Targeted fat loss… Grr.

One of the most frequently repeated lies about altering your body composition is the idea of targeted fat loss. The most common of them is this idea that you can lose your belly and / or love handles by following whatever diet and exercise plan they recommend – usually involving a hell of a lot of planking and sit-ups and some form of diet plan.

This is all absolute CRAP.

Let me start by making one thing very clear – your body does not have the capacity or need to be that selective about where it stores fat, or where it goes for energy when it needs it. IE – when your body is in a state of caloric deficit. This is a good thing. Your body stores fat more or less evenly around your body, in part for the sake of weight distribution, also as insulation.

Now, that’s not to say that your stomach might not be a place that seems to obviously be carrying a little more, but for the reasons behind that we are often right back to weakened core muscles from our sedentary lifestyles sat at desks, looking at monitors, leaving our core muscles weak and with nothing much to do. That’s why these exercise plans give you abdominal exercises. They won’t burn fat (you’d die of boredom before planking burned very many calories) but they will restabilise and strengthen your core, pulling your stomach in towards your body in the process.

In and of itself this isn’t a bad thing if it creates the results that you wanted, but the headlines they go with perpetuate our already poor understanding of how the body works. If you have more fat on your arms than you might like, exercising your arms more won’t help. Muscles do not suck energy from the stores alongside them. If they did, you’d have production line workers all over the world with soft midriffs and arms that were absolutely shredded. You’d see runners with lean legs and squidgy everything else. In certain cases this targeted exercise strategy can make things worse, as if you increase the size of the muscle underneath the layer of fat you’re sensitive about, it will stick out further.

If losing weight / fat is your goal, diet is top dog without a shadow of a doubt. Exercise is always going to come second. The two together… You get the picture.

Plans like this irritate me because they’re back to treating this like some mystic journey where dickheads with big cheesy grins hold the secret ways to weight loss and health. It’s bollocks. The only true targeted fat loss method I’m aware of is liposuction, and unless you fancy being stabbed repeatedly by Henry the Hoover’s stabby, crack head cousin, that idea can get in the bin.

The essentials of burning fat are lowering your calorie intake to below maintenance level, and raising your metabolic rate by increasing the amount you move around and exercise. Additional muscle mass is helpful too as it raises your base metabolic rate, meaning you burn more calories while doing bugger all. Which is nice!

The important thing is that we start to ditch the bullshit and come to accept that the principles are actually very simple. Will power and decent planning are harder, and they come with practice and experience. So if you see a scheme talking about targeted fat loss, you can save yourself the time and scroll right past. Whoever wrote it did so to hook the unwary, and that’s not someone you want giving you advice on your health.

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New Year, new me, OH CRAP EVERYTHING HURTS AND THIS SUCKS

SO we went over dieting yourself towards success and not directly to the nearest toilet, and now it’s time to have a look at exercise.

Again, it’s tempting to find some fitness guru or a celebrity who has the body, appearance or abilities that you yourself would like, and you’ll undoubtedly find people telling you how to get there. There are so many ‘trainers to the stars’ who will happily lay out how Jason Statham trains, how Chris Hemsworth got in shape to play Thor, how Scarlet Johansson trained to play Robert Mugabe in his upcoming biopic, and so on.

Along with that will be the “get ripped quick,” “couch to 5K,” and “transformation” routines, promising serious changes in body composition I 6 weeks or so. Again, the problem is NOT that these programs don’t work, though of course they’ll give example pictures showing the absolute best possible results that can be achieved, or showing seriously misleading before and after pictures. If you’re a lapsed gym rat, someone who is already in good-ish health or has a solid baseline of muscular and cardio-vascular fitness, they may well even be attainable. BUT… Those are not the people making New Year’s resolutions to make major changes. I want you to succeed, so you should progress with a little more caution. At least at first.

The problem has a lot to do with the reason most of us are out of shape. We don’t move around enough, and we spend far too much time sitting down.

Groups of muscles work in opposition to each other. The muscular skeleton system is antagonistic. When you move a joint, for every muscle that is pulling there is an opposing muscle that pushes. For example, bend your arm until you feel your biceps tighten, then feel the other side of your arm. The triceps will be softer. Then straighten your arm and you will feel them tighten, while the bicep becomes slack. That oppositional relationship is repeated all over your body, but if you’re spending a lot of time sitting, knees bent to 90-ish degrees, you end up with some muscles spending all their time slackened off while others are stretched. Either way, you end up with some muscles that are considerably weaker than they should be, others that have grown short and tight, and this adds up to an inability to properly support your body, maintain the proper alignment of your joints, and cushion shock. Then all of a sudden you’re up, running on hard tarmac, lifting weights, wrestling sheep, with improperly supported joints that are lacking their ability to cushion shock. The result can be back pain, sore knees, cramping, pulled muscles, aching joints, and a SEVERE case of the fuckems. Followed by giving up… and we don’t want that.

The less you move now, the more cautious you should be right at the beginning. We’re not even talking a long time – your body will acclimate quickly if you work consistently to get up, walk, jog, whatever your chosen exercise is, without overdoing it. Think of it as an extended warm-up, stabilising your foundation so you can begin to build something amazing on top of it. You need to begin by constructing that mindset – that the great achievements you’re chasing are established upon sensible preparation.

Even years down the line, strong as I am, that principle is how I’ve gotten so strong without a single major injury. While I post videos of my major lifts several times per week, they represent about a quarter of my actual session. The rest is lighter work that keep those ligaments and stabilising muscles healthy, strong, and pliant enough to withstand the severe kicking I give them the rest of the time. I lift light weights to practice form, isolate individual muscles to address weaknesses, stretch, do yoga, all sorts to rebuild the health that sitting on my arse eroded.

Cliche as it sounds, I’d advise you to walk before you run. A bit of jogging is totally fine, even a little actual running, but if you go from sat on your ass to running as hard / far as you can, lifting weights that are too heavy / too high a volume, it will hurt, and not in a productive “no pain, no gain” kind of a way. Resist the urge to give it your all right at the start. Marathon not a sprint, that kind of a thing.

Too many of these exercise plans push you to go to extremes before you’re ready to tolerate them, completing overlooking the foundational issues that have been caused by our sedentary lifestyles. A little gentle exercise early on isn’t as exciting as what these plans offer but they prepare you for longevity, free of serious injury and joints that feel like you’ve been giving an elephant a piggyback.

That’s it for today – on Thursday we’re talking about “targeted fat loss” and a little about injury prevention. If there’s anything you want to request or suggest, let me know in the comments.

New Year’s dieting – the WHOA, NELLY approach to weight loss.

New Year is harvest time for fitness industry scumbags. They want to sell endless quick fixes for everything from stomach fat to getting stage ready as a bodybuilder, while being far more concerned with emptying your wallet into theirs than with you getting the results that you want.

And so to kick things off, I’m looking at diet plans. There will be hundreds or thousands of the damn things floating around at this time of year, featuring everything from sensible healthy eating to the more tightly controlled plans like low / no carb, paleo, intermittent fasting, all that shit. When I say shit, it’s not that the plans themselves won’t work. They will, if followed, because what they all have in common is that they will put you into a calorie deficit, where you burn more than you consume. I’ll talk more about that subject later, but that’s not the point I want to start off by making.

My major problem with them though is not that the meal plans are bad. It’s that they encourage you to ride the wave of New Year’s enthusiasm and do too much, too soon, and marketing it as tough love or motivation. This “bully yourself thin” strategy guilts you into spending the beginning of the year miserable, and leaves way too many people dejected and relapsing right back into old habits.
So, the first piece of advice I’d give is to stop. Particularly if this is your first crack of the whip on getting in shape or whatever, the last thing I think you should do is take a sledge hammer to your current lifestyle and replace it with a comparatively super-restrictive one. In my opinion, the only people who should be making drastic, sudden changes to diet are people who have been told to by a doctor, and they get professional help to do so. I’m basically giving you carte-blanche to chill out and NOT start on a path to health and fitness by punishing yourself. That will work for some people, but not most. What works for everyone is sustainable, habit-forming change – replacing a lifestyle that is harming you with one that is making you better, however you determine what better means for you.

A sudden, major change in diet will often have two major consequences. Your stomach (and possibly 12-24 hours later, your arse) will hate you, and your body will PANIC, as your intake has suddenly been massively reduced. Worst of all, you’re doing this to yourself just after Christmas and New Year – the time of year where we possibly eat and drink more than any other. Your body is clever, but not so clever that it knows why its source of fuel has been slashed. All it knows is that there is less food, and it will act as though you’re in danger, stockpile what it has, and leave you feeling like hell, craving that bad food more than ever. Also, a major change often leads to gastric shenanigans. Add to that your plucky entrance to an exercise class or gym, standing surrounded by people you don’t know, in an unfamiliar environment, wearing clothes you’re not used to, feeling like you’ll fart if you sneeze… Not conducive to success, or a sense of wellbeing.

Instead, start off by taking stock of where you are. What are you eating? How much? When? Have a look at the calorific value on its label, and compare a few. You might be surprised by what you find. You’re not in imminent danger here, so no need to feel you must make the changes right now. Eat more or less as you normally would for a week or so, but record everything. And be honest with yourself – nobody else needs to know, and you sure as hell don’t have to tell me. Start by reducing the obvious sources of calories (sugar in hot drinks, fizzy drinks, biscuits with your mid-afternoon cuppa, the bit of cake you didn’t really want, but it was there…) and try not to replace them with something else. Once you’re good with that, take a bit more. Replace processed foods with healthier ones. Reduce snacks. Drink more water (or weak squash) and less sugary nonsense. I don’t mean to patronise but I think people generally know more or less what is and isn’t healthy, but that’s the smaller problem. Getting there is the hard part. We have a real tendency to try and take a scorched-earth approach to making changes in our lives and while I see the appeal of a grand gesture, drawing a line between the past and the presence, I also see year after year people trying that in January and giving up before March. The people who stick with it are those who keep track, who adjust, and who try to remain as consistent as possible. The sick bastards who enjoy it.

Approaching this in stages that won’t feel so onerous as going from a high fat, high sugar, absolutely fucking delicious diet to eating steamed chicken and lots of greens, will give you a better chance of long term success. Long term is the key thing – even if you DO lose a hell of a lot of weight in six weeks, six months, whatever, to keep it off you’ll have to keep at it in the long term. Is it easier to do that with a lifestyle you’ve built up over time, or with a sudden, drastic change in all the things? If sudden, drastic changes were the simple way to change your life, would we be having this conversation? Six weeks (or whatever arbitrary number they’ve stuck on their plan) is not long enough to fix what you feel is broken, so ignore those wankers. Don’t let them convince you that you’re only a tiny bit of effort and time away from your goals. Don’t let them trick you into thinking that trying their way and failing is because you’re weak.

Make a change, record the results. Make another change, record, rinse and repeat, and check again in a couple of weeks. As the intake of calories comes down, you will start to level out, and eventually start to lose weight. It doesn’t have to be all about weight, though – weight as a number is subjective, ignores build, ignores bone density, all kinds of stuff. Good for marking a trend, crap for telling you very much about yourself in isolation. How you feel, your levels of energy, how happy you are, those are all a lot more important, and together paint a better picture of how you are progressing. Personally I’d rather lose a couple of pounds a fortnight or even a month and feel healthier and happier than drop weight rapidly and feel like hell. That attitude combined with more exercise will work. Not all at once, but inch by inch, and once you have goals and you’re seeing results, making further changes may even become part of the fun. Sick, huh?

This principle is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Mostly because unhealthy food is lush, and healthy food doesn’t have all that fat, salt, and sugar to compete with it. That’s part of why I see this as an ongoing campaign of small battles, not a quick punch-up around the bins behind Lidl. It’s not a win or lose situation, it’s a strategy where you accept you will win some, lose some, and over time begin to win more than you lose.

To summarise, a bit of a shock to the system can be good for you, but don’t overdo it. This is a long-haul thing that will take time, and you have to live with yourself throughout. It’s not the done thing to tell people that this is both conceptually simple and practically difficult, but it IS the truth. Starting this venture openly and in being honest with yourself is, in my opinion anyway, the best way to succeed. Take notes, monitor progress, and don’t get tempted by one of these bullshit schemes to shed the weight quickly.

And if you feel you need a shock to the system, by all means give it a go. I’m not your mum. All I’ll ask is that if you do and it goes wrong, come back to what I said and not back to square one. We’re all a work in progress. You haven’t failed. You’re just not done yet.

New Year, new me, now what?

This is the time of year that I get private messages asking for advice about the gym, or asking if they and I can set up some sort of mutual support thingy, so I thought I’d put my thoughts in one place this year.

I’m not qualified as a PT or a dietician but after several failed attempts, I’ve now been lifting weights and getting in shape for about the least three years.

In that time I’ve dropped 2 stone in weight and gotten considerably stronger. I’ve dealt with some long standing aches and pains and have undone a lot of the damage I’ve done through spending 50+ hours a week sat on my arse in front of a computer.

Because I’m not qualified I’m going to be careful not to give advice that is outside my experience, as I think we’ve all had enough of armchair experts. What I can do is share my experiences and the benefit of all the fuck-ups I’ve made along the way so, with any luck, you can avoid them.

Now. New Year is resolution season, and it’s also harvest time for every lycra-wearing con artist in the world. Between the celebrity fitness DVDs, lazy online trainers, and crappy articles designed to get you buying all manner of supplements, clothing, subscriptions and other bullshit you almost certainly don’t need, people who actually need a bit of advice and support to make a change in their lives get bombarded with junk and their wallets emptied. All this ends up doing for far too many people is kicking off a cycle of disappointment and frustration that ends up making things worse, and making them feel worse about themselves.

In lieu of being able to reach out and give each and every one of the bad element a good slap, I’m going to pick one of the issues every day or two and give my thoughts. I’ll take suggestions and requests too, so long as I know what I’m on about.

First one is going up tomorrow, starting with where to start with diet and exercise plans, and where not to. Simple advice, but advice that actually works and isn’t designed to drain your bank account. Course, if it helps and you feel the need, a pint one day would be gratefully received 🙂

I wish I’d had a friend to act as a bullshit sieve when I was getting started, so hopefully I can do that for you.