The Efficiency of Inefficiency for Fat Loss

This is something I’ve been thinking about recently as I begin a new phase of my strength and conditioning. Usually, in sport, we abide by the SAID principle when preparing for an event. The Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand principle says that if you want to get better at throwing, you should throw. If you have a power lifting meet, you should be practicing the three lifts. You will specifically adapt to the demands you place on your body. It’s a miracle of evolution and part of why we survive as a species.

This is why when you see a runner run, they look like a gazelle and have perfect control of their breathing and heart rate, but if you put them on a bike, they are uncomfortable and struggling to breath. Runners run, cyclists bike. That all makes sense.

But can it ever be a bad thing? I believe it can. Specifically in the realm of exercise for fat loss and cardiovascular health. If you’ve spent any time in commercial gyms, you have seen it. Think about the chronic cardio folks who endlessly do the elliptical machines and never make progress. They have decided which cardio equipment they prefer, and within about 90 days, their body adapts to the demand, becomes efficient at the motor pattern, and thus requires less metabolic output to maintain a given resistance or speed. This is not preferred for metabolic conditioning.

I notice this when I do a Maffetone LSD (long slow distance) block of training with a heartrate monitor. His protocol is for building a cardio base which will stretch the chambers of the heart and provides more stroke volume per beat of the heart. This will lower your resting heart rate and improve your health. Read more about that here. When doing this kind of training with one kind of cardio, I notice that within a few weeks I have to drastically increase my perceived output to keep my heartrate in the proper zone. This is an observable adaptation. It makes the work less pleasant, more monotonous, and more fatiguing. But there is an easier way!

The answer is inefficiency.

That is, select a novel stimulus every few weeks. Or even several in the same session. By having a long list of options available, you are avoiding adaptation and maintaining novelty. This is inefficient. This is what we want. We want to be the runner who is trying to swim or ride a bike. The person who is interested in general physical preparedness wants to be “bad” at the movement they use for cardio.

So if you feel yourself in a cardio rut, or notice that you aren’t moving towards your goal, might I recommend something you suck at?

Incomplete list of cardio options:

  • Heavy Hands Walks – Using 3-8lb dumbbells in your hands, and some 3-5lb ankle weights and just go for a walk. You might have heard the wisdom that “every pound on your feet is like 5 pounds on your back”. In this case, that’s what we want.
  • Ruck Marching – Put a 10-25lb plate in an old backpack, or get a weight vest and go for a walk.
  • Cycling
  • Walk/Jog/Run
  • Swimming
  • Jump Rope
  • Hitting a heavy bag
  • Kettlebell work/weighted carries
  • Stationary bike
  • Airdyne
  • Stair mill/Stepper
  • Treadmill
  • Elliptical
  • Rower
  • Shadow boxing/grappling
  • Ground work/ crawling
  • ETC.

This post is specifically about cardio, but the same goal of inefficiency can be extended to strength training too. By the end of completing Dan John’s 10,000 kettlebell swing challenge several years ago, completing the 500 daily swings became ‘easy’. SAID at work. I think that having access to many lifting implements, and rotating their use in a timely way (while avoiding chronic program hopping) will lead to better general conditioning over the long term. Coach Dan John agrees. I can’t recommend his work and programs enough for the generalist athlete. In a similar vein, Louis Simmons’ Conjugate/Concurrent method also leans heavily on this concept.

If you are just getting started in cardio or strength training, then everything you do will be inefficient. Enjoy those noob gains. Everything works, until it doesn’t. Understand your plateau is just a result of millions of years of evolution. Then find something efficiently inefficient to do.

If you need me, I’ll be training for The Fall.

Being inefficient with a 65# weight vest.

Yours in Inefficiency,