In the first part of this series on female fat loss and the female metabolism, we went into many of the ways in which the female metabolism differs from the male metabolism. It's important to read that article so that you can fully grasp this article. Click here to read The Ultimate Guide To The Female Metabolism.
We are going to start with the female fat loss workout plan because most people get this part all wrong and because how you workout will impact how and what you should eat. In our experience working with clients, many women follow a workout approach that is misaligned with how their body and chemistry works, the result is they actually do harm to their metabolism.
It's vital that we get the workout right so that it's easier to stick to the female fat loss diet that we're going to discuss next!
You see, if the workout is wrong and you activate the compulsion engine, which we'll cover in a bit, it's going to be almost impossible to stick to a healthy diet, especially if you're in a state of estrogen deficiency.
Before we get into what's going on and how to fix the problem I want to recommend a turnkey workout program for the busy folks who don't have time to read this whole article...
I'm Busy - Just Tell Me What To Do
If you're the type who doesn't care about what's happening in your body and you just want to jump into action, let me recommend a workout (and dietary program) by a colleague and hormone-genius, Dr. Jade Teta. If you just want to jump into action, he has built a program called Metabolic Renewal specifically for women and it follows his unique approach to metabolic resistance training to trigger the right hormonal environment to promote weight loss and muscle strength using rest-pause training. (Warning: Look past the infomercial-like sales letter - it's truly a great program)
The Compensatory Engine Explained
We covered the compensatory engine in the previous article, we also call this the "compulsion engine" because when it's activated by your lifestyle, you become almost compulsive around food...you are literally compelled to eat more and move less.
To review, your brain has a conscious and subconscious system. The conscious brain, i.e. the thinking brain, is the part of your mind that you're aware of when you are awake and thinking a thought. This is the part that says, "I want to lose weight." The conscious brain is the part that allows you to "white-knuckle" your way through an environment full of tasty treats and not act on your primal desire to eat ever morsel of food in your visual field...at least temporarily.
The subconscious part of the bran never sleeps (unlike the conscious brain) and works "beneath the radar" to keep you safe and well-fed. This is where the compensatory engine lives...
When your subconscious brain registers an abrupt and significant drop in calorie consumption and/or calorie burn, it activates the compensatory engine to "compensate" for that loss in fuel by making you hungry, stimulating cravings, or by decreasing energy and motivation to move.
When there's an abrupt drop in calories, whether through exercise or dieting, the compensatory engine gets to work to "compensate" for that loss in fuel by making you hungry, stimulating cravings, or may decreasing energyClick to tweet
Women are much more sensitive to the compensatory engine compared to men!
When you starve yourself (i.e. diet) and/or run on a treadmill for 1-2 hours a night (believe it or not, A LOT of our readers and listeners are doing this) you are sending this compensatory mechanism into OVERDRIVE!
As women cross the 40 year-old threshold, the compensatory engine worsens due to the consequences of lower estrogen levels. Once you cross into menopause, forget about it...starving yourself and doing tons of cardio can stop fat loss in its tracks and even kick fat storage into overdrive!
Just Because You're In A Calorie Deficit Doesn't Mean You're Burning Fat
This is a very, very important concept to get...
Just because you've managed to maintain a calorie deficit does not guarantee that you're going to burn fat for energy. That energy can come from alternative sources such as glycogen and muscle.
Furthermore, the higher the cortisol levels in the body, and the lower the estrogen, the more energy will come from "alternative" sources such as glycogen and muscle.
Knowing this can dramatically shift how we need to exercise in order to burn fat in your body based on where your hormone levels fall. When you have higher estrogen, such as before the age of forty, cardio may be more beneficial to weight loss because estrogen buffers the effects of cortisol, the body burns fat more easily, mitochondria are healthier, you have more muscle mass, and insulin sensitivity is high.
As we age, and hormone levels shift, excess cardio works against your weight loss goals because it raises cortisol, increases muscle catabolism, has a modest effect on insulin sensitivity (which is not nearly as strong as in younger years), and has little benefit to growth hormone levels.
In essence, your body is in an "alarmed" state that shunts calorie burn from fat to your muscle and sugar...
As your body move from fat to sugar, it can lead to wild swings in blood sugar. The swings in blood sugar can go on to promote cravings and hunger that counteract the calorie deficit and you get the yoyo effect made worse by your choice of exercise.
So, let's talk about the female fat loss workout plan...
Female Fat Loss Workout Plan Upgrade #1: Fall In Love With Walking Again
Women burn more calories from fat from walking than men. In fact, women burn 79% of calories from fat compared to men's unimpressive 59%. Sure, this percentage drops some as estrogen levels drop with age, but the fact remains the female metabolism loves walking.
Walking has fallen out of vogue because we live in a calorie-centric world that is more interested in how many total calories you are burning without addressing where those calories are coming from (muscle or fat) and whether or not the compensatory engine will be activated to restore those calories once you burn them.
Walking is an "under-the-radar" form of activity that does not appear to activate the compensatory engine.
"But". you may be thinking, "walking doesn't burn a lot of calories."
You'd be right, and THAT is what makes it such a powerful exercise in women who are sensitive to the compensatory mechanisms that work at the subconscious level to keep us fat...
By not burning lots of calories, the compensatory engine doesn't get activated and you don't get hunger, cravings, and fatigue that can become side effects from steady-state aerobic exercise.
As a side benefit, walking, especially in nature, helps to lower cortisol. Lowering cortisol is one half of the belly fat equation.
Walking, as it turns out, is also one of the most effective ways to improve insulin sensitivity with as little as 15 minutes a day (especially after dinner) having a significant effect on insulin sensitivity.
The bottom line is walking IS an effective fat-burning activity and there doesn't appear to be a maximum effective dose. The more the better.
The same cannot be said for steady-state cardio like running, jogging, cycling, rowing, etc. There does appear to be a maximum effective dose. Once you cross that maximum effective dose, benefits are diminished and harm can be done to the metabolism for reasons we've already discussed.
As much of a fan of walking as I am, it's not enough...
We need to build on the foundation of walking, which brings us to the next female fat loss workout plan upgrade...
Female Fat Loss Upgrade #2: Metabolic Resistance Training
There is NO DOUBT that resistance training is a vitally important part of the female fat loss workout plan. Don't even try to debate me on this one...
Without resistance training, the female metabolism is DOOMED. How's that for dramatic...
Without resistance training, you will lose up to 5% of your muscle mass every decade after thirty. (WebMD)
There are two types of resistance training that we'll discuss, "conventional resistance training" and "metabolic resistance training".
Conventional resistance training is when you life weights, usually heavier weights, you do a certain number of reps and then you rest for 60-120 seconds and you repeat for 2-4 sets and then move on to the next exercise. This is standard weight lifting designed to make you stronger and build muscle.
Conventional resistance training is important, but we'll talk about that a bit later.
In this upgrade, we'll discuss metabolic resistance training, such as the Metabolic Renewal program I recommended in the start of this article. I am a huge fan of this program, especially for women in the first couple of stages of weight loss.
Metabolic resistance training focuses on lifting weight and bodyweight exercises with little to no rest between sets. These short rests between sets triggers a "hormonal event" that is VERY complementary to the female metabolism...especially the over-forty metabolism.
The goal with conventional resistance training is muscle growth and strength (not fat loss) - the goal with metabolic resistance training is some muscle growth with LOTS of fat loss!
Dr. Jade Teta, in the Metabolic Renewal Program, uses a technique called Rest-Pause Training to trigger the metabolic effects needed to trigger fat burn and muscle growth in the female metabolism.
With conventional resistance training the primary goal is strength and muscle growth, fat burn is a welcome albeit mild to moderate side effect. With metabolic resistance training the primary goal is fat burn while the muscle strength and growth is the mild to moderate welcome side benefit.
Metabolic resistance training sessions are usually MUCH shorter than conventional programs because they're like a blend of weight training and HIIT. They're very high-intensity and thus far shorter in length. This is great for people with little time for exercise.
...because metabolic resistance training sessions are short and intense, they don't burn tons of calories during the workout and are less likely to activate the compensatory engine. A lot of the calorie burn happens in the 36 hours AFTER the workout.
Additionally, few workouts rejuvenate your mitochondria like MRT! That's a very good thing for your metabolism and health!
Next let's talk about the next female fat loss workout plan upgrade, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)...
Female Fat Loss Workout Upgrade #3 - High-Intensity Interval Training
I know that I beat up hard on cardio earlier, don't worry, we'll make amends with cardio a bit later, but let's talk about cardio's super-hot, quarterback, straight-A honor-roll-inducted big brother...HIIT.
Replacing most of your steady-state cardio with 1-3 sessions of HIIT will go a long way to give you more time back in your busy life all while burning more fat!
The research is unequivocal on this one...HIIT wins out every time. Ok, maybe that's a bit too dramatic and not ENTIRELY accurate...but for the most part it's true.
High-intensity interval training involves short but ridiculously intense session of hard sprints of activity alternated with slow, steady recoveries. A classic example of HIIT is sprinting as hard as you can for 30 seconds followed by 60-90 seconds of walking recovery.
Don't get too caught up in the specifics, there are MANY different ways to do HIIT. As long as the sessions are short (always less than 30 minutes and often less than 20 minutes) and uncomfortably intense during the active phase (think..."I want to die") then you've got yourself a HIIT.
Due to the short sessions, you get all of the hormonal benefits that we're after from exercise without activating the compensatory mechanisms that yoyo us back to fat. Why? Simply because HIIT sessions are too short to burn a lot of calories. Most of the caloric burn associated with HIIT comes in the 24-48 hours after the workout when your body burns more calories from the metabolic after-burn.
If we understand that the after-burn is more important than the exercise burn we start to see exercise through different lenses. When we burn lots of fat through steady state cardio, what do you think the body wants to do in the 48 hours AFTER the workout? Restore the fat that was burned away. Compensatory engine anyone?
If, however, we do short intense activity and burn lots of sugar in the process (at high intensities your body preferentially burns sugar), what do you think the body wants to do in the 24-48 hours after that intense workout? It wants to restore the SUGAR! If it's restoring the sugar, what is it burning to fuel the body? You guessed it, FAT!
Your body burns the opposite fuel that you use during exercise in the 24-48 hours after the workout ends. Think about the paradigm shift in that statement.
We had it all wrong in the 90s and early 2000s when we were pushing the "fat-burning zone" during exercise. We don't want to exercise in the fat-burning zone, because then our metabolism become great at storing fat for 48 hours (or longer) after the workout. During that time we're burning sugar and storing fat, which leads to blood sugar swings that causes cravings and hunger.
We want to exercise in the SUGAR-BURNING zone so that in the 48+ hours after exercise we are burning fat and storing sugar!
That's a big paradigm shift. By the way, everything we discuss here applies to HIIT AND Metabolic Resistance Training.
Next, let's circle circle back to conventional resistance training because it definitely has it's place in a female fat loss workout plan!
Female Fat Loss Workout Plan Upgrade #4: Lift Weights Like Arnold
Many women fear weights. Even the one's who get that most women don't have high levels of testosterone and thus will not build big, Arnold-like muscles fear that maybe the science is wrong, maybe I'll wake up one day and look like a man.
Look, let me break it all the way down for you...
If you're twenty and naturally thin, you can probably run on a treadmill for an hour a day and enjoy a fitness-model body. Yay you.
If you're forty and your metabolism ain't firing on all cylinders anymore, you can focus on metabolic resistance training, HIIT, and the occasional jog. You're still young and haven't lost a lot of muscle, so such a program may be all you need!
If you're menopausal, you can start with metabolic resistance training, HIIT, and a touch of cardio but eventually, you'll likely want to graduate to conventional resistance training to restore muscle mass that may have been lost throughout the years.
These are guidelines, not cut in stone. Everyone is different and you need to taylor your program to your needs.
If you have successfully burned lots of fat through the previously covered upgrade strategies and you still feel "flabby" then it's time to add conventional resistance training designed to build bigger, stronger muscles!
As we age, the default state is to lose muscle through a process called sarcopenia. Add a long history of dieting to that mix and muscle loss is exaggerated and worsened so even if you lose the fat, you may not look fit. That's what personal trainers call "skinny fat".
Getting into specifics about how to do conventional resistance training is a bit beyond the scope of this article. My ultimate goal here was to simply put weight training on your radar again. This can be a game-changer for your body and health, nothing says youthful like a strong, toned body.
Reminder: You will not wake up looking like a man when you start lifting heavy weights. You will wake up feeling stronger. You will look fit. You will look 20 years younger in a matter of months.
Let's finish up with the red-headed step child of your female fat loss workout plan...
Female Fat Loss Workout Plan Upgrade #5 - Season To Taste With Cardio
Cardio isn't bad. Think of cardio as the "pepper" of your workout plan...
In some dishes, pepper is a welcome addition, it enhances the flavor of the food. Pepper brings out new flair and flavor in the dish...
In excess, however, pepper can ruin even a good thing.
So, when add cardio to the right workout (the dish) in the right amount (a sprinkle) and you get a wonderful workout with awesome results. Add pepper to the wrong dish, and no amount will make it better and, in fact, the more you add the worse it will taste. Same thing goes for cardio...
When your body and metabolism is healthy, a sprinkle of cardio will burn fat without activating the compensatory engine as long as you don't overdo it.
In an unhealthy body and metabolism, no amount of cardio will improve your program and more will likely worsen it (if fat loss is your goal).
So, after you've strengthened your muscles, and you're doing your HIIT with consistency, and your diet is super healthy with sufficient calories, healthy fats, and lots of protein...
Then you can pepper your female fat loss workout with one or two sessions of cardio per week and enjoy more fat loss and a healthier body!
Yes, cardio can be a friend, it just can't be in a monogynous relationship with your female fat loss workout plan!