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Since this is my first article for Bodybuilding.com, maybe a brief introduction is in order. At 36 years old, I found myself in the worst shape of my life. A nagging shoulder injury kept me inactive for nearly two years, and my body fat percentage soared to near 40%. I lost some weight to help my body better deal with the surgery and recovery process, but then faced months of rehabilitation. The result was that a year later, I was not only flabby and in very poor condition, but was weak with little lean muscle.
I began a workout regimen to both significantly decrease my body fat while substantially increasing the muscle mass. Working with a trainer and talking with competitive bodybuilders in the gym increased my knowledge significantly. I didn't know what I didn't know until I spoke with these experts. My program was interrupted by another major injury and by a personal situation in my family, but I did not abandon my efforts. Even though my progress was temporarily halted, I knew what to do to maintain what had already been achieved. When these external issues were past, I picked up where I left off and continued to work towards my goals.
So now at 39 years old, my body fat is down to around 7% (exact figure depending upon whether I had a post workout meal at Waffle House or not). I also added over 25 pounds of lean muscle mass, and my goal is to continue this process in the months to come.
I've learned a lot in my journey to a better body and hopefully these experiences can help you too. Here is some of what I learned:
No bizarre fad diet, just the standard high protein/low fat plan was followed. Each of the 6-7 daily meals featured a source of lean protein but very little fat or sugar. The meals early in the day included a high quality carbohydrate, but the later meals featured only a protein and a green vegetable. The carbs consisted most frequently of oatmeal, brown rice and sweet potatoes. These are considered low glycemic carbs as they do not spike your body's insulin levels. Therefore, your body uses these carbs more for energy and is less likely to store it as fat. For protein, I chose between eggs (whites only), skinless chicken, turkey, fish and the leaner cuts of red meat. This combination of lean protein, ingested at regular intervals through out the day, and high quality, low glycemic carbohydrates will promote fat loss while allowing your body to maintain or even add lean muscle.
The simple goal: burn fat, but not muscle. Too little time or not enough intensity and your body will not burn much fat. Too much time or too high intensity and you may burn muscle that you do not want to lose. As a beginner, exercises such as a brisk walk are probably sufficient to begin the fat burning process. Soon this will not be enough and a higher level of intensity will be needed. How do you determine how vigorously you should exercise? The best method to ensure that you are exercising at the appropriate level is to keep track of you heart rate (hr). Maintaining your hr at about 60-70% of the maximum is the ideal range for burning fat but keeping muscle. A rough guide for calculating your maximum hr is to subtract your age from 220 for males and from 226 for females. For example, a 35-year-old male would have a maximum hr of 185 and would want to keep his hr in the 110-130 range during aerobic exercise. You do not have to run ultra marathons to achieve this level of intensity. Walking on an inclined treadmill, climbing on stair steppers, or riding a stationary bike will provide the appropriate workout.
When should cardio be done to maximize your results? It is much more efficient to perform cardio first thing in the morning before breakfast. Your body is more likely to burn the fat when your stomach is empty early in the day. As for frequency, generally three times a week is enough, but this can be increased depending upon how your body responds. Duration is the other component. I have found that about 40 minutes, including a slower paced warm-up, is sufficient.
The most important aspect of weight training can be summed up in one word - INTENSITY! You must push your body to the very edge of what it is physically capable in order to make significant progress. If you are not at least mildly nauseous after a leg workout, or breathing hard at the end of your chest program, then you haven't worked out! It IS possible to gain muscle while you are losing fat, especially if you are a beginner. As you gain muscle though, this will become more difficult and you are better off focusing on one or the other (the traditional bulking up/cutting cycles). But the good news for you beginners is that you can gain a moderate amount of muscle while losing a lot of fat in the early stages of your program.
The exact organization of your weight-training plan depends upon how your body reacts. I personally have made more progress by working each body part only once per week. Initially, I would exercise several body parts per workout, so I only lifted three times per week. For example, I would include back, biceps and triceps all in the same workout. Or chest, shoulders and abs would be grouped together. I was not strong enough or in good enough condition to work any individual muscle for very long. Therefore even with these combinations, the total workouts were no more than one hour. Eventually as my conditioning and strength improved, I broke up the combination. Now I still work each body part once per week, but spread them out over six workouts. A more detailed description of my workout plan will be included in a future article.
Bodybuilders are constantly bombarded with claims by supplement companies of the next great magic pill, powder or potion that will produce phenomenal, steroid like results. It is a challenge for the beginner to sort through the hype. The best method for evaluating products is to speak with more experienced bodybuilders and discover what worked for them. Then try out their suggestions, realizing that supplements will not always work the same for different individuals.
Find out what supplements work and what doesn't in our huge supplements forum. Learn the truth from others like you and post your personal results!
There are several basic supplements that have some real scientific evidence to support their claimed value. Glutamine and Creatine are generally recognized to help most people with the muscle building process. Glutamine is more valuable in preserving muscle when focusing on losing fat while Creatine is used when gaining muscle is the primary goal.
By far the most popular supplement for losing fat is what is known as the ECA stack. This is a combination of ephedrine and caffeine, in a 1 to 10 ratio respectively, plus aspirin. Many of these supplements use the herbal equivalent of these compounds. This combination, known by brand names such as Ripped Fuel, Hydroxycut, Stacker2 and many others are one of the few products that appears to have real value in assisting the fat loss process; they do so by accelerating the body's metabolism.
Ephedrine has been in the news lately, with concerns over its safety. The NCAA, NFL and Olympic Committee ban ephedrine. Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler died during practice in the summer of 2001 and he had used a product containing ephedrine. However, he also suffered from numerous severe asthma attacks and the cause of death could not be attributed to the use of ephedrine. There is certainly a risk of using these products, especially for those with high blood pressure or any history of heart problems. Anyone using one of these products should start with a low dose and never go over the recommended maximum. My personal experience with Ripped Fuel was positive. I took one serving in the morning and benefited significantly from the energy boost for my workout. I did not take Ripped Fuel throughout the day however, using the product primarily as an energy supplement and not so much as a fat burner.
The other primary supplements to take while losing fat include a standard multi-vitamin. With such a restrictive diet, it is easy to miss an important vitamin or mineral; a general multi-vitamin will prevent this.
Also, protein supplements found in a bar or shake form, are useful to maintain the protein intake required to keep the muscle while dieting. My personal favorites are the Myoplex chocolate variety pack shakes and the Solid Protein Smores bars.
A beginner has one big advantage over the more experienced bodybuilder - with the right methods, the body can make drastic progress in a short period of time. The proper combination of cardio, weight training, diet and supplementing will guarantee success.
If you have any comments or questions about this article or my bodybuilding experiences, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, no matter what your age or physical condition, knowledge is the tool that will allow you to make a huge change in your body, your self-confidence and even your life.