Let’s play out the following scenario.
You are 30-40 pounds overweight. Recently, you’ve decided to make a change. You want to feel better, look better, and increase your energy levels. Through logic and some research, you’ve determined that eating whole foods including clean sources of protein and hearty vegetables will support muscle gain and energy levels. Additionally, you understand that by reducing refined sugar and processed carbohydrates, you’ll begin to shed some body fat. Last, but certainly not least, you’ve decided to increase your activity levels by exercising more, taking the stairs, riding your bicycle to local destinations and adding other logical ways to integrate movement into your lifestyle.
Let’s fast forward a few months. You’ve been extremely consistent. You’re down 25-30 pounds and approximately 75% of the way to your goal. However, you’ve noticed that your weight loss has diminished week to week. During your first few weeks, you lost 3-5 pounds per week, but now you’re losing 1-2 pounds every other week. You reexamine your exercise levels and dietary choices, picking through each meal plan with a fine-tooth comb. You may ask yourself “what can I eliminate to catalyze my weight loss?” Logic is telling you to start eating less and exercising more and so you implement this strategy for a few weeks.
It worked. After a few weeks of eating less and training more, you’re down another 5 pounds. You continue this strategy and max it out by eating as little as you can to sustain your wake hours and workouts. Another couple of weeks go by and, suddenly, seemingly to come out of nowhere, you hit another wall. You’ve ceased losing weight or, worse yet, gained weight. You wake up tired, don’t feel like working out, and generally lack the motivation to do anything else but eat and sleep. Your weight loss journey has come to a screeching halt.
This result is all too common for many people. In fact, you’ve most likely heard of the term used for the cycle of losing weight and gaining it all back. It’s called the “yo-yo” effect. In some cases, the rebound weight gain can be worse than where you started!
This is all due to something called the law of conservation of energy. Yes, it’s a term used in physics to explain that energy is neither created nor destroyed, but rather, it changes energy states. A simple way of explaining this law is: energy in is equal to energy out.
Let’s use the following example to illustrate. Say you want to roll a bowling ball up a hill. You try several times, but the ball only goes so far up the hill before it rolls back to you. You decide that you need to put more energy (force) behind the bowling ball to reach the top so that it will roll down the other side. So you put more energy into the ball so that it reaches the top and it finally rolls down the other side. Observe that you had to continuously put energy into the ball until you reached the top. Keep in mind that friction between the surface of the ground and the surface of the ball is partly responsible for the amount of force needed to get the ball over the hill. Friction slows the ball down. So we must overcome that friction, the weight of the ball, and the height of the hill.
Let’s compare the ball to your body weight and the energy required to push the ball over the hill to your metabolism (the net amount of energy required for your body to maintain its processes such as brain function, breathing, digestion, circulation, and movement.) The hill, of course, represents what changes (effort) must occur in order to affect weight loss. Using the example above, you must continuously increase your energy levels to build the metabolism you require to lose weight (mostly from fat).
It’s well understood that relative increases in your metabolism help your body change its composition, or it’s ratio of fat to lean muscle. One common way to increase your metabolism is to exercise. Exercise is specific stress placed on the body. The body utilizes energy stores to compensate to be able to handle that same stress in the future with less energy being utilized. In other words, your body becomes more energy efficient. When you weight train, more muscle is built to handle more stress. When you perform cardiovascular training, the compensation occurs at the cellular level, where more organelles called mitochondria, responsible for creating cellular energy, are developed.
Metabolic “friction” occurs under the following conditions. 1) You reduce your energy input (food) to the extent that it reduces your energy output (metabolism). 2) You increase your energy input (food) without utilizing that energy making the weight of the ball (you) greater, creating more friction.
These conditions do not happen all of a sudden. They happen as a result of momentum in that particular direction. Meaning, a shift in momentum is created when a particular behavior occurs over time. That is why, in our scenario, when you reduced your food intake and increased your exercise levels, you lost some weight. However, you lost the additional weight simply because you reduced your intake levels forcing your body to utilize reserves. You stopped losing weight because with the reduction in energy consumption, a reduction of energy production occurred. It just took a week or so to experience that effect. Realize that in order to continue building muscle (and therefore, your metabolism) you must continue to produce enough energy to exercise above and beyond your normal level. That can’t be done if the energy you consume is less than the energy required to create a metabolic shift upward.
We’ve analyzed the big picture when you reduce your energy intake and increase your exercise levels to boost your weight loss progress. A reduction in caloric intake combined with an increase in exercise levels will only take you so far before you are stopped dead in your tracks. This effect is known as overtraining.
What are the internal mechanisms responsible for this effect?
Enter a concept called Adaptive Reserve. This is the term used to describe your body’s ability to call energy reserves into action during times of acute stress (known as the Stress Response). Then, when that stress has abated, your body has the opportunity to restore those reserves. When stress is perceived, your adrenal glands put out two key hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones aid the body in utilizing stored nutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein) found in muscle, the liver, and the blood stream to create energy. Recall that the nutrients we eat not only help create fuel for energy, but they also help synthesize hormones, repair bones and tissue, and support immune function. A problem occurs when we are not eating enough raw materials to help create an anabolic (state of building) internal environment. We, in fact, create a catabolic (to break down) environment. When you are in a catabolic state, you are utilizing reserves at a faster rate than you can replenish them.
As we only have a finite amount of reserves, your body will reach an extreme point of self-preservation. A few things will occur. Cortisol released by the adrenals will eventually resort to breaking down muscle tissue and converting it to glucose for energy (also known as gluconeogenesis). An elevation in cortisol inhibits the production of thyroid hormone, which essentially, reduces your metabolic rate. Lastly, a reduction in caloric intake will trigger ghrelin production, the hormone released by the gut and stomach to increase appetite and promote fat storage.
This stress response occurs via a feedback loop called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. When your brain perceives stress, the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system becomes activated and acts upon the adrenals to release stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). Once the stress has gone away, the brain shuts down the signaling of stress hormone production. Sometimes, the stress response can actually feel good. This is because your stress hormones help to increase your energy levels and reduce inflammation. However, if stress becomes chronic, the brain will continue the stress response and will cause a state of dysfunction leading to a loss of muscle mass, an increase in fat storage, and a suppressed immune system (leaving you susceptible to becoming sick). Essentially, your body shuts down.
Regardless of the type of stress (exercise, mental, emotional, internal), your body handles it the same way, the stress response. Therefore, all stress or stressors must be managed to promote an anabolic environment. In other words, if you increase your stress, you must also create balance by increasing your body’s ability to recover from that stress. Remember, the goal is to build muscle to increase your metabolic rate so that you can change the composition of your body weight to one of an ideal ratio of muscle mass to fat mass or until you are satisfied with the way you look. The only ways to increase your body’s ability to recover is to nourish and rest your body.
Here’s how to tell if you’re overtraining. Any one or more of the following can be a sign.
1. If you lack the desire to exercise or be physically active. Your body is trying to tell you it needs rest. Listen to it.
2. Soreness or muscle aches beyond normal. This means your body is not recovering well and your hormonal production is shutting down.
3. Sugar cravings. Your body craves sugar mainly because cortisol is made from sugar. Additionally, broken down sugar, glucose, is your primary source of energy so your body is going to want more of it.
4. Reduction in libido. This is a sign that your sex hormone production is slowing. This happens because your body steals a hormone called Pregnenalone to make cortisol. Pregnenalone is the master hormone that makes all other hormones. When your body “steals” pregnenalone, all other hormone production becomes affected. Women may actually experience late or missing menstrual cycles.
5. Sleep disturbances. This is mainly due to drastic swings in your blood sugar. When your blood sugar drops at night, your body will release stress hormones to help free energy from storage.
Here’s what you can do to avoid overtraining.
1. Engage in mainly low and moderate forms of exercise. Ramping up your heart rate to near maximal levels for 60 minutes straight, 6-7 days per week is a sure way to hit the wall. If you’re going to ramp up your heart rate, only do it once or twice per week for no more than 60 seconds at a time and less than 30 minutes in total duration.
2. Find practical ways of adding physical activity to your day. Take the stairs, park farther away, ride your bike to work. You get the point. Out of seven days, weight train 2-3 days, high intensity 1-2 days (sprints, bootcamp, kickboxing), recreational activities (active recovery) 1-2 days (yoga, golf, walking), and complete rest (passive recovery) 1-2 days. You must build recovery days into your routine where the majority of your week is either active or passive recovery. Weight training and high-intensity intervals are considered hard-effort days, active recovery activities are considered medium-effort days, and passive recovery days are considered light-effort days. Create a plan using these terms.
3. Try calorie cycling. On hard-effort days, try adding 2-3 more servings of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, and quinoa. On medium days, keep your consumption at baseline. And on light days eat small meals and graze throughout the day. (Contact us for more information on our Nutrition Coaching)
4. For every period of consistent training, take off from training for about one-quarter of that time. For example, if you train consistently for 4 weeks, take off from training for one week. This will allow your body to recover and grow. You may even experience weight loss during that period.
Adam Eckart MS, CSCS, FDN-P
Co-Founder Critical MASS Training Systems
732.889.3319 ext. 2