There are three facts to consider when embarking on a body transformation: nutrition, exercise and mindset. When I first started writing this three-part article series to go alongside this body transformation process I thought, as ever, that nutrition would be key in this battle. And while it is (I say battle, as I now feel like I’m in the throws of my diet war, more and more days being a battle) exercise is actually my biggest issue.
Depending where you are on a fat-loss plan, you’ll struggle with different things at different times. Getting started, you’ll face motivation and food-prep issues while generally reorganising your life to accommodate for the changes. Then we get into the swing of things and it can all become quite easy because the changes are starting to stick, new habits are forming and we want to do it as we are seeing the benefits. With where I am now – at around 9% body fat – it’s tough, but the goal is to get ‘cover-model’ ready, so I need to drop another 1-2% body fat and we’re good to go. If you’re currently going from 25% body fat to 12% then this part of the article won’t relate to you right now, but could in the future.
Why is this important when it comes to exercise? Because exercise is tough when you’re in a depleted state. I am normally a well-slept, well-fuelled, motivated and happy person that eats well to perform in the gym and on the rugby pitch. But because I’ve had to factor in this extra goal I’ve had to prioritise more and change things as I’ve gone on.
When I started this dieting process I didn’t change my training at all. It very much looked like the training program you saw in last month’s magazine, but now I’m more tired, I’ve less energy, I’ve less reserves, my food intake has had to drop a little again to accommodate my new body weight and the change in training, so it’s tough. I can’t train at the same intensity anymore and I’ve gravitated towards a more traditional body building training programme where most of the exercises I’ve picked are because they are easier, take less energy and are performed in a single set manner (I’ll happily take a leg extension over a squat right now).
I would usually start my training with 10-15 minutes of movement focused around the muscles I’m going to use, some boxing to increase my intensity and aggression for the session, and then move into some big key heavy weightlifting movements, like squats supersetted with chin-ups, for example. Because big exercises and minimal rest is becoming harder and harder to do I’ve had to modify my workouts to perform exercises that I simply feel like I want to do, and can do both mentally and physically.
This is often where someone on a diet, in the final stages of reaching their goal, might have to change their training or add more on in the form of low-level cardio (one reason people plan in a fasted walk or cardio, simply to up their energy expenditure). Because the intensity of my training has dropped I’m having to do more, I’m burning less calories in those training sessions so now I need to do more, somewhere, somehow, to get that same energy burn.
I don’t feel like moving as much or pushing myself as much, so that’s a problem I have to deal with. Thus my training has dropped in intensity – I’ve had to rest longer during sets – and I’m trying to increase my levels of general activity and cardio outside of the training sessions. This is also hard because I can feel my mind now starting to slow down my body. I can feel it trying to prevent me from walking places and make me lazier. Why? Because it’s trying to conserve energy. It doesn’t want me walking everywhere and training hard because it’s in a depleted state.
Why do I tell you this? Firstly, to check that you are not currently training in a depleted state when you shouldn’t be. As a coach I’ve worked with too many people that have tried to improve their exercise performance and progress but have simply not been eating enough. You want to perform like an athlete? Eat like one and only then can you train like one. As they say, you have to fuel the beast, and at the moment I am far from beast-like.
This is why you see many athletes that are not super lean. You think they should be, they’re an athlete after all and they should look ripped. But this is often counterproductive to their bigger goal, performance. And thus you might see many athletes with normal-ish amounts of body fat, enough to look and feel athletic, to be nimble and weight efficient, but not so low it affects their performance, just for apparent aesthetic benefit.
I can’t wait to get back to my normal training again. I love being able to perform a heavy squat, wait 5-10 seconds then jump into some weighted chin-ups and straight into some box jumps. Rest for 2 minutes and do it all over again, and again, and again. But now I have to perform the squats, rest for a bit, then do the chin-ups, and probably leave the box jumps altogether as I’m feeling far from ‘jumpy’ right now.
So aside from my current training predicament and looking at where you’re probably at right now reading this article, how should you exercise to effectively diet?
Ultimately, if fat loss is the goal then all we need to do is burn energy to help with losing the weight. Exercise is a tool that makes us fitter, stronger, faster, but also helps create a calorie deficit by burning energy. So you could lift weights, or run, or go to Zumba, or do aerial yoga. Burning energy is burning energy. But some forms of training burn more than others, so that is a consideration worth making. Plus some forms of training are more enjoyable, so always do that because exercise
you enjoy is always more
sustainable long term.
The benefit with weight training is that it helps to preserve muscle tissue by sending anabolic stimuluses that say ‘hey, keep that muscle dude’, rather than burning it for fuel in a depleted state. It also helps sculpt and shape a physique a certain way. So as a guy, for my goals and for my vision of my body, I want to lift weights as I want decent muscle size; I want to look and feel athletic, so that is a key reason I am lifting weights 2-3 times per week at the moment. I can’t do it anymore as I play rugby and that is where I try channel most of my energy, as that’s why I enjoy and get the most satisfaction from. Otherwise, if I didn’t play rugby, I would probably lift weights 3-4 times per week and the other days simply be active and run, canoe, walk, swim… preferably outdoors, mixing it up with whatever I fancy at the time.
So with your training and with your goals consider whether you are enjoying your training, how much time you have or can create, and what you want for your body.
Use exercise to shape a body, both for look and for performance. And remember that there will be times that you don’t want to exercise the way you had planned to. You’ll want to change it, or your body will be telling you it’s time to change, and that’s ok.
During the summer I like to get outdoors more rather than be in the gym. I like to run or get out in my canoe. Why? Because it’s fun. I’m still exercising, I’m still challenging my fitness, I’m still burning some calories, so for me it’s all good.
Modern exercise culture can often feel very gym focused, and while there is benefit to the gym (the gym is a great tool), there are many other ways to get strong, fit and healthy.
This month’s training session
Mobilisations, activation work, core holds and boxing on the bag, increasing in intensity
A1: Dumbbell bench press 3×8
A2: Cable row 3×15
2 minutes rest, 3 sets
B1: Overhead dumbbell carry
10s rest, swap arms, keep going until fatigued
C1: Chin-up 3xmax
C2: Banded face pulls
2 minutes rest
D1: Triceps press down
D2: Sit ups
E1: TRX row
E2: Incline BW press ups
1.5 minutes rest
Longer walk to finish