if every time you walk in the gym, you put your body through the war zone for those 45 minutes and make it reach for every ounce of energy and strength, and kill every muscle fiber and contingency it has built to handle these situations, it is going to, without a doubt, continue to give you more.
Guess what else? When it’s weighing out next time whether it’s going to take its energy needs from muscle or its fat stores, it’s going to think twice about breaking down that muscle because it knows that chances are, it’s going to be eaten by a huge friggen bear if it takes away your weapon.
Plus, your body is used to getting such a steady flow of nutrients (right??) that it’s not as afraid to break down its own energy stores. Oh and when I say things like “Your body is not afraid” I mean it has proper leptin levels and other such scientific craziness to keep it from hoarding in excess.
Now to be fair, what I just said above is a very over simplified version of what’s really going on but I hope it gives you a way to think about this stuff. You have to take a lot more into account such as other reasons your body needs fat because it is more than just energy.
I’m sure you’ve heard before that having super low levels of body fat is unhealthy if maintained. In woman, it can flat out stop the ovulation cycle in extreme cases. It is needed by literally thousands or processes and it doesn’t want to let it go.
Even before it hits a level of danger, losing it in any great capacity will result in your body freaking out to some extent and it will start the war for it to stop. Granted, you may have convinced it that you need the muscle more than the fat but that won’t stop it from trying to get you to stop getting rid of all its precious fat.
It will release chemicals (hormones) throughout your body that will wreak havoc, give you terrible mood swings, and give you cravings for things you shouldn’t eat when you’re not on a diet. Add that to the fact that it needs to repair all the damage you just did in the gym and you will come out, at the very least, with a veracious appetite.
A veracious appetite can be a very good thing, or as you know, it can be a VERY bad thing. If you know how to handle your body fighting back, (your appetite) by giving it the right foods, at the right times, in the right portions to create a positive hormonal environment, you can use your body’s natural mechanisms to your advantage thereby growing more muscle and causing more fat loss. However, if you do it wrong, you will make it a very bad thing. Not only will you never see the results you want, but sometimes you’ll even go backwards in progress.
Outside of not knowing what the right things are, there is the fact that modern society has made it almost impossible to flip the right switches even if you knew what they were. Think about it…
If you were really fighting bears, you probably wouldn’t be able to hit McDonalds after the fight.
You’d go find a natural root, a grain, some fruit, or meat from an animal that has lived in its natural habitat and had a natural hormone and chemical free diet itself (you might even eat the bear…yuck!). In other words, by default, you would go grab something dense in nutrients. Now, you gotta go to a special store and pay through the nose to find a freakin’ apple that doesn’t have bug spray in it!
Want to know the first reason you’re not getting the results you want? Start with that last statement and then add to it that our diets are so high in processed foods, white flour, and high fructose corn syrup, that you may as well be labeled a garbage disposal.
So what are the answers? How can you use your body’s natural tendencies to its own advantage and stop beating your head against the wall trying to lose fat and gain muscle?
Well first you have to learn how to utilize its adapting abilities. In order to do this you have to listen to your body. I don’t mean this in the sense that most people say it. “Oh if you’re tired that means you shouldn’t workout” and all the other stuff. I mean listen to your body for certain cues and then follow the proper protocol.
Lets break this down into different areas.
Listen to your body part 1 – I’m tired!
Let’s say you wake up one day and you’re supposed to workout but you’re just “too tired”. I’m talking normal tired here, not sick or I just ran a marathon yesterday tired; just regular ol’ sluggish and tired. What should you do? It would stand to reason that if you’re listening to your body you should just take the day off. Maybe pamper yourself and eat some Twinkies on the couch or something. Maybe if you’re really motivated you’ll maybe just “do a little cardio”. That’s reasonable right? Wrong!
Your body is giving you a cue and you should take it and act accordingly. You’re tired, your energy stores are low and THIS is your chance to make a difference. This is the chance to really shock your body into a new level of giving you it’s all. This is the time to take your body to war!
Put on your favorite fight song and fight. It’s not just for good habit or to make you feel good about it at the end. This makes your body more efficient at producing the energy you need because it fools it into thinking that you need it. If you can keep your intensity up, you’ll probably also burn more fat during this workout because your body will pull out all the stops to get you the energy and strength you need.
Think about it. If that old bear walked into your cave that day, do you think your body would just say, “I’m tired, just go ahead and eat me” or do you think it would give you super human strength from anywhere it could to save its ass?
It’s got it to give; you just have to take it. Take it when it doesn’t “want” to give it, and you are training it to be more efficient to your needs and not what it wants. Oh, then get home and give it some nutrient dense food and take an extra hour of sleep that night. We’re stupid about this but we’re not crazy.
Listen to your body part 2 – muscle soreness
Another cue might be that your muscles are sore. We’re not talking a little sore or injury sore, but that soreness that sets in when you do a new exercise that makes it so you dread little things like getting in and out of your car or open a jar for Grandma for the next 4 days. When this happens, listening to your body would say, just don’t do anything to me until I can fully recover!
This approach… Wrong! You can’t sit around and do nothing. Take it as a cue to get back in the gym. I know, now I’m just being sadistic right? Really, what’s happening is that your muscles are all ripped up and they are filled with all sorts of toxins that are kicking your ass.
Yeah, stretching them and maybe foam rolling will do some good but what you really need is to get some oxygen and nutrient rich blood pumping into them so they can heal and flush out all the crap. The trick here is going in at half weights. If you normally bench press 230, you’re doing 115 today. If can’t do half, do less. Just get in there and get something working.
Listen to your body part 3 – outward signs
The last two examples have been sort of counter intuitive. In this one we will take the angle of actually listening to what your body is trying to tell you. Here’s the cue, you’re not fat but you have “man boobs” or for a girl, you have overly fat hips or “thunder thighs”. What does it mean? It means you have too much estrogen and not enough testosterone.
Here’s another, you’re thin but you’ve got belly fat. It means you are insulin resistant. Love handles your problem? These are all specific hormonal issues that can be fixed. Where you store your “problem area fat” tells a story about what is going on in your body. You need to listen and know how to combat it. Some of it is diet and some of it is training.
Did you know that there are different training methods for each type of hormonal issue you could have? For instance, if you have insulin resistance and have a problem with belly fat, there is something called lactic acid training.
The basis of it has you lift the weights slowly and drop the weight quickly and use high reps. If you combine this with the right exercise combinations in the right order and the right set, rep, rest scheme, you’ll melt away that belly fat.
Fat isn’t the only indicator of hormonal issues though. If you’re a guy that is not waking up with morning erections or your sex drive has lowered, this is also your body telling you that you have low testosterone.
Once again, through diet and training style, you can do a lot to change this.