How Fat Loss Occurs
You Change From The Inside Out
Article courtesy of Hussman Fitness
From the notes I’ve received from some of you, the most common concern seems to be that your fat loss seems too slow. After starting a serious fitness program including cardiovascular and weight training, nearly everyone feels better and more energetic almost immediately (aside from the perpetual soreness). But even after several weeks, some people do not see a noticeable change in the mirror, so far as fat is concerned. And the scale! You’ve busted your bottom for weeks, and there’s no change! Of course, if you’ve really been half-hearted about following your program, it’s clear why this may happen, but it can also happen when you have honestly been experiencing intensity every day, and have been careful about limiting your portions. I’ve received messages from people literally in tears at the frustration. Kid, the road to Easy Street runs through the sewer. You gotta get tough (words spoken to me at 14 by my calculus teacher, Father Arnold Perham).
Here’s what’s going on. Fat is stored in several places, within the muscle as intramuscular fat (which is why pork is “the other white meat”), around the organs as “visceral fat”, and under the skin as “subcutaneous fat”. If you’re inactive as you get older, the fat starts depositing in the muscles first – the muscle tissue gets “marbelized”. After the intramuscular stores are full, the fat spills over to subcutaneous stores, which are more noticeable. Well, now take that process in reverse. Exercise (and specifically interval training and progressive weight training) tends to draw significantly from the intramuscular stores early on, so instead of seeing a major change in the mirror, you may instead feel your muscles getting firmer and less “mushy”. That’s a good sign. Don’t give up! The subcutaneous fat loss becomes more evident once the intramuscular stores are whittled down a bit.
One of the fears I hear very often comes from women with large thighs and calves. The concern is that weight training will make these even larger. Not true. While it may certainly seem that way occasionally (particularly after you’ve taken creatine, glutamine or extra carbohydrate and are retaining water), the muscles in your thighs and calves are most likely marbelized with fat. Weight training will actually draw from those intramuscular stores, so that the muscles become leaner and more elongated rather than more bulky. Believe me, unless they use anabolic steroids such as human growth hormone or testosterone, women simply do not strap on bulky muscles through weight training.
Second, if you’ve been lifting weights, you’ll also be adding to muscle mass while you lose fat. The muscles become able to store more glycogen, and every gram of glycogen binds itself to several grams of water within the muscle, so a “pumped” muscle is heavier. Regular exercise also increases blood volume. And since protein synthesis typically goes along with increased cell volume (especially if you’re using creatine and glutamine), the scale will be an awful measure of the improvements that are going on metabolically. It’s ironic – cell volume, blood volume – exactly the things that will be helping you to get fit, can be the things that initially make you think you’re making no progress. Fat calipers are a better measure of progress, but even here, if you vary your pinching technique a little bit, you can get inaccurate readings on a day to day basis. Believe me, you’re going to have nights when you look in the mirror and say “all this work, and I look the same”, and mornings when you just can’t believe the improvement. Don’t base your enthusiasm about your fitness program on either of those short-term impressions. Do try to troubleshoot by periodically reviewing your diet, intensity, and variety, but stick with it!
For most people, the initial drop in the scale will probably understate your fat loss in the first few weeks. For very overweight people, the drop on the scale will probably exceed your fat loss. That’s particularly true if your diet was very high in carbohydrate before you started. In very overweight individuals, even the increased muscle cell and blood volume is typically less than the initial loss in water weight. A lot of people seem to think that water loss is not “real” weight loss. Well, if your fat level stays the same, that’s true. But your body’s water retention is largely determined by its fat content. So if you lose the fat, the water stays off as well!
Because of these significant differences in fluid-volume changes, some people will notice immediate changes, while others (and I would expect, most) will see only limited changes for the first 5 weeks or so. That seems like an awfully long time to wait, but remember, fat doesn’t “spot reduce” – it comes off in sheets, like an onion. That’s why you can estimate your overall bodyfat levels just by measuring at one or two sites. Fat isn’t so exquisitely distributed that those estimates are exact, so if you’re doing bodyfat readings at just one or two sites, your figures can jump and stall from time to time. The upper body (shoulders, chest, upper abdominal area) generally shows improvement first. But expect that the areas you’ve always thought were “too fat” will still look too fat for a while, even though you feel good, look “healthier”, and can gradually measure that your fat percentage is going down.
There’s so much pressure to see quick results that it’s easy to forget the point of this, which is quite frankly to save your life. Don’t ignore increases in strength and overall feeling of health and well-being. Those are goals too.
If you were able to look inside of your cells and see your “good” enzymes increasing, your energy-producing mitochondria multiplying, your cholesterol falling, your arteries clearing, your blood vessels becoming more efficient, your muscles strengthening, your bone-density improving, and all of the remarkable changes that this program triggers, it would be clear that the scale and calipers are just insufficient ways of measuring success. As these internal changes become significant, your external progress accelerates. Some people just start out needing more internal changes than others, because of their prior lifestyle, long-term yo-yo dieting, and other factors. Please understand that if you’re following the daily intensity and carefully limiting your portions, the progress is happening, whether it’s obvious or not. I’ve just seen too many individual cases to think any different.
So don’t force the numbers. They’ll come. Here is your job today: adhere to a winning pattern of action that you know will produce results if you follow it consistently. That’s all. And if you do that today, congratulate yourself as a winner. If instead, you insist on measuring your success by whether or not the scale or caliper show progress today, you’re creating a game you can lose. In Steven Covey’s words, you’re putting yourself in the position of trying to manage consequences rather than actions. You’ll never get a reliable sense of confidence that way. Look, you’re following a program that works. Do troubleshoot. Do review your workouts, food choices, portion sizes, and meal plans. But make every day a game you can win.
Lastly, if you’ve been sedentary for a long time, your fat probably hasn’t seen an ounce of circulation since high school. This causes your fat to turn thick and hard, or “blubbery” (yes, Scrabble fans, that is a word). Marine animals have this sort of fat deposit, called a “blubber lay”. When you start working out consistently, some of you may find that your fat or cellulite becomes more like Jell-O initially. In whales (forgive me – this is not personal), increased activity also forces a change in circulation strategy so that there is increased blood flow near the body’s surface. I suspect that this occurs in humans as well, so you may be a little “pink” for even hours after a good workout.