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Skinny Without Willpower

Monday, May 4, 2009

Building Muscle for Fat Loss

Since building muscle is an efficient way to lose fat, boost your metabolism and get healthy, in this article I'll focus on how to quickly build muscle and get a toned, firm body. The basic principle to understand in building muscle is that the muscle becomes stronger by progressive resistance thereby increasing in size. There are two main phases in building muscle:

1) The breakdown phase: When one exercises to failure the muscle cells involved get torn down on a microscopic level. The muscle cells have a certain threshold pressure (force/unit area) they can withstand without breaking down. As the muscle cell fatigues that pressure tolerance drops and once the pressure goes past a certain point the cell gets ruptured and further work is not possible. This is what happens on a cellular level when you go to muscle failure.

2) Recuperation or muscle hypertrophy phase: during the recuperation phase the body metabolizes proteins and other vital nutrients into the muscle cell in order to repair it. As a result of this the cell grows thicker to prepare itself for the next assault. In other words the cell adapts to the stress placed on it. Since the cell can only withstand a certain fixed pressure across the cross-section, the cell increases in cross-sectional area in order to maintain a constant pressure during the higher load.

As the muscle grows in volume it increases its glycogen storage capacity and the more glycogen the muscles can store the lower the chances of blood glucose getting converted to fat. And as glycogen is the primary energy source for the body, the more you have the better your energy levels will be. So it’s a win-win situation no matter how you look at it. Higher basal metabolism, less fat storage, better energy levels and a firm, toned body, what more could you want (apart from winning the Power Ball lotto, of course!).

So the basic idea of building muscle is to keep increasing the force across the cells (progressive resistance) so as to cause muscle breakdown and then provide the basic building nutrients to help build the muscle stronger and thicker so it can adapt to the higher stresses. This principle can be carried to any extent subject to certain limitations based on genetics, diet and overall fitness level. There is the story of a young Greek boy who carried a calf a certain distance, everyday. Over the years as the calf grew in size so did his strength. That’s the principle of progressive resistance! But remember it’s a slow process so perseverance is the key.

Here is a basic beginner’s routine that should benefit all beginners and help them build a good basic foundation for adding muscle. Also note that following this routine as a weight loss program might initially prove counter productive as you might see an increase in body weight from the gained muscle. As you build muscle the basal metabolic rate will go up and at some point the fat burned during and after the workout will out weigh the muscle gained. At that point you will see a steady drop in weight. Also the goal of any good fitness program shouldn't be weight loss but instead, fat loss. Weight gain is good, but only if its muscle gain and not fat gain.

There are two broadly classified movements in weight/resistance training:

1) Compound body movements: moves that involve multi-joints, like squats (hips, knees, back), bench press (shoulders, elbows), dead lift (knees, back, hips).

2) Isolation movements: moves that involve only one joint, like bicep curls (elbows), machine leg-extensions (knees), crunches (abs).

As a beginner, one should focus solely on compound movements involving body weight or free weights. And as a matter of fact unless you aspire to become a body-builder you should work solely on compound movements as they give you the most overall fitness and the most bang for your buck, so to speak. The reason being that compound movements tax your entire muscular system due to the many muscle groups involved. This results in maximum fat burned. Also research has shown that the larger the muscle group worked the greater the amount of testosterone and growth hormone produced in the body which are the two most important hormones for muscle gain and general well being. A woman’s body also produces small amounts of testosterone (even without exercise) that would benefit gaining small amounts of muscle, but it won’t be enough to turn them into the Incredible Hulk. So all the women out there rest easy because moderate (or even intense) resistance training won’t turn you into Arnold Schwarzenegger! Women would also benefit from this routine as they will burn fat and achieve a firmer, more toned body.

For the first three months you would resistance train 3 non-consecutive days of the week. Following a total body workout that would consist of 3 basic exercises.

1) Squats or lunges: 3 sets of 15 repetitions each.
2) Pushups: 3 sets of 15 reps each.
3) Pull ups or bent over rows: 3 sets of 15 reps each.

Now I’ll go into the details of all three exercises:

Squats: I personally like squats (with a weighted barbell) the best, as they hit the biggest muscle groups in your body; the legs, gluteus (buns), lower back and abs (together referred to as the ‘core’). No other exercise hits so much muscle in one compound movement. Some like the leg press better as it takes off the stress from your lower back. Start off with body weight squats. Keep your arms straight out to the front or across your chest and maintain a straight back at all times. Go down low enough such that your upper legs break parallel and your hips go just below your knees. Do 3 sets of 15 repetitions with 2 minute interval between sets. If you think squats are easy try doing three sets to failure with a 1-2 minute rest between sets. See how much out of breath you get. It is as good as or better than any aerobic exercise in terms of intensity and building cardiovascular capacity. A good demo of bodyweight squat can be found here:

For women (and even men) substituting the squat for the walking lunges is a good alternative for firming and strengthening the upper leg and buns. Here is a demo of this exercise:

Do this to failure for three sets instead of squats.

Take a 3 min rest and move on to the next exercise, push ups.

Pushups: The pushups hit the chest, shoulders, triceps (the back of your arms) and part of your upper back. Here is a good demo of the various forms of push ups.

If you are unable to do push ups with your hands and feet on the ground you can rest on your knees or even elevate your upper body on a platform or a wall so that it makes it easier. Here is a good video of how one can gradually build strength doing push-ups.

In any doable form do three sets of 15 repetitions each with 2 min rest interval between sets. Pushups are a great way to tone your upper front body along with the back of your arms. Take a 3 min rest and move on to the next exercise: the pull up or bent over row.

Pull up or bent over row: This exercise hits the upper back muscles that give you the “V-shape” taper and if developed properly will make your waist look smaller. It also improves your posture. It also hits the biceps (the front of your arms). Here is a demo of the standard pull up.

The pull up is quite a tough exercise especially for the beginner and not all of us have access to a pull up bar. So a good alternative is the bent over row with dumbbells. Maintain a straight back with legs slightly bent and arms at a 45 degree angle to the sides of your body and make sure you get the weight to your abdomen level as shown in the demo below.

Even though this illustration shows it being done with a pair of dumbbells you can substitute with a weighted medicine ball or anything that is heavy enough for you to grab and do 15 repetitions, like a 10 lb bag of potatoes or a few heavy books (don’t throw away those Yellow Pages!) . Do 3 sets of 15 repetitions each with a 2 min rest interval between sets.

This routine hits all the major muscle groups of your body and the whole workout shouldn’t take more than 30-35 minutes. Follow this routine 3 days a week for 3 months. During this time also pay close attention to your diet as training is only half the equation. The other half comes from sensible eating. Eat about 0.5 gram/lb of bodyweight, of high quality protein (from soy, lean meats, low fat dairy and lentils) along with low GI carbs (from whole grains and fruits) and watch yourself transform into a firmer, leaner, fitter you. After three months you can continue to increase repetitions to failure or if you are ambitious and want to build more muscle, go on to working with free weights. More on that later. Also if you are just trying to gain muscle then minimize cardio exercises and if you are trying to lose additional fat then do two days of cardio in between the resistance training. Until next time happy training….

1 comment:

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