The “Fitter But FATTER” Phenomenon? (PART 3)

The “Fitter But FATTER” Phenomenon? (PART 3)

Let’s jump right into today’s video on “How hard is TOO HARD” of a workout.

If you recall, in Part 1, we discussed the best workout duration to avoid becoming “Fit But FAT.”

In Part 2, we briefly looked at the “Intensity Threshold Effect” and covered the role of cortisol in getting fatter.

Today, we’ll dive deeper into the specifics of the “Intensity Threshold Effect” and what that means with respect to “How hard is TOO HARD”…

… and what “TOO HARD” actually means.

Recall that the “Intensity Threshold Effect” is the intensity – a percentage of your maximum effort – that triggers a cortisol release.

And recall that in most cases, many people with excess stomach fat – men and women – already have abnormally high circulating levels of cortisol, which are directly correlated with producing more stomach fat.

So, if that’s you, you don’t necessarily want your body to produce even more cortisol from your workouts, because that can produce even more stomach fat, contributing to the “Fitter But FATTER” Phenomenon (FBFP).

Makes sense, right? 

So, let’s look at some specifics from the scientific literature about the Intensity Threshold.

One study[1] showed an increase in pre-to-post exercise cortisol from exercising at 30 minutes over 80% VO2max. 

(By contrast, the same study showed that lower intensity exercise reduced circulating cortisol levels.) 

Another study[2] demonstrated that short rest (30 seconds between sets) circuit training, using 70-75% of a 1RM, for 30 minutes, did NOT increase circulating cortisol levels during or post exercise.

And in a seeming contradiction to the first study, a third study[3] reports that HIIT (>85% VO2max) produces a 42% decrease in circulating cortisol levels after 3 weeks in obese individuals.

However, this same study also reports elevated circulating cortisol levels after regular bouts of endurance-based exercise (which gets us back to that 30-minute time limit we discussed in Part 1).

The authors state:

“The stress responses to exercise may vary greatly, depending on intensity (high-moderate-low), duration (short-moderate-long) and type of exercise (continuous vs. intermittent), leading to different levels of allostasis which may also be influenced by other parameters such as age, sex and training status.:

… Which explains the differences in individuals’ responses to training programs.

And a fourth study[4], a strength and power training focused program, reported decreased circulating cortisol levels as a result of resistance training

“Another important finding of this study was that the amount of cortisol produced at resting levels was reduced and the response to the resistance exercise stress was lower in the older men.”

And finally, a 2021 literature review[5] stated:

“Prolonged aerobic exercise, especially at higher intensities, significantly elevates cortisol concentrations when compared to similar duration and intensities of resistance exercise…

 Higher exercise intensities and duration appear to be the main contributing factors that influence the production of cortisol, increasing the potential for muscle catabolism and muscle loss.” 

It’s interesting to note that this study pointed out something we haven’t discussed yet –

Chronically elevated cortisol levels not only increase stomach / visceral fat…

They also increase [the potential for] muscle loss.

We’ll get into that some other time, but it certainly is food for thought.

To summarize what we’ve learned so far…

Cortisol is

[1] Released at a VO2max above 80% 

[2] NOT released from resistance training at 70-75% of 1RM performed with short rests in a circuit fashion

[3] Released after HIIT 

[4] Decreased at rest by 42% after 3 weeks of specific HIIT in obese individuals

[5] Significantly decreased at rest after strength & power based resistance training

So far, so good. 

But we still have to dig deeper on “TOO HARD.”

“TOO HARD” = Also “Too Frequently”

It’s also important to note since cortisol is a stress hormone, and your workouts are perceived as a stressor – at least when engaging in HIIT…

And that means, training too often – at least using HIIT – can keep circulating cortisol levels elevated.

Case in point:

A couple of years ago, a private client and I did a daily Swing challenge: 100 Swings a day, 6 days a week.

We also threw some Push Ups in there for good measure and the challenge ended up being 100 Swings and 100 Push Ups a day.

My training sessions were all around 30 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes.

And as I recall, without going back and checking my training journal, we did this for 6 weeks.

Now you might think I peeled off the body fat and got “shredded.”


The exact opposite happened.

I lost muscle, and packed on stomach fat.


100 Swings a day was a form of HIIT for me.

And as we saw from the research, HIIT elevates your / our cortisol levels.

“Yeah, but Geoff, that won’t happen with AGT… or if you follow the “Stop Signs”… or use autoregulation…” 

Au contraire, mon frère. 

Your body only knows stress.

Too much stress, and your body cannot recover, which means it responds accordingly.

Like the “Fitter But FATTER” Phenomenon.

And, that’s because, as we’ve seen, chronically elevated cortisol levels both –

[a]  Increase stomach / visceral fat deposition / accumulation, and 

[b]  Increase muscle catabolism (destruction) and muscle loss

Interestingly enough, this “higher intensity,” higher frequency, longer duration combination is one of the reasons endurance athletes have higher than normal circulating cortisol levels[6],[7]. 

So, as I look back at the last 20+ years of training others, the failures of both myself and my clients, is due to the WRONG combination of –

[X]  High of an “aerobic” / cardiovascular exercise intensity

[X]  Duration (too long)

[X]  Frequency (too often)

[X]  Effort (too hard) 

And as a result, the body doesn’t recover, leading to chronically elevated cortisol levels…

And the failure to get rid of visceral fat… 

And in many, if not most cases…

The accumulation of more stomach fat, even though by all other measures you’re getting “fitter.”

So, to wrap up, if you’re currently experiencing the “Fitter But FATTER” Phenomenon, it’s because you:

[1]  Are working out at TOO HIGH AN INTENSITY

[2]  Are working out TOO FREQUENTLY

[3]  Are working out TOO LONG

[4]  Or any combination of the 3 above

How do you fix it?

How do you still get “fitter” or “get stronger,” or in “better shape”?

Here are some ideas for you (assuming no nutrition intervention – in other words, apart from “diet”)…

If your goal is to “get stronger” or “get better conditioned”:

[1]  Train using 70-75% of your 1RM on your strength exercises (or a corresponding RM) 2-3x a week

[2]  Limit HIIT / or AGT work to 2-3x week (If you’re strength work is incredibly taxing, consider 1-2x week here)

[3]  Engage in low-intensity aerobic work, like walking 3+ days a week

[4]  Add in active recovery / restoration work to reduce stress on non-training days

[5]  Consider combining #1 and #2 with protocols that make you stronger and elevate your heart rate

Here are some programs that will help, if you don’t want to figure this out on your own:

👉 The “Ultimate” Kettlebell Program 

👉 Minimalism At Its Finest 

👉 Novice and Intermediate ULTRA-Minimalist For Improved Conditioning 

👉 Advanced ULTRA-Minimalist For Improved Conditioning 

If your goal is solely to “lose weight / fat” and you don’t care about “getting stronger”:

[1]  Use HIIT / AGT 3x week 

[2]  Engage in low-intensity aerobic work, like walking 3+ days a week

[3]  Add in active recovery / restoration work to reduce stress on non-training days

Here are some programs that will help, if you don’t want to figure this out on your own:

=> Pick one of these 3, based on your kettlebell skill level 

Hopefully you found this series helpful and now know why you may be “Fitter But FATTER” and more importantly, how to avoid this moving forward.

Stay Strong,







[5] Torres, Ricardo & Koutakis, Panagiotis & Forsse, Jeffrey. (2021). The Effects of Different Exercise Intensities and Modalities on Cortisol Production in Healthy Individuals: A Review. 4. 19. 10.53520/jen2021.103108. 



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