tl;dr We revisit the basics of getting in shape. We learn how to fix our diet and what physical activity to do.
One thing I love about this sub is the absence of sugar coating.
With regard to getting in shape, it's true we won't sport a six-pack year-round without some serious dedication.
However, due to our proclivity for the categorical imperative this sometimes comes across as, "Count calories, track macros, supplement, train six times a week and learn Muay Thai or you might as well not bother."
The problem is attempting to change so many habits at once is a recipe for failure.
It is my hope this guide will set beginners for the course towards a better body, rescue some from analysis paralysis and remind others of the basic principles of getting in shape.
To this end the ideas are presented in order of increased difficulty so that they form a natural progression.
As this editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine so eloquently puts, "You cannot outrun a bad diet." A healthy weight is primarily a function of a good diet, not physical activity. I assume many of your meals already are home-made. In any case, let's see what we can start with.
Cut Out Sugary Drinks
Please find the caloric contents of some popular drinks in the table below.
One serving of any of these drinks delivers a non-negligible amount of calories and your daily allowance of added sugar as per the NHS.
Do yourself a favour and cut them out.
Replace with water, coffee and tea.
I like Rooibos tea in the evening because it is naturally caffeine-free.
On a side note, alcohol is caloric too.
If you're the type who fancies wine for dinner or a beer after work, the NIH urges you to reconsider your habits (PDF).
You know that snacking is bad.
For example, a snickers has 250 calories.
Healthy snacks are no excuse.
The opposite of mindless snacking is mindful eating - slow down when eating your meals.
Eat Your Greens
If your plate is usually a mixture of red, brown and yellow, you might want to add some leafy vegetables.
They're good for you and fill you up.
Before buying fresh vegetables was part of my shopping routine, I started with frozen broccoli and spinach, as well as the occasional lettuce.
I season my salad with a simple vinaigrette instead of dressing: 3 tablespoons of rapeseed or sunflower oil, 1 tablespoon of white vine vinegar, salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon of jam or honey.
Don't lick out the salad bowl though.
As /u/OneTouchHowMuch points out, 1 tablespoon of it equals to 120 calories.
So you've picked the low hanging fruit, seen some results and wonder how to take your efforts to the next level. No need to rush through the following list at once.
Only do what you need to to keep achieving results.
You'll need a bodyweight and a digital food scale.
The next steps are of a quantitative nature and won't work without them.
- Track your bodyweight. Weekly weigh-ins work well as they hide the daily fluctuations of your weight from you. The trend is what is interesting. Weigh-in Wednesday is easy to remember.
- Use a calorie tracker like myfitnesspal and religiously log whatever goes into your mouth for a week. If you're puzzled as to why your weight is not moving in the direction you want, the amount of calories you actually eat might surprise you.
- Should you prefer to hit a certain number of calories or have some weight goal, myfitnesspal will use your estimated TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) to tell you how much to eat, not factoring in your eventual weightlifting. This calculator however, will.
Remember your body can't create muscle mass out of thin air.
If you want to increase your mass, you will need to eat more than before.
Conversely, the surplus of food you eat won't dissipate into nothing either.
If you want to lose mass, you will need to eat less than what you've been eating.
Protein goes well with weightlifting, as it is the building block of muscle.
Around 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight is a good target.
You will hear higher numbers, but according to the scientific opinion of the EFSA the necessity for an even higher protein intake is debatable (PDF, c.f. Sec. 5.2.1).
Then there is bulking and cutting.
The idea of bulking is to train hard and promote muscle growth by eating above your TDEE.
A common number seems to be an extra 500 calories per day.
The fat you gain alongside the muscle is then removed during a period of dieting.
You need discipline to not overdo your bulk and gain too much fat, and also not lose too much muscle, strength and willpower during the cut.
I'm not qualified to give advice on this topic but if more qualified TRPers want to chime in on the benefits of bulking and cutting for beginners, they're very welcome.
And by exercise, I mean weightlifting.
The benefits of it are many.
Most notably for us, weightlifting builds muscles.
First Steps First
If you're weak, you will benefit most from a full body free weights routine performed three times per week, like the infamous Starting Strength or better yet, Phrak's Greyskull variant.
I'm not saying this because I want to deny you the joy of doing biceps curls but because no other mainstream programs will have you perform your favourite exercises as often. Because of the magic of linear progression, no other programs will make you stronger faster.
They are also supremely time efficient.
If you can't ask or pay somebody to teach you the lifts, I find youtube to be a valuable resource.
Look for videos by Johnny Candito or Omar Isuf.
You follow these programs until you can't sustain the fast progression any more.
Typically, this takes a couple of months.
For instance, I ended up with a with a bodyweight squat, 3/4 bodyweight bench press and 1.5 times my bodyweight of 80kg deadlift after two months.
I was still progressing on the deadlift, but had deloaded my squat twice and my bench press thrice.
I've since been told that I was probably not eating enough.
Progressing Beyond Beginner Programs
When you've exhausted your easy so-called newbie gains, you will have to put in more work to progress.
Now is the time to add an exercise or two to your program, slowly increase the volume and learn about periodisation.
This strengtheory article describes the process better than I ever could.
The same author also delineates how to progress to intermediate programs in the article What To Do When You’re Done With Your Linear Progression Strength Training Program.
The takeaway is that there are plenty of things you can try before you have to start adding training days.
Due to their minimalism, the beginner programs leave plenty of time for cardio.
Half an hour on the stationary bike at 60%-70% of your max heart rate after working out will do wonders for your life as well as your weightlifting. As will swimming or running. Or rowing. Or HIIT (high intensity interval training). Boxing classes start with fitness and will kick your ass.
Alternatively now that the weather is picking up, playing outdoor sports becomes an option again. The running and sprinting involved in football (soccer) is great for fitness and cardiovascular health.
Either way, while lifting is inevitable there are plenty of ways to do cardio. The adaptations to steady state cardio are different from those to high intensity workouts but unless you're training to compete in some sport, it doesn't matter that much. Just pick something you enjoy and don't disregard the chance to do something with friends.
What about Summer?
Unless you're an Aussie, you have two months until summer.
In that time frame you can gain 4 pounds of muscle or lose 8 pounds of fat.
In principle, reducing your caloric intake to lose fat will prevent you from gaining muscle (the opposite is true as well).
The good news is that as a newbie without significant muscle mass you can chase both muscle gain and fat loss to a certain degree.
Like the Chinese proverb says, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."
Fix your nutrition and start lifting. If you're already lifting, assess your progress honestly and go back to the basics if you need to. If you're already making strength gains, you may want to add cardio. If you're already doing all of this without seeing progress you need to log your food intake. If you are seeing progress you will either be nodding right now or preparing to destroy me in the comments. In any case, I hope somebody finds this guide useful.