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: Precision Nutrition

A long time ago in a place far, far away, I got my first Sports Nutrition certification.  For what I was doing at the time (mainly, teaching group exercise classes and giving some basic diet advice on the side), it was enough – I was able to articulate the basic tenets of metabolism, energy balance, and clean eating with some level of authority.

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Don’t get it twisted – I never was, and (probably) never will be, a registered dietitian.  An R.D. is authorized by the Commission on Dietetic Registration of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  All R.D.s have a bachelor’s degree (at minimum), have undergone extensive scientific coursework in the area of dietetics, have completed an internship in various nutrition settings and have passed a licensing/registration exam.

Whew.

As for me, while I do have two Masters degrees (one perhaps more relevant to these topics than the other, but hey, all education is worthwhile, right?), I am “only” a nutritionist – defined as a person who studies or is an expert in nutrition.  And since no one asked me any specific #AskAmanda questions this week (sniff), I figured I’d tell you guys a little bit about the Precision Nutrition certification I am working on right now.

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The PN certification itself is incredible – it covers a wide range of topics from the nitty-gritty (cellular makeup, metabolic processes, nutrient breakdown) to the psychological (nutrition counseling, working with difficult clients, motivational skills) to the practical (PDFs of helpful forms, legal documents, and assessment tools).  But I am not here to promote the PN cert – they’re not paying me for that (ha).

Rather, what I love about Precision Nutrition is that it doesn’t end at the textbook – they have a lively, active Facebook group and an incredibly informative blog with super-helpful infographics that I’ve already used with a variety of clients to explain topics like:

The biggest thing for me about being a qualified nutritionist is debunking all of the crap advice that people get from who-knows-what sources (US Weekly magazine; some celebrity website or trainer; a doctor who got board licensed in the 1960s; American President Donald Trump) and doing my best to provide up-to-date, relevant, digestible, and helpful information to my clients in the most straightforward way possible.

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That said – here are my quickest, best nutrition tips that I give to almost every client:

  • fat doesn’t make you fat – sugar and refined carbs are the problem
  • whatever cuisine you’re eating or wherever in the world you are, if you can find a meal consisting of protein and vegetables, that’s going to be the healthiest choice
  • eating late at night is a really bad habit.  Cut it out.  Same goes for post-alcohol binges.
  • try eliminating dairy and/or wheat, especially if you have persistent bloating and swelling issues
  • drink enough (2-3 liters daily) water, and if that’s too boring, add in some green tea, black coffee, and coconut water – but not much else
  • and finally – eat enough food.  Starvation destroys your metabolism.  You’re better than that.

If you’re truly interested in fitness, you must also be interested in food – and really, you should be interested in understanding fuel.  There is no one “diet” that is right for everyone, but there are certain tenets of health eating (as I’ve outlined above) that really do transcend individual differences and make a big impact on how we look, feel, and perform.

What are your best clean-eating habits?  How do you regulate your healthy diet?

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: Sleep Goals

Before you read this, ask yourself: did I sleep enough last night?  Most of us busy people would almost immediately say no, and those of us who didn’t are probably lying.

What counts as “enough” anyway?  Who cares if I don’t sleep?  And what’s the long-term effect of sleeplessness on health, body, mind – all of it?  #AskAmanda has you covered this week.

In our go-go-go society, especially where the pressure for us to achieve, demonstrate, and act is so high, successful people have somehow become martyrs for sleeplessness.  As a trainer, I see firsthand the effects of this lack-of-sleep mentality in the gym.  My clients that come in exhausted aren’t able to push as hard, they forget or misunderstand instructions more often, they get frustrated with simple tasks or deviations in their programs, and their heart rates soar through the roof even at lower intensities.

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I have been known to actually turn away clients that come to me on fewer than five hours’ sleep since what they really need is a nap – not an hour of a*s-kicking.

Sleep is an absolutely crucial part of a full fitness regimen, and not one to be taken lightly.  The adult human body functions best on about seven hours of sleep, but these must be quality (read: not up-and-down, mind-reeling, restless) hours.  One of the best moves you can make for your “sleep hygiene” is to set a bedtime and a wake-up time, and stick to it – or within 30 minutes of it – all week (yep, that includes weekends).  I absolutely love the iPhone’s new Bedtime mode for helping you do this – set one alarm all week and get reminders on when you should be in bed (that pop up most often while you’re up checking your phone, ahem).

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Once you’ve got the consistency thing down with your sleeping hours, you can focus on making your sleep quality top-notch.  Invest in a real, adult mattress and luxurious, soft sheets – your bed is the one thing in your house (besides your toilet, ha) that you rely on every single day – so it’s worth every bit of money you put into it.  Spray your sheets with relaxing essential oils, get a dimmer on your bedroom light switch, cut the alcohol and caffeine at least two hours before you crawl into your cocoon, and remove any unnecessary electronics from your reach so you’re not tempted to check your phone, watch one last episode of Suits, or do anything other than sleep in your bed (I have been known to put my iPhone on a very short charging cord so I literally cannot get to it from my bed once it’s plugged in, and I also have to get OUT of bed to turn my alarm off in the AM, which helps me wake up).

If you’ve mastered sleeping regularly and sleeping well (which, let’s be honest, from a health perspective is about as easy as saying you’ve “mastered” eating clean and cooking nightly), you’re ready to reap the myriad benefits of healthy sleep patterns, which include:

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The more you have on your plate, the harder it is to settle your mind and “wind down” for a good night’s sleep – as a trainer, wellness coach, and small business owner I absolutely understand that.  This is where some mindfulness training – whether it’s formal “meditation” or not – can help.  I’m a big fan of apps for this – helpful for me since I spend a lot of time commuting on public transit with my headphones on – but going to a meditation center, reading a mindfulness book, or even just sitting for 5 minutes in a quiet room with your eyes closed can get the job done – and set you up for better, more peaceful sleep at night.

I don’t know about you, readers, but all this sleep talk has me ready for a nap (check out a past #AskAmanda for even more specific nap-related tips) – who’s with me?

Are you a religiously good or chronically poor sleeper?  What are your best tricks for a good night’s rest?

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: 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?