“You can’t out-train a bad diet!” You’re probably heard someone say this before. What they’re getting at is that exercise isn’t going to help you with your physique goals if your diet is a mess, which, for the most part, is true.
What people often don’t talk about, however, is the fact that you can out-train a good diet.
Exercise is a wonderful thing in the right dose, but we have to be careful, because when we overdo it, it can actually work against us if the goal is fat loss.
I hear many women say that they are hungry all of the time, and they can’t seem to control their appetite. Unsurprisingly, it’s usually these same women who are exercising like maniacs for hours at a time, five or more days per week. Think there might be some correlation there? You betcha.
I know firsthand how this feels, because it happened to me. When I was living in Las Vegas, I was teaching tons of group fitness classes, to the tune of about 13 per week. Body Pump, Spin, kickboxing, yoga, boot camp… you name it, I’ve taught it (well, except Zumba—these hips don’t lie).
There were days that I was teaching 2-3 classes, and then doing my own workouts on top of that. I was lifting, running, and taking a 90-minute high-intensity kickboxing class at night. On many days, I was doing upwards of four to five hours of cardio per day.
I remember being puzzled as to why I wasn’t getting any leaner — “But… according to my heart rate monitor, I’m burning about 2,000 calories a day in exercise alone!”
There are two likely explanations for my lack of fat loss.
The human body is an amazing, resilient thing. Not only will it handle the uncomfortable things that we throw at it, but it’s quick to adapt to them.
When it comes to exercise, there definitely seems to be a point of diminishing returns. We do the Spin class or run a five-miler several times a week, and pretty soon, that becomes our new “normal.” The body begins to expect that energy output, simply to maintain.
This means that you have to do more and more cardio in order to get anywhere, and I feel pretty confident saying that we all have things we’d rather be doing than plodding along on the treadmill for 12 hours a week.
The Bottomless Pit
When we get overly aggressive with exercise, it can crank up our appetite to the point that our food intake overpowers our training. This is exactly what happened to me and all of my other cardio bunny friends when we were partaking in all of that workout madness.
We would get home from the gym every night absolutely ravenous, and we would hammer down tons of food. It wasn’t uncommon for me to eat chicken, sweet potato, a greek yogurt, some fruit, a few slices of bread, a granola bar, and some cookies.
I became an exercise-induced bottomless pit. The gorging didn’t do anything for my physique, and it certainly didn’t help nurture a healthy relationship with food, because the only thing I wanted was more, more, more.
I see a lot of people participating in training modalities that don’t support their food goals. They feel famished and end up eating a lot more after their workout than they actually need in order to sufficiently replenish and recover.
You can out-train your nutrition plan.
Cardio is a tricky fat loss tool. Too little may not help, but too much could make you extremely fuel-efficient. This sounds really cool, until you realize that fat is fuel, and you’ve essentially turned your body into a hybrid Smart car, and you can do a whole lot without using much fuel at all. Wah-wahhhhh.
Strength Training: Too Much of a Good Thing
Cardio queens aren’t the only ones overdoing it in the gym. Some women are taking strength training way too far by going to the gym to lift for hours, then doing some type of lifting class, and topping it off with met-con or some type of HIIT.
Meanwhile, three hours of activity later, they are gnawing on their seat belts as they race home to raid the fridge and pantry. Just because it’s in the “post-workout window” doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all, and I see women making this mistake time and time again.
Yes, strength training is great, but overdoing it (or overdoing any activity) could be causing you to over-eat (and hindering fat loss goals).
I’m not a fan of training sessions that last longer than two hours for women who are trying to get leaner. I’m willing to guarantee that hunger alone will end up derailing them. And if a voracious appetite doesn’t do them in, then the mindset will as they convince themselves that they “earned the right” to consume an insane amount of food — far more than what would help them reach their goals.
This is another reason why we are fervent proponents of the Minimum Effective Dose at Girls Gone Strong.
We do want you to train hard and reach your goals, whatever they may be, but we want you to do just enough to get the job done really well, and as efficiently as possible.
What kind of training is best to keep appetite in check?
In my experience, the three types of training that most commonly result in overwhelming hunger and cravings are:
- high-intensity steady state cardio, such as running, Spin, etc.
- training in a fasted state
- high-intensity metabolic style strength training
I want to be clear: there isn’t anything wrong with the training modalities that I just mentioned. They work really well for some people and some goals, but really poorly for others when it comes to helping control appetite and cravings.
When figuring out which type of training will best help you reach your goals and keep your appetite in check, here are a couple of things to ask yourself:
1. Which types of exercise substantially increases my hunger and cravings?
Personally, I notice a huge uptick in my hunger and cravings when I participate in high-intensity steady state cardio. I have learned that I am far better off lifting heavy, doing short-duration high-intensity intervals, sprints instead of distance running, and a whole lot of walking.
2. How can I change the intensity, volume, or duration of my training to set myself up for success with my nutrition goals?
Think of diet and training like a teeter-totter, with one on each end. In order to get leaner, you have to find the right dose between the two so that they can work together. Too much or too little food — no matter the quality of the food sources — can bring fat loss to a halt, just like too much or too little activity will.
Stick to 45 – 90 minute training sessions. Get in, get out, and get on with it.
So again, while training hard and with purpose is definitely something we encourage, it’s incredibly important to have a balanced approach so that your training and your nutrition work together for you.