There are a few times each year when people get especially motivated to lose weight or lean out a little (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?). Well with temperatures rising, the official start of spring, and vacation plans in the works, another one of those times is upon us.
Brace yourself. Swimsuit season is just around the corner.
If you are like me, as the details of your beach vacation are starting to come together (I’ll be off to Gulf Shores in May! yay!), you realize with slight panic that, um, you aren’t necessarily feeling ready to peel off your cover-up at the beach and reveal your somewhat soft and pale self (ok maybe pale is just me). If you’re hoping to rock a bombshell-esque bod in that bikini, what can you do?
Well as I see it, there are a couple different options. You can choose a crash diet that, if you really stick to it, will likely work to get you basically beach ready. But guuurl, trust me!! You do NOT want to do that.
Crash diets are an eat less/exercise more approach that are unstainable longterm, meaning you eventually quit the diet, and the worst part – they result in INDISCRIMINATE weight loss. This means that the weight lost can be water, fat or muscle, and if you’re eating less and doing lots of steady state cardio it’s likely the lost weight is mostly muscle. Not good.
Why save your muscle?
First, muscle is responsible for giving you those shapely, goddess-like curves that many gals crave. When you starve away your muscle, you significantly decrease the potential of sculpting a tight tush or shapely shoulders precisely because there is no muscle to sculpt.
Remember, you can’t “tone” muscle that you don’t have.
Second, muscle is metabolically active tissue – this just means that it uses resources (calories) even when it’s at rest – like when you’re watching TV or sleeping. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn without doing a thing. Uh, sounds like a pretty good deal to me!
Third, when you inevitably come off the diet that probably had you exercising exorbadent amounts of willpower in order to stay on track, binging and rebound weight gain is in your future. You will likely eat everything “bad” that you craved while on the diet and probably lots of it. Couple this with LESS metabolically active muscle tissue and it’s a recipe for disaster. In fact, research shows that a large percentage of people who go on crash diets are fatter than when they started 2 years after the diet ends.
[Are you starting to understand why I want you to avoid crash diets like the plague??]
Fourth, indiscriminate weight loss will not change your body shape. You will become a smaller version of your current shape. But if you want to decrease the width of your hips in relation to the rest of your body, crash diets won’t do it.
Take a look at the photo below from Metabolic Effect that illustrates just this. If you’re a pear and lose “weight” on a crash diet you will only shrink to be a smaller pear (green to green). This is why you can train for a half marathon hoping to make your saddlebags disappear and all you do is shrink everything – so proportionally, the saddlebags look no smaller. But if your focus is on fat loss, you can change your body’s shape (green to red).
Alright, now that we are clear on why it’s good to keep muscle around (and dare I say, build some??), we still need to figure out how to get rid of excess fat while holding onto our muscle so we look friggin’ hot in our bikinis this summer, and the next, and the next…
Fat loss with muscle retention happens when you approach body change with a “hormones first, calories second” perspective. And there are 4 big themes to think about here – nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress.
You might wonder - How many calories do stress or sleep have?? As you’d expect, they don’t “contain” any number of calories BUT the hormones associated with sleep and stress can drastically affect whether your body decides to store fat or burn it. The same goes for the types of foods you eat (and how much and when) and the type of exercise you engage in.
The next few posts, I want to take the time to dive deeper into each of these 4 aspects. But since we’re on the subject of muscle right now, I want to share some ideas for what you can do to hold onto your muscle as you prep for summer.
How to save your muscle
1. Eat plenty of lean protein. It keeps you full and satisfied much longer than say donuts would (not to mention you won’t have the same type of sugar crash!).
Also, the energy required to process lean proteins is pretty high too (this is known as the thermic effect of food). The thermic effect is why something like celery is essentially negative calories – it takes more calories to break it down than the celery contains.
Another thing is that when you’re in a lower caloric state, you don’t want your body to break down your muscles for energy. If you make sure you’re eating enough protein, the amount of muscle chewed up will be minimal.
How much is enough? A generally accepted amount for women is 0.8-1g of protein per pound of bodyweight. So if you weigh 150lb, your goal should be to consume 150g of protein throughout the day. Now, I know this seems like a TON of protein, and compared to the standard Western diet (and even to what you ate in your college athlete days), IT IS a lot of protein. But don’t fret. When you break up that amount over several small meals through the day, it’s definitely doable.
We’ll talk more about the why/how of meal frequency next time, but for now, think of it this way.
All of these things have 20-30g protein per serving – 5 egg whites, 1 scoop protein powder, 1 medium chicken breast, 6oz white fish, 4oz lean beef cut. If you have egg whites at breakfast, a salad with chicken at lunch, a protein shake in the afternoon and fish or steak for dinner, you’ve EASILY consumed at least 100g protein and probably more.
At the minimum, include a serving of lean protein at each meal.
2. Lift heavy weights. And try it rest-based style. I talked about the importance of efficeint exercise already, but it’s important enough to repeat. As you may have experienced since you finished your college career, if you don’t use muscle you will lose it. Thus the importance of consistently lifting heavy weights.
In all honesty, getting to the gym regularly is something I struggle with. It’s an easy routine for me to get out of and a tough one to get back in to, but I notice huge differences in my strength, lung capacity, and general feelings of self-confidence when I have been at the gym regularly.
If you struggle with getting to the gym, try this Jedi mind trick that I use on myself…
Tell yourself you just have to walk into the gym and do 5 minutes of a circuit then you can leave. Usually by the time I get myself there, warm up and get going, I’m mentally ready to do a whole 20 minute workout. Voila! I just worked out!
3. Lower cortisol. This is key because cortisol can signal to your body to eat up stored muscle for energy. And yeah… we don’t want that. So we need to make sure that we are not constantly in a high cortisol state. But a constant environment in the body of high cortisol can drastically impair your fat loss results, and one of those reasons is because you can end up losing muscle.
How to control cortisol?
Walk – leisurely (no power walking).
Take a hot bath with delicious smelling bath soak (I love the Sleep Lavendar Vanilla scent from Bath and BodyWorks) and light some candles around the tub. This is my go-to stress relief option. I take at least 1 bath a week, more when I’m really stressed by work stuff (like now).
You could also spend quality time with friends who make you laugh, get it on with your partner, read a good book, do a restorative yoga class, or journal. Find something that relaxes you then engage in it consistently.
4. Sleep more! More on this later but it is SO critically important that you sleep enough (8-10 is ideal but even 7-9 hrs is better than what most people get). I know it’s difficult to make time for this, but sleep is prime recover/rebuild time for your muscles. Getting enough sack time is critical to keeping your muscle around.
So this week please please PLEASE avoid the temptation to drastically cut your calories and do hours of steady state cardio. It is bad for your muscles, your physique and your health in the long run. Instead, show your muscles some love. A role model of mine is bodybuilder Tom Venuto and I love his approach to body change. He says that you want to “burn the fat” and “feed the muscle”. LOVE that visual. So let’s all ditch the crash diets and feed our sexy muscles! Who’s with me??
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