Why we should focus on “body recomposition” — NOT weight loss: Part 1

“Weight”: What an arbitrary number… So, let’s do this generic thing that people do at every wedding toast in history, and search the Merriam-Webster's essential meaning of weight:

“a measurement that indicates how heavy a person or thing is.”

“How heavy” is really the defining term here - is it not? Not, “how much fat you have”, or even “how much your tissue weighs”. So, why are we so obsessed the with the number on our scale?

Weight loss really has become an obsession in main-stream culture. Weight loss workouts, weight loss diets, weight-only scales… The reality is, we need to be taking a more “full scale” approach to making our body healthier. Therefore, we need to focus on a term known as “body recomposition”. With this approach, we focus on all the tissues of the body — not just our fat mass. And by doing this, we can still achieve the weight loss we desire while also getting stronger, faster, fitter-feeling and overall: Healthier.

The Problem with the idea of “Weight Loss”? Its Easy! Too easy… The average Weight Scale only shows a small part of the picture!

Has anyone, ever, thought that achieving perfect health was easy? No. And anyone that says otherwise is lying to you for their own personal gain — whether that be for monetary, or their image… The reality is, its just an easy number to track. We stand on the scale: If the number goes down, we succeed — if it goes up, we failed. Sound about right?

But, have you ever stopped to consider what that scale is actually showing you? Just as Webster said: Only how heavy you are. But, what makes up that weight? Most simply put, you have muscle, bone, water, organs and fat. So, out of 5 (very) broad categories, why is it that fat is the only one we are considering?

In fact, most of these categories fluctuate with our exercise/nutrition habits. We can mostly ignore organs, as an adult — unless there is a specific medical condition to consider (such as an enlarged heart or prostate). But, ALL of the others fluctuate! Muscle and bone mass increases/decreases with/without resistance training, and water mass changes daily (mine can change 5 pounds in 24-hours, normally). So, that leaves us with the dreaded fat.

But, consider this: You start doing a resistance training (weight lifting) program at the Gym. At first your weight starts to drop, and you’re ecstatic! Then, horrifically, it goes up… After you smash your scale and cry deeply, you hit the gym harder — but, you buy a new scale, and it keeps happening. So what’s the deal? Well, your muscle mass is increasing! And, your fat mass is actually decreasing (hence the initial loss of weight).

But, as you continue pumping that iron, your muscle continue to grow. And even though you feel leaner (muscle is denser than fat), your weight is increasing.

The Solution? Use a Body Composition Scale!

These scales, (known as Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis scales) measure several categories — at the very least: Fat, muscle, bone mass and water. Now, we can see a more comprehensive picture of our body — and now we see that fat is actually decreasing, as muscle grows. So, pump on, warrior — you’re killin’ it!

So, now we understand the scale — and our focus has shifted beyond “losing weight” to “losing fat”. But, that shouldn’t be our only focus! Why? Again — we’re ignoring the other tissues of the body, namely: Muscle and bones! And gone are the days of only focusing on one thing in the world of health & fitness… The “old-school” method of only losing weight was also as simple as the weight scale: Cardio, cardio, cardio.

“But wait, are you saying cardio is ‘bad’?”

Whoa, don’t put words in my mouth…

We need cardiovascular training. It strengthens our heart and lungs, and increases our efficiency of utilizing oxygen. Without a cardiovascular base, you may be strong — but you’ll still get winded anytime you try to do any type of activity that lasts more than a few minutes. So, it is important to do 2–3 days of cardiovascular training a week. If you are just beginning, start slow! Work more on how long you can stay moving, rather than how intensely you can work. After you can move for about an hour without completely stopping (even at a walk), you can start to work on higher intensity at lower durations — then, work towards longer durations at a higher intensity.

"But Erin, after that, what kind of cardio should I be doing to maximize my time?"

Well, you'll have to tune in for Part 2 of this article!

Now, let’s talk about resistance training — the second piece of our exercise routine to achieve body recomposition. Now, listen, I’ve simplified the “rules of cardio” — and I’ll be doing the same thing for the “rules of resistance”. Understand that much smarter folks than I have written entire textbooks on both topics to fully explain them; and I’m not trying to explode your brain today…

"So, will you tell me what resistance training routines I could be doing?"

Negative - that'll be Part 3 of this article...

But, just to get you going now: If you are just beginning your fitness journey, its best to start with 2–3 days of a total body resistance training (i.e. weights, bands or bodyweight) routine. This is so you don’t over-do it on any one muscle group, or joint, in a workout. You should also aim to space training days out to give yourself at least 1 day of recovery between resistance workouts.

When you do a total body resistance routine, think about hitting the major muscle groups make a checklist:

  • Quads

  • Hamstrings

  • Hip Add/Abductors

  • Calves

  • Chest/Triceps

  • Back/Biceps

  • Shoulders

  • Abdominals

  • Low Back

A total body routine may incorporate all, or some, of the muscle groups on this list — as long as we have an even combination of different muscle groups. So, perhaps, we do 1 of each of these on the list— so there are 9 exercises you do during that workout. But, 9 exercises might be a little too much for your first workout. So, in the very beginning, shoot for 2 days of weight training per week. Split it up into equal upper/lower body movements, and split up the muscle groups themselves so that you only hit each group once per week (preview of Part 3: This is known as a “split routine”).

Put these things together, and you’ll be on your way to achieving total “body recomposition”!

Article Written by Erin Lewis, MS, EP-C, CSCS, CES, Pn1, USAW

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