Unwrapping Motivation: Not All Who are Fit are Healthy

It’s been a minute since I last wrote.  Honestly, I’ve had a lot on my mind!  Between the recent inclusion of women in the UFC, mainstream acceptance of female muscle, and emphasis on body image I’ve been seeing in the media, there has been a lot to take in.  Sometimes it’s nice just to be quiet and observe. After a pause, here is my major observation: there are two conversations happening around women and fitness.  One is taking place within the sports and fitness industry, and the other is taking place outside of it—and each affects the other.

Let me sum up these conversations quickly with some tags and key ideas:

Fitness industry: metabolic disorder, too much cardio and dieting, becoming unhealthy, reaching goals, body image issues

Outside the industry:  motivational photos, muscle, too much muscle, body as work in progress, striving to get fit, reaching goals, body image issues

Did anyone spot the overlap?  While competitors inside the industry are coming forward with stories of metabolic damage, eating disorders, and ruined lives, people outside of the industry are being motivated by images of them.  And, in both circles, more and more women are blogging about body image and self esteem, while striving like hell to reach fitness and body goals.  You may also have noticed a little more optimism in the second set than in the first—I believe that the fitness industry is reaching a dangerous point of negativity and frustration, while still providing hope to outsiders who have still never heard of metabolic disorder.  So how can we be so focused on self-acceptance while still being so willing to abuse our own bodies?  Because goal attainment is extremely important to a person’s self worth; and, as has always been the case for women, deprivation, sacrifice, and self-improvement are the key motivating forces behind most fitness goals. And it can’t be ignored that somewhere, someone is making a lot of money off women who will buy anything to feel better.

This new ideal of the fit woman is being used against us and few even realize it. In fact, the conditions by which most eating disorders develop exist in extremely high concentrations within women’s sports, and it’s starting to show.  Despite messages of health and self-empowerment, we really are back where we started when Kate Moss was the reigning ideal.

What do I mean?  Well, to sum it up, I’ll use the most popular answer from a recent poll on Sioux Country which asked competitors to name one thing they wish they’d have known before they started competing:  “That I would never see my body or food the same way again.”  Many can never feel “good enough.”  Once you’ve seen yourself at single digit body fat, it’s quite difficult to feel comfortable at 18-20%.  Suddenly everyone comments on how great you look, and with all of that reinforcement, it’s difficult to go back to maintaining a normal and healthy body.  But, a woman generally cannot comfortably maintain low bodyfat for longer than is necessary to peak for her sport, and that can be really difficult to wrap her mind around.  This affects female athletes across many sports, including MMA, gymnastics, and even volleyball. The more the mainstream adopts these ideals, the more women outside of sports will be affected.

Many of you may be wondering what I mean by “metabolic damage.”  Basically, hours of cardio and extreme calorie deficits have caused hormonal imbalances that result in thyroids that become sluggish or completely shut down, reproductive hormones that cause their bodies and moods to go haywire, and adrenals that fail to function properly, among other complications. Eventually, not only can they no longer lose weight, but many gain more weight than they had to begin with, causing body images and relationships with food to deteriorate.   Somewhere floating around in that nightmare are psychological problems including but not limited to disordered eating and over-exercising.

This is increasingly common in the fitness/bodybuilding industry, but certainly not limited to it.  As acceptance of female muscle leads to new ideals in mainstream culture (which is GREAT!), unrealistic goals and misunderstandings about how to get there are making these problems more common outside of the fitness industry.  I’m already seeing them show up in my non-competitive clients in alarming numbers.

People often look at photos of competitors for inspiration and motivation.  At least, this is what they say.  But really, the motivating force behind these photos is the hope of one day looking like them.  Or maybe even half way—but even then, these photos become a measuring post.  And this is where the danger lies.  Many of these photos involve chemical enhancement, strict dieting, and more cardio than anyone should do.  Even the healthy ones have made sacrifices to their social lives, lifestyles, and careers that would be unrealistic for most people. I would invite anyone to look closely at my lifestyle and see how, exactly, I make it work—most of you would turn away immediately and readjust your goals and expectations.  If you want to be an elite athlete, you need to train and eat like one, definitely.  You might even look like one.  But not everyone needs to be a competitive athlete, and it’s ok to accept this.

And that brings me to my point: I promote health and fitness, yes, but I do not promote spending one’s entire life in the pursuit of looking better or different.   And, as much as I advocate for family fitness and women in strength sports, it’s just not realistic for most people’s households to revolve around fitness 100% of the time.  Yes, for most people fitness involves some level of sacrifice.  Like, sacrificing pancakes for oatmeal, and sacrificing Big Macs for home cooking.  But not like sacrificing all carbs, avoiding all social situations,  or depriving yourself all day every day in the name of glory.  There is no glory in that.

Fitness inspiration photos capture one of two things: someone who took drastic measures to look like that for a very short time, or someone whose life revolves around fitness.  Both are fine—I do both, and I know firsthand that both can be done in a healthy way.  However, it is not for everyone, and therefore the apperance is not for everyone. Strive for something else!  The question you have to ask yourself is, “what are these photos motivating me to DO?”  Diet harder?  Lose more weight?  Even the photos that show women working hard often depict THIN women working hard.  Or they focus on the [often temporary] end result, instead of the process.  Not to say that thin women can’t work hard, or can’t be motivating—the photos often focus on the reward of thinness, and not the work it took to get there.

To be clear, a large majority of what you see from the fitness industry is unhealthy.  Diets with no variety, two hours of cardio per day, demolished families, budgets, social lives, and even metabolisms are all heavily prevalent.  More and more women are coming forward with stories of eating disorders and metabolic disorders—many of whom will never compete again, nor ever get back even to the weight they started at!  And, sadly, many started in the same place: simply wanting to reach a body ideal.

I have been in that place.  During preparation for my first show, I was doing over two hours of cardio a day, while lifting and eating only 1000 calories.  After the show, when it was time to go back to looking normal, suddenly “normal” was no longer good enough.  I felt like everyone expected me to look like I did for the show, and I soon developed a very unhealthy relationship with food and my body that has taken me years to correct.  The second show was better, but afterward I took two years off with no plans of ever competing again.  I had a new goal: to let a cookie just be a cookie.  To eat a damned bowl of cereal from time to time.  To ban food guilt from my life forever.  And, honestly, I won the battle and went on to compete again.  In fact, this blog was created in the hope of reaching people with a new idea of what it means to be fit and healthy.

So what does this mean for my non-competitor readers?  First, it is so important to have a clear understanding of the entire process—before, during, and after.  Here are some tips to help you stay in the safe zone with your fitness lifestyle:

  • Set appropriate and realistic goals
  • understand fully what it will take to reach and maintain them
  • be able to picture life “after” you’ve reached your goal
  • Single digit bodyfat will not happen year round for women; for most women, bodyfat in the low to mid teens will require ridiculous sacrifices—if this is your goal, be prepared to make them
  • Unless you are competing, I do not recommend setting goals that you have no intention of maintaining
  • HALF OF YOUR FITNESS GOAL SHOULD INVOLVE ACCEPTANCE OF YOUR BODY AS-IS.  If you can’t accept yourself now, how will you accept yourself after you’ve lost weight?
  • DO NOT divide food into black and white categories; once you view food as “good” or “bad,” it’s difficult to undo.  (It is ok, however, to recognize “fuel” and “not fuel,” such as McDonald’s)
  • Eat a cookie every now and then, and don’t you dare feel bad about it

If you are looking for healthy inspiration, I strongly recommend getting plugged into these two places:

http://www.siouxcountry.com/

http://www.sweatybettiesfitness.com/

Beginner’s Burnout: Why More is not More

I love the motivation I’m seeing in people this month!  I have observed, in more than one gym, a relatively large number of newcomers still on the fitness wagon.  Awesome!  But, I’ve also noticed a trend that is going to lead to injury, unwanted time off, frustration over goals not met, or maybe even all three at once.  Somewhere in the fitness motivation memes, photos, and rhetoric, a message of “more is more” has made its way to gym newcomers—and it’s hard to watch!

gymmeme

This is “the guy” we are referring to when we say, “don’t be that guy.”

Newly motivated people often say things like, “Man!  I came in this morning, and I’m here again, and then I’m gonna train AGAIN TONIGHT!  High five!”  Hmmm.  I’m not going to give a nod of approval to this—I’m going to ask you what the hell your plan is, and why you think this is a good idea!  At this rate, it won’t take long to burn out, have to take a week or two off, and have trouble getting started again.  Doing a lot in one week is good, but to still be doing it in two months is way better—so pace yourself!  Set a goal, have a plan that is conducive to reaching that goal, and don’t do more or less than what’s on the plan.

My workouts would look very odd to a newcomer.  If I’m in bodybuilding mode, my training is usually done in 45 minutes.  If I am in power lifting mode, I could look even sillier—at 5 minutes between sets (at LEAST—my training partners are pushing me to rest longer!), and often only 1-3 reps in a set, I probably look like I’m just sitting around all the time!   Depending on my goal, sometimes I train twice a day, with my second workout being an intense conditioning session that I can complete within 30 minutes!  But all of my workouts have something in common: when I’m done, I’m done.  With some intuitive exceptions, if my set calls for three reps, I do three reps even if I could have done five.  If my workout calls for five exercises, I do those five.  If my plan is to do 20 minutes of HIIT, then after 20 minutes I stop.  The type of training I’m doing depends on my goal, and the structure of my training follows accordingly.  If I stray from the plan today, I risk screwing over tomorrow’s plan.

Fitness beginners often believe that all training is for the same purpose, and that “go hard or go home” means 2 hours at the gym is better than a 1-hour quality workout.  This is evident in the way that most people describe their goals.  People usually list all or several of the following: lose weight, gain some muscle, tone up, get shredded, have abs, get bigger biceps.  Back up: do you want to lose weight, or get bigger biceps? Do you want to have abs, or put on more muscle? Appearing to have bigger muscles and actually having bigger muscles are not the same thing.  And, one month of “working out” isn’t going to be a cure-all approach to reaching every goal under the sun.

When I meet a new client, I have a responsibility to not just put them on a cookie-cutter workout plan.  I spend a lot of time up front on trying to define realistic goals, get us on the same page with terminology, and discuss exactly how we want to approach and prioritize the goals.  I map out a long-term plan, and break it up into short-term plans of execution and really make sure the client understands why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how each part will contribute to the goal.

But what if you don’t have a personal trainer?  Not everyone needs one, but you still deserve better than a cookie cutter plan.  You deserve more than to keep performing aimless workouts and wondering why you aren’t getting anywhere.  You should understand what the machines do—and don’t do.  You should understand that biceps curls aren’t going to directly contribute to fat loss, and that crunches won’t really change the appearance of your midsection.  And you should know that more work is not necessarily going to equal more progress.  Too many people go to the gym, perform every exercise they found in some magazine (7 variations of the biceps curl…good job…), go home totally spent, and then wake up and do the exact same thing the next day.  You can only do that so many times before you get bored, get hurt, over-train, or give up.  And everyone does, eventually.  I’ve done it myself.  I call it Beginner’s Burnout.

So what can you do to avoid Beginner’s Burnout?

  • Work smarter, not harder.  THINK, plan, execute.  Know what step 2 will be before you start step 1.  Don’t kill yourself on Monday and then remember than you have basketball practice on Tuesday.  Build your plan to accommodate both.
  • REST!  Unless you are a competitive athlete (and maybe even then…),  back-to-back workouts, or training 12 times in one week, , will not help you.  Especially if you’re not doing the next step…
  • Eat for recovery!!  You break your body down in the gym, you build it back up with nutrition.  It’s that simple.  If you have two workouts back-to-back, both workouts are going to suffer if you don’t fuel your body to recover and perform again.  If you break your body down repeatedly, but never recover and repair, then you just end up with a broken down body.   (Example: skinny arms and legs, belly fat, generally “untoned” all over…).
  • Utilize your resources!  Find a good online resource and do some research!  Or, solicit the help of a trainer.  A personal trainer doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment.  Most of us are happy to consult with you for one or two sessions.  Those of us who do this job because we want to help people will be happy to see you succeed with or without us!  Identify a trainer who specializes in what it is you want to do—and if you don’t know, we will point you in the right direction.

Good luck reaching your goals!  It’s already February, so if you’re one of the New Year’s crowd and you’ve made it this far, you’re in the clear!  If you stop seeing progress, don’t give up–get your eyes on the prize and start focusing your workouts!

 

 

Embracing In-Betweenness

As many have noticed (and have gracefully pointed out), I have been slowing down on my blog in these past couple of months.  I have been in the process of finishing up my Master’s thesis, which I successfully defended at the beginning of this month.  If you would have asked me a few months ago what I thought of my thesis, I’d have told you that it was the worst thing I have ever written and I just wanted it to be over with.  In fact, on the day I defended I knew I hadn’t said all of the things I really wanted to say; luckily, my amazing committee knew this and gave me a chance to get it all out there. To date, my thesis defense was the BEST experience of my academic career, and I could not be more proud of the finished product that is taking shape as a result.

What I do when I'm not blogging or in the gym...

What I do when I’m not blogging or in the gym…

And what is this thesis about?  Short answer: bodybuilding.  My stuffy elevator pitch involves such keywords as gender, transgression, subversion, normativity, categories, femininity, masculinity, and opposing binaries.  But really, my thesis is about in-betweenness.  Stuckness.  That feeling of never quite fitting, despite pressure to fit.  Sound familiar? You don’t have to be a fitness competitor to understand this theme.

My research points out that, no matter how hard we try, we will never fit neatly into a category.  But we already knew this, right?  The question we are left with, however, is what to do with all of the people who don’t fit.  As the sport of bodybuilding demonstrates, but which happens all the time, the tendency is to simply create new categories.  But what do we get when we make new categories?  New spaces between categories.  The more categories we come up with, the more gutter space we create.  My research zooms in on these gutter spaces, examining how they can be useful to the people who inhabit them.

My daughter defines a rainbow as being a perfect mix of sun and rain.  In-betweenness at its best!

My daughter defines a rainbow as “a perfect mix of sun and rain.” In-betweenness at its best!

In the sport of bodybuilding, we navigate these in-between spaces constantly—it can mean being too big for Figure but too small for Women’s Bodybuilding, or having a perfect physique but not having the right hairstyle (really!).  For my non-bodybuilding friends out there, however, we can look at much more practical examples.  How many of you find that jeans never fit your waist and your butt at the same time?  Or that you are healthy and fit but still not thin?  Or very thin but not fit?  Has anyone noticed the pressure to be thin and fit, but also a social drinker/eater?  Or that to be successful in sports, women must un-learn how to be ladylike?  We are surrounded by labels, categories, classifications, and contradicting expectations—and we can never fit perfectly.

The way I see it, we have two choices: we can live in the pursuit of molding ourselves to fit a category, or we stand firmly in the gutter.  Which you choose depends on how hard you want to fight, and what you consider “winning.”  Some people go to unhealthy extremes to be thin, just to look good in a picture.  Bikini competitors often get breast implants because it will help them win a trophy.  They can have that.  Personally, I suggest we willfully inhabit the gutter!  Embrace not fitting.  By doing so—by remaining in the gutter space ON PURPOSE—we face frustrations, but we don’t sell ourselves out for a trophy, or a compliment, or some other meaningless recognition.  We stick it to the man.  We own that gutter.

I am learning to love being muscular and feminine at the same time.  I love embodying multiple dualisms (translation: being two opposites at once): feminine and strong, physical and intellectual,  small and big.  It makes me feel sneaky…

Embrace your in-betweenness!

Speaking of things that are in-between, this recipe for pumpkin pie is perfectly situated between “sweet” and “healthy.”  That is, it satisfies the sweet tooth and is a healthier alternative to traditional recipes.  I am especially happy about the quinoa flour, which was an excellent way to increase the protein content.   And, best of all, it passes the kid-test!

Filling:

  • 1 can pumpkin puree
  • ½ cup splenda
  • ½ cup almond milk
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • pumpkin pie spice
  • cinnamon

Crust:

  • ½ c oat flour
  • ½ c quinoa flour
  • ½ c oats
  • ¼  cup honey
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • ¼ cup almond milk
  • pinch of salt

For crust:

Mix dry ingredients in bowl; stir in honey, oil, and milk.  Mix well with a fork or your fingers, until the mixture begins to stick together.  Press into a greased pie pan.  Bake for 10 minutes at 350.

To make the pie:

Mix all ingredients until smooth.  Add to pie crust and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Cover with foil and bake for an additional 15-20 minutes.

REST is WORK! Recognize and Prevent Over-training

In the pursuit of health and fitness, most people tend to focus their energies on food and training.  However, there is a third component that is often overlooked and absolutely critical: RECOVERY.

What we do in the gym is important, so don’t get me wrong, but what we do AFTER the gym is critical to reaching our goals.  It’s where the magic happens. Think, for a moment, about the process by which we grow our muscles: during weight training, we essentially break them down by creating damage to the muscle fibers. The process of repairing these damaged muscle fibers is what causes muscles to grow, as new cells are created to repair the site of the injury.  The result is literally bigger and stronger muscles.  Mind you, there are many factors, including genetics, that determine exactly what your bigger and stronger muscles will look like, but the process is the same for everyone.  So stay with me for a minute—I’m not going to turn you into Arnold.

Continuing to train on muscles that are never allowed to recover is the fast track to overtraining; this not only halts any progress you are trying to make, but also leads to injury.  Think about it: if you damage your muscle but don’t allow it to heal properly, and then train on it again, you just damage it further.  And if you continue to push, your body will be miserable, you’ll be depressed, your progress will halt, and you’ll be wondering where on earth you went wrong.  I am usually on the other end of this phone call or email at least once or twice a week.

Most people have experienced or will eventually encounter overtraining, whether they know it or not.  So it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of overtraining.   A quick Google search for “overtraining” will turn up an exhaustive list of all of the possible symptoms, but sometimes they are pretty far-reaching and may leave you wondering how to tell the difference between the flu and overtraining.  So here are some descriptions of the ones I see the most.  If you recognize yourself, as I suspect many of you will, be patient with me.  And if you’re a skimmer, make sure you catch the last few paragraphs—I’ll tell you how you can avoid or respond to the following:

1.  Lack of motivation.
I see this one most frequently, and for me it’s the first sign.  Last week you couldn’t WAIT to get to the gym, but suddenly you realize that for the past few days you haven’t really been feeling it, your workouts seem aimless, and you can’t get motivated.

2. Changes in your normal sleep pattern.
Insomnia is usually my second sign.  After a good workout, you should be tired at night!  Suddenly you’re up all night for no reason, or just aren’t sleeping very soundly.  You may also experience more difficulty getting out of bed than normal.

3. Low immune system.
You know that feeling you get when you’re just about to get sick?  Learn to recognize it if you can’t already.  When you feel this way, you usually have an opportunity to prevent the impending illness.  When I encounter days like this, I know it can go either way: if I’m smart, I won’t train in this condition.  Admittedly, I’m not always as smart as I should be. Do as I say, not as I do…I’ve learned this one the hard way!

4.  General pain, discomfort, or not-quite-right-ness.
For me, this one shows up as a discomfort that edges on pain that I can’t quite put my finger on.  I’ll usually say that “my central nervous system hurts,” as a joke that really isn’t funny because it’s kind of true.  This one can also show up as muscle or joint pain that persists longer than normal or for no apparent reason.

5.  Moodiness/irritability/low patience.
Usually due to one or more of the above.  You know it when you have it.

6.  Sudden decline in performance.
Weight that should be easy isn’t.  Endurance is way off.  You probably had trouble getting started (see #1), but once you did it didn’t get any better.  Maybe you float around the gym unable to actually commit to your workout.

Great news: overtraining can be prevented!  There are a few things you need to know.  First and foremost, recognize that REST IS WORK.  My clients should all recognize this statement!  Do not allow yourself to feel guilty for taking time off.  You need that time off for several reasons.  It not only gives your body a chance to repair and recover from the work you’ve done, but it also gives you a necessary mental break.  Too much of anything can lead to burnout, and this is true for the mental side of training–if you do something over and over, you’ll eventually get tired of it.  The people who train the most consistently also usually rest consistently.  Be the tortoise, not the hair.  If you don’t plan for a rest, then you’ll be miserable when your body forces you to rest—and it will, eventually.

Realize the importance of nutrition.  There is a reason why bodybuilders focus on protein—it’s what repairs the damages we inflict on our muscles! Translation: it’s what allows muscles to grow.  <—–you want this.  Trust me.  Now, I could write a whole new post on exactly how to optimize your body’s ability to use this protein, but for now I’ll just leave you with the knowledge that it can indeed be sped up or slowed down based on the form you choose and what you choose to eat with it.  If you want specifics, contact me or look it up.  No, contact me—there is a lot of junk out there written by supplement companies who are just trying to sell you something.

If you are on a heavy lifting program, don’t forget to designate an occasional de-load week.  I know it’s no fun to lift less than 65% of your max effort, or to sit around stretching while all of your friends are lifting; it’s tough on the ego.  But it’s necessary. “Go hard or go home” is a great motto, but sometimes it’s counterproductive.  No one should be lifting at or near full capacity every day of every week.  A day off won’t cut it.  You need several days of active recovery—keep your body moving, but lay off the heavy stuff.  There are many ways to do this, and it really depends on how you train—again, if you have specific questions please feel free to run them by me so we can create a plan that works for you.

Go to bed at a decent hour!  A large part of recovery takes place while you are asleep.  The fastest way to overtrain and piss off your adrenals is to not get enough sleep.  If you keep going and going, you will overtrain very quickly and end up in a vicious cycle that ends with fatigue and overcaffeination—eventually, your adrenals will hate you.  If you push yourself into adrenal fatigue, you will have a very difficult time reaching your fitness goals—many people experience this wall and eventually give up, and its ‘ll because they didn’t get enough sleep.  Very sad–don’t let this happen to you.

Add variety to your training.  A lot of the smarter programs I have encountered have variety built in, but even still it’s important to switch it up.  This functions in the same way as the de-load week, but gives your body a longer break from one kind of stressor while allowing you to focus on new goals.  I prefer to stick to a program for 4-6 weeks at a time.  If it is a program that I really enjoy, I might only interrupt it for a week or two, but it’s really important to me to focus on short term goals.  How many people go to the gym and lift the same way every week for years at a time?  Do you really think they get stronger every week? Probably not.  Curling 25lb dumbbells every week for a year, with no variation in training, is not likely to result in a substantial increase in the amount of weight someone can curl.  I often get emails from people who have become extremely frustrated and want to know why they are not getting stronger. The first thing I ask is how long they’ve been doing the same thing.  Invariably, I find that the person has not changed his or her training in months or even years. In order to break past a plateau, try something different.  Walk away, try something new, and come back to it.

At some point during your training, you are likely to encounter symptoms of overtraining.  But there are degrees of severity—learn to recognize the signs quickly so that you can manage a small problem before it becomes a much larger problem with a much longer-lasting interruption to your training.

And now, the clean cookie recipe I promised:

  • 3 cups oats
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • splenda/stevia (optional—I didn’t use any)
  • 1 overripe banana
  • 3/4 tsp vanilla
  • 1 grated zucchini and/or carrot (I used both)
  • ½ cup crushed walnuts
  • 2tbsp peanut butter (ok, maybe 3…it was a big glob)
  • ½ cup mini chocolate chips (optional for the kid version—I made it both ways)

Bake on 350 for 12 minutes.  This yielded six very large cookies.  I am not currently counting calories or macros, so if you are you may want to be mindful of the amount of nuts and peanut butter you use–they add up quickly.

…And the Only Prescription is More Barbell

In a previous post, I suggested that barbell training is absolutely foundational to a good lifting program.  Many people have told me that they are trying to “work up to” barbell training, or that they want to “start out with” other exercises.  Now, don’t get me wrong—there are important uses for dumbbell training, cable exercises, and even stability ball exercises.  But knowing how to use them correctly is absolutely critical to avoid injury and achieve results—and barbell training is the absolute best way to learn the proper form that is necessary in order to correctly perform all other exercises.  Additionally, many beginners who start with barbells and cables are not training  effectively for any significant muscle gain–so basically they are doing cardio.  This post will explain why weight training–specifically compound exercises with barbells–is an effective way to reach fitness goals.

As I pointed out in my last post, many resistance exercises require a basic posture: shoulders back, chest out, hips slightly back (<—otherwise known as a nice arch in the lower back), and feet shoulder width apart.  You also need to know how to properly recruit your lats and delts, how to recognize and avoid overcompensating with your traps, and have at least enough core strength to stabilize yourself against resistance.  Barbell training accomplishes all of these things more efficiently than any other kind of training.

A solid lifting program should include some variation of the following compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and standing barbell rows.   Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups and more than one joint, allowing for more muscle breakdown and subsequent repair (translation: growth!).  While using dumbbells for these exercises has benefits and there is a place in every program for them, I strongly recommend that beginners first learn these exercises with barbells.  For starters, they streamline coordination—they require that your feet remain flat on the floor, and your hands are both doing the same thing at the same time! They also simplify the exercises by keeping everything symmetrical and eliminating extra movements: you move it one way, and then you bring it back.

In my best Arnold voice: “I lift things up, and I put them down.” 

Barbell training is also a means to just about every end—no matter your goal, barbell training can get you there.  For instance, if your goal is to get “toned,” lose weight, and feel more confident, then let me translate that for you: you want to get stronger, lose bodyfat, and tighten up all over by building a little more muscle.  You want to walk in a gym and feel like you belong, and you don’t want to feel weak and awkward.  Maybe you want to change a specific area of your body.

I recently posted the following quote as my Facebook status:
“Squatting—the difference between having a butt and owning an ass!”

One of the very first comments I received was something like, “ok, now tell me how to tighten my tummy and thighs!”  Great news: in a roundabout way, squatting can make those things happen too.  Remember: you can’t spot-treat a specific area of your body, so to “tone the belly” and see changes in the thighs, it is necessary to lose body fat and train the muscles.  So let’s talk about how barbell training is an effective way to achieve just about any fitness goal.

Let’s start with fat loss.  This is not the post where I talk about the importance of diet, nor the post where I weigh the benefits and drawbacks of HIIT vs fasted cardio.  This is more basic than that: to lose fat, you have to burn more calories than you store.  While diet is a key player, guess what your diet will be based on?  Your basal metabolic rate. That is, how many calories your body burns while you sit at your computer and write a blog post.  And your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is influenced by the amount of lean mass you have.  My BMR was much lower five years ago than it is right now, because I have spent these years increasing my lean mass (muscle).

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “muscle burns fat”?  Well, it’s not quite as simple as that but it gets the point across.  Your body requires more energy (read: kcals) to maintain lean mass (muscles) than fat.  So a body that weight 150lbs at 18% bodyfat will naturally burn more calories while doing absolutely nothing than a body at 150lbs and 30% bodyfat.  A lot more.

When I create a nutrition plan, I first estimate to the best of my ability the BMR so that I can then create a deficit—that is, how many fewer calories need to be consumed than burned.  If your BMR is 2000, then to lose one pound each week on diet alone, your diet would consist of 1500 calories a day.  1500 calories is not a lot of calories, especially for someone who wants to lead a normal life that doesn’t focus on fat loss 24 hours a day.  My calories don’t drop that low until I’m half way through my contest prep diet (and at that point my life IS focused on fat loss 24 hours a day).  So when I work with someone whose BMR is in the 2000 calorie range, I don’t like to suggest creating the deficit from food alone.  You can decrease your calories, increase your activity, and…wait for it…increase your BMR by increasing your lean mass!

Have I convinced you to grow your muscles yet?  Now you’re in my world, speaking my language, and you didn’t even know it!  You might have thought you just wanted to lose a little belly fat and now here we are talking about how we’re going to put muscle on you.  Ha.  Now, let’s go down that road.  Curls and front raises with ten pound dumbbells are not going to get you there.  How often do you see someone with HUGE arms, but no back muscles and tiny legs?  If you have, you were looking at a bad combination of chemical enhancement and crappy training—and those guys get laughed at DAILY.  The truth is, the people with the most muscle have that much muscle because they know how to get it: they are squatting, pressing, rowing, and deadlifting. These four exercises work just about everything.

Wait wait wait!  Don’t get scared and run away—I’m not suggesting that you need THAT much muscle, nor am I suggesting that it’s possible to get that big by training alone.  I’m just pointing out that the people with big muscles are clearly on to something and we can learn from them.  Long story short:  You need more barbell in your life if you want to gain muscle.  You need more muscle in your life if you want any significant change in your body composition.  So now what’s holding you back?

Stop Throwing Like a Girl!

 

“You play ball…like a GIRL!”

Does anyone remember that quote from The Sandlot?  That moment really hurt my feelings when I was ten years old.  It’s not just what he said–it was the reaction it elicited.  The horror on the faces of those boys made me realize what a shameful thing it is to be compared to a girl.  Maybe that’s when my Women’s Studies career was born.  The worst insult someone could possibly come up with was to compare them to…me?  So please recognize that I am not quick to use that phrase—and yet, if you’ve ever trained with me you may recall that I’ve told you, “hey you’re throwing like a girl again—focus on your big muscles.”  What do I mean by this?

I borrow this phrase not from the insult but from an essay by Iris Marion Young (1977) in which she breaks down what it really means to throw like a girl and why women often have trouble with things like opening jars.  Young points out that because we are taught to sit with our legs together, keep our arms close to our bodies (how many women drive with their arm extended over the passenger seats?), and not take full advantage of our lateral space, we confine ourselves to using only our small muscles.  Men, on the other hand, have not been taught to limit their movements in this way and therefore take up as much space as they please; the result is that they learn to use their larger muscles.  Essentially, men “put their backs into it,” while women tend to use only our wrists when opening jars or throwing a ball.

I have built on this idea in my own occupation to explain why women struggle with squatting, pull-ups, rows, and other compound movements.  I have observed over and over that male clients jump up on a pull-up bar and naturally recognize it as a back exercise and do pull-ups easily, while women try to curl themselves up and fail.  This same observation applies to rows, pulldowns, etc.  I see so many personal trainers whose clients aren’t anywhere near proper form, and I suspect that it’s not because the trainers suck and failed to teach the proper form.  I think it’s that they tried and eventually gave up because they never understood what was holding the client back in the first place.

Women who are uncomfortable in a gym but decide to give weight training a try naturally gravitate toward dumbbells.  And my gosh do they do some ridiculous stuff with those dumbbells.  I am not judging, so don’t take offense!  But I am observing which exercises seem to feel comfortable for women and which don’t, and sometimes it just blows my mind!  How is balancing on a bosu ball and doing half squats while curling more comfortable than an actual squat?!

Is it a coincidence that dumbbells are easy to keep close to the body, or that “comfortable” arm exercises simulate womens’ habitual use of small muscles, instead of  taking full advantage of the larger, stronger back and leg muscles as the compound exercises would?  I think not.

By sticking with dumbbells and shying away from barbell training, you are holding yourself back on many levels.  Not only will you most likely not come anywhere close to your fitness goals, but you will also never fully develop the confidence that you deserve.  You will never know how strong you are, how capable you are, or what kind of person you’d have been if you hadn’t been forced to keep your knees together in a skirt.  Forgive me, but that is some profound @#$%.

If you look at my client training programs, you’ll probably notice a trend: there is almost always some variation of the squat, bench press, military press, and deadlift.  My plans almost always involve barbells.  Why is this?  Well, I’m trying to brainwash all women into getting bigger, stronger, and more masculine so that I can start a converse-wearing, feminist army and take over the world.  Duh! Or, maybe it’s because I believe very strongly in the MANY benefits of training with compound exercises, and I feel that barbell training should form the foundation of anyone’s understanding of weight training.  Too many people think the barbell is step 2 and for more advanced lifters, but I believe the opposite is true.

Simply put: before we talk about squatting on a bosu ball and adding in a dumbbell curl, we should break that down and learn proper form.  And the best way to do that, in my opinion, is with a bar on your back.  It naturally draws the shoulders back, brings the chest out, and allows you to form the beautiful arch you’ll need for almost every exercise thereafter.

If you know darn good and well you should be training with bigger weights, or that you should be incorporating barbells and compound exercises (squats, bench, deadlift, rows) into your training, but you’re shy, intimidated, or just plain lost, HIRE A PERSONAL TRAINER.  And look, that’s expensive–I understand and it’s the bane of my existence.  Ideally, you’d hire someone for at least the duration of a program (anywhere from 4-8 weeks), but if you can’t afford it then do what you can!  A couple of sessions to teach you how to do the exercises may be all you need.  I’m not recommending that you make a long-term commitment to paying an arm and a leg for someone to stand next to you with a clip board.  The truth is, even as a trainer I see way too many people sticking on with a personal trainer for way too long.   On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the gym who clearly should have let someone help them but never did, and now they have big egos and crappy workouts.  Let us help you get on your feet, get past a hurdle, or achieve a goal, but then go on about your business of kicking ass on your own!

Stop throwing like a girl.  Use your big muscles.  You CAN do pullups, I swear.  The barbells aren’t going to crush you, and you won’t “bulk up” unless you want to.   Trust me, there are plenty of men who ask me for advice on how to do this—for women, it’s much more difficult and can’t be done accidentally. Whether you think I’m “too big” or “just right,” remember that it has taken me five years, tons of HEAVY training, and a lot of eating just to get what I have now—and I’m still growing.  If you need help, hire a trainer even if only for a few sessions.  I can recommend some great ones who live all over the country, so don’t hestitate to ask!

In the next post, I’ll discuss the benefits of compound exercises, how they actually help with fat loss, and why women really really need them.

Round Pegs, Square Holes, and Finding Your Space in the Gym

“I just feel…like I don’t belong at the gym.”

Let’s think about this for a minute—first of all, how many of us are guilty of this?!  For many, this is a total setback from reaching goals and making progress!  And then, let’s talk for a minute about what the hell it even means to look like we belong in a gym?  Why are we still so inclined to believe that fit people belong in gyms and unfit people don’t?  How backward is that?  But how about the general assumption that fit has a look, and that it’s usually slender?  Why are people so inclined to notice  a thin woman, who may or may not work out at all, and assume she’s fit, while overlooking the fact that plenty of bigger girls are way more fit?  Hell, when I’m not dieted down I am not sure how fit I appear, but I have rarely met a thin woman who can outlift me.  I actually want to write “I have never…” but to avoid argument I’ll say rarely.

So it’s time for another post about what fit looks like, what it means to be fit, how our minds have been so unfortunately adulterated by the media, and how we can rethink our bodies.

Nobody—not even the most fit person you’ve ever met in your LIFE—goes to the gym BECAUSE she’s fit.  People go to the gym to GET fit.  To get MORE fit.  To improve, to reach goals, to affect some new change.  Some people think they go to STAY fit, but to be honest, it usually doesn’t go well for people without goals.  So half the people I know who go to stay fit are really just there because they feel like they should be, and they’re just taking up space that would be way more useful to someone trying to GET fit or get MORE fit.

When I was new to lifting and trying to explore the possibilities for my body, I met a coach who had been around bodybuilding and powerlifting for two decades.  This old man was seriously what we’d call old school, but after years of observing athletes of all sorts, the guy knew a thing or two about them.  He approached me while I was deadlifting at the University of Maine gym, and we became friends.  The next day, he caught me running on a treadmill and asked me what the hell I was doing.  Shocked and frankly a little scared, I told him I was trying to get lean.  He told me that runners run, and lifters lift, and stopped my treadmill for me.  Bastard.  I was not yet a “lifter,” I was just a girl in a gym trying to figure it out!  But he gave me some great advice—he told me that runners are not thin because they run, they run because they are thin and their bodies are made for it.  He explained to me about body types and genetic inclinations, and pointed out athletes in a variety of sports that had certain characteristics.   He told me that I could fight my genetics or work with them, but my life would be a lot better and I’d love my body much more if I figured out what my body was meant for.

His advice not only stuck with me, but has been proven over and over for the past several years.  I do not train abs.  Ever.  And yet at high body fat I still have them.  What use would this genetic freakery be to a runner?  I have short, huge legs that build easily—I still have yet to realize my full potential in powerlifting, but I can promise I’ll be a much more successful power lifter than hurdler.  Now, I run because I like it, but I have no hopes of hitting crazy marathon times.

There are days, oh god are there, that I feel too big.  I feel bulky, unfeminine, out of place, and sometimes just plain awkward.  I have a hard time shopping or getting dressed, and my entire “look” is always affected by my build.  Certain hair cuts, clothing, and too much jewelry just look weird with my build!  I love fashion, but I understand what works on my body, and it rarely involves patterns, ruffles, a-line tops, skinny jeans, or capped sleeves.  But I can’t change this.  At my leanest, I still look hard and vascular and kind of masculine.  When I get softer (read: more body fat) I don’t actually get more feminine, I just get bigger all over!  Damned if I’m lean, damned if I’m fat.  I can change my body fat, I can change the size of my muscles (a little), but I can’t change my body type or general shape.

I recently competed in Women’s Physique instead of Women’s Bodybuilding.  I did this for several reasons, but mostly because I’m a little small for a bodybuilder.  But I love exactly how my body comes in when I’m lean.  It’s unique, and I think one could identify my physique in a lineup because it’s very different than a lot of others.  I have big round muscle bellies so my biceps and triceps are beautiful!  I love my huge legs, my big traps, and my abs.  I love the parts that are “too soft,” and I love the lines of my frame.  I also have a very feminine face and a striking complexion, and I love how that pairs with my physique.  But those things I love don’t win shows!  So I decided to try Women’s Physique, knowing the judging hasn’t been streamlined and it would be hit or miss.  I made an effort to show up a little softer than I would for bodybuilding, but it wasn’t enough–I have been analyzing photos of my most recent show as well as photos from dozens of others, and I realize that there is an unmistakable look that is being favored by Physique judges–they are looking for longer lines and a more slender frame.

I’m in the post-show regrouping phase, where I decide what I want to do next and how I’m going to do it.  I had to decide if I like my physique as is, what improvements I’m willing to make, and what changes would win shows but aren’t improvements in my opinion.  I can try to get smaller–no more squatting or super heavy lifting–to try to fit into Physique a little better, or I can get bigger and keep at it in bodybuilding.  That decision is harder than I’m making it sound–it comes with tears and frustrations, and it involves my self esteem.  But, returning to the advice of the old school coach from Umaine, I chose to deal with this by focusing on what my body is made to do–my “thing.”

I truly believe we all have a “thing,” and I can’t explain the feeling of total joy and relief I experienced when I realized what mine was.  Even now, when I feel bulky, strange, unfeminine, and out of place, I return to the thing that makes me feel amazing—strength sports.  A side effect of this for me is the ability to build muscle relatively easily, but even in physique sports I’m caught between categories.  I always come back from a bodybuilding show revved up and ready to get back to heavy lifting—and I realize that this is because the subjective nature of bodybuilding always causes me to feel like I’ve fallen short and don’t belong, so I turn back to where I feel good.

So while I’m sorting out how I feel about competing, how I feel about my body, and what I’m going to do next, I’m flipping 400+ pound tires, looking forward to hitting awesome PRs, and pressing more weight than I have in years.  I am also forced to eat appropriately for recovery from these workouts–so I will probably get bigger.  And there we have it, folks–and answer: watch out Bodybuilding, I’m coming back for you!  Who the hell wants to do all that work to gain muscle, just to turn around and lose it again to fit into a category?  Not this girl!  And I love everything that comes with building my muscles up and leaning back out to see what I have.  So I will be back.

Where do you feel good?  What’s your “thing”?  It’s time to figure out what your body is meant for.  I believe you’ll know it when you find it.  And it doesn’t have to be some extreme sport or anything competitive–it could be a cardio class that you rock at.  It could be cycling, or maybe you’re a badass rower!  Have you ever played a sport or done something that just…clicked?  Are you aware that you’re incredibly strong but too afraid to push?  Are you really good at box jumps?  Do you ever wonder if you’d be a good runner?  Maybe you’re athletic all-around and need to be pushed in a cross-training environment?  And now, the shameless plug: If you live within a reasonable driving distance of Marietta, GA, ask me how I can help you find your “thing!”

Too often we think of our bodies in terms of how they look, and we base all of our effort in the gym on an aesthetic goal.  This leads to a lot of round peg/square hole issues.  A lot of people tell me that they don’t want to be thin, they just want to feel good.  I get that.  But until you put your body to use in a way that feels good, you will continue to judge how you feel by how you look.

In my experience, changing how you look is not always enough to change how you feel.  In fact, I find that they go hand in hand but require separate components of a long process.  If you want to transform how you LOOK, it’s time to talk about what you’re eating.  But if you truly want to change how you FEEL, it’s time to talk about what you’re DOING.  And it’s totally possible to do both at the same time!

I mentioned “eating for recovery,” and if you’re lifting heavy and not sure what I mean by this, don’t be afraid to ask!  For now, here’s one of my new favorite post-workout meals.

Pina Colada Pudding:

1 cup fat free Greek Yogurt
2 tbsp coconut flakes (unsweetened if you can find them!)
banana, sliced
1/4 c kashi cereal flakes (I love the crunch…but you can do without or sub for basically any cereal!)

Mix and enjoy!  🙂

Post-Contest Update, and New Recipes!

As many of you know, I competed in an NPC bodybuilding show a week ago.  The 16 weeks leading up to the show were incredible, and as always, I learned so much.  Every time we compete, we become scientific experiments of cause and effect.  The greatest bodybuilders are usually the smartest–to be successful, it’s important to understand how the body uses food.  “If I eat _____, then my body responds by ________.”  How cool is that?  But this time, I came at it from a slightly new perspective.  Those of you who have been following my blog from the beginning may recall an earlier post in which I explained why I took a break from bodybuilding, and what I had hoped to gain—and keep–by coming back.  I think my most recent experiment has a lot to offer in terms of how we reconcile body recomposition with eating for overall health.  Sometimes it seems like two different conversations, and I feel that I was successfully able to blend them.

About two weeks post-show. A little fluffy but thank god the cankles are gone!

About a week and a half before the show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bodybuilding nutrition is often so focused on macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) that micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) from food sources often get overlooked.  Tired of knowing we weren’t as healthy as we could be, last fall my family took on an adventure—we wanted to go package-free, rely mostly on local produce, and find a more sustainable meat source.  We did not want to continue consuming the pounds and pounds of chicken and overlooking the importance of fruits and vegetables.  We went from a chicken-with-vegetables outlook, to a vegetables-with-chicken approach.  In doing so, we eliminated our multivitamins and several supplements that we were taking.  A year later, we are still maintaining our new lifestyle.  In fact, we’re just getting better and better at it!

Backstage with a client–she ROCKED her first show!

My decision to compete presented a problem—we knew how to use foods to manipulate my body, and we weren’t sure how our new lifestyle would fit into a bodybuilding contest preparation diet.  With some adjustments, we continued right on as best we could and I actually benefitted greatly from the new approach.  My meals were big, filling, and absolutely satisfying.  Using a variety of vegetables, I was able to blend flavors and textures that transformed my boring chicken into amazing meals.  Where before I would eat 4 ounces of chicken with a little bit of green beans, now I was eating mounds of vegetables with a little bit of chicken!  I was also able to incorporate my green smoothies—a boring, watery protein shake was transformed into a very satisfying smoothie by adding half a cucumber, a cup of spinach, and some cinnamon!

I basically ate my weight in fruit while everyone else was eating peanut butter cups. To each her own!

The one question everyone kept asking me, and understandably so, was “what are you going to eat when you’re done?!”  In my previous shows, I gave this a lot of thought.  Oh my gosh did I think about it!  I actually brought an entire cake to the restaurant after the show and dug in by myself with a spoon!  The next year may or may not have involved gas station goodies for the entire 8 hour drive home…but this year I had a different plan for my recovery phase, so I found a gluten-free, vegan, no-sugar-added cake that I had planned to eat right after.  But a funny thing happened—I found that I genuinely, after all of those weeks of dieting, really just wanted some fruit!  Similarly, I didn’t have any big cheat meal planned for the days after the show.  I had an eggplant on my kitchen counter that I was dying to cook—and so after an initial cheat meal (sushi!) and an omelette the next morning, the first thing I did was cook that eggplant!

Since then, I’ve had my cheat meals on Saturdays, but with the extra calories and macronutrients in my life, I’ve been mainly focused on having fun with the “clean” whole foods I already loved and grew to miss while dieting down.  If I had to make a list of these foods, I would include coconut, nuts, quinoa, lentils, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, almond milk, and the variety of fruits and vegetables I use in my green smoothies.  On a bodybuilding diet, everything you put in your body “counts,” so for instance, while kale is a great “clean” food and a nutritious green vegetable, a physique athlete must still be conscious of the fact that it contains three times the amount of carbohydrates and calories as other greens such as collards and mustard greens.  It might now seem to matter much, but when you’re hungry it’s easy to eat three or four cups of sautéed kale at a time!

I have made so many awesome meals since my show!  Among them has been a pasta-less lasagna, a fruit/nut “cookies”, a veggie saute/sauce that blew my mind, and a new post-workout protein bowl.  Enjoy!

No-Pasta Lasagna

  • 1 medium eggplant, sliced into ¼ in rounds
  • 1 small container of fat-free ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg
  • spinach

Sauce:

  • 5-6 tomatoes
  • carrots (the more the merrier, I say!)
  • zucchini or yellow squash (or both!)
  • onions (or onion powder—Mike hates onions)
  • minced garlic
  • fresh basil leaves (dried would work)
  • oregano
  • rosemary
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

1.  Lightly salt the eggplant slices and lay out on a towel for about 20 minutes.  Lightly press another towel on top of the slices to absorb any excess water.  This dries out the eggplant just a little and keeps it from getting slimy when you bake it.

2.  Place the sauce ingredients into a food processor and blend until smooth.  If you make a batch of this sauce ahead of time it is so much more flavorful!  But in a pinch you can make it as needed.

3.  Thoroughly mix egg and ricotta; set aside.

4.  Lightly salt the eggplant slices and lay out on a towel for about 20 minutes.  Lightly press another towel on top of the slices to absorb any excess water.  This dries out the eggplant just a little and keeps it from getting slimy when you bake it.

5.  Lightly grease (I use Pam) a large glass baking dish.  Spoon a small amount of sauce into the pan to form a light coating.  Lay down slices of eggplant, slightly overlapping, to create a single layer in the bottom of the dish.  Spoon ricotta mix onto the eggplant; use the back of a spoon to spread evenly.  Cover with a layer of spinach, and then add another layer of eggplant.  Cover with the remaining sauce.  If you prefer, you can cover this with a layer of mozzarella cheese before baking.

6.  Bake at 425 for about 20 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling at the sides.

Fig/Banana/Oat/Peanut Butter bars

  • 6 large figs
  • 1 large, very ripe banana
  • 2 cups oats
  • ½ cup natural peanut butter
  • 1/3 cup coconut flakes (look for some with no added sugar!)

Mash the figs and banana until blended and in almost liquid form.  Mix in oats, peanut butter, and coconut.  Bake at 400 for 30 minutes.  Cool in pan, and refrigerate.  Serve when cool.

Vegetable “sauce”

  • ½ lb okra, sliced
  • cherry tomatoes, halved
  • yellow squash, sliced into thin rounds
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • onion powder
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat 1tbsp olive oil in pan; add garlic and heat for about a minute.  Add vegetables, onion powder, salt, and pepper.  Cook until squash has reduced in size and okra is soft.  This will look like a slimy mess, but when I served it over mashed potatoes with baked chicken, my daughter fell in love with this flavorful “vegetable gravy”!  Okra can get slimy, and this characteristic makes it ideal for soups and stews.   Otherwise, people fry it or avoid it altogether because they don’t know how to avoid the slime.  Embrace the slime in this saute!

What Does a Bodybuilding Diet Look Like, and What Can You Learn From it?

First things first, I want to introduce an idea that I am toying with—I think I may actually start another blog, in addition to this one.  Maybe.  I want to help people, but I am coming to a point where I literally cannot afford to answer the emails I receive.  Everyone who has ever known me now feels comfortable asking me diet and fitness questions—and I absolutely love that!  How is this my life, and what did I do to deserve so much trust?!  Keep them coming—I enjoy helping in any way that I can!

However…I sat down recently and timed myself to see how long it took me to respond to the emails I received in one day—an hour and a half later, I still had not even touched my “real” (read: paying) work.  I actually started training people because of this—it’s the only way I can afford to answer all of the questions! But the thing that makes me a good trainer makes me a terrible business owner.  I hate the part where people pay for health, because this implies that health and fitness involve access and privilege and I hate being a part of that machine.  (Sounds like a personal problem, huh?)

So, check back in from time to time and be on the lookout for my new blog, which will feature nutrition and workout tips and articles based on my experience.  Don’t expect me to tell you the best way to work out, or the best way to eat—I will tell you what works for me, and do my best to point you in the direction of how to figure out what works for you.

BUT….since I don’t have a new blog yet, you get to read about how I eat and pick up a few tips about how you can [re]learn how to eat to maintain, lose, or gain weight.  If you get too lost in the words, skip to the bullet points at the bottom.  This one is dense, but I’ll make it as painless as possible.  It answers a basic question I spend way too much time answering: “Sheena, teach me how to eat right…”

Maybe you don’t want to change how you eat—that’s cool too.  But I have created confusion among some of my non-bodybuilder friends, and I need to clear that up.  I often take for granted that people understand what a bodybuilding diet is and what it looks like, but I realize that for the most part people just assume it’s a very extreme diet that leaves me hungry all of the time.  Beyond that, I don’t think many people know what this looks like.  Curious about the secret world of bodybuilding diets?

First of all, there is a difference between a “clean” nutrition plan and a bodybuilding cutting program.  It’s possible to be on a diet that does not involve weight loss—this is what I do in the “off-season,” for the most part.  Now that I am in preparation for a contest, my goal is to “cut” the bodyfat and water, while preserving as much of my muscle as possible.  People tend to think I’m getting bigger, but this is a myth—I’m actually getting smaller, but the illusion of size is created as the bodyfat on either side of a muscle peak goes away, basically making a mountain out of a molehill.  It’s like digging on both sides of a hill—but if I do it wrong, I could risk digging the whole damn hill.  So I’m about to tell you how I avoid that.  In order to lose body fat and preserve muscle, there is actually a lot of science and some math involved.

Weight loss is based on a pretty simple rule of thumb: calories burned must be more than calories consumed.

Once I have my magic number of calories, it gets more complicated.  What kind of weight do I want to lose?  I have to think about how to spread those calories out over the day, how to balance diet and exercise to reach that number, and what kinds of calories will fuel me through my day while allowing my body to lose only the weight I want get rid of.  See, weight loss and fat loss are not necessarily the same thing.

People ask me often if I can or cannot eat something.  Lunches and dinners are the worst because, bless their hearts, no one can satisfy the needs of my diet.  I’m impossible!  “You can eat chicken, right?”  And, “what about nuts, you can eat those right?”  Sure I can.  And I do.  But if you’re asking me at 2:15 if I can eat a handful of walnuts, you’re going to see my frustrated-hungry-embarrassed face.  You’re asking the wrong question!  The right question would be more like, “hey, does your diet specify that you’ll eat a handful of walnuts at 2:15 in the afternoon, assuming that you lift at the same time every day?”

I eat five or six times a day, depending on the day, and according to my evolving knowledge and understanding of how my body reacts to food.  My goals look like this:

  • lose body fat while maintaining muscle
  • avoid being hungry to the greatest extent possible
  • avoid cravings to the best of my ability (note that I see cravings and hunger as separate issues!)
  • fuel my workouts
  • recover from those workouts

A TON of information has to come together in just the right way in order to determine that every morning at 9:30 I will eat exactly 11 almonds (not 8 or 20,  and not peanuts, not olive oil, not avocado…).  Because years of experimentation has taught me that to meet my goals listed above, I need a fat at that time, and my body responds well to almonds at this particular stage of my process—in two weeks it will be different!

So if you ask me if I can eat almonds, the answer is yes.  But I eat them when my meal plan says I will eat them.  I do not do this because I am neurotic, crazy, and anal (ok…maybe I am those things…), but because I have already calculated the timing, based on years of research and observation of my body, for a specific purpose.  The following points apply to my body, but may not all apply to yours:

  • If I eat those almonds at 5:00 p.m., I risk inhibiting my growth hormone production
  • If I eat them at 7:00 p.m., I slow down protein synthesis
  • If I eat too many, I slow down my loss of body fat
  • If I don’t eat them at all, I will burn through my food too fast and be hungrier sooner

My diet may appear extreme, and in some cases it can be.  I would never recommend this to someone not competing.  HOWEVER, it has taught me a healthy relationship with food, because I understand that every single thing I put in my body has a valuable purpose and I know what the purpose is.  I also understand that when I’m not doing this, I will enjoy a damn Christmas cookie.  I am not guilty when I eat ice cream or pizza, because there is a time to eat those things.  The time is not now, and I am comfortable with this.  I understand the science of my body and how it reacts to foods, so I am not afraid to eat when it is time to eat.  I do not subscribe to Paleo, Atkins, Veganism, or any other restrictive plan because I believe there is a time for everything.

If you are interested in learning about your body and how to balance your food, START HERE:

  • How many calories do I need in order to sustain my present body weight? (hint: search BMR)
  • What is a safe rate of weight loss in pounds per week?
    How many calories do I need to cut in order to lose one pound?
  • What is a deficit and what should mine be to lose my safe pounds per week?
  • How many calories do I need to eat each day to make that deficit?
  • How can I spread those daily calories out to best fuel my body?
  • What is a macronutrient and how can I balance mine?

People are shocked to learn that there are magic numbers and mathematical equations that can tell you how to eat!  Go learn it!  I’d rather teach you to fish than give you the fish…Although, I enjoy being employed—so if you’re stumped and you want help, contact me for consulting services.

Is Your Gym a Community, or a Destination?

FIT IS NOT A DESTINATION.

IT IS A WAY OF LIFE. 

Maybe you’ve seen this quote on a T-shirt, in a Facebook status, or plastered across a photo of some girl doing dumbell presses in her underwear.   In any case, it’s true (but not because the chick working out in her underwear proves it). But I’d like to offer a new one:

A GYM IS NOT A DESTINATION.

IT IS A COMMUNITY.

Fitness is not something we do, it’s the way we live our life.  My fitness is not over when I leave the gym.  I don’t take a break from my life to stop in and do a few curls—rather, I pursue a life that supports my workouts.  It all works together.  I always tell new clients that if they can go to bed at the same reasonable time every night and wake up at the same reasonable time every morning, they are half way to fit.  I can write you an awesome nutrition plan and stand next to you while you do lunges, but if you can’t organize your life well enough to eat regularly or work out dilligently, then you won’t get very far.  While not everyone needs to be as rigorously disciplined as a competitive athlete, if you desire to be fit then it is necessary to integrate fitness into your lifestyle.

Your fitness also depends on the people you surround yourself with.  Do your friends respect your lifestyle?  If the answer is NO, then you need new friends.  (Don’t worry, if you pursue fitness long enough your unfit friends will give up on you after you turn down repeated invitations to drink or eat pizza).  In order to accomplish any lifestyle goal, you must join a  community of like-minded people.  And where else would you expect to find this community but at a gym?

Unfortunately, not all gyms are equal.  I have been fortunate enough to have been a part of gyms that are like family, but I have also seen plenty that weren’t.  Oh, they all try, but at best often end up forming cliques that make many members noticeably excluded.  How many of those excluded members stick around long enough to see their fitness goals happen?  When people don’t feel welcome at a gym, they give up.  Don’t let this happen to you!  If you go to a gym and feel excluded, out of place, or lonely beyond the first couple of weeks, then you are at the wrong gym!

Father, son, and the instructor who teaches them both. How cool is that?

I am very lucky.  At my current gym, everyone is welcome.  And I don’t mean that in the bull$** utopian way, or because I’m a bodybuilder and I just naturally fit in at a gym.  At my gym, our kids can train at the same time as their parents.  We invite each other to birthday parties, outings, dinners, and events.  We friend each other on facebook and support each other.  Husbands and wives with very different goals can train at the same time.  A hard-core professional fighter can take the same class as an accountant in his mid-40s trying to get fit for the first time.  Stay at home moms become instant badasses, and people in all stages of fitness lift right alongside bodybuilders.   Some people even lift with their kids.  And everyone talks to everyone.  I dare you to visit my gym and escape without someone introducing herself.

 

I recently had the pleasure of visiting a gym in Maine that I haven’t been to in about three years, and when I got there it was like nothing had changed; the owners were still motivated, excited, and full of projects for themselves and their clients.  After all of these years, nothing was stagnant.  They were my first experience with what a gym community felt like.  The owners, Sean and Wendy, engage their members on Facebook regularly.  If you join their gym, you are instantly a part of a community and you know it!  They will know your name, what you do, who you live with, and what your goals are within your first week.  You will not hide or fade into the wallpaper, but no matter how shy you are you will not want to.  Sean and Wendy are always up to something (muahahaha), and you become a part of it just because you’re there.  Likewise, they become a part of your goals whether they are training you or not, and eventually you’ll start to realize that the encouraging voices in your head sound suscpiciously like Sean and Wendy…

The only downsides to gyms like the ones I’ve described are actually the benefits you need in order to maintain a fit lifestyle.  For instance, it will never fail that you’ll run into Wendy at the grocery store on the one day you decide to give in and buy a bunch of junk food (happens more than you can even guess).  Or, where I am currently, if you haven’t been to the gym in a while, someone will call you on it right on your Facebook wall for everyone to see.  But guess what?  Any one of us will publicly congratulate you for something you’ve accomplished, such as a difficult lift you finally got, or for sticking it out when you would normally give up during a cardio kickboxing class.  You should feel like your goals, no matter how big or small, matter to the other people in your gym—because they should.

Tell me they don’t look interesting and up to something? 🙂

So look around your gym—are you invisible?  Does the owner know your name, or do you even know the owner?  Do people from your gym say hi to you in the grocery store?  Do you have at least one person, outside of your training partner or close circle of friends, who encourages you in the gym?  Do you feel like if you stopped going to the gym no one would notice?

If you know your gym is not also a community that welcomes you and your family, switch gyms!  If you’re in Maine, visit Bangor Brewer Athletic Club and say hi to Sean and Wendy for me.  If you’re in the Atlanta area, come visit us at Iron Clutch Fitness!  And you know what?  If you’re nowhere near either of these gyms but you want to be a part of a fit community, check them out on Facebook!

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bangor-Brewer-Athletic-Club/148939615124253

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Iron-Clutch-Fitness/246131018105