Q: I’ve been reading your column for a number of years, so that’s why I am writing you. I’m obese. I wasn’t always this way, and I would like to get back to more of what I was. I was never a bodybuilder—I just really enjoyed lifting. To make a long story short, I’m wondering where I should start. I used to weight train hardcore, but I have not exercised consistently in years. I hate cardio, but I know I need to do it most days of the week at my stage. I’m 5’8”, 325 pounds and about 35 percent bodyfat. My goal is to be 240 pounds and 12 percent bodyfat. My athletic-performance goal is very much about strength. My nutrition is horrible, so any advice would help.
A: Good for you for wanting to change your life. Believe me, you are not the only person who has allowed himself to get out of shape and now finds himself overweight. You can reach your goal over time if you do the right things.
Since you have not exercised consistently in years, you need to start back slowly. Too many people who are out of shape come back too quickly, trying to speed up the process. They usually end up either hurting themselves or burning out. They get frustrated that their renewed efforts in the gym are not giving them the fast results they want, so they quit. That obviously isn’t the right approach.
You mentioned that your “athletic-performance goal is very much about strength.” At this point, if you want to get rid of the bodyfat and lose more than 80 pounds, you need to change your goal. Your main focus should be on burning calories and losing weight while still building and maintaining your muscle mass. Once you become leaner, you can focus on building muscle and strength.
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Since you have not worked out in years, I recommend weight training only three days a week in the beginning. You are definitely going to be sore and weak at first. By starting out slowly and gradually building up both the volume and resistance of your workouts, you will coax the muscles into getting back in shape.
You can train your whole body over two workouts, working half the major muscle groups in one session and the others in the second. You don’t need to use heavy weights at this stage of the game.
Choose a moderate weight that you can lift for 10 to 12 repetitions, and superset exercises to burn more calories. The following example is a good way to set up your workouts:
Workout 1: Chest, back, shoulders, calves
Dumbbell bench presses 3 x 10-12
Wide-grip pulldowns 3 x 10-12
Incline dumbbell presses 3 x 10-12
One-arm dumbbell rows 3 x 10-12
Flat-bench flyes 3 x 10
Deadlifts or hyperextensions 3 x 15
Seated dumbbell presses 3 x 10-12
Seated lateral raises 3 x 10-12
Bent-over lateral raises 3 x 10
Dumbbell shrugs 3 x 12
Seated calf raises 3 x 15
Standing calf raises 3 x 10
Workout 2: Legs, arms, abs
Crunches 3 x 20
Seated knee raises 3 x 10-15
Leg extensions 3 x 15
Leg curls 3 x 12
Leg presses 3 x 12-15
Dumbbell stiff-legged deadlifts 3 x 10
Pushdowns 3 x 12
Standing dumbbell curls 3 x 12
Lying extensions 3 x 12
Barbell curls 3 x 10
If you start off with three weight-training workouts a week, train on Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and alternate the two workouts listed above. Buy a workout journal or notebook, and record each workout—write down the exercises, the weights you use and how many reps you do for each set. Every week try to do a little more by increasing the repetitions or using a little more weight.
Remember that your primary goal is to burn calories and get the muscles accustomed to using more resistance at each workout. The body will adapt by becoming stronger and burning the calories more efficiently. Each week you will get stronger, developing more endurance and gradually become leaner.
On the other days of the week don’t just stay home and rest. You’re trying to get leaner and lose weight, so you need to burn calories every day. Go to the gym, or go outside and do some cardio to burn more calories. Start off with as little as 20 minutes each day, and build up from there.
Just as you will do with your weight training, record each cardio session and try to improve on it each week. You may begin with only 20 minutes of walking. After that session is completed, record how far you walked, how much time you spent and what your heart rate was after your workout. By knowing exactly what you’re doing each session, you will be more motivated to do more and beat your previous record.
It’s very important to make your workouts progressive by challenging yourself to do more each week. That’s what will motivate you to get back into the fitness lifestyle and totally change your body. Remember, progress will not come overnight; you will make small steps toward what you are trying to accomplish by being consistent and doing your workouts or cardio at least six days a week.
Over time your cardiovascular capacity will increase, and you will be able to add more time to your cardio sessions. Work your way up to 30 minutes, then 40 minutes and beyond. Your goal should be three 60-minute cardio sessions per week. In addition to the duration, you will also be able to increase the intensity of your cardio workouts.
High-intensity interval training is a great way to increase your metabolism and burn more calories. By alternating the intensity levels during your cardio workouts, you force your heart to work harder and burn more calories than by doing it all at the same intensity.
As an example of how you could incorporate HIIT cardio into your workouts, if you are walking on the treadmill, set the speed so you are walking at a fast walk. After two minutes at that pace, increase the speed until you are jogging or running. Do that for another two minutes and then go back to the walking speed. By alternating the two levels of intensity, you increase your metabolism and burn more calories and fat in the process.
The other component to getting back in shape is your diet. You really need to pay attention to the food you’re eating each day in order to lose the excess bodyfat. When you have a high bodyfat percentage, your metabolism is much slower and any food will be potentially stored as additional bodyfat.
The only way to increase your metabolism and turn things around is to eat the right foods in addition to the exercise program listed above. If you are eating too many calories or eating the wrong foods that will be stored as more bodyfat, your body will have no choice but to gradually begin losing fat and dropping weight when you make the change.
The best way to get a handle on eating correctly is to look at food in terms of the three major macronutrients—protein, carbohydrate and fat. Find out how much protein, carb and fat your foods contain, and then figure out how many of each you are getting on a daily basis.
Protein foods come from meat and dairy products. Some, like beef, whole eggs, milk and cheese, can be high in saturated fat, so it’s a good idea to limit the amount that you eat. Other protein foods, like chicken, turkey, fish, egg whites and lean beef, are much lower in fat while still containing lots of high-quality protein.
The carbohydrates and fats provide your body with energy. Carbs are easily converted and used for energy. Complex carbs contain fiber and are digested more slowly. They are preferred for losing bodyfat because they do not cause a big insulin secretion. Complex carbohydrates like oatmeal, oat bran, sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, Ezekiel bread and vegetables are ideal for restoring the glycogen level in the muscle cells without contributing to more fat deposition.
Be very careful of eating simple sugars because they are digested very fast by the body and are usually converted into stored bodyfat. Processed foods, candy, cookies, sweets, soda and fruit juices are all very high in simple sugars, and they will make your blood sugar soar. By staying away from them, you will keep your insulin levels more stable and prevent fat storage.
Keeping your protein intake high will help keep your blood sugar steady and prevent binge eating. Schedule your meals three hours apart and eat high-quality protein—egg whites, turkey, chicken, fish, protein powder—with each meal. You can include moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates to restore your glycogen, provide energy and speed up your metabolism.
By writing down what you eat and figuring out how many grams of protein, carbohydrates and fats you’re getting each day, you will begin to see changes in your body and become more aware of what foods you need to eat to reach your goal. I recommend eating at least 200 grams of protein each day to help maintain your muscle mass while you’re losing weight. You can alternate your carbohydrates between 150 and 200 grams per day, depending on your activity level. Keep your overall fat intake moderate—50 grams per day—in order to keep your calories low to get the fat loss started.
As you begin to lose weight, you can make adjustments to both your training and nutrition programs. You will be able to use more resistance in your workouts as you get stronger and your body adapts to the weight training. You may also be able to cut back on your intense cardio workouts as your metabolic rate increases. The leaner you get, the more calories you will be able to add back into your diet by increasing your complex carbs.
Look at this challenge as an exciting journey. It’s going to take a lot of work and dedication to lose that much weight and reach your goal, but by following the rules of weight training, cardio exercise and nutrition, you will be successful. Good Luck!
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com for more information about how you can be a part of his exciting, new Natural Olympia Fitness getaway. Send questions or comments to [email protected]. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s radio show, Natural Bodybuilding Radio, at NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM