There are many myths around fat loss, with many people doing many, many different things, all in the belief that they are using the best method to burn calories. However, with all of the literature around – books, magazine articles, celebrity-endorsed routines etc., there seems to be literally hundreds of “best” ways to lose weight!
How many of these work? How many people do you know who go to the gym or exercise classes regularly yet still can’t seem to shift those extra pounds?
Well I’m going to tell you the secret to permanent weight loss. Now, what I’m telling you is nothing new, but it’s the only way to truly succeed in being fit and healthy (which are two completely different states by the way, it is possible to have one without the other!).
To be successful in shifting those extra pounds and inches, there are two main aspects that you need to look at (there are many more, but for the most part we will stick to these two) – nutrition and exercise. Contrary to popular belief, it is very difficult to make serious and consistent changes to your body without considering both of these factors.
You see, to lose fat (notice I said fat, not weight) it’s a case of simple mathematics, you need to burn more calories than you eat. However, these calories need to be nutrient rich in order for the body to be satisfied and send out the “stop eating” signal. Eating foods with empty calories (like sugar) do not provide the body with essential nutrition, and so the brain will constantly send out “eat” signals until these nutrients have been detected, making sure we stay hungry and keep eating! As you can imagine, this can lead to a huge calorie intake.
Now I’m not saying everything has to be organic (although the benefits this would be huge), but you must avoid processed foods, ready meals, caffeine, alcohol, chocolate and sweets, microwaved food and basically anything that’s not “natural”. A good rule of thumb is that if it wasn’t around a thousand years ago, don’t eat it.
A fresh fruit and veg diet, with some good quality meat and plenty of variety will ensure you are getting all of the ingredients you need for a healthy diet. Let’s face it – we all know what foods we shouldn’t be eating…. Cakes, biscuits, sweets etc… those guilty pleasures we allow ourselves far too often!
Eating 5-6 nutrient-packed meals a day will help trick the body into thinking it’s taking in more calories than are needed, and so will increase it’s metabolism, burning more calories. These meals, consisting of foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables and organic meats will ensure the body is getting plenty of vitamins, minerals, essential fats and protein and will keep the brain satisfied that the body has all the nutrients it needs, and therefore prevents any unwanted “eat” signals.
As a result of this, you are able to avoid feeling hungry and will feel much more healthy, and this will show in your mood, skin tone, your eyes, nails and hair… Eating smaller meals more frequently will also help the body to maintain constant energy levels, avoiding highs and lows during the day – have you ever hit that wall when returning to work from lunch, where you just feel drained and tired with no energy and no enthusiasm? Or how many of you know someone who, without fail, will fall asleep on the sofa after the Sunday roast? Sound familiar?
Meal timings are also important, in order to maintain these constant energy levels, you should be aiming to eat around about every 3 hours, leaving no more than 4 hours and no less than 2 hours between meals.
Now I can hear alarm bells ringing – “this sounds like far too much” you may be thinking, but remember, these are small meals that you will be eating, not the large portions that many of you are used to eating – those dinners where you have to undo the top button of your trousers by the time you’ve finished. That being said, try to avoid eating large meals of an evening as the calories taken in far outweigh the requirements of the body at that time of day, and if they aren’t being used, they’re being stored…. as fat.
You need to throw out that “3-meals-a-day” mentality, which has you constantly going to the fridge or shop to get snacks between breakfast, lunch and dinner, and be thinking about having smaller meals for breakfast lunch and dinner, with a planned snack/meal between each, a small salad, some fruit, nuts and seeds, yogurt – anything ‘healthy’.
Next… DO NOT SKIP BREAKFAST! This is without doubt the most important meal of the day.
I’ve heard many clients, friends and family talking about exercising in the morning before breakfast as it helps burn off more fat – this is a myth.
Please do not attempt vigorous exercise on an empty stomach. The body needs energy first thing in the morning when you get up to replace energy used through the night. We’ve been talking about eating every 2-4 hours, well in the morning you’ve just gone anywhere up to 12 hours (or more) without eating! You’re body is crying out for nutrition, you need to break the fast. It is during the night that your body is busy repairing itself and resting. Hormone levels are regulated and your body is recharging – this requires energy and nutrients gained from your food. By the morning these are severely depleted and so need replacing.
This is also the meal that is going to provide your body with the fuel to start your day, without it you’ll be running on empty ’til lunch (or whatever snack you need to tide you over ’til lunch!), and a cup of tea and a biscuit just won’t cut it!
Try to eat complex carbohydrates and complete proteins – a fantastic breakfast that is quick and easy would be an omelet made with three egg whites (you can have one yolk so long as it’s from an organic or free-range, corn-fed hen) and some fresh vegetables. This will ensure a good amount of protein, with some essential fats and a good array of vitamins and minerals.
So, with the very basics of nutrition laid down (this is merely the tip of the iceberg), you should have a good idea of what you should and should not be eating, when to eat it, and why you are doing so.
If you aren’t convinced on why fitness professionals advocate organic foods so much, visit the links page where you will find a video which shows you some of what goes on in the meat industry with non-organic, mass-production of our beef, chicken, turkey, eggs and pork. Organic food is not a fad, nor is it expensive…. It is merely the correct price for this food, which is being undercut by the large profit organisations producing much of our food.
One last note on the nutrition side of things is hydration. Far too many people constantly worry about food and what they eat, yet completely neglect hydration, with many of them walking around completely unaware that they are dehydrated.
This is a vital part of your fat loss plan as being dehydrated can inhibit the optimal functioning of organs and cells. Water is also a key ingredient for flushing toxins out of your system, if these aren’t processed they are stored….yup…you guessed it, in your fat cells. So if your not cleaning your system you are preventing your body from shifting that stubborn fat.
You should be aiming to drink at least 1 litre of water per 50lbs body weight, and if you drink tea or coffee, or anything containing caffeine, you need to drink even more water as these will be dehydrating you – not all drinks will hydrate you! Our bodies are designed to drink water, give it just that. I’m not saying you can never have a cup of tea or the odd glass of wine, but remember to drink extra water when you do and try not to make a habit of it!
Now to the exercise. How many of those “cardio junkies” you see in the gym, the ones that seem to run on the treadmills for hours on end, look how you want to look – or even, how they want to look? Not many.
Despite it being the long-standing, accepted method, cardiovascular exercise is not the key to successful and permanent fat loss.
The secret to burning calories lies in the muscles. These are the furnaces that burn the fuel (calories) and the harder they work, the more energy they need. Put simply – if you want to burn calories, work your muscles.
Long, arduous cardio workouts are very good for strengthening the cardiovascular system (heart, lungs and blood vessels), but they don’t work the muscles hard enough, and can even cause the body to go into a catabolic state (where it breaks down muscle rather than builds it). Now obviously, if we’re looking to burn calories, we don’t want to be losing muscle, so in order to stay in an anabolic state, we need to do shorter, more intense workouts, and we need to be lifting weights!
Let me clarify this ladies – by lifting weights you are NOT going to end up looking like Arnie (don’t worry guys, you won’t end up like Popeye’s Olive either), however, you ARE aiming to gain muscle.
Now, a few extra pounds of muscle spread across your whole body will not leave you looking like the female Hulk, but it will be a few extra pounds of furnace. This in mind, your weight on the scales may not change dramatically – remember what I said earlier about losing fat not weight? Don’t worry too much about weight, by all means make note of it, but don’t check it again for at least 5 weeks -gaining or losing one pound means nothing, something as simple as hydration can cause a bigger fluctuation in weight than this.
The best way to keep track of your progress is to take measurements. Make a note of the circumferences of your waist, hips, thighs, arms, and chest and make sure that when you re-measure in a few weeks time you use exactly the same methods and are measuring the exact same places (obviously the top of your thigh is going to be larger than the bottom of your thigh).
An even easier way to track progress is to look at how your clothes fit; as you get into your exercise routine you’ll notice clothes getting looser – this is the result you’re after isn’t it? What good is a number written on paper compared to getting into those jeans you haven’t been able to wear for years? Many clients are obsessed with seeing how much weight they’ve lost and how their body fat percentage has come down, when all they really want is to look in the mirror and see a slimmer person looking back at them!
Ok, so when it comes to exercise we are aiming to fire up as many of those furnaces as possible, therefore in each workout you should be using every single muscle, and as many as possible in every exercise in order to burn the maximum number of calories.
These full body workouts will ensure that around 600 muscles are going to be asking for more oxygen and more energy. Machines that isolate single muscles or muscle groups do not do this – you need to be using free weights and bodyweight exercises. Now this doesn’t mean that any exercise done with a free-weight will be working this principle, clearly a bicep curl isn’t going to use many muscles other than the biceps.
You need to find large, compound exercises with as large a movement as possible to incorporate as many joints and muscles as possible. Done correctly, you will find that these exercises are as good a cardio workout as you need – if you’re out of breath you are doing aerobic work, and if 600 muscles are screaming out for oxygen, you’ll be out of breath!
Exercises like the squat and press, kettlebell swings, deadlifts, press ups and chins are ideal for this type of workout, although there are infinite combinations of movements that the body is capable of – don’t get stuck doing the same old things.
Changing movement patterns will help to keep the muscles challenged and take the joints through their full range of movement, this is important so as not to “wear a groove” into the joints by taking them through only one plane of motion every workout, joints are capable of a large amount of motion and should be worked through the complete range on a regular basis. This will promote optimum health and mobility and help to avoid injury.
Another reason for mixing up the exercises you choose to do is simply for variety – I for one find it tedious sticking to the same old routine for weeks on end, if something as simple as changing exercises keeps my workout fresh and motivating then that’s as good a reason as any to do so!
One of the most important things to get right when training, along with technique, is training intensity (if you are unsure about proper technique I would recommend you invest in a trainer, even if only for a few sessions to ensure proper form, this is a wise investment in terms of results and preventing injury).
For muscles to grow they need to be challenged, so picking up a dumbbell and knocking out 20 repetitions of an exercise with a weight that you could easily complete 30 or 40 reps with won’t do anything beneficial with regards to fat loss.
Also, as our aim here is to gain some muscle mass, using multiple sets of high repetitions up in the 20’s and 30’s won’t be doing you any favors either. You need to be working more on a strength scale than an endurance one. For this, you should be looking at completing sets to form failure (the point at which you lose good technique in the exercise – NOT when you are physically unable to lift the weight any more!) anywhere in between 5 to 12 repetitions. This will be working on increasing the strength of the muscles; and muscular strength and size are closely related.
So we’re aiming for 5-12 reps, how many sets? Given that everybody is different (and some people work harder than others!) this is an awkward question to answer.
Try to keep a workout to 1 hour tops, this is including around 10 minutes for a good warm-up consisting of some mobility exercises to take the joints through their full range of motion and something to raise your body temperature and heart rate (though not too quickly); and around 10 minutes at the end to cool down and stretch – aim to stretch any muscles that you have worked during the workout along with any correctional stretches of muscles that have been adaptively shortened (ask your trainer to perform a flexibility assessment on you in order to identify these shortened muscles).
That leaves a maximum of 40 minutes for your workout. Given a rest period of around 2-3 minutes between sets, try to get as much work as possible done in the time you have. At most then, you can expect to get around 10-12 sets per workout, hitting every muscle/muscle group. This can be increased by using PHA style training to reduce the rest periods but that is beyond the scope of this article. Choose your exercises wisely.
As for cardio work, those long, tedious runs on the treadmill need to be made a thing of the past.
It has been proven to be far more effective to complete your cardio work in short “bursts” of high intensity work with rest intervals between. For example, you might split a 25 minute jog up by working at a comfortable pace (one where you are not too out of breath and can carry on for a long period without any problem) for 2 minutes, then increasing the work rate for 3 minutes to a fast walk/jog/run that you can only keep up for the 3 minutes and not much more. Then reduce the speed back to your comfortable pace and repeat this cycle for the 25-minute period.
You will find you get a much more interesting and harder workout from working like this and you can also keep it down to as little as 20 minutes – you’d struggle to keep this going for longer than your 40-minute workout period.
There are many ways to split an interval workout so by all means try different exercises such as rowing, skipping, swimming, cycling, cross-training. You could even mix them up during the same workout to spice things up a bit. As you get fitter you can work harder, reduce rest periods, increase work periods or find other ways to increase the workout. Which leads me nicely onto the next port of call….Progression.
In order to continue to get results you need to increase the intensity of your workouts every time you go to the gym (or wherever you workout). This could be as simple as trying to get one more rep out in a set, increasing the weight you are using, changing the speed of the reps or simply progressing an exercise to a more challenging version. Without this constant increase, your body will adapt to the challenge it has been set and then stay there!
As for frequency, aim to be doing some form of exercise every day, this doesn’t have to mean hours in the gym, but get an exercise routine together that you can complete in 15-20 minutes that you can do every morning/evening at home. This could be anything from walking the dog to an aerobics DVD.
So with the basics of nutrition and a fair idea of what you should be doing you should be ready to start your journey. Don’t think… Just do! These methods have proved results time and time again and they will work for you if you stick to them.
So if you’ve been struggling to drop those extra inches from your waist using more “conventional” methods, give this a try, you’ll be amazed at the results you can achieve!