8 Lessons I Learned After Working with an Exercise Physiologist
I'm approaching my 1-Year mark of working with an exercise physiologist and I have learned a lot about the intersection between my two passions fitness and nutrition. There's a lot of overlap but even though it's clear to me, sports nutrition is not that valued systemically.
But I'll go into that in another blog because right now I just want to focus on the lessons I've learned after working with an exercise physiologist for a year!
1. Weights and Cardio Both Matter
Should I do weights than cardio? Should I do cardio then weights? Should I skip cardio all together and just focus on weights?
When it comes to body composition changes, people want to know what to do exactly and do it. The ironic thing though? The order isn't as important as just doing both. When I got my first plan I had 1 goal in mind: deadlift 300#.
I've heard before that if I have a strength goal, any amount of cardio will just burn muscle and keep me from reaching it. This is far from the truth. I was first prescribed a workout program with 3 lifting days and 3 cardio days. Following the stabilization / hypertrophy plan from December to March is what got me to reaching my goal.
March 27th, to be exact.
Not only that but I was also at that point weighing in at around 120 pounds. I felt strong AF and that's more rewarding to me than any other feeling. Speaking of weight, lesson number two is...
2. You Can Burn Fat and Build Muscle But Not at the Exact Same Time
Emphasis on 'exact'. Before you think about your personal experience where you got shredded and built more muscle while you lost body fat consider how many weeks it took you to attain that. 12 weeks? 20 weeks? 37 weeks?
Changing your body composition so that your body burns adipose tissue aka stored body fat and builds muscles means you have to alter your body between catabolism and anabolism.
Quick vocabulary lesson! Catabolism is breaking down. Anabolism is building up. The sum of both is Metabolism. Let's proceed.
It's important to understand what those terms means because burning fat/ catabolism happens when you are in an overall calorie deficit and when you are burning fat for fuel. In exercise physiology or at least at bēkn, burning fat is your prime heart rate zone.
To build muscle you have to work in the anaerobic zone. That's working out without oxygen. When you're gasping for breath during a HIIT session or right after heavy resistance training, you're burning carbohydrates for fuel and then this is the zone where you are mostly building muscle.
As exercise intensity increases your heart rate also increases. This intensity in your body is where you shift from burning fat for fuel to burning glycogen (storage form of carbohydrates) for fuel.
So because of this progression from low heart rate/fat burning to higher heart rate and carb burning you're not going to be doing both simultaneously. BUT you can periodically favor one zone over another and this type of periodization is exactly what the exercise physiologist is programming you to do. This is how you end up with a result of more muscle and less body fat.
3. Performance Goals Are Way Better Motivators Than Physique Goals
Yes this is an opinion, but by far this is my favorite takeaway from the entire experience and why I work in nutrition coaching the way that I do. When I first started lifting weights it was mostly for the physical aesthetic benefit. Much like why people pay attention to their nutrition. Most people want to look better (and there's nothing wrong with that!).
I also just loved lifting, more than playing on the high school soccer team. But in all of my years of training I have never been more satisfied with my body composition than when I stopped caring about those results and started focusing on my strength.
When I could measure my pull up progression from 1 to 3 to 10 unassisted pull ups.
When I could see my deadlift go from 5 reps at 185# to 12 reps at 185.
When I went from failing at a 265# deadlift on Thanksgiving 2018 to hitting 300# in March 2019
I had the best energy levels, best motivation to actually get to the gym, the best drive to work hard and this was all because I wasn't paying attention to a number on the scale. I just wanted to see myself get strong and feel my self get stronger. That is the progress I craved. It honestly was an added bonus that my body was at a healthy, lean state.
4. Variety is the Spice But Consistency Is More Important
This is related to the above lesson because it was my high motivation that kept me going to the gym. Most people might be surprised to find out that I followed the same 6-day workout split for 13 weeks and then followed my next workout program for another 10-12 weeks.
This helped me tremendously because I got into such a routine my body automatically knew what to do, when to do it it was almost machine. Because I wasn't thinking (or over-thinking) I could just focus on adding weights to my lifts and that's the key to getting stronger.
This is the same for nutrition. I think one of the main problems people have is that they don't stick with 1 thing. I've had clients make stellar progress in the first 6-7 weeks then they just lapse. They stop getting results. I even had a client lose 6 pounds with me, maintain it but she didn't stick with it after the initial loss.
I know this is something that physiologists deal with too, people want a new workout program after a short amount of time. But what people forget is that the less variables you change the more you can measure progress. That's science. You keep everything the same between groups except you change just 1 variable between them and see what is the most favorable outcome.
So, just know that whatever workout program or nutrition program you are on or want to be on, commit to it. Commit to it long enough to where your behaviors become a habit.
Speaking of making your fitness and nutrition a habit...another lesson I learned was that
5. Overtraining and Under-Eating Is Really Common
I was this person. I was over training. I was never working out in my prime zone and only ever building muscle and burning the energy off from the calories I ate that day. So many of my clients do this too.
They'll do high intensity group exercise classes where they exercise, and exercise hard, for 45-50 minutes then re pretty much sedentary the rest of the day. This doesn't help you change your body composition (if that's your goal).
What makes it worse is not fueling properly. This isn't any one person's fault except for the diet-gurus out there selling Keto programs and are unfit to do so. Before I take off with a passive aggressive rant I'll just say that if you're going to exercise and give some serious effort eat food. Eat carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Eat all of the food groups your body can physically handle.
If you need nutrition advice see a Registered Dietitian. Unfollow unqualified people. A pretty instagram feed is not a substitute for nutrition, medical, or health advice.
Not ready to work with a dietitian? My Macros Guide is a good place to start and so is my How to Prep for CRA Day guide that I will share on RD2RD MArketplace soon. (CRA testing is part of the bēkn physiology membership experience and Mind on Nutrition Coaching clients get this before they test).
6. Objective Data is the Best Data, But Not The Best For Everyone
Lesson number 6 is important. In a world of weight-stigma and increasing rates of eating disorders (thanks diet culture) I know that exposing people to objective data about their body fat levels, their muscle composition and bone density can be super triggering to some.
I am not part of that some and I do a lot of mindset work with my clients so that they too can be empowered by objective data.
I consider learning about your body, metabolism, nutrition in numerical data as "advanced awareness". I say that because in order to digest the numerical information without it effing up your psychology is an advanced skill. I don't mean that in an offending way.
It's a tricky subject learning about your body fat. And people can become obsessive with number like heart rate. For example, some people after learning about their heart rates might not count a workout if they weren't wearing their heart rate monitors.
However, with all of that said, if you want to measure results and note progressions along the way, having numerical data can really support what you're doing and the subjective feelings. Also! objective data can disprove your subjective feelings.
7. You Can Change Your Metabolism, Without Fucking it Up
If you are able to harness the objective data, follow the workout program your physiologist gives you you can change your metabolism without messing it up.
Most people mess up their metabolism form yo-yo dieting or dieting by extreme measures. Eliminating carbs is probably the surest way to have some negative results because when you're not giving your body the carbohydrates it needs to burn fat or to build muscle, the re-introduction of carbohydrates results in unfavorable changes. This is why the most qualified experts int he bodybuilding world have their clients go on a post-competition diet. It's the responsible thing to do after going in such. calorie deficit.
I'm not saying you need to eat a lot of carbohydrates to prevent the negative effects. But you have to have a lot more than what Atkins or Ketogenic diets provide. This is of course if you want to exercise (and be healthy and live a long happy life, read Blue Zones and you'll see the macronutrient they eat plenty of is carbs).
I prefer to not mess with nutrition to result in metabolic changes. I rely on exercise and working in the prescribed heart rate zones that my exercise physiologist found during my CRA test. I use nutrition to fuel my workouts and teach my clients that we eat to fuel our workouts. We don't workout to burn calories.
So if you want to teach your body to burn fat for fuel better, to build muscle better, and improve your overall fitness then follow your exercise physiologist's programming and work out in the target heart rate zones which are unique to you.
This leaves me to my final takeaway:
8. Your Metabolism Is Super Unique
It's unique and dynamic. How you burn, where you burn and the amount you burn for fuel is made up by your height, your weight, your age, your gender, the foods you eat, the foods you don't eat, the amount of exercise you do the amount of non-exercise activity you do. The stress levels you have, the amount of sleep you get and whole list of factors. Even your gut bacteria influence your metabolism. Your mindset... the list goes on and on.
It's dynamic too because all of those factors change in the course of a year. For example, my prime heart rate has changed from 144, up to 160, back to 148. My anaerobic heart rate zones and my "peak" heart rate zones have changed.
Not only have the zones themselves changes but the intensity at which I reach those zones have changed in the course of a year. That's why it's important to make the commitment to whatever you have a goal to do, and commit to whoever you are going to work with because a lot of factors will change.
My favorite example of how my metabolism is unique and has changed is by seeing how fast I can walk on a treadmill while being in my prime zone. When I first started following my program: 45-60 minutes of prime cardio had me walking at 2.7 mph on an incline. Today? My body is burning fat for fuel at 3.5 mph on the treadmill. That's significant! This is the type of progress that's way more motivating to track than my bodyweight.
I've gotten bit fluffier since my leanest state, but my overall strength and cardiovascular fitness has improved for sure!
December 7th will be my actual 1 year anniversary working with a physiologist. I'm considering doing a Vlog on the experience of my assessment, maybe do some before & after comparisons and walk you through the bēkn experience. We'll see!