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What Worked When Low Calories And More Cardio Didn’t Work

Have you ever found yourself completely stuck with not seeing fat loss even though you ramped up additional cardio and stayed strict to a low-calorie diet?

If so you’re far from being alone.

While it may seem to defy logic that more calorie burning from additional cardiovascular exercise wouldn’t lead to increased fat loss, you may be surprised.

The idea that “more is better” when it comes to calorie cutting and cardio isn’t always true, and I’ve got a perfect example to share with you today that demonstrates it.

I’m going to share with you an actual account from a client of mine that experienced a frustrating plateau when she elected to increase cardio in attempts to speed up fat loss. As not to reveal the identity of my client and we’ll just refer to her as “Annie” from here on out.

You may be able to relate her story as there are a lot of “Annie’s” out there trying to painstakingly grind their way to a better body with little food and lots of exercise. You guys pay attention to this as well since the same thing can happen to you, although females tend to bog down the most from this practice.

Annie’s story, the backdrop…

Annie, as we’ll call her, came to me for coaching in attempts to lose some excess body fat and tone up. She’s a perfect example of a woman in her late forties who’s by no means “overweight,” but would like to see a flat stomach and a more toned physique.

Like a lot of women over forty she simply started noticing a change in her body over the years that she wasn’t happy about.

I think it’s important to reiterate that we’re not talking about an individual with a significant amount of body fat to lose in the first place.

This is an important detail because the closer one is to their ideal body weight, the less likely it is that really low calories and lots of cardio will work very effectively.

We all know of someone who lost a lot of weight, 30, 50, 100 pounds or more by drastically cutting calories and exercising vigorously. There’s no denying this can work, but understand there are distinct metabolic differences between someone with an extra 30-50 lbs of fat or more to lose and someone with 10-20 lbs or less.

I’m not going to go into all the details on these differences in this post, but let me just say for now that the more weight someone has to lose the more leeway they have with calorie restriction and doing lots of exercise.

You see there’s always going to be some degree of metabolic down-regulation that occurs any time there’s prolonged caloric restriction or excessive expenditure with exercise. The difference is with someone who’s really overweight, their rate of fat loss is faster than the rate of metabolism down-regulation.

The opposite can be true when someone closer to their ideal body weight tries to use the same strategy.

Ok, let’s get back to “Annie’s” story.

So Annie, started training with me 2 x week doing burst training resistance workouts and also completing a couple of strength training workouts on her own. So we’ve got 3-4 x per week with resistance training, more than enough to promote lean muscle development and fat loss with the right supportive nutrition.

I had her complete a resting metabolic rate assessment and created a nutrition strategy to meet her unique caloric requirements.

Progress was made early on and then fat loss was stopped cold.

After talking with Annie and reviewing her food journals, here’s what I found…

She was regularly eating under the calorie range we initially established after her metabolic profile assessment and had started to do some additional fitness classes during the week.

The rationale was simple enough, eat less and exercise more, that’s got to be better right?

We’ll the numbers from her InBody body composition assessment told a different story.

For the record, I think that body composition assessments are one of the most valuable tools at a coach’s disposal. Regardless of the current belief system the individual has regarding what “should” work, the numbers don’t lie.

Bottom line, eating less and exercising more wasn’t working.

We had a heart to heart talk and I explained to her why it wasn’t working. That her body had adjusted to the increased restriction/expenditure and responded in the only way it knew how. To preserve life, conserve energy, avoid starvation.

In short, down-regulate metabolism, decrease thyroid production, lower body temperature, and hold on to body fat reserves.

The following was my exact suggestion that I provided her…Exercise less and eat more!

What are you nuts? This is somehow going to trigger the body to start burning fat again? Yep, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

I told her to cut out the cardio classes and just focus on her resistance training ONLY. Not that cardio can’t be effective for fat loss, it most certainly is, but when there’s metabolic slowdown the first thing I throw out is the cardio.

Secondly, I wanted her to slowly begin increasing calorie consumption, in particular focusing on eating more protein and starch carbohydrates with post-workout meals.

I won’t get into all the details on the numbers and specifics, but as you can probably imagine there was some initial doubt on Annie’s part all this would work.

Well I’ll let you see for yourself. There are two screen captures below of the actual InBody body composition reports that were completed almost exactly one month apart.

The first one is from when my client was doing the extra cardio classes and keeping calories and carbs low. The second one is a month later after discontinuing the cardio, focusing on resistance training, and eating more calories and carbs.

Date: 2-27-14
Weight: 139.6
Lean Body Mass: 101.4
Body Fat Mass: 38.11
Total Body Water: 74.5

Date: 3-25-14
Weight: 139.6
Lean Body Mass: 105.6
Body Fat Mass: 34.1
Total Body Water: 77.6

One thing you’ll notice right off the bat is that the scale weight is EXACTLY the same. If the only thing she had to go off of was the scale, she would’ve assumed nothing was different. This is one of the reasons why I believe your bathroom scale should be thrown in the trash. Let’s not get me started on that rant.

Now let’s look a little closer, although the scale weight was exactly the same, she had lost over 4 lbs of body fat from the previous month! That’s about a pound a week, which I’ll take any day for someone with less than 20 lbs to lose.

Lean body mass was up, albeit a large portion of that was coming from short-term water retention occurring during the time of the assessment, but none-the-less she wasn’t losing lean muscle, she was adding it.

So we’ve got some lean muscle development and body fat loss all from doing the following:

  • Eating slightly more calories and carbs
  • Hitting the weights hard, but ditching the cardio

What’s the explanation for why this worked? It’s pretty simple actually. By decreasing the amount of cardio, she was in essence reducing the amount of caloric deficiency. The slightly higher calories and carbs in her diet worked to reset hormonal balances and ramp back up metabolism.

By focusing on the resistance training, which I’ll say it again for the thousandth time…this is the most beneficial type of exercise a woman over forty can do to change her shape, my client started to tap into body fat stores while building lean muscle.

The big take-a-way lesson in all of this is that, yes while calorie and carb cutting with lots of exercise may work for periods of time, it’s not for everyone. The closer you are to your ideal shape, the more you’re going to want to focus on feeding the muscle and supporting metabolism.

You simply can’t be afraid of eating more and bumping up carbs when fat loss comes to a standstill. This may be exactly what you need to break out of a plateau.

If you’ve found yourself stuck in a plateau like this I’m here to help. I’ve got several coaching options available, including remote diet coaching for those outside of the Charleston area. Don’t hesitate to let me know if I can be of assistance.

On a final note, just remember the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. A supportive nutrition diet and physical activity is paramount to fat loss and body composition changes, but your unique needs will change over time.

When a particular approach is no longer working, you’ve got to switch things up. Best wishes and talk soon. – S

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He specializes in body transformation coaching for middle age adults. Learn more and then sign up for a free no-obligations consultation.

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