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How To Optimize Metabolic Flexibility (Fat & Carbohydrate Metabolism)

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Metabolic flexibility is a fairly new concept entering the fitness industry. In short, it describes one’s ability to respond to different nutritional intakes and energy demands.

This could be due to changes in diet, e.g. when one is carb cycling or switching from a high carb to low carb diet. Metabolic flexibility also describes someone’s adjustment to energy intake, e.g. if you are stuck without food for a day or eat less on a certain day, how well you use your stored energy (i.e. fat) as fuel.

Someone with “good” metabolic flexibility can adapt quickly, alter their diet, macronutrient intake, energy intake and utilize different foods as fuel. They are also able to diet more efficiently, portioning body fat as a fuel and food for muscle growth / recovery.

If you’re trying to lose weight, are into fitness or performance gains, then metabolic flexibility is an important factor for effectively and efficiently adjusting your body composition.

How Metabolic Flexibility Can Help You Lose Fat

We all have that friend who eats pizza and burgers every other day while staying lean and adding muscle, right?

Part of their genetically gifted inheritance includes great metabolic flexibility. They have the ability to adapt to different nutritional challenges and to utilize the nutrients.

If you’re trying to optimize your physique or improve your workouts there are two key benefits here.

First, you must consider your ability to partition nutrients towards the working muscle, which helps with recovery and growth. This means that the food and thus energy you are consuming is being sent to muscle for growth and energy purposes, rather than to fat tissue for fat storage.

The second factor to consider is how easily you gain body fat because you can’t effectively partition the nutrients for fuel. The quicker you gain fat, the faster you become insulin resistant which has a snowball effect on ruining your health.

While calories are still the most fundamental factor in weight loss, having metabolic flexibility means your body handles and partitions the food to your advantage, which adds up on a daily basis, during vacations, cheat meals or times of overfeeding.

You most likely have heard about insulin sensitivity and its importance; well, Insulin Sensitivity is a part of Metabolic Flexibility. It helps you partition carbohydrates into muscle rather than fat and is also linked to an array of health benefits.

metabolic flexibility

Metabolic Flexibility Allows For Rapid Changes In The Diet

Metabolic Flexibility also becomes key when varying your diet – if you want to chop and change your macronutrient intake, you will need to have good metabolic flexibility.

People often experience issues when low carb dieting, including weakness, no pumps in the gym, low energy, headaches, brain fog and more.

This is partly due to POOR metabolic flexibility – their body isn’t able to produce energy efficiently enough via different energy pathways. In other words, they stop taking in carbohydrates but can’t BURN FAT for fuel efficiently so they have no energy to fuel daily activities, let alone to perform exercise.

In contrast to this, myself, along with many of my clients, can switch week to week from high carb to low carb without issues, because we’ve spent time on both diets and have improved our metabolic flexibility.

In essence, this means that we have more energy systems we can tap into (meaning using carbohydrates and fat with ease) – the more flexibility you’ll have under different circumstances.

Additionally, this means that when you’re hoping to lose body fat, your body will have no issue using stored fat as a primary energy source, rather than driving up protein oxidation rates, which causes you to tap into that hard-earnt lean muscle.

How To Improve Metabolic Flexibility

Hopefully you now appreciate the importance of Metabolic Flexibility… so the next logical question is how we improve it.

Similar to insulin sensitivity, several methods can help you improve your metabolic flexibility.

Improve How Your Mitochondria Cells’ Functions

Mitochondria are organelles in cells, which are responsible for ATP (energy) production. Without them, we would die. It’s known as the powerhouse of our cells, much like the engine is to our car.

By improving mitochondrial function, we can utilize and burn energy more efficiently. This helps when bulking, i.e. we utilize more food for energy and growth, leaving less to be stored as fat.

It also helps when dieting. The more efficient our mitochondria are, the more fatty acids we can burn for fuel, meaning greater weight loss when combined with a calorie deficit.

There are several strategies for what is known as mitochondrial biogenesis, or the creation of mitochondria. While improving efficiency of existing mitochondria is key, allowing for a greater number of these organelles makes the process of burning fat even easier.

One great method is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which provides a ton of benefits I discuss in this article. Try adding in 2 or 3 HIIT sessions per week, as little as 4 x 30 second intervals can do the job.

Another method for improving mitochondrial function is performing periods of training with lower carbohydrate stores. This is known in the research world as ‘train low, compete high’.

While this may not be optimal for sports performance in the short term, it can help when you look at the bigger picture of physique optimization. When training with low muscle glycogen, you are forced to use more fat as fuel.

This low carb training method has been shown to improve Mitochondrial health and function over the long term and is even being used by elite athletes to improve their own metabolic flexibility.

To apply this, you would simply go onto a lower carb diet such as my Metabolic Advantage Diet for a few weeks and combine it with cardio or regular weight training (which as mentioned, may suck as first).

metabolic flexibility

Cycle Macronutrients

One basic method to improve mitochondrial function and metabolic flexibility is to cycle your macronutrient intake.

A lifetime of super high or super low carbohydrate intakes probably isn’t optimal for someone trying to become metabolically flexible, as the body loses some of the required enzymes needed to breakdown the food source that’s been eliminated.

Rather than chronically restricting or overeating carbs, you could try to use carb cycling or switch your main fuel source (e.g. carbohydrates or fats) every few months depending on your goal or current training block.

This will teach your body to use both carbs and fat as fuel. In the long term, this will give you the flexibility to handle different nutritional challenges and function efficiently with every energy system.

Add In Periods Of Fasting

Intermittent Fasting is an extremely popular method to shred fat and also has other impressive benefits such as boosting your Metabolic Flexibility and Insulin Sensitivity.

Although people often avoid intermittent fasting (IF), due to fear of muscle loss, you can eliminate or minimize this issue with sensibly timing of the fasting window in sync with your training/gym time.

For example, my main recommendation is to use it far away from the workout, so it doesn’t interfere with energy, performance or recovery. For example, if you train at 6pm, you could spend the first few hours in the morning fasting.

This allows for plenty of time to fuel up before the workout and will not disrupt the post-workout recovery process.

As little as a 12 – 14 hour fast can be beneficial, so if you eat at 9pm the night before, hold off until around 9 – 11am the next day.

If you want some 7 Day Intermittent Fasting Meal Plans you can download them here.

metabolic flexibility

Use Advanced Training Variables And Metabolic Workouts

Not only will the use of advanced training techniques help you add muscle, burn calories and improve fitness, it will also aid with metabolic flexibility.

Advanced Training variables such as Forced Reps, Drop sets and Giant Sets can create a large metabolic and hormonal stimulus. This type of training requires a large amount of energy in a short amount of time, stressing the mitochondria and forcing it to adapt and grow.

These types of workouts also increase key anabolic hormones, such as Testosterone, Growth Hormones and IGF-1.

The anabolic hormones help with fuel breakdown and utilization; when combined with highly demanding workouts they teach the body to run on both carbohydrates and fat as fuel.

In fact, it’s these exact Metabolic Workouts that tens of thousands of members in my 90 Day Bikini plan have used as their secret weapon to torch body fat in record time. Based on research, this method alone can burn fat 200% faster and ignite your metabolism for 4-5x longer than normal training. You can learn more on that here.

Metabolic fleibility

Boost Your Metabolic Flexibility Today!

You should now understand why metabolic flexibility is an important consideration in your quest to drop body fat or even for your long-term health!

In short, Metabolic Flexibility is going to give you more freedom with your diet and prepare you for what life may throw at you, if you are limited to certain food groups at certain times, when travelling or simply when trying a new diet etc.

It also provides some unique benefits for health, improving our main cells’ health, the Mitochondria, and helping us burn more fat during exercise or even at rest.

As always, this is an extra technique to apply AFTER all the basics are in place, such as your main diet, workouts, calorie intake, sleep and consistency. If you want to learn how to optimize these basics, click here.

If you want to learn more about more Intermittent Fasting  or Metabolic Resistance Training you can do so by clicking those links.

Metabolic flexibility

About the author

Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN

Rudy has a 1st class BSc in Exercise, Nutrition & Health and a Masters in Exercise & Nutrition Science from the University of Tampa. Rudy currently works as a Human Performance Researcher, Sports Nutritionist and Physique Coach. Over 7 years he has helped over 500 people around the world achieve long last physique transformations.

He now works closely with a variety of professional athletes and teams, including the NBA, USA Athletics, World Triathlon Gold Medalists, Hollywood Celebrities and IFBB Pro Bodybuilders. If you would like to get in contact or work with Rudy please contact him on social media.

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