Ask Amanda: The Six Pack Story

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

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

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Not quite there yet, fellas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Weighty Issues

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

AMANDA’S BODYWEIGHT EXERCISE BUFFET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Booty booty booty booty poppin’ everywhere.

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Spin Me Right Round

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

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

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Teaching outside = best best best

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

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

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

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Yeah but for real though, don’t stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Oiled Up & Ready

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

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

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

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

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Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Stretching, The Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Knees slightly bent, please.

 

 

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

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

Ask Amanda: Bulletproofing Your Bod

First of all, welcome to 2017, loyal readers!  Some of us (cough, nearly all of us, especially if you live in the United States) had a rough n’ tumble 2016, and it’s time to forget all that jazz and look ahead, hopefully and with determination, to absolutely KILLING IT this year.

Problem is, it’s tough to get out there and kill it if you’re kicking off 2017 sneezing and wheezing like a used pair of bagpipes.

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January brings us many things in the fitness industry.  On the good side, packed-out gyms are full of eager beginners looking to make a lasting lifestyle change.  On the bad side, overcrowded facilities are stuffed full of sniffling half-sick lumps of humanity spreading their germs all over the place.

Ick.

It’s the perfect storm of a lot of people coming together in a naturally fluid-filled (think lots of dirt, sweat and maybe even a few tears) environment during a particularly virus-friendly time of year, and contagious illnesses do tend to abound during these early winter months.

So what can you do to boost your immune system and, as I like to say, bulletproof yourself against the common viruses that seem to take out half your office this time of year?

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First and perhaps most obvious of all, commit to an almost-OCD level of hand washing.  If you touch something that anyone else has touched (an elevator button, a dumbbell, a computer key, a phone), don’t you dare touch your mouth, nose or eyes until you wash those filthy hands.  After I’m done working with a client, I scrub like a doctor going into the OR before I even think about handling my phone, computer, or god forbid, FOOD.

Second, and easier said than done, get regular and ample sleep.  7-9 hours is the recommended amount for active adults; you may need slightly more or less based on your individual lifestyle.  Studies show that people who don’t sleep normally or adequately get sick, and people who get enough sleep have stronger immune systems overall (and are less likely to be obese, which is a story for another time).

Third, as the wise Hippocrates famously said, “let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.”  What he meant is that you can actually protect your physical health simply by eating a nutritious, balanced diet (some of the top choices to include in your everyday diet include citrus fruit, broccoli, ginger, garlic, almonds, and papaya).  As for the more “advanced” immunity-boosting foods, consider:

  • Fermented foods (think sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles, miso, and kefir) go a long way in providing healthy probiotic bacteria
  • Coconut oil contains lauric acid, a compound that converts in the body to a compound similar to breast milk (and we know how good THAT stuff is!)
  • Berries have super-high antioxidant capacities (bonus for wild blueberries, top notch) and powerful phytochemicals, without the sugar of comparable fruits
  • Green tea (especially when made from quality matcha) has nearly 17 times the antioxidants of the aforementioned berries and 7 times more than dark chocolate, plus a nice hot cup can feel great on a sore throat and give you a little energy boost, too

And finally – what kind of trainer would ThisFitBlonde be without a summary mention of exercise as an immunity-boosting tool?  Getting your heart rate up and breathing more heavily can literally help flush bacteria out of your lungs and airways, and some studies show that exercise causes certain beneficial changes to your white blood cells (the body’s disease-fighting cells).  It can also relieve stress (a major factor in propensity for common colds, flus, and illnesses) and make you feel better overall, even if battling a little sniffle.

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Whenever I have a new client that tells me they’re the type to “always get sick,” I have to have a little chuckle, because I know that we can start them on a positive chain of wellness responses – regular exercise leads to better sleep quality, better sleep leads to a stronger immune system, a stronger immune system leads to less fatigue and days off due to illness – the benefit list goes on, and it all starts with just a few dietary additions and strong sessions in the gym.

What are your best at-home or natural remedies for the winter sniffs and sneezes?

Ask Amanda: Where To Start Again

Oh hello, last Wednesday of the year – didn’t see you coming so fast.  Next week will be January 2017 (thank GOD), and with that date comes the inevitable deluge of brand-new gym goers, resolution-makers, and diet-followers determined to “get fit” in the new year.

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As a trainer, nutritionist, and wellness coach, nothing makes me happier than people realizing it’s time to make a health-related change – and for many people, a new year actually is an effective time to do so.  Unlike lots of us in the fitness industry, I actually don’t dread or lament the wave of newcomers banging down our doors in January; in fact, I get more eager than ever to help convert that brand-new-year excitement into lasting and meaningful lifestyle changes.

But THAT, my friends, is easier said than done.

I was lecturing chatting with my dad the other day about his own fitness goal for the first half of the new year – to lose 20 pounds and regain some muscle tone with weight training**.  I asked him why he wanted to do it, and he said, “so I’m not such a slob.”  Of course, we had a laugh, but honestly, I challenged him to unpack that goal a bit further.

  • What is “being a slob” to you? (feeling heavy and sluggish; not fitting into certain clothes)
  • Why does “being a slob” bother you? (makes him feel older, slower and out of shape)
  • What would “not being a slob” look like? (getting to his gym-machine circuit at least twice a week, stopping nighttime snacking, and  watching portion sizes at meals)

And from that probing, we were able to put together some guidelines on what he’d need to do to reach his goal by May 2017.  I encourage all my clients to do some thinking along these lines, whether you consider them “resolutions” or not, around the new year.  All of us (yes, even us trainers!) benefit from revisiting our short and long-term goals regularly, and doing a reevaluation of where we are versus where we want to be.

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All that said, what if you have a massive and complicated fitness goal (such as lose 50 pounds, reduce body fat by 15%, eat healthier, develop enough running fitness to run a 5K, and get off blood pressure medication) – where do you even consider starting?

In my honest opinion, the single most important thing you can do for your overall health (after quitting smoking, if that’s also on your plate) is get your damn diet in order.  This will result in the most rapid weight loss, address your most urgent health concerns (one of my favorite quotes from Hippocrates applies here – “let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food”), and improve your sleep, energy levels, and mood more than any other single thing (and yep, that includes exercise – sorry, pizza-binging gym rats).

I am always reminding my clients about the 80/10/10 rule (full blog post here), which in shorthand simply means that 80% of your body composition is a result of your diet, 10% a result of your workout program, and 10% a result of your genetics.  The single biggest thing you can do to get a six pack, lean out your upper arms, thin out your waistline, or shrink your hips is clean up your diet – and I promise, I’ll dedicate a whole separate post on my ideas on how you can do that another time, but here’s a great place to start.

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Once you’ve committed to cleaning up your eating, getting a consistent and effective workout routine is your next order of business.  Consistent means 3-5 times per week (and yes, I mean every week, even the week with your birthday in it; the week you’re on vacation; the week between Christmas and New Year’s – all the weeks); effective means not wasting your time with 55 minutes on the elliptical machine.  

Are you a group exercise devotee?  Need a personal trainer to keep you accountable?  Love to get out on the open road for a long, peaceful run?  Figure out what you’ll actually do, and do it – there’s no single right or wrong path, as long you a) incorporate some cardio and some weight training into your weeks, b) remember to mix up your workouts for functional fitness, and c) maintain “backup plans” for when your workout of choice isn’t available.  As I love to remind my clients, excuses are for those who need them – and if you’re serious, you won’t.

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My third and final piece of advice for starting an overall wellness renovation in your own life is to consider exactly that – the overall, big picture of what wellness looks like for you.  Diet and exercise are great, and of course important, but don’t undermine the importance of things like proper sleep, stress management, stretching and massage, meditation, positive thinking, and supportive relationships.  You will never be your best self if you’re constantly berating yourself, belittling your progress, feeling exhausted, feeling alone, and dragging through your day with negative self-talk.  When you’re thinking through your goals for 2017, make sure to pencil in some self-love – the most successful of my clients always do.

How do you get motivated to kick off your goals in the new year?  What are yours for 2017?

**my dad runs a 5K course every other day, religiously, and is FAR from a slob, btw.

Ask Amanda: Orange You Glad I Tried A New Workout

I’d heard about Orangetheory Fitness for months – possibly years? – from friends in the States, and I’d always said that when I had the opportunity to do it, I’d give it a try.

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The Orangetheory gym, bathed in orange light

Well, as I was driving up to my brother’s house in Phoenix (where I’m staying for the Christmas holidays), I noticed the telltale “splat” logo just across the street – literally a 5-minute walk away.  It was go time.

I knew bits and pieces about the Orangetheory format from friends who’d attended; from what I heard, it was a lot like the Barry’s Bootcamp classes I used to attend in L.A. – interval circuits of cardio and weights, alternated for maximum heart rate and calorie burn.  Seeing as this is how I train the majority of my clients, I admittedly love the idea.

When I walked into the location, I was warmly greeted and given a heart rate monitoring strap – helpful, given that the entire “theory” behind the place is that you should stay in the “orange” working zone (85-89% of max HR) for 12-20 minutes of the 50+ minute class.

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The trainer walked me into the room, helpfully explained how the class would work, and set the 18 of us (!) free on the combination of treadmill running, rowing, and weights that would comprise our ESP (endurance, strength and power) workout.

I started on the treadmill/rowing interval set, which comprised of:

  • .5 miles at a running pace (1% incline) / 100m row
  • .35 miles at a fast running pace (3% incline) / 250m row
  • .15 miles at an all-out sprint pace (5% incline) / 400m row
  • .15 miles at an all-out sprint pace (10% incline) / 250m row
  • .35 miles at a fast running pace (3% incline) / 100m row

Heart rate sufficiently blasting in my throat, I moved on to the three-part strength series, which progressed from two dumbbells to one dumbbell to no dumbbells, as follows:

After completing both series, we had about a 3-minute stretch and cooldown and were sent on our merry way, with “the board” bearing our overall results (disclosure: I spent 20 minutes in the orange zone and 32 in the green zone, which was apparently ideal for the purpose of the ESP class, and I burned 669 calories overall).

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This type of training is not only challenging but encourages a 36-hour afterburn, an effect that occurs only when training is completed at 70-85% of MHR – which, of course, is the entire Orangetheory concept.

All in all, I loved the workout – the intensity was adjustable to several levels (if you aren’t down with the full-on sprints on the treadmill, there were walking, elliptical, and bike options; the dumbbell stack went from 5 to 20 pounds), the music was spot-on (a mixture of high-tempo Christmas carols and Top 40 dance hits, which I loved) and the vibe was positive, energetic, and encouraging – in fact, I’ve already signed up for my second ($28, hoo boy) class tomorrow morning.

If you’re looking for something to give you HIIT-style intensity, PT-style attentiveness, and SoulCycle-style energy, Orangetheory is exactly that – and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to build fitness, lose weight, or just have fun working out over the holidays.

Have you ever tried a maximum-intensity group circuit class like this?  What did you think?

Ask Amanda: Fly Away With Me

I just checked in for the first legs of what is about to be an absolute whirlwind of flights – Singapore to Melbourne to Adelaide on the first leg; Adelaide to Bali to Singapore to San Francisco to Phoenix on the return.

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God, I hope not

Whew.  I’m already exhausted and I haven’t even left (or packed, but that’s another story).

That said, with all the air travel I do (and the propensity toward colds and flus this time of year), a loyal #AskAmanda reader asked me how I possibly manage to stay healthy through the festive season – and I admit, I do have a few tricks up my sleeve.

Some of these are going to be a bit redundant from the last time I wrote on this topic, but there’s more to staying healthy while traveling than just popping Emergen-C (though I do recommend it) and a lot of it bears repeating.

First off, prep yourself for your travel plans.  So many people get swept up in the holiday season and don’t pack or prepare for what’s ahead – which ends in a lot of stressed-out rushing, last-minute forgetful packing, and utter exhaustion before you even hit the security gates.  Be thoughtful with your packing, choose comfortable clothing (and if you tend to swell like me, compression socks and loose pants) for the flight, toss an empty water bottle in your bag for some in-flight hydration, and take the time you need to actually get to the airport, no stress – believe me, it helps.

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Second, arm yourself with nutrition.  Skip the over-salted, under-nutritious airplane and airport food and bring yourself a nice bag of nuts, homemade sandwich, and bottle of water so you don’t starve or dehydrate on those oh-so-dry airplanes.  If you wanna get really fancy with it, wrap up some hummus and crackers, or even slice some fresh veggies for a quick in-flight crunch (and feel victorious while everyone else is wrestling open a laughably tiny peanut bag).

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Third, focus on hand washing and sleep, in that order.  The moment you hear someone with a hacking cough or wet sneeze on the plane means you’ve probably already come into contact with something they’ve touched or breathed on, and it should be a red alert to jump up and wash your hands (or in a pinch, use hand sanitizer).  Most of the common colds and flus can be combatted with this simple act, yet it’s the thing so many travelers forget to do that leaves them landing with a sniffle of their own.  And I know it’s easier said than done, but SLEEP – sleep! – if you possibly can.  Close your eyes, breathe deeply, use a neck pillow, do whatever you gotta do so that you don’t arrive at your destination a wacked-out, sleepless mess.  (Ladies, throw a nice thick face cream on before you doze for an extra spa-like bonus as you catch your crucial zzzs.)

And finally – don’t forget to move.  The aforementioned hand washing is a great excuse to get up from your seat, and when you do, take yourself through a few easy stretches to encourage circulation, keep your muscles active, and maintain mobility so that you don’t land feeling stiff and tired.  I always grab an aisle seat to make getting up as easy-peasy as possible, and my average rate of standing movement is about once per hour (believe me, on these 17-hour long-haul direct flights, even that seems like a feat!).

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The long story short of it is this – with some simple planning, healthy eating, comfy clothing, and basic moving, you’ll avoid the common travel bugs lurking within those big metal tubes, and ensure that your Christmas is a happy and healthy one.

What are your tricks and tips for travel?  How do you arrive feeling refreshed and relaxed?

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?