Personal Trainer explains why traditional views are changing

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Its that time of the year again, everyone wants to lose their Christmas podge so they’re getting back in the gym. Look in any gym and you will see the cardio floor is full. It has always been common advice from instructors that cardio burns fat, it has even been taught on personal trainer courses that there is an optimal “fat burning zone” at around 60 percent heart rate.

Now this has proven to be wrong, and this is widely accepted but many people still do CV. Endurance cardio does not create the significant calorie deficit required for fat loss. Cardio also elevates cortisol (the stress hormone)  to excessive levels throughout the exercise. And as the average person has high cortisol levels to start with, it becomes the hormonal equivalent of running away from a tiger (perhaps without quite so much adrenalin!), but you are doing this for periods of 20 minutes to a full hour making it very catabolic (lose muscle). Now the problem with losing muscle is that it will lower your metabolic rate. So in the long-term people can actually gain body fat if their only training is cardio. Cortisol is also the hormone which promotes fat storage around the stomach! I have seen all too often gym members who have been wearing out their favourite exercise bike and treadmill 5 days a week for years only to see no results for their efforts! Interval training on certain cardio machines can be useful depending on the client, but even then it should only be a very small part of the program.

The mats area

Something else you will notice in the gym is that the stretching mats are full of people doing sit ups, crunches, leg raises and anything else in an attempt to target the abs. They’re sure it’s working because their stomach hurts the next day. The first thing to note is that you can’t pick and choose where you burn body fat, so trying to target any muscle to burn fat in that area is pointless. The abdominals are also a stabiliser more than anything else – so should always be engaged whether you’re standing or training doing a press up, lunge, pull up or shoulder press for example. They also assist significantly in rotation movements such as the woodchopper. These exercises are amazing fat burners and they will work the abs in a functional way if done correctly.

The average person spends periods of time sitting down/driving during their day. This creates an imbalance in the hip flexors, which causes an anterior (forward) pelvic tilt. If not corrected, the long term effects of this are very serious and range from lower back injury, knee injury, reduced muscle function, decreased flexibility and the stomach sticking out even more due to excessive spinal lordosis (curve in your lower back). Now sit ups make this problem 10 times worse. Think about this for a second – when doing a sit up you are replicating that sitting down movement, reinforcing that movement under load, ingraining it into your nervous system effectively ruining your posture!  No-one wants to be walking around like the missing link!

If that wasn’t bad enough, in a study reported in June 1995 in “Clinical Biomechanics,” Stuart McGill tested the effects of crunches on the spines of 12 young men. The study found that both bent and straight leg sit ups placed over 3,000 N of force, or roughly 674 lbs, on the lower spine. This is enough force to cause bulging or herniated discs, compressed vertebrae and nerve damage!

So they won’t give you a flat stomach nor a six pack, sit ups and spinal flexion movements will only make you gain fat in the long run and break your spine…  Just don’t do them!

So what should I do in the gym???

Well as you may have guessed by the title, functional exercises are pretty much the only thing you should be doing. Specifically, they are compound movements using two or more muscle groups and two or more joints. They are best because they create, by far, the highest growth hormone response and also increase insulin sensitivity more than any other weight training exercises. So this means more muscle building -> higher metabolic rate -> increased fat loss.  And as I mentioned earlier, the abdominals should be 100 percent engaged while doing these movements – training them in the way they are supposed to work – stabilising the spine. So functional training will give you a chiseled torso as well as burning body fat and increasing muscle tone throughout the rest of your body.

And lastly but in my eyes most importantly, people these days are falling to bits. We should not have to go through keyhole surgery, hip replacements and cortisone injections in our 40s and 50s – if at all. Quite often this happens because our joints are being pulled out of position by imbalanced muscles, causing an increase in pressure which wears away the cartilage and connective tissue. Also considering that spinal injury and bad backs/necks are rife these days, its got to be said that we do not move enough and we don’t move in the right way; every day you stand up out of a chair or you pick something up, this is what we should be training for! So we can do movements properly without hurting ourselves and without daily tasks wearing us down. Functional training will improve your posture and therefore your joint health, circulation and ultimately your overall quality of life, perhaps also the duration of it! Burning fat is just an added bonus!

10 minute functional workout for fat burning

Each exercise is done in supersets – meaning there are two exercises in a row with no rest.  In between each superset take 1 minute rest:


  • 10 body weight squats (add weight if needed)
  • 10 body weight press ups (on knees if needed)

Repeat for 2 – 4 more sets


  • 10 body weight lunges each leg (add weight if needed)
  • 10 lat pull down or 10 cable rows

Repeat for 2 – 4 more sets


Build this up slowly, start off with body weight and focus on correct technique. If you cannot do these movements with perfect form throughout the set then decrease the weight or make the exercise easier. Likewise, each week you should be looking to increase the weight/reps to overload the muscles.