It’s no secret–the weeks close to the New Year are, without fail, the busiest times for gyms, health clubs, and personal trainers because every year people make New Year’s Resolutions to lose weight, stay fit, and work out more. Anyone either in the business or a regular at those places of fitness knows this–because we see you guys drop off after the first few weeks because you don’t have time or energy or blah blah blah blah blah.
I’m writing this because I’m one of the most literate guys about health and fitness in my circle of friends (the main exception being the friends I’ve made through training Jiu Jitsu, really) and I get asked questions about health and fitness from people who don’t really care about it EXCEPT in the context of their New Year’s Resolutions or other personal motivations. People who enjoy being healthy and exercising for its own sake never ask me shit, because we all get off on talking about it with each other already or reading and researching and trying out new things instead of just asking “Hey, <insert name of athletic friend here>, what can I do to ‘get in shape’?” My answer to those questions is this article, because I’m tired of repeating the same shit over and over.
First: a bit about me. In high school, I was a lanky stick who preferred to play video games, eat garbage, and play the occasional round of Ultimate Frisbee. In high school, I discovered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Mixed Martial Arts, and other various combat sports that involve punching, kicking, throwing, slamming, choking, and so on. In doing so, I also found something else–a motivation to bust my ass to get stronger, faster, and in generally better shape. That meant that I had to step up my strength conditioning and nutrition game.
If you haven’t really thought a whole lot about diet and exercise other than eating less fries and jogging a mile or two on the treadmill when you feel guilty, you’re probably going to read a whole bunch of stuff in this blog post that contradicts general common knowledge about both topics (where common knowledge is loosely defined as “What you think you know when you haven’t really studied anything at all”). All I can say is that this has worked splendidly for me, and I’m going to link to where I first read about specific nutritional principles, workout structures, etc. so you can read it for yourself if you choose and come to your own conclusions.
Generally speaking, what you eat has a far larger impact on your body composition (body fat %, lean muscle mass, etc.) than what you do in the gym, particularly for an untrained individual. It doesn’t always feel that way because dieting doesn’t leave you sore like a good workout does, but it’s true. I tend to keep roughly the same activity patterns whether I’m trying to bulk up or lose weight–it’s the diet that makes the difference.
Most men and women I talk to are trying to lose weight, and end up focusing more on their caloric intake (food) and caloric output (calories burned via exercise). Burn more calories than you take in, and you will lose weight–simple. Generally speaking, a pound of body fat is about 3500 calories, so if you can consistently maintain at a 500-calorie deficit you could lose one pound a week.
The thing is, there’s more to your caloric output than how much exercise you’re getting for two main reasons: First, it takes far more calories to build and maintain lean muscle mass than it does to build and maintain body fat, and second, your metabolism is in part related to what kinds of exercise you’re getting. This means that even if you’re trying to lose weight overall, you should be aiming to increase your level of lean muscle mass because that will make it easier to lose body fat and harder to put that weight on later. People tell me all the time that I can “eat whatever I want because I’m always working out”, which is not only not true (I acutely feel my performance drop if I’m eating garbage), it’s rather misleading–it’s not just because I burn calories during a workout, it’s also because I already have enough lean muscle mass that I’m still burning calories on my off days.
So: your diet has to encourage building and maintaining muscle while burning fat. (That’s basically the Holy Grail of a diet.) Which is, as it turns out, what I do when I need to drop weight and preserve as much strength as possible for a BJJ competition.
- Cut down on carbs. I don’t mean go straight-up Atkins diet on this one–I’ve never tried a ketogenic diet (<50G of carbs a day) because I don’t think a diet without vegetables is sustainable for the long term. I mean cut down on sugar, rice, potatoes, flour, corn, and so on. Don’t drink juice or soda, save the sweets for when you want to be particularly indulgent, and find ways to make your own meals that don’t involve pasta, rice, bread, corn, or potatoes. Simple carbohydrates typically don’t do much for your body that other foods can’t do, and your body typically stores the energy from these foods as fat, which is what you’re trying to ditch. This is undoubtedly the hardest part of trying to lose weight, especially if you eat out regularly, because most meals tend to involve a grain product pretty close to the center of the meal. I won’t explain much more in this blog post, but look into the “Paleo” diet (Loren Cordain) or check out The Primal Blueprint at Mark’s Daily Apple for the science behind it–as well as plenty of suggestions for delicious low-carb meals.
- Increase your protein intake. There’s no real consensus on How Much Protein Is Enough, but if you want to build and maintain muscle, you’re going to need protein. Lots of it. Red meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, nuts, whey protein supplements, it’s all good. Coming from John Berardi, a sports nutritionist who I read a lot as an introduction into sports nutrition, I try to eat a protein with every meal: eggs for breakfast, some kind of animal with lunch and dinner, nuts/milk/cottage cheese for snacks, and a whey protein shake after a workout.
- Don’t worry too much about fat. Calories from fat give you the energy you need to exercise, generally keep you more full per calorie than the equal amount of carbs, and more often than not come with a great source of protein (cheese, milk, beef, eggs, the list goes on). Fat has gotten a bad rap and that’s only just started to change. Mark’s Daily Apple is good for explaining more on this, but the short version is: eat it and enjoy it.
- Supplements: Don’t buy them until your diet is on point. Depending on your goals, supplementing with protein, fish oil, and creatine can do lots for your performance–but only if you’ve already optimized your diet for a stronger, leaner body already. There’s no point in spending the money on protein if the rest of your food budget goes to McDonald’s.
It takes a lot of slow, gradual work to adjust to this diet, because it’s so far off from the carb-heavy diet that most Americans are stuck in–but that’s kind of the point. Structuring your diet to fit your physical goals is a life-change, not something you do to lose a few pounds and then return to your old diet (and gain them all back).
The best workout schedule, like the best diet, is the one that you can stick to. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though–it just means that you can’t make that many excuses to not do it.
My first recommendation for someone looking to lose weight and build lean muscle is essentially “Do high-intensity interval training” (HIIT–Google it). Basically, the idea is that instead of doing longer cardio workouts that kept your heart-rate in the “fat-burning zone”–jogging for an hour, for example–we can build stronger muscles, better cardiovascular endurance, and end up losing more weight in less time by doing workouts that alternate between very high-intensity work for a short period of time, and a low-intensity, “active recovery” phase for a short period of time. Running stairs, doing wind sprints, and most kinds of circuit training (bodyweight or with weights) fall into this category. Doing anything for longer than 20 minutes of sustained effort does not.
HIIT is a method of designing a workout, not a specific workout plan. The best specific intro-to-HIIT-workout I’ve ever found is none other than Ross Enamait’s Burpee Conditioning: No More Nonsense. It’s basically a full-body-busting workout that consists of alternating between burpee intervals and low-intensity cardio (Ross uses shadowboxing, but jump rope or jumping jacks works fine as well) until you’re gassed. Once you get used to this kind of thing, jogging for half an hour will feel like a cooldown rather than a workout. Not only will it work your body hard, it’ll boost your basal metabolic level for the day or so, meaning you’ll be burning more calories than usual even when you’re doing your daily stuff.
If you’ve gotten to the point where you can do several rounds of burpee conditioning four days a week and you still have more time and energy to spend working out, great! Lift weights, find a sport you like–whatever. Long-term physical fitness is more about finding a sustainable routine–something you like doing–than ruthlessly kicking your ass (unless, like me, that’s what you’re into).
Common Mental Blocks (or, The Reason No One Ever Sticks To My Advice)
These are just a few of the mental problems that people have that stops them from being consistent with their diet and workout.
- HIIT workouts are hard. Running, comparatively, is easy to start, and once you’ve started to get in the groove it’s easier to finish–or stop whenever you’ve had enough. (HIIT workouts suck in the beginning, and suck even more at the end.) Start your HIIT session with a light warmup–joint rotations, jumping jacks, something to get your heart rate up a bit–so you feel like you’re easing into it. Once you’re warmed up, it’s a lot harder to say “No” to a hard workout.
- Don’t be motivated by masochism. This works in the beginning–feeling better about yourself because you’re being strict with your diet, or working out three times a day because you can–but it leads to stress, burnout, and eventually, giving up. Feeling good about beating yourself up is not going to help you sustain these habits in the long run. Instead, ease into it–even if you feel like you’re taking it too easy and you could be working harder. It’s better to feel like you’re always ready to tackle new challenges than it is to feel like you’re doing everything you can, because you have plenty of other stuff in your life that requires your attention and focus. Eventually, your diet and fitness should be habitual and replenishing, not draining. Constantly punishing yourself, on the other hand, is miserable.
- Stick to the workout you set up beforehand. Don’t make compromise a daily habit–there’s probably enough of it in your life already. Set up your workout before you start it, and try to be realistic. Starting easier and working your way up is far more gratifying than making it halfway through your workout.
There you have it, guys. First one is free.