If you look down and can't see your feet because your gut is in the way, there's not much you can do in 30 days. Get on the treadmill and set your sights on coming in sharp as a razor NEXT summer instead.
However, if you're like most guys and have a modest pair of love handles on the sides and a little paunch covering your lower abs, there's still time to do something about it.
Before you get started, make an honest assessment of what you can realistically accomplish. Shaving off 5-7 pounds of lard should be doable with strict dieting. But to make sure you know whether you've made it or not, you need to know where you are today.
Measure your waist, biceps, shoulders and thighs on an empty stomach. Yes, you flex—you'll be flexing toward the end anyway, so you might as well do it now too.
Next, step on the scale first thing in the morning and write down the exact poundage. Lastly, pinch the fat and get a caliper reading. Pay attention to the instructions so that you measure the SAME SPOT each time going forward—if you don't have the technique down, you're wasting your time.
Check your progress every Monday morning. These methods will tell you:
- How quickly you're losing weight.
- Whether it's fat or muscle you're losing.
Expect to drop a few extra pounds in the first week or so. This is mostly water and doesn't count. Your bicep/waist measurements matter a lot though. If you lose half an inch around your waist and your arm stays the same, you're doing something right. If it's the other way around, you're in trouble!
The final check is the caliper, as it gives you a fairly accurate reading of your overall body fat level. If the caliper consistently drops by the week and yet the scale remains the same, you're on the right track.
Last but not least, track your eating habits in a nutritional log. Start your log before the diet begins so you have a benchmark. Read more about the importance of a nutritional log here.
Even though you are trying to lose fat, there is no reason to go light or give up the weight training altogether. On the contrary, try to lift as heavy as you normally do. Muscle mass falls into the "use it or lose it" category, and any time you start training like a wimp your hard-earned muscles will gladly backpedal to the point where they match your workouts.
Normally this is a relatively slow process (no need to worry about taking a week of vacation once in a while) but when you're also on a calorie-restricted diet your muscle tends to disappear faster. So, continue to lift as heavy as you can, but don't attempt any crazy One Rep Max attempts either.
As for training frequency, you probably want to consolidate your weight training to a few days so that you have a clearer schedule for the cardio. For example, a 3 days-per-week routine could look like this:
Monday: Back, Biceps, Forearms
|Chins (weighted, if you can do >12 reps)||2||AMRAP|
|Barbell bicep curls||2||6-8|
|Seated dumbbell hammer curls||2||6-8|
|Reverse barbell bicep curls||2||8-10|
Click here for a printable log of Monday.
Wednesday: Chest, Triceps, Shoulders
|Incline dumbbell chest presses||2||6-8|
|Standing military presses||2||6-8|
|Dips (weighted, if you can do >12 reps)||2||AMRAP|
|Standing dumbbell lateral raises||2||10-12|
|Bent-over dumbbell lateral raises||2||10-12|
Click here for a printable log of Wednesday.
Friday: Legs, Abs
|Seated hamstring curls||2||6-8|
|Standing calf presses||2||6-8|
|Donkey calf presses||2||6-8|
Click here for a printable log of Friday.
As you can see, the main focus is meat-and-potato exercises for core strength. This is not the time for fine-tuning or experimenting with the latest isolation machine.
One common mistake people make is doing hundreds of crunches, side-bends, knee-raises and every other conceivable ab-exercise when trying to burn off the last fat. As many have pointed out before me, this will NOT help you burn off the fat in any way, shape or form. Period.
Having said that, it remains important to keep your abs strong and in shape. Not only do they stabilize your entire body and protect your back when doing heavy lifts, they look good once you have dieted away the half-inch of lard covering them.
When it comes to burning fat, cardio is a proven no-brainer. But beware—cardio can be a double-edged sword ready to cut into your muscle mass if you're not careful!
There are some steps you can take to limit this potential hazard:
- Have 40-50 grams of protein (little or no carbs) an hour or so before your cardio.
- Limit your cardio workouts to about 45 minutes.
- Have a post-workout drink immediately afterwards.
The protein can be a can of tuna, skinless chicken breast, egg whites, a few slices of white turkey, some high-protein tofu-product or a protein drink. Since the protein doesn't trigger an insulin release, you'll be nicely set for burning body fat. At the same time, you get a nice boost of amino acids floating in your blood that will be consumed before muscle is cannibalized.
The reason for limiting the cardio time is that your workout is inherently catabolic in nature. In other words, the longer you exercise the more muscle mass you risk losing. But on the other hand, you need some time to get the fat burn process going, so you can't do this hit-and-run either. I've found 45 minutes to be a decent middle-of-the-road solution, but some swear by 25-30 min workouts and still others insist 60-90 minutes does the trick for them. Be your own judge, but keep close watch on your overall muscle mass as mentioned earlier.
Lastly, the post-workout drink should be a mix of fast carbs and protein. Personally, I use a mix of 50 grams of dextrose (sugar), 40 grams of whey protein, 5 grams of glutamine and some BCAAs. If I'm on a creatine cycle, I mix that into the post-workout drink too. This hideously sweet cocktail provides the muscles with exactly the kind of instant surge they need to get into growth-mode. Have it before you even hit the shower.
As for the cardio itself, the traditional method is to rely heavily on low-intensity (60-65% of Max Heart Rate) training.
This is good for burning fat, but it's more boring than a Joe Lieberman stand-up comedy show. Secondly, the total number of calories burned isn't that impressive. Why does this matter?
Let's say you burn mostly fat with low-intensity cardio, which adds up to X calories for your 45 minutes on the treadmill. If you engage in more strenuous interval training, you burn less percentage fat, but even the smaller percentage adds up to Y calories for your 45 minutes. If Y is larger than X, your net total burned fat is better with the high-intensity method. That is not to say you should only do high-intensity training (there are drawbacks to this too) but I believe you will benefit most from a mix or both.
For example, the cardio component of your weekly schedule could look like this:
- Monday: Back, biceps, forearms
- Tuesday: 45 minute running/interval training
- Wednesday: Chest, triceps, shoulders
- Thursday: 45 minutes elliptical trainer, moderate pace
- Friday: Legs, abs
- Saturday: 1 hr or more—Sport of choice (basketball, tennis, swimming etc.)
- Sunday: 45 minute running/interval training
The key to losing fat is to consistently eat slightly less than you burn. Starving yourself is a fool's game, as is reckless "instinctive" eating. You want to aim for an average of 500 calories "deficit" each day, adjusting to your normal intake. This is where you log comes in handy.
If you normally eat an average of 2,800 calories, you probably want to bring that down a little more than 500 calories to an average of 2,100 or so. If you ate 1,400 calories before, cutting to 1,100 calories if probably sufficient. You get the idea.
If you don't know where to start, try eliminating the junk food as step #1. Whoppers may taste good, but they won't help you get closer to your goals. Fast food is not inherently evil—a low-carb bread wrap with lots of lean meat can be an acceptable snack, just don't make a habit of it.
Alcohol, however, is a definite no-no. It stinks to not have a cold one now that the barbecue season has officially started, but even small amounts of alcohol can disrupt your normal hormone balance and weigh down your dieting efforts for days afterwards. Besides, alcohol packs almost as many calories per gram as pure fat.
Divide your remaining calories into several small meals with a nice balance of protein, carbs and healthy fat. You want to keep carbs in check but I'm hesitant to recommend a total ban on carbs since you still need sufficient energy to fuel your workouts. Aim for a 40/40/20 split where the 40 percents are protein and carbs with 20% being healthy fats.
Last but not least, try to take in the majority of your carbs early in the day. Avoid eating any meals except pure protein (protein drink, tuna, ostrich meat, etc.) for 2-3 hours before bed. This discourages "unused" fat and carbs to get stored as lard during the night, while the protein helps rebuild the body as you sleep.
Examples of good protein sources:
- Fowl (chicken, turkey, ostrich)
- Seafood (tuna, shrimp etc.)
- Lean beef
- No-fat milk
- Soy-based, enriched fake meat products
- Quorn products
Examples of good carbohydrate sources:
- Oatmeal (not instant)
- Rough bread (preferably whole wheat—look for high fiber content)
- Thick pasta
- Parboiled rice (the slow-cooking kind)
- Beans, peas etc.
Examples of good fat sources:
- Olive oil
- Flax oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Fish (salmon doubles as a great protein/fat combo meal)
- Fruits and veggies, such as avocado
Lift heavy, get varied cardio training and stick to a clean, balanced diet and you're guaranteed to see results. However, don't kick yourself if the end of the 30 days is closing in and you still have some spare fat.
If your scale, measuring tape and caliper says you lost the amount of fat you set out to do, you did OK. It just means that, next year, you should start your diet 60 days out instead of 30. And hey, you're better off now than you would be if you hadn't done anything, so you still came out ahead. Now, grab the towel, the cooler and head for the beach—you deserve it!