Focus on the Muscle, Not the Fat
Updated: Feb 16, 2019
Focus on the Muscle, Not the Fat
Many of us get the feeling from time to time that there's just a bit too much fat wobbling around on our bodies. A common reaction then is to think that we have to loose fat, and the following action is that you go on a diet and in a best case scenario also try to be more physically active, commonly by doing cardio training (walking, jogging, gym classes, etc.).
The conclusion that we should do something about the fat is often valid since most of us carry around too much body fat (actually over 50% of the adult population in Sweden was overweight or obese according to BMI in 2016 and the numbers are similar or worse in all developed countries). However, since we know from statistics all over the world that weight and fat mass tends to increase in the population, even though a substantial proportion of the population is on some sort of diet and actively trying to loose weight, I think it's fair to look at alternative approaches to deal with this situation.
I would argue that for most people it would be more productive to focus on building muscle and strength instead of focusing on loosing weight.
I also think it would be good to shift the mindset to focus less on how you look, and more on how you feel. Less “I want to look slim” and more “I want to feel strong and fit”.
This is not because training by itself is a particularly effective way of loosing weight. I strongly believe in the saying “You loose weight in the kitchen, you gain health at the gym”, so if you really want to loose weight and decrease your body fat percentage, you have to take care with your diet. However, I am also convinced that almost everybody needs to build strength and muscle mass, and that this would have profound effects on all other physical health and well-being parameters as well.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
One relates to health. When you read up on the scientific literature you see that it is not really the weight itself that is the big issue, it's the body composition, and most importantly the levels of fat in the body. Fat mass, in particular the visceral fat, is the main culprit. It actively produces hormones and other molecules that are detrimental to the health, while muscle mass has been shown to have a protective effect on the health.
This is relevant for more people than it may seem at first glance. It's not only the obviously overweight people (the ones who are overweight according to BMI) who have a poor body composition, there's a substantial percentage of the population who have a normal BMI (i.e. normal body weight in relation to their height), but have too high body fat levels. Since the total body weight is made up of fat mass and lean body mass (primarily muscle mass), the only conclusion in these cases is that they have too little lean body mass, primarily muscle mass. One big reason for this is that most of us today are physically inactive, and in particular, that we don't really encounter any situations in our everyday lives that challenge our strength and builds muscle. Therefore, for most people the only way to build and maintain your strength and muscle mass is through strength training.
Another reason is that more muscle mass helps control your weight. Although it's not a massive effect, increasing lean body mass also increases the Basic Metabolic Rate, which slightly increases your overall energy consumption. Basically, if you have more muscle, you burn more calories even at rest, so building muscle gives you a kind of buffer for weight control. In addition to this physiological effect, there's a psychological effect that perhaps is even more important. When you start training and get into the feeling that you are a training person, you automatically tend to take more care with your diet.
One of the more important reasons to increase your strength is that strength gives margins in your everyday life.
It's what saves you when you stumble on something and have to catch your balance, when you have to lift a heavy bag or suitcase in an awkward position, when your child surprises you with a jump to your arms, when you make a quick turn while playing football, and all other situations where you need to produce a lot of force in a very short period of time to lift, catch, grab, jump, sprint, etc... These kinds of situations have profound effect on your quality of life. It’s the kind of situations that create joy and fun in life, the things that happen when you play and have fun. But it’s also the situations where injuries and accidents typically happen, so having the strength to deal with them effortlessly is key to both potentially positive and negative moments in life. The stronger you are, the more positive moments and less negative moments you can have…
Last, but definitely not least, it’s just a very good feeling to feel that below that soft layer of fat under your skin there's actually a core of firm, strong, and responsive muscle. I know that it sounds silly, but my experience is that having this feeling really makes you walk through life much more happy and content. It’s not about the typical post exercise muscle soreness, there’s no intrinsic value in that, it’s about the feeling that your muscles are fit and ready for action. My experience is that this is a great booster for your mood, confidence, energy levels, and even intellectual performance!
On a personal level I can say that although I definitely would like to have a six-pack and well defined muscles to show off when the beach season comes, it's more important to me to just feel strong and fit (as long as I don't see myself as fat, which I don't). I know that it is possible for me to get ripped, but it would require a much stricter control of my diet and more time spent on exercise than I am willing to put in right now given my current life situation. With the effort I can put into training right now – a weekly average of about one 45-minute session of weight lifting at the gym, one 30-40 minute running session in my neighbourhood, plus two-three 10-minute intense body weight workouts at home – combined with eating mainly home-cooked food and checking my weight and how I look in the mirror from time to time, feeling strong and fit, and being OK with my appearance is an achievable goal.
And that's all I need to feel good about my body and live the life that I want to live!