Understanding The Biggest Loser
The Biggest Loser: Families returns to TV screens on Sunday night. While I have only ever watched a single season from start to finish, you don’t need an expert to know what is going to happen.
Obese families will compete to lose the most weight and win a tonne of cash. Over the journey, there will be tears, breakdowns and people will overcome their fears. At the end, the family who loses the largest percentage of their starting weight will gain a few $100k.
You might be sitting there and thinking that sounds boring and repetitive, but let’s not forget that every other reality TV show keeps coming back with the exact same structure!
TBL cops criticism from trainers, nutritionists and anyone in between, because of the methods used to elucidate the client’s transformations. But let's think about why this all happens, and what is the true motivation (money) and drivers (contestants) of these processes.
What are the contestants true goals?
When many people decide they want to lose weight, ‘improving health’ is a frequently mentioned reason. However, it’s not usually the first reason or even the second. Most people want to lose weight to gain confidence, improve their appearance and feel better about themselves... and there's nothing wrong with that!
In the case of TBL, you will no doubt hear the contestants say they want to lose weight to improve their health, feel better about themselves and because it is their last chance to do so. However, for the contestants, winning the game/prize is their primary goal. Otherwise, they are more likely to shun the national TV exposure of their weight loss and avoid the need to put their lives on hold.
There is nothing wrong with having a non-health related primary goal – whatever it is – and this will never detract from the secondary benefits. If you want to lose weight for any reason you have, the secondary benefits are still great outcomes!
We do need to keep in mind that the primary goal of these contestants in to lose the most amount of weight, remain on the show, and win the prize. Health comes as a side-benefit, but will not be the priority of the training and nutrition protocols the clients develop for each contestant to follow.
Why is this important?
At some stage you need to prioritise which goal is more important. For example, the body recomposition strategies we use at IFN would not be ideal on TBL.
If a TBL contested starts off at 150kg and loses 70kg of fat to end up at 80kg, they have lost 46.67% of their body weight. If the same contestant loses 70kg of fat, but gains 5kg of muscle, their total bodyweight will be 85kg. This means they have only lost 43.33% of their bodyweight, despite losing the same amount of fat!
This equates to a 3.33% difference in total body weight lost, which is significant and may just cost you the prize. When a few $100K is on the line, you don’t want to risk that... the contestants would be better off sacrificing potential muscle gain to win the money, then they can hire a body recomposition coach with their winnings!
Training + Nutrition Methods
Attacking the training and nutrition methods are common cheap shots that often come from the industry itself. Saying that you would have the contestants on a higher energy intake or have them exercising less is all well and good to say, but you can’t judge the entire protocols based on the few hours screened on TV each week.
The reality of reality TV is that people want to see tears, struggle and overcoming barriers. What is the best way to do this with a group of obese and unfit individuals? Make them exercise a lot and eat very little. Pretty simple.
This leads to a potential conflict of interest between the trainers and producers of the show. Realistically, if the show did go down the path of a longer-term weight-loss program, where the clients aimed to lose weight slowly and learning about training and nutrition. No tears, no viewers.
Criticising the Trainer’s
The trainers are in a tough position. First of all, they want their group to win. Therefore, they need to lose the most amount of weight, which will allow them to stay in the competition. Primary goal – remember?
I’m sure the trainers would rather use a more sustainable approach and I doubt this is how they would train their private clients. However, this a TV show and the goals are drastically different to a typical client. The fact they can change their usual programming to accommodate these style is more a reflection of a good trainer, rather than a bad one.
It’s easy for a trainer to post on Facebook saying TBL training methodologies are ridiculous and they would never do that, but I’m sure if they were getting paid big dollars and national exposure, they would consider it too. Not that they would admit to that!
What would I do?
I am always surprised at the relatively low protein intake that the contestants consume. Protein intake is beneficial for both fat loss and muscle gain, therefore I would recommend consumption in higher quantities for the contestants. However, the relevant sponsors don't lend themselves to high protein consumption, and simple meats and vegetables are rarely branded/promoted!
Training-wise, there would be a lot of metabolic condition and steady-state cardio. I would combine these two, following a metabolic conditioning session with a 15-25 minute steady state session. For those of who have read Three Steps of Fat Burning, you would understand why!
I would keep heavy resistance training to a minimum to avoid building too much muscle mass. I would avoid running and cycling as much as possible. Running with poor mechanics (obesity makes this inevitable) placed too much pressure on joints and cycling makes inhibits blood flow to and from the lower extremities (we need blood flow to burn fat!).
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Take it for what it is
The Biggest Loser is another form of entertainment we can access. It isn’t about providing health tips or advice, it is first and foremost about entertainment and secondly, maybe some motivation... Don't get hung up when you can't get the rapid results the contestants achieve, because they are nowhere near realistic for most people.
If The Biggest Loser keeps you entertained, it has done it's job. If it inspires you to get fit, it has done overtime. If it gives you the fitness and nutrition template to follow, it has left it's scope!