What Comes First: Build Muscle or Shed Fat?

You want to get rid of the flab. You also want to put on muscle. But you know that you can’t optimally (or even remotely) do both at the same time. So what plan should you embark on first?

The answer depends entirely on 1) your honest assessment of what you look like now, and 2) what you hope to look like in the not-too-distant future. Says Mike Wunsch, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the director of fitness at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif.: “Every guy wants abs and arms” -- meaning cut abs and big arms. But, he adds, that’s like wanting to look like the chiseled bodybuilder … on the day of competition. “Ronnie Coleman doesn’t look like that 99 percent of the time,” he explains. “He’s usually 30 pounds heavier, having built up a ton of muscle before he goes into his cutting phase and then dehydrating just before the contest.”

Determine Your Goal

What you want to do is develop a sustainable physique that you can live with day in and day out. Take a look at yourself in the mirror: Do you have a decent amount of muscle but too much fat? Or are you pretty defined but lack any real muscle?

Once you’ve determined your goal, the next step is to embark on a fitness-and-nutrition plan that will change your shape accordingly. “If you have respectable strength, go right into a cutting program,” says Wunsch. “If you’ve got a six-pack but want to get bigger, you’re going to have to put on some fat along with that new muscle.” He gives an example of a 6-foot guy who’s a ripped 160, but who would rather be a ripped 190. To get there, he’s going to have to be a softer-looking 200 first.

First, Eat Right

If your goal is to get lean,
says Michael J. Sokol, a personal trainer recognized by the American Council on Exercise and owner of One-on-One Fitness in Chicago and Scottsdale, Ariz., you should consume six smaller balanced meals/snacks every two to three hours per day. Each one should contain protein (eggs, nuts, lean meat, fish, tuna, cottage cheese), quality, low-glycemic carbohydrates (wheat-berry bread, sweet potatoes, wheat pasta, fruit, brown/wild rice, steel-cut oats), dark veggies and plenty of water.

If your goal is to pack on the muscle, Wunsch advises getting at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Those six meals per day must be sizable, and one should include a post-workout whey protein recovery shake. While you don’t need to eat as “clean” (lower in fat, no junk) as those trying to get lean, you should still aim for nutrient-dense calories (e.g., a free-range, grass-fed hamburger with a whole baked potato, rather than a Whopper with fries). Just don’t skip those workouts -- with all that food, your body will be generating both muscle and fat, and intense workouts will ensure that much of it is the hard stuff.

Now: Build Strength or Burn Fat

is all about hoisting heavy weights approximately three workouts a week. A good approach is to do a push day (chest, shoulder and triceps), a pull day (back and biceps) and a leg day. Emphasize major compound moves (involving more than one muscle group), such as bench presses, incline presses, military presses and triceps presses on push days; pull-ups, deadlifts, back rows and straight bar curls on pull days; and squats, lunges and calf presses on leg days. Keep your reps below 10 per exercise, and rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets.

Meanwhile, says Wunsch, do zero cardio. “Aerobic conditioning has a negative influence on muscle gain,” he says. “You don’t want to tax the lean body mass that you’re trying to add.”

Wunsch’s fat-burning program is actually not that different, but everything is done at a quicker pace and with a higher rep range. While you’ll still do three workouts a week, the breakdown will be chest/back, shoulders/arms, and legs, which more freely allows you to superset exercises. For example, if you’re doing three supersets of push-ups/deadlifts, you’ll do the two exercises back-to-back (one superset) and rest 45 seconds between each superset. Aim to get at least 15 reps per exercise, per superset.

So, what about the cardio? Surprisingly, Wunsch doesn’t advocate standard cardio for fat loss either. “Running or biking is not what works best,” he says. “Look at the research.” Instead, you need to activate as many muscle fibers as possible with strength training to create a metabolic effect, and when you do any kind of fast movement, it should be done as equally timed intervals, such as sprints or heavy rope-jumping -- 20 seconds on, 20 seconds off -- for 10 to 20 minutes only.

Finally, whichever program you’re on, make sure to include some core conditioning. “Remember, your core is not for your six-pack,” says Wunsch. “It’s for resisting movement in your low spine and transferring energy from your upper body to your lower, and vice versa.” In other words, ditch the isolated crunches and go for total core moves, like ball roll-outs and planks.

Ronnie Coleman Photo by www.localfitness.com.au

The Workplace Workout

Experts agree the best time to exercise is midmorning or midday, when testosterone and general energy levels peak. But if you’re like most of us, that’s smack in the middle of your workday. So, do you relegate your workouts to sub-peak hours? Quit your job and go freelance so you can control your schedule? Not necessary, says Tom Seabourne, tae kwon do champion, TV host and author of 16 books. His latest book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Quick Total Body Workouts, is based on an appealing premise: You can work out every part of your body right at your desk.

“Everyone can find a few minutes a few times a day to get a quick full-body workout,” argues Seabourne. “You’ve got to get your blood pumping and get out of your seat.” By focusing on fast-twitch, Type IIB muscle fibers, Seabourne’s program will “increase your anaerobic and aerobic power, get your blood flowing, burn additional calories and help to energize your day,” he says. That’s not a bad set of outcomes, but perhaps an even more compelling argument for workplace workouts is the slate of recent studies showing that sitting for long periods of time can wreak havoc on your health -- even if you exercise regularly before or after work.

Below are 12 exercises that together will give you a total body workout, whether you have your own office or sit in a cubicle. Admittedly, a few of them may raise some eyebrows, depending on your office culture, but many can be done without anyone being the wiser. And even if your co-workers snicker at first, when they see the results -- both on your body and in your level of productivity -- they’ll be lining up at your desk for tips.

1. Swap out your core-killing office chair for a Swiss ball. Even better, if you have the means and your boss is laid back about such things, attach your computer to an exercise bike.

2. Pace back and forth while on the phone. If you have your own office, get a long cord and use the extent of it. If you’re in a cube and pacing would bother your co-workers, then march in place.

3. Do 45-degree planks on your desk while reading. First, bend your arms at a 90-degree angle and place your forearms on your desk. Then step backwards to form a plank from your shoulders to your ankles. Contract your core and hold for 30 seconds.

4. Drop a pencil and do some push-ups -- a couple of max sets (go to fatigue, generally 10 to 25 reps) a day, two to three times a week. Notice how quickly you’re able to increase your reps.

5. Do some dips in your chair before sitting down. With your heels on the ground, hands on the chair arms, and both legs straight and pointed away from you, lower yourself to the chair by bending your arms until your elbows reach a 90-degree angle. Then push back up for five to 15 reps. (If you’ve already swapped your chair for a Swiss ball, sit on the edge of your desk with a straight back, curl your hands around that same edge and place your calves on the ball, legs straight. Slide your butt away from the desk so your hips can descend toward the ground. That’s your starting position for the dip.)

6. Do squats while on a conference call. Keep doing them until you begin to lose your form or the call ends. Or until you start to talk funny.

7. Press your heels into the floor while typing. This easy and discreet move trains your quads, glutes and hams isometrically.

8. Pump your arms as fast as you can, like you’re sprinting. Go for 15 seconds, adding two seconds a week until you can do a full-minute arm-sprint.

9. Place a ball between your knees and squeeze. Do three sets of 10, and hold for three seconds per rep.

10. Do heel raises at the water cooler/fountain. Fifteen reps twice a day will work your calf muscles.

11. Do two-arm biceps curls while staring at your computer screen. Leave two (cheap) dumbbells at work and do two sets of 10 reps every other day. Bring heavier weights to the office as you get stronger.

12. Similarly, do dumbbell shoulder presses in front of your computer. Start with two sets of 10 reps and increase the weight as you get stronger.

The Stubborn Belly-fat Solution

You've tried it all: cutting down the carbs, eating endless amounts of chicken breast, exercising like mad. So why are those infernal love handles -- not to mention that below-the-belly-button roll of fat -- still there?

In part, we (as in the fitness media) are to blame. There are hundreds of different ways to put muscle on the body, and these workouts are what fitness and muscle magazines love to feature; it sure beats snore-inducing cardio with another shot of someone running on the beach. But unless you want to look like a bodybuilder (and even those guys do plenty of cardio come cutting time), it’s time to step up the cardio. “You’ve got to train like an athlete to look like an athlete,” says Tom Seabourne, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Northeast Texas Community College.

In other words, 30 minutes of slow cardio a few times a week is not enough -- unless you’re happy with your current level of fat stores. If you want to access that fat, says Seabourne, you’ve got to do the right kind of cardio (intervals twice a week), the right kind of weight training (focusing on each muscle group twice a week), and long slow distance (LSD) cardio two to three times a week -- all while eating enough to support your metabolism.

Each form of exercise is essential if you really want to chisel your body down. You need LSD cardio because after your body burns through the glycogen in your muscles, it burns your fat stores next. And while interval training doesn’t burn as much fat during exercise, it burns more calories afterward -- just like strength training does.

Seabourne points out that some guys over-train on LSD cardio while eating too little and neglecting intervals or weights -- therefore slowing their metabolisms and holding on to that stubborn fat. Other guys do a lot of weights and short bouts of cardio, then eat tons of food in order to build muscle -- so their fat stores remain steady or even increase.

The following program was designed by Seabourne to give you the best of both worlds (i.e., recruit more than enough muscle while forcing those stubborn fat stores to surrender, at last).

Follow this program six weeks on and one week off, depending on your body’s ability to avoid over-training mode (in which gains come to a screeching halt while muscle soreness and overall fatigue increase). For some, three weeks may be all you can handle without a break. For others, 12 weeks works.

You probably have this covered, but here’s a guideline: Lose the bodybuilding program with all the isolation lifts and the absurd amount of exercise sets per body part (e.g., 15 sets of chest). Instead, go with upper-body on Monday and Thursday, then lower-body on Tuesday and Friday -- but only with about 20-30 minutes for each weight-training workout. Aim for two to three sets of two exercises for the major body parts (chest, shoulders, back, quadriceps and core) and two to three sets of one exercise for the smaller body parts (triceps, biceps, hamstrings and calves).

Interval Cardio
Complete two 20- to 30-minute bouts of cardio per week. Always start with a warm-up and end with a cooldown. Examples include:

  • On a heavy bag: Three minutes of effort + one-minute recoveries
  • On a stationary cycle: 10 cycles of 15-second sprints + 45-second recoveries
  • On a treadmill or outside on a grass field: 10 cycles of 10-second sprints + 50-second recoveries

LSD Cardio
Because of the length of each session (60 to 90 minutes), Seabourne’s preference for LSD is nonimpact. “For some, impact LSD, like jogging, can cause unhelpful muscle breakdown -- whereas cycling will not,” he explains.

An LSD cycling, elliptical or stair-climbing program can begin with an hour. Add two minutes a week until you’re moving for 90 minutes. Any more than 90 minutes and you'll need a snack to replenish glycogen stores.

Get a Jump on Your Fitness with Plyometrics

Elite athletes know plyometrics. Simply put, they know it improves athletic performance by making them quicker and more explosive. Once used in a small percentage of athletic programs, plyometrics are now an integral part of the elite athlete’s regimen, with everyone from Drew Brees to Kevin Durant to Tiger Woods swearing by them.

But the average gym-goer, no matter how fit, probably doesn’t fully understand them. While a plyo program has tremendous value, it is a highly specialized fitness activity that needs to be done in tandem with an overall strengthening program, and it needs to be done right.

The Basics
“Plyometrics capitalizes on strength,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) Gregory Haff, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at West Virginia University who coaches Olympic weightlifters. In other words, make sure you have a strong base before embarking on a plyo program, especially in your legs, hips and core. If you’re doing plenty of power exercises like squats, lunges, leg presses, stiff-legged dead lifts, leg curls and core moves, then you’re ready.

For the beginner, Haff recommends doing plyos twice a week for 80-100 jumps (do cardio and weights on two to three other days). Your plyo program will consist of a 10- to 20-minute warm-up and only about 10 minutes of plyos. Haff advises a four-to-six week program before a sport season (not during one). If you’re not playing a sport, simply cycle in a month of plyometrics every three to four months.

Why So Limited?
According to Haff, fatigue cuts down your ability to engage the strength-shortening cycle, or SSC, which is what plyometrics is all about.

Any explosive movement involves the two phases of muscular contraction: the eccentric phase (muscle lengthening under tension) followed by the concentric phases (muscle being shortened). A pre-stretch of the muscle lengthens it and creates tension that can be used to increase the concentric contraction, which must immediately follow, or else the tension goes away as heat. Take, for example, the quick countermovement before jumping, when you rapidly switch from descending to ascending. The faster the muscle is stretched eccentrically, the greater the force on the subsequent concentric phase. In other words, the shortest amount of time spent on the ground (amortization) during a jump results in the greatest jumping performance.

Tire your muscles and you’ll lengthen the amortization, which then decreases the effectiveness of the plyometric exercise.

The Warm-up
Complete a dynamic 10- to 20-minute warm-up prior to plyos: high-knee walking, heels-to-butt walking, skipping, walking lunges, shuffling sideways, carioca (moving sideways in a grapevine movement of step, step behind, step in front), running backward with heels hitting butt, rope skipping, and finally dynamic stretches (neck rotations, shoulder rolls, arm rotations, trunk twists, hip rotations, knee rolls, ankle rotations and leg swings).

The Program
The following program was provided by Jim Radcliffe, CSCS, strength coach at the University of Oregon. Use a flat, cushioned surface, and rest for 30 to 60 seconds between each set.


# Reps

# Sets

1. Pogo



2. Squat jump

4 to 6 (first 2 weeks); then 6 to 8

2 (first 2 weeks) to 3

3. Rocket jump

4 to 6

2 (first 2 weeks) to 3

4. Star jump

4 to 6

2 (first 2 weeks) to 3

5. Galloping



6. Fast skipping



Pogo: Take upright stance with knees slightly bent, chest out and shoulders back. Jump straight up by projecting hips upward for height, using only lower portion of legs; you’ll resemble a pogo stick, with knees staying slightly bent throughout exercise. With arms bent at 90 degrees, swing them up for each jump to assist. Upon each takeoff, keep toes pointed up (instead of down).

Squat jump: Take relaxed, upright stance with feet about shoulder-width apart. Interlock fingers, and place palms against back of head. Flex downward to half-squat position, then immediately explode upward as high as possible, extending hips, knees and ankles to maximum length as quickly as you can. For first two weeks, pause between each jump.

Rocket jump: Take relaxed, upright stance with feet about shoulder-width apart. Slightly flex arms, and hold them close to body. Flex downward to half-squat position, then immediately explode upward as high as possible, extending whole body (including arms) vertically.

Star jump: Same as rocket jump, except extend limbs outward in all four directions away from body, arms pointed at 10 and 2 o’clock and legs at 7 and 5 o’clock.

Galloping: (For this and the following exercise, you'll need access to a large, open space.) Assume a standing position with one leg in front of the other. Gallop like a horse by pushing off with back leg and foot, and continue to keep same leg behind hips while maintaining other leg in forward position. One foot will always come off the ground before the other. Keep ankle locked to emphasize spring-loaded landing and takeoff. Switch position of legs after 10 gallops.

Fast skipping: Assume a relaxed standing position with one leg slightly forward. Skip as quickly as possible, maintaining close contact with the ground and eliminating air time.

Winning Water-sport Workouts

Sure, all board sports require quick reaction time. And you’ll need to get the hang of good balance before you can hang ten. But you’ll also need power and a good deal of stamina if you want to be a standout in the water. To get those, there are certain exercises you’ll need to do beforehand.

Whether you ride the surf on a long board or prefer to ride the waves behind a high-powered ski boat, just master this workout, and you’ll be chairman of the boards.

Exercise 1: Shoulder Carry

The training tool:

A heavy bag (aka punching bag) from the gym -- or a bag of mulch, sand or any other large object you can shoulder and walk/run with.

The move:

Find an open space (like a parking lot or driveway). Squat down, hoist the heavy bag (or bag of mulch, sand, etc.) onto one shoulder and simply walk forward 20 to 30 yards. Then, set the bag down, turn around, hoist it back up onto the opposite shoulder and return to your starting point. That’s one full rep. Go for six to 10 reps, resting just 30 seconds between reps. Add speed or weight when possible.

But why?

With traditional gym exercises, you typically lift, pump or press weights evenly on both sides of your body. (For example, when you do bicep curls, you lift a 25-pound dumbbell with your right arm while lifting another 25-pound dumbbell with your left arm). But when you’re board-sporting, waves don’t necessarily hit you evenly: At any given moment, you might have to deploy only the muscles on one side of your body to keep your balance on a surfboard. Doing this asymmetrically loaded exercise will help your core develop the ability to handle just about any wave the ocean throws at you while also increasing your stamina. Plus, this is a total body exercise -- meaning, you need less time to train than if you worked each muscle or muscle group individually.

Exercise 2: The Slosh-pipe Hold

The training tool:

For about $20, you can build your own top-notch training tool. Go to your local hardware store and pick up a 10-foot length of 4-inch diameter schedule 40 PVC pipe. Also get an end cap and a threaded cleanout. (If you don’t know much about plumbing materials, just ask.) You’ll also need a small can of PVC adhesive to hold it all together.

The move:

By filling the pipe about one-third to half full with water (thanks to the threaded cleanout fitting, you can adjust the amount at will), you’ll have a total weight of roughly 40 to 50 pounds. Not a big deal when held vertically. The real trick is keeping it level when cradling it horizontally, across the front of your chest, with both arms while standing. As soon as you think you’ve mastered the simple standing-hold described above, try breaking into your board/ski stance and see what you’re made of. Build up to 12 to 15 reps up to a minute each (with a minute between attempts), and there ain’t a wave going to break you down.

But why?

With all that water flying back and forth over a 10-foot track of pipe, you won’t have time to wonder, “Are those my obliques or my rectus abdominis working?” The answer is you’re going to have to hang on with everything you’ve got from the ground up. The very nature of the pipe exercise (water sloshing back and forth unpredictably) means no two workouts will be the same -- forcing your body to adapt to the erratic forces of water nature. So when that rogue wave comes along, you’ll be able to react quickly and have the muscle power to do so.

Exercise 3: Renegade Row

The training tool:

You’ll need one dumbbell, a little bit of floor space and a whole lot of muscle.

The move:

If you’re familiar with the yoga-style “plank,” it’s like that (only much more manly with the addition of the row). With the dumbbell on the floor, get in the top position of a push-up with a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width foot stance. Now grab the dumbbell with one hand and pull your elbow toward the ceiling, bringing the weight next to the bottom of your rib cage -- all while resisting the gravitationally motivated urge to twist, bend or contort your body toward the floor. Do two to three sets (per side), with eight to 12 reps. Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.

But why?

This routine challenges core strength and stability at a much higher intensity than any sit-up or crunch ever could. Core strength and stability, as you now know, are essential to maintaining balance on the boards and the planks!