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Lose Fat, Not Muscle

The standard rule for burning fat is to use moderate intensity, as that puts the body in a fat-burning, as opposed to a sugar-burning, mode.

Q: Can you please guide me in striking a balance between cardio and weight training? A few months back I wanted to add more muscle size. In order to do that, I ate too many calories, and, as a result, I’ve gained some fat. Now I want to lose those few extra pounds without losing my hard-earned muscles. How much cardio leads to muscle loss? I’ve been jogging about three kilometers daily right after my workout—my workouts last no more than 45 minutes. I’ve lost five pounds in 15 days, but I wonder whether I lost muscle or fat. Am I doing it right? Is 15 minutes of high-intensity cardio better than 30 minutes of slow jogging?

A: If you read my column regularly, you know that I’m not a big fan of doing cardio to lose bodyfat. Cardiovascular exercise can be a helpful addition for losing fat when you’re following the right diet. If you depend solely on cardio to lose fat, you usually won’t make much progress, and you could lose muscle along with the fat.

The problem is that the body adapts to cardio by becoming more efficient. As the heart and lungs get in better shape, cardio exercise doesn’t have the same impact that it did initially. That means you must do more cardio to get the same results.

If you started out doing 20 minutes of cardio three days a week and you were getting results, you’ll probably need to increase both the duration and frequency of your cardio to get the same results. You could end up doing cardio six days a week for 45 to 60 minutes a session to keep the fat-burning process going.

My suggestion would be to clean up your diet a little and see if you can lose some fat that way. I’m not sure how many calories you’re getting now, but by cutting back on your calories and carbohydrate intake, you should be able to lose the extra bodyfat without doing cardio—or by doing less cardio. That would be a better method of preserving your muscle tissue while still losing the extra fat.

If you want to use cardio as an adjunct to losing bodyfat, cut back to only three days a week. By taking a day off between cardio sessions, you’ll lessen the chance of losing muscle tissue. Your current routine of running every day may be burning up some muscle.

The best time for performing cardio is first thing in the morning on an empty stomach or right after your weight-training workout. That way you burn stored bodyfat, as opposed to sugar, for energy, because your body doesn’t have any sugar available as an immediate source of energy. It will have to tap into the stored bodyfat for energy. That will reduce your bodyfat, which is the reason you’re doing cardio in the first place.

Your cardio can be very intense or more moderate in intensity. The standard rule for burning fat is to use moderate intensity, as that puts the body in a fat-burning, as opposed to a sugar-burning, mode.

When I do cardio, I try to make it moderately intense so I burn the most bodyfat possible. If I’m using the treadmill, for example, I walk fast, using a speed of 3.3 to 3.4 on a steep—8 or 9 grade—incline. I use my arms and don’t hold onto the machine. That makes the exercise harder. If I do that for 30 to 45 minutes, I bring my heart rate up and give myself a good cardiovascular workout. Still, I’m not pushing myself so hard that I’m out of breath and using sugar for energy.

I’d suggest slow jogging for 30 minutes as opposed to a fast run for 15 minutes. The less intense form of exercise would be better for burning bodyfat after your weight-training workout than the more intense running.

Many bodybuilders ran for their cardio exercise in the 1970s. Tom Platz was warning bodybuilders about possibly losing muscle tissue from running too much back in 1977. He added a lot of running to his precontest workout regimen that year and lost a lot of muscle before he competed in the ’77 AAU Mr. America contest.

The following year Tom didn’t do any running before the Mr. America, and he competed about 15 pounds heavier and just as cut. He took a close second in the short class, but he won a spot on the United States team that would compete in the Mr. Universe competition. He ended up winning the middleweights at the Universe and started his career as a pro bodybuilder.

Use cardio sparingly, along with a slight reduction in your calories and carbohydrates. Otherwise you could end up losing some of that valuable muscle tissue.

Q: I’m looking for some advice on bulking, something that, as a runner, has always been difficult for me. I recently finished cutting from my last bulk, which was somewhat successful. I started out at 3 to 4 percent bodyfat, and after a month ended up at around 7 to 8 percent, which I was proud of since it was in the middle of my daily winter track training. After cutting, I’ve finally gotten back to my original bodyfat percentage and am about 8 pounds heavier and looking bigger. My problem is that all the veteran runners, including one runner/bodybuilder I know, say that runners should never bulk up more than once every four months. Personally, I’m ready for my next bulk, but I don’t know if I should. What’s your opinion, and if I should, what bodyfat percentage should I aim for? One more quick question: How did you get your arms so big? In one of your columns you said you managed to have 20-inch arms at one point. That’s insane for someone on steroids and absolutely amazing for someone who’s natural. My main query about arms is how to get my triceps up to size. I’ve had trouble with triceps lately and have gone through tons of workouts, none of which seem to give me that good burn, and the lack of progress shows. Right now I’m doing some weighted diamond pushups with my arms farther up than they would normally be, and I’ve been making slow progress, but I can’t find anything else. If you could suggest some triceps workouts, that’d be awesome.

A: It’s interesting that you incorporate bulking cycles into your running program. The bulking I did as a bodybuilder was obviously much different because my bodyfat percentage was much higher, both when I started the bulking program and after I finished.

You said you finished your bulking cycle at 7 to 8 percent bodyfat, which is still very low. Because you start it at 3 to 4 percent, you’re very lean even after you finish bulking up. If you ended up eight pounds heavier after cutting back down and returning to your original bodyfat percentage, I’d say that was a very successful program.

I suggest you ignore the advice of the other runners and keep doing what you’re doing. It’s obviously working for you, and you probably have a better understanding of the training and diet program that works for your body. As long as the additional weight doesn’t interfere with your running time, you’re on the right track.

As for your question about training arms, I was always pretty lucky in that my arms responded very easily. When I was in the eighth grade, my nickname in school was “Popeye” because I already had a natural peak to my biceps. When I started training with weights, my biceps grew instantly. At one point I wouldn’t even train them for most of the year because they grew so fast. I trained them only the last three months before my contest.

My triceps, however, did not respond as quickly. I always had to work my triceps very hard to get them into proportion to my biceps. I discovered that the key to getting my triceps to grow was to use the right exercises for the different heads of the muscle and to use both low and slightly higher repetitions.

I always include a mass-building exercise in my triceps routine. Close-grip bench presses and parallel-bar dips are triceps movements that also use the front delts and, to a smaller degree, the pecs. As with any basic exercise you can use lots of weight on them, so they stimulate the greatest number of muscle fibers for more mass and size.

It’s important to work the long head of the triceps, which is so important in making the triceps look impressive. The rear double-biceps pose and the side triceps pose rely on the long head for that.

The best exercises for working the long head of the triceps are extensions where the triceps get a great stretch. I like doing lying triceps extensions—a.k.a. skull crushers—on a decline bench for a better stretch. I also like doing overhead extensions on a very slight incline to really feel the stretch in the long head of the muscle.

I’ve found it beneficial to extend the time the muscle is under tension by doing drop sets and 1 1/2 reps. As Steve Holman has mentioned many times, a muscle group that resists growth may have a somewhat greater proportion of red muscle fibers as opposed to white muscle fibers. The reds have a greater endurance capacity and benefit from a longer tension time than the typical six to eight reps.

By using 1 1/2 reps and drop sets on some of my triceps exercises, I’m hitting the red muscle fibers and getting a better pump in the muscle. I’ve noticed that stubborn muscle groups seem to respond better when they get a better pump.

Here are two routines that I use for the triceps:

Routine 1
Pushdowns (1 1/2 reps) 3 x 8-10
Decline extensions 3 x 6-10
Weighted parallel-bar dips 3 x 6-10

Routine 2
Close-grip bench presses 3 x 6-10
Incline extensions 3 x 8-10
Bench dips (drop set) 3 x 10-15

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at, or send questions or comments to him at [email protected]. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, Listen to John’s new radio show, Natural Bodybuilding Radio, at You can send written correspondence to John Hansen, P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. IM

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