Yes, You Can Lose the Menopot
Years ago I had a client who insisted that since she was going through menopause, she would never lose the belly fat that she recently developed. Her doctor told her that menopause will slow down her metabolism about 20% or so, and that it would be near impossible for her to lose the menopot. She was consistent with her training appointments, and she claimed to be adhering to the diet I gave her, but she really did not lose much around her midsection. I suspected that she cheated on her diet, thus preventing the fat loss.
She was not the first woman I trained with the same problem. There is no doubt that the hormonal changes that accompany menopause make it harder for women to lose the menopot, but I did not believe that it was an impossible task.
To find out if post menopausal women can regain the hourglass shape they had in their youth, I decided to do a study with three post menopausal women who had the menopot. I put them though a three month diet and exercise program that I believed could reduce the belly fat and regain valuable muscle tone. I am delighted to say that they all were successful in reducing the belly fat and reshaping the body.
I wrote a book on the study called Lose the Menopot, available on Amazon. This article will cover the main points of the book, and give you some good ideas on creating your own successful menopot reduction program.
Overview of the Study
I had two main objectives for the study. I wanted to help all three women who participated in the study to lose unwanted body fat, and at the same time I focused on increasing their muscle. I did not want any of the women to engage in a cardiovascular regimen because I believe that too much cardio actually hinders the progress of losing fat and gaining muscle. My own philosophy on exercise is that we simply need to send a signal to the body telling it to respond to whatever signal we give it. In this case, I wanted the signal to be "get stronger", and in so doing the body will add muscle mass. This is critical for post menopausal women because they will have lost about 5 to 8 pounds of muscle. It is the increase of muscle mass that in reality creates more muscle tone that women want. I have learned over my 25 years as a fitness professional that very little exercise is needed to increase strength, and with that in mind, I had all of the women do personalized workout sessions with me three times a week for less than 30 minutes each for the first month. In the final two months of the study I had them do only two workouts a week with me, all of the sessions done in under 30 minutes. The reason I cut back the weekly volume is because as the women got stronger, they needed more recovery time between workouts to make progress. I will do into greater detail about my approach later.
For the other objective, losing fat, I used a completely different approach than what most fitness trainers recommend. The common approach to fat loss is simply taking in less calories than the individual would burn on a daily basis, creating a negative energy deficit forcing the body to use energy from the fat stores. For example, the individual might add a cardio program three days a week to expend extra calories and at the same time attempt to take in, say, 500 calories a day less than she otherwise would. In theory, this approach should work, and yes, in the short term it does work, but rarely works over the long haul. There are, among others, two main problems with this approach. The first problem is that one would always be hungry. The hunger pangs are always there, and eventually the will to succeed will give way to cravings. Boom. The weight comes back on again. The other problem is that the body will go into starvation mode, slowing down the metabolic rate. It starts storing energy...and using less energy, because it thinks there is no food available. These physiological factors make it near impossible to lose fat and keep it off in the long run.
Instead of trying to get the women in the study to count calories...and cutting them down to try to lose fat, I had the women eat foods that would have a hormonal influence on the body to lose fat. There has been a long history of research showing that food choices can make the body store fat...or burn fat, without having to count calories or adding lengthy exercise sessions. It turns out that carbohydrates tell the body to store fat. All carbohydrates do this, even the "good carbs". In an ironic twist, it turns out that eating fat does not. In light of this knowledge, I had the women eat a low carbohydrate diet. I wanted them to stay under 100 grams a day. They did not have to count calories. They just needed to keep the carb content down. This, too, I will go into greater detail later.
Take a look at the before and after photos of Heidi below. She clearly lost fat and reshaped her body. Here are the striking numbers:
- Weight: 157 lbs at the start, and 145.5 lbs three months later. She lost a total of 11.5 lbs of scale weight.
- Body fat: 39% before. 34% three months later.
- Waist: 37 3/4 inches before. 34 inches after. She lost 3 1 and 3/4 inches around her waist!
- Hips: 42 3/4 inches before. 40 inches after three months.
- Heidi lost over 12 inches overall.
Moreover, Heidi increased her strength rather remarkably. For example, she did leg presses with with 100 lbs when she on her first workout, and when the study was concluded she was doing leg presses with over 500 lbs.
You can see from the photos that she lost inches around her waist. It is very noticeable from the rear. So even though Heidi went through menopause, she was able to lose fat around the midsection, gain some muscle, and shrink her overall measurements in three months.
Photos of Heidi (front view)Click thumbnail to view full-size
Photos of Heidi (side view)Click thumbnail to view full-size
Photos of Heidi (rear view)Click thumbnail to view full-size
Misha's photos are below. You will also notice that Misha also lost inches around her waist. As a matter of fact, you can see more overall tone and definition in her muscles, and she looks leaner in the face and generally just healthier. Here are her salient numbers:
- Weight: 121 lbs before. 113 lbs after three months for a loss of 8 lbs scale weight.
- Body fat; 36% before. 30% after three months for a loss of 6%.
- Waist: 33 1/4 inches before. 29 inches after for a loss of 4 1/4 inches in three months!
- Hips: 37 inches before. 35 1/2 inches after.
- 9 1/2 inches lost overall.
Misha, like Heidi, saw impressive strength gains as well. She started with 90 lbs on the leg press and she finished the study using 360 lbs.
Misha was not an amateur when it came to strength training. She used to do a bodybuilding routine when she was much younger, so she figured I would have her do a similar program. She was surprised to learn that I do not use a bodybuilding approach to strength training, in that I do not have my clients do a split routine and lots of sets. My workouts are very brief and intense. She was taken aback by how hard the sets were to do...much harder than what she was used to, and even though the volume of exercise was much lower than she expected, she made great gains.
Photos of Misha (front view)Click thumbnail to view full-size
Photos of Misha (side view)Click thumbnail to view full-size
Photos of Misha (rear view)Click thumbnail to view full-size
What Causes The Menopot?
The menopot that women seem to get after menopause is a real phenomena. Younger women will store the excess fat around the hips and thighs, which plays a big part in creating the hourglass shape that women have, but after menopause women will tend to gain the excess weight around the mid section in a similar manner to how men gain excess body fat. The reason for the shift is because of lower estrogen levels after menopause. It is generally assumed that lower estrogen levels lead to a lower metabolic rate, but that is not the whole story. Estrogen affects an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase that is found on both muscle tissue and fat cells. Lipoprotein lipase (lpl from now on) breaks down triglycerides to be used as energy for the muscles or to be stored as fat in the fat cells. Insulin plays a huge role in regulating lpl by down regulating the lpl on muscles and up-regulating lpl on the fat cells. This encourages fat storage. Low insulin levels will have the opposite effect i.e fat burning. Lower estrogen levels will up-regulate lpl activity on the fat cells around the mid section more so than the fat cells around the hips and thighs. This is not desirable because the belly fat is visceral fat that can lead to heart disease and diabetes.
I do believe that the metabolic rate for post menopausal women does slow down, but I also believe that there is too much emphasis placed on it as the reason for slower fat loss. In my opinion, slower fat loss has far more to do with prolonged over-consumption of carbohydrates and loss of muscle mass that we all experience in our 40's and 50's. Low estrogen levels have a greater impact on where the body will store fat, and not as much to do with a slower metabolism.
The Exercise Program
I specifically designed the workouts with the main purpose of building muscle. The secondary focus was on core stability and overall functionality. I was able to accomplish this task with an average of twelve total sets per workout. Roughly half of the routine was made up of basic strength exercises to work all of the large muscles, i.e legs, chest, back and arms. I usually did one set per body part thus allowing me to add both the core/stability exercises coupled with a few functional exercises in the remaining sets. In this manner, I was able to keep the workouts to under thirty minutes.
Fast strength gains can be seen from one good set per body part, thus eliminating the need for multiple sets, but the key is to be able to get the fast twitch fibers to work during the set. All of the muscles have a mixture of slow twitch and fast twitch fibers. The slow twitch fibers produce low levels of force, but they last a long time. They are known as the endurance fibers. The fast twitch fibers, on the other hand, produce large amounts of force in a short amount of time and then they burn out. When we lose muscle mass, both men and women, we lose the fast twitch fibers. The process is called sarcopenia, and it is why we tend to move slower as we get older. Moreover, and more to the point of this article, the fast twitch fibers are the ones that show more tone and definition and play a role in a faster metabolism, so we want to keep them as best as we can.
Research has shown that the most efficient way to get to the fast twitch fibers is to have the weight heavy enough so that the muscle gets very fatigued by the end of a set.The repetition range works best if it is between 8 to 12 repetitions. Furthermore, the cadence of the repetition should be in a slow and controlled manner to keep the muscle under continuous tension. The better the tension, the deeper the fatigue, and the more the fast twitch fibers are called on to perform.
Progression, too, is very important. As soon as the upper end of the repetitions can be performed, it is time to add a little bit more load to the machine or barbell the next workout. For example, when my client was able to do 12 reps at 65 lbs, I would have her do 70 lbs the next workout for as many reps as she could do. If she was only able to do 8 reps before I had to help her, I would make note of it for the next workout. Usually she would be able to do maybe nine or ten reps before she needed help on the following workout. This is known as taking a set to failure, and it is a very necessary part of a successful strength training program.
The functional exercises I had my participants do were general whole body movements designed to teach the body to work as a unit. They were at a faster cadence and a higher rep range, typically around fifteen to twenty reps.
Core training is far more sophisticated than when I first entered the fitness profession several years ago. Back then, crunches and sit ups were about all anyone did. Now we focus on the whole abdominal wall and the deeper core muscles that play a big role in core stabilization and injury prevention. There are many exercises with the fit ball that really do a good job.
One final point: I would have my clients move as quickly as possible between sets. They needed to catch their breath so they could do another hard set, but I never allowed them to let their heart rate get back to baseline. This forces them to work above the anaerobic threshold, which also helps build muscle, burn fat, and improve reserve capacity.
This is an of a functional exercise. My personal favorite
This is a good core exercise we do often
The Nutrition Program
I mentioned in the introduction a client I had years ago that had trouble losing the belly fat she gained from menopause, and at the time I assumed that she did not stick to the diet. She insisted that she was, and that could very well be true in hindsight. Back then I had my clients doing the typical "calories in, calories out" model. In this case, I put her on a 1200 to 1400 calorie a day diet believing that she would then burn more calories than she was consuming creating the calorie deficit necessary for fat loss. I followed the pyramid recommendations of a high carbohydrate/low fat diet for all of my clients. Decreasing calories like that is also known as a semi starvation diet. Honestly, my clients had modest success with that formula, and I could not figure out why. Delving deeply into the subject the last three years, I now believe I have the answers. It turns out that both fat burning and fat storage is more strongly controlled by hormones than by overall caloric intake. The hormones glucagon and testosterone among others make the body burn fat, and it turns out that only one hormone causes fat storage...insulin. Whenever insulin is present, the body is storing fat. As is well known, insulin is secreted whenever we eat simple carbohydrates, but it is also secreted when we eat complex carbohydrates. That means the high carbohydrate/low fat diet tells the body to store fat. Using this information, I had the women in my study eating a very low carbohydrate/high fat diet. I wanted them to try to keep their daily overall carbohydrate intake below 80 to 100 grams a day. If they were able to stay below 70 grams a day, that would be even better. Additionally, I did not have them count calories. They could eat whenever they were hungry, and stop eating when they were full.
I had them refrain from:
- breakfast cereals
- and so on
They could eat:
- meats of all kinds
- coconut oil
- olive oil
- cheese and milk...the high fat variety
- non starchy vegetables (spinach, tomatoes, kale etc..)
- indulgences such as dark chocolate and wine
I am sure this sounds familiar. It really is similar to what Dr Atkins recommended back in the 70's, and what the Paleo style of eating is today. Ironically, this is not new information. Obesity practitioners over 100 years ago knew that low carbohydrate diets worked. They did not know the intricacies like they do now...but they knew that it worked. We were, in my opinion, very successful with the low carb approach in the study.
Menopause shifts how the body will store fat. Women going through menopause will start gaining extra weight around the mid section, just like men generally tend to do. Moreover, the metabolism seems to slow down a bit, further exasperating the challenge to lose the fat and regaining the youthful hour glass shape women desire. That being said, it is not impossible to do so. A good diet and exercise program can do wonders. As far as the exercise program is concerned, the main focus should be on regaining the lost muscle mass. In other words, an effective, efficient strength training program. The fat loss will come about from the diet. To me it is very clear that a low carbohydrate/high fat diet is the key there. Combining these two pieces of the puzzle has a synergistic effect for losing the menopot...and improving overall health to boot.
© 2016 Gregg Hoffman