About a year ago, I weighed 235lbs. I wore XL shirts and pants with a waist size of 38″ or 40″. I had trouble breathing when I bent over to tie my shoes. I caught colds rather easily. I snored like a Husqvarna. I was really quite fat and out of shape.
As I write this, the above description is -thankfully- a distant memory. I’ve lost about 50 lbs and I can fit into size medium shirts and 32″ pants. I’ve replaced a lot of fat with muscle and I’m probably stronger and in better shape now than I’ve ever been.
Fitness and weight loss has been a constant struggle for me from the time I was a kid. Now, I’ve hit the 1-year mark of trending positively fitness-wise. I don’t have a Mark Wahlberg or Jean-Claude Van Damme physique yet, but I figure I’ve reached a juncture where I can share some free pointers from a position of success. Maybe they’ll help someone else who’s been struggling.
1. Exercise AND diet
I really mean do both. Don’t just do one or the other. I’m not terribly good at dieting, but I try. I’m much better at exercise, but without eating right, the exercise wouldn’t work as well and that hard work would feel wasted.
2. “Exercise” means weight training AND cardio
It’s not an original tip, but it’s true. Muscle mass and tone makes one stronger and provides some aesthetic benefit, but more importantly it speeds up the metabolism. Muscle burns fat. You need cardio to burn fat, too, unless you’re going for the Olympic powerlifter look. You can either do weights and cardio on all weekdays, working different body parts each day with the weights, or you can alternate weights and cardio on different days. I made good progress with both approaches.
3. Work out every weekday
I wake up, I go to the gym, I go to work. Weekends are for resting. There are no weekdays without exercise of some sort, so it feels strange when I don’t exercise. Before I figured it out, I used to do 3- or 4-day routines with a rest day or two during the work week. That introduced an element of “normal” to not working out during the week, so if I missed a day or postponed a day, it didn’t seem so weird. Which made it too easy to lapse. Every weekday works.
4. Be fanatical about your routine
I learned this from my many failures over the years. I would do well for a few weeks or months, exercise regularly, eat well, etc. Then something would happen to disrupt my routine and the next thing I knew, it would all fall apart. I’d stop exercising, pig out and promptly get fat again. I really try hard to never miss a workout. Sure, it does happen when there’s a good reason, but I make up for it on the weekend.
5. Have some home gym equipment
I work out at the university gym. Paid gym memberships are best because you don’t have to mess around reconfiguring plates and multigym equipment between exercises. Plus, you can get inspired by the people there who are clearly in shape. But when the gym is closed or I can’t get away because I have to take care of Leo, I can still exercise at home. I just have a bench with some free weights, a barbell, a couple of dumbells, and a curl bar. It gets the job done and isn’t a huge investment.
6. Work out in the morning
There are a few good reasons to do this. One is routine resiliency: if for some reason I can’t go in the morning, I can try to go after work. Another is control: I have much more say over my morning schedule than I do over my evening schedule. I rarely know when I’ll have to work late or something else might come up during the day to mess up my ability to hit the gym. Of course, there’s the energy factor. I feel alive and energized after a workout. It’s a great way to start the day.
7. Eat snacks
In my office, I keep apples and Kashi TLC granola bars (the ones with 140 calories and 7g of protein). I snack on one or the other when I feel a bit hungry and these help keep me from pigging out at meal times.
8. Keep salad ingredients at work
Lunches are my best dieting moments. Once a week or so, I stock up on pre-washed leafy greens and various other ingredients I can mix up to make a salad. I mix these up for variety but always include some lean protein like turkey or chicken breast. By keeping this stuff in the fridge at the office, I’m not tempted to show up at McDonald’s where the smell of deep-frying goodness and Big Macs might make me opt away from their healthy salads. Plus, there’s a time and convenience benefit. It takes me 5 minutes to whip up my lunch and it’s always healthy and yummy.
9. Use correct training technique
Hire a personal trainer for a few sessions, or at least talk to someone who knows what he or she is doing. Read some magazines, books, go online, etc. Learn how to do the exercises right. Figure out the correct number of reps and sets for you. Having all this stuff sorted out and following the rules are critical factors to getting the most of the exercise effort and not getting injured. And believe me, there is a real risk of getting injured when you exercise the wrong way. I’m only just now starting to get my right shoulder back to normal after swimming with poor technique and not working my way up to my cardio capacity in such a way that my muscles could keep up. This was 5 months ago.
10. Weight training is not just about lifting heavy weights
There’s a lot of benefit to going with higher reps and lower weight. It’s not to say that one should do this exclusively, but you can still progress with 16-18 reps while going easy on your joints and tendons. Plus, it’s about the exercise, not the lift. If getting that last rep completed means swinging or jerking the weight and compromising technique, that’s really bad. Switch to a lower weight or you’re wasting your time and risking injury in a big way.
11. Use an exercise routine
Don’t just wander around at the gym trying different stuff. Write down the exercises you’re supposed to do on a given day along with the number of sets and reps. Keep track of the weight you’re lifting so you don’t forget. For me, this was critical to staying on track doing all the things I was supposed to do.
12. Listen to your body
You’ll quickly learn the distinction between good pain and bad pain. Good pain is the “burn” you feel in the last couple reps of your muscles fill with lactic acid, or some such thing. I’m not really sure about the science behind it, but I know it when I feel it. Bad pain, on the other hand, is sharp, stabbing, or dull. Don’t work through this kind of pain. Stop, and rest for a while. The next time, try some lighter weights. If you’re running and you feel pain developing in your foot, don’t ignore that either. I’m still not jogging yet. I tried for a couple weeks in March, but felt something in my left foot again and decided to give it a few more weeks of healing time.
13. It’s OK to pig out once in a while.
Well, ideally you don’t pig out at all. But if you keep depriving yourself of pizza and other good stuff, you’ll crave it even more. Plus, if you beat yourself up over the occasional lapse and you start to hate yourself for it and think, “What’s the point of all this fitness stuff anyway?” you’ll have major trouble getting back on the wagon.
Just keep exercising. Keep going back to healthy food choices at times you feel like you (and not your cravings) are in control. Don’t give up.
14. Reward yourself after your workouts
My reward is a large Sumatra coffee from the Bridge Street Café. And a yummy protein shake or bar. (Really, they stop tasting like chalk after a while.)
I don’t really know if they’re helping, but they don’t seem to hurt. I take a multivitamin daily because someone I trust told me it helps with muscle recovery. Before workouts, I take a dose of creatine. After workouts, the above-mentioned protein. I just go with generic stuff because I have yet to see any proof that the exorbitantly-priced items advertised in the fitness magazines offer any tangible benefit.
16. Mix up the exercise routine now and then
You’ve probably heard of muscle confusion as a way of getting past “plateaus” where you stop progressing. I think it’s true: you need to switch up your exercise routine after a while because your muscles get used to what you’re doing and stop growing to adapt. I’ve gone through three different routines over the past year. Each time I switch, I start to safely increase my weights again.
So after a few months with a given routine, it’s worth talking to a personal trainer, or at least a trusted individual who’s been working out for a while, to help put together a new routine for you.
17. Use a heart rate monitor
When I do cardio, I wear a Polar heart rate monitor strap around my chest to gauge my effort properly. I don’t usually need to wear the watch that came with it because the machines at the gym can pick up its signal. I was wearing the watch when jogging outdoors, of course. It really is useful for pushing yourself on days when you feel lazy and reining yourself in when there’s a particularly good song playing on your iPod. There’s a bunch of info out there to figure out your target heart rate for your particular fitness goals.
18. This is what I do
It can be really tough to wake up at 6am or earlier every morning to hit the gym. There will be days when you’re tempted to hit the snooze button. But you can’t. Exercise is what you do. It’s normal. It’s not special, it’s not heroic. It’s just what you do.
19. It never ends
I think it’s important to come to the realization that all of the preceding practices are not temporary. You need to plan on doing all of this, or some form of it adjusted for aging, for the foreseeable future. You can’t arrive at a point where you say, “Gee, I look a damn site better than I used to. I think I’ll take a break for a while.”. If you’re anything like me, that’s shooting yourself in the foot. As long as you’re healthy and not injured, don’t stop.
I can’t think of a 20th tip to end on a nice round number, but then again 19 is already a lot of stuff to retain.
Anyway, I hope this helps.