Getting Lean and Mean.
Exercising more Efficiently.
A few months back I was tidying up my den when I came across a set of weights that my girlfriend had failed to borrow. Two plastic handgrips, a single bar and two 2kg discs which I assembled into a single dumbbell. Not particularly heavy, I suspect the whole thing is under 5kgs total. During my childhood I was a skinny kid. As I have aged I have turned into something resembling T-rex. Everything got bigger but I kept the skinny arms. Time to change I decided.
Given that building up my arms was a priority curls seemed the logical exercise to start with. Most of the exercise programs I have seen talk about two or three sets of eight to ten reps but for some reason I decided to try one set of 30 reps in a row. One of the things I discovered while researching my book was that a large numbers of reps with moderate weights was the recommended method for building up muscular strength. Lifting a moderate weight like this once or even ten times is not much of an effort but it turns out 30 times in a row is quite a nice challenge for the muscles. The effort builds up gradually but steadily so you get a good workout yet there is very little chance of overdoing it and causing yourself an injury. Injuries will slow your training down just as you begin to make progress, so are to be avoided.
Very soon 30 reps became two sets of 30 reps. An interesting thing was that two sets of 30 reps for each arm actually took me under three minutes. I could hardly claim I didn't have time to exercise! In fact I could fit several such sessions into a day. One when I woke up before I got into the shower, another when I got home from work, and another while the rice or pasta was boiling for dinner. I also found time for sessions during lunch, but dropped these once the hotter weather came in as I share a very small office.
If you don't have a 3 to 5kg dumbbell handy then a suitable weight can easily be improvised. My lunchtime exercise session was made using concrete squirrel we use as a doorstop. A heavy book can be used instead, or a bag of groceries. Most rifles weight 3-5kg but make sure the chamber is empty and safety on.
Another interesting thing I learnt while researching my book was that muscle needs time to recover and grow. If you exercise a muscle group everyday it is going to show less progress than if you give it a day to rest, recover and grow. Many people who try to get fit or build up muscle make the mistake of being too keen. Even if they do not injure themselves by overdoing it they exercise too frequently and are disappointed by the lack of results after so much effort. If you are keen you can exercise different muscle groups or parts of your body on different days. Personally I prefer to have alternate rest and exercise days.
And so I set out on my new exercise program. Two sets of 30 curls each arm, several times a day, every alternate day. I have to say I was actually surprised at how soon and how much progress I began to show. After about six exercise days and less than two weeks the muscles of my arms became noticeably harder and increased in bulk by at least 10%. My wrists seemed noticeably thicker and stronger and the muscles of my hands showed a considerable increase in bulk and strength. My biceps gained shape and definition and a knuckle joint on my left hand that often needed to be clicked back into place started staying where it was meant to be.
Curls are quite a nice entry level exercise. The resulting increase in hand and arm strength makes it safer and easier to introduce other forms of exercise into the routine. I can now include 30 wall push ups in the routine and expect to soon progress onto a similar number of more strenuous variations to improve other muscle groups in the upper body. The number of reps in the curls is also increasing. Recently the curls have often been replaced or supplemented by exercises designed to also work the chest and shoulders. The core of my current routine is wall push ups followed by bench flys and dumbbell bench presses. These are usually preceded by Indian club flaps and followed by curls.
Of course, arms and chest are not the only areas of the body that need exercise but I was already addressing that need. My office is on the third floor and my duties often take me to the fourth and fifth floors of the building. I always take the stairs, both down and up. I frequently see people half my age taking the lifts down, sometimes only down one floor. Amusingly many of them are talking about how they are going to the gym or wearing their football kit. Many people using these lifts are overweight or obese. Get into the habit of using the stairs whenever you can, both for going up as well as down. They are great exercise for both your legs and wind. Some websites will claim that stairs are not as good a workout as running or swimming but they are missing the point that stair climbing is something you can integrate into your normal routine, while swimming or running requires time set aside for it, special clothing and locations.
Another habit to nurture is walking more. If you drive, park a little further away and walk. If you use the bus, get off a stop or two early. Try walking a bit faster than you usually do.
My exercise program has been accompanied by another lifestyle change. I am actually in better shape than many men half my age, although part of that is due to the obesity that has become so common in the general population. I decided it would not hurt me to shed a little fat, however. With so much of the world going hungry it seems immoral to deliberately eat more than you actually need.
There are no miracle diets or exercises that will remove body fat from a specific area. To get slimmer I had to consume less and become more active. My exercise routine was meeting the latter requirement. What I needed to do was not to diet, but to permanently change my eating habits.
One area for improvement was my bad habit of always cooking more pasta or rice than I needed. Weighing out the correct quantity was a bit of a fag, so I hit upon the idea of measuring by volume instead. I poured 100gms of rice into a measuring jug and it turned out this hit the 100ml mark. Next I weighed out 100gms of the fusilli pasta I usually buy since it comes in a big 3kg budget pack. That reached the 300ml mark, which is nice and easy to remember! Same weight of penne reaches 150ml. Now when I cook pasta or rice I just fill the jug to the appropriate mark.
The second improvement was to increase the proportion of vegetables in my meals. I went down to the frozen food section of the supermarket and stocked up on bags of vegetables I liked. Peas, sweetcorn, green beans, mixed veg, carrots and mixed peppers. Each only a pound for a big bag of each. You will notice I got quite a variety so I can mix various combinations together so I do not get bored. Now when I cook a meal I include a bowl of assorted frozen veg. Three minutes in the microwave makes this into a bowl of hot, crisp and tasty veg. I usually pile that over the meat or pasta/rice so I have to munch through and get a good intake of fibre before I start on the meat and carbs. The frozen veg is supplemented by fresh stuff such as onions, mushrooms, garlic and chinese leaf.
There is a school of thought that meat should be used like a condiment and only eaten in quantity a couple of times a week. I try to observe that to save money if nothing else. I try to eat four sausages rather than the whole pack, or just one chop, not more. Yes, I still like a nice big steak, but that is an occasional treat, not an everyday occurrence.
Since I am trying to shed a little bit of a paunch many weekday nights I have left out the meat entirely and just eaten veg and the 100gm measure of rice/ pasta. Some nights if not in the mood to cook I just eat fruit and drink water. Over the space of two weeks the paunch has noticeably reduced since I started doing this.
I can't say I have really noticed that reducing the size of my meat, rice or pasta portions has detracted from my meals. If anything the increase in vegetables has made my meals more filling and interesting and I have noticed that I don't get so hungry during the day anymore, which is interesting since other than a morning cup of coffee I usually only eat once a day, late in the evening.
I also drink a lot of water. No fancy designer water, just plain old tap water. Most of us walk around in a permanent state of partial dehydration so an increased water intake is often beneficial on several levels. Many drinks will introduce calories into your system without making you feel as full as if you took the same calories in as solid food. Sodas are apparently the largest single source of calories in the American diet! Fruit juices are also high in calories. If possibly only drink such high calorie drinks when eating so you will feel sated and drink less of them. Water, on the other hand, tends to suppress hunger pangs. Try to drink water after a meal. It cleanses your palate and helps digestion. In many cultures coffee is always served with a glass of water, and this is not a bad thing to emulate.
And the bottom line is that I have actually lost some weight. I don't know how much since I don't bother weighing myself and I am also gaining muscle from the exercising, but I both look and feel lighter and more active.
If you intend to try the suggestions on this page I will recommend that you avoid the bathroom scales. The eating and exercise routines on this page are intended to reduce your body fat and increase your muscle. Muscle is heavier than fat so the amount of weight loss shown on the scales may be less than you hope. Your total weight is not as important as how you look, feel and your composition.
Equipment and more on Exercises.
You will notice that the above exercise routine requires neither a lot of time nor equipment. You do not need an extensive set of weights, just a pair of dumbbells of 3 to 5kgs weight each. The brand doesn't matter, just get a pair of sufficient weight at a price you can afford. I invested in a 5kg pair that cost me just £20. I would recommend getting a pair since exercises such as raises, flies and presses are better with a pair of weights. Many dumbbell sets have a flat side or polygonal shape so they do not roll. This is a nice feature since such weights can also be used as push-up handles.
Push ups are probably one of the best upper body exercises that you can do. Not everyone has the upper body strength to do push ups, however so some of us need to build up to them. The dumbbell curls suggested above should have given you the arm strength to attempt 30 wall push ups. When these are no longer an effort it is time to switch to counter/table press ups, then knee press ups, then full press ups.
A pair of push-up handles would be second item on my shopping list. Human wrists are not intended to bend 90 degrees back so using handles or clenched fists is recommended for push-ups. You can use polygonal weights for counter or floor push-ups but they are not ideal if you use wall push-ups.
Bench presses and flies will also build up your upper body strength. Despite the name you do not need an exercise bench to perform these. In fact it is preferable to perform them while lying on the floor. Lie on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. You can perform these exercises with either dumbbells or your Indian clubs. Bench presses can also be performed with a weight such as a heavy book. Like all the other exercises I do attempt at least one set of at least 30 or more reps. Presses and flies are great exercises to build up your chest if you are not yet up to full press ups. They can also be used to exercise with weights greater than your own bodyweight, but that is advanced bodybuilding out of the scope of this article. For the moment stick with our modest weight high rep routine.
Another piece of equipment that I find useful is a pair of Indian Clubs. Indian Clubs are often sold at very high prices. The solution is to make your own. Mine were made from a pair of plastic juggling clubs that I brought for a fraction of the price of a real Indian club and filled myself. I used potassium chloride since I had a couple of kilos of the stuff handy. If you live near a beach use sand. Plaster of Paris might be a good alternative since it will form into a single lump rather than shift around. Many of the clubs sold commercially will probably be too heavy. Indian Clubs have a lot of momentum and leverage working for them so unless you are very strong or experienced with clubs you do not want clubs of more than 4lb weight each. Mine are around 3.75lb each. Be aware of your surroundings when using clubs. It is easy to take out a lightbulb.
Indian Clubs can be used for all sorts of fancy twirling but I tend to keep things simple. The first exercise is to move them in a vertical 180, raising them straight armed above the head and down again. I tend to call this move the front raise since it has a similar function to the front raises performed with dumbbells. Like them it is a good exercise for chest, shoulders and arms. Try to make this exercise at a moderate speed so your muscles are working to control the club all the way through the movement. Aim for a 30 rep set. The second exercise is like a front raise but when the arms get horizontal you allow the elbows to bend and the clubs pass behind your shoulders. The downward phase is like you are hitting someone with the clubs. The third club exercise is a straight arm side raise to work the shoulders more. As with all the other exercises, try for a set of 30 reps. The club exercise I use the most, however, I call flaps. With my arms halfway between a front and side position I flap my arms up and down like I am a flying swan. These really work the shoulder muscles and I find it very beneficial to do these before the wall push ups and the floor exercises with the dumbbells.
Another advantage of the above program is that it can also help develop your invisible muscle. The father of a friend of mine made the observation that a lot of overweight people seemed to be smokers. We know that smoking does not cause weight gain. His conjecture was that the smoking might be a symptom of poor willpower or a tendency towards self-indulgence.
Willpower/ Self-discipline is a property that can be developed just like a muscle, and like a muscle small exercises in self-control will build up your capability for larger feats. Like any other skill, you develop Self-control by practicing. You practice by forcing yourself to follow rules. They can be your own rules or someone else's, and it doesn't really matter what they are, it is exerting your will to keep them that is important. When you fail to follow a rule, be honest with yourself. Was it genuinely unavoidable or are you just making an excuse to yourself? Many obese people have excuses as to why they are overweight, but at the end of the day only one person makes the choice to ask for the supersize portion. Making yourself squeeze out those last two reps rather than quitting at 28 exercises your willpower. You will begin to find that other examples of necessary self-discipline become easier. It will be easier to begin a few minutes of exercise when you didn't feel in the mood. It will become easier to have a glass of water instead of a snack, or keep to follow new eating habits such as measuring your carbs and increasing your vegetable intake.
Snacking and Fast-Food.
Some people define snacks as meals you don't really need to eat. While this is not totally true it seems fair to say that many snacks are for pleasure rather than sustenance. Snacking of high calorie foods seems to be a major contributing factor to childhood obesity. Modifying your own snacking behaviour will be an important component in decreasing your own weight.
Firstly you need to be honest with yourself. Are you about to eat a snack because you genuinely need to refuel or are you eating from boredom? If you are carrying a few extra pounds it is likely that you do not really need that snack. If you don't eat it the body will use up some of that excess fat instead. If you fancy a snack one trick is to have a drink of water instead. Chances are your urge to eat will go away.
Secondly you need to modify what you snack on. Many snack foods are high calorie and full of sugar, even those marketed as low-fat. Keep your fridge stocked with a variety of fresh fruit. Dried fruits such as raisins, apricots and sultanas are useful items to keep in the cupboard and provide a tasty treat should you give into the urge. Nuts and seeds, preferably unsalted, are another good snack. While they have fats and are high in calories they are unlikely to have additional sugar added.
Of course, any food will be fattening if you eat too much of it. Keep your portions modest. The challenge is not to eat the whole bar or bag, but to not eat it all and save some for later. You may be surrounded by high calorie foods and aggressive marketing, but it is your choice to buy them. It is you that ops for the large meal deal rather than just the burger.
The meal deal and supersizing is a very clever marketing trick of the fast food industry. Pay just a little more and you get chips and a drink. That seems a good deal, so much more food so it makes it seem cheaper and better value. But you have still paid more money and you have brought more food than you needed, which you will feel obliged to eat because you have paid for it.
Buying the meal deal with chips and soda does not provide you with greater value, it just encourages overeating. You will not eat a smaller dinner because you had a big lunch. We all tell ourselves this but we seldom do. The amount of food you need that costs less is a better deal than paying more for an excess of food you don't need.
There will be times when fast food may be the only food available or that you can afford. The answer is to choose wisely and exercise some of that self-discipline we have nurtured. The basic rule is don't get the meal deal! If in a burger bar, just buy a burger. It already has meat, bread and vegetables, so you don't really need to chips and soda too. At a sandwich bar buy just the 6 and ignore the upgrade to foot-long. At a fried chicken shop you are probably best to just buy chicken and avoid the chips. At a chip shop the chips are probably a better choice than a big bit of deep fried battered fish.
Getting into a better shape has required effort but has turned out to be much easier than I ever expected. I can easily fit my short exercise sessions into my daily routine and only need to worry about them on alternate days. Modifying my eating habits has also proved to be simple and very rewarding.
My gut is slimmer, my chest bigger, shoulders broader, my muscles harder and my step lighter. And my grocery bill seems to have gone down too! I wish I had tried this years ago. I hope my experiences can prove useful to you too.
One interesting thing that I have noticed is that I actually need much less food than you might think. Even with reducing portions, eating only once and day and sometimes missing a proper meal I am not hungry. Many of the meals I cook could actually be smaller.
The acid test was to see what my girlfriend would think when she returned from Brazil. When we finally got to meet she was very impressed.
What have you done? You even look taller!
(I have noticed my posture has improved with better muscle tone so I may be standing straighter). She had actually dropped two dress sizes down to a six but I had totally stolen her thunder! She was definitely in favour of my new look and adamant that I should continue the routine. She has taken to buying me tighter tee-shirts to show me off.