In my last article, we talked about focusing on small wins, not moonshots like six pack abs, to bring your game to the next level. But how should small wins be measured?
When it comes to healthy living, we have fallen into the dangerous trap of measuring our success by the number on the scales. The reality is that your fixation on your weight is probably harming your health and hindering your performance. Instead you could try shifting your focus away from “fat” and “weight” to focus on building and maintaining muscle.
Restriction vs growth journeys
In most cases, athletes are constantly encouraged to focus on fueling their bodies. They eat to perform.
The general public, however, has been pushed toward restrictive dieting and playing the calories in/calories out game. Aside from making you feel hungry and crappy and potentially giving you nutritional deficiencies, restrictive lifestyles will actually backfire in a bigger way in the long term.
By limiting calories and only focusing on fat loss, you are limiting your body’s ability to build muscle. As you age, your body already slows down and decreases in muscle mass. Muscle does many wonderful things including: increasing your metabolism, preventing injury and low back pain, controlling blood sugar and blood pressure, and improving your overall functional strength so you can carry heavy groceries and shovel snow without throwing your back out.
Muscle also looks and makes you feel pretty awesome.
If you go the restrictive route and don’t counteract the aging process with the right exercise and nutrition, you will gain more fat in the long term and run into some undesirable health consequences. You can lose about 5-10 pounds of lean muscle per decade after your 30s if you don’t work to build and maintain it, and with that decline comes a huge deceleration of your metabolism.
Playing the numbers game
Unfortunately, society tells us the only thing that matters is the one number on the scales. I can clearly remember how the specific numbers of my own weight marked specific periods in my life – an athletic yet stocky 138 lbs in high school, a full-bodied 145 in college, a slimmer 122 after college, a very slim 118 right before I got married. It’s strange how other details of my life start to fade, but those numbers will never go away.
After college, I had started tracking my calories and pounds started to melt off, encouraged by everyone’s commentary of “wow you’ve lost a lot of weight!” I was so proud of the downward path of my weight, like it was somehow an objective measure of my self-worth. With those pounds, however, I also lost muscle and strength and struggled with my energy levels.
Lose the scales
Over the past five years, as I re-discovered my inner athlete through weight training, HIIT, and becoming a fitness instructor and trainer, the number started to creep back up into the 130 lbs territory.
I looked and felt amazing but that stupid number horrified me, despite everything I knew to be true as a fitness professional and despite being in the best damn shape of my life and my clothes fitting better than ever. So, I threw away my scales and haven’t looked back because I just don’t want to play that game anymore.
Look under your skin
What happened inside my body to make the scales go up but my pant size go down?
My body composition started to change as I gained muscle and lost fat. Muscle is much more compact than fat and so we can be “heavier” yet healthier and more defined. A pound of muscle is about the size of a tangerine or clementine, but a pound of fat is about the size of a grapefruit.
In the end, despite gaining 10 pounds, my body became leaner and more active from the inside.
How can you start to change your mindset to focus on healthy muscle building?
- Lift weights. Ain’t no muscles gonna happen without some external resistance to coax them to grow. Focus primarily on the big muscle groups such as legs, chest, and back to get the biggest bang for your buck, and also on stabilizing muscles to keep you safe.
- Mix weights and cardio. One is not “better” than the other. Ideally, try some HIIT workouts or boot camps that combine both weights and cardio together.
- Think beyond the barbell. Try other types of resistance training such as bodyweight, TRX, cables, boxing/kickboxing, swimming, med balls, battle ropes, dancing, etc. These alternatives also help build stability and balance.
- Don’t get stuck in a routine. If you do the same tired lifting circuit every day or week, your muscles won’t have anything to adapt to. Mix up different classes, equipment, and intensities. Recruit some friends to go with you to make it more fun.
- Recover. If you don’t let your muscles recover, they won’t grow, and if your muscles are super tight all the time, they won’t work at their full potential. Don’t train the same muscles two days in a row and make sure to incorporate some kind of flexibility/mobility such as yoga, foam rolling, massage, or other body work.
- Eat the right protein. Muscles won’t grow unless you feed them protein. Unprocessed sources are the best: lean meat, poultry, fish, yogurt, cottage cheese, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains. My personal opinion is that you shouldn’t waste your money on shakes or bars, as they have a lot of extra crap that you don’t need.
- For God’s sake, eat some carbs. There is an incomprehensible amount of BS floating around out there about low carb diets. Let me be crystal clear: if you don’t eat carbs so that your body has energy to exercise, your body will try to use your protein stores for energy and essentially rip into your muscles.
- Eat to perform. You want to eat to fuel before your workout and rebuild after. People get caught up in exact grams, but the general rule is to go by the size of your palm. You want about a palm-sized serving of carbs and a palm-sized serving of protein about 1-2 hours before your workout and about the same within 1 hour after. Adjust the serving sizes on the intensity of your workout.
- Examples of excellent carb choices are bananas and other fruit, carrots and other vegetables, potatoes, squash, rice, bread, and grains. Go-to proteins are things like eggs, chicken, turkey, cottage cheese, edamame, tuna salad. Some foods are good sources of both carbs and protein: quinoa, oatmeal, peas and beans (think hummus). A balanced meal should include fat, but most people don’t tolerate fat very well before they work out so just keep that in mind as you experiment.
- Don’t overdo it. Guzzling an extra-large protein shake will not make you have extra-large muscles. Ingesting eight slices of bread will not give you endless energy. Save your money and just make sure you are tailoring your intake to match your activity.
- Get your beauty sleep. Muscles need time to recover and rebuild fully, and hormones also need time to do their thing. This process happens best when you are asleep and your body performs best during workouts when you are fully rested, so make sure you get your 7-8 hours!
In the end, focusing on a positive goal with a growth mindset will bring you much farther than fixating on loss and restriction.
Fuel your mind and body with what it needs to grow so you can reach those long-term goals!
Before you give into the lure of a quick fix, take a moment to learn what science says on super-restrictive eating. Our resident nutrition expert and health coach Brooke Rosenbauer lays down the facts in this two-part series.Restrictive Diets