In my years in the gym I’ve noticed a correlation. This correlation has not been subject to rigorous scientific study and has no p value, it’s just my own observation. The correlation, a negative one, is between a person’s apparent degree of fitness, as evidenced by his (or her) leanness and muscularity, and the amount of time he spends on treadmills, stairsteppers, and other cardio machines.
By contrast, most of the really fit-looking people are lifting weights, whether using barbells and dumbbells or on machines.
Is this mere correlation or is there causation involved? It’s possible that it’s just correlation: people who are overweight or otherwise out-of-shape find weightlifting too hard, and stick to the cardio.
Besides that, the belief that cardio (aerobics, endurance exercise) is necessary for both fat loss and cardiovascular health is widespread. However, at least in the case of weight loss, exercise just isn’t going to help much.
But maybe the purported link between spending lots of time doing cardio and apparent lack of fitness is causation.
Lifting weights is difficult. At least that’s how most people find it. If you’re not used to it, picking up even a 25-pound dumbbell feels awfully heavy, much less attempting bench presses or squats. Deadlifts? Forget about it.
In comparison, some of those cardio machines can even be done sitting down.
It’s my belief that both correlation and causation are at play here: people find weghtlifting too difficult, and as a consequence condemn themselves to cardio, as a consequence of which they never get into very good shape; they never lose any fat, which, face it, is the reason most of them are in the gym.
Weight training has been shown to have a dose-response relationship with change in waist size over several years, about twice as high as that for moderate to vigorous aerobic activity. Results like this one can explain my observations concerning doing cardio and being out-of-shape and overweight. The authors of this study conclude, “Substituting 20 min/day of weight training for any other discretionary activity had the strongest inverse association with WC [waist circumference] change… Among various activities, weight training had the strongest association with less WC increase.”
Waist circumference is strongly correlated with percent body fat and insulin resistance.
The lesson here is, if you want to get or stay lean, weightlifting is your best bet.
Some people in my gym have been going at it on the cardio machines the entire time I’ve belonged to this gym, that is, for over 5 years, and their level of body fat doesn’t appear to have changed at all. The cause of the lack of change is not merely due to the type of exercise that they do, weights versus cardio. It’s also because you can’t outrun a bad diet.
People have been brainwashed into believing that exercise is as or even much more important for fat loss as is diet. It’s easy to see why: both the fitness and food industries depend on it. Most people get involved with the multi-billion dollar fitness industry – think gym memberships, supplements, clothes and shoes – because they want to lose fat, and the fitness industry certainly doesn’t want to disabuse anyone of the notion that their products and services will help people lose weight.
The food industry doesn’t want anyone to blame them for their overweight and obesity. Profits depend on it. The food industry’s blaming obesity on lack of exercise instead of their own products has been termed leanwashing.
The fact is, the consensus, one that I agree with, is that diet is a far bigger determinant of body fat than is exercise.
Three doctors who are prominent in the study and treatment of obesity recently wrote an editorial for the British Journal of Sports Medicine: It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet. They note that science has shown little effect of exercise on weight loss, and conclude:
It is time to wind back the harms caused by the junk food industry’s public relations machinery. Let us bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity. You cannot outrun a bad diet.
So all these people in my gym that have seen no change or become even fatter despite years of cardio have probably been victims of the food and fitness industries’ disinformation campaign. Or, of course, they don’t know how to go about dieting. (Low-fat diets are a disaster, but that’s a story for another time.) Or, another possibility, is that they lack the discipline to be on any type of diet.
The correlation that I’ve observed between cardio and being out-of-shape isn’t cut and dried, to be sure. Plenty of men – and they are mostly men who lift weights – haven’t shown a lot of change in their body types either. That’s because they’re going about it the wrong way.
Too many people who lift weights focus on isolation exercises, that is, those exercises that revolve around one joint only and that isolate one muscle for exercise. Biceps curls and triceps pull-downs are examples of isolation exercise. While these exercises will help those isolated muscles to grow, they won’t increase your cardiovascular fitness nor will they help you lose fat or really increase muscle overall.
To get in shape with weights, you should do compound exercises, which are those that revolve around two or more joints. Examples are bench or chest press, pull-downs or pull-ups, rows, squats, shoulder press, and deadlifts. These exercises will leave you breathing hard and with a fast heart rate, and will actually lead to better body composition – more muscle, less fat. (Machines are perfectly fine for doing these, but that’s for another post.)
A couple of other points about effective weightlifting that the masses don’t seem to understand. One is that jerking the weights around is very ineffective; weights should be lifted with good form. This is a very common mistake.
Another is that lifting weights is almost necessarily difficult. Women – and it seems to be mostly women doing this – think they will get in shape by doing triceps extensions with a 5-pound dumbbell. Ain’t gonna happen. And every set should be done to failure; that is, the last rep in a set should be the last rep you can possibly do. If you’re not grunting and groaning – or at least actively stifling your desire to do so – you’re not lifting hard enough.
There is one category of non-weightlifting exercise in which I see some pretty in-shape folks, and that is the sprint cycling class. Now, this could be mere correlation too. It’s a tough exercise regimen, so maybe only lean and fit people do it.
On the other hand, sprint cycling is not a form of cardio – it’s high-intensity training (HIT), which has a much better basis both in theory and in practice for improving cardiovascular fitness and causing fat loss.
Exercise of all kinds promotes health. It’s been said that if exercise were a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed one in the world.
Yet some forms of exercise are far better than others when it comes to maintaining a decent waist size or getting into good cardiovascular shape.
And diet is a necessary component of weight loss, despite what the fitness and food industries tell you. For fat loss, the most important muscles to exercise are the ones that push you away from the dining-room table.
Most people in the gym are not even trying.