TAF: The Tough(est) Club in Singapore

I interrupt this regularly scheduled blog for a shocking expat revelation I just found out about yesterday: the TAF Club.

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The unofficial mascot of the most offensive club ever

To Singaporeans, this term is no big deal – commonplace, even – if you went to local school.  To expats (at least Americans, where this sort of thing would be so inflammatory that it would incite several lawsuits, no doubt), it’s appalling – and I almost can’t believe it still exists (to some degree, which I’ll explain below).

TAF stands for “Trim and Fit,” which is the name of a Singaporean government-mandated weight management program that existed from 1992-2007.  It was targeted at school-age children – and by “targeted at,” I mean “required of those students with a BMI of 23 or higher.”  

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Asian BMI – yep, it’s a thing,

Yep, you read that right.  23.  Not even considered “overweight” by American standards.

TAF Club students would be required to complete intensive (often just outdoor running-based) extra exercise hours at school, typically arriving up to an hour before an already-early 7:20am morning start – and that’s not all.

TAF students were also required to do exercise instead of eating lunch (exercising, by the way, in full view of their peers and classmates happily eating their lunches), or would be forced to eat lunch at segregated tables where they could buy certain controlled food with “calorie cash,” a special currency that allowed only meals with a predetermined number of calories to be purchased.

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Can I buy half an apple with that 50-cal cash?

Shocked yet?  Yeah, there’s more.

The TAF Club students – and by the way, the irony of TAF being the word FAT spelled backward is not lost on me – would have their individual names called over the loudspeaker during school, meaning each and every student forced to join the club could not even quietly attend their exercise hours; they’d instead be announced to the entire school.

Add to this the fact that the exercise sessions were (often) led by less-than-sympathetic physical educators – people who should be modelling good health, not calling out students’ abilities (and in some cases, their “unfit” body parts) in a negative way.

A simple Google search for “TAF Club stories” yielded paragraph after paragraph of the obviously damaging effects of this type of weight-based differentiation on young kids. Showing up to class sweaty and stinky from a bout of morning exercise in 90-degree weather, being stuck in (and I would argue, condemned to) the TAF Club year after year if you weren’t demonstrably losing enough weight, and even developing lifelong eating disorders were just a a few of the known effects of this type of program.

Let it be known that childhood obesity rates in Singapore did decrease from 14.9% to 9.8% during the first decade of the program – by some measures, a definite success.  But a study done just after that same decade – surveying 4,400 Singaporean schoolgirls in 2002 – found a six-fold increase in anorexia and bulimia among the school-aged population during the very same window of time – coincidental, eh?

Since 2007, the program has been revamped to “shift the focus” away from weight and toward a more comprehensive picture of health and wellness.  The new Holistic Health Framework (HHF) has as its core values “total well-being, inclusion, and quality delivery,” which sounds like a great start to a better-organized program.

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Concepts in holistic health

But if you scroll down the page, you’ll see the carelessly worded admonition that “schools are encouraged to change the name of their weight management programmes from TAF to something more interesting” – meaning that not only do the schools not have to change anything about existing TAF programs, but they can also simply modify the name of the program to fit the new “holistic” guidelines.

Hmph.

I’m not saying I have all the answers when it comes to childhood obesity, a topic that in my opinion is much more complicated, sensitive, and multilayered than adult obesity. What I do know is that peer shaming, public ridicule, segregation, and punishment-based systems do not belong anywhere in public education – especially here in Singapore, where citizen harmony is considered a top priority by the government.

I also argue that putting all of the blame, shame, and responsibility for weight management onto the back of a child – rather than involving and educating the parents – is an absolutely abhorrent way of encouraging behavioural change.

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THIS is what we should be teaching kids about health and their bodies.

I have yet to meet someone who can give me a personal perspective on their experience in TAF – and believe me, I’d be open to hearing from a variety of men and women that have been through it – but I cannot imagine that the experience was anything less than degrading, emotionally damaging, and in the end, ineffective in developing long term weight management skills.

What do you think about forced weight management sessions for overweight school-age kids – and should the government be at their helm?

Ask Amanda: Back Back Front and Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 Chainz (anterior/posterior)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Real talk.

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

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

 

Ask Amanda: An Elliptical Matter

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

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

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

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

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Beast Mode does NOT happen on indoor cardio machines

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

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

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

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Putting the “fun” in functional fitness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Max Your Metabolism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beginners Guide to Lifting Weights for Metabolism

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: 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: The Tummy Conundrum

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

I want to lose my belly fat.

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

So what is there to do?

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

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But all is not lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Seeing Spots

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s a gal (or guy) to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Real Talk About Cellulite

At one point or another, almost every female client of mine has asked me about cellulite.

Why is it there?  How can I get rid of it?  What in the holy hell is it?  And why does it seem to plague some of us more than others?

First of all, I’ve never seen an issue so universally shared by women than the fight against cellulite.  It’s a selling point for endless books, online manuals, and even one of the companies I work for (Aquaspin, by the way, and I’ll tell you in a bit how doing underwater cycling can actually help in this effort!) – and as a trainer, just uttering the words “cellulite reduction” is bound to get you at least a couple hits/views/likes on your social media.

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But let’s be real.  Cellulite is body fat, and just like any other excess fat on the body, it takes overall calorie reduction and lean muscle gains to disappear (or simply reduce in prominence).  Sure, it’s not super attractive (comparisons to cottage cheese or an orange peel are common, both ew) but it’s also not fatal.  As a health professional, I wish more people were concerned with their blood pressure, glucose levels, or sugar intake rather than a few bumps on a thigh, but I promised I’d write about cellulite so I digress.

The basic concept of cellulite is that it’s the outline of the compartments that separate fat cells, forming a round-shaped pattern.  Imagine overstuffing a mattress (in this case, the fat cell) and seeing the excess bulge out around the edges – that’s what cellulite looks like in the human body. cellulite

And in case you’re wondering why you don’t see it as much in men (lucky bastards), it’s because their “compartment outlines” run horizontally, in a cross-cross pattern rather than a rounded one, preventing the bulge visibility – plus their skin is naturally thicker so the cellulite they may have is less visible beneath it.  Again, jerks.

Remember that no matter the gender, fat is soft (versus muscle, which is hard) and doesn’t lie flat under the skin – it puffs out, takes up more space, and is more visible than lean muscle.  This leads to my first point – that reducing overall body fat and increasing lean muscle, especially in women over 30 (we lose muscle at an alarming rate after this age), is your first and best defense against cellulite.

Movements like side lunges, donkey kicks, and squat-lifts target the common “sitting” areas where cellulite lies (thighs, hips, and glutes) and allow for easy progressions in difficulty from bodyweight-only to versions using dumbbells or barbells.

Second, cellulite is often a symptom of poor circulation, and I’ve seen clients actually derive great results from simply incorporating dry brushing (or self-massage, whatever floats your boat) into their morning routines.  Using a dry brush to stroke the body in the natural patterns of the lymphatic system can help increase fluid drainage, move toxins away from the body, and yes – decrease the surface-level appearance of cellulite.

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If you want to take your circulation game to the next level, consider coffee scrubs after your dry brushing routine – just combine 1/4 cup of coffee grounds with 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of coconut oil and massage it into affected areas with an anti-cellulite brush for about 2 minutes per area, per day.  The caffeine can actually help tighten and rejuvenate the skin by removing dead cells and improving appearance.

Finally, consider your diet and hydration patterns when you’re trying to work on cellulite reduction.  Simply being dehydrated can make the skin look deflated and loose against already-fatty areas, and diets high in white starch (yep, that includes sugar), saturated fat, and sodium only make it worse.  Structure your diet around the cornerstones of high-water-content fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and nuts to help lean out all over (and boost energy to boot!).

The main point of me telling you all this great stuff about cellulite is to emphasize that despite its fancy name, at the end of the day cellulite is just fat.  Plain and simple.  To reduce fat you must reduce caloric intake, build lean muscle, and stay active.  Boom – no secrets.

What have you tried to reduce cellulite – or body fat?  Have you had success?

 

Lose Weight the FAST Way

Guys, I’ve written on this topic before – but I feel it bears repeating, so stay with me if you think you’ve heard what I have to say about the “silver bullet” of weight loss (yep, it exists) called Intermittent Fasting.

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Intermittent Fasting (shortened to IF for the duration of this post) simply means not eating during a specific period of time throughout the day, then “feeding” (eating) during a small window of time.  The type of IF that I do is 8 hours on, 16 hours off, which means that I eat for 8 waking hours of each day, then do not eat again for 16 hours, save for coffee (legit) and beer (not so legit, but LAY OFF ME it’s my own body, ok?).

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During those eight hours, I eat relatively clean (mostly salads, sandwiches, rice-and-veg dishes, or tuna on avocado) but not impeccably so – I have been known to throw down some pizza, burgers, or cookies on occasion (and by “occasion” I mean “at least once every week I totally eat these foods”).

In addition, and again by personal choice, I eat low-carb for one week out of each month (typically the last week) to maintain my ideal body composition (ratio of fat: muscle).

In doing this, and only this (though truth be told, I am a personal trainer and so by necessity spend many, many active hours in and out of the gym every day), I managed to lose 22 pounds (10KG) from last September to present.  A lot of clients and friends have asked me how I did it, and I am being completely transparent when I say it was IF and not much else (my workout routine, sleep habits, and social life have all remained the same).

So why does IF work so well?

If you think about the “eating several small meals a day” thing, consider that the glycogen roller coaster – you eat food, your body uses the food for fuel, you eat food again, your body uses the food again.  Sure, you are continuously eating and burning (assuming you are a perfect human being whose caloric intake and output are in exact balance, cough cough), but you are never actually attacking your body’s fat stores – and never training your body about how to convert fat to energy.

Frequent Small Meals

See, by continuing to feed the body over all of your waking hours, you are only training your body to produce more and more insulin – which can lead to increased abdominal fat storage (yuck), insulin resistance (uh oh) and eventually even diabetes (NOPE) and metabolic syndrome (worst of them all).  By never giving your body a chance to actually mobilize and utilize fat (versus glucose) for energy, and so it never does, and this results in you thinking, “why am I eating these tiny tiny meals but NOT losing any weight?”

Frustrating.

Luckily, by feeding yourself larger meals in a smaller period, you give the body a) the lovely and wonderful feeling of satiety (no more 250-calorie “mini meals”), b) tons of fuel-based energy during the feeding hours, and c) a metabolic kick in the ass by waiting until your body actually needs fuel to feed it.  Not bad for something that takes little to no effort (other than, uh, watching the clock?), is completely free, and fits into a busy person’s lifestyle (and often makes healthy eating even easier, since you don’t really need to worry about that whole “breakfast” thing anymore) really well.

The last common question I get from clients is do I fast every single day – and the answer, dear readers, is yes.  I find that it makes more sense for me to stick to IF as part of a lifestyle, much like sticking to a bedtime or an exercise program or flossing or any other healthy habit, rather than treating it like a fad or a temporary “quick fix.”  I’ve been fasting fairly religiously (save one week traveling in Japan and a couple drunken late nights here and there) since January and I find that it is the easiest and most effective weight control strategy I have ever used or recommended – and you can quote me on that.

If you are looking for a ton more science behind why and how people fast, this article has it all laid out for you, and you can even download a free 5-page starter kit from James Clear here if you are confused about how to get started on IF.

Let me know if you’ve tried – or would try – IF, and how fasting worked for you!

IF You Want to Lose Weight

A couple of months ago I realized that I had a big race coming up – the Ragnar SoCal ULTRA, to be specific – and concurrently realized I’d done barely any real running training toward that goal.  Add to that the fact that I was hovering around 5 pounds heavier than my driver’s license weight, and you can imagine I was motivated to do something about it.

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There are three distinct ways I’ve successfully lost weight in the past.  One is clean eating, the likes of which I detailed in my ROCKtober and GOALvember posts from late last year.  A second was a short but notable period of my early twenties where I began taking a diet pill that has since been pulled from the market for being highly dangerous (and did I mention I was highly stupid in my early twenties?  Weren’t we all?).

The third way I first tried about a year and a half ago, called intermittent fasting (IF).  There are many different ways to try IF, and some strategies work better depending on your lifestyle, preferences, activity level, and general habits.  Some of the main ways to do it are as follows:

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The eight-hour diet.  This is the method I use, which I find the easiest.  Basically, you choose which eight hours of the day in which to “feed” – and fast the remaining sixteen.  For my lifestyle, I allow beverages during the fast, including coconut water, soymilk lattes, and yes, beer and wine, but abstain from eating actual food outside the feeding hours (which for me are typically 11-7, but vary based on my dinner plans and workouts).

The 24-hour fast.  One day per week, abstain from eating.  Yep, that’s it.  Give your body a day without food, then return to normal (presumably healthy) eating habits.  Most people like to time the fast to coincide with the greatest number of sleeping hours, starting after dinner one and breaking fast with a slightly later dinner the next day.

One and done.  Also known as the “warrior diet,” this mimics the great hunters’ feasts of days gone by and requires the dieter to eat one (GIANT!) meal per night – and that’s it.  The timing and composition of the meal is more crucial here since it’s a one-time shot, so be prepared to focus on multiple servings of veggies, lots of protein, and a big dose of fat.

Fast cycling.  Combining elements of a few other IF methods, this one allows one complete and utter cheat day (woot!) along with a 36-hour fasting period (not-so-woot), plus another 4.5 days of regular clean eating (low-carb, high-protein, and lots of produce).  Supplements are also a focus of this program, especially during the 36-hour fast.

Day-on, day-off.  Also called alternate-day fasting, this variation alternates high-calorie or “normal” days (2000-2500 calories) with low-calorie or “fasting” days (400-500 calories).  The idea is that reducing calories on the fasting days actually provides health benefits similar to eating less on a daily basis, even if the foods are not clean.

I’m sure there are lots of way to do it, but as with exercise, the two most crucial points are consistency and adherence.  If you fast one day, binge the next, don’t eat for two days, and then have a couple normal days, your body gets confused.  What’s important in IF is choosing a strategy, planning for it, and sticking to it – which, again like exercise, is where most people fall short.

My strategy is pretty sound and it definitely works for me – I’ve lost 15 pounds over the past two months, 19 pounds overall since my highest weight reached here in Singapore, and I have more energy, better sleep, a more efficient digestive system, clearer skin, and my body fat is at 16 percent – all because of IF.  I am also running some of my fastest miles (but here, I’d definitely credit the training rather than the IF) and feeling stronger than ever during workouts.

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So what exactly does a day in the life of a semi-strict IF’er look like?  Here’s mine:

  • Wake up between 5:30-6:30.  Drink a bottle of water or coconut water, depending on how “festive” a night I had prior
  • Go about my morning business, which is either a starvation run, teaching group exercise class, or training clients
  • Grab a venti soy latte around 9:30-10am and bask in its blissful deliciousness
  • Eat lunch between 11-11:30, consisting of a can of water-packed tuna mixed with Greek yogurt (3 days per week) or a good part of a rotisserie chicken (4 days per week) and dou miou or salad
  • Take a 30-minute nap around 2pm to reset and recharge
  • Wake up and grab my fave snack, hummus and crackers, and a couple squares of my favorite Vietnamese dark chocolate, Marou
  • Make dinner around 6pm, focusing on whatever is healthy (like salmon and a sweet potato) or whatever is delicious (noodles! rice!) depending on whether I’m headed out drinking that night – either way, finishing up before 7pm
  • Either go to bed around 10pm like a wonderful and responsible human being, or:
  • Go out, enjoy 2-4 beers or glasses of wine, and feel no guilt.

Some of the benefits of this lifestyle for me are the fact that I can still enjoy normal food in normal amounts (my days total between 1500-1800 calories) and never feel lightheaded or hangry like I might with other diets (like juice cleanses).  I have my soy latte toward the end of the fast, when the hunger is most urgent, and it provides the “bump” I need to get through to lunch, at which point I bask in the fact that I have eight hours of glorious eating ahead of me.

Moreover, when I need the fuel the most – during the day, when I’m active – it’s there, and then my calorie intake wanes as my body prepares to shut down for sleep – just as nature intended.  Also, after not eating for 16 hours, you really have an acute understanding of what biological hunger symptoms feel like – and it has helped me kick the joint habits of a) boredom eating and b) drunk eating without feeling deprived or frustrated.

I’m not a doctor, and I’m sure as heck not a dietitian (although both groups agree that there are myriad health benefits to IF), which is why I don’t “prescribe” IF to my clients.  However, I will talk anyone’s ear off about it that will listen, because it has worked so well for me and is just about the easiest thing to maintain no matter how busy your lifestyle, since you set your own “feeding” hours and eat your own preferred foods.

So for all of you out there that have seen me recently and wondered how and why I decided to get kinda ripped all of a sudden – there’s the long form answer!  I would love to hear from you if you give IF a try – or if you’re not so keen on the concept.

Would you ever fast in any capacity?  What’s your preferred healthy eating strategy?