Have you ever stepped onto a piece of cardio equipment at a health club or gym and seen the chart with the “Heart Rate Training Zones” displayed right in front of you? Remember the old Fat Burning Zone, The Weight Control Zone, The Aerobic Zone, and The Anaerobic Zone? You won’t see these charts on quite as many machines today, but not too long ago they were on just about every machine in cardio rooms around the world, from treadmills to stair climbers to recumbents to ellipticals—you name it; these zones were in your face.
The big issue with these charts was not so much the charts themselves—although there were problems with them—but that we weren’t using them correctly.
Two Misunderstandings About The Zones
One common angle fitness experts take to refute the benefits of training in the Fat Burning Zone, i.e. less than 70% of your maximum heart rate, is that you won’t burn the same amount of calories during your exercise session as you do when you train in moderate-to-high zones. Okay, true enough. And that would matter—if your fitness philosophy is primarily concerned with the amount of calories you burn per session.
But at Skyterra, that’s actually last on our list.
The second angle fitness experts take to refute the benefits of training in low-intensity zones is that you receive less of an EPOC (exercise post oxygen consumption) effect. EPOC basically means your body keeps burning calories for hours after your workout, which doesn’t really happen as much when you train at lower intensities. This is why many people see incredible results when they implement the HIIT (high intensity interval training) approach. We won’t debate that, either. HIIT works—but there’s more to the story.
Hidden Factors in Fat Loss
The fact of the matter is that most people don’t do well-designed HIIT programs, and they still—mistakenly—consider exercise to be at least 50% responsible for their fat and weight loss. When I say mistakenly, I mean this is far from the truth. You have to look at each person on a case-by-case basis. If someone is hormonally balanced (read: good at burning fat) then their intensity levels are entirely different than someone who has hormonal imbalances. Each person needs to prioritize different intensities for maximum effect. How you create an individualized exercise prescription begins with a detailed foreknowledge of your sleep habits, stress levels, and current hormonal profile.
Here’s the secret on how, why, and when to set up low intensity workouts.
Aerobic Workouts and The Fasted State
The number one goal with any exercise protocol should be to maintain or develop muscle mass. At the end of the day, sixty to sixty-five percent of energy burned (calories) over the long term is a result of your lean body mass. Simply put, muscle burns more than fat.
The next step is managing hormonal balance and making sure your intensity levels are not working against you. Many people who struggle with weight live in a carbohydrate-dependent, stressed out state. When they’re at risk like that, the intensity levels they choose for exercise can be counter-productive and end up doing more harm than good. Consider a busy mom of three who works 50-60 hours a week at a stressful job. Do you think moderate to high intensity levels of exercise would be the best fit for her lifestyle and circumstances?
Let’s quickly define what I mean by fasted state: I mean, simply, performing cardio on an empty stomach. By exercising occasionally in a lower heart rate zone while you’re in a fasted state, you teach your body to tap into fat for fuel without raising levels of your primary stress hormone, cortisol. When cortisol levels are raised, testosterone drops, which inhibits muscle building and repair. Remember: muscle development is going to be the biggest driver in reaching your goal in becoming an efficient, fat-burning machine.
What you need to know about HIIT is all in what’s called the Pareto Principle: roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This means you shouldn’t be working out at moderate to high intensities all of the time. There are certainly huge benefits to be reaped in these zones, but don’t make the mistake of believing that since some is good, more is better.
Cough, cough, whole grains? But I digress. Back to the topic.
How does the whole fasted state thing work? Essentially, it teaches your body to use its own stores of fat as fuel. It does not deplete your glycogen stores and it puts less overall stress on your body, which means it doesn’t trigger a stress response by your sympathetic nervous system. Here’s an interesting fact: no matter how lean you are, you have enough fat on your body right now to provide the fuel to run more than twenty marathons. That’s why you can go so long without food. And it’s another reason why consuming six meals a day is completely nuts. If anyone advises this, don’t listen to them.
To perform a proper fasted aerobic workout you need to know what your Fat Burning Zone is, and establish your maximum heart rate for that zone. The simplest way to do it is using the MAF formula: subtract your age from the number 180, and there you are. That’s it. That number is a good working estimate of the highest BPM (heart beats per minute) you should maintain during your aerobic exercise session. There are many more advanced ways of determining your optimal Fat Burning Zone, such as testing your blood lactate, your VO2 max, or even conducting a field test where you perform a 20-minute heart rate test at sustained intensity. Fortunately, you don’t have to do all that, and you don’t have to go overboard with the numbers and get all technical. Simply monitor your breathing and understand your personal aerobic threshold is a state where you feel like you’re working, but it’s not too strenuous. Taking walk or going for a light spin on the bike works just fine for this type of workout.
- Stop eating 2 hours prior to bed time.
- Wake up and perform 20 – 60 minutes of aerobic exercise at an intensity under your personal aerobic threshold.
- Coffee or tea is okay to have beforehand, and helps to oxidize just a few extra fatty acids to fuel your session.
- For muscle recovery and rebuilding purposes, eat breakfast within 60 minutes after you finish.
- Complete up to 3 of these fasted workouts per week.
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The Perfect Health Diet, By: Paul Jaminet
Beyond Training, By: Ben Greenfield
How to Maximize Your Workout for Fat Loss
The Pareto Principle