The other day at the gym, this adorable little blonde approached me and asked:
“What exercises do you and your friends do? You’re in such good shape!”
I told her a little bit about myself and my training partners, my philosophy, what we do and why we do it. I asked her what it was she was trying to accomplish, and as it turns out, Blondie just wants to get strong and lose a little body fat. She actually intimated to me that she would prefer an athletic, lean physique.
Yet, when I asked her what she was doing to accomplish these goals, her answer was quite counterproductive. You see, strength gains are dependent on either lifting weights or manipulating your body weight as leverage. Strength goals don’t typically respond well to cardio classes, which is what said gym-goer was accustomed to. Moreover, she was interested in building up her booty and rocking a bikini in the next few months. Since booty building is kind of my thing, Blondie and I settled in for a chat.
`What she described to me is what I call the lean and lovely physique: A muscular, fit, feminine, beautiful body that is actually as strong as it looks. And it just so happens, that I know a recipe for the lean and lovely physique.
Bottom Line: Long bouts of cardio do not build a lean and lovely physique.
If your goal is to create a lean, muscular physique then cardio-kick classes, Body Pump, Zumba and whatever else your health club might offer is not going to give you what you want. Sure, they might be fun and sweat inducing, and perhaps even something to add to the bottom of your fat loss hierarchy (after lifting, intervals and food considerations) but they will not build a bodacious booty. They just won’t.
I’m not saying that cardio has no place in your training regimen, rather that doing cardio, and only cardio, will not produce a body that looks strong. This is a common problem I see when working with clients; often the actions are not conducive to the objective. This is why many gym-goers experience the frustration that comes with a lack of results, despite their consistent gym attendance.
The only way to accomplish a goal is to first clearly identify it, then design a plan that is actually in line with said goal. True, the plan might not prove immediately fruitful, and you might need to make some tweaks, but at least you’ll know you’re on the right path. At least you’re not doing cardio classes to get strong or muscular.
So how does one get this enviable muscular physique?
Well, by smashing weights, of course. But although it’s simple, it’s not always that cut and dry. In my 12 years of training clients, I have seen countless women at the gym, day in and day out, lifting weights and failing to see results. Lifting weights is key, but the way you lift them, and how you match your eating habits to your training habits, is essential. Keeping it simple, let’s say that movement and nutrition are the ingredients and the program, or the way you incorporate the ingredients, is the recipe.
So, if fat loss with simultaneous strength gains is the goal, then the recipe should include not only the ingredients to achieve it, but step by step instructions as well. Again, while the recipe is simple, the steps are important. And, because I love you so damn much, I’m going to share the lean and lovely recipe with you. All I ask is that you share it with the ladies you love, too.
Work on specific strength goals FIRST
If leaning out is important to you, but you have specific strength goals such as a bodyweight deadlift, or achieving an unassisted pull-up, it’s imperative that you work on those goals in the beginning of your training sessions. You’ll want to be fresh, rather than fatigued from various other dynamic, fat loss focused activities. I suggest picking one or two lifts per training session to be the focus of your strength initiative, and spend about 20 minutes practicing technique and increasing weight with low rep schemes. This can be done 2-4 times per week before you move on to Metabolic Resistance Training, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Lift weights faster
This sentiment is courtesy of my good friend Jen Sinkler, who when asked what she does for cardio answered: “I lift weights faster.” This is where the term Metabolic Resistance Training comes into play. MRT circuits can take place after you’ve spent the first 20 minutes on your important lift(s) and can be performed 2-4 times per week depending on your schedule and how you design them.
MRT is essentially lifting weights (or performing bodyweight movements) for either reps, or time, with very short breaks in between. Typically exercises are multi-joint, compound or combination movements and are grouped into circuits of 3-5 exercises. The concept behind this type of training is that you will achieve greater metabolic disturbance, using the entire body to achieve favorable body composition, increase work capacity and in most cases, improve strength levels.
An example of a circuit from one of my own MRT sessions:
1a-Alternating Barbell Reverse Lunges (85 pounds) x8-10 R/L
Rest 15-30 seconds
1b-Dumbbell Bench Press (40-45 pound DBs) x8-10
Rest 15-30 seconds
Rest 15-30 seconds
1d-Bent Over Barbell Rows (75 pounds) x8-10
Rest 15-30 seconds
1e-Alternating Lunge Jumps x8-10 R/L
Rest 1-2 minutes, repeat for 3 rounds
It’s important to note that MRT is only effective if you have a strong grasp of all of the movement patterns incorporated in the circuit. Because you are moving quickly, with load, and taking such short breaks, your body has to be able to perform the exercises efficiently without risk of injury.
Do intervals and finishers
Intervals and finishers are a great way to break a sweat and increase metabolic disturbance, but only where time permits and recovery is not hindered.
The point of a finisher is to literally finish your session, and therefore should be placed at the tail end of your strength training or MRT sessions. Finishers are short (15-30 second) spurts of high intensity activity, followed by periods of rest and should not generally exceed 12 total minutes. The idea is that you are working so hard in such a short span of time, that completing more than 12 minutes of a finisher would be madness. Since it’s at the end of the workout, if I run out of time or juice, this is what gets cut out.
Some examples of finishers:
- Kettlebell swings: 15-20 swings every minute, on the minute for 8-12 minutes
- Jump squats: 20 seconds on/20 seconds off x8
- Battling ropes: 15 seconds on/30 seconds off x8
- Sled pushes and pulls, rest as necessary
Interval sessions, however, can be strung out a little longer and done on non-training days if more activity is desired-as long as recovery (especially of the lower body) is not compromised. I prefer to keep interval sessions under 25 minutes.
Some examples of interval sessions:
- Sprints: 15 seconds on/30-45 seconds off x10-15
- Rower: 30 seconds on/30 seconds off x10-12
- Stationary bike (such as the evil air dyne): 30 seconds of work/45 seconds of rest x10-12
*Intervals can also be done with increasing work:rest ratios. For example, you may not experience noticeable fatigue after the first few intervals, so rest periods can be shorter. As you progress through the session, rest periods get gradually longer to allow for more recovery.
Incorporate active recovery
You guys know how much I love yoga. I tout chaturanga like it’s my job, and I do think that just about anyone can benefit from a regular yoga practice. It’s a fantastic means of active recovery, which is an integral part of the fat loss puzzle, but certainly not the only tool in your recovery tool box. Long leisurely walks, playing sports, and dancing (Isaac and I have regular dance parties in our living room) are all excellent ways to move and burn calories while nurturing your body, heart, and soul.
It’s important to add in activities that are less intense, because the pursuit of fat loss can often be accompanied by a “balls to the wall” mentality. More isn’t always better (unless it’s chocolate, of course).
While training is certainly a crucial ingredient in the fat loss recipe, nutrition is just as paramount, if not more. My operating thesis on food is simple:
Eat in a way that please both your palate and your physique.
So the general idea is that eating for fat loss is not deprivation or restriction, it’s simply blending your body’s needs with that of your tastebuds, and finding a happy medium that pleases both equally. It’s entirely possible to lose fat, build muscle and enjoy the food you eat. You just have to follow a few simple steps:
Eat enough protein: This is typically .8-1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Eat protein with every meal and break up the total amount however you like over the course of the day. Protein is absolutely imperative for muscle repair and growth, and muscle mass is an integral ingredient in the fat loss recipe.
Some of my favorite shakes:
- 6-8 ounces iced coffee
- 1-2 scoops chocolate protein powder
- 1 tbsp raw cacao powder
- 1 tbsp almond butter
- 1/2 cup organic canned pumpkin
- 1/4 cup full fat coconut milk
- 1-2 scoops vanilla protein
- pumpkin pie spice
Crush some produce: Preferably organic, with veggies being first in priority and fruit coming second. You’ll want to eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits (or the rainbow, as they say) in order to expand your palate and absorb your vitamins and minerals. Produce contains more fiber than most whole grains, and leaves you feeling satiated and energized without adding unnecessary calories.
I like to keep cucumbers and raw green beans around to munch on with my homemade dip when I feel like snacking. If getting enough veggies in proves to be a monumental task, try Athletic Greens.
*I recommend consuming fruit and starchy vegetables such as butternut squash and sweet potatoes, after especially intense training sessions.*
Go full fat: Fat free products are finally being exposed for what they are-science experiments. Unless something is naturally fat free, you really should avoid it. Healthy fats such as those found in avocados, grass-fed butter, and nuts, can actually be beneficial towards your fat loss goals as long as they are consumed in moderation. Educate yourself as to what a serving actually looks like and incorporate healthy fats into your diet to enhance the natural flavor of whole foods. Also, taking an Omega supplement is always a good idea.
*A giant bag of trail mix is not one serving and will not help you lose body fat. I did that experiment so that you wouldn’t have to.*
Drink up: Water that is. While I do love my Malbec, the effect that alcohol has on fat loss is rather unfortunate. *Sadface.* However, drinking lots of water will keep you hydrated and energized, which is integral for fat loss. Not to mention, when you drink water with a meal, you are more likely to take not of fullness and satiety.
*Ditch the plastic and treat yourself to a stainless steel Kleen Kanteen. I’ve had mine for 5 years and it’s still going strong.*
Eat enough, but not too much: I’ve seen clients struggle with fat loss and plateaus both because they consumed too little and too much food. There are several ways to calculate suggested calorie and macronutrient intake. You can measure and weigh portions and account for every last gram of sustenance. And guess what? You’ll lose fat. But you’ll probably gain a whole lot of crazy while you’re at it. The funny thing is, if we pay attention to our body, we don’t need any formula to tell us how much to eat.
Food is for energy and enjoyment, so instead of counting calories, try the following steps:
- Start with 1-2 palms of protein, depending on how many times you eat per day.
- Fill the rest of your plate with veggies.
- Add a small amount of fat.
- Eat slowly and mindfully, in order to appreciate your food and be alerted of your fullness.
- If at all possible, consume meals with others.
- Limit sugary treats and alcohol to very special occasions, such as holidays and weddings.
Above all, the most important ingredient in this recipe is YOU. While changing your physique can be a gratifying and life-changing experience, it should never be done at the expense of your sanity or self-esteem. When I cook, I enjoy the cooking process just as much as the finished product, and I encourage you to view your lean and lovely journey in much the same way. Sure, I want you to accomplish your strength and fat loss goals, but more than anything, I want you to build character, enrich your life, and cultivate self love.
Be compassionate, be strong, be radiant.