Lift or run

You want to be toned, so you lift weights. You drink your protein shake and eat your egg whites and oats. You’re doing it right, you think.

But you want to be skinner, so you have to eat at a deficit, right? So you keep your calories low and do a load of cardio too.

But you’re just spinning your wheels, making no progress. Why?

Because muscles can’t grow without enough fuel. You’re giving them the stimulus in the gym, but not giving them the nutrition to repair themselves by always trying to be in a caloric deficit.

Add to this that a by-product of aerobic exercise (cardio) called AMPK inhibits mTOR, the molecular trigger for hypertrophy (muscle growth), and you can see that, unless you’re going to eat enough food and stop trying to cancel out calories with cardio, you’re basically wasting your time lifting those weights.

Decide what your goals are. Do you want to be fit? Be able to run for hours? Be toned? Be strong? If you want to recomposition your body then consider doing not a lot of cardio. It is possible to lose weight and build muscle at the same time in the first year or so of lifting weights, but you’ll severely inhibit yourself if you do lots of cardio too.

I’m not suggesting doing NO cardio. It has a myriad of benefits and everyone should do some aerobic exercise. But don’t start or finish your lifting session with lengthy cardio and don’t use it to create a massive deficit, especially on the days you lift. If possible, do separate sessions with proper nutrition in between, or alternate days lifting and cardio. And eat enough food to support both these activities.

It is, of course, possible to be a super-shredded endurance athlete, and if that’s your goal then you will have to time your sessions to account for the chemical reactions instigated by the different activities and to have a proper nutritional plan to make sure that you eat enough to support your training, but also maintain a level of leanness for athleticism.

If you’re hungry

Eat breakfast, if you’re hungry in the morning. Don’t, if you’re not. It won’t make you thinner or fatter. It won’t boost your metabolism.

Eat little and often, if you get hungry often. Or eat big meals and nothing in between. It won’t slow down your metabolism.

Eat at night, if you’re hungry then. It won’t make you fat any more than eating at any other time of day. Your weight will be determined by your energy balance over weeks and months, not a single day. Your metabolism does not slow down at night.

Eat carbs, to properly fuel your activity. They are not the enemy. They will not make you fat. Your brain runs on carbs.

Eat fat. Even saturated fat. It will regulate your hormones and keep you looking and feeling great. It will not raise your cholesterol. It will not make you fat. It will enable you to absorb vital nutrients.

Eat sugar. It’s not ‘as addictive as cocaine’. It’s not addictive. It’s just a carbohydrate. It has its place in your diet, especially if you are active. It will not give you diabetes, unless you are genetically predisposed to it, in which case you will have to manage all carbohydrates. It will not make you fat.

Eat everything, in moderation. Let hunger guide you, but not rule you. Chill out about food.

Stop seeing exercise as calories burned

Chances are you’ve seen something like this in a magazine. You need to do x number/minutes of [insert exercise] to burn off that chocolate bar/burger/cocktail. The preoccupation with weight loss, even in people of a healthy weight, in today’s world, has led to nutrition and exercise being reduced to a simple sum: calories in vs calories out. And it’s endemic. I hear so many people talking about how many calories they’ve burned on the cross trainer or in spin class (which is probably way off beam in any case, unless they’ve been wearing a heart rate monitor).

Seeing exercise in this way is problematic on a number of levels. First of all, the benefits of exercise extend way beyond how much energy it utilises. Just by doing exercise at all, you’ll be extending your life and improving your health. But if you’re choosing lengthy cardio sessions to burn as many calories as possible, then you’re missing out on the many benefits of resistance training, which, as it happens, will be way more effective in achieving the physique you want in any case.

Of course, cardiovascular exercise has benefits. Improving your aerobic fitness is an important part of keeping healthy, and, yes, it can help you to manage your weight. But unless you’re training for an endurance event, there’s no need to be notching up sessions of more than 30 minutes, or for those sessions to be super-intense. Free up some time to do strength and flexibility training so that you can reap the benefits across the exercise spectrum.

This way of thinking also leads to a distorted view of food and eating. It starts from the premise that calories are the enemy, and if you consume them you must nullify them and bring the balance sheet back to 0. It implies that you either have to earn the right to eat by exercising, or that eating must be punished, or balanced out, by burning off the calories. The fact of the matter is that we actually need food to live, we need calories to live. There’s no need to atone for a snack.

Food and exercise should both be enjoyable, not guilt-ridden and punitive. Reducing exercise to calories burned takes the pleasure out of it and negates to acknowledge its far reaching benefits.