Like most busy Americans, you might be a bit dissatisfied with your current state of health and body composition. Maybe you are a few (or more than a few) pounds overweight. Maybe your jeans and shirts fit a bit tighter than you would like them to. Maybe you’ve even had some personal health scares, such as being diagnosed with high blood pressure or being told you have “pre-diabetes”. Maybe the pandemic has brought about a certain amount of health awareness over the past 1+ years that has made you desire to achieve a healthier body and metabolism. The more healthy skeletal muscle you have, the more protection you will have against metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes, as more lean muscle mass makes your body MORE insulin sensitive (able to effectively use insulin) , which is a good thing (as insulin resistance leads to type 2 diabetes).
But where do you start?
There are so many diet and workout plans out there it makes knowing how and where to start very challenging, so I’ve decided to break it down a bit to, what I feel, are the most important things to focus on.
Goal #1: Get strong!
If you aren’t currently strength training, you need to start NOW! Strength training is truly the fountain of youth. Not only will it make you stronger, it makes your body much more resilient and improves your metabolism, it sculpts your body and builds confidence and muscle acts as a “reservoir” for many of the calories you consume. How should you strength train? If you are a complete newbie, it’s perfectly fine to start with some basic bodyweight exercises and learn how to master these. For most people, I recommend hitting the weight room. This can be using machines and/or free weights. If you don’t know how to program your training, consider hiring a skilled trainer to show you how to get started.
Strength Training Tips:
- Focus primarily on large muscle groups (legs, back, chest) and compound movements that target these, such as various presses, rows/pulls and various types of squats. Learning a movement, such as a deadlift, can be very beneficial (but make sure someone experienced teaches you to prevent injury).
- Use great form and don’t rush. Each repetition should have purpose and be done well.
- Continue to challenge yourself and add weight/reps and get stronger over time.
- Lift weights 2-3 days/week. You can lift more than this but it’s not necessary.
- You don’t need TONS of volume! If you are focused and make each rep count, you really don’t need more than about 10 total sets per week per body part. Spending 2 hours in the gym doing thousands of repetitions won’t give you more gains but WILL increase your risk of injury and burnout.
- Allow PLENTY of time for rest and recovery…this is where the magic happens. The training session is the stimulus, and the rest and recovery are where the gains are made.
- Keep the rep range usually in the 6-12 range on most movements. Very rarely will you need to go above this and even more rarely will you need to go below this.
- Don’t overdo “push” movements (push-ups, bench press, shoulder presses) and make sure you do at least a 1:1 ratio with pull movements (pullups, rows) to prevent shoulders from rounding forward causing imbalances.
- Don’t go to bootcamp!! Yes, those 5:00 am high intensity bootcamps where you sweat profusely and get your heart rate up to 100% of max for an entire hour while you flop your body around like a fish out of water…stay away from these. There is no reason to do this to yourself and, oftentimes, this type of training can cause more harm than good, especially for already stressed-out adults. Sweating more and almost puking at every workout does NOT mean you got a better workout than someone who is “just” lifting weights.
Goal #2: Optimize your protein intake!
Most people consume far too little protein and, oftentimes, from inferior sources of protein.
Optimal protein intake is crucial for building and retaining muscle and for long-term health as we age. Starting around age 30, we will start slowly losing muscle over time if we are not proactively doing things to preserve muscle (such as strength training and eating optimal protein!). Protein is satiating and increases the “thermic effect of food” meaning your body will use significantly more energy to break it down compared to carbs and fats, which can speed up metabolism. Every cell in your body from the hair on your head down to your toenails is made of protein.
As a starting point, estimate your “ideal” bodyweight and aim to eat 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of ideal bodyweight. For example, I weigh 170 pounds, so I aim for 136-170 grams of protein per day. If you weigh 250 pounds and your ideal bodyweight is 180 pounds, then use “180” as your multiplier.
Protein intake should come mostly from healthy sourced animal products. From a nutrient density perspective, red meat is of superior nutritional value and is the king of both protein and overall nutrients. If sustainability and animal welfare is of concern, opt for free-range, grass fed animals (beef, bison, for example) and/or wild game (deer, elk, moose). Not only is red meat an amazing source of protein, but it contains zinc, B vitamins (of which you won’t find any significant amounts in plants) and iron (in the form of heme iron, which your body can absorb and utilize, unlike non-heme iron found in plant products). Eggs are also a great source of protein and contain all the essential amino acids your body needs. Yes, eat the yolk! That is where all the nutrients are. What about the cholesterol? Consuming cholesterol has little to no effect on overall cholesterol levels in the body for most people. Your body makes its own cholesterol in the liver so when you eat cholesterol it will just down-regulate your own body’s cholesterol production.
Another good source of protein are dairy products (for those who tolerate) such as kefir, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and various other types of cheeses. With dairy products, and especially yogurt, be careful to avoid the kinds with added sugars. For me, personally, I buy plain Greek yogurt and add thawed frozen fruit and some almonds. Whey protein powders are also a potential source of protein for some people. Protein powders, in my opinion, are best consumed post-workout or as a supplement to a whole foods-based diet to help reach your protein goal. If you are concerned about the source of dairy, look for grass-fed and free-range animals that also contain the “A2” protein (Google “A2 protein” if you don’t know what that is).
Lastly, sustainable, wild-caught fish are one of my favorite protein sources. Not only do you get great protein, but you also get the super healthy omega 3 fatty acids as well. Look for wild caught salmon, sardines, mackerel and tuna (that is checked for mercury).
What about plant protein? Plant protein is inferior to animal protein…this is scientifically based and not an opinion. My opinion and recommendation are to focus on consuming animal protein to reach your daily goals. Some plant protein is fine, if you choose to eat it or if you really like beans, lentils or whatever, but keep in mind it is overall inferior to animal protein, and you usually must eat quite a bit of it to reach your protein goal. Eating more plant-based protein products almost always means more carbs and calories too (in order to reach a total protein goal). If you eat 6 ounces of sirloin steak, for example, this has about 40 grams of protein, ranges from about 200-300 calories, 0 g carbs and anywhere from about 5-20 grams of fat (depends on if you trim the fat off). In order to match protein amount with black beans, for example, you would have to eat a bunch of black beans (about 3 cups cooked), which would be around 40 grams of protein, but at the expense of over 600 calories and over 100 grams of carbs (and probably some serious gas)!
Don’t focus on “burning fat”. Don’t focus on burning calories. Both approaches will set you up for failure. Temporary success? Maybe. Long-term success and body transformation? No! Focus on getting strong and building muscle by lifting weights and achieving optimal protein intake. Combine that with a whole foods-based diet, avoiding refined carbs (and other junk foods) on a regular basis, sleep well, get sunlight, move A LOT, laugh and have fun, and you will be well on your way to transforming your body!