Thursday, February 2, 2012

Skinny-Fat, Cortisol, and Why Cardio Doesn't Work

Don't look now, but I see skinny-fat

Skinny-fat. Have you heard of it? Do you know what it means? Besides sounding like the oxymoronic phrase that it is, I bet you know a bunch of skinny fat people. Maybe it's! Either way, let's see what skinny-fat looks like and also why the typical cardio routine rarely works. 

"I want to lose weight, so I'm going to do more cardio." 

How common is this phrase? Very.
How often does it work? Very little.  Here's why.

First, let's clarify and change this statement to what most folks usually imply:

"I want to get rid of excess body fat, so I'm going to run/bike/swim for 45-90 minutes in order to burn calories." 

Ok, at first this may seem logical. Excess fat is viewed as extra calories stored as fat. In order to get rid of it, I need to burn it off by moving my body for long periods of time.

But this logic is flawed.

Guys can be skinny-fat too

When we put our bodies through a long and consistent stressor (e.g. jogging, elliptical, biking, swimming), our body responds by releasing adrenaline. In response to this, your adrenal glands release a number of hormones, one of which is cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is good in small doses, but not large and consistent ones. Our body goes through a "fight or flight" response and tries to "save" itself by storing body fat. Your physiology doesn't realize it wants to be running for over an hour. It thinks you're running away from something and needs to go into survival mode. Yes, by doing cardio, you are telling your body to store fat. Even if we already knew that stress contributes to weight gain, you now need to think of chronic cardio as stress.

Which one would you want to be?

This is why you see skinny-fat people. They might be low in body mass, but average or even high in body fat. 

So what to do about skinny-fat syndrome? Strength train and eat clean. I want you to think bodybuilder. Lifting heavy weights and eating real food (sans the drugs) will get rid of your skinny-fatness.

Pat Barber - The antithesis of skinny-fat
By strength train, I mean deadlift, back squat, front squat, press (overhead, bench), and work with dumbbells. Girls, no 5# or 10# dumbbells. 25# at minimum. Everyone, full range of motion on all movements. Guys, no quarter squats and no Smith machines. Free weights and barbells. If you are going to do "cardio," make it high intensity workouts no longer than 10-15 minutes. Even better is to do sprints. I am all about CrossFit, but you can do plenty of things not CF related. If you are doing CrossFit, (and I know most of you do) you shouldn't be doing 30 minute metcons everyday. (that too will send that long term cortisol release) Get someone who knows what they're doing to coach you, even if you can only afford to learn the basics. Form is essential when working with heavy weights.

Why do I say strength training? Because building muscle will not only "tone" you (I hate that word, but you know what I mean), it will make you "burn" more calories throughout the day instead of just that hour of exercising. Remember that adage of muscle burning more fat? Girls, don't think strength training will make you bulky. Just look at some of the pictures and realize that these girls do more strength training than cardio.

ATTENTION: Ladies, strength training does not equal bulky

By this, I mean taking out inflammatory foods and adding in anti-inflammatory. In a nutshell, inflammatory foods include grains (yes, even though it's "whole grain" pasta, it's not good for you), dairy, and sugar. This includes DIET SODA and sugar substitutes. Do not eat anything packaged as "low-calorie." In fact, do not eat anything packaged!

On the flip side, eat plenty of greens, animal protein, and fat. Yes, eat fat, it will NOT make you fat. Eating fat will act like fuel, giving you more energy and it will replace the sugar and carbohydrates that you have naturally taken out by eating less inflammatory foods. Fat includes animal fat, coconut oil, olive oil, avocados and other fats you can find on paleo-approved lists.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but the general takeaway is that traditional cardio might work in the short term, but certainly not the long term. The best way to get a hard body and look the way you want is to strength train and eat plenty of fat. No skinny-fat for you!

 Skinny-fat college days to CrossFit + clean eating. Both around 150#


  1. Another awesome post. Good write-up, P!

  2. Agree with Schell; your posts have been great and have been helping me A TON. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, P!

  3. This is real good stuff Chris! Looks like there's a lotta diet revamping I need to do!!

  4. Great post P. I completely agree with your opinion of eating clean and lifting more. Eating clean is a HUGE part of this and will greatly improve all the hard work you do at the gym. If you need help with getting a clean diet, check out my site :)

  5. So P, a question. If someone's focus is on losing weight, should they avoid longer metcons and focus primarily on shorter metcons and strength WODs (eg, 1 rep max work, etc)?

    1. in general, yes, this is the way to go. keep it short (anaerobic) and heavy (to gain strength and build muscle). Nutrition is going to be key too.

  6. You might want to throw in another sprinter in place of the English runner as he was banned for performance enhancers. He admitted to using: "THG... epitestosterone cream, EPO, HGH, insulin lispro, modafinil and liothyronine."

  7. Bullshit animal fat?? Gross

  8. It looks like the steroids are clogging your thinking.Skinny fat refers to people who are skinny in general but have a huge beer gut sticking out.The pictures you show are normal people not skinny fat.Some muscle is good but too much makes you look like a freak. By the way theres nothing wrong with Dairy or healthy grains. Yum Yum


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