September 21, 2015 Damon Hayhow

Why Cardio and Low Calorie Diets are the Worst Way to Get Lean


At Recomp HQ we have been horrified at the number of girls (in particular) who have suffered long-term metabolic (and emotional) damage from diets by dangerously incompetent Personal Trainers based on the flawed calorie-balance method. We’ve seen many cases of fit, healthy, active girls getting starved, malnourished and cardio’d straight to hospital! And upon returning to their previous diet and training they frequently find that they balloon up by 10-20kg or more over their previous bodyweight (with fat) and cannot get it back under control. They have been metabolically ‘broken’.

But it isnt just bad PT’s giving bad advice. Irresponsible malnourishment programs such as the Tony Ferguson Program claim even more victims. People leap on ultra-low calorie diets, drop a small amount of weight and then after several weeks or months of suffering for no result, slowly return to “normal” eating only to rapidly balloon up to greater proportions than ever before; often while eating less food than previously. Its the classic yo-yo syndrome that is so blatantly predictable and yet baffles so many otherwise intelligent people.

Why Weight Loss Stops

The simple, obvious root of the problem is that the human body is not just a simple energy burning machine. It is an adaptive organism.

Reducing calories should result in weight loss IF excess calorie intake was the problem (which it often isn’t, but thats another issue). However, reductions are only reductions relative to what you were doing. When any reduced calorie intake is maintained it becomes ‘normal’, by definition. Your body adapts. And now you aren’t losing weight even though you are eating less than previously.

But it gets worse

The bigger the reduction in calories, usually, the faster your body stops responding. Why? Because the larger any acute adaptation, the faster the state of chronic adaptation is met.

Then it gets really bad

Once your body has adapted to a reduced caloric intake then returning to your original diet is actually a relative increase in calories. As a result, it will probably cause weight gain.

However, when a body has been trained to resist losing weight despite the high stress malnourishment and exercise abuse, it is primed to rapidly gain large amounts of weight as soon as the pressure is removed. So it is not surprising that people often experience weight gain well in excess of the weight lost! And even worse than this, the weight you lost (from low calorie diets) will probably include significant amounts of muscle. But the weight you regain will probably be mostly fat.

So, you do a low calorie, high cardio program, lose weight, plateau, push harder, still plateau, back off and wind up bigger and fatter than you started. Its not unfair. It is a bad strategy.

And Finally You Break

It is common to find that as a person continues to drop calories and increase exercise, there is a distinct ‘stopping point’. That is, a point at which the body simply does not lose further weight regardless of how much further calories are decreased or exercise increased. It isnt surprising. Your body is trying to keep you alive despite your stupidity.

Example Case Study

A few years ago I had the frustrating experience of trying to ‘fix’ a girl after a PT had essentially ‘broken’ her metabolically, physically and psychologically. I’ll call her Doris… because I don’t know anybody actually named Doris.

Doris was a healthy, lean, ‘fit’ girl, in her early 20’s, who trained reasonably seriously at the gym. She decided to go to a PT to help take her to the next level and compete in a figure competition. With 14 weeks to lose just a few kg of fat, both Doris and the trainer were confident she could do well.

The trainer immediately put Doris on a diet of 1200 calories with 2 hours ‘cardio’ per day and light, fast weights 3x weekly. A pretty standard program from a PT, and one that makes intelligent Coaches and Contest Prep experts cringe.

Doris intially lost a few kilos down to 55kg. She was marginally leaner but not really ‘better’. So her trainer did the only thing she knew from her ‘fitness’ training (ie absolutely nothing about sports nutrition or athlete development): she dropped Doris’ calories and increased her exercise.

On 1050 calories and 3hours cardio, Doris lost precisely nothing more. Her bodyweight was the same and she couldnt gain any muscle because the training was only appropriate for losing muscle and there was not enough nutrition for repair and growth anyway. So the trainer did the only thing she knew how to do: she dropped calories and increased cardio again… and again…

Eventually Doris was on 800 calories and 4-6 hours exercise per day! She weighed 53-54kg and she wasnt ‘ripped’. In fact, she looked bad. In bodybuilding terms she was flat and watery. In health terms, she was burned out and chronically malnourished.

The Trainers response was to yell at Doris, regularly, for not working hard enough and complaining too much. It was true that Doris was struggling. She was sick constantly with flu-like symptoms and then got admitted to hospital after collapsing at work. Twice! She was exhausted, felt terrible, looked terrible, couldnt think, wasnt performing well at work and still wasnt losing any weight or fat. Her Trainers solution was to abuse her and tell her she wasnt working hard enough. Then the trainer started ignoring her. Doris was the black sheep of her clients. Finally Doris competed in the figure contest and came third. She was too soft.

Doris came to me about 4 months later weighing 78kg – heavier than she’d ever been in her life – and clinically obese at 38% bodyfat. She was still exhausted, eating less than she was before she saw her old trainer, still exercising more than before, but could not get her weight or bodyfat under control.

The sad fact is that this is not surprising when you think about it logically. Doris adapted to 800 calories and ~5 hours exercise to maintain 55kg. I do not know or care what exact biochemical processes the body puts in place to do it. The reason for it is absolutely logical: that is what she trained the body to do. Doris trained her body to achieve homeostasis at 800 cals + 5 hours exercise = 55kg bodyweight.

When a body has adapted to run on 800 calories, 1500 calories becomes a 700 calorie excess. 1500 calories is not much food at all. But it is almost double the 800 calories Doris had trained her body to run on. And that lead to significant weight gain.

Similarly, an hour exercise per day is pretty good going for most of us. But an hour per day is relatively insignificant for a body trained to do 4-6 hours per day. It is impossible to calculate how many calories it might be worth, but 3-4 hours less, per day, is going to be significant drop in output and likely lead to weight gain!

This concept is so obvious and predictable I find it staggering that virtually the entire World persists with such a painful, self-destructive, backward method that so consistently fails. Eating ever less calories and doing gradually more exercise is a self imposed sentence to a lifetime of starvation, hateful exercise and bodyweight troubles (Oprah, anybody?).

Over eons of famines, mass migrations, floods, droughts and worse, the human body has evolved magnificently robust defense systems in order to survive severely protracted periods of constant physical output on virtually no food whatsoever. So trying to brutalise your body with malnourishment and over-exercise to ‘lose weight’ is sheer lunacy! Mother Nature has been nastier to our forefathers than we could ever be to ourselves and even she failed to beat us. So you are going to fail. But the problems you cause in the process can be much worse than just discomfort or failure.

The Body Recomposition Alternative

The solution is to work with the bodies adaptive nature rather than against it. The goal is to train and diet to create a superior athlete; not to kill a fat person!

Following a measured, planned diet with 100% consistency allows you to gradually increase calories over time without gaining weight. The body adapts to the diet. And the very subtle increases simply get absorbed and adapted to without weight gain. A tiny 50-100 calories added to the diet each week becomes an increase of 1300-2600 calories over just 6 months! But it only works if the diet is structured intelligently and followed consistently.

The benefit is you can ‘train’ your body to run on a large amount of quality food which gives you room to reduce calories to lose the very last kilo or 2 of bodyfat to competition condition, should you ever want to.

Lots of nutrients from lots of foods benefits exercise performance. That allows for strength gains and muscle gains if training is focussed on achieving that (i.e. doing weights, not aerobics).

More muscle at the same bodyweight means a lower bodyfat percentage. You get lean by gaining muscle. Notice I’m not saying ‘muscle burns fat’. I’m saying that its a mathematical fact that more muscle at the same bodyweight means you must have less fat. There is no intelligent argument otherwise. Achieving more muscle for lower bodyfat just requires discipline and an intelligently measured approach to weight training; not calorie burning, muscle preventing, time wasting, aerobics.

You don’t need to know biochemistry. You do not need scientific studies. In fact, you are far better off not worrying about all of the billions of chemical reactions that you cannot possibly know, measure or predict. You just need to measure your body composition, plan the superior body composition that you want to achieve, and then eat and train to achieve it. That doesn’t ever mean taking a wrecking-ball of starvation and aerobics to yourself!

Damon Hayhow

Damon Hayhow has been in the body recomposition (Recomp) and bodybuilding industry for 30 years as a coach, competitor, gym owner, teacher, sponsor, show promoter, judge and MC. He has won National competitions in both powerlifting and bodybuilding, set world records, and coached others to the same success in strength sport and physique competition.

Body recomposition diet and training concepts based on logic and reason; not scientism