Letter to a Friend
A friend who is new to training recently came to me for some help with his diet and training. His main goal is to reduce his bodyfat by about 5 points, whilst also developing his overall conditioning. I responded with a fairly long email covering many of the basic but effective tips I have found to work over the years.
I talk about the difference between ‘exercise’ and ‘training’ as well as cover the basics of a solid diet. I also cover many of the common mistakes made when new to training. Many of these tips apply to all athletes and especially those looking to achieve long term leanness, so I thought it would make a helpful blog post and have decided to share it here.
Thanks for asking me to help you with some training and diet tips. I understand your main focus is to get to 15-16% bodyfat from roughly 20% currently, whilst developing your all round conditioning without any specific sport in mind. I think I can help with this as my goal is similar - I mainly like to be lean whilst also being able to perform reasonably well as an all-round athlete with good strength, endurance, fitness, the lot. You gave me some details of your current training routine which is five days per week and appears to be mostly a bodybuilding style routine split by bodypart.
TRAINING TIP 1 - WEIGHT TRAINING
I would personally abandon the bodybuilder style routine and switch to something more functional that will improve your overall performance. Everything will improve as a result of this tweak. I would concentrate more on exercises rather than body parts. Right now for example you have a day dedicated to back and shoulders, followed the next day by chest and arms. But this means your arms are being worked both days, and you’re also squeezing a lot of extra training out of your arms in isolation at the expense of more functional training of the muscle group as a whole.
How about switching it to push and pull days, or even better upper body and lower body days. I personally find that a small selection of good, simple, compound movements, when performed well and with steadily increasing load and volume, is more than enough for producing the kind of results you want which are leanness and athletic performance. The bodybuilder style works for people who are competing for physique at a high level. But a push/pull split or upper/lower split can take you most of the way there, even if aesthetics are not your primary goal.
It’s also a good idea to always focus on what you can do with your body and let the aesthetics take care of themselves. Personally I have upper body days and lower body days. I train upper body about 3x per week, and lower body usually once every 3 days. Figure that out! I just found this is about the right balance for me at this time. However a lot of people also do well training lower body 3x per week.
Each upper body workout usually consists of bench press followed by pull ups, and then some similar push and pull exercises at a lower intensity. Sometimes I swap bench for overhead press, and occasionally I do decline and incline instead of flat. I also switch up my pulls, doing L-hold chins and also occasionally weighted rows. Lower body workouts usually start with squats. Every other session I also do deadlifts. Sometimes I do pistol squats and even single leg press - (it's normally the only machine I use, as it is good for knee health).
In terms of how I lift, I usually switch between focusing on intensity vs volume. Volume sessions usually involve taking my time to do multiple sets of lifts at 70-85% of my 1rm, without going to failure. In Intensity sessions I may work up to 1 or 2 sets of a heavier weight at say 90%+, and then drop and do some more volume. Most of my sessions are more volume based.
As you can probably tell, I don't have a very prescriptive programme :). I used to follow a plan religiously – but these days I prefer to feel my way through it, and I always go in with a good idea of what I am trying to do each day. Even if I feel terrible for whatever reason, little can stop me from being able to do 7 sets of 5 bench press at a mere 80% of my 1rm for instance - I find this kind of approach to training can really help you navigate the downs and make the most of the ups, creating more consistency of training and better results over time.
TRAINING TIP 2 - EXERCISE
Now we've got the training down I think it's useful to reflect on the difference between 'training' and 'exercise.'
Training is more geared towards improving performance, whereas exercise is mainly about burning energy and therefore fat. Exercise spends energy, whereas training is like investing in your ability to burn more in the future, whilst improving performance, hypertrophy, etc.
I would certainly incorporate more 'exercise' into your routine to help reduce body fat and do so in a way that minimises the impact on your recovery from training.
You want to achieve 15-16% body fat. This is very achievable indeed. If I was you I would set a more ambitious target of single digit body fat. If you are indeed 20% body fat (I think you might be a bit leaner than that already) then single digit body fat is achievable within 3-4 months with solid diet and training.
I recommend doing at least some additional movement each day where possible in addition to your primary training. This could be 30-45 minutes of Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) exercise, such as the X trainer, light jogging or (my personal favourite) uphill walking or hiking.
Don't feel you have to go at this too hard. Just get moving. I keep my HR around 120-135. As you get a little fitter you might find your HR goes down at the same level of intensity.
You can also try lots of walking. If you want to do walking instead of cardio then I would recommend trying to walk at least an hour or two per day.
In addition, try to generally be more active - say yes to any opportunity to do physical labour, for example work in the garden, take the stairs instead of the escalator, etc. It won't interfere with your overall training, especially when you consider that leanness is the primary goal, and it might even help recovery.
TRAINING TIP 3 – HIGH INTENSITY INTERVAL TRAINING
Circuits definitely have their place. I would recommend introducing some kind of circuit training / HIIT when you start getting accustomed to the above plan.
Interval training can be done after any of the upper / lower body training sessions mentioned above. A good 15 minutes will do. Or it can be done on its own when you have no other training on a particular day. In this case around 30 minutes+ is ideal.
I personally am not a fan of steady state cardio at a high intensity where the goal is to burn fat whilst maintaining strength. It can put muscle, strength and performance in other areas at risk. Who is stronger - a sprinter or a marathon runner? It stands to reason.
You mentioned a bit about your diet but that it's a bit hit and miss. I will start from the top here. A good rule of thumb is to eat a high protein diet consisting predominantly of natural, unprocessed food. This provides a good level of satiety and helps your body function well, tell you what it needs and when you've had enough. It also provides the right nutrition for recovery.
One of the most powerful ways to level up your physique is to cut out sugar, cereals and alcohol, plain and simple. You make an exception to this however for the occasional cheat meal which I'll explain in a bit ;)
You can make a place for carbohydrate, and in many sports the athletes eat tonnes of it. For your goal however, you might at least want to try removing cereal-based carbs much of the time. This means reducing all consumption of bread, rice, oats and pasta. Instead you can eat plenty of vegetables and leafy greens, as well as legumes such as peas and beans. A bit of fruit is OK too, even in achieving single digit body fat (if you wanted to be sub 5% for a competition, it might be a different story!. This is what is sometimes known as the "Slow Carb" diet - where unlimited slow digesting carbs such as legumes are allowed. I am also writing a piece on the ketogenic diet, which means eating virtually zero carbs, however Slow Carb may be simpler to follow and ample for your needs at this point.
Here are some of the foods I recommend you eat 95% of the time: meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, peas, olive oil, dairy such as quark, leafy greens/salad, vegetables, fruit. I also believe it's important to eat whatever you want the other 5% of the time and have a cheat meal or a cheat day. This can actually help recovery, benefit your hormones, and can be used to restore glycogen for a week's hard training, not to mention the psychological benefits. It helps you be flexible enough to navigate the realities of life, in a controlled way, whilst still moving towards results. Plus it tastes so much better when you've earned it! I would recommend relaxing your diet every 7-10 days.
Hope this helps mate!