Ask Amanda: The Tummy Conundrum

I think I’ve mentioned before that the majority of my clients come to me to “lose weight and tone up “- but if we boil it down a bit further, I’d say 90% of those weight-loss clients would more specifically say this:

I want to lose my belly fat.

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Whether it’s from pregnancy, poor diet, aging, alcohol, or a combination of factors, lamentations about the midsection top the list of complaints I get from even my fittest clients.

So what is there to do?

There’s an old saying in the fitness community that “great abs are made in the kitchen,” and I’ll agree with that 99% (the other bit I’ll address in a moment).  Diet is the single most important factor in beating the bulge, not only in the torso but all over the body.  That said, especially as we age, more of our body fat tends to “settle” in the middle (hey, blame gravity), meaning that any excess glycogen (read: carbohydrate, you know, sugar and starch) calories tend to team up and gather there as well.  Bummer, huh?

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But all is not lost.

Besides cutting down on carbohydrates (read here for a comprehensive belly-fat-beating list of foods you can eliminate from your daily diet), there are actually some really simple ways to target android fat that don’t even involve exercise.  First, get enough rest – the hormone cortisol (aka the “stress hormone”) kicks belly fat storage into high gear when you’re getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night – and is even worse when you spend your waking hours stressed out as well.

Second, consider eliminating dairya topic I wrote about in a prior Ask Amanda and a belly-bloating culprit many of us don’t even realize we’re encouraging.  For some, wheat can also contribute to gas retention and discomfort – so it’s worth trying an elimination period from each to see if your body reacts to either type of food.

Third, make sure you’re drinking enough water – about 3 liters daily – since sodium retention is a major cause of bloating, and dehydration only makes those effects worse – something those of us who have woken up to a puffy, rounded face after a hard night of drinking and late-night eats can definitely attest to (cough, cough).

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And finally – this is a fitness blog, after all – the exercise piece of the puzzle.  Truth be told, most of us have decent abs, they’re just hidden under a nice warm layer of fat.  In order to give your middle the best chance of looking lean, you must combine a clean diet, consistent hydration, proper sleep habits, destressing techniques, and lengthening and strengthening exercises for the core.  Some examples of what I mean are:

Once you’ve got all these pieces of the puzzle in order, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the central fat starts to disappear – and how toned the rest of your body will appear, as well.

What are your favorite midsection-melting moves?  How do you like to tone your tummy?

Ask Amanda: All About ABT

I woke up early this morning to prep my ABT (abs, butt and thighs) class for Momentum Bootcamps and it reminded me that I had a related #AskAmanda inquiry a few weeks ago about this very topic:

What is the single best move to tone and strengthen the lower body?

If I truly had to answer that question with a SINGLE best move, it’s easy: just SQUAT*.

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*squat heavy, under a barbell, with proper form, like they show you here.

But of course, this would be a fairly crap #AskAmanda entry if I just left you with that – and I know what you’re already thinking.  But Amanda – I don’t have access to a barbell!  I don’t know how to squat!  Squats are boring!  Squats make my legs huge!  So just sit there and calm down, because mama’s gonna give you some other options.

First of all, squatting is the single best lower-body exercise because it trains a functional movement (hey, ever tried getting up and down from a chair?  That’s a squat!), works multiple muscle groups at the same time (hello glutes, quads, hammies, and hips), and builds strength in areas that can protect vulnerable joints (goodbye knee problems, hello thighs of steel).

Second of all, even without weights, you can gain strength and power from squats simply by using different variations of the movement – for example, jump squats (to train power and explosive speed, important for runners), sumo squats (to target inner/outer thighs), and tiptoe squats (to train balance, tone calves, and build ankle stability).

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But I get it – sometimes you don’t wanna go to the gym and squat for 30 straight minutes (I mean, you absolutely can, so don’t worry if that IS your preferred program!).  So what’s a gal (or guy) to do for the popped-up booty and slimmed-down thighs we all want?  Here are some of my other favorite moves to incorporate into a lower body program:

  • deadlifts (again, best done with a barbell and under trainer supervision)
  • lunges (whether weighted, walking, elevated, or jump)
  • glute bridges (whether bench-assisted, single-leg, or banded)
  • lateral movements (talkin’ side kicks, side lunges, and speed skaters)
  • plyometrics (I like box jumps, tuck jumps, and star jumps for variety)
  • climbing (actual stairs are the best; stairmill or step-ups also do the trick)

And finally – a note on cardio options.  If you’re dead-set on getting a slimmer, tighter lower body from cardio alone, then you BETTER be doing one of the following two options: running stairs or walking steep (read: 10% incline or above) hills.  The elliptical machine won’t do it for ya; the bike won’t do it for ya (unless you’re riding super-heavy in the standing climb position for upwards of 20 minutes, which is not only boring but virtually impossible); even running on a flat won’t make it happen.  You must incorporate incline (uphill) training into your cardio routine to see actual muscular improvement in the lower body.  Don’t say I never told you.

What are your favorite lower body moves?  Are you a squat pro or a squat…no?

Ask Amanda: The Deal With Dairy

A lovely friend and avid TFB reader asked me if, within my intermittent fasting lifestyle and general love of indulgent and diverse foods, there was anything I NEVER ate.  Well, readers, while I can’t say there’s anything that I “never” eat (never say never, and I’m not a damn quitter) – there IS something specific I actively try to avoid.

About two years ago, I stopped eating (most, cow) dairy.  I hadn’t realized how much dairy I was actually eating until I mindfully tried to eliminate it as part of The Plan (an eating program you can read all about here, should it interest you) – and once it was out of my life, I noticed some real changes.

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What kind of changes?  Glad you asked, peeps.

When I stopped putting cream in my coffee, getting cheese on my burgers, popping feta in my salads, ordering extra cheese on pizzas, pouring milk in my lattes, ordering the cheese plate at fancy restaurants, treating myself with ice cream and fro-yo, and considering plain yogurt my “healthy” snack, some amazing things happened:

  • I lost actual, measurable weight
  • My skin basically became breakout-proof (save an errant zit here and there)
  • I stopped bloating after meals
  • I pretty much eliminated any gas issues (much to the relief of my crop-dusted husband)
  • I had more energy
  • I discovered my long-dormant love for soy and nut milks (bonus!)

My cousin summarizes the non-dairy movement in one simple phrase: “not your mom, not your milk.”  By that he means that if it’s not your “native” species’ developmental food (I’m definitely not about to hate on the magic of breastfeeding!), and if you’re already a fully grown adult, your need for any other animal’s milk is pretty much nonexistent.

The old wives’ tale about milk being the best source of protein and calcium has also been busted by – you guessed it – SCIENCE (eggs have far more protein without sugar per serving; sesame seeds, almonds, and spinach have more calcium by weight by far), and for most of us, we can absolutely do without the lactose sugars most dairy products have in spades (a single cup of skim milk, for example, has almost as much sugar as a 3/4 cup serving of Lucky Charms cereal – and if you combine both for your breakfast meal, you may as well be eating a McDonald’s McFlurry to kick off your day – it’d have less sugar).

There are studies that show that sheep and goat milk dairy have less of an impact on human digestion than does cow’s milk, and of course soy and nut milks are even more neutral (though they vary widely in quality, so make sure to do your research on these).  There are enough coconut, almond, hemp, and soy products on the market to fill nearly any gap that taking dairy out of your diet may leave – and I for one have rarely had trouble finding nondairy alternatives unless I was way out in the boonies (damn it, Cambodia!).

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If you are determined to maintain cow’s milk dairy in your diet by persistence or preference, cool – I’m not here to take your Taleggio or be libellous to your  Limburger.  What I would recommend is making the switch (for many of us, the switch BACK, after the non-fat craze of the 1990s) to full-fat dairy, limiting your cow’s milk dairy to special occasions (like a trip to Paris, for example), and making sure plain Greek yogurt is one of the dairy products you keep in your rotation (can’t beat the probiotic and protein double hitter).

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Whether or not you choose to continue eating cow’s milk and other dairy products is of course a case of personal preference – but if you’re mystified about why you feel sluggish, bloated, fat, or are breaking out – it may be time to rethink the white stuff n your diet.

Are you a true-blue milk drinker or a nondairy convert?  What’s your fave dairy alternative?

Ask Amanda: Seeing Spots

One of the most common reasons clients hire a personal trainer is to address some sort of so-called “trouble zone” – can you get me abs?  I hate this squishy part of my upper arms.  I need to slim down these thunder thighs.  What can we do about my back fat?

My answer to all of this is actually quite reassuring, IMO: you can slim/tone/lean out any part of your body that you want, and it’s all done the same way.

What do I mean by that?  What I am telling you is this: 1000 crunches a day won’t get you a six pack.  Doing squats on squats on squats may make that booty pop, but it won’t reduce the size of your lower body.  Push-ups will make you stronger but they won’t take away your batwings for good.  Repeat after me: there is no such thing as spot reduction (though there IS such a thing as targeted training, which I will address below).

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Spot reduction is the (pervasive, misguided, eternal-struggle-of-every-trainer-to-explain-to-clients) myth that by overtraining a certain body part, you can reduce the amount of body fat covering just that body part and in turn see more muscle tone and “results” from that body part alone.  Sounds a bit nonsensical, eh?  That’s because it is.

The only way to achieve a leaner appearance from any part of your body is to reduce the amount of body fat all over your body.  You can absolutely train a specific muscle for hypertrophy (increase in size), but unless you address the fat on top of that muscle, you will not get the visible definition you are probably looking for – and may even see overall size gains to boot.

So what’s a gal (or guy) to do?

First of all, toss your scale.  I mean, if you have one, I suppose you can keep it, but tuck it away in a drawer somewhere until you need to weigh a piece of luggage or something.  For now, focus on getting yourself a body fat measure – I recommend calipers (cheap, easy, accurate), an Omron handheld (less accurate but more easy), or if you want to go whole hog, an entire BodPod tank (kidding guys, kidding – but if I was rich, I’d totes have one).

Measuring your body fat is the most important way to keep abreast of your body composition progress and make sure you are training the “right” way (gaining lean muscle, not just losing weight).  The image below is helpful for figuring out where you are and where you want to be in the body fat world:

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As you’ll notice, different folks have different levels of “definition” at different levels of body fat – to get abs, fellas,  you’re gonna want to drop down to the 8-10% range; ladies, for those super-toned and ripped upper arms, 14-15% is where it’s at.  That being said, there are perfectly healthy and happy bodies at much higher levels of fat for both sexes, and being at a suitable BMI for your height and weight is the first step to getting there.

The next step is what I mentioned above – targeted training.  While you’re working on reducing body fat (which comes 80% from what you eat, 10% from how you  train, and 10% from your genetic makeup, an issue I’ve addressed time and again on this blog), you can absolutely work on building lean muscle in the areas you’re trying to transform – the aforementioned squats to make the booty pop, push-ups for strong, cut arms, stability training for a ripped core, and pull training for a muscular back and good posture are all focused training programs that will help accelerate visible results as you lean out overall.

Remember, in fitness as in life, there are no shortcuts.  To achieve results you must change your overall lifestyle – not just overwork one little body part.  When you reduce body fat all over, strengthen your body with weight-bearing exercise, and clean up your diet, the benefits will go far beyond a measly thigh gap – I promise. 😉

What’s your favorite body part to train (I gotta admit – I’m an arms girl)?