Q: I’ve heard you mention that you don’t need tons of cardio to burn stubborn abdominal fat. Okay, I can live with that, but you’ve also said that it isn’t absolutely necessary to perform direct ab work either. What gives?
A: If you want to build a serious set of abdominals, routinely perform the following exercises and their variations: squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, and standing military presses. These multi-joint movements require a strong contribution from the abdominals to stabilize the core, particularly when heavy loads are used. It is not uncommon to hear clients complain of abdominal soreness a day or two after performing multiple sets with a decent weight of the chin-up or standing military press exercise – the ab prestretch will tap into fibers you never thought existed! And remember, your abdominals act as a natural girdle, or weight belt if you will, when performing all exercises, particularly squats and deadlifts. These muscles act as a bridge between your upper and lower body and are heavily recruited as stabilizers.
Sure, isolation exercises like pullovers, curls, and even triceps pressdowns also require a good degree of core stability; however, the loads used are relatively low compared to the big 4 mentioned above. In fact, according to Siff & Verkhoshansky, isolation becomes virtually impossible if large loads are used, and in many cases, the tension developed in the stabilizers will equal or even exceed that of the prime movers!* So, you see, the abdominals can be trained quite effectively as stabilizers – the physiques of top Olympic weightlifters will attest to that.
*Siff, MC, Verkhoshansky, YV. “Supertraining (4th Edition).” Denver, CO: Supertraining International, 1999. (pg. 241)
Q: I am still very much confused regarding cardio intensity. One book says keep it low intensity (i.e. 60% of MHR) and go for distance; another keep it high intensity (80% or more) and go for as long and hard as you can. The goal is to burn fat. Each book has great arguments for their approach. Which is accurate?
A: The second approach is far more effective for burning fat. Without getting into a huge discussion about this, here’s how things work in a nutshell.
At a lower intensity, your body prefers fat for fuel. Yes, this is true, but two things generally happen:
1. After awhile of doing this type of activity, your body adapts by actually laying down fat (you heard me right) to become more efficient at the given task and this usually occurs in the lower body, and
2. A higher relative amount of fat is burned during low intensity cardio but a greater absolute amount is burned with higher intensity cardio and in less time.
Other things to consider are: a) the EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) is greater for a longer duration following higher intensity work; in other words, you’re metabolism is much higher for a longer period of time post-workout with high intensity cardio, and b) higher lactate levels exist with high intensity cardio. So what you may ask? Well there is a direct correlation with lactate and GH (Growth Hormone) and GH is a potent fat-burner.
Bottom line: with regards to burning fat, do higher intensity work in the form of interval training and you’ll get great results.