One thing I have noticed over my last 10 years now with being in CrossFit gyms all over the world, (amongst hundreds of regular gyms as well) is that there seems to be a dramatic case of "no changes". Like it or not, most typical Crossfitter's are like any other people who go to the gym, ask them why they joined and it's because they want to "lose weight". And like any one else in any gym they do, at least at the beginning, but then like that guy we all talk about who has spent the last 2 years on the treadmill and never changes, they are not changing as much as we would expect either.
Now this is a pain of a topic to write about. When searching for info on it the problems with efficiency in exercise, all I get is articles about how to make exercises more efficient, or the most efficient exercises to burn calories. BUT I want the opposite, I want the scientific articles that show that exercises and efficiently will back fire, and are backfiring. Not as easy task, as we all like the happy news articles about how exercise is great for us.
So, why are these CrossFitters doing all of these intense WOD's not seeing much better results than that guy on the treadmill in the typical LA Fitness Club? Why are they not changing as dramatically one would think they would?
Well it all comes down to the problems of exercise efficiency.
There are 3 main issues at play here, so let me explain them.
Not varied enough. While CrossFit loves to talk about being constantly varied, it actually isn't, some observational research has shown that even a program like CrossFit falls into a trap of repeating certain exercises way too often. CrossFt has been found guilt of basically doing about 16 exercises, 60-70% of the time. I have seen this, way too many squats, overhead presses, and pull-ups. Way too much saggital focused exercises, and not enough dynamic movements. So the training is not as varied as we like to think. Also, we tend to not vary our energy systems training too much, and many people have learned how to "coast by".
Using efficient moments to deemphasise work. CrossFit coaches, athletes and box members are obsessed with creating "efficiency" in the movements, and have learned to cheat, or avoid aspects that make exercises hard. CrossFit squats very much downplay the eccentric elements of exercises, and I'm not even sure most know what an isometric phase even is. An example is CrossFitters who tend to drop down into their squats as fast as they can, and use the bounce created from the stretch reflex action to help them get back up.
Another is the deadlift bounce, using the bounce from quickly lowering the bar to help get the next rep up. By ignoring these phases, we cheat the muscles, and in turn the body of their benefits, cutting out the actions of the muscles, and the additional energy we could be using.
A similar thing can be seen in many sports, striking in martial arts, as the striker becomes better, the movements become easier, less taxing, and less calorie burn. This isn't to say that you should not try to master proper technique, but just be aware that it literally becomes "easier" in every way.
Metabolic Compensation. But here is the big problem that has been studied quite in depth, but is not really "good news" when it comes to exercise, and that's when we exercise particularly the same kinds with the same or similar methods, our bodies adapt, and when it adapts, we burn less calories. You have to remember, our bodies are obsessed with one thing, NOT DYING, and calorie burn is not great for that. So the body learns how to deal with this exercise by adapting to slowing down calorie burn. And regardless of the calories your apple watch says you burned, it's probably wrong.
Exercise only accounts to about 10% of the calories we burn in a day, less than the organs, the brain, walking around, heart beating, and even breathing.
Think I'm crazy? Let's look at some great studies that prove it.
In around 2009, anthropologist Herman Pontzer set off to study one of the few hunter gatherer cultures left on t e plant in Tanzania in the savanna, he expects what we all would. They would burn a lot more calories as they are a heck of a lot more active than we are. Yet to his surprise he discovered that they burned the same calories as a typical American! How could this be? They should be burning much more. But there is a great deal of evidence now, and theories pointing that the body adapts to exercise by lowering calories burn.
Another study in 2001 found that after 20 weeks of intervention studies where people were given exercise, and calories were kept the same concluded that "the amount of exercise energy expenditure had no correlation with weight loss in these longer studies", as it found that after 20 weeks, weight loss was less than expected".
What has been hypothesised is that we have a system of Metabolic Compensation where the body will turn down its calorie burn as activity goes up to stop it from losing the valuable calories.
1. So does this mean that exercising isn't good for us? Not at all! I mean I'm a fitness and nutrition specialist after all, and I run fitness courses all over the world. But what it does mean is we need to adopt a more intelligent and holistic view of exercise, not focusing on the seemingly endless "lose weight, lose weight, lose weight' obsession we have, which I find an incredibly boring topic, but looking at it for other more beneficial aspects.
2. Muscle is important for helping blood sugar balance. Strength is important for daily living and longevity. Exercise improves blood flow and nutrient flow in the body, including the brain. And most important? IT'S FUN! I love exercise! Find the fun in the exercise itself.
3. We should try to vary our exercises a lot, and not get caught in just one kind. Try things like METCON or CrossFit, with muay thai, and sprint days. Always do things that challenge different muscles and different energy systems. Try more unilateral work where you have to focus on controlling balances or core muscles to stability.
4. Focus on different phases during lifting. Incorporate more isometrics, eccentrics phases, and static holds.
5. Calorie intake and the foods we eat are by FAR more important than exercise when it comes to weight control. Look at any pro fitness model, body builder or physique competitor, they spend 2-3 hours in the gym daily, yet they still need to focus 100% effort on their strict diets. if training worked that well, we should be able to get away with a lot more calories than we can.
** An interesting notes, a lot of the studies done are on traditional cardio as those are easier to control, so weight training hasn't been looked at as much. However, with the savanna people, they were climbing trees, chasing animals, etc. or what we could define as truly functional fitness. So we just cannot say "well all the studies were done on simple cardio". The fact is we can be pretty sure the body will adapt regardless.