In today's analytical, numbers-crazed world, it seems that the answer to every question requires some sort of statistical analysis. The world of personal training is no exception.
As a personal trainer and nutritional consultant, I get asked a lot of questions. Maybe not as many as a doctor visiting a retirement home in South Florida, but I do seem to get more than my fair share. Apparently, while not everyone actually goes to the gym or follows a specific nutritional plan, everyone is most certainly curious about it.
And, for some reason, every query seems to start with either "how much," "how little" or "how often." Maybe it's the common fitness magazine device of assigning a random digit in front of every article ("Four Steps to Beach-Ready Abs," "Seven Ways to Stick to Your New Year's Resolution"). Or possibly the fact that so much about training -- reps, sets, rest intervals, calories burned -- revolves around numbers. Whatever the reason, here are the answers to the most common numbers-based questions I get from my clients, family, dinner guests and, yes, South Florida retirees.
Q: I need to lose weight. It's 85 percent diet, right?
A: I'm always amazed that "85 percent" has become the default amount of total fitness energy that needs to be put into a diet plan. It's as if some magical fitness accountant on the Island of Schwarzenegger has crunched all the numbers and come up with 85 percent.
Yes, diet is an absolutely critical factor in losing fat (losing fat is a much more valuable goal than simply losing weight). In fact, there is a famous fitness axiom that states that you can't out-train a bad diet. So while it's true that your nutrition has to be on point if you are going to make a dent in those love handles by Memorial Day, there are several other factors, including strength training, cardiovascular training, sleep, stress management and supplementation that are just as critical to your success. So rather than simply focusing on nutrition, work on putting together a comprehensive, holistic plan that includes all these factors and put 100 percent of your effort towards that.
Q: How many reps do I need to do until my butt looks great in these jeans?
A: This is actually a fact-based question placed in an emotional wrapper. What my client really wants to know is what is her effort-to-reward ratio. How many times a week does she have to show up at the gym? How many months before she gets what she is truly looking for? How many more reps before her ass stops burning from all these glute bridges I am having her do? The answer is... It depends.
Every client has a different starting point, different level of experience, different genetics and different goals. So while I can't give you the exact answers to any of these questions, here are some basic rules of thumb. I've never seen anyone make progress going to the gym once or twice a week. Three can work, four or five is ideal. On a dedicated training and nutrition plan you can start realizing changes in two weeks, start seeing changes in four weeks and make significant progress in three months. When it comes to body composition goals, shooting for 24 total reps of an exercise, broken up over several sets, seems to be a sweet spot.
As long as you stay consistent with your diet and provide your body with enough training stimulus per week, your not too far away from being able to slip into your skinny jeans.
Q: How much of my training should be weights versus cardio?
A: Just as the low-fat diets of the '80s have panned out to be a terrible idea for our health and body composition, long, slow, distance cardio programs have also proven to be inefficient at helping us reach fat-loss goals. So if you think that three-mile jog twice per week is going to get you looking more Channing Tatum and less Stockard Channing, think again.
Interval training, in which you put in a very high effort for a fixed amount of time followed by lower-intensity recovery periods, has proven to be a much more effective form of cardio training. The increased metabolic rate caused by this type of training has proven to last up to 36 hours after the workout is over. So, in simple terms, you'll continue to burn off some of that Ben & Jerry's for a day and a half after you get off the treadmill.
But resistance training tops them all for one simple reason. Building and maintaining muscle mass requires a lot of energy. Therefore, sustaining the muscles you've built through weight training burns additional calories 24/7 by driving up your resting metabolic rate (the total amount of energy your body uses at rest). Not to mention that having a bit of muscle on your frame will actually give you the body you want and allow you to do simple things like pick up your kids or swing a golf club. No biggie.
So if you have five days per week to train, I recommend dedicating three or four of them to weight training and one or two to intervals. Ditch the distance cardio unless it's something you really enjoy or are training for a specific event such as a 10K.
Q: How many calories per day should I be eating?
A: The truth is, for most people, calories don't matter that much. At least not in the beginning.
Now, I realize after years of being brainwashed by the "calories in, calories out" rhetoric, this may be tough to swallow.
If you're eating the proper types of foods (meats, fruits, vegetables and other unprocessed foods) you have only a rough estimation of how many calories you're actually eating. You see, the more processed your foods, the less nutritional variance from one bite to the next. With natural foods, the calorie count varies widely based on what the animal ate or the quality of the soil. To put it simply, one Triscuit has pretty much the exact same nutritional profile as another Triscuit. A piece of sirloin steak from a grass-fed cow raised in Kansas is going to have a different nutritional profile than a rib-eye from a grain-fed cow from Texas. Add in that the thermic effect of food, which is the amount of energy it takes to digest the foods you eat, also varies widely based on food type and the body composition and digestive health of the individual and it's not too hard to see that measuring calories in, calories out is a guestimation at best.
And while calories do play a role in your body composition, the role is secondary. The type and quality of the foods you eat and how they interact with your hormones is actually the key factor in how food affects the fit of your pants.
Focus less on the amount you're eating and more on what you're eating and you'll end up in better shape.
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