By Kim Duke NETA & AFAA Certified Trainer

No matter how much some people exercise, visible muscle definition escapes them, and they simply cannot get the kind of defined “cuts” that they seek, nor shed that layer of subcutaneous water beneath their skin. So what gives?

Unfortunately, those elusive cuts spring up only after a variety of factors are in place, including optimal body composition, correct training and balanced nutrition for fat loss.

What many people miss is that the appearance of toned muscle is more a result of diet than exercise. Even for someone whose body fat percentage is normal or even low? For women, this will most likely be 20 percent, and for men, below 15 percent.

Reducing overall body fat through consistent fat loss exercise and correct nutrition will get your physique in the ballpark where visible muscle separation and tone are possible, but from there, it is all about the details. Read on to see what I mean …

Have you ever chopped down a tree with an old-fashioned axe? Or played a contact sport that involved all-out effort imposed on an object that was being pushed back at you (wrestling, football, martial arts)? In these types of movements, you will spend periods of time in both the aerobic and anaerobic zones. This is referred to as metabolic conditioning, and it occurs when the trainee moves up and gets down, explodes through a set of squats, hits the floor for a maxed out set of pushup and then blasts though a one minute cardio burst — all with very little rest in between.

The benefit to metabolic conditioning is that the trainee will burn the maximum amount of calories (specifically fat calories) possible during a workout. This is because metabolic conditioning activates three major energy systems: phosphagen (for explosive movements lasting seconds), glycolytic (essentially anaerobic metabolism) and oxidative (essentially aerobic metabolism).

This hormonal cascade is released under very high intensities, be it heavy weights or exhaustive sprinting or jumping. All these factors should be included and combined with shorter rest periods that are just long enough to recover and generate the same intensity again.

Another key hormone is lactate or lactic acid. The major signal sent by lactate during exercise is an adaption signal. Lactate has three major functions: as an alternate fuel source, to increase mitochondrial generation (the energy factories in cells) and to stimulate release of growth promoting hormones.

Putting it Together

Breathless. You must pant for breath in a metabolic workout. If you can talk, you are not working hard enough.

Burning. You must reach metabolic failure. This is the term we use to describe the need to stop because of an intense burn in the muscles, not necessarily because the weights are too heavy. This is directly related to lactate generation and how much growth hormone a trainee will generate.

Heavy. Without incorporating heavy-weighted movements into the workout, you’re missing it. Heavy barbell squats, bench presses and maximal deadlifts are key. This is what we call mechanical failure and it’s all about type II muscle fibers. Heavy weight triggers HGH and testosterone.

Heat. If you are not sweating, your body is not getting hot enough. If you are not sweating in a workout, you’re missing the heat effect.

The unique hormonal response of this type of exercise is what drives the results, not calories. Also, you must know that true metabolic conditioning is individualized. Everyone’s sweet spot is different. This is why one-size-fits-all programs are not as effective.

In order to get the proper response, people should rest just long enough to push hard a second time. This rest-based approach allows tailored metabolic conditioning for all fitness levels.