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Should obese people lift weights

The importance of lifting weights to lose fat, is something that I have talked about earlier, and have mentioned why without adequate strength training fat loss will not be most efficient. However, in that post I talked about weight training for the all those who want to lose fat, and not obese people specifically, so this time its about the obese in particular.

First of all let me clarify who am I talking about when I say obese. Its unfortunate but true, that we live in a time, where anything less than "perfect" means being unfit or fat. There is nothing as normal to some people, its either you are fit with six pack abs or fat. So even if your waist has an inch of fat, or you need to lose only 10 pounds of fat, some people will call you obese. The truth is that obesity and being overweight/untoned are not necessarily the same. Yes, being 15 pounds overweight means you are overweight and not necessarily obese! Obesity is far bigger than just having a couple of inches or 15 pounds to lose. Being obese is when someone is not just fat, but grossly fat, and is at a bodyweight where he/she is at a high risk for various diseases like hypertension, diabetes, etc. On the other hand, an extra 10 pounds on your body may feel and look bad, but it does not put you at a great risk for diseases like an obese person.

So how to measure when someone is obese or just overweight? Well, there are quite a few ways to do so, but here are two that I think are the better ones:

  • body fat %  check- for men over 25% and for women over 32% bodyfat means being obese. I think that this maybe the best way to measure your risk for increased chances of getting a deadly disease. Bodyfat % can be checked  by many methods like skin caliper tests, hydrotsatic weighing, bioelectrical impedance, etc

  • Body Mass Index (BMI) measurement- your BMI is calculated by dividing your bodyweight in kgs by your height in meter square. And if the number is 30 or more then you will fall in the obese category. While this method is often criticized for not being very accurate, especially when athletes like bodybuilders are measured, it is however in my opinion reasonably accurate when measuring the normal person who does not have big steroid pumped muscles.  

Of course, while these two methods are a somewhat more official way of finding out if someone is obese or not, in a more practical sense if you saw an obese person, you would know it. There is no way that a man weighing 300 plus pounds and with a bodyfat % over 35 can walk past you without you knowing that he is obese. That being said, the number of obese people can be put under two categories, which are:

  • Obese with reasonable to good physical work capacity- while these type of obese people form a very, very small percentage of the overall obese population, it is true that some obese people have got good amounts of strength and conditioning. Good examples would be oldtime strongmen and even some combat athletes like Eric "butterbean" Esch. While these people may be at an increased risk for diseases, they are still thanks to their training, able to move pretty well for their size, and at times even better than those with normal weight. This however does not mean that they would not do well to lose some or all of the excess flab, however due to certain performance reasons and/or to make weight for a sport, the extra weight has to be beared.
  • Obese with very poor physical work capacity- this is what the vast majority of the obese population is like, and the ones that trainers, doctors and nutritionists are most concerned about. This is your regular obese guy who sits the whole day watching TV, working/surfing net on the computer, etc and eating all the junk and refined foods that you can imagine. The obese under this category will struggle to even walk for 15 minutes without taking breaks.

As I said, the obese in the second category which forms the highest percentage of the overall obese population is in the worst shape and needs to get in shape or their life may be really short. Now when it comes to fat loss in the case of the obese, often it needs to be done at a rapid pace, atleast initially. This is important since they are already way over their body's capacity, and a slow fat loss could mean that though they get smaller they still stay at a increased risk till for a long time. And when it comes to fat loss, diet is the number one factor, no matter how many pounds you may have to lose. So first get that in order.

When it comes to rapid fat loss, some people immediately suggest daily cardio, and often something like an hour or more each day. As I have said before that too much cardio can actually be bad for you and slow down your fat loss, however is it different in the case of the obese? After all, since they cant go hard isnt it better to go slower for longer? Yes, to some extent that logic is correct, but not fully. It is true that going hard and doing intense cardio like sprinting, rope jumping could be dangerous for obese people, but to keep going longer and longer is not the best advice either. Do Keep in mind that an activity like jogging which is very repetitive can cause overuse injuries to the joints for overweight people, and it is worse for those who are obese, as they have a greater weight pounding on their joints.

On the other hand workouts that are shorter are more suitable for obese people, who basically thanks to years of inactivity have little to no conditioning for long workouts. This is where strength training comes into play, as it fits the bill perfectly when it comes to short and intense training. Strength training done properly helps to boost metabolism, which helps to burn more calories, and with a controlled diet helps to reduce bodyfat. But mind you, the term I just used was strength training and not weight training specifically.

The reason is that strength training can be done both with bodyweight and weights like barbells, dumbbell, kettlebells. However in the case of the obese, doing only bodyweight training is not the best option. You see, most obese people can barely get up from a lying position without holding onto something, take long time to situp from a chair, cannot hold a plank position for anymore than a few seconds at best. With such poor capacity for bodyweight training, it may take months and maybe even years for a real obese person to be able to do a single push up, pull up, or any other great bodyweight exercise. Of course with some practice the bodyweight squat to parrallel maybe the first exercise that they might be able to do properly and safely.

So since bodyweight training requires a long learning curve for the obese, weight training happens to be a much better option in such cases. With weight training you can adjust the load to suit an individual's strength levels, and progress as they get more comfortable with the movements. Infact with the obese I would suggest that initially exercises done on the resistance machines maybe better compared to an all free weight workout program. Yes, I would generally suggest just the opposite, and ask a trainee to stick to compound movements with free weights, but the in the case of the obese that could be risky. Since machines help a lot with stabilization, it would be ideal for obese people with poor balance. Over a period of time as their strength improves and they get more balanced and coordinated it would be a good idea to introduce some compound free weight movements.

However if you dont have the facility to train with machines, then you will have to go for modified free weight movements like deadlifts of a rack, box squats, light dumbbell hang snatches, etc. In such cases patience and attention to good form becomes even more critical for continued progress with no injuries to halt training.

But what about weight training and joint health, isnt it going to hurt the joints of an obese person which is already overloaded? Well, first of all, with weight training done the right way, your muscles and joints actually become stronger! This means that your muscles surrounding the joints get stronger and make life a lot easier for your joints. Of course when I say weight training done the right way, I mean that you start with light weights and let your joints get accustomed to the new loads. Also good form is critical so that it does not put unnecessary strain on the joints and ligaments to cause any injury.

So to recap, keep the following points in mind regarding weight training for the obese:

  • Weight training helps to boost metabolism and help reduce bodyfat
  • It does not cause overuse injuries as long sessions of cardio does
  • When starting, start slow and avoid tough compound movements, and rather opt for less challenging exercises till strength, balance, coordination and conditioning improves adequately
  • It helps to make the muscles surrounding the joints stronger, which makes it easier for the joints

And just as a finishing note, please do keep in mind that for maximum fat loss, both strength training and cardio is required. So while excess and long cardio sessions need to be avoided in the case of the obese, some short to moderate sessions done multiple times a week is a good idea.

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