Many of us know the ins and outs of living a healthy lifestyle and staying in shape year round. A healthy balanced diet and a regular fitness routine are already engrained in most of our daily habits. We feel comfortable in our clothes, are able to enjoy a cheat meal now and then, and even if we fall of the wagon, we are always able to maintain a physique that most of the general population would envy. But for some of us, it seems that at a certain point, losing the last 10 pounds is always the hardest. The truth is, when you’re already at a level of excellence getting to that next level can be the hardest part of someones entire fitness journey. As a three-time NPC competitive bodybuilder I know first-hand what it takes to take my body from a high standard of aesthetics to a level of near-perfection. With over 20 years of experience in the gym and nearly 15 years experience in personal training, I can tell you that those three competitions were beyond a doubt the most physically and mentally challenging time periods in my fitness career. The good news is that you can achieve a lot of these changes without having to go through the ups and downs of competing. The following tips can help you achieve that level you are striving for without all the tears (yes, I broke down a few times and cried during contest prep).
Hire a trainer: Even as a highly qualified personal trainer with numerous specialties, certifications and experience training clients. Even with my experience, rigorous routine, and discipline, I decided to hire a coach. When people found out that I, as a trainer, had a coach, they would look perplexed. I would remind them that even professional athletes hire coaches. A good coach will push your limits by overcoming mental obstacles, correcting technique, and prevent you from overtraining, which can be a real problem in an intense training program. An experienced coach or trainer can also help to reprogram and/or periodize your training schedule so that you can avoid any plateaus.
Eliminate ALL processed foods and sugar from your diet: Most of the year my diet is on point with the occasional cheat meal. However, when I am prepping for a photo shoot or a contest, the first and most dramatic change is to my eating habits. During these periods, I eat plenty of fish, lean meats, vegetables, salt-free spices, and unsweetened tea or water. Stay far away from refined sugar or simple carbohydrates. My macronutrient profile usually features high protein, moderate healthy fat and low carbohydrate breakdown, with my carbs only coming from complex sources such as oatmeal, sweet potatoes and nutrient dense vegetables like broccoli, asparagus and cauliflower.
No alcohol: Even when I’m maintaining a healthy lifestyle it’s hard to say no to the occasional extracurricular libation. A little red wine or a cocktail never hurt anyone. However, when I’m looking at loosing those last stubborn pounds, every calorie that fuels my body has a definitive purpose. Calorically speaking, you are looking for foods that provide you with the most nutritively dense “bang for your buck.” When we look at macronutrients, protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, fat provides 9 calories per gram and alcohol offers up 7 calories per gram. Alcohol provides nearly the same amount of calories as fat and almost twice the calories of protein and carbohydrates – and no nutritional value whatsoever. While the 3 remaining macronutrients offer many beneficial vitamins, minerals and fuel your body with essential nutrients, alcohol gives you all the calories with none of the benefits of whole foods. Let’s not forget that overconsumption of alcohol can stimulate our appetite and lead us to make poor food choices (we all know the drunk siren song of McDonalds) Instead of reaching for alcohol at social events, grab a soda water with a twist of lime or a sparkling water. No one will know the difference and you’ll save your calories for the ones that benefit your body.
Change up your routine: It’s very common for people to get stuck in the same routine. In my years of training clients, most people come to me because they have been doing the same routine, often for long periods, and were no longer seeing results. Training only works as long as the body has not adapted to the exercise – otherwise it plateaus. This can be overcome by periodizing or changing the variables of a workout including: frequency, intensity, time, type, volume and load over a specified period of time. In layman’s terms, we simply want to throw a “curve ball” at the body and surprise it with something that it’s not used to doing. This basic principle forces your body to make changes in order to adapt to the new demands that are imposed.
Add cardio: If you’re already doing cardio you may want to reconsider how you do your cardio. If you’re not doing cardio, you definitely want to add some into your workout routine. Long periods of steady state cardio can be overtaxing on your body and joints, increase cortisol levels (a stress hormone) and tend to only be effective at burning body fat while you are performing the activity. Adding new types of cardio in the form of high intensity interval training (HIIT) is the most effective way to burn calories, boost your metabolism into high gear for periods long after you’ve stopped the activity, and burn body fat while sparing all that hard earned muscle you’ve worked for. In today’s world of fitness, less can often be more, in that we must work that much harder for a shorter period of time (hence the high intensity). My general rule of thumb for healthy individuals is: if you can perform a high intensity interval for more that 60-90 seconds, you’re not working at a pace that’s truly at your peak performance or above 85% of your maximum heart rate. I like to incorporate cardiovascular movements that are also leg-intensive, such as stair climbing, hill sprints or rowing, in order to fatigue faster and build leg muscles at the same time. Your leg muscles are big muscles that burn a lot of calories. They are also far away from your heart, so they force your heart rate to climb faster. Keeping your cardio sessions to short, intense bursts will burn ample amounts of calories without excessive wear and tear on your joints, and reduces the risk of increasing cortisol levels which can be counterproductive to losing weight. Some other ideas for high intensity intervals are: jumping rope, kettlebells, plyometrics, and many speed/power/agility/reactive/quickness (SPARQ) drills.
Eat consistently and efficiently: There’s lots of conflicting information about the benefits of eating several meals a day or intermittent fasting. However, from my own personal experience I have always seen the most effective results when I’m eating regularly throughout the day. You want your metabolism to be strong, steady, and continuous throughout the day. You want to be as metabolically efficient as possible, not just when you are working out, but also when you are sitting at work, driving in your car and sleeping every night. When you stop fueling your body with the macronutrients you need, your metabolism peters out, and you trigger a brain mechanism that causes you to hold on to body fat as a safety precaution. Keeping your body properly fueled also decreases the tendency towards rapid spikes and drops in insulin. Too much insulin in your body can cause excess glucose in your blood to be stored as fat. This is clearly counterproductive when trying to lose those last few stubborn pounds.
Stay hydrated: Most of us don’t drink enough water. Water is just as essential to metabolism as the foods we eat. Remember that things like coffee, energy drinks and pre-workouts can contain high levels of caffeine which act as a diuretic and cause us to lose water. If you have incorporated any of these into your daily routine, make sure you allow yourself extra water to compensate for any losses. It’s important to note that dehydration can often be mistaken for hunger. So instead of reaching for a tall glass of H2O to quench our thirst we reach for food that can contribute to an over consumption of calories and make weight loss even harder.
Rest and recovery: One of the most forgotten pieces of the weight loss puzzle is rest and recovery. Many times we get into a fitness frenzy and begin to believe that if something is working, then more is better. Overtraining can be equally as detrimental as under-training. The body makes most of its gains while we are resting, specifically sleeping. If you aren’t giving your body proper rest and recovery (one day a week is good), you will inevitably find yourself in a position where your body demands rest by succumbing to illness or injury.
Proper supplementation: Along with a healthy diet comes proper and adequate supplementation. Supplements are not meant to replace or substitute a healthy and balanced diet of whole foods. Protein supplements are a great way to fuel your body with the amino acids needed for recovery immediately following a workout. Other supplements like multivitamins can assist in making sure that people are getting the recommended daily allowances of certain vitamins and minerals that may be missing from a person’s diet. Maintaining proper levels of certain vitamins like Vitamin D can be almost impossible without the use of supplements. Make sure you talk with a qualified professional regarding any supplementation you may need and proper dosing. Most supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so take extra precautions if supplements are something you need to include in your diet. My general recommendations for safe supplements are protein and branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) for muscle building, Glutamine for recovery and a multivitamin for a broad spectrum vitamin profile.
Have fun: The number one reason I see people fail at their fitness programs is because they are bored, uninterested or don’t enjoy their routine. By incorporating things into your workouts that you enjoy, exercise becomes fun and not a chore. Invite your friends to participate in activities, join a sports league, enter a fitness contest or competition, or try something new. If I get sick of walking on the stairmaster at the gym I’ll go outside and hike one of the many canyons that Southern California has to offer. The point is, fitness can go beyond the gym. Make your fitness routine yours! If you love what you’re doing you’re going to be more inclined to do it consistently and that is what’s going to take you to the next level of fitness that you’re looking to achieve.
For more information or to book a class, visit www.phoenixeffectla.com.
The Phoenix Effect, a functional group fitness studio that gets you in shape fast, is offered exclusively at 7264 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA.