Exercise principles for gaining and for losing weight.
Originally published 1998
The bottom line in exercise is this:
To gain weight, lift weight. To lose weight, move your body weight.
The reason? The body is a highly adaptive organism. It has its own intelligence, quite separate from that of the mind. I learned this once when I was running for half an hour every day after work. On Fridays, I’d run for an hour, and on weekends I would sometimes go out for two or three hours.
I kept that schedule up for a couple of months. Never felt better in my life. I became very regular, in every sense of the word. The time I went to bed, the time I got up, and the time I visited the bathroom for #2 became as patterned as clockwork. Never felt better in my life. (I only stopped because I became bored. But I should have found a way around the boredom. Oh well…)
But the biggest insight into the body’s adaptive intelligence came the day I walked into a steak house and suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, I had no interest whatever in the sizzling steak or the hot potato with butter dripping from it. I looked at them, and they did nothing whatever for me. But when I looked at the salad bar, I was salivating. I had never seen anything that looked so good! Mind you, this had nothing to do with conscious thought. I had not thought about my diet in any way. It’s something that just happened.
So what does that have to do with what kind of exercise you do? Just this: When I was running, my body somehow put two and two together, all on its own, and figured out that if I weighed less, running would be easier. My whole appetite structure had changed so that I preferred the foods that caused me to lose weight, over time.
The implications for exercise are: If you’re overweight, you need to do exercises that cause you to move your body weight. Running and aerobic exercises obviously qualify. But for resistance exercises, that means you should prefer pushups to bench presses, pull ups to pulldowns on a lat machine. On the other hand, if you’re underweight, you should gravitate towards the lat machines for pulldowns, and do bench presses instead of push ups.
Remember, the body is smart. When you’re on the lat machine, the body figures out, over time, that extra body weight makes it easier to pull down heavier weight, without having it pull you. Similarly, with a bench press, additional weight helps you stabilize yourself on the bench. When you’re doing a pullup or a push up, on the other hand, the body understands that if you weighed less, it would be a whole lot easier. By picking the right kind of exercise for your goals, you get everything working together to achieve them.
What makes the process fascinating is that the exercise which is easiest for you to get started with is the exact opposite of what you need to do! If you’re seriously underweight, you have no problem doing calisthenics. You probably even like them! But they’ll tend to burn calories rather than add muscle. By the same token, if you’re very far overweight, body weight exercises become almost impossible! Weight training is a whole lot easier.
My recommendation, then, is this: If you are drastically underweight, start with calisthenics to build muscle tone, then move into weight training in 6 to 8 weeks. If you are overweight, start with weight training to increase muscle density, and move to body-weight exercises as soon as you can.
Here, we should probably make a distinction between body-weight exercises (exercises that use the full body weight for resistance) and calisthenics (exercises which move the body in quasi-aerobic fashion without a lot of resistance). Pushups, pullups, and dips are all body-weight exercises. Arm rotations, toe-touches, and squats are calisthenics. (Squats are calisthenics because, even though the whole body is being moved, the leg muscles are so large in proportion that the amount of resistance is minimal — unless you’re overweight.)
The ideal, in my opinion, is represented by gymnastics. There, all the resistance is in the form of body weight, and the muscles are developed to the point that they deliver full control of the body in space. Man, that’s beautiful.
But it’s hard to do. When I was in college, I was way too skinny to do bodyweight-resistance exercises, much less gymnastics. It wasn’t until I discovered weight training that I developed enough muscle mass to even consider such things. Now, many years later, I need to lose weight to make gymnastic movements attainable. Even bodyweight exercises are hard. The solution now is move my body with aerobic exercises, calisthenics, and bodyweight-resistance exercises.
To sum it all up, the program you need to follow depends on your body weight:
- If you’re underweight, start with calisthenics if you need to, then move to weight training and build up to bodyweight exercises.
- If you’re overweight, start with weight training if you need to (in addition to aerobics), add calisthenics, and move to bodyweight exercises as soon as you can.
- To maintain your body weight, combine aerobic exercises and calisthenics for cardiovascular fitness and use bodyweight exercises for muscle tone.
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