Over the years of training people, I always engage in conversations discussing questions that repeat themselves in one form or another.
How can I lose weight the fastest?
Does lifting weights make me bulky?
Are the Lord of the Rings movies better than the books?
Okay, maybe not that last one. But that’s a dubious answer.
As I started hearing the same questions time and again, not only did it enhance my research, but it challenged me to consolidate credible resources to refer my clients to. That, ultimately, made me a better trainer.
Many athletes, coaches, and fitness folks can relate to these questions. Consider how much nonsense gets spoon-fed to us through mainstream media outlets. Most of that information is purposely divisive. In reality, much of this information has surprisingly simple answers.
Question 1: Will lifting weights make me bulky?
Answer: The short answer is no. Somewhere, in the early stages of resistance training, the conceivable narrative related to big, muscular bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger. While admirable, that narrative is false. For the average person, who isn’t training professionally, lifting weights will help you lose body fat and build muscle. That will make you appear leaner. The purported physiques in the media are a combination of superior genetics, advanced training regimens, and performance-enhancing drugs. That is the top .05% of the population.
Question 2: Should I do more cardio to lose belly fat?
Answer: While this can be a method to burn more calories, I don’t endorse it. Look to cardio as conditioning–conditioning of the heart and vascular system to bolster your training efforts. It will enhance your performance by increasing endurance and resistance to fatigue. Focus on efficiency here. The amount of cardio needed to burn those extra calories is tremendous. You’re better off putting the effort towards resistance training and nutrition.
Question 3: Can I gain strength while losing body fat?
Answer: An ancient proverb says, “he that hunts two hares catches neither.” That is how I feel as it relates to competing fitness goals. Gaining strength while losing body fat is possible, but to a diminishing degree compared to doing them separately. Losing body fat will require a decrease in calories which can be counterintuitive to strength increases. When increasing strength, you’ll need to increase calories–especially carbs and protein–to meet the demands of the training stimulus.
Question 4: Does alcohol affect my gains?
Answer: Very much so! And more so in excess. Moderation is crucial as in anything. Live a little, you know? But, if you have significant physique or performance goals, you should probably cut it out completely. Consistent drinking can derail an otherwise solid fitness routine. Most lifters will attest to this, acknowledging alcohol consumption as the limiting factor in their improvements in the gym. Alcohol is known to impair sleep and affect muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of muscle rebuilding after muscle damage occurs. Sleep is critical to improvements in strength, endurance, and recovery. When you drink in excess, you’re not getting enough regenerative sleep to support these processes.
Question 5: I’m afraid of being judged or looking stupid. What can I do?
Answer: That is a common concern. I struggled with this myself. Here’s some comfort: nobody cares. Seriously. Not only are people more concerned with themselves to judge you, but experienced lifters understand the experience. These people are relatable and will help you on your fitness journey. Everybody starts as a novice and must live through some failures to make significant progress. The gym is a community built on common ground and will instill the confidence you need. Also, consider a workout partner to help your trepidation.
Question 6: My buddy told me you must be tired and sweaty to have a good workout. Is that true?
Answer: Don’t take advice from your buddy. He doesn’t know what’s best for your body. There are better measures for an effective workout than sweat and fatigue. That is industry dogma perpetuated by high-intensity workout classes. I never encourage clients to perceive exercise in this way. It will leave you overtrained and burnt out. Try increasing the weight you lift, improving your technique over time, or even assessing your energy levels throughout the day. All these measures offer sustainable, long-term value by comparison.
Question 7: Can women and men train the same way?
Answer: Yep! For the most part. If they have different goals, then no. Despite some physical differences, men and women have similar capacities for exercise. I might have a female client that wants to build leg muscle (glutes, hamstrings, etc.) while a male client wants to double their pull-up strength. My female client will have more posterior leg work in her program, while my guy will have more upper body and pullup-specific exercises. That’s to say that programs are goal-specific, not gender-specific. Be cautious of programs that sell as ‘women only.’ Great programming focuses on outcomes: so the process can differ slightly.
Question 8: If I’m injured, should I stop training altogether?
Answer: This will depend on the severity of the injury. Consult a licensed physician before returning to your activities. With that cleared, then it’s up to your comfort and discretion. I always encourage people to do something. You don’t want to use a nagging injury as an excuse, nor do you want to add fuel to the fire. Some low-level mobility and stretching can be enough of a stimulus while recovering from injury. Also, consider hiring a coach during this time to avoid further damage. There is even value in training parts of the body that aren’t injured. Research has shown that training the uninvolved side can maintain strength and even muscle mass in the injured side.
Question 9: I have trouble with motivation. What should I do?
Answer: Two things here. Increase your accountability and take decisive action. Motivation isn’t unlimited. It ebbs and flows and is generally unreliable. Find a stronger position to hold you accountable. Hire a coach, enroll in a new program, and collaborate with friends and family. As for decisive action, I mean to say: do something! People think that motivation precedes action when in actuality, action precedes motivation. Once you start something, you’re more likely to continue and evolve that habit. Consistent exercisers aren’t motivated. They are disciplined. They understand that fitness is a lifestyle that requires work. Not every day will be as enjoyable as the last.
Question 10: Do I need to track my calories?
Answer: That depends on your goals. If you are trying to fluctuate weight methodically, then tracking is paramount. As part of an otherwise healthy lifestyle? Then not that important. Think about it like this: If I want to create a budget to save money, I’ll start by calculating my current spending (calories). To spend less, I’ll restrict my spending (calorie deficit). Otherwise, I’ll modify certain spending habits to practice frugality. That goes for food tracking, too. Maybe you’re not tracking all your calories, but you know that alcohol and dessert contribute to the bulk of your overeating.
Question 11: How does a successful fitness experience look?
Answer: It starts with clearly defined expectations and goals. These will be open to modification as you progress, but you should have them set in the beginning. Everybody will have a unique experience. However, the underlying theme should involve incorporating fitness and health into your lifestyle.
Questions to consider when addressing your fitness experience:
- Am I making progress toward my goals?
- What do I know now that I didn’t know in the beginning?
- What changes have I seen in my body and behaviors?
Question 12: What are appropriate goals to have?
Answer: You’ll notice a theme with these questions. Many of them depend on preferences. That’s why we love fitness! It’s highly personal. You’d do well to have a blend of fitness goals: performance, aesthetics, and lifestyle. If that’s not specific enough, imagine your life 3-5 years from now. How do you want to look? Feel? What do you want to do?
You can set short-term (3-6 months) goals to help you reach your long-term vision. Adopt the mindset of “improving health.” That’s to say, make daily decisions guided by that north star of health and your quest to optimize it.
Here are some client examples:
“Perform one bodyweight push-up and pull-up.”
“Lose 15 pounds of body fat and develop my abs.”
“Be mindful while eating. No food in front of the television.”
“Resistance train three times per week consistently. Never miss more than a week of workouts.”
“Play with my kids without feeling winded and depleted of energy.”
“Get me moving.”
Do you see how unique and individual those examples are? Only you can decide what’s important.