Ask Amanda: The Bulk of the Issue

There are a lot of keywords in health and fitness that drive me crazy because they mean absolutely nothing yet are used ad nauseam.  “Natural” is one of them (in terms of describing food products).  “Fat-burning zone” is another (in terms of justifying boring, low-intensity exercise).

But the worst offender of all, in my opinion, is “toning.”

Toning is a fake fitness word that savvy marketing execs invented to sell weirdly-wedged sneakers, tiny little hand weights, and complicated thigh-squeezing contraptions.  The gentle and often feminized concept of “toning” gives women the (misguided) idea that they can firm up / tighten / reduce the size of their body parts without having to – dare I say it – lift heavy weights in the gym.

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I can legitimately GUARANTEE that THIS woman does not only lift THOSE weights.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of Instagram-famous influencers and trainers out there that have bodacious bods that they may (or may not) have gotten though one or more of the following “toning” go-tos: body resistance exercise, yoga, Pilates, barre method, or pole fitness.  But the reality, gals and gents, is this:

  • if you are a man, you need to lift heavy weights and build muscle mass to maintain your testosterone levels, stay energised, ensure proper posture, and keep your central fat deposits from accumulating
  • if you are a woman under 35, you need to lift weights and build lean mass to protect your bone density, especially if you plan on having a healthy pregnancy, and speed up your metabolism while you still can
  • if you are a woman over 35, you need to lift even heavier weights to maintain your lean mass (as it starts to decrease with every passing year no matter what you do, sigh), kick your slowing metabolism in the booty, and make sure certain body parts (read: tush & tummy) don’t fall victim to the insidious threat of gravity

And don’t be fooled, folks – pretty much ANY exercise (and in many cases, none at all) will “tone up” a genetically stick-skinny twentysomething subsisting on a steady diet of gluten-free oxygen puffs and armed with an endless set of Photoshop and photo-filter tricks (and on a semi-unrelated note, a bunch of those booty-licious internet babes claiming to have gotten their backsides from a few cable kickbacks and good genes may be uh, as they say, hiding some implants under the hood as well).

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Spoiler alert: this is NOT from a SQUAT

Snark much?  I digress.

But the main point of what is unexpectedly turning into a rant is this: lifting heavy weights (often heavier than you think, even weights attached to bars) will not make you bulky. Lifting weights in excess of 4KG / 8 pounds will not make you masculine, or hulk-ish, or broad. Very few women (and I’ve trained over 100 of them of all ages, races and sizes for over 11 years) start a serious weight-training regimen and get bigger – unless gaining mass and size is her goal.  As I’ve noted before:

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Lots of women carry around excess body fat precisely because they don’t lift weights, and therefore can’t build or maintain enough lean mass to help burn off the calories they eat – plus they tend to undereat protein and overeat carbohydrates, which is a post for another time (but still a common and significant issue).  And as I’ve said so many times before:

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Ok, so enough of making the case.  What exactly should you be doing in the gym (and kitchen) to achieve the “toned” look (sigh, but for the sake of the post, humour me – and know that the “toned” look can of course mean different things to different people, just like the term “bulky” can mean different things to different people)?

 Allow me to give you some true trainer-tried-and-tested tips:

  • first, get a trainer.  Shameless self-promotion?  Maybe a tiny bit.  But before you start picking up heavy things, you should make sure you have at least one session with a trainer who can show you how to pick up heavy things correctly.
  • next, streamline your goals.  Do you want killer arms (hello bench presses and pull-ups)?  An overall lean bod (try compound movements like thrusters)?  Legs to kill (meet your two new best friends, squats and deadlifts)?  Six pack abs (spoiler alert: these are actually made mostly from protein and salad; less from crunches)?
  • third, get a program.  Whether the aforementioned trainer writes it for you or you get it from a reliable source like figure competitor Jamie Eason, make sure you have a specific, measurable weight training program to keep yourself accountable to – and don’t forget to keep records of sets/reps/etc. to make sure you’re on track
  • fourth, progress yourself.  A lot of my clients have sailed through steps 1-3 but then hit a wall, thinking that once they know “what weight they use for stuff” they’re good to go forever.  Not the case for getting lean n’ mean.  You’ve gotta keep upping the ante and building your body stronger (and yes – leaner in the process) within a reasonable program of progression.  Again, a trainer really helps with this.
  • finally, eat your protein.  Even the best-toned of intentions fall flabby when they’re not coupled with a high-protein, lower-carbohydrate diet.  If you’re looking to build lean muscle, consider 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (about 2 grams per KG), and if you’re looking to maintain your muscle, consider about .75 grams per pound (1.5 grams per KG).  Lean protein sources are best here, so think about egg whites, chicken breast, protein powder, white fish, and Greek yogurt.
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Clean, lean and mean (I mean, that fish is giving me the eye) protein

My lovely people over at Girls Gone Strong sum it up best:

“Lifting heavy” doesn’t give you one particular body type.  Lifting heavy will give you a strong, sexy, fit, kick-ass version of the body you were given.

Mic drop.

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Ask Amanda: How Much Exercise is Enough?

Let us be real – we all want to be generally healthy, but we all are (inherently) a little bit lazy.  There’s something within human nature that is constantly asking, what is the minimum amount of effort that I can put in to get the maximum amount of return?  And of course, with something that a lot of people (definitely not trainers!) consider “unpleasant” like exercise, that elusive bare-minimum level is often speculated upon.

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Why we exercise.

How much exercise is considered “enough”?  I get this question all the time, and the easy (and by the way, correct) answer is of course to say that it varies by your age, performance goals, medical history, genetics, and ability level.  For example, if you are 80 years old and have arthritis, a daily 1-mile walk with some at-home grip work might suffice.  If you are an Olympic power lifter training for the next Games, the above program would not even remotely suffice.  Get it?

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate (think walking, easy lap swimming, or playing doubles tennis) exercise per week, which can average out to 30 minutes on 5 of the 7 days.  Alternatively, you can perform 75 minutes of vigorous activity (think running, swim sprints, or playing singles tennis), or a combination of the two.  In addition, they suggest doing muscle strengthening exercises on all major muscle groups twice per week.  They also make it clear that unless you are doing a combined 300 minutes of exercise per week (about an hour per day on six days per week), you probably will not be losing any weight (sigh, I know).

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Ideas for how to get your movement on.

An avid ThisFitBlonde reader had asked me a while back if doing Spin class twice per week and barre class three times per week was “enough,” and using the above formula, let’s figure it out.  If you take the Spin class seriously (this is why I love the more accurate intensity-calibrated bikes used in a studio like Flywheel rather than something more….shall we say…”bouncy,” like a SoulCycle), you’re logging about 80-90 vigorous minutes.  The barre classes would add up to about 180 moderate minutes, and given my understanding of the type of classes, would also “count” as muscle strengthening. Therefore, yes – that combo on paper would be “enough” for general health, but perhaps not enough for weight loss – and definitely not enough for a completely different performance goal like running a marathon or completing an obstacle race.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself about why you’re exercising, what your performance and body composition goals are, what you expect to gain from the type of exercise you’re doing, and how your diet supports your workout regimen.

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She gets me.

Want a window into my exercise world?  Here we go: I am currently training for a long-distance obstacle race (Spartan Beast Malaysia), an ultramarathon relay (Ragnar Napa Valley), and a hot-weather marathon (Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon).  Using the above questions, here’s my metric and exercise prescriptions for myself:

WHY ARE YOU EXERCISING?  Because I’m a g*ddamn beast, but also sort of an idiot, so I’ve decided to line up three giant endurance races at the end of the year to keep myself motivated, excited to keep working out and focused.

WHAT ARE YOUR PERFORMANCE AND BODY COMPOSITION GOALS?  I’d like to complete the Beast without injury, feel strong and recovered on all three Ragnar legs, and finish the marathon with my partner in less than four hours (ambitious given the heat).  I’d also like to lose 5 additional kilos and about 4% body fat along the way.

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO GAIN FROM EXERCISE?  I expect to lose weight, run faster and more efficiently, build upper body and grip strength, and practice fueling and hydration for hot-weather endurance events.

HOW WILL YOUR DIET SUPPORT YOUR WORKOUTS?  I will continue to alternate low-carb and higher-carb days (carb cycling) within the framework of intermittent fasting.  I will increase my protein intake on lifting and recovery days and supplement with BCAAs. I will try to eat a salad daily for lunch to maximize vitamins, minerals and nutrients and keep alcohol to a minimum, particularly within the last month before the three events.

MY WORKOUT PRESCRIPTION: Garagecircuit (obstacle/circuit/strength training) 2X/week.  Two short runs (5-8K) and one long run (10K+) per week, building up to 30K by December.  Stairs/boxing circuit (stair running, sprints, push-ups, squats, lunges, and sparring) 1X per week.  Obstacle-specific (Fitness Protocol) training when possible; at least once per month.  Yoga once per two weeks for mobility and anti-inflammation.  One rest day per week (can include yoga but no other workouts).

If you’re confused about how to tailor your workouts to your goals like I did above, if you’re not sure working out “enough,” and/or if you don’t know how to develop a nutrition plan that complements and makes the most out of your exercise routine, it is definitely worth the investment in a few sessions with a personal trainer, nutritionist, and/or registered dietitian to make sure you’re on the right track.

Do you think you exercise “enough”?  How do your workouts move you toward your goals?

Ask Amanda: Back Back Front and Front

A loyal (and well-informed) reader had a fairly simple #AskAmanda for me this week, but I think it’s one that bears repeating given that I consider myself a back-to-basics style of trainer.

I’ve written a few posts on the basics of weight training, where to start if you’re just coming back to exercise, and even how to train just your upper body for maximum results.

I will return time and again to the importance of fundamental movement skills – squat, lunge, deadlift, bench press, push-up, pull-up, and plank – and remind everyone to pick up the heaviest weights you can handle with good form to get the most out of each workout.

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Pushups, rows, squats, and deadlifts – do ’em.

That said, one thing I’ve never addressed is what exactly makes for a “heavy” weight (sidenote: it’s also based on your age, weight, gender, body type, history, and overall goals, besides what I’m going to tell you below) and how much you should actually be lifting for the type of physique and fitness level you’re looking to achieve.

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Dude on the left does LOTS of aerobic endurance work and probably does not lift.  Dude on the right lifts heavy things and does lots of anaerobic work.  Different types, different needs on the iron.

The short answer for “how heavy should I be lifting?” is this: for general fitness, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 8-10 repetitions without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build mass, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 3-5 reps without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build muscular endurance (say, cross-training a hamstring for running efficiency, or training your abdominal muscles to carry your posture through a long-distance cycling event), you should lift whatever weight you can maintain until muscle failure (for most people, about 30-50 reps) without form breakdown.

The longer (and more scientific, if you’re into that sort of thing) answer is to figure out your 1-rep maximum (trainer shorthand for this is 1RM) and use percentages of that maximum to train in different ways.  For example:

(let’s assume your 1RM for a back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

General Fitness – 3 x 10 repetitions @ 75% (37.5 KG; 75#) with 30-60 seconds rest between sets

Muscle Build – 2 x 5 repetitions @ 85% (42.5 KG; 85#) with 2-3 minutes rest between sets

Endurance – 1 x 30-50 (to failure) @ 30% (15 KG; 30#) – one set only per exercise

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A sample hypertrophy (gainz) set, working up to 1RM

Not complicated enough?  Let’s go further into the dynamics of anterior/posterior chain movements.  Anterior muscles are the “vanity muscles” – the ones you see on a daily basis in the mirror, such as chest, biceps, shoulders, abdominals, and quads.  Posterior muscles are the “balancers” – the stuff that holds our bodies upright, such as lats, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Typically folks tend to overtrain our anterior (front) muscles and undertrain our posterior (back) muscles, leading to imbalances in posture, strength, coordination, and sometimes even injury.  That said, our posterior-chain muscles can often carry a lot more weight than our anterior-chain (for example, right now, you can probably deadlift more than you can bench, assuming you can maintain proper form for both movements).

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2 Chainz (anterior/posterior)

You can figure out your proper weight for posterior-chain movements using the same process outlined above (using 1RM), or you can use an even simpler process called ratio training. Olympic lifters (and yes, some regular people that WISH they were Olympians) use a 3:4:5 ratio in regards to bench, squat, and deadlift weights.  In this example:

(assuming again that the 1RM on the back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

1RM: BENCH 37.5KG or 75# : SQUAT 50KG or 100# : DEADLIFT 62.5KG or 125#

5-REP SETS: BENCH 32KG or 56#: SQUAT 42.5KG or 85# : DEADLIFT 47 KG or 75#

10-REP SETS: BENCH 28 KG or : SQUAT 37.5 KG or 75#: DEADLIFT 47KG or 100#

Even after all this technical math, some practical advice: if your deadlift looks like crap, even if you’re using 25% of your 1RM, it’s too heavy.  Similarly, if you have strong form and a commitment to actually getting stronger, lifting the same weight forever (I’ve had to talk many a female lifter out of the “baby weights brigade” to actually get their bodies to change and lose fat) won’t get you any real fitness gains.

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Real talk.

And one more thing – if you’re unsure about any of this, or you simply don’t have time to take a calculator down to your workouts, bite the bullet and hire a certified personal trainer.  They do all the dirty work for you, keep track of the weight you’re lifting, teach and monitor your form, and motivate you to stay accountable to a progressive program.  In my (professional and of course personal) opinion, that’s worth every penny.

What are your favorite – and most effective – strength training movements?  Are you confident in the weight room?

 

Ask Amanda: An Elliptical Matter

When I was consulting with my investors to outfit my boutique gym FIT N’ FRESH here in Singapore, I had some very clear requests when it came to cardio machines:

  1.  Two treadmills; one rower; one stairmill.
  2.  No bikes or recumbent bikes.
  3.  ABSOLUTELY NO ELLIPTICAL MACHINES.

And if all caps in typing stands for YELLING, that’s accurate – because I nearly screamed when I walked into my beautiful new gym this past January and saw – gasp! –  a freaking elliptical, right there in the middle of the gym floor, taking up precious space.

The investors argued that their equipment providers – i.e. salesmen just trying to unload the most amount of product at the highest margins possible – said that “no one will go to a gym that doesn’t have a bike or an elliptical machine.”  I tried so hard not to roll my eyes that I think I popped a vessel.

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Beast Mode does NOT happen on indoor cardio machines

From a trainer’s perspective, let me offer you this: if a gym is stocked with rows of elliptical machines (and even worse, recumbent bikes, but that’s a blog for another time), it is very likely a gym that doesn’t focus very much on functional, movement-based training (or is at least is a gym that has a ton of money to throw away on useless, clunky cardio equipment).

Think about some of the best movement-based training modalities out there: CrossFit. Parkour.  Orangetheory.  OCR.  Aquastrength.  F45.  What do they have in common?

ZERO ELLIPTICALS.  ZERO INDOOR BIKES.  And more importantly, they’re jam-packed with functional (and often less expensive) equipment like kettlebells, bars, rings, and ropes.  They have “toys” that teach your body how to respond, how to adapt, and how to perform – not just how to move your legs and arms in meaningless circles (also my problem with high-rep, micromovement-based “baby weights” programs like Tracy Anderson, but AGAIN, I digress).

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Putting the “fun” in functional fitness.

So why do I hate the elliptical machine, specifically, so much?

Ok, sure – moving is better than not moving, and I would never discourage your mom or your grandpa or your friend with the arthritic knee from hopping on the elliptical for a short go (although even so, I’d recommend all three of those people work with a certified personal trainer!) – but in terms of movement patterning, calorie burn, and actual fitness gains, elliptical machines are just about the least effective thing you can do in an exercise environment.

Elliptical machines teach your body to repeatedly move your legs – without lifting them from the ground – in a weird, flat oval pattern (not useful for running, jumping, skiing, or really any other activity outside of…elliptical-ing), often far too quickly to maintain proper joint alignment.  And speaking of joints – the separate-pedal movement of an elliptical machine (unlike that of a bike, where the hips and torso are stabilized on a seat) can exacerbate already loose or misaligned joints, such as hips, especially for those with joint replacements, those who are pregnant, or those with ACL/MCL injury.

Elliptical machines are also less weight-bearing than treadmills or stairmills (don’t confuse this with low-impact, by the way – climbing up stairs and walking on an inclined treadmill are also relatively low-impact but produce far greater fitness results) and the ones without moving handles – you know, the ones you see people leaning on to read magazines – teach your core muscles to turn off, encourage crap posture, and burn just next to zero fat (again, compared to “real” cardio like HIIT or circuit training).

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If you can do this much while exercising, you’re not quite exercising.

At this point you might be wondering – if I can’t just hang out on the elliptical anymore and call it a workout, what should I be doing for cardio?

Snarky answer: you actually don’t even need to DO cardio, or at least the “cardio” that we’re talking about here (steady state, indoor, low-impact, etc.) to get fit and lose weight. Read more about that here, if you don’t believe me.

More useful and trainer-like answer: there are better ways to elevate your heart rate, develop cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and lose weight than the elliptical machine, and here are a few of them:

The take-away I want to leave you with is this: there is no “bad” workout.  There is no completely useless exercise.  There is no time when I would prefer you stay sedentary rather than move your body.  However, if you’re looking to maximize the short time you have to work out, lose actual weight and body fat, and gain functionally effective fitness – the elliptical machine isn’t going to get you there.  Truth.  #themoreyouknow

What is your favorite way to build cardiovascular fitness, in the gym or outside?

Ask Amanda: Max Your Metabolism

After (semi) lecturing a client about why it was important to lose body fat BUT maintain lean muscle (even if the “weight” on the scale stood stagnant because of it), she looked me straight in the fact and said, “So this whole process is just about building a better metabolism?”

I wanted to hug her.  “YES,” I cried to my dear and startled client, “YES IT IS!”  

And herein lies one of the most obvious but most misunderstood connections between exercise, body composition, and nutrition: metabolism.  Scientifically, metabolism is the sum of all the chemical processes inside our body that help us maintain life.  In layman’s terms, metabolism is the way in which your body converts and uses energy for fuel.

So why does this metabolism stuff matter to those of us out here in the streets, just trying to get fit?

There are lots of reasons.  Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) refers to the amount of calories your body burns at rest – and the higher your BMR, the less you have to do to actually burn the energy (read: food) you consume.

People with a greater muscle-to-fat ratio have higher BMR, even if their weight is exactly the same as someone with more fat than muscle.  Men tend to have higher BMR than women (sh*t, they win again!).  And people who go on starvation (VERY low-calorie) diets, even temporarily, can actually permanently decrease their BMR by sending the body into a “starvation mode” and causing it to hold onto energy and store it as fat.

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A bit exaggerated…but like, not much. #damnyoumen

In short: metabolism matters, and you definitely don’t want to mess yours up.  So what can you do to promote a faster, better metabolic rate?

First and foremost – SLEEP!  A lack of sleep, particularly when chronic, can lead to a neuroendocrine imbalance that not only makes the body store more energy as fat, but can also make you feel ravenous all day long (increased appetite hormones) and forget to tell you when you’re had enough to eat (decreased satiation regulators).

Second of all, lift weights.  I’ve talked about this time and time again, but the single best thing you can do to “speed up” (and I use this term loosely since you don’t actually change the metabolism itself but rather its efficiency in processing energy) your metabolism is to build lean muscle.  Every pound of muscle burns TRIPLE the amount of calories (six versus two) than the same weight in fat.  If you want to burn more by doing less (something appealing even to my least-active client), muscle is where it’s at.

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Beginners Guide to Lifting Weights for Metabolism

Third – and this may seem obvious – eat food.  Your metabolism is like a gas grill, and it doesn’t spark a fire without fuel.  When you don’t eat enough, not only does your body think it’s starving (and start holding onto every bit of energy/food you DO put into it), it starts to cannibalize your precious muscle tissue (SEE ABOVE) for energy – not good. What you eat is also important – protein is the best muscle-retaining macronutrient out there, fiber can rev up the fat-burning process even more, and staying hydrated (with water, by the way) makes all of your body’s most vital processes run smoothly and more efficiently.

Finally, be a mover (and heck, while you’re at it, a shaker).  Separate from the resistance exercise I mentioned above, what scientists are now calling NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) can actually be more effective in helping you lose weight and build fat-burning metabolism than “actual ” exercise.  Everything from fidgeting to taking the stairs up to your office to standing instead of sitting to take a phone call counts as NEAT, and in very active individuals, their NEAT daily calorie burn is more than what most other people might burn in a 30-minute elliptical session (something many people mistakenly consider a “workout,” which is a topic for another time).

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The combination of what you eat, how you move, and your other lifestyle factors (sleep, stress, etc.) is mostly responsible for how efficient your metabolism works – but don’t discount the “big G-factor” known as genetics (womp womp, I know).  If your family is prone to PCOS, Cushing’s Syndrome, diabetes, or thyroid issues, or if you’re on certain antidepressants or other medications, your metabolism may be slower than most – and it’s out of your control.  But even with these clients, I always encourage them not to use their medical conditions as excuses to be lazy with diet an exercise – but rather as a catalyst to rise above what they can’t control and focus on what they can (clean eating, regular workouts, and a positive mindset).

Do you think you have a “fast” or a “slow” metabolism – and do you personally believe it can change over time and/or with lifestyle habits?

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: 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: The Half Of It

Hey, did you guys know I ran a half marathon this past weekend?  

I’m almost kidding, since I feel like I posted it all over every social media platform I had – but who can blame me*?  The race went great, the location (Angkor Wat Archaeological Park; definitely worth your visit) was incredible, and the training I put into the effort was top-notch.

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All the amazing kweens of the 2016 Angkor Wat International Half Marathon (me, far right)

*I almost turned this post into a mini-rant to counterpoint OTHER peoples’ mini-rants about how “annoying” it is to post your workouts on Facebook; a habit which I not only have NO problem with but find encouraging and inspiring – but I digress; that’s not what today is about.

Today is about half marathon training, my friends – or really, any endurance event training, since I’ve been doing a lot of those things of late.  How do I train for a long-distance running or obstacle event?  What are the keys to success in these cray-cray distances?  And how can you avoid some of the common mistakes new racers make?

First of all – and I stress this so much to clients it’s almost a joke – I don’t run that much.  Ok, before that seems absurd, let me clarify – I absolutely do run more than your average person not doing half marathons.  But I do NOT run every day, every other day, or really anything over 15K (9.3 miles, American friends) unless I am training for an actual full marathon.  What I do do is make every single run count – I hit one speedwork, one strength/hill run, and one distance run per week when I’m in endurance training.  The speedwork usually involves a legit rubber track; the strength involves hills (if I can get ’em outdoors), treadmill inclines (if I can’t), or tempo work (like this); and the distance run starts at just 5 miles (8K) and grows to a max 15K (in this hot and humid weather, I find it is more than enough to get a sense of what race pace and fatigue feel like, and also enough to test nutrition and fuel options).

Which brings me to my next point – the centrality of proper nutrition.  Hate to be a downer, but guys, it’s not just the big fun carboload meal you eat before the race that “counts” (and for the record, my favorite pre-race meal is NOT a big plate of pasta, but rather, a big slab of red meat – either a burger and fries or steak and potato), but in fact the nutrition program you use on a day-to-day basis throughout training and during the actual race that matters most.  I do intermittent fasting each and every day of the week, but I also limit my carb intake in the week leading up to the race.  Two days prior, I start to add refined carbs back in force, and then the night before the race, I give myself a healthy dose of simple carbs and animal protein – and believe me, this method makes me feel like I have a jet pack on my back.

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As for race-day nutrition, everyone is different – so it is crucial that you find a strategy that works for you well before the actual day.  For me, I have trouble eating in the morning due to a mixture of nerves, lack of appetite, and fear of pooping my pants, so I like to load up a later dinner the night before and race on coffee, water, electrolyte beverages, and GU gels alone.  Other athletes I know like to wake up with a hearty bagel or muffin, then hit some chews throughout the race; even others I know carry actual food with them on the course (believe it or not, I know one gal who legit races with a cooked sweet potato in her pocket).   Lance Armstrong was renowned for taking in nearly 20 PowerGel packets (!) during the 26.2 miles of the NYC Marathon the first time he ran it.  Summary point: it does not matter what you need to do for race-day eating; it DOES matter that you practice, practice, and practice again eating EXACTLY what you’re going to eat in EXACTLY the conditions you’re going to eat it to make sure it doesn’t cause you any hassle, GI distress, or general discomfort when the big day comes.

Besides nutrition, the biggest advice I can give new endurance runners is to cross-train with weights.  You heard me – don’t be afraid of getting bigger, be focused on getting stronger and more indestructible.  Sure, there’s something to be said for being light and fast on your feet, and I absolutely do recommend finding a healthy race weight and adjusting your nutrition program to help you reach it – but there’s also a great deal of value in being powerful (this was the first half marathon in six years that I was able to PR, and I attribute it to a killer kick that allowed me to drop two fellow female competitors that had led me for the entire race in mile 11), recovering easily, and finishing strong.

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So what do I mean by cross-training with weights?  I mean 2-3 sessions of dedicated, structured resistance training per week.  Perhaps for you that’s a bootcamp-style workout, or a circuit training class, or a TRX session – all great options.  Maybe you’re the type who likes to follow a traditional training split (like back/biceps, chest/legs) in the gym alone.  A third option may be to join a CrossFit or obstacle-racing gym (depending on your goals) and practice functional skills like flipping tires, kettlebell swinging, or rope climbing.  Whatever your preference, make sure you’re lifting with proper form (a session with a personal trainer can be an awesome investment here to master the basics), lifting heavy, and lifting with a focus on core development (i.e. choosing free weights or a barbell; not relying on gym machines to do the stability work for you).

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Finally, and this underlies all of my advice above – make sure you have a plan.  Serious runners get coaches; if you can’t afford one, get yourself a solid running plan online, make your runs and workouts as serious as your work appointments or meetings, and stick to it.  I advise 12-16 week plans for new half marathoners; 16-20 for new marathoners.  For shorter distances, allow yourself at least 8 weeks to fall into a focused run-and-resistance  training routine, and for obstacle racers, make sure you’ve got race-specific (like the aforementioned rope climb) training at least once per week in the 4-5 weeks leading up to race day.  And as always – listen to your body.  Even the best runners on the most finely-tuned programs get injured when they build mileage too quickly, skip their cross-training, “forget” to stretch or do yoga, and stop sleeping enough to recover fully – so make sure you’re keeping your self-care intact as you ramp up your endurance work, too.

How do you train for a long-distance race?  What are some of your time-tested tips?

Ask Amanda: Dom-d-dom-dom-DOMS

A lot of my clients like to work out with me twice per week with a day in between – Monday/Wednesday, for example, or Tuesday/Thursday.  And almost invariably, that second session gets one of two responses:

  1. cancellation.
  2. complaints about soreness (“…but it wasn’t this bad yesterday!”)

This condition, friends, is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and it’s a super common thing.  DOMS kicks in 24-72 (most commonly: 48) hours after the exercise or activity that causes it, and comes from the microtears in muscle tissue that occur with intense (read: challenging) training.  The more pronounced the eccentric contraction that caused the tear, the more intense the feeling of soreness will be two days later.  Behold:

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Movements like the biceps curl, above, tend to produce more prominent DOMS because the eccentric (“down”) phase is so stressful for the muscle being worked.  The same is true for squats, deadlifts, and push-ups, which is why these movements tend to produce DOMS at a higher rate.

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Whether or not you develop DOMS is not a sign of how “good” or “hard” your workout is, however – typically it is a function of doing something new or different to your body rather than something more difficult.  For example, one of my worst cases of DOMS in recent memory was after hitting the driving range with my Dad for the first time – I wasn’t used to gripping a golf club, so I was hyper-focusing, and all that grip meant my forearms felt like I’d been bouldering the Grand Canyon for a few hours – and lasted a few days.

Soreness is not a bad thing, nor a good thing – in my professional opinion, it’s just a fact of environment, kind of like how you get sweaty when it’s hot outside or shiver when it’s cold.  You get sore when you challenge your body to perform new, heavier, unfamiliar, or explosive movements.  You experience soreness when you are growing your muscles (i.e. hypertrophy), and you get it when you’re training for endurance events, and you may even get it from something seemingly innocuous – like jumping on a trampoline, or carrying luggage up a staircase.

The big divide I see with my clients that do experience DOMS is what they do about it – meaning, do they cancel the next session?  Push through?  Figure out a way to avoid it next time?  If you are someone who suffers from that “hit by a truck” feeling after each and every workout, here are some (non-foolproof, but worthy) strategies to try:

  • Tart cherry juice.  Yep, just sippin’ on this sour swill has been linked to decreased post-workout inflammation.
  • Ice and cold.  Whether it’s a refreshing shower, a bag of ice on overworked areas, or if you’re a real boss, a stroll through the cryo chamber, getting your bod chilled out in a hurry can stop the development of DOMS by slowing down inflammatory processes.
  • Sports massage.  Forget the image of lying comfortably in a lavender-scented zen spa – sports massage is brutal, painful, and not for the faint of heart – but it’s one of the “luxuries” that keep professional athletes mobile, so you know it works.  If you are a continuous DOMS sufferer, I suggest trying to get a session once every week.
  • Compress yourself.  I’ve seen shin splints and calf cramps all but disappear from clients who just start wearing compression socks or sleeves – and similar reports from those who wear recovery compression leggings or tops.  It’s a small change that can prevent a large dose of soreness – worth the somewhat ample investment.
  • Not being a wuss.  Yep, tough love – there is a major difference between being sore and being injured, and if you’re honest with yourself, you know when you’re just trying to get out of a workout.  Active recovery (walking, swimming, yoga) is actually a better strategy than lying in your bed complaining, and it’ll get you more results, too.

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One final point – though I’ve sort of made it above, but it bears repeating – soreness is not a good or bad thing, inherently.  It doesn’t mean your workout was successful or unsuccessful; it doesn’t mean you’re out of shape or in shape; it doesn’t signify much except that you used your body in a way (or to a level) it hasn’t been used before, and it’s giving you a signal that it noticed.  So buck up, stretch out, slap on an ice pack, and keep moving – if you let the DOMS get you down, you’ll never be able to move forward in your fitness gains.

What’s your best remedy for soreness – DOMS, immediate, or otherwise?