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Enter the fat burning zone

Posted September 30, 2012

Losing fat and getting lean is hard work. The extremes we go to sometimes feels like torture. I have to agree with our 'balanced' friends and families point of view - it looks like complete madness.

Every day we drag our aching and drained bodies out of bed is the dawning of a new battle, gritting our teeth in the gym, sweating it hard on the road. Pushing through new thresholds of pain and physical limitations - meticulously counting every calorie, selecting only foods that are 'green light', controlling the powerful urges that we know will set us back. Yet, when we look in the mirror or step on the body fat scales it's still there, definition hiding fat, stubbornly holding on in an unwavering retalliation against our efforts.

With every adjustment in our diet and increase in training intensity our fat challenges us with more grim determination. Our fat is fighting until the bitter end. The simple reason for this is fat has a function. It provides energy and lots of it, it's our largest fuel source, and the one used most often.

Fat provides our main source of energy for all low intensity activity. Surprisingly, in actual fact we are highly efficient fat burning machines. We are dependant on fat, not just for energy, but for many metabolic processes. The one thing you can bank on for sure is that your body will do everything possible to hold onto it. At all costs.

So why do our bodies need so much fat and how do we really get into the real fat burning zone to dissolve it? In the beginning, before drive throughs and home delivery, food was scarce and there were no guarantees on our next meal. The result of this unpredictable food supply was starvation. For these times of famine, through thousands of years of evolution and adaptation we developed survival mechanisms. Survival was dependant on our ability to store and hold onto fat. The more fat that could be stored was directly related to the time we could survive without food.

Today we're without a doubt spoiled silly. Calorie crammed food is available within seconds or minutes, not days or weeks. Unfortunately our evolutionarily primed bodies will never know this. As far as our inbuilt survival mechanisms go we could be facing starvation tomorrow - and our bodies are armed and ready for this possibility! It's clear that with every attempt at fighting our fat through training and dieting our bodies will resist, hanging on to every gram they possibly can.

So how do we prevail in our fat reducing war? Well to start with you can forget the miracle 'fat burning zone' you've heard about aiming for when exercising. We have been told we'll burn more fat in a moderate workout than in an extreme one. This ridiculous 'take it easy' rambling is even permanantly displayed on many exercise machine consoles which show the holy grail - the fat burning zone.

Too bad it's all wrong, Gina Kolata author of the book 'Ultimate fitness - The quest for truth about exercise and health' tells us. Every exercise physiologist she interviews confirms: The "fat burning zone" is an urban legend that has taken on the trappings of truth. Kolata even located the physiologist who came up with the related notion now immortalized in the charts on gym walls and in medical texts: Your "maximum heart rate" during exercise equals 220 minus your age. To Kolata's astonishment this formula was meant only as a rough guideline - not as the precision measurement used by athletes to gauge their progress with wristwatch heart monitors. "I've kind of laughed about it over the years," Stanford University professor William Haskell told Kolata. "It's typical of Americans to take an idea and extend it way beyond what it was intended for.''

After telling us that moderate exercise is adequate for health purposes but hard is better for performance, she comes to the one area where we've been led to believe that easy is the best approach: fat burning. "Keep your heart rate low, they say, to burn fat," writes Kolata. It defies common sense, it's a misunderstanding, says Kolata, perpetuated by companies that make heart rate monitors and "enshrined" on exercise machines, which feature "weight-loss zones" or "fat-burning zones." It's a myth, she concludes. Calories burned is what counts, and high-intensity exercise burns more calories - and ultimately more fat. "The harder you work, the more energy you expend, and the more calories you will need," Kolata writes.

As she does throughout the book, Kolata turns to recognized experts, in this case Jack Wilmore of Texas A&M and Dave Costill of Ball State. They provide the example of a 25 year old woman who exercises for 30 minutes at low intensity (she walks) one day and burns 220 calories, half fat. The next day she exercises for the same period of time, but at higher intensity, running at a moderate pace, and burns 332 calories, one third fat. "In both cases, she burns about 110 calories of fat during 30 minutes," write Wilmore and Costill in their highly regarded exercise physiology book. "More important, however, for the higher intensity workout, she expends 50 percent more calories for the same time period!"

You won't find any research papers supporting the so called "fat burn zone," says Kolata. It's "an urban legend of the fitness industry."

The most important fact for us to remember is, apart from burning far more calories for the duration of our workouts, high intensity exercise shifts our metabolism into top gear so that even after we've finished working out, fat loss can continue for hours. When you exercise intensely, you get a huge hormonal surge, which causes your body to burn more fat during your recovery time. Your metabolism stays revved up for hours longer after a vigorous workout than after an easy one. Over time, this can add up to burning an additional 200 calories or more per day.

To overcome your genetics, there is only one effective way to fat destruction. You must fire up the metabolic furnace in your own body. We all know lean and athletic people that can eat whatever they want and never have to exercise. The evidence is clear from these fortunate few, having an accelerated metabolism is the solution to achieving low body fat. To lose fat we have to dial our metabolism to the maximum! To increase metabolism we need to train with intensity!

When it comes to cardio exercise, HARDER IS BETTER! Burn maximum calories. Push it so that you can only go for about one minute before you need to slow down - then follow a moderate pace for 1 to 2 minutes before upping the pace once again. For example, push it hard on the bike for 1 minute, then return to a moderate pace for 2 minutes. And then push it again. For up to 20 to 30 minutes like this is long enough for most. At every workout push yourself even harder. Force your body into fat burning so that there is no other option!

Take a look at a competitive sprinter's body. These guys never train in the 'fat burning' zone we've all heard about, yet their bodies exhibit some of the lowest body fat levels of any athletes.These athletes perform high intensity, explosive sprints over and over, which leads to lower and lower bodyfat levels until they achieve the ripped streamlined and power packed physiques we've all seen.

And to lift this intensity even further, weight training exercise is perfect. Focus on the big 'compound' lifts.Yeah that's the hard ones, the ones that hurt - you know the exercises we try to talk ourselves out of. I'm talking about squats, deadlifts, bench presses, shoulder presses, rows and chin ups. Definitely do your isolation exercises, but only after you've totalled yourself with the big compound movements. Attack your muscles every time you workout, tear them apart, this forces your body into a repair state for all that trained muscle - rebuilding muscle costs energy ie calories!

One important point to remember (and don't be convinced otherwise), always perform your weight training BEFORE cardio. This will allow you to lift maximum weights and achieve maximum muscle stress - while at the same time depleting your carbohydate 'tanks' ready for some serious fat burning when you hit your cardio!

Alright, now you know what to to, get out there and push yourself into the true fat burning zone!

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