Lyle McDonald Interview Part 2 (Applying Resistance Training to Overweight Populations)

Posted: October 2, 2008 in Interviews

I’ve been struggling with how I want to present this interview. A wide spectrum of people read the blog. Some I’m sure would like to read it in its entirety in one sitting. Others would rather have it put out one question at a time due to length and the intensity of the information. For now considering the next couple of questions, I think I’ll play it safe and stick with one question per post. So let’s continue…


STEVE:  Hopefully our readers have a solid understanding of who you are and what you bring to the table after that intro. I’d like to shift gears and talk about resistance training now. What used to be something only the big guys in the local gyms would do has become something most every health-conscious person is interested in. What would your advice look like in relation to the overweight/obese novice, keeping in mind most people reading this probably have 50-100 lbs to lose? How would you progress the person as their conditioning improved and they traveled closer and closer to their ideal weight? It’s common to hear things like, “heavy strength training preserves muscle.” Is that something this population needs to worry about? Why should or shouldn’t they consider resistance training? Yeah, I can hear you now, “Steve, I thought you said we were going to do this interview one question at a time. You just asked me 5 questions at once!”


LYLE:  Everybody knows that asking lots of questions burns mad fat. Anyhow, when I originally got into this stuff, most of what I was reading was coming from the bodybuilding/athletic subculture, which is positively obsessed with avoiding muscle loss while dieting. This is ultimately because, and this is especially true for natural athletes, muscle loss tends to become very problematic when people are trying to get very lean. This is an issue I’ve dealt with to some degree in almost all of my books and for lean people who aren’t using drugs, it’s a huge problem. Sufficient protein, the proper kind of weight training, and a lot of other strategies are necessary to stave off muscle loss in this population.

Now, originally I tended to feel that the same attitude (all muscle loss MUST be avoided) had to apply to the obese but this turns out to not be completely correct. When people get fat, some of the weight gained is lean body mass (which encompasses not only muscle mass but also connective tissue and some other stuff); on average 25% of weight gained is LBM. To reach an ideal ‘weight’ (whatever that means exactly) often means sacrificing some of the LBM that was gained during the period where the person originally became obese. Many obesity researchers feel that allowing up to 25% of the total weight lost in the obese to be LBM is not only acceptable but may be necessary to get their weight down. Some even get more detailed by dividing LBM into inessential LBM (the connective tissue, minerals, etc) and essential LBM (muscle mass). Basically, they don’t think it’s that big of an issue for the most part and I don’t either.

Now add to that the fact that, the more fat someone is carrying, the less LBM/muscle mass they tend to lose under any condition in the first place. Whether it’s fasting, dieting, etc. the more fat someone has, the less LBM they tend to use and vice versa (leaner people tend to lose more LBM and less fat under any given condition). For example, even with total fasting, someone who is carrying a lot of fat may only lose 10% lean body mass; a lean individual could lose up to 33% of the total weight as LBM. Basically, the fatter individual doesn’t have to worry about it quite as much. So a lot of the obsession about getting fatter individuals into heavy training (especially muscle maintaining heavy weight training) may be both unnecessary and irrelevant. There is also the fact that extremely overweight/sedentary individuals are unlikely to have a large tolerance for exercise in the first place. I’ve had clients who couldn’t walk more than 5-10 minutes on a treadmill initially and anything outside of the simplest weight training (and I always used machines to avoid the coordination aspects of free weights) would have been impossible.

Tangentially: I read a lot of diet and weight loss related stuff and a current trend in the industry is a focus on bodyweight, high intensity circuit type stuff. Reading these manuals, I find it interesting that the models demonstrating the movements are always light and in-shape. I wonder if any of these trainers have ever tried doing this with someone who’s 350 pounds and has never exercised in their life. My hunch is that they haven’t or they’d know better than to try to suggest something so inherently stupid.

Now, this isn’t to say that fitness won’t or can’t improve fairly rapidly in these folks. But the reality is that, initially, the likelihood of significantly impacting on energy balance with exercise in the obese is a losing proposition. This has always been one of those great ironies, about the only people who can burn a ton of calories with activity are trained athletes; and they don’t usually need to lose weight.

Frankly, I think most overweight people would probably do better doing lighter, higher rep types of weight training in the first place. There’s a lot of research showing that some of the issues associated with obesity are muscles that are packed full of both carbohydrate and fat. Depleting those tends to increase how well the body burns fat during the day as well as giving a bigger ‘sink’ for incoming calories to go into. The heavy stuff just isn’t needed for muscle mass maintenance and lighter stuff may be better tolerated and have more beneficial metabolic effects in the short-term. As well, it provides a base of training for when heavier stuff is brought in later on.

Of course, and this goes to, I dunno, your third question or something… as folks get leaner, the role of exercise (either to maintain a sufficient deficit or spare LBM) can begin to play a larger role. And, of course, if it was included at some level (and building basic fitness doesn’t take much training each week) from the outset and increased gradually and progressively the individual will be capable of handling a lot more training as they do lose weight (and need the exercise more) than if someone waits until they have already lost a bunch of weight to start but this is a minor quibble.


STEVE:  It’s easy to hear something from an ‘expert’ and hold onto it without ever questioning it. That’s what I believe is happening right now, especially on the Internet forums, with regards to the need to lift heavy weights if you’re interested in keeping your muscle. I’ve seen a number of 300+ lb people with very high body fat percentages struggling to lose weight and worrying about squatting and deadlifting because the ‘true’ strength training is what preserves the muscles best.

Personally I’ve worked with an appreciable number of obese clients and I’ve always leaned toward the metabolic side of training opposed to heavy strength training. It’s nice to hear obesity experts and research support what I’ve found to be true empirically. It’s also reassuring to hear you’re on a similar page.

To summarize what you said here for our readers, think of weight lifting as a spectrum. On one end you have metabolic training (think high reps, relatively light weight, high volume, and low rest). On the opposite end you have neural training (think lower reps, relatively heavy weight, low volume, high rest).
Starting out, the obese individual, in most cases, would be better off starting on the metabolic side of the spectrum. As they progress in terms of body composition, work tolerance, coordination and body awareness, etc… they should also progress along the spectrum toward neural work.

The primary idea is to start out with the most energy (calorie) expensive (wasting) stuff since that’s the primary point of order in the initial stages. Lean body mass loss will occur and this is okay. Your goal should be to get yourself down to a more comfortable/healthy weight. As you progress though, learning and utilizing some true strength training methods will become integral for persuading where weight is lost from (fat vs. muscle.)

Is this a fair summary, Lyle?


LYLE:  We might quibble over whether the average dieter or trainee should ever really bother with neural training. I’d be more inclined to say that they can move from more metabolic type weight training (goal: burning calories, depletion of glycogen/intramuscular triglyceride, etc) towards more typical ‘hypertrophy’ type training (for muscle mass maintenance and/or to shape specific areas of the body if desired). I wouldn’t take most average folks into very low rep ranges unless their goals started moving that way (powerlifting, etc.).

STEVE:  And I would agree with that wholeheartedly. I should have clarified a bit more. I think very few average folk catch the ‘bug’ of powerlifting when venturing through their weight loss. I simply meant that they should start moving toward heavier, muscle preserving weight training. Usually somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is about right for most, in my experience.


LYLE:  Agreed.



Stay tuned for a very interesting conversation regarding carbohydrates and dieting.  If there are any questions from our readers as this interview unfolds, please do not hesitate to ask questions.  You can submit questions directly as a reply to a particular blog post or you can email either  Gordy or myself at the respective email addresses found to the right.

Best to all.

  1. maleficent1964 says:

    Really good stuff there.. I’m gonna need to read and reread to really understand it.. but good stuff..

  2. Not that I’m totally impressed, but this is more than I expected for when I found a link on SU telling that the info is awesome. Thanks.

  3. Pirsey says:

    This topic is quite trendy on the Internet right now. What do you pay the most attention to when choosing what to write about?

    • I write about topics that are brought up by my clients and members. If you listen, the masses will tell you what they’re interested in hearing… and more importantly, if you have the knowledge, you’ll be able do deduct what they “need” to be hearing if they’re going to optimally reach their goals.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s