Question: "I have been working hard to be healthier and more fit, but I can't seem to lose the little bit of belly fat that I have carried for years. I eat right, have done P90X, P90X2, INSANITY, and now P90X3…but my one-pack is still there…Help!"—Jeff R.
The beginning and the end of your fitness program are the two most difficult times, with the latter being by far the most frustrating. Losing those last few pounds, whether it's off of your stomach, hips, thighs, shoulders, or triceps, can be brutally hard. Let's take a brief look at why, and then we'll go into some strategies you can employ that will guarantee you're ready for summer.
First, your trouble area can't be "spot reduced." You've likely heard this before but let's be clear. We all hang onto our last vestiges of body fat somewhere. It varies, but the process to get rid of it remains the same for all of us: You must reduce your overall body fat percentage. This means all of your training (i.e., working out or exercising) should work the whole body, and you're going to need to turn the screw a notch when it comes to diet.
The beginning of a weight loss program is pretty straightforward. If you eat less and exercise more, you tend to drop pounds at a fairly consistent clip. This is because when you instill healthy habits, you bring your nutrient and hydration levels back to normal and this creates a flushing effect on your body. This results in dumping excess water and undigested food, generally leading to good results out of the gate.
Next, under-feeding your body and exercising simultaneously trains your body to use its fat stores for energy more efficiently. For a while, this results in increased performance, which leads to further weight loss.
But then something counterintuitive happens. Your body composition—ratio of muscle to fat tissue—changes, further increasing your metabolism. While as logical as 1, 2, 3, the process results in a situation where you need to eat more in order for your weight loss to continue, something that's always hard for first-time dieters to adjust to.
This can happen long before you're at your final stage of weight loss, but that's irrelevant. Once your state of fitness indicates you need to eat more, follow the steps below in order to keep the weight falling off and your six-pack chiseling into form.
1. Lose weight slowly. You probably lost weight quickly when you began working out but you need to redesign your attack on the last hurrah. By targeting a 1 to 2 pound per week loss, you can eat enough to fuel workout performance and recovery, which will keep your metabolism revving, which is the key to everything you're after. Shoot for a caloric deficit of 300–600 calories a day. Sometimes less, but never more.
2. Zigzag your calories. Also called "refeeding" in bodybuilding lexicon, zigzagging means eating more calories on some days and less on others to determine that number of calories that works best for your goals. For example, if you've been eating a low-calorie diet you can assume you need to add calories. To find out how many, try increasing by 300–600 a day (depending on your size). Eat that way 4 days per week while keeping calories where they are now on the others. Pay very close attention to your body's performance and keep zigzagging up (or down, it works both ways) until your performance and recovery feel right (workouts are great, sleep great, weight moving how you'd like, etc.). This will mean you're at your weight loss (or gain) sweet spot. Keep in mind that, as your fitness increases, so do your caloric needs. Zigzagging should be done periodically (every month or so) as your training and fitness is increasing (or decreasing, but we're not talking about that here).
3. Train on an empty stomach. Work out three to five hours after your last meal (depending on the size of your meals). This ensures you've been able to convert that meal to muscle glycogen, so you can train your hardest and maximize your body's ability to use fat for fuel. A University of Birmingham study bolstered the effects of this long-time sports practice in 2010.
4. Eat small meals often. One of the oldest weight loss tricks in the book is to eat less, more often, to keep your blood sugar steady in order to stave off bingeing. In spite of the proven effects of different methods, particularly intermittent fasting, it's still the go-to protocol when weight loss is the be-all-end-all goal.
5. Train easy after a longer fasting period. Adding some morning exercise on an empty stomach also improves fat mobilization and is a good way to burn some extra calories and not negatively affect your hard training session of the day. When you're looking to cut the last few pounds, this "trick" is effective, but be careful. Too much exercise, especially when your diet is lean on calories, can make you catabolic (burning muscle as well as fat) and that's something you probably don't want. The catabolic risk means that this is probably not a great tactic for those with figure and bodybuilding goals, and should be saved for those whose ultimate goal is weight off of the scale. Note that this is the reason we have an FAQ for what to do when you're bonking when you do your hardest workout upon waking up (small carb snack before or more complex carbs at dinner is the answer).
6. Get enough protein. Not only is protein vital for muscle building; high-protein diets increase the body's ability to burn fat for fuel. While the notion of needing a gram of protein per pound of body weight has been disproven for performance, it's a good strategy for cutting diets or last hurrahs, as Tony Horton likes to call them.
7. Don't cut out carbohydrates. Strategic use of carbohydrates for fuel is vital for performance, and performance is how you gauge how your diet is working. While dramatically cutting down your carb consumption can be helpful in the initial stages of weight loss because your body isn't fit enough to train very hard, it's a huge mistake to cut carbs once you're fit. Carbs fuel both your muscles and your brain. They are also more muscle-sparing (slowing muscle breakdown) than either proteins or fats when you're training, so you need them so that you don't go catabolic (see tip #5). Carbohydrate intake should be strategic, however, since excessive carbs are stored in adipose tissue (visible body fat). Somewhere in the 40% area, depending on your training, is best for this stage in your nutrition arsenal.
8. Don't cut out fat. Dietary fat is vital for performance-enhancing hormone production, which is key for both muscle gain and fat loss. Studies indicate that diets consisting of less than 15% fat can inhibit testosterone production (the male gold standard in natural PEHs), and a safe range for dietary fat seems to be the 20–25% range. Since fats have more than double the calories of proteins and carbs, keeping them this low means your diet should hyper-focus on the healthiest choices: fish, avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds.
9. Do cut out junk. Look, there's just no simple way to get your body to weigh less than it naturally wants to, which is what you're attempting when you go for a chiseled look, without some sacrifice. Notice I just cited the importance of every macronutrient food group. Junk foods have no importance, except (arguably) for pleasure. If you want to nail the tips above, something's got to go.
10. Periodizationally diet. Periodizational dieting is eating differently throughout the year with different goals. Essentially, don't keep your diet super-lean all the time. Like your fitness training, it's good to have some variation. Periodizational dieting is eating for what you do, and you're not always competing (which is what you're doing when you're trying to be a chiseled as possible). Make sure there are periods in each year when you eat more. Using this example, adding carbs and reducing protein is where you'll start. All athletes spend at least part of the year eating all they want (within reason), perhaps even more than they need, to ensure they have the reserves to train as hard as they can. Fighting weight, race weight, or competition shape is a phase. Bodybuilders and fitness trainers don't walk around in contest shape all the time. It's not because they're lazy. In a recent online chat Shaun Thompson said he doesn't like the feeling of being in ASYLUM shape all the time as it's too draining. Six-packs look awesome in photos and impress your friends at reunions, but your body functions better with a little more "reserve."
May is diet month at SteveEdwardsFitness.com, and you can go deeper on each of these points by reading his blog.
"These Three Rs Will Get You Better Results"
"Which Is Better for Losing Weight: Diet or Exercise?"
"What's the Best Time of Day to Exercise?"
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When you travel, do you leave your healthy habits at home? On business trips, it's easy to overdo it with carb-fest lunches and expense account dinners, sedentary meetings, and late nights at the hotel bar. (It's networking, right?) And pleasure trips are all about cutting loose, living it up. But do you really want to return home feeling worse than when you left?
A far more satisfying way to travel is to stay active, and fuel your body and mind with all the things that keep it running at its best. Try just a few changes in your travel habits and you'll be sharper and more effective on business trips, and more alert, comfortable, and energetic on vacation.
If you're on the road for business, then you're probably carrying your laptop. Throw a fitness DVD or two into the computer bag, and pop one in first thing each morning. Do a quick workout early, and notice how much easier it is to resist the temptations of the breakfast buffet.
However, if you're on vacation, skip the computer. Aren't you trying to get away from it all? Leave the laptop and all that seated screen time back at home. Your eyes, back, and wrists need a holiday too.
If you really want to get a feel for an area, the best way to see it is by walking. (Unless you're in Los Angeles. Nobody walks in LA.) If you're on a business trip, try to schedule it so that you can walk to at least some of your meetings.
Skip the cab unless you're late, it's raining like crazy, or your destination is more than a mile or two away. And steer clear of tour buses, unless there is really no other way to visit a particular sight.
Also, avoid the hotel dining room in the morning. Instead, walk to a nearby breakfast place. You'll probably get a more satisfying meal at half the cost. You'll also see some street life on the way—businesses opening their doors, sidewalks getting swept, locals waiting for the bus or hurrying to work.
Some people thrive on routine. If you have a regular gym schedule that's working for you, then continue it while you're away. Keep your healthy habit going, and it won't be a struggle to get back to it when you return home. Most hotels have some sort of gym or exercise facility. Even if it's just a basement room with a couple of stationary bikes—use it!
At the other extreme, you may find that your hotel has a big, glamorous gym with machines you've never used before. It's like being a kid at a new playground! Schedule a session with a personal trainer to learn how to use the stuff, and experience your workout as a novelty, a pleasure. The hotel might also have a great sauna or steam room, and maybe they offer spa services that are new to you. Bodywork is definitely a part of keeping fit and healthy. Schedule a Thai massage, or some other kind of therapy that sounds interesting.
Travel is about experiencing the new and the novel. Apply this attitude to your exercise routine as well, and you'll find that even your same old workout in a new setting can be a treat.
This one's easy. Never, ever take the elevator, unless you're schlepping luggage. No excuses. It doesn't matter how many flights up your room is. In fact, book a high floor. Better views from the room, and more calories burned to get there!
Whatever your destination, there's probably some kind of sport or physical activity that's popular in the area. Go skiing, hiking, bouldering, or climbing if you're in the mountains. At the beach, take a surfing lesson, or boogie board, or at least get off your beach blanket and actually swim in the ocean. Those are the obvious ones, but think of others. Near a river or lake? Spend an afternoon canoeing, sailing, or rafting.
In urban parks, there are inevitably pickup games of soccer, ultimate frisbee, and basketball. Big cities are also rife with climbing gyms, martial arts dojos, a million yoga emporiums, and even dance studios. Think how much more fun your museum day would be if you capped it off with a salsa lesson!
Most major European cities—and an increasing number of American ones—have "smart bike" arrangements, with checkout stations all over town that allow users to pick up a bicycle in one location and drop it off in another. These are great for urban commuters, but are also ideal for tourists, since the services tend to be located in the busiest core of cities. Get around town on a bike and you're sure to see more of it.
Beaches and other tourist destinations almost always have rental services that allow you to take out a bike by the hour or by the day. Have you been curious to try a recumbent bicycle, or a bicycle built for two? Rent one! Take it for a spin up and down the boardwalk and see what you think.
If you're traveling by car, load up the bike rack and vow to leave the car parked once you arrive. In crowded resort towns, you'll be pleased as punch as you pedal past cranky tourists stuck in high-season traffic.
Vacations are notorious for undoing months of virtuous diet and exercise. This may have a little something to do with a steady holiday diet of fried appetizer platters and piña coladas. However, what really derails a healthy fitness routine is an interruption to it.
But it's a vacation! It's time for a break! True enough, but consider keeping just one healthy habit while you're away, to keep your momentum going. For example, go to bed at your normal time (if you're happy with that habit), or wake up at your normal time. If you have a yoga or meditation practice, continue doing even a very abbreviated version of it. Say, one Sun Salute without fail when you first get out of bed. Or, if you're used to a specific, healthy breakfast, keep eating it every day. Make a promise to keep one good thing going, and then follow through on that commitment. This will create a powerful sense of control and continuity that will make it easier to get back on the health and fitness wagon when you return home.
Early in your trip, pick one day to totally overindulge. Eat like a starving hound. Drink like a lush. Stay up too late. Make an ass of yourself. Seriously. You have been dreaming about this holiday for months. You are livin' la vida loca!
When you wake up the next morning, notice how you feel. Don't gulp down your usual hangover remedies, whatever they may be, and don't have a big guilt trip. Simply notice what is going on with your body. Let yourself feel it. Your head is pounding, right? Your stomach feels sour. You have no energy. Everything feels awful. You want to go back to bed. Ask yourself, do I want to feel like this every morning of my vacation? Do I really have that kind of time to spare?
Later in the day when you're thinking of having a fourth mai tai or a second dessert, bring your mind back to what it was like when you woke up. No judgment, no worries. Just remember how you physically felt. Then make a conscious decision about whether or not you want to feel that way again tomorrow morning. If you do this on day one or two, maybe the lesson will sink in.
The American lifestyle is so fast-paced, frenetic, and stressful that it can be hard to downshift into vacation mode. That go-go-go attitude can cause you to miss what's right in front of you.
Are you back for a third helping at the all-you-can-eat buffet on the pool deck, and you can't specifically recall what was on your first or second plate? Relax. There's more than enough food for everyone, and no rush for you to finish eating. Remember, you're on vacation. Slow down and enjoy whatever you're eating, whether it's "healthy" or not. Relish it. If you focus on and savor your food, you won't eat as much. That's not the reason to slow down, though. Go slow so that you can truly enjoy every single, delicious bite.
Do you really just want to sit on the beach for a week and drink? (Wait. Don't answer that.) The best way to stay fit when you're on vacation is to get out and do stuff. Tips number one through nine will help you shoehorn a little bit of wellness into any business or pleasure trip. But this last tip is the biggie, and doing this one means you won't need to bother with the others.
If you have been taking good care of yourself—working out, eating right, getting enough sleep—then you have been in training for real-life adventures. Reward yourself on your next holiday. Pick a fun, physically active adventure, and build a trip around it.
Cycle from Saigon to Angkor Wat, or through New England. Dive or snorkel in the blue waters of the Caribbean, or the Pacific, or the Indian Ocean. Refine your yoga practice at an ashram in India, or Costa Rica, or upstate New York. Go climbing in the Swiss Alps, or Utah, or Kentucky. Take a rafting trip down the Colorado River—or through the French countryside, where you'll float past vineyards and villages.
Are these just pipe dreams that are too expensive or complicated to be considered? Think again. If you can afford a family vacation to Disney World, or a Caribbean cruise, or a high-season week at any seaside resort, then you can afford something better. You can do something much more memorable, interesting, and active. Before you go on autopilot and book the usual beach holiday, think for a minute.
What's your dream? Do you want to charter a sailboat in the Mediterranean, or on the Chesapeake Bay? Have you always talked about wanting to cross-country ski in Vermont? Then do it. Go! Why else have you been clocking all those hours in the gym? You have the strength and the energy—and if you don't, you know how to train for it.
Do some Internet research, and book a trip that excites you and makes you a little nervous. These are the eyes wide open, active experiences that you will remember for the rest of your life. As an added bonus (not that you need one), you'll return from an adventure vacation looking and feeling exhilarated, recharged, inspired, and even more fit and fabulous than when you left home.
Can six days of all-you-can-eat seafood buffets and beach lounging do all that? Hardly.
"Ask the Expert: Are Cheat Meals OK?"
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