By Andrew Heffernan, C.S.C.S. for Men's Health
There's no way around it: To gain muscle and lose flab, you have to pay the iron price. And sweat buckets. And rethink your grocery list. But the ultimate cost (in time, especially) depends on what you know. In our never-ending quest to help you get in the best shape of your life, we tapped the country's top fitness minds and combed through cutting-edge research to find the 25 most effective ways to reveal the stronger, leaner person inside you. In short, we're about to fast-track your fitness.
1. Rethink Your Nutrient Intake
The traditional food pyramid -- which the White House unveiled as a plate-shaped pie chart in 2011 -- is heavy on refined carbs and light on protein and fats. So it doesn't meet the nutritional needs of active men who want to build muscle and burn fat, says Men's Health nutrition advisor Alan Aragon, M.S. That's why he created the "food tower" -- it provides the ideal balance of muscle-building foods and flab-defying nutrients. Use it as the basis for your daily diet.
2. Load Up On Green Energy
"When athletes start eating more vegetables, they don't fatigue as easily," says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., cofounder of Cressey Performance in Massachusetts. "It's common to see them setting personal records in the weight room within a few weeks." His favorite trick: Throw a handful of spinach into a blender and combine with 2 cups almond milk, some frozen berries, rolled oats, chia seeds or flaxseeds, and a scoop of protein powder. You won't even taste the greens.
3. Get More Vitamin D
A dearth of D can lead to impaired athletic performance, according to a recent review published in the journal Nutrients. Other research shows that men with higher levels of vitamin D tend to have stronger muscles than those with low levels. Odds are that you fall into the latter group; in fact, no less than 77 percent of people in the United States are deficient in vitamin D, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Your goal: 600 IU a day.
4. Spread Out Your Protein
This much is obvious from the food tower: To build muscle, you need more protein. But men who divide their daily protein among six smaller meals instead of three larger ones build muscle faster, say scientists at Skidmore College. "Try to eat 100 grams [more than half of your recommended intake] by lunch," says Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., owner of Results Fitness in California. Three eggs for breakfast, a midmorning shake, and grilled chicken and Greek yogurt for lunch will do the trick.
5. Find Your Whey
Different types of protein work better at different times. In the morning, go with whey, which can help control cravings all day, report scientists in the Journal of Nutrition. "Whey is also best pre-workout because it digests quickly," says Nick Tumminello, C.P.T., owner of Performance University. Postworkout, use casein, which burns slowly to provide a steady stream of protein. Forty grams before bed can also boost overnight muscle growth by 23 percent, say Dutch researchers.
6. Work Your Entire Body, Every Time
When it comes to building strength, how often you work a muscle is just as important as how hard you work it, according to research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. "You need about 10 to 15 sets per muscle group per week to see results," Tumminello says. Shoot for three total-body workouts a week; during each one, complete 3 to 5 sets per muscle group.
7. Lift Something Weird
Most of the objects you lift in everyday life -- shopping bags, overstuffed suitcases, toddlers -- aren't as conveniently sized as dumbbells and barbells. To build strength that translates beyond the gym, incorporate sandbags, kettlebells, fat-grip barbells, and other odd-shaped training tools into your workouts, says Anthony DiLuglio, founder of artofstrength.com. Can't find such oddities in your gym? Wrap towels around a chinup bar to make it tougher to grip.
8. Master The Pullup
"The pullup targets more muscles than any other upper-body exercise," says MMA strength coach Chad Waterbury, M.S. And because it's typically done with body weight, it's also an indicator of relative strength (how strong you are for your height and weight). "The benchmark is 15 in a row," Waterbury says. If you can't do that many, work your way up. "Do 1 set of max pullups each morning and evening for three days; take the fourth day off," he says. "Repeat the sequence until you hit 15 reps."
- Bend the Bar: When you bench-press, try to bend the ends of the bar away from you as you press it up. "You'll fire more muscles in your upper back, creating a more stable platform on the bench," says Wil Fleming, C.S.C.S., owner of Force Fitness and Performance.
- Spread the Floor: As you squat, press outward against the floor with your feet (but don't actually move them). "You'll feel your glutes activate, which will boost your power," says Fleming.
10. Train Your Core The Right Way
Ditch crunches and situps. "Moves like those create motion around your spine -- precisely what your core is designed to resist," says Waterbury. To build a chiseled, functional six-pack, do anti-rotation exercises like the single-arm wall push. Assume a pushup position facing a wall with your hands two feet from the baseboard. Place your right hand on the wall and push for a slow three-count. Repeat with your left hand. Do 10 reps per side. Too easy? Do a pushup between reps.