Improving body composition and increasing muscle mass should go hand in hand. We should stop thinking about weight loss as a goal, rather we should look at decreasing waist size and body fat levels, whilst improving performance. I believe that one of the huge misconceptions about fat loss is that we should just focus on burning more energy and eating fewer calories. Arithmetically, that is the correct way to address the solution, all weight loss comes down to a caloric deficit. However, it is an over simplification of a complex process. Additionally, it is missing a huge piece of the picture, which is the ability of the body to increase its caloric requirements.
For some basic understanding, the next three paragraphs will be a thousand foot view of the human body in relation to operation with regards to calories.
Every body requires a certain amount of calories just to stay alive, i.e., if a person simply lay there and didn’t move a muscle, the body is expending energy, in the form of calories, just to survive. This is for breathing, pumping the heart, digestion, mental tasks and even maintaining our body temperature. The amount of calories each body needs will vary depending on a lot of factors including: age, weight, sex, body composition, daily activity levels and even where they live. Our bodies have evolved to store excess calories that are consumed as fat stores within the body, kind of like a savings account or a rainy day fund in times of famine.
If we simply focus on moving more and eating less, we eventually get to a point where we can’t do more of either. We can only reduce eating by so much and we only have 24 hours in a day to move around. I wouldn’t recommend running daily marathons whilst eating nothing – this is the ultimate end point of progression for the above strategy. If all weight loss took was eating less and moving more, obesity would be less of a problem in society.
Our bodies will adapt to the current levels of whatever we are currently doing and like most organisms, want to be in a state of equilibrium or homeostasis. We will adapt to eating 2,000 calories or 500 calories. We will adapt to running 11 miles every day, over time our bodies adapt. What this means is that to change our bodies, we have to change our actions, if we started running 11 miles every day, albeit a bad strategy, our bodies will eventually adapt to that and will burn fewer and fewer calories. For the sake of argument, simplifying the process, the body becomes efficient at said activity and trends towards homeostasis. Most people’s fat loss journey will involve a plateau, this is due to numerous factors driving the body to stop change. This is why progression is a key role in driving any change we want to create, we must increase or decrease an action passed a level of homeostasis to drive adaptations.
An automobile analogy
The missing piece of the puzzle is the fact that we can change the composition of our bodies and in turn change way in which our body operates and uses energy. I like to use the example of cars, the more efficient a car is further it can travel on a given supply of fuel, this is a good thing for the consumer; lower operating costs and fewer trips to the gas station. Let’s compare two extremes of the spectrum: a Toyota Prius versus a Bugatti Veyron. One is a small efficient everyday driver, whilst the other is a performance based hypercar.
|MPG||58 / 53||7 / 15|
|# of cylinders||4||16|
|Displacement||1.8 L||8 L|
Looking at the numbers, we can see how much energy the Veyron creates, as well as how much fuel it uses. The Veyron’s engine is approximately four times the size of the Pruis’, yet it consumes eight times the amount of gas. This isn’t to say that the Veyron is inefficient, it is a highly engineered and powerful vehicle, it’s purpose is to create the highest energy output and be the one of the fastest cars on the planet, the drawback of this is the high fuel consumption.
If given the same task of traveling 100 miles, given the same road conditions, the Veyron is going to use more fuel than the Prius. Because it has a bigger engine, even in neutral, the engine will use more fuel than the smaller engine. Doing anything, the Veyron is going to burn more fuel than the Prius. More power out, generally means more input is required.
It’s possible to change the composition of the body and subsequently increase the amount of energy required to operate. This is achieved via strength training, the more muscle mass we are able to create and hold on to, the more calories the body requires. Whether we’re sitting still or running up a flight of stairs, having more muscle mass requires more calories to operate. Not only do we have a bigger engine in our bodies, but we also weigh more, which too requires more calories. The benefit for those of us that are carrying extra calories in the form of fat, will mean the body will start to harvest the fat cells to fuel the energy requirements of the body.
The human body has evolved to be as efficient as possible because it was advantageous to be small, lean and efficient. We didn’t know where our next meal was coming from and we also had to hunt food, which often required miles and hours of walking and stalking prey. We didn’t have access to food 24-7. Having muscle mass was very inefficient for the body and evolutionary it wasn’t that helpful, since our main method of hunting required endurance and stamina, there was less of an emphasis on strength – we weren’t fighting mammoths, we were tiring them out. This is why muscle mass is so hard to create and hold on to.
The more muscle mass our body has, the more ‘inefficient’ our body becomes, meaning we burn more calories at all times. The picture should be clear as to how this helps with fat management. If fat is the storage of excess calories consumed, the bigger engine we create in our bodies, the less reserves we will have left over. The down side is that having a lot of muscle mass requires a lot of calories, which means we need to eat a lot. If our inputs don’t match our output requirements, then we simply won’t grow and won’t be able to perform optimally.