So far I’m just over halfway through the four-month group fitness program I signed up for on Fitocracy: I’m doing the program with John Romaniello, but there are others with different focuses.
tl;dr: I am super pleased with the results. I’ve lost 8 pounds, which is no big deal; I wasn’t doing this to lose weight per se. I have also greatly improved my strength; my bench press went from around 100 to a max of 165 (so far). My deadlift max is 245, and I have squatted 235 (and am working on going higher). My goal is to break a 200 bench, 300 deadlift, and 300 squat by the end of the year. Just as importantly, I look better. I’ve lost quite a bit of body fat (more on that in a minute) and my muscles are bigger. Most importantly of all, I feel better. My balance and posture have improved, I am more mentally alert, and I am less stressed.
How’d I do it? There’s no magic, just picking up heavy things and putting them back down. Oh, and eating better. The big deal for me has been cutting down the amount of carbs that I eat. I used to eat a lot of carbs, which contributed to a high fasting glucose level. How high? Well, last year in California it was 99 mg/dl, which is 1 point away from the checkbox labeled “prediabetic.” This year, before I started exercising, it was down to 92. I am eager to see what it looks like now that my carb intake has gone down. How much has it gone down? On rest days, I get 63 grams of carbs. A single piece of Costco pizza has 66 carbs (as does a 20-ounce bottle of Dr Pepper). Since I absolutely adore bread, pasta, and desserts this has been a bit of an adjustment, but because I am eating plenty of fats and protein, I rarely feel hungry or deprived.
My goal is to hit certain targets for protein, fats, and carbohydrate intake each day. These are known colloquially as macros, or macronutrients. There are many different philosophies on what you should eat, when, and how much. For me, at least, counting my macros and eating whatever I want as long as it falls in those numbers (often called “if it fits your macros”, or IIFYM) has worked well. That basically gives me the freedom, much like Weight Watchers, to skip or combine meals in order to squeeze in an occasional treat. This excellent beginner’s guide to macros by Mike Vacanti, one of my coaches, has a lot more detail if you’re interested.
I’ve also changed my eating habits in another way: I follow the “leangains” method of intermittent fasting. It’s simple: I eat all my calories within an 8-hour window (sometimes stretched to 9 or 10 hours depending on what’s going on that day). If I eat “breakfast” at noon, that means I can eat until 8pm, but ideally nothing after that. This process helps tailor your body’s production of insulin, leptin, and other hormones to maximize fat burning and muscle gain. It sounds foolish, but you know what? It works. Basically, I skip breakfast, eat my first meal around noon, snack in the afternoon, and eat a normal dinner. This is not hugely different from my past life, except i no longer chow down on huge bowls of sugary Raisin Bran first thing in the morning. John Romaniello, my other coach, has a great summary of IF principles for beginners; purists may quibble with some of his broad definitions but the basic message is spot on.
What about cardio? I’m essentially not doing anything apart from the weightlifting, which is certainly doing a great job of elevating my heart rate. I guess I should say I’m not doing any endurance work. I’d like to, but on days when I lift I’m too tired, and on days when I don’t I’m resting from the lifting. As a data point, I ran a 5K with Julie and came in within about a minute of my last several races’ average, all without any running. For longer distances, clearly I’d need to get more running in too, and if I want to hit my goal of doing at least one sprint triathlon in 2014 I’ll need to start swimming.
Doing the right exercises (such as barbell squats, the bench press, deadlifts, and a few others) will activate a bunch of your muscles more or less at once. You can do isolation exercises to target specific muscles, but the basic large-muscle-group lifts will take you a long way. (And you won’t run out of options– take a look at a site such as ExRx.net to see what I mean.)
A few tips I’ve picked up, some of which may be more useful than others:
- You can do an awful lot with protein powder, including making some pretty good cheesecake and really good shakes. As with most other foods, your experience will vary; some kinds of powder taste better to some people than others. For example, I really like BioTrust’s chocolate but their vanilla is only OK. I’ve had other people rave about how good it is though. I normally have a shake each day, with added fruit, milk, almond milk, or other ingredients depending on what macros I need to hit.
- Beef jerky, nuts, and protein bars are essential for travel because there’s basically nothing in an airport or airplane that is nutritionally acceptable.
- Greek yogurt: basically pure protein. Add a little to your shake to keep the powder from foaming in the blender (super important if you use the inexpensive and tasty, but foamy, Optimum Nutrition brand that Costco sells.)
- When you’re doing pull-ups or chin-ups, squeeze your shoulder blades together like you’re trying to trap a tennis ball between them. Makes a huge difference.
- Learn to distinguish between soreness and pain. (Hint: pain hurts more). It’s perfectly OK to exercise when sore; when in pain, not so much.
- Different people prefer different exercise programs. Some will swear by high-rep sets with relatively low weight, while others insist that only high-weight, low-rep sets are worth a hoot. I am a big believer in experimenting until you find what works… but lift something, whether high or low reps.
- If you’re deadlifting properly, the bar will scrape your shins. This will hurt and may draw blood. So buy some deadlift socks. Problem solved.
- No, weightlifting will not make you too bulky if you’re a woman. Really. Trust me on this.
Although I’m pleased with my results, this is not to say that everything has been perfect. I still have some weak areas. The biggest is that my upper body isn’t as strong as my lower body: I have huge strong quads, fairly strong hams and flutes, and not-as-strong-as-I-would-like calves, but my chest, shoulders, and arms are proportionately weaker. The way to fix this: pick up heavy things and put them back down.
Like every other human, I also have some asymmetry between my left and right sides: my right side is quite a bit stronger. This is improving with time but it’s still a little frustrating because sometimes it limits how much weight I can move. My grip is weaker than I’d like, too, but that’s also coming along.
On the nutrition front, as my homeboy Tim says, food prep is super important to effective nutrition. It is much easier to make out a menu, so that you know what macros you’re going to be getting, and then eat the same thing every day. For example, my normal lunch is two Butterball turkey burgers on the stove. I am not good at this planning, which sometimes results in me eating either too much or not enough for the day’s planned macros. I am getting better at making out the menu in advance, but not at doing bulk-food preparation. That will come with time.
In summary: weightlifting is awesome. I wish I’d started sooner but I will definitely keep doing it. And a big shout out to Brian Hill, whose amazing transformation I’ve mentioned here before. I picked up a lot of random factoids from talking to him that are just now starting to make sense as I become more knowledgable. His discipline, example, and results have been a big motivator for me.