A major cornerstone for sporting success is an optimally performing physique, and this, to a large extent involves - for the purposes of enhancing speed, coordination, strength and size - fat reduction and corresponding muscle development.
For bodybuilding success this process is taken to the extreme, where fat is stripped to miniscule levels while muscle is built well beyond 'normal' expectations. And for those who wish to feel better, lengthen their life and experience excellent health, a degree of fat loss and muscle development is definitely a good thing.
Whatever the health, fitness or sporting objective it seems a leaner, more muscular physique is a definite advantage, one that will bring many rewards on many different levels. In fact, there are very few athletes from any sporting arena who, today, do not embody the above qualities as they aspire to greater heights in their respective endeavors.
It seems bodybuilders, who, as a population, train exclusively for size and fat loss, achieve, in many cases, what much of the athletic world aspire to: ultra-lean muscle development.
And for the average person, keeping fit and healthy remains high on their priority list, and these aims, too, require greater lean body mass and lower fat levels than would ordinarily be considered potentially health-restricting (lack of strength, low cardio-respiratory fitness and being overweight, to name a few).
So exactly how can muscle development and fat loss be achieved, for both the average person and the elite athlete? With many articles on the subject, there is often a degree of confusion concerning what and what not to do.
Training and dietary trends often change and there also remains a perception that the non-athlete must take a markedly less intensive approach to that of the elite sports person (in instances of high level training for performance this can be true, but there are certain guidelines that can be followed by both, as will soon be shown).
With this in mind let's explore several training and nutrition guidelines that can benefit all. The following series of pointers cuts through the confusion to provide a common sense approach to achieving your fat loss and muscle-building goals, whatever they may be.
What Not To Do
Do Not Adopt An Ultra Low Calorie Diet
Starving yourself over a short period will not aid fat burning. In fact, depriving the body of sufficient calories may have the opposite effect: muscle loss and fat-gain.
Calories in the form of clean foods such as chicken, rice, turkey and vegetables will more effectively boost the metabolism while enhancing muscle gains, whereas crash diets based on an ultra-low food intake, for 'rapid' fat loss, will lead to frustration and may curtail any chance of success (with such diets initial weight lost will be water - sometimes up to five to 10 pounds - conveying the illusion that fat is being stripped; when normal eating is resumed fat gain will be markedly greater due to the enhanced absorption of calories that occurs when the body senses it will, at some point, be again deprived of valuable nutrients).
Too few calories and it will effectively shut down many of its metabolic processes, which include fat burning and muscle building, the very ones that must be enhanced for optimal health and body composition.
Do Not Use High Repetitions To Burn Fat
Increasingly accepted is the notion that moderate repetitions (eight to 12), rather than higher repetitions (20 to 25) are more effective for fat-loss, and this is true.
Burning fat requires, on average, 15 to 40 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise (intensity dependant). Tacking on an extra 10 or so repetitions, thereby increasing the set by a few seconds will not, on this basis, hasten the fat-burning process.
Training with heavy weights and lower reps, though, will likely build a larger degree of muscle mass and, as a result, stimulate the metabolism to burn more fat over the long term (muscle is a metabolically active tissue and takes more energy at rest to sustain, thus creating greater demands on the body to maintain it should the building process be ongoing).
Higher reps may be useful during the bodybuilding pre-competition stage - to refine muscle to bring out greater detail, as one school of thought has it - but ultimately do very little to build the muscle required to transform the body into a fat-burning machine.
Do Not Overdo Training
To attain your ideal physique it's important to give everything you have over a defined period of time, before easing off to let the body recover and grow. Depending on the individual, three to four 45-60 minute weight-training sessions and an equal number of cardio sessions per week are optimal. Any more - for the natural athlete in particular - and this could constitute overkill, in which case progress may actually decline rather than improve.
If you train too often, for too long, while not achieving correct nutrition and rest outside of the gym, you may even encounter overtraining, or, at the very least, a continual feeling of lethargy which makes training a major ordeal, not the passion it should be.
It is thought that overtraining (which in its full manifestation is very rare, with a milder form of it usually being presented) will lead to many of the markers of ill health: sadness, lack of vitality, suppressed immune function, and injury, certainly not positive attributes for anyone seeking greater physical progress.
Do Not Under-Train
Although training too often may lead to a reversal of results, insufficient training intensity and duration will likely provide you little return on investment. When you hit the gym, give it absolutely everything and ensure that no scheduled workouts are missed.
Experience shows that if a muscle is not stimulated in an intense manner within a 48-72 hour period, it will begin to atrophy (shrink), making it extra important to hit each body part once every three days (this can be better accomplished through dividing the muscle groups - one-two per day - rather than training the body as a whole; more intensity can also be applied to each grouping this way).
It's all about finding the perfect training balance for maximal results: not too often, but often enough to 'stimulate, not annihilate' as the great bodybuilding champion Lee Haney once said. Once the perfect routine is found, stick with it while aiming to further increase intensity over the long term to prevent training stagnation.
Do Not Frequently Cheat On Your Diet
It has been said that for the world's all-time greatest bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman to progress from long shot competitor to Mr. Olympia champion, the deciding factor was his diet, namely the elimination of junk foods.
Though an extremely difficult practice for most of us bodybuilders, eating clean - not to be confused with starving oneself - all year round is the quickest way to make, and keep, solid gains in muscle mass.
In fact, one of the reasons sports supplements are so popular these days, with every second person wanting to shape up, is that they help to ensure, partly through appetite suppression, and low fat and bad (refined) carbohydrate content and the various nutrient co-factors they contain, a targeted fat loss/muscle gain nutritional program can be more effectively maintained.
Although eating clean 24-7 is a great way to maintain a positive protein (nitrogen) balance to build more muscle, sufficient energy for training purposes and low (trans and saturated) fat and simple carbohydrate content so as to allow the body to work more efficiently, it is sometimes extremely difficult to sustain, as the body may begin to crave certain unnecessary foods. However, if the body does crave these foods it usually means it is falling short nutritionally in some area.
If your diet is balanced with the right combination of fats, proteins and carbohydrates there should be no need to cheat with high fat/sugary foods, beyond the psychological addiction such foods provoke from those who cannot say no. For these people, the best approach is to eat wholesome nutrient-dense foods in abundance and to never miss a meal. Eventually their cravings will disappear and they will be on the fast track to bodybuilding and sporting success.
Do Not Take Layoffs Unless Absolutely Necessary
Muscles that receive insufficient stimulation are, as mentioned earlier, likely to atrophy if not targeted within a 48 to 72 hour period, and this is precisely why layoffs are generally not a good idea, unless an injury and/or medical condition forces such prolonged rest.
Some people work under the misguided assumption that since muscles require rest to grow, greater rest will product better results. This is not so.
Some even take regular planned layoffs of two weeks or more to "recharge the batteries". Usually what happens under these conditions, and based in this author's experience in getting hundreds of people into their best possible shape, is that when a person stops training they quickly lose muscle tissue as, under restful, non-challenging conditions muscle has no reason to undergo the necessary adaptation (provoked through the training stimulus) that forces new growth.
This person is then likely to begin from where they originally started upon recommencing training. Take a day or two off if you feel your body needs the additional rest, but notwithstanding injury and considering you are not overtraining and under eating/resting, for faster progress always aim for the consistent approach and continue to apply increasingly greater pressure to the muscles without missing a workout. After all, muscles require a reason - the intensity applied to them - to change.
What To Do: The Sensible Approach
Now that we have explored what to avoid, in the process shattering some of the long held training and nutritional myths that continue to hamper the progress of many, let us look specifically at what to aim for when eating and training for maximum results.
What to Do Eat Smaller, Frequently Spaced Meals
As long as your meals are relatively low in fat, moderate to high in protein and complex carbohydrates, and training is regular, eating frequently is unlikely to promote fat gain. It will, instead, enhance fat loss. Protein has a positive affect on the metabolism, while fat and carbohydrates can impede weight loss if they are eaten at the wrong times, and in excess of what is required for energy purposes.
Think of fats and carbohydrates as being exclusively designed to promote energy output: the lower your output the greater their reduction, the greater your output the more they should be increased by. In this context it is not surprising that someone like Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps can consume 13,000 calories a day - comprised mostly of fats and carbohydrates - while maintaining his well-conditioned physique.
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For mere mortals who train considerably less than four to six hours per day, a good general rule would be to eat most of your carbohydrates before 3:00 p.m. and stick with beneficial, essential fats. Divide meals into five or six 500-calorie servings per day on training days; for those who find it extra hard to move the fat, the calorie content of each meal can be lowered by 150-200 on non-training days.
To further enhance fat burning and muscle building, keep protein, the primary metabolism-raising food, at around one to two grams per pound of bodyweight (a 200 pound person aiming for optimal size and conditioning would therefore consume around 200 to 400 grams of protein per day).
What to Do Use HIIT For Cardio Purposes
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is an aerobic training method that demands the highest possible cardiovascular intensity over a shorter duration, compared with lengthy, less extreme bouts. As long as your cardio doesn't become anaerobic (lactic acid producing, and therefore muscle fatigue inducing) and stays below this intensity threshold, greater fat loss will result as more fat calories will be mobilized to manage the greater required energy output.
With HIIT cardio, work intensely (walking or cycling for example) for a minute or two before easing off to a lower intensity for a further minute or two. This cardio method, known to strip fat fast, can be done for 10 minutes initially (for the first three to four weeks) before progressing to 15 - 20 minutes each session.
It is beneficial in that it cuts training time, demands greater intensity and burns fat to a greater extent. This author used it exclusively to achieve his best ever conditioning for the 2006 bodybuilding competition season.
What to Do Apply Focus
Applying concentration to each and every area of your training will double your results, as major improvements cannot be made when your mind is under prepared and lacking the necessary drive and focus.
Since greater focus brings an ability to go beyond that which is limited by the constraints of mediocre thinking, it stands to reason that blocking all else out when training will enable you to take your physical progress to the next level: as the mind often fails before the body, you must continually mentally push yourself forward during each and every set - in essence, spot yourself, separate your mind from your body and push through all pain barriers.
All the great champions, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mr. America Steve Michalik, had mastered this process, and it allowed them to go beyond where those less mentally able would have long since quit. Improve your mind-muscle connection (the way in which you feel every movement through intense concentration), and push your body beyond the pain to enhance your training progress.
What to Do Set Realistic, Short Term Goals, And Chart Progress
It's important to plan for physical excellence, as failure to do so will result in unsure progression and unfulfilled potential. Without a definite plan, how can you expect to reach a particular target? Buy your groceries, set your training schedule and plan your diet with the overarching goal of your ideal physique in mind.
Important variables to consider are the achievability and feasibility of your goal. For example, one who is 100 pounds overweight would not plan to lose such size in three weeks.
It would be more effective to make steady improvements over the long-term. This requires a specific, detailed plan of attack. Same thing with muscle building: depending on how much you wish to gain, it's best to be realistic and set an exact goal achievement date; and put in place a step-by-step plan tailored to your specific requirements.
Reading informative sites like Bodybuilding.com will give you the training, nutrition and psychological tools necessary to develop your achievement plan. It is then down to you to put all of this solid information into practice and realize this plan.
When striving for physical success, then, and as smaller goals are reached, a detailed description of exactly what has been achieved is to also be noted. Body fat tests and subjective assessments (having others comment on your progress and checking your physique in the mirror, for example) will serve to inspire you to continue with your gym efforts to ensure you are on track to achieving your goals.
What to Do Supplement Your Diet
Using nutritional supplements is an effective, convenient way to achieve an optimal dietary status, to boost progress. When intense training is combined with the stresses of daily life, it is often impossible to achieve the correct nutritional balance required for good health and physical progress, both of which must exist symbiotically to promote optimum levels of each.
Supplementing with various proteins and several of the multitude of additional energy producing, life sustaining and cell rebuilding products on the market today will enable you to 1) achieve optimal nutritional balance and 2) enhance performance over and beyond that which could be achieved from whole foods alone.
Granted, great results in fat loss and muscular development can be attained through a diet exclusively comprised of whole foods, but bodybuilders (essentially, anyone who wishes to build their physique beyond the norm) are, by nature, programmed to seek nothing less than peak performance and development. Short of taking potentially dangerous performance enhancing drugs, sports nutrition supplements are the best way to achieve this.
What to Do Eliminate Negative Stress
Stress - the beneficial kind - is needed for positive progress whether it is bodybuilding related or otherwise. Training itself is very stressful, but progress gained from the unrelenting pressure applied to muscle tissue tells us this stress is what we, as bodybuilders, must continually seek.
The same principal applies to learning any new skill: much mental stress is needed to consolidate and establish the pathways required to entrench a particular task into a person's retrievable memory stores and to inculcate the steps necessary to follow a skill's set patterns of execution.
While good stress, as shown above, is needed to progress through life, it is the negative stress we could all do well to avoid. Those who seek slabs of new muscle and to obliterate fat cells to reveal a lean, muscular physique, must aim to eliminate unnecessary outside stress such as (but not limited to) preventable, mindless arguments, lack of sleep (which significantly stresses the body and mind through interfering with recovery processes), overworking, under (or over) eating, excessive physical work outside of the gym and recreational drugs.
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The above stressors will all impede physical performance and overall mental and physical development, they serve as irrelevant, extraneous information sources, which may create the inner turmoil and distractibility that lessens our ability to apply 100 percent in the gym, and to reap the rewards of these training efforts.
What to Do Limit, Or Eliminate, Recreational Drugs
While certain drugs such as cocaine and heroin clearly present significant dangers due to their potency and addictive qualities, the lesser regarded - from a recreational drug standpoint - but more commonly used alcohol and cigarettes by far present the greatest threat, as they are more readily accessible and socially acceptable. But don't be fooled into thinking that since their use is widespread, they are in any way less damaging.
While alcohol, the world's most widely used drug, other than caffeine, has become accepted as a normal part of daily life for many, it is known, quantity dependant, to cause extreme dehydration, destroy brain cells, negatively affect performance on numerous levels, contribute to unwanted weight gain and interfere with the processing of beneficial nutrients.
Any athlete who regularly drinks (two to three times a week, or who binges on the weekends) is severely compromising their performance, while any sports person who smokes (or who combines smoking with drinking) is ruining their performance and health in many more ways.
The only product in existence that, if used exactly to the manufacturers specifications, will kill you, tobacco is one drug that any athlete should completely avoid.
While the complete spectrum of smoking-related health problems is too numerous to fully detail is this article, the over-4000 toxic compounds found in tobacco will, to varying degrees, restrict blood supply to the heart, constrict arteries to all of the body's organs, destroy cardio respiratory fitness (through, among other reasons, it's carbon dioxide content which more readily attaches itself to the oxygen carrying molecule haemoglobin than does oxygen itself) and deplete valuables nutrients - most notably vitamin C - from bodily tissues.
Since athletes pride themselves on planning their physical performance down to the last detail, a mental hallmark that separates them from the also ran average Joe who is more likely to use recreational drugs, they are unlikely to wilfully damage their bodies. However, there are those who lack the information needed to make fully informed choices. The information above is for them and whoever else wishes to make good health a lifelong goal.
In light of what is presented above, it is clear that bodybuilders, general health and fitness enthusiasts and other athletes share similar goals - muscle size, strength and fat loss - and, as such, require, in many cases, the same pathways to success.
But there is always a right way and a wrong way to approach any problem and when it comes to training and nutrition there exists seemingly more confusion than in any other sphere of performance. It is hoped that this article has clarified many of the right and wrong ways to approach the bodybuilding/fitness puzzle.