Mix up your routine and get fast results by adding these fat-blasting fitness and diet tips from the big guysBy: Greg Presto
You belong to the same gym. But that’s really all you have in common with the big, grunting, meatheads on the other side of the workout floor, right? Think again. You’re both there to work on your body, and the free weight area they inhabit holds powerful tools to help you reach your weight loss and fitness goals without adding on bulk.
"Bodybuilders and physique athletes have mastered changing the shape of their body—and muscle is the shape of your body," says Nick Tumminello, a strength and conditioning coach in Florida and the creator of DVDs including Strength Training for Fat Loss & Conditioning. "They know how to stay lean and build up their muscular system."
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Training with heavier weights, restructuring your workout, and including more rest (yes, rest!) will build lean muscle that burns more calories, protects against heart disease, and makes lifting everyday objects seem effortless. And because you don't have the testosterone levels of a man, you won't get big, says Shawn Arent, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at Rutgers University.
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The most important thing you borrow from the big guys is also the one that will help get you started on enjoying these benefits: bold confidence.
"Don't feel intimidated. It's not their 'territory.' You have every right to be in the weight room with these guys," says Bret Contreras, C.S.C.S., a PhD candidate at the Auckland University of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand. Most women have more flexibility and mobility than guys, so their form is often better on ‘male’ exercises like barbell squats; you may just impress the huge lifters, Contreras says.
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Now that you've confidently entered the weight room, use it! Free weights maximize the benefits of muscle and bone strengthening and work tiny stabilizing muscles all over your body in addition to the major muscles targeted in each exercise.
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"These stabilizer muscles protect your body from injury, help with posture, and prevent excessive fatigue," says Arent. Because you need these tiny muscles when you're standing, walking around, picking up a bag, or performing any other activity, training them gives you more strength and endurance for everyday movement. It's a benefit you'll miss with machines, which don't train these postural muscles because the machine's fixed movement does the stabilizing for you.”
Free weights are infinitely adaptable, while machines are just adjustable, he says. This difference means machines can offer a greater risk of injury—if a squat machine is designed for someone outside your height range, you'll strain and perform the move irregularly. Dumbbells and barbells move freely—along your natural movement paths.
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Those endless biceps curls you do with 5-pound weights may not be doing your arms any good. If you perform the same exercises with the same weight over and over but expect different results, you're defining insanity… and describing the workout habits of most gym-goers.
"You need to constantly challenge the muscle for it to adapt," says Arent. Bodybuilders and bigger lifters are consistently trying to increase the weights they use in each exercise, he says, because that's how muscle and strength grow—when your muscles are challenged, they actually break down a little via tiny microtears. The healing of those tears helps create more lean muscle tissue. And lean muscle tissue will help you look smaller and more toned in your clothes.
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"The greatest results you can have in changing your body is in lifting the heaviest amount you can lift," says Elizabeth Hendrix Burwell, co-owner of High Performance NYC, a training facility in New York. "It gets the quickest and safest results."
Your bones are strengthened in a similar way, says Kenneth Baldwin, PhD, professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of California, Irvine. When you lift something heavy, your muscles pull on your bones, creating tiny bends in the bone structure or "microstrains." This stimulates the bone cells to grow and increase mineral content, slowing the progression of osteoporosis.
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To get these benefits, though, you have to lift enough weight, Baldwin says—60 to 70% of your one-rep maximum weight for a given exercise. Use this simple guideline from Tumminello:
"You want to get in 8 to 12 reps in each set, because that's a great range for shape and tone," he says. "But 12 means that you should not be able to do any more reps at the end of the set: If you're not struggling when you get to 12 and you're still smiling, add some weight. If you're dead at 7, go a little lighter."
Strength training is crucial to helping you lose weight. "Extra lean muscle burns more calories. If you're trying to lose body fat, add in cardio, but don't stop weight training," says Arent.
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The barbell deadlift is a popular exercise among lifters because it's "functional," Tumminello says, meaning it relates to real life—when you pick up a heavy box, you're performing a deadlift.
"I perform some kind of deadlift with every one of my clients, no matter who they are," he says. "The goal of an exercise is what makes it 'functional,' and I don't see what goal the deadlift can't help." (See how to perform a deadlift.)
It especially works and builds a body part many women are hoping to sculpt, says Hendrix Burwell. "Lots of my female clients want a good-looking butt… and nothing in the world is going to give you that like deadlifts and squats."
It's not all about the butt, though: The deadlift works the back, hands, arms, shoulders, hamstrings, butt, and the entire midsection—and being able to maintain core stability throughout the movement is an important skill that heavy lifters have, says Contreras.
To practice the proper hip hinge and core stability needed to perform this movement, stand without a weight next to a mirror, Contreras says. Push your hips back (as if you were pushing a door behind you open with your butt) and bend your body forward, keeping your back flat as your chest comes forward. Return to the start position by thrusting your hips forward as you return to standing, continuing to keep your back naturally arched, but not rounded.
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Watch your hips hinge in this way—hips pushing back, naturally arched back as you bend forward—and repeat until you're comfortable with this hip hinge.
"Learning to hold that athletic position is a huge aspect of deadlifting, athleticism, and long-term lifting," Contreras says. This body position is important not just for deadlifts, but for bent-over rows, rear deltoid raises, and many other exercises.
The deadlift is simply a weighted variation of this hip hinge. With the bar on the ground, grip it with a mixed grip—one hand facing you, one hand facing away. Drive your hips back and down, keeping your back flat. The deadlift is not a squat—the hips are set higher and remain sandwiched between the knees and shoulders throughout the movement. Set your core and stand up, unbending your knees first and then driving the hips forward, much in the way you did during the hip hinge. Make sure the bar skims the body at all points in time, which requires you to sit back and down. Reverse the motion and lower the bar as far as you can without rounding your back.
A note: When you add weight to the deadlift, Contreras says, don't turn your head to the side as you did to watch the hip hinge. This can cause strain on your neck and shoulder.
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Bodybuilders and other physique athletes don't perform total body workouts in one day. Instead, they perform "splits," working their upper body one day, and their lower body the next.
"There's not one high-level fitness model that I know that uses total body workouts," says Tumminello, and with good reason: "Studies show that depending on your training age, you need at least 10 to 20 sets per muscle group to make the muscle grow as quickly and effectively as you can. You're not going to build it with just 3 or 4 sets."
That seems like a lot of sets, but like the deadlift, many free weight exercises will work multiple muscle groups simultaneously—meaning a set of squats counts as a set for your calves, thighs, and butt.
"The most challenging exercises are hard for a reason," Arent says. They're challenging multiple muscles. For multi-muscle response (and sets that count for multiple muscle groups), try moves like overhead presses, bent-over rows (which work the biceps, back, and core), push-ups (chest, arms, core, and legs), lunges, and other exercises where more than one joint moves at once.
For a four-day training program that splits the body, Tumminello suggests performing upper body pushing and pulling movements on Monday, lower body exercises on Tuesday, and repeating those workouts on Thursday and Friday.
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Circuit training is the rage in many fitness circles—workouts where exercisers move from one exercise to the next with little rest, combining cardio and strength training into a single workout.
"The problem is, circuit training is fairly ineffective in both areas," Arent says. When you try to do two things at once, neither is done very well, so many circuit training clients don't get the results they really want. "Weights are not for cardio. If you want to gain lean mass, lift. If you want to do aerobic training, do aerobic training. But don't do both at once."
The long, leisurely rests you see muscleheads chatting through aren't inefficiency. Rest between sets allows your body to reload and replace its stores of ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) and PCr (creatine phosphate)—the energy your muscles use to generate force and move the load, Arent says.
Sufficient rest also ensures you'll complete all the reps in your next set. When Baldwin prescribes strength training protocols to NASA subjects, he uses a two-minute rest between sets. When he tried decreasing the rest interval, subjects didn't finish every rep—and didn't get the maximum benefits.
For optimal training results for muscle growth, rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets of 8 to 12 reps, says Arent. For shorter sets of 4 to 7 reps to train for strength, rest 2-3 minutes. Try to maintain or increase weight on consecutive sets.
Don't believe the hype: To look lean and reduce body fat, your body needs carbs—especially right after you've worked out.
"You're incurring a tremendous amount of muscle breakdown, and your body needs to replenish glycogen—the carbohydrates stored in muscles for energy," Arent says. If you don't give your body the carbs it needs soon after your workout, your body will use muscle as food. "Your body breaks down muscle in order to provide the raw materials it needs to make more glucose."
Soon after your workout, Arent says, you'll want to consume a meal (or shake or bar) that has a ratio of 1 gram of protein for every 4 grams of carbs to build lean muscle, reduce soreness, and get the maximum benefit from your workout. Arent recommends bread with peanut butter, a shake with whey protein and Kool-Aid®, or Muscle Milk® and Myoplex® shakes. And during this time, he says, the simpler the sugar—like Kool-Aid or watermelon—the better your body will rush it to your muscles to restore glycogen.
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The rest of the time, he says, lean toward whole grains and low-glycemic index (GI) carbs. The body absorbs these foods more slowly and they cause smaller spikes in blood glucose levels. Outside pre- and post-workout meals, snack on low-GI fruits like blueberries, cherries, and apples, while avoiding higher-GI fruits like bananas, watermelon, raisins, and pineapple.
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When a big guy grunts through a heavy lift, he's making a spectacle of himself—but he's also increasing the amount he can lift, says Dennis O'Connell, PhD, professor of physical therapy at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.
In a study he conducted in 1999, O'Connell found that weightlifters who grunted while performing a deadlift increased their force output by slightly over 1%. In a subsequent study on tennis players performed in 2008, subjects who grunted increased the force of their forehand by up to 19%, and their serve as much as 26%. Generating more force—in the gym, lifting more weight—means increased strength results with each rep.
And novice exercisers enjoyed the greatest increases: In the deadlifting study, football players only increased force output by 2.3% by grunting, while novices got a full 5% bump. O'Connell theorizes that the increase in force is a result of your body expecting to do more work when you make forceful noise, and because you remove inhibitions. The trouble? Study participants grunted loud, up to 80 decibels—as loud as a blender or garbage disposal.
You can increase force production without sounding like an angry bear. "Studies show that increased force or power can be generated during the Valsalva maneuver [holding one’s breath while straining] or a maximal expiratory maneuver," O'Connell says. When you hold your breath or breathe out forcefully while lifting something heavy, the brain's motor units turn on—your body may expect to need to generate force, he says. Performed for too long, the Valsalva maneuver can cause light-headedness, so O'Connell suggests forceful exhalation for safety. Who knew that getting stronger and leaner was just a few deep breaths away?
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