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Body Shaping: Tools of the Fat Loss Physique

Jade Teta and Keoni Teta

Body Shaping & Physique

Physique development is beginning to be clouded by all the new fangled exercise modalities that emerged in the last few years. We of course are big fans of all the new exercise approaches, but we have noticed the physiques these new workouts build may be lean and athletic, but lack the artistic sculpted quality that is the hallmark of a physique athlete. This article is a reminder of what it takes to build your “best looking” body.

Body part training & progressive resistance

Practitioners of functional exercise seem to have a disdain for body part training. Isolation to them is a dirty word. But isolation is key to building the most aesthetically pleasing and balanced body.

To develop the body you want, there are two ways to look at exercise: building and shaping. Building requires large muscle stimulus to generate a full body anabolic response. This means exercises like squats, leg press, deadlift, bench press, shoulder press, and barbell rows. These exercise build mass.

Shaping exercises move to more isolation and involve barbell curls, tricep pressdown, calve raise, leg extension and leg curls, shoulder raise in all directions, chest flys, lat pull-downs, and other movements that bolster particular body parts.

Rather than exercising muscle, many of the new exercise genres exercise patterns and therefore may not always provide adequate stimulus for muscle growth. These modalities are also often too refined and varied. Static holding exercises, nuanced balancing moves and lightweights are sometimes overused, and these workouts often switch up so fast they force little growth adaptation.

To build the body, it must be challenged consistently, frequently, and with progressing resistance. To do this requires sticking with a routine for awhile (8 to 12 weeks) and increasing the volume each workout by adding sets, reps, and/or weight. We fear some of these tried and true tools have been forgotten as the divide between physique building and functional fitness grows.

Set, reps, volume, and load

While sets and reps are still the building blocks of most resistance training programs, the exercises of physique development are NOT about patterns of movement. They are simply about anatomy. This statement often makes functional movement experts cringe. They have to realize the goals are different here and open their minds a little.

Volume is the key and reflects the amount of work done in an exercise session. Volume = sets X reps X weight. In order to see results in body change this number needs to increase consistently and regularly while doing the same exercises. This is how size and shape of muscle develop.

Burn out and fatigue techniques

In addition to adding more reps, sets, or weight there are other techniques to use. These involve manipulating rest periods and rep techniques. The goal here is to increase volume even when the muscle is becoming fatigued and can no longer handle heavy loads.

Cheat reps are one technique that irk the functional fitness types. In this technique good form is purposely broken so as to muster a few more reps. This allows a muscle group to continue working beyond its fatigue point by recruiting other muscles to help. This allows increased volume for that muscle group. An example would be using perfect form on a barbell curl until no more reps can be done and then force out a few more reps by using momentum from the low back and hips.

Supersets and compound sets involve moving from one exercise to the next in succession without rest for a different body part or the same body part respectively. Again, this allows increased work on the muscle by not letting it fully recover and hitting it from a slightly different but overlapping angle.

Drop sets involve starting an exercise with a heavy weight and then continually dropping lighter and lighter in an effort to keep the muscle going. Negative reps focus on the eccentric part of a rep when the concentric part is no longer possible and again increases the stimulus.

We could go on and on with different techniques, but that would be a whole other article. The thing to know is that these techniques tap into the universal principle of body change: if you want the body to respond, you must force it to. To do that, there is no getting around training hard and forcing the muscles to near “failure”; a word that seems to scare functional exercise followers.

Slow-mo cardio and interval training

This brings us to cardio. Many people have jumped on the “I hate cardio bandwagon”. This is a mistake in our book. Cardio has a strong role to play. When it is combined with weight training, it can help refine the bulk and balance the physique. It also burns some fat, but certain types can also be useful in decreasing muscle mass.

The key is to know how to use cardio. Long duration moderate intensity cardio like jogging, biking, running, etc. can be seen as a “reducer”. It reduces the size of the body through taking off some fat and a little muscle along with it. Long duration low intensity exercise like walking is more likely to leave muscle alone and take only from fat, but the process is slower. Higher intensity short duration cardio quickly strips off fat and may even help muscle stay on the body.

If you are unsure how to use cardio, simply look at long distance runners and sprinters. Sprinters have more muscular physiques while marathon runners are thin. You can send your body in either direction by your choice. Using weight training along with cardio allows more nuanced control over the shaping process. But, in general, interval training strips fat and keeps muscle, long duration moderate intensity exercise strips fat and muscle, and long duration low intensity exercise slowly burns fat but leaves muscle alone. Weight training added to the mix can turn all of these toward the fat burn and muscle build equation. And of course there will be individual variation in these outcomes based on the person.

Carbs and protein

Of course this article would not be complete without a bit on nutrition. Again, this could be a whole other article so we will keep it short and sweet. One oversimplified way to look at it is like this: carbs are for building, protein is for cutting, and both are for shaping.

A higher proportion of carbs with heavy training gives a powerful stimulus for muscle growth. If you want to build don’t avoid carbs. If you are looking to get as lean as possible, carbs should be minimized. Not removed altogether, but drastically reduced. If you are wanting to build and burn, protein should be emphasized and carbs should be tailored….not removed altogether, but reduced and individualized (see the carb tipping point).

Putting it together

If you are a beginner to the process of building the body, we suggest 3 days per week of a full-body weight training workout sticking to the basic four: bench press, military press, barbell row, and squat. 5 sets of 10 reps each. And, increase the weight each workout. The exercises should stay the same for a 2-3 month period before new similar exercises replace them.

After 3 to 6 months with the base having been built, we recommend going to a 4-day split weight training routine. Upper twice per week and lower twice per week doing both a heavy and light day of each (heavy and light meaning the weight). This is when the shaping begins.

Squats, leg ext., leg curl, and calve raises for lower body workouts. 5 sets of 10 on heavy days and 5 sets of 15 to 20 on light days. The upper body workout may be incline chest flys, lat pulldowns, DB bicep curls, tricep extensions, and shoulder side raise. Again 5 sets of 10 on heavy days and five sets of 15 to 20 on light days.

The final stage would be to go to a 5 or 6 day split and break the body into parts. Back and chest on Monday, quads and hams on Tuesday, shoulders and traps on Wednesday, and so on.

Along with this would come the cardio. In the initial phase we recommend low intensity activity like walking everyday and maybe 2-3 days of interval type training. These workouts should be short and sweet (20-30 minutes) and combine high intensity bouts of exertion with rest. These interval cardio days are a great time to instead include some metabolic conditioning (which to us is simply cardio weight training). The combination of the daily low intensity walks, the 3 times per week weight training and the few interval workouts, will keep most people anabolic while not adding on too much fat.

Nutrition at this stage should be high volume foods including high fiber and high protein, but carbs should not be neglected. One good way to keep the muscle building and the fat burning is to include slightly more carbs post workout (i.e. whey protein and a large banana).

Once you get to more of the refining stage where you will move to 4, 5, or 6 day splits (upper/lower or body part splits), this is where you may want to experiment with some of the reducing aspects of longer duration cardio. For some, adding 1 or 2 days of long distance moderate intensity exercise (45-90 minutes of jogging, biking, etc.) can be beneficial to pull off some excess fat. The higher volume of weight training in this stage will be more likely to make this style of cardio work for you. At this stage it is all about finding the carb tipping point to keep you building muscle, enjoying intense workouts, and not store fat.

What about Metabolic Conditioning?

You might ask, “Where does metabolic conditioning fit in? I have heard it is better at building muscle and burning fat than other types of programs?” The answer is that it MAY be better at burning fat than either traditional cardio or weight training (our clinical experience tells us it is), but it certainly is NOT better at building muscle. Most metabolic conditioning programs are simply too low in weight and too cardio based to send the right stimulus for muscle growth. You may find great results using it in place of high intensity interval exercise or your long duration cardio (i.e an ME Spark workout or crossfit workout using light weight in place of an interval workout), AND it certainly does a great job at fat loss from our clinical experience, BUT if you are really wanting the best of physique development don’t sub out the traditional weight training for inferior muscle building tools (TRX, kettlebells, metabolic conditioning circuits, etc.).

See you at the gym!


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