Ask Amanda: The Opposite of Exercise

A wonderful (and sidenote, gorgeous) TFB reader and bride-to-be came to me with a frustrated #AskAmanda question earlier this week, and I felt for her, because I feel like it’s something I commonly hear from training clients that are just starting out:

“I’m busting my ass in the gym (or, training for this marathon; or, doing CrossFit; or, taking the 40-day hot yoga challenge, etc. etc.) and I’m actually GAINING weight.”

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Sound familiar?

Believe it or not, I’ve been there.  There was a time in my life when I was running more than 25 miles per week, lifting weights, and doing CrossFit, and watching that infuriating little red ticker on my scale NOT BUDGE AN OUNCE.  Here I was, legitimately exercising at a high intensity at least 2 hours per day and not losing weight.  Seems impossible, right?

How could adding more exercise produce results that are the exact opposite of exercise?

So….here’s the thing, guys.  Remember my 80/10/10 theory (if not, read all about it here)? The basic idea is this: only 10% of the way your body looks in terms of fat-to-muscle composition comes from the gym.  The other ten percent comes from genetics (hey, don’t fight Mother Nature).  And the remaining EIGHTY (eight-zero) percent comes straight from what you put into your mouth: your diet.

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Focus on the first and last columns.

Anyone who’s lost a significant amount of weight without illness or surgery will tell you, if they’re being honest, that it’s making a radical dietary change that made the final difference in watching the scale go down, down down.  Social media, pop culture, and fitness magazines do their best to tell you that it’s “gettin’ swole” in the gym or doing some particular sort of workout that’s going to make your six pack pop – when in reality, dropping carbs for a week will do more for your abs than a thousand crunches ever will.

That being said, of course there are some nutritional strategies that are more effective than others, and there are some workouts that are more effective than others, and there are some “insider” trainer tips that can help speed along body fat loss – and I want to give you a little insight into all of those, right now:

BE.  CONSISTENT.  Above all, you need to be consistent in your diet and exercise routine.  As you know, I am a big fan of intermittent fasting (IF), and the reason it works for me is because I do it every day.  Maybe IF isn’t for you, but maybe the four-hour body is.  Maybe my style of working out (mid-distance running interspersed with traditional weight training and twice-per-week obstacle training) isn’t for you, but Pilates is.  I am not as concerned with WHAT clean-eating plan you’re following or WHAT workout you’re doing, as long as  you’re not doing it a couple days a week and acting “shocked” when results aren’t there.  Success is a full-time gig, my friends.

TRACK & CONQUER INFLAMMATION.  Especially when picking up the iron for the first time, a lot of my clients experience a great deal of muscle soreness and inflammation, which can lead to skipping workouts, poor sleep quality, and just general feelings of OUCH.  I wrote a whole blog on how to get over this initial exercise adaptation (so hey, I’m not gonna repeat myself too much here) but just know this: if you don’t reduce inflammation in the body, your brain doesn’t receive enough of the leptin hormone (yep, the one that controls and regulates your appetite), and you end up hungry & tired.

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TIME YOUR MEALS TO CONTROL YOUR APPETITE.  A lot of first-time marathoners complain that they’re ravenous because of their increase in weekly running mileage – but the strategy here is to use your meals strategically so that they curb your appetite and refuel your body rather than leave you stranded and starving.  My best advice is to exercise first thing in the morning – yes, before you’ve even eaten – to “use” a large, nutritious breakfast (NOT this “fat-free yogurt and fruit” BS that so many of my clients think is healthy) as your recovery meal (by eating before you work out, you “use up” the fuel during your work out, and often feel hungry afterward and need a “second breakfast” to keep going).  Have a lunch that features lots of protein and a healthy carb, then let the carbs go after 4pm – focusing on protein alone as afternoon snacks (read: hard boiled egg, protein shake) and as the centerpiece at dinner.  As the old saying goes, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”

DROP THE WHITE STUFF.  Speaking of eating, the three food “groups” (eye roll) you can let go in a jiffy if you’re honestly trying to cut fat are sugar, flour and salt.  Point blank. These three ingredients (especially when consumed to excess) are poison to your system, dull your skin, slow your metabolism, clog up your bowels, and worst of all, make you fat.  You know what DOESN’T make you fat, in the ultimate irony?  FAT.  You can even lose weight drinking liquid butter for breakfast – but not if you can’t drop the croissants.

DIURETIC YOUR DIET.  A lot of us retain a lot of water (per the above, often due to overzealous salt and sugar intakes) that in turn makes us have the “appearance” of chubbiness even when body fat is not that high – think puffed-up cheeks, swollen hands and feet, and distended bellies.  If you are one of these people (and hey-o, I am too!), diuretic foods and beverages can be your best friend.  Granted, you don’t want to lose all the water in your system and you need to stay super hydrated throughout the day for diuretics to be healthy and effective, but integrating diuretic foods can help beat the bloat and give you a slimmer, tighter appearance almost instantly (definitely a fitness-model trick for photoshoot day, believe you me).  Here’s a list to help you figure out what to eat.

Finally, USE YOUR GYM TIME WISELY.  Most of us don’t have hours to slog away on the treadmill and per my above points on inflammation, appetite, and weight loss – you don’t want to be doing that anyway.  Building more muscle is the surest way to make your body a lean, mean, metabolic-functioning machine, and building more muscle comes from a combination of eating enough protein and 3-4 sessions per week of lifting heavy weights (ladies, you too).  Add in a day or two of HIIT-style cardio to shed a little more fat and bingo – your kick-started fat loss journey has begun.

What’s worked for you in terms of body fat loss – and if you’ve never needed to lose weight, what are your best stay-slim strategies?

Ask Amanda: Size Me Up

I meant to write this entry weeks ago when the whole Lady Gaga body shaming thing came out, but other #AskAmanda inquiries came up, and I had to save my little soapbox for a while.

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ZING!

But now, I’ve been thinking about my dear Lady as well as some other recent body-related posts I’ve seen (female boxer Alicia Napoleon on what being “beautiful” means; H&M’s new body positive advertising) and I just feel like it’s the right time to talk about an issue that underlies so much of the communication, presentation, and function of the fitness industry – especially as it applies to women*.

(*Male readers, by the way, don’t think you’re “excused” from the conversation – if you choose to leave, you’re just part of the problem.)

“The problem,” by the way, is this: the true definition of fitness as an ideal should be a strong, healthy body, mind and spirit – but the working definition of fitness in our culture is a muscled yet somehow miraculously lean body without much attention to the whole “mind and spirit” thing and even less to the whole “life in balance” thing.  Throw in the fact that many female representations of “fitness” are often just regular (underweight) models wearing sports bras, and I think the issue is quite clear.

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Not hating on how she lives her life, but it probably doesn’t involve a lot of exercise – or food.

Think of how fitness companies sell their products – whether it’s gym memberships, vitamins, group classes, fancy equipment, clothing, whatever – it’s usually by showcasing these impossibly “fit” bodies (and again, if we’re talking about women, usually “fit” and “skinny” are frustratingly and inaccurately interchangeable, since visible muscles can actually have the opposite effect on sales) and promising that the product/apparel/supplement will deliver them as quickly as possible.

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She has no muscles; he has a bunch; somehow they both got the same result from 6 minutes with a hand-held vibrator?  Let’s use our brains here, people.

In a word: wrong.  And in another word: misleading.  And allow me one more: destructive.

Even if these companies have the best of intentions, they’re still delivering the age-old message that the only reason to get fit is to have a hot (thin/muscled, again, depending on gender) body, and if a certain method doesn’t guarantee a hot (thin/muscled) body, it’s not worth pursuing.  Screw you, tai chi.  Forget it, low-impact cardio.  Sayonara, stretching.  Our fitness culture screams push, starve, sweat, burn – rarely if ever, balance; and nearly never, fitness at any size.

Furthermore, advertising and communicating this message does double damage in that it negates the actual reality of achieving hot (thin/muscled) bodies, which is that it often takes much more sacrifice and social isolation than the average person is willing to commit, and that a hot body is no more a symbol of true health than a Louis Vuitton bag is a symbol of true wealth – it’s just an easily identifiable status symbol, and just as shallow.

I once had a client tell me that she would not have signed up to train with me if she didn’t “want my body” – how I interpreted that was, if my body shape and size didn’t meet her ideal of what a fit body should look like, she would negate the decade-plus experience I’ve had professionally training clients and hire someone who “looked the part” better than me.

I’ve had it with that type of bullsh*t.

Because I specialise as a weight loss coach, you may think it’s a bit hypocritical for me to harp on the hyperfocus on body size and shape as a problem, since it’s exactly that “problem” that keeps me in business.  But I counter with this: I specialise in helping people get to their healthy weights, with lots of lean muscle, functional mobility, clean nutrition, and personal growth along the way.

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Mmmm, I’ll have an extra large serving of downtime please.

Not a single one of my clients is encouraged to take supplements, go below normal recommended calorie targets, slog away hours of cardio, or even give much credence to the raw number on the scale (I emphasise the importance of body fat percentage and body measurements as the appropriate progress metrics for fat loss).  No one in my gym gets by calling themselves “weak” or “fat,” and I really try to discourage (particularly female) clients from pointing out singular body parts as “problem areas” and rather encourage a full-body fabulous approach to training.

I refuse to accommodate women who tell me they don’t want to get “too muscular” (for the record, it’s never one happened, because gaining muscle is not an easy feat for most of us) from training with weights, and I absolutely have no patience for clients who choose to starve themselves or do hours of cardio to “lose weight” rather than do it the right way.

Before I lose focus (and I know, I’m almost there), I want to leave you guys with the summary point of all this: how you look on the outside is only one (often misleading) indicator of how you’re functioning on the inside, and no one – not even your doctor, not even your trainer – can assess your health and fitness just by looking at your body shape or size.  You control your real health outcomes with attention to clean eating, resistance training, and proper sleep and stress management, and when you do those things well, you’ll see exactly what your healthy body is supposed to look like.

Have you ever had comments about your body, fitness, or size that hit a nerve?  How do you – did you – deal?

Ask Amanda: Long Haul Health

An old sorority friend of mine came to visit from ye olde London last week, and she had a very urgent #AskAmanda question – how can you possibly stay healthy on (and before/after) long-haul flights?

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I’ve definitely touched on healthy air travel before, as well as how to get through a bout of travel without getting sick, but I’ve never specifically touched on long-haul flying (which I’ll define here as 8+ hour flights with at least three time zone changes) and how it can mess with even our best healthy intentions.

First of all, prep it up.  As they say, failure to plan is planning to fail, so as soon as you are aware of your travel plans, start to conceive your strategy.  Figure out when/where you’re going to eat your meals (on the plane?  before you travel?  upon landing?), what hours you’ll need to sleep on the plane to minimize jetlag on arrival, purchase your in-flight support items (such as a neck pillow, travel moisturizing mask, reusable water bottle, water pills, and compression socks), where you’re going to sit (I always choose an aisle seat near the restrooms so I can stretch and “go” as I please) and what you’re going to wear for both comfort and necessity (if you’re not going straight to work upon landing, why not go straight to the gym – and wear activewear on the place so you can?).

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Second, commit to finding the best quality food possible during your travel.  Crappy airline snack boxes are less-than-tempting when you’re packing a decent salad from Au Bon Pain in the terminal; bringing your own food from home to avoid sodium-and-carb filled airplane food is extra credit.  If you absolutely can’t plan ahead for your food, at least try and switch your airline meal – you can often pre-book low-sodium, low-calorie, or vegan meals, all of which will save you tons of unnecessary junk in your system.

Next, once you land, don’t immediately plunge into full vacation mode, especially if you’re traveling for work (which is, let’s be honest, the opposite of vacation). Google search your new surroundings for the terms “salad” or “healthy restaurant” or even “best healthy food” and commit to eating at least one vegetable-heavy, clean meal per day while traveling.  And guys – hydration could not be more important on flights like these.  Stick to a 2.2-3 liter per day habit, and again, get that bathroom-adjacent seat.

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Fourth, stick as closely as possible to your normal routine.  If you’ve found weight control success using protein shakes, stick that powder in a Ziploc and make yo’ shakes in your new locale.  If you’re a runner, make sure to bring along your running shoes and gear, and ask your hotel concierge for a safe local route (rather than saying “I didn’t know where to go!” and skipping the whole thing).  Pack your vitamins and supplements, continue your intermittent fasting window, sleep as close to your normal hours as possible, and don’t overdo it on booze or unnecessarily indulgent food (wine and dessert with clients is ok…if it’s not three evenings in a row).

Finally, plan for a glorious return.  Even with relatively healthy habits, long-haul travel and its associated time changes, dietary changes, and often-harried schedules can leave you frazzled the moment you reach home.  Put together a little detox routine (mine includes as much sleep as possible, a deep tissue massage for my swollen lower limbs, a short run or yoga class, and a giant dose of green vegetables) that you always have to look forward to as a re-energizing and relaxing treat.

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For those of you who regularly travel long-haul – how do you recuperate and recharge?

Ask Amanda: Total Recall

The timing on this legit reader-request #AskAmanda could not be more perfect as I’ve just returned from a wonderfully indulgent vacation in Japan.  She asked me how I get myself back on track after a weekend (week…month…year…life….) of too much food, too little exercise, and a general lack of health and fitness habits.

To give you an idea of what I mean when I’m talking about overdoing it, take a peek below. Over the five glorious days I spent in northern Japan, a typical day of eating looked a lot like this:

As you can imagine, upon my arrival back to Singapore, I solemnly and quietly slid my bathroom scale away under the sink, vowing to give myself a week to “recover,” and devised a plan on how to get back to my fit, firm self after a weekend of overindulgence.

Step one: food.  Whenever I need to clean myself out, I don’t go for the typical quick fixes (think juice cleanses, starvation diets, or some protein-shake regimen).  I simply buy the clean, healthy foods I enjoy and commit to eating them – and only them – for about a week.  For me that looks like:

  • breakfast: none; I return to my intermittent fasting program
  • fast breaker meal: banana or apple with natural chunky peanut butter
  • lunch: can of water-packed tuna mixed with plain hummus and 1/2 avocado
  • snack: a cup of full-fat Greek yogurt with blueberries and nuts
  • dinner: 1/2 avocado and 3 eggs over German bread with a side spinach salad

Sure, it’s not super exciting, but it definitely works – and that’s what matters to me.  The ingredients are cheap and simple, there’s barely any cooking involved, and I like all the food listed here.  I pair every meal/snack with 1/2 liter (16 ounces) of water and make sure I drink at least one container of coconut water (especially important in the Singapore climate) per day to offset all the dehydration of the (black) coffee I tend to gulp by the gallon.

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Step two: workouts.  When I’m coming back from an inconsistent or nonexistent workout schedule, I like to come back with a week of two-a-days – either an endurance cardio workout in the morning and superset weights in the afternoon, or a HIIT workout early and a slower weights program later.  I don’t overdo it in either workout session, but I do like to make up for lost time a bit and recommit my body and mind fully to exercise.

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Step three: sleep and skin.  After even one weekend of indulging, especially at age 33, I can see the effects of too much alcohol and sleep deprivation all over my (bloated, dull, patchy) face.  I like to use the first week back to do some serious rehab on my skin (think exfoliating scrubs, hydration mask, and heavy-duty eye cream every night, plus a scheduled facial as soon as I can make time for one), and get tons of sleep (for me “tons” is anything above 7 hours, and I cherish every second of it) until I no longer resemble the walking dead.

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If the Korean girls do it, I’m doing it – cleanse, tone, eye cream, face mask – ALL OF IT!

Finally, a wonderful step four: massage.  Sure, I was just on vacation, surrounded by leisure time and onsens aplenty, but I was also crammed into an economy-size airplane seat for about 10 hours each way and traveled two red-eye flights to make the trip happen. When I got  back, my neck felt like it had been strangled and my sore legs (from two days of snowboarding after an 18-year hiatus from the sport, sigh) felt like they were radiating pain.  I like to get a nice, deep, almost-painful massage to work out the travel tension and body aches from a whirlwind trip and help me get back in the mindset of work, business, and responsibilities again.

What are your best post-vacay rituals?  How do you get back to your healthy routine?

Ask Amanda: Slim, Shady

I was in an Uber yesterday when the driver (a homeopathic-remedy enthusiast and roughly 70-year old Sikh man) was regaling me with his detailed and lifelong fitness regimen, including everything from jogging around the block every day to taking “two mugs of warm water” upon waking to rubbing saliva in his eyes to relieve conjunctivitis (again, I said he was enthusiastic, if not a bit senile).

When he mentioned that his wife had the propensity to fall ill at a much higher rate than himself, I asked what her fitness practices were, to which he simply replied: “Oh, she’s very slim, she doesn’t need to exercise.”

I don’t think there’s a sentence in the world (regarding health and fitness, at least) that can make my blood boil more than that exact sentiment, although as an aside, these are close:

  • “I want to lose weight but I don’t want to change my diet”
  • “I want to look ‘toned’ but don’t want to get big manly muscles”
  • “I have to cut down a few pounds fast, so I guess I’ll just do some extra cardio”
  • “But foods high in fat will make me fat!”
  • “The elliptical machine is my favorite”
  • “I won’t try yoga because I’m not very flexible”

And honestly, I could probably go on for pages if only I’d kept a running list of every piece of fitness and health-related misinformation I’ve heard in my 11 years in the business.

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But, I digress.

The issue at hand is this: everyone needs to exercise.  Everyone.  You.  Me.  Your grandpa. Your pregnant wife.  Your uncle with the knee replacements.  Your parents.  Your best friend that doesn’t put on a pound no matter how much she eats.  Your boss. Everyone.

What bothers me the most about this sentiment is the implication that just because someone is not overweight, he or she is “spared” the burden of exercise; the idea that the only feasible reason that a human being would ever want to move their body in a manner outside of the basic activities of daily life is to achieve a particular weight, shape, or body type.  For the record, this is bullsh*t – solid, wretched, bullsh*t – and I hate it.

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The benefits of exercise far outweigh (zing!) the empty vanity of being thin.  Exercise is a key component in longevity (assuming, hey, you might wanna stay on this Earth for a while), heart health, bone density (don’t wanna be that grandma with the ol’ broken hip, do you?), diabetes control, and injury and chronic pain prevention.  It reduces stress and anxiety as effectively as many medications, helps you sleep better and longer, gives you more energy during your waking hours, and improves your mood.

I’ll go one step further and say that it’s not just exercise, but weight-bearing and resistance exercise, that is most crucial for people of any size.  Without strong muscle support, your joints become weak and more susceptible to impact and overuse problems, especially as you get older.  Being frail is not a good look for aging – and in fact, studies have shown that people with a slightly overweight BMI actually live longer than those who are “slim.”

Furthermore, lean muscle boosts metabolism and burns more calories even at rest, meaning that you can afford the occasional indulgence without stressing about weight gain because your body becomes more efficient at burning off the excess fuel.

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Both of these women weigh 150# (68KG).  On the left is lean muscle, due to exercise.

And yes, there’s more to my soapbox before I step down.

At the ripe old age of 33, I have plenty of friends and acquaintances that “used to be” skinny.  “Used to be” fit.  And sure as hell “used to” eat a lot worse, drink a lot more, and exercise a lot less than they do now (on this point, I will include myself, haha).  But many of these are the folks that, at age 18-22, I now call “future fat.”  They’re the ones that didn’t establish healthy eating and exercise patterns because they “didn’t need to,” relied on crash diets and skipping meals to trim down every now and then, and are now facing the worsening effects of a permanently damaged yo-yo metabolism, higher-than-desired body fat, and the uphill battle of trying to go back in time while stuck with a body that is situated firmly in the present – and in its mid-30s (spoiler alert: NOT AN EASY PROCESS).

Perhaps living in Asia has heightened my sensitivity to the “don’t need to exercise” remarks because many Asians here in Singapore, particularly women, are genetically slim and actually do believe that they don’t need exercise to stay healthy (since, again, the prevailing measure of “health” is simply “size”).  I’ve heard from many of my Asian clients here that they’re the only one in their household that “has to” exercise, or that they won’t bring their wife or daughter to train with me because “they’re already skinny” – and each time, I have to bite my tongue nearly off to avoid making a scene.

When will we dissociate the holistic idea of “health” from the vapid ideal of thinness?  And how?

Ask Amanda: The Six Pack Story

Among my female clients, the requests for body sculpting via personal training and nutrition are many: some want skinnier thighs, some want a bigger booty, some are looking for cut arms, others want a flat stomach, a lot want to lose back fat, etc etc.

Among my male clients, the most common request is simple: get me a six pack.

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Not quite there yet, fellas.

If you search the internet, you’ll find a myriad of articles pointing you in the direction of which exercises to do for a six pack (an issue which I will touch, but not dwell, on in this entry) – but relatively few explaining the other components (diet, sleep, stress control) that are even more crucial to achieve this physiological phenomenon.

A few years back, the website Greatist had one of their writers perform an “absperiment” to see if he could get six-pack abs in six weeks.  Some caveats: dude was, well, male (always going to be harder for us ladies to nail the sixer), young, and already above-average in terms of fitness and exercise habits.  That said, like many of my clients, despite his genearl fitness, he didn’t have that visible, hard midsection muscle development that seems to scream, more than any other muscle you can have, “I am fit!  I am sexy!”

Spoiler alert on his story:  he did it.  He got one.  And it nearly killed him.  Read here for a list of the sacrifices he made to achieve his goal – and then reconsider if you want to read the rest of my tips, hahah.

The reason I bring up his story is because I want to write this piece as a how-to guidenot as a must-do mandate.  If you want to know the real talk on getting a six pack, you also must know that it is not generally an easy, nor pleasant, nor natural thing for most of us – and the people you see that have wicked-awesome ones are usually genetic beasts or absolute ascetics – or both.  That said, with dedication, persistence, and self-control, it is not outside the realm of possibility (especially for those who are young, fit, and male) – and I’ll give you my best advice on how to get there.

First things first – great abs are made in the kitchen.  Carbohydrates, alcohol, dairy, too much sodium, and nearly ALL sugars gotta go (as in, 100% gone) if you want to get that six-pack fast – and protein and “good” fat consumption has to go wayyyyy up (think about 1 gram protein and 1/2 gram fat per pound of bodyweight, minimum).  For most of us, we have to drop our portion sizes, and for almost everyone, we have to cook at home for every meal to avoid the inevitable salt, oil, and grease bombs that restaurants serve in massive proportion.

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Second, the exercise.  A visible six-pack, especially for men, isn’t just a “tight” core – it takes a larger, stronger muscle development to really pop.  That’s why crunches and planks, though fantastic otherwise, won’t a six-pack make.  Think of incorporating hypertrophic (muscle-growing) moves, such as ab wheel rollouts, hanging knee raises, cable crunches, and medicine ball declines to your program – the more you add weight and resistance to an abdominal exercise, the more the muscle will grow in size (and visibility).  You’ll need to make sure you’re doing other fat-burning full body exercise as well (since you can’t just “target” the fat on your abs without getting the fat in other places off, too) – and I’ll recommend HIIT (over steady-state cardio) as a time-efficient way of doing this.

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Third, let’s chat about nutrient timing.  Yes, I’ve already taken away your precious carbs and alcohol, and now I’m going to take away even the time in which you can eat food.  Whether or not you choose to go for full-on intermittent fasting (IMO, the quickest way to shock your body into ketosis, the fat-burning metabolic process), you’ll need to put a limit on how many hours of the day you spend eating, and at what time in the day you stop eating any form of carbohydrates (yes, even vegetable ones).  Most folks entering the six-pack zone stay fasted until lunch, include around 100g of carbs in that first meal, and then eliminate carbs anytime after 4pm – putting a firm end point their overall food intake no later than 8-9pm.  It’s not easy, but timing your food intake is effective – and cost-free!

Next, don’t forget about the key component in hypertrophy (again, muscle gain): adequate and consistent sleep.  When you’re not sleeping enough, your muscles don’t recover, which means they don’t build in size, which means you’ll never actually see them (visibility being a key part of the six-pack allure, of course).  Add to that the fact that when you’re sleep-deprived, your body is constantly searching for sources of energy, which makes your appetite more ravenous and your body crave for more carbohydrate sources from which to get it – a double whammy for fat loss.  Also don’t forget that when you’re tired, your workouts suffer – and regular, intense exercise is a key part of the overall process.

Finally – and this is really the summative point for every other tip I’ve given you guys – you have to be consistent, and you can’t afford to cheat.  Visible six-pack abs come from a combination of being very physically fit and having a very low body fat percentage, and there’s no way to skirt around that.  You have to keep your diet insanely clean (as in, cleaner than even a dietician or doctor would prescribe for optimal health), work out 5-6 days per week (hard), and manage your sleep and stress patterns like a professional.  These are not easy tasks, nor are they even doable for some folks depending on your home and work situations, but they are what it takes to get the oh-so-coveted ripples in the midsection.

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What your “six pack” looks like at different body fat percentages

In my professional opinion as a personal trainer, there are so many other goals worth working toward that may or may not produce a six pack.  Eating more vegetables will boost your immune system and keep you healthy.  Integrating more protein and fewer carbohydrates into your diet will help you lose weight.  Lifting weights and performing heart-rate-raising cardio exercise will improve your heart health, bone density, and longevity.  These are the goals worth working for – not just the six blocks on your bod.

So what do you think, readers?  Are washboard abs worth the trouble – or all hype – for you?

Ask Amanda: Weighty Issues

I was going to hijack my own post this week to talk about my fury over the post-Superbowl Lady Gaga body shaming, but you know what?  It’s still too soon.  I’m going to let that one simmer in the pot for a while before I just let the vicious a*sholes that broke her down have a piece of my (rational, inclusive, empowered) mind.

But I digress.

Today’s post is about something near and dear to me: the idea that you can get fit anywhere, anytime, and at any price point.  I recently opened two private fitness studios in Singapore – a small boutique gym called Fit N’ Fresh and a one-on-one transformation and weight loss institute called DISCREET – both of which are premium (read: not inexpensive) facilities.  That being said, I am a huge believer in bodyweight (equipment-free) workouts, and it is in fact on those workouts that I built my business back in 2009.

At that time, outdoor bootcamps were still very up-and-coming, and my business partner and I were determined to offer safe, effective, creative outdoor workouts – using absolutely nothing but our clients’ own bodies.  We wanted to redefine the concept of “exercise” not as something you do for a half an hour within four walls, but as something you practice in the pursuit of making your body a functional machine – no small feat, to be sure.

My personal training clients’ top excuses for not working almost undoubtedly fall into one of the following categories: no time, no space, no gym access (this includes the recurrent excuse of “travel,” which never ceases to frustrate me since I’m pretty sure you didn’t forget to pack your own human body on your trip), and/or not sure what to do when they’re on their own.

I’m gonna give you an early Christmas present and solve all of these at once.  BEHOLD:

AMANDA’S BODYWEIGHT EXERCISE BUFFET

Buffet, you say?  Yep, I’m talkin’ about a full feast of fitness, ripe for the picking – so pack up your plate if you wish (i.e. try all ten exercises) or pick & choose the faves that are right for you and your ability level (i.e. choose five and repeat them) and get ready to sweat it out in ONLY TWENTY MINUTES – no matter where you are in the world.  Perform each exercise for 45 seconds, resting for 15 seconds before moving onto the next exercise. Repeat the set (two total rounds) for the full 20-minute challenge.  

Easy, right?  Talk to me after it’s over. 😉

BURPEES.  My absolute favorite full-body bodyweight move and silver bullet of trainers everywhere, this one attacks all your major muscle groups while building cardiovascular endurance and warming you up (and um…don’t forget the push-up at the bottom, ok?).

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A REAL burpee includes a push-up (4).  Otherwise, it’s just a squat-thrust.

PUSH-UPS.  The best part of a burpee is the push-up, amirite?  Ok, maybe you hate me now.  But given that there’s literally hundreds of push-up styles, they’re one of the most versatile bodyweight exercises available.

SQUATS.  Like push-ups, there are about a thousand varieties of squats in the world, and lots of them don’t involve a lick of equipment – so push that booty back, get those quads ready, and work all the big muscle groups of your lower body in one swoop.

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LUNGES.  Speaking of…um…swooping?…lunges are another fantastic way to work the legs without any weights or equipment.  Step ’em forward, move ’em back, go sideways, or even jump it out – you’ve got so many ways to get lean, toned legs from this single move.

PLANK-UPS.  Perhaps the distant cousin of the push-up, plank-ups are often an easier movement for beginners and a great twofer when it comes to working arms and core at the same time.  Caveat: you gotta keep your hands under your shoulders and your butt out of the sky to make this one work (see form below):

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Butt down, hands under the shoulders.  Check yo’ self.

KNEES-TO-ELBOWS (three ways).  Traditional knees-to-elbows means connecting the knee to the elbow while holding a plank position (shown below).  I also count bicycle crunches as a variation on knees-to-elbows since the twisting and core engagement is similar, and it’s an easier modification for folks that need to build core strength.  And if you want to amp it up a bit – try mountain climbers, the plyometric version of this move.

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Try to actually contact the elbow with your knee if you can.

BACK EXTENSIONS.  We all get so caught up in training the front side of the body (think six-pack abs, a nice rounded chest, bulging biceps) that we forget that the back side is actually what takes the brunt of our poor posture, constant sitting, and core instability.  Whether it’s Superman holds, swimmers, or prone rows, integrating spinal strengthening movements into your bodyweight program is a necessity.

JUMPING JACKS.  Laugh all you want (but not at its extensive history), but this cardio move gets the heart rate up, shakes out the lactic acid from the limbs, and tones up your calves by hopping lightly and continuously on the toes.

REVERSE CRUNCHES.  Another one with lots of variations (leg drops, hip lifts, toe touches, and decline bench drops are a few of my faves), the reverse crunch works the rectus abdominus (lower abs) while allowing the neck to rest comfortably.

ISOMETRIC HOLDS.  Isometric exercises mean you hold a contraction for a specified period of time (rather than the contract-release pattern of traditional exercises).  Planks are perhaps the most diverse of this group for their many variations, but glute bridges (below) and chair sits are just as effective – as are the more advanced hollow holds (if you’re seeking six-pack status, this one is a must).  If you choose this type of exercise, try and hold it for 45 seconds straight – no cheating!

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Booty booty booty booty poppin’ everywhere.

So there you have it, folks – ten exercises, twenty minutes, zero equipment, and one hundred percent effective.

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t mention pull-ups, triceps dips, step-ups, box jumps, or a host of other very functional exercises that I also use on a daily basis – the answer is because they all use equipment (even simple stuff, like benches or chairs) and I wanted this piece to be LITERALLY about what you can do with your own body – and not a thing more.

All it takes to get – and stay! – in shape are consistency, determination, and focus.  There are no excuses – only priorities.  Make yours getting in a workout today.

Did I miss one of your favorite at-home exercises?  Share with me in the comments!

Ask Amanda: Spin Me Right Round

I’ve met so many of my best clients – and likely readers of this blog! – from the first actual fitness “thing” I was certified to do – teach Spin!

Spin, a fancy term for indoor cycling, is a highly addictive, super-fun, and calorie-blasting cardio workout that gets your heart racing, spirits raised, and body sweating from start to finish.

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Teaching outside = best best best

For some reason, however, I find that so many newcomers are intimidated by Spin classes – maybe it’s the combination of loud music, screaming instructors, and flashing lights that makes the whole thing seem like a sensory overload chamber trying to pass off as viable exercise, or maybe it’s the way people drag their sweaty carcasses out the door, dripping, red, and panting, after a single 45-minute workout that scares ’em off – but whatever it is, I want to make it clear that Spin really is for every level of exerciser – you don’t even need to know how to ride an actual bike!

Perhaps it’s somewhat ironic that I’ve decided to write this post now, as it is the first time in over a decade that I’m actually not teaching Spin – but hey, I’ve got a lot of experience from over seven different gyms and studios to share, so better late than never, right?

The first rule of Spin class is: you don’t stop in Spin class.  What I mean by that is, you can always ignore the instructor’s cues to stand up, pedal faster, or add resistance, but what you should not do is stop pedaling entirely.  Remember that these are stationary bikes, and thus do all the balancing for you – whether or not you pedal, the bike will stay upright.  This is not an excuse to get lazy.  You are there to get a workout, and by pedaling through the entire class, you’ll keep your momentum, heart rate, circulation, and calorie burn going, plus reduce the risk of injury and blood pressure drops from sudden stops.

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Yeah but for real though, don’t stop.

The second tip I’d give a newcomer is to make sure the instructor sets up your bike, and make sure it feels comfortable once they do.  There is an actual science to the geometry of any bike, and because of the various positions used in Spin (seated, standing, aggressive), the setup is crucial to your safety and comfort on the bike.  If the instructor doesn’t offer a setup right away, ask for one – it’s her/his job, and she’ll be happy to do it for you.

Next, arm yourself with the proper gear, equipment and fuel.  You definitely want to make sure you’re wearing capri pants, tights, or bike shorts for your first ride (chafing on the seat can make the entire experience feel like military torture, and floppy shorts/ loose pants can get caught in unsafe and unflattering ways in the bike mechanisms).  Never be ashamed if you need to add a padded seat cover for your comfort (some of us have more sensitive rears than others, ok?), and bring enough water or an electrolyte beverage to replenish the massive amount of sweat you can plan to lose (remember, you’re biking in a dark studio with 30 other people – no nice cool breeze and wind in the hair in there).

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Pad yo’ biznizz – all the cool kids are doing it.

Finally, modify the workout as you feel comfortable.  Your instructor may be barking out tasks like a power-hungry sociopath, but you don’t need to go for the gold on your very first session.  Listen to the instructor’s cues about proper standing form, aggressive posture, proper RPM cues (cadence/pace) for sprints, and heavier resistance cues for hills.  Learn what each of these skills “feels like” before you try to perform them, and don’t be afraid to ask after class if you don’t think you’re doing something right.  There are no dumb questions – only dumb-looking people with horrific form on a Spin bike:

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Don’t be that guy on the left.  Don’t be that guy.

In summary, don’t let Spin class intimidate you – it’s been around since the 90s, and there’s a reason so many people continue to try it and love it.  Indoor cycling is easy on the knees, good for the spirit (instructors typically teach with a motivating, positive attitude), and fantastic for heart health – all great things on their own, and combined with a 300-800 calorie burn in about an hour makes Spin one of the best cardio workouts in town.

Have you tried a Spin class before – or would you?  What’s your best tip for newbies?

Ask Amanda: Oiled Up & Ready

Every now and then, ThisFitBlonde takes a break from yakkin’ about fitness (my first love) to talk about nutrition (my…life partner?).

A quick disclaimer, for the sake of my clinical (and wayyyyyy more well-qualified) friends: I am a certified sports nutritionist, which means that I have the necessary background and examinations to advise clients on what types of foods to eat to better their athletic and fitness performance.

I am not a registered dietitian (R.D.), which is a health professional that has completed a relevant bachelor’s degree, done countless hours in a supervised and accredited practice program, and passed a (very challenging) national examination.  Whew.

That said, I do feel qualified to offer an informed opinion on certain nutritional topics – and which oils are best to use while cooking is one of them.  A lot of clients of mine “default” to olive oil because they’ve heard it’s healthy; some use coconut oil on everything because they’ve heard it’s even better; even others spend a fortune on avocado or hempseed oil because it sounds a bit fancier, or maybe because they think it boasts a higher smoke point.

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Sound familiar?

I want to clear up some of the pros and cons on different oils and offer my professional opinion – both in terms of health and performance – on which ones you should be using.  For those of you who are already bored of this post, print out this easy-to-read guide – it’ll give you the down low in one quick visual you can post on your fridge.

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OLIVE.  This is basically your #1 best all-around oil – it’s high in the good fats, low in the dangerous ones, tastes delicious, delivers on the flavonoids, tastes good in dressings and is pretty useful for cooking.  Higher quality olive oils are bought in tins or dark glass bottles, not clear ones, and extra virgin (versus regular olive oil) has a stronger flavor.

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COCONUT.  I’m talking unrefined (the type that’s solid at room temp) and virgin, as the other types (read: cheap) are definitely not healthy to ingest.  High in the good saturated fat (lauric acid), low in the bad ones, superb as a butter substitute in baking and fabulous for cooking Asian cuisine (for flavor) and cooking in general (for its high smoke point).

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GRASS FED BUTTER.  Please don’t ignore those two words in front of the yummy word “butter” because they do matter – and ghee, or clarified butter, also counts here.  Real, honest butter has a ton of Vitamin A, E, and K2, and if you’re using the clarified sort, it doesn’t burn when cooking (since clarifying removes the lactose and proteins).  Plus, um, did you realize that BUTTER IS OF COURSE THE MOST DELICIOUS?!?!?

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HEMPSEED.  It’s basically the same as olive oil in its health properties, but with the added benefit of having the type of Omega-6 fatty acid that acts as an anti-inflammatory, which we can all use.  Hempseed oil has also been shown to have an anti-clotting effect on the blood – but this one is best used for dressings and cold foods, as heating hempseed oil changes its nutritional composition somewhat significantly.

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OILS TO AVOID.  I’ve just highlighted the ones I’d recommend to clients, but in general, you’re going to want to avoid this (shockingly) long list for any sort of long-term use (as in, fine for the occasional dose of Grandma’s Christmas cookies but not ideal for everyday cooking): soybean, palm, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, pumpkin seed, margarine, lard.  These contain way too much Omega-6 (bad) fat and not enough Omega-3 (good) fatty acids to make ’em worth your while, and some are also high in saturated and trans fats to boot.

All this talk about oil is making me hungry – and making me think I’ll need to add a follow up post about one my favorite nutrition myths to debunk – that FAT doesn’t actually make you fat, and OILS are actually a wonderful part of a healthy diet!  But until next time, readers…

What’s your favorite oil to use for cooking, baking, or just a good old-fashioned bread dip?

Ask Amanda: Stretching, The Truth

I talk a lot about fitness on this blog, and truth be told, I talk a lot about the “hardcore” type of fitness.  I tell you to lift (heavy) weights, do HIIT, check out a killer interval class, try some circuit training, and attempt all sorts of other sporty stuff – some of which, admittedly, I know may be intimidating for a lot of you lovely readers out there.

So today, let’s shift gears.  Downshift, more specifically.

I want to talk about one of the most ignored components of a holistically fit lifestyle – flexibility.  So many of us (*pointing finger directly at self*) eschew stretching almost entirely in favor of strength, speed, power, agility, endurance – basically any other type of training besides the kind that actually does the most long-term good (d’oh).

Flexibility training is like boiled brussels sprouts for serious fitness freaks.  We all acknowledge that we need to keep it in the regular rotation, and we’ll even tell other people they should include it, but truth be told, we rarely commit to it ourselves.  Do as I say, not as I do – and I am one of the guiltiest of all when it comes to this fitness sin.

There was a time – granted, it seems like a lifetime ago – when I was doing yoga religiously, 2-3 times per week.  I had a Bikram phase (ended abruptly by the fact that Bikram himself is a giant a*shole who deserves zero dollars from any thinking person), a Kundalini phase (summary: lots of chanting), a restorative phase (aka “assisted sleep”), a basic bitch power yoga phase, and even a wonderful (if far too short-lived) running-plus-yoga phase called Detox/Retox wherein you ran two miles, did 90 minutes of Vinyasa flow, and got a free beer afterwards.

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Long story short, I am no stranger to the concept of stretching.  I simply don’t do it anymore.  And at age 33, I am quickly losing the luxury of being able to do such a thing.

A loyal reader asked me what the most “important” types of stretches are, and I figured I’d use our little space this week to not only answer that question, but also give you an insight into what types of stretches I utilize with my own personal training clients and why I really do believe – despite my own shortcomings – that stretching matters.

Stretching can relieve stress, decrease the risk of injury, improve energy flow, increase range of motion and athletic performance, encourage better circulation, reduce chronic pain, and even help to manage cholesterol levels.  Stretching after workouts reduces inflammation and soreness and makes it easier to continue being active the next day – important stuff for those of us who don’t like to take a “DOMS day” off.

But let’s be real – all of that is well and good, but when you only have 5 minutes to soak in all those amazing benefits, how should you spend your sacred stretch time?

First of all, attack them hammies.  If you sit a lot, your hamstrings are probably tight.  If you run a lot, your hamstrings are probably tight.  If you lift a lot, your hamstrings are probably tight.  Sense a theme?  I like to get my clients into a supine position, have them hold a towel or band, and lift one leg, knee straight, through their reasonable range of motion, as shown below:

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This is a reasonable range of motion for her – but like, not me.

Next, loosen those glutes.  Your backside is the biggest muscle group in the body, which means it holds the key to a lot of lower body tightness and imbalance.  When I’m with a client, I’ll assist their supine stretch (pic below), but if you’re on your own, why not take the glorious opportunity to drop into a pigeon pose and completely bliss out for a minute?  Yasssss.

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Third on the docket is a nice juicy hip stretch.  Women especially hold a lot of stress and pain in our hips, and the mere structure of men’s narrow hips means they are typically tight – good reasons both to ease yourself into the aggressive-but-effective lizard lunge:

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Fourth, if you’ve been squatting, kicking, or just doing a lot of anterior-chain work, it’s worth a quick run through the quads.  Side lying stretches can be really effective here (right pic below), as can assisted prone stretching with a trainer (left pic below), and both types give a little extra bonus length to your lower back, which no one is mad at.

Speaking of that lower back, if you’re already down on the ground, you may as well roll your spine into some gentle twists.  Twisting in yoga is considered detoxifying in and of itself (think of the concept of wringing out a rag in relation to getting rid of pain and waste) and damn it, it feels amazing:

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Finally, don’t forget that upper bod – the back and shoulders are the two areas most likely to be carrying most of your tension up there, and they’re easily and effectively stretched with an arm-linked forward fold (just hold opposite elbows if you can’t link your hands):

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Knees slightly bent, please.

 

 

There are, of course, a million more muscle groups to stretch and even more ways to stretch them – but the point of this little piece was to highlight the most important ones, give you some guidelines for stretching alone or with your trainer, and remind you that yes, flexibility is just as vital and important a marker of fitness as all that other fancy jazz I talk about here on the ol’ blog – so stay well, TFB-ers, and let’s get bendy in 2017!

What are your favorite feel-good stretches?  Do you make time for flexibility in your routine?