Are Brief Workouts Effective for Fat Loss as You Get Older?

August 30, 2010

There is something to be said for brief workouts. Back in the 80’s, when I joined my first gym, it was common for workouts to last over 90 minutes. In college I would train up to 2 hours per day with a group of friends. We would spend 90 minutes lifting and 30 minutes on cardio. The routine was “3 days on and 1 day off”. Although that was WAY too much time in the gym, each of us was in great condition. With that much time sweating and burning calories, it was bound to work. The problem was that our workouts weren’t time efficient. With a few less beers per week and less calories, we could have got the same results with about 1/2 the amount of time spent in the gym. In fact, with enough intensity and with a proper diet I believe I could have maintained a low body fat percentage just training a few times per week. Although a few intense brief workouts are enough for a 20 year old to stay ripped, I believe the rules are different for a 40 year old.

Brief Workouts

[The time element of training is rarely discussed. Usually it is just assumed that less time training is better. If you are in your mid 30’s or older, I think you might need to question this assumption.]

Raging Hormones, High Metabolism, and “Naturally Active”…

This past August, I spent the majority of the month on a West Coast road trip (one of the reasons I haven’t posted in a while). About a week into our road trip we reached Huntington Beach, CA. This is one of California’s prime surf beaches. Anyway, one thing I noticed was how the majority of the young surfers were lean and fit just as a natural result of their circumstances. Not only did these young surfers have higher levels of HGH than the older people on the beach, they were out in the water for 4-6 hours at a time. No wonder why they were in such outstanding shape. This isn’t a big breakthrough or anything, but it made me think more about age and fitness.

Why Are Young People Typically Lean Without Trying?

I know this is a generalization, but people in their early 20’s are typically lean with very little effort. On our road trip, we stayed in Sedona, AZ for a few days and went to a cliff diving spot called “Grasshopper Point”. There was a group of college kids chugging beer and then doing crazy flips off of some pretty darn high cliffs. With only 1-2 exceptions all of these young people were in outstanding condition. You could tell they probably did a bit of training, but staying lean was probably as easy deal for them. Again, not a huge discovery or anything, it just made me think about age and fat loss a bit more.

Grasshopper Point

[Grasshopper Point is an amazing swimming hole. On one side of the river is a beach and the other side is a steep cliff. You swim across, climb up as high as you want up the red colored cliffs, and simply jump back into the water. A perfect summer day!]

Let’s Discuss What Young People Have in Their Favor

So I am going to generalize a lot here. We have all seen overweight teens and naturally lean 50 year old’s. I’m talking about averages here.

1) More Natural Physical Activity Each Week:

I will use myself as an example. Back in college I didn’t have a car and walked everywhere. Heck, just walking to and from class took up over an hour of my day, 5 days a week. In addition to that, I would play volleyball or pickup basketball 2-3 times per week for 1-2 hours at a time. I would estimate that I spent 8-9 hours per week of exercise outside of my gym workouts. These days I’m lucky to get in 2 hours per week of exercise outside of my gym workouts. So 7 more hours of activity per week, even at a low intensity level, is significant. Now wonder it was a breeze to stay lean back then!

2) High HGH Levels

Young people are fat burning machines compared to their older counterparts. A big reason for this is the high levels of HGH in younger folk. HGH is a natural fat burning hormone and declines as one ages. Exercise can slow down this decline, but can’t stop it from happening completely. Not only are the normal HGH levels higher in young people, my belief is that the “HGH response” to a workout is greater in younger people as well (not proven by a scientific study as far as I know, just a belief of mine based on experience).

3) A Higher Metabolism

The combination of being more active and producing more HGH typically means younger folk are burning more calories even when they aren’t active. The average 20 year old also has more lean muscle than the average 40 year old and this helps a bit as well. No matter how you look at it, the typical 20 year old is burning more calories day to day than the average 40 year old. Whether it is attributed to hormones, muscle mass, activity, etc…it all adds up to more calories being burned over the course of a day by a 20 year old compared to a 40 year old.

[San Francisco is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to. I could easily see living here. A big city in an amazing location.]

Let’s Examine if LESS Time Training is What You Need

I like the idea of brief and intense workouts, but is that going to get the job done? If you are over 30 and struggling to get as lean as you were in your teens and 20’s, it could be that you simply aren’t active enough each week. Is training less the smartest approach to dropping that excess body fat? In my opinion there is a very good possibility that you need to spend a little bit more time in the gym, not less…especially if you aren’t as active as you were in your younger days.

You Can Only Diet So Hard Before You Are Starving Yourself

I do believe that diet is the first thing to look at when you are trying to get lean, but there is a lower limit. If you cut back the calories too far, you will become malnourished. It is okay to eat slightly less than maintenance levels, but much lower than that for long periods of time is a terrible strategy. When reducing calories there is a lower limit. Even if you still need to lose body fat, it isn’t wise to go far below this lower limit for long periods of time.

There is An Upper Limit to Workout Intensity

If you perform too many intense workouts per week, you will over-train. You will break your body down at a faster rate than it can repair itself. To be honest, even a few ultra intense workouts per week can result in over-training. There is an upper limit to intensity that can’t be breached, even if you still have a lot of fat to lose.


[“Redlining” is a term I like to use when someone is eating below maintenance level calories and training intensely, but is unable to lose any more weight.]

When You Reach the Limits of Diet and Workout Intensity?

What variable can you adjust if you are at your limits with diet and workout intensity? You can adjust the amount of time you train. This is logical, but it isn’t discussed much. If you are stuck at a certain body weight, simply add in 30-90 minutes per week to your training and you will lose weight again. This has to be lower intensity training, if you are close to your upper limits already in terms of training intensity.

Why Cardio Is a Potent Tool for Fat Loss, In My Opinion

Cardio, whether it means walking outside or on a treadmill, is the perfect way to add in more activity without over-training. I like body weight circuits and HIIT and other versions of intense intervals, but there is a limit to how much I can do before I over-train. If I am still not losing as much body fat as I would like, I can’t simply increase the intensity or I will burn out. What I can do is extend the amount of time I do steady state cardio after I do HIIT, or I can add in walking for 1-2 hours per week.

What Training in the 80’s Taught Me

The big thing in the 80’s was to bulk up in the winter and cut down right before summer. I don’t think this is a great strategy, but it taught me quite a bit about dropping body fat. One thing I learned about fat loss was, given enough time on the treadmill or exercise bike and you can get as lean as you desire. This was before HIIT was known by the fitness community. Back then you would do steady state cardio for an hour per day, while eating a low fat diet to get extremely lean. It wasn’t time efficient, but it worked. I even read about bodybuilders who would walk on a treadmill an hour in the morning and an hour at night to reach ultra-low body fat levels.

Weird Science

Steady State Cardio is the Great Equalizer

Unlike the 80’s, I don’t think it is smart to use steady state cardio as your main method of losing body fat. It simply isn’t as time efficient as HIIT or other form of interval training. What I am saying is that if you are dieting properly and doing brief intense training along with HIIT, then it makes sense to add in lower intensity steady state cardio. Steady state cardio is one way a 40 year old can get as lean as a 20 year old. Steady state cardio will make up for the fact that you are less active and your HGH levels aren’t as high, etc…this is why I call it the great equalizer. It is the ideal supplementary exercise to give that small extra push needed to burn off that little bit of stubborn body fat that many can’t seem to lose when they get older.

If You Are Training Hard, But Are Stuck at a Certain Weight

So if you are training hard already and your diet is dialed in, then my advice is to train a little more than you are training now. It doesn’t have to be time spent in the gym…it could be walking 2-3 times per week, in addition to what you are doing now. Another approach is to just add 15 more minutes of steady state cardio to what you are doing now. Again, make sure you get everything optimum and as time efficient as possible before adding in additional steady state cardio. The goal isn’t to live in the gym or train non-stop. It is to get in shape.

Note: Sorry it has been so long since my last post. I had good intentions of getting posts done before my road trip, but ran out of time. Has a blast. I highly recommend Sedona as well as Huntington, for a full blown vacation. As far as places to live, San Francisco looked outstanding and hard to beat.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ios On Android Phone January 18, 2012 at 9:20 pm

It’s like an athlete with natural ability that loses out to an athlete that works harder. I wasn’t lazy when I was younger, but I definitely didn’t have the work ethic that I have now.

phil July 19, 2012 at 3:48 pm

great article and very true. at age 47, time has caught up with me and i’m really made to work for my results as opposed to 20 years ago when a couple of sprints per week and the occasional session at the gym would sort me out nicely. however, age has its rewards and i’m far more tuned in to my body’s requirements with a much better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. as a result i’m in far better shape now, simply as a result of being more focused on what i require from my workout sessions. diet becomes less important as you age, just make sure you eat an even mix of healthy macros at maintenance; instead, my focus nowadays is on how i train, which is at high frequency and intensity with low volume and duration, or in other words short, sharp and often. at 6’1″ i’ve maintained a steady weight at 175lbs with 11% b/f since i turned 40 and my training is now a groove which has become a positive habit, nice one. as rusty said, focus less on your diet and more on your training, cheers and good luck!

Rvtl Anti aging Formula May 8, 2013 at 9:01 pm

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