Exercise intensity matters more than total calories burned. Men and women, take note.

The article cited (bottom of page) is of great importance and ties in with my discussions about the important role of muscle mass for health and longevity in men and women.

As conventional wisdom dictates, and seems to prevail unfortunately, lots of women avoid heavy lifting, to their disadvantage. Many overweight men are guilty of this as well, chosing instead to trudge away on the eliptical machine for hours a day.

As it turns out, more intense exercise, the type that uses heavy weights and lower reps, or high intensity interval training, actually produces better results in terms of fat loss. It also helps create a “reserve capacity“, that is, heightens your ability to keep that fat from coming back. Your little cheat meals and diet-divergences here and there won’t matter as much, since muscle has a greater capacity to store excess energy in the form of glycogen.

This is often why you see celebrities (Oprah is a prime example) bounce back and forth between fad diet programs. While every few years you see their weight fluctuate. What they were able to lose in fat, they did not build up reserve capacity in muscle, and as soon as they got off the “diet train” (most likely because low-fat high-carb isn’t really sustainable), they become fat again.


This is because these fad diets are usually all some version of the same thing; the high-carb, low-fat standard junk food american diet. And they all advocate lots and lots of boring, grueling cardio, and lots of light weight training with little pink weights. Of course, none of this creates lasting results, not to mention meaningful change to your body composition. Stop listening to the commercial interests, and start listening to common sense.

The Study

This article looked at twenty-seven middle-aged (51+/- 9 yrs) obese women with metabolic syndrome. The subjects underwent either 1) no intervention, 2) low intensity exercise below the lactate threshold, or 3) high intensity exercise above the lactate threshold.

Note: High intensity exercise is characterized by producing pyruvate from anaerobic metabolism more quickly than the mitochondria can use it. Pyruvate builds up and is acted upon by lactate dehydrogenase to produce lactic acid. This places you above the lactate threshold.

The results of the study are very clear. The high intensity group significantly reduced total abdominal fat, abdominal subcutaneous fat, and abdominal visceral fat. There were no changes observed in the non-exercise group or the low intensity group.

Note: The results are correlated with exercise intensity, NOT total calories burned! Each exercise session was controlled to expend the same number of calories, and based on total calories burned, the low intensity group had the “advantage” since they worked out more days per week. Despite this “advantage”, the low intensity group did not lose fat. This is a key concept: when it comes to losing body fat you cannot achieve it by “burning calories” in an attempt to influence the calories in/calories out equation.

Fat will be mobilized by depleting glycogen out of the muscle, creating a need for replenishment via the insulin receptors. As insulin sensitivity improves, serum insulin levels drop and body fat can be mobilized. As this scenario is repeated, triglycerides can be tapped from fat cells to supply energy for high intensity exertion, compounding the fat loss effect.

The subjects weren’t lifting weights, but it doesn’t matter

From a metabolic standpoint, what is important is that the intensity was high enough to exceed the lactate threshold, and that’s what this study was looking at. Our understanding of how to exceed the lactate threshold gives us a number of valuable tools. We can utilize high intensity interval training, like sprints or tabata intervals, to rapidly deplete glycogen and create growth spurts while enhancing aerobic capacity. We can also utilize intense weight lifting to failure with heavy weights, to minimize time in the gym, deplete glycogen, increase numbers of fat-burning mitochondria within the muscle, and increase our “reserve capacity” with great looking lean-mass. If the goal is to look good naked and be healthy for life, these tools should be your mainstay.

Women, take note

This is especially important for you, simply due to the fact that most women have less lean mass than men, your capacity for glycogen storage is at a disadvantage. As a result, your glycogen stores become full much more easily and quickly from sugars and carbohydrates. This makes women much more prone to the throws of metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance. Only high intensity exercise activates the adrenaline cascade that mobilizes huge amounts of glycogen out of the muscle. When you work out hard, by lifting heavy to failure or doing high intensity interval training (HIIT), you are activating the process that empties the muscles of excess glucose, creating a scenario where glucose will have to be replenished within the muscle. This process is controlled by insulin and its receptors. By making room for more glucose in the muscle, you increase the sensitivity of these receptors. Glucose is then less likely to become stored as fat.

None of this matters….

unless you have the proper diet. No amount of training or exercise can undo a poor diet. Anything derived from the seed of plants (grains) is high in rapidly absorbable sugars. Also, seeds of plants contain phytotoxins (lectins, phytic acid, gluten) which help to protect the plant’s reproductive elements from being eaten. These toxins keep animals from reproducing and thriving by disrupting their hormone function. Commercially processed vegetable oils (sunflower, corn, canola, etc) oxidize extremely easily, because of their high polyunsaturated fat content, and cause systemmic inflammation that leads to the disruprion of hormones and body systems, and causes numerous diseases. We may be able to “get by” eating things like this, but it’s definitely not optimal for long term health.

Effect of Exercise Training Intensity on Abdominal Visceral Fat and Body Composition. Irving BA, et al. Published in Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Oct 8.

You might also like to read:

Is high-rep weight training a waste of time?

Thoughts on High Intensity Interval Training

How bad is saturated fat and cholesterol?

Why women should deadlift

Get muscles, burn fat faster


3 thoughts on “Exercise intensity matters more than total calories burned. Men and women, take note.

  1. All the studies are highlighting the fact that these methods are most effective for getting rid of excess body fat yet we still see obesity on the increase. You can’t out train a bad diet maybe an average one. Thanks!.

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