I greatly improved my fitness over the past ~1.5 years, including weight loss, strength gain and increase in flexibility. A bunch of people asked me what I did, so I wrote up the approaches I took here. I hope you find this helpful!
Please comment below with which tips that you found most useful, or any tips you have for others that you don't see mentioned here.
These measurements span May 2015, when I started thinking seriously about fitness, to now, December 2016.
- My total body weight decreased from 180 to 165. I lost about 20 lbs of fat and gained about 5 lbs of muscle, going from about 20% to about 10% body fat.
- I improved my strength. (Measurements are my 1-rep max (1RM) estimated from PRs at rep ranges of 1-5 reps):
- Squat: (Start) 200 1RM. Because of poor shoulder mobility, I could only barely get my hands onto the bar for a back squat. (Now) 315 1RM.
- Deadlift: (Start) Didn't have the mobility to complete a deadlift safely. Once I could, my 1RM was about 225. (Now) 390 1RM.
- Bench Press: (Start) 135 1RM. I experienced pain on every press because of poor shoulder mobility. (Now) 190 1RM.
- Overhead Press: (Start) 80 1RM. Like bench, I experienced pain on each press. (Now) 130 1RM.
- Pull up: (Start) Couldn't perform a pullup, and had a 1RM of 165 using an assisted pull up machine. (Now) Can perform ~10 pullups; ~225 1RM.
- I improved my flexibility.
- Hamstring: In May 2015, I could not touch my toes with straight knees. Using the sit-and-reach test, I measured -1.5 inches. Now I can easily touch my toes. I measure +5 inches on the sit-and-reach test (+6.5 inch change).
- Shoulders: As noted, in May 2015, I could not perform a bench press or overhead press without pain, and I could only barely hold the bar in a back squat. My left shoulder always hurt after dancing because I was using it poorly in my connection. Now I do not experience pain from any of these activities.
- Hips: In May 2015, I could not perform a deadlift with a straight back. I experienced pain in the front of my right hip after squats. Now I can perform these without pain.
- Injuries: I used to get minor injuries with some regularity (tweaked back etc) after dancing or exercising. That almost never happens now. Every physical therapist will tell you that injuries are caused by deficient strength, flexibility or movement technique; I think my improved fitness has greatly reduced my propensity to get injured.
Reasons I took the approaches I did
Everyone is different, so what worked for me might not work for you. I designed my strategies to address my specific goals and challenges -- I do not expect that the same approaches will work for everyone. That said, here are some of the benefits of what I did.
- I did not completely eliminate any type of food, although of course I favored healthier foods.
- I hate feeling hungry, so I never let myself feel that way for long (see below for my definition of "real hunger").
- I expect that these practices will be a permanent part of my lifestyle; this was not a temporary diet for me.
- I managed live a normal life at during this time, including getting married and finish my PhD.
Some challenges that others face were never a problem for me. Here are some examples, and ideas for how to handle them (although of course I do not have personal experience with them):
- I do not have too much trouble motivating myself to exercise: if you do, you may want to find an exercise class, gym buddy or personal trainer.
- I had very specific training goals because of dance and my mobility goals: if your target is general fitness, using an exercise class will save you the effort researching and coaching yourself through a individual program.
- I do not have too much trouble with mindless snacking: if you do, you may want to eat predetermined meals, or add a transaction cost to eating.
- I do not have too much trouble binging: if you do, you may want to avoid having certain types of unhealthy food available, or categorically swear off eating them when they are.
- On the other hand, I find that I absolutely cannot go more than about three hours without food, or I feel terrible. If you can, you may want to try intermittent fasting.
Fat loss: measurement
- Experts are pretty much in agreement that the only important thing for weight loss is calories: if you eat more than you burn you will gain weight, and if you burn more than you eat you will lose weight.
- Most people recommend losing at most about 1-2 lbs per week. One pound of fat is about 3500 calories, which means a calorie deficit of 500-1000 calories per day.
- I use the app myfitnesspal to track my calories. If there is one key to losing weight, I think tracking calories is it.
- I weigh myself every day (in the morning right after waking up, using this scale). When measuring consistently, I find that my weight varies randomly in about a 2 lb range. When I'm losing 1 lb/week, I can see measurable progress after only 3-4 days, which helps me stay motivated.
- After about six months of tracking calories, I felt that I had a good sense of what foods were calorie-efficient and I could keep a good mental tally of my calories without the app, so I stopped explicitly logging with myfitnesspal. I would start logging again if I ever substantially change my diet or my activity level.
- To put on muscle, you need a calorie surplus. On days when I lifted weights, I aimed for a surplus of 250 calories (+0.5lbs/week). There is no way to avoid putting on fat at the same time as muscle. I estimate that I put on about 10 lbs of fat in the process of gaining my 5 lbs of muscle (which I had to burn in addition to the other 20 lbs). There is no consensus about whether it is necessary to gain muscle and lose fat in separate periods (i.e. bulking and cutting months) or just on alternate days of the week; I mostly used separate periods.
Fat loss: nutrition
- Boredom hunger: I found that I experience two very different kinds of hunger, which I think of as "boredom hunger" and "real hunger". Boredom hunger is that gnawing empty-stomach feeling. I find that boredom hunger is very easy to satisfy through low calorie fruits and vegetables, water, or even just distracting myself with some activity.
- Real hunger: The second type, which I think of as "real hunger" comes with lethargy and a bit of a headache. I find that I can satisfy real hunger only with calories. I can't stand sitting around with a hunger headache; fortunately, I found that I could lose weight while still eating whenever I was truly hungry.
- Meal timing: The flip side of eating whenever I felt hungry is that I ended up spending a lot of time trying to figure out if I was really hungry. To handle that, I eat 200-300 calorie meals every 2 hours. That way, I mostly eat the appropriate amount without having to think about it.
- Macronutrients: To maintain and build muscle, you need to consume enough protein. Evidence suggests that 0.5 grams of protein per day for each 1 lb of body weight is enough (that is, 83g of protein per day at my 165 lbs body weight). Because I don't have too much trouble getting enough protein, I aimed for closer to 150g or more per day. See below for some of my favorite high-protein foods.
Fat loss: exercise
- I find that if I eat only enough to avoid being hungry, I end up eating just about enough to neither gain nor lose weight (my basal metabolic rate (BMR); ~2200 cal/day for me). That means that if I want to lose weight, I need to exercise to burn extra calories. (I find that exercise does not increase the number of calories I need to eat to avoid being hungry by very much.) This goes against the conventional wisdom that exercise isn't very important for weight loss -- for me, controlling my diet so that I do not overeat was a precondition, but I also need to exercise to actually lose weight.
- For conditioning and to burn calories, I used high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Most experts agree that HIIT is more effective than steady-state cardio. I also think it is much more fun. My most common HIIT exercise was to run up and down some stairs near my apartment: I would run up and down twice as fast as I can, then rest until I felt up for doing it again.
- To track my calories burned by exercise, I use a chest strap heart rate monitor combined with the app Endomondo.
- There are a few things that most experts agree on to improve your strength:
- Focus on compound movements. Compound movements, like the squat, deadlift or bench press, use many muscles.
- Perform movements that you can manage for only 3-15 repetitions at a time before hitting failure. This usually means using a barbell or dumbbell so that you can make small increments to the weight.
- Incrementally increase the weight you lift.
- I used the strength programs included with the app Strongur: Multi-year Strength Training. I like this app because it explicitly builds in multiple phases of programming for you to use as you progress. I used three programs (More on programming here):
- Phase 1: This phase involves performing lots of reps in order to learn the technique and learn your strength (i.e. your 1-rep max (1RM)). It is most similar to Stronglifts 5x5 or Starting Strength. I never used Phase 1 because I started with 5/3/1; in retrospect, starting with Phase 1 or similar would have been much more efficient.
- Phase 2: This phase involves a two day split of movements (1: squat, bench, row. 2: deadlift, overhead press, pull up) and a two day split of rep range (strength day at 3-8 reps vs. hypertrophy day at 10-15 reps). I spent most of my time on this phase, about one year. It is most similar to The Texas Method. One quirk of the Phase 2 program is that involves a lot of deadlifts: up to 3 sets of 15 reps in one lifting session. Most other programs shy away from this many deadlifts (for example, Stronglifts 5x5 suggests just one set of 5 reps on deadlift day), but I did not have problems.
- Phase 3: This phase involves just one compound movement per day at low rep ranges (3 sets of 3-5 reps), plus a lot of accessory movements. Accessory movements target the your muscles in slightly different ways, helping you improve after your progress from just compound movements has plateaued. This phase is most similar to 5/3/1.
- I aimed to lift weights four times a week on months when I was aiming to gain muscle and 1-2 times per week when I was aiming to lose fat. According to my app, I did a total of 102 lifting sessions in the 1.5 years since I started.
Performing movements with correct technique is crucial to avoid injury and maximize results. It is most important for compound movements, where the possibility for injury is highest, but I think it is also important for activities that we take for granted, like running and dancing. One of the most important steps I ever took for my dancing was to see a physical therapist about pain I was experience from dancing (in my shoulder and hip). The movement changes he suggested for me solved problems with my connection and movement in WCS that had been plaguing me since I started dancing.
- When I started lifting, I spent at least a few hours on each lift learning the technique. My first few trips to the gym did not even really result in successful sets; I needed to go back home to study the movements more before they felt at all plausible. After 1.5 years of consistent lifting, I'm still working improving my form.
- I learned my lifting technique by studying online guides. Here are my favorite guides:
- Self-massage (i.e. foam rolling): Rolling your muscles on a foam roller or ball is a way to massage them, which is supposed to improve your flexibility. The science on the long-term benefits of foam rolling are controversial, but the short-term benefits are huge for me. I used to feel stiff and achy after any kind of exercise, including dancing or lifting. Foam rolling almost entirely eliminates this feeling. I have started foam rolling every night before bed because it makes my body feel so much better. Foam rolling is also great for maintaining energy at dance weekends.
- I use these self-massage tools:
- Hard foam roller. Good for quads.
- Softer foam roller. Like the hard foam roller, but less intense and good for getting started.
- Alpha ball. Similar to a tennis ball or lacrosse ball, but I prefer the size and texture of the Alpha ball. Great for your butt, shoulders or hamstrings (roll on a chair with your leg bent).
- Accustick. Great for massaging shoulders and behind your shoulderblades. I also find it is the most portable of all my self-massage implements, and can work for almost any body part in a pinch.
- Hamstring flexibility: I was frustrated that I could not touch my toes, so I worked hard to improve my hamstring flexibility. I spent months stretching every day using the hamstring stretch that everyone knows: sit on the floor and try to touch your toes. I didn't get anywhere this way. I needed to do a few things differently before I started to see improvement.
- Pelvic tilt: The hamstring attaches to the back of the pelvis. To stretch the hamstring, you need to create anterior pelvic tilt (your butt up and belly out, like you're pouring water out of your pelvis in front of you). This is in contrast to the position most people (including me) default to when they try to touch their toes, where they bend their back and have posterior pelvic tilt. I did not really feel hamstring stretches in my hamstrings until I learned to create anterior pelvic tilt.
- PNF stretching: A consensus has recently formed that static stretching (moving to the end of your range of motion and staying there) is far inferior to PNF stretching, where you contract against the stretch.
- I used this hamstring stretching program from moveSKILL, through which I increased my hamstring flexibility by about six inches so far.
- Improving my hamstring flexibility helped my ability to perform weight-supported moves in dancing. Previously, I often found myself rounding my back in a dip, which often resulted in my tweaking my back. With more hamstring mobility, I can keep my back straight, and now I almost never feel back pain after doing a lot of weight-supported moves.
Here are some of my favorite foods, particularly lesser-known foods that are a good source of protein.
- No-hand-wash baked chicken breasts.This is the easiest method I have found for cooking chicken efficiently, involving just a few minutes of interaction. In particular, the advantage of this strategy of this method is that it doesn't involve touching the chicken with your hands, which would cost ~30 seconds of hand washing each time.
- This recipe has you cook them for a long time at a low temperature -- I think chicken stores best when cooked this way. That means we're basically steaming them (rather than baking), but without having to deal with a steamer basket.
- (1) Buy frozen chicken breasts (sold in 4-10lb bags).
- (2) Open the bag and dump the chicken into a large tupperware.
- (3) Fill the tupperware with water and add salt to brine.
- (4) Leave the chicken to defrost for a few days.
- (5) Dump out the water. Use tongs to transfer to a large pan.
- (6) Bake at 300F for 35 minutes.
- No-yolk hardboiled egg whites: Hardboiled eggs are a great high-protein snack, but the yolk is high in saturated fat. Here is our recipe for hard-boiled style egg whites without the yolks. I like to eat them chopped into little cubes with melted cheese. (The cheese adds a bit of fat, but tastes way better than yolk for way less fat.)
- (1) Buy liquid egg whites. They come in a carton, near the whole eggs.
- (2) Oil the insides of some glass drinking cups, put them in a large pot, then fill them with egg whites. Fill the pot with water around the cups.
- (3) Boil for ~45 minutes. The water should boil around the cups, cooking the egg whites.
- (4) Bang each cup upside down to release a log of solid egg white.
- Bonus: liquid egg whites are pasteurized, so you don't need to worry about undercooking them or washing your hands when you're handling them.
- My favorite protein bars (I eat a lot of protein bars):
- Quest bars. 21g protein, 190cal, 44% cal from protein. My favorite bar, although they're a bit different than most others. These bars taste more like taffy, rather than a candy bar; unlike the rest of these bars, they have no chocolate coating. Quest bars come in all sorts of weird flavors, like Lemon and Cinnamon Bun: those are super weird, so stick with the normal flavors like chocolate and cookie dough. Costco makes knock-off Quest bars that I think are actually a little better.
- Premier Protein bars. 30g protein, 300cal, 40% cal from protein. My favorite traditional candy bar-style bar.
- Builder's bars. 20g protein, 270cal, 30% cal from protein. Unlike the rest of the bars on this list, these do not use artificial sweeteners. You pay for that in calories, though.
- Pure Protein bars. 20g protein, 200cal, 40% cal from protein. Extremely chewy.
- Dannon Light & Fit yogurt. 12g protein, 80cal, very delicious. Uses artificial sweetener.