Most people workout to look better. Yes, exercise is important for your general health and wellbeing and it can help you feel better as a person, but I think if we were all honest with ourselves we’d have to admit that vanity does play a part. The vast majority of people who ask me questions about fitness are interested in improving their appearance, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Whether we admit it or not, we all want to look good.
So, if you’re interested in improving your appearance but haven’t been making much progress, keep reading. When a person comes to me with a problem, 9.98 times out of 10 it’s because they’re not following one or more of the principles listed below. As I alluded to here, there are some “non-negotiables” in fitness that are extremely important for you to be aware of. I have selected these non-negotiables because I believe them to be the most rigid and unyielding rules in fitness. Other areas can be tweaked and personalized on an individual basis, but these principles are the foundation upon which you must base everything else.
None of the following information is new or groundbreaking; rather, these are truths that have been verified through both clinical trials and years of anecdotal evidence from the fitness community.
Calories are King:
This is a huge one. If you’re trying to lose weight and can’t, it’s because you’re eating too much. If you’re trying to gain weight and cant, it’s because you’re not eating enough. That’s all there is to it. This has been proven time and time again in medical ward studies. Weight loss comes from being in a caloric deficit, not by manipulating carb/fat/sugar/food choices.
A lot of diet fads will go to great lengths to avoid telling you this. They’ll claim that eliminating carbs is key, or that you have to eat low-fat in order to lose weight. In an effort to stand out, they present you with various red herrings that seem to provide an easy solution…Oh, all I have to do is start eating grapefruits and I’ll lose weight!
If the scale isn’t moving in the direction you want, do this: Get an estimate of your maintenance intake of calories (a quick and dirty method is to multiply your bodyweight by 15). Consume that amount of calories for a few weeks and see if you’re losing/gaining/maintaining weight. If your weight is staying roughly the same, then you’ve found your maintenance intake. To gain weight, consume an additional 10% above your maintenance intake. To lose weight consume 10-20% below your maintenance intake.
For example: 180lb man wanting to gain weight should consume about 3,000 calories a day (180 x 15= 2,700 x 10% = 270. 2,700 + 270 = c. 3,000).
A 180lb man wanting to lose weight should consume about 2,200 calories a day (180 x 15 = 2,700 x 20% = 540. 2,700 – 540 = c. 2,200).
Once you’ve stopped gaining or losing weight two weeks in a row you’ll need to readjust your intake in order to remain in a surplus or deficit.
This is another common issue. Whether you’re trying to lose weight or gain muscle, it is vital that you consume adequate amounts of protein. There are a lot of myths regarding high protein diets (no, it does not cause kidney or liver problems, and yes your body can digest meat just fine), but the fact remains that high protein diets (along with strength training) have been shown to be vastly superior for maintaining lean body mass during a diet as well as increasing thermogenesis and having a greater effect on satiety to boot.
Maintaining lean body mass (basically everything in your body minus the fat) is especially important during a diet because when we say our goal is to “lose weight,” what we really mean is we want to lose fat. A diet that results in the loss of significant lean body mass will not create a desirable look. Think of it as going from “fat” to “skinny-fat.”
When your goal is to gain weight, i.e., muscle, adequate protein intake is just as important as it provides the essential amino acids necessary to build and repair muscle tissue.
The most common recommendation for adequate protein intake for those involved in resistance training (which should be you by the way), is 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day. So, taking our above-mentioned 180 pound man, he needs to shoot for 180 grams of protein per day.
Peri-workout nutrition, more commonly referred to as pre/post workout nutrition, is one of the few instances where meal timing has been shown to have some benefit. In short, proper peri-workout nutrition will ensure that your body has the proper nutrients before, during, and after training to increase protein synthesis and provide optimal conditions for muscle/strength gains.
The easiest way to do this is to consume a pre-workout meal that is relatively high in protein (say 30-40 grams) 1-3 hours before training and a post-workout meal within 1-2 hours after training. The post-workout meal should be high protein/high carb.
Outside of a select few individuals who can’t perform resistance training for medical reasons, I strongly believe that everyone needs to be involved in some sort of resistance training. It would take far too long for me to list and explain all of the health benefits associated with resistance training, so do a little research on your own if you’re still skeptical.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in people trying to lose weight is an over-reliance on cardio without first having a proper diet and resistance training routine in place. Cardio has its place, but let me be clear:
A proper diet plus resistance training is far more effective for long-term weight management than excessive amounts of cardio.
Yes, that goes for the ladies as well. Lifting will not make you big and bulky. It will do the exact opposite. If you still need convincing, please read this excellent article by JC Deen where he really breaks down the effects of fitness marketing on women.
The truth is, the same general principles apply to both men and women when it comes to proper resistance training:
For the vast majority of beginning/intermediate trainees, resistance training should be based primarily around basic, compound movements with an emphasis on strength gains.
This actually leads nicely into the next core truth…
You must increase the intensity of your workouts over time.
Legend has it that progressive overload was invented by Milo of Croton, a famous 6th century Greek wrestler who came up with a unique way to supplement his training for the Olympics. Every day he carried a calf on his shoulders and as the calf grew heavier and heavier over time, he grew stronger and stronger. Eventually the calf grew into a bull and Milo stunned his town by parading through the village carrying a full-grown bull on his shoulders!
While no one knows if this story is true or not (okay, probably not…), we do know that progressive overload works and without it you will not make progress. If you constantly do the same workouts and never increase the intensity, your body will quickly adapt and no new muscle/strength gains will occur.
Intensity can be increased in a number of ways, but when gaining strength is your goal, the best way to increase intensity is by adding weight to the bar over time.
Rest and Recovery:
More is not always better. If you don’t allow your body to recover from training, you will quickly cease to make progress. This is often referred to as overtraining, but is generally more accurately referred to as over-reaching.
Proper rest and recovery can refer to a number of things:
Generally speaking, "overtraining" typically occurs when someone takes a tried and true program like Starting Strength and starts adding things to it (extra exercises, high intensity cardio on all the rest days, etc.). Another common path to overtraining is starting a program that isn’t appropriate for you in the first place and diving in head first.
Exercise is something that should complement your life not rule it. It should make you feel good. Know that taking time to rest is just as important as taking time to train!
Have Clear Goals:
You must set realistic and non-conflicting goals for yourself if you want to make real progress. A huge problem I see with a lot of people’s workout routines is a lack of focus.
They want to lose fat, gain muscle, gain strength, and improve their aerobic conditioning all at the same time. While it’s true that not all of these things are mutually exclusive, most people do much better when they have one or two primary goals to focus on.
Find out what you really want to achieve and go after it! The process of reaching a goal takes more work than maintaining it. Once you’ve reached that first goal, you can change your training routine to pursue something else while maintaining the first goal. This approach is far superior than trying to do everything at once.
I’ve mentioned that it’s important to know how many calories you’re consuming. I’ve talking about the importance of making sure you’re consuming enough protein daily. I’ve told you that progressive overload is key and that setting goals is vital to your success.
Seems like a lot to keep track of right?
I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I’d be able to leave all that to memory.
...so I don’t.
Neither should you.
There’s a reason I’m ending this article with this truth. There are basic scientific principles at work here. If you are consistently incorporating all of the things I’ve discussed so far, you will make positive changes to your physique. This has been demonstrated time and time again. When you don’t keep a record of what you’re doing however, you introduce a nefarious variable—your memory and judgment.
The average person’s ability to accurately judge how many calories he/she is consuming has been shown to be laughably inaccurate. Overweight people consistently underestimate how much they eat, and underweight people consistently overestimate how much they eat.
Find a way to track your calories and protein intake. There are all sorts of apps available now that make it extremely easy to find nutritional information for basic foods so there’s really no excuse!
Keep a workout log. Once proper nutrition/rest is in place, the only way you’re going to make progress in the gym is if you utilize progressive overload. Keeping a workout log allows you to see plainly in black and white what you need to do to make progress.
If you ever find your progress stalling, consult this list. Make a mental checklist and be honest with yourself. Are you eating the right amount of calories/protein? Are you strength training and incorporating progress overload while ensuring adequate rest/recovery? Do you have clear goals and are you keeping track of your progress through logbooks?
By frequently performing this diagnostic checkup, you will go a long way towards ensuring that you are doing everything you can to reach your fitness goals!