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Where I answer the questions that I’m commonly asked at the gym

by John on March 6th, 2014

Maybe it’s because I smile a lot. Or maybe it’s because I seem to be there with a mission (giving the impression that I know what I’m doing). Or maybe I have the type of body that people are trying for (see first question below). Whatever the reason, a lot of people have started asking me about their workouts as I’m at the gym – and being the wiseass helpful guy I am, here goes.

How do I keep from bulking up?

This is easily the most asked question (throw “I want to be cut” and “I want to look toned” in with the mix), yet nobody believes my answer, that you should find a set of lifts that you feel comfortable with, that work all of the muscle groups of your body, and proceed to do them, regularly and heavily. I always, always, always get the “but lifting heavy makes you bulk” counter, and that makes me cringe.

It’s true that, when you first start lifting weights, you’ll “appear to start to bulk.” What happens is that you’ll be exercising muscles that aren’t used to being tested, and that will make them grow. But that shuts off really damn quickly. From there, the only way to “get bulky” is to add mass. And the only way to add mass is to eat more calories. If you don’t want to add mass, and therefore keep from “getting bulky,” don’t eat excess calories. It’s as simple as that – and what I do. Now, I test my limits most every time I am at the gym – and, because I’m not eating a caloric excess, my body weight is staying mostly stagnant (over the last 180 days, my weight has been between 209 and 219 pounds), I’m not adding weight to my lifts as quickly as someone who is adding mass to their body as they add mass to their lifts. But, those gains are coming for me1 in their own time.

Again, the only factor for body mass is calories ingested versus calories expended. If you want to keep your weight where it is, set a caloric budget and stick to it.

Want to get “cut,” “ripped”? What you really want is to see your muscle definition, and to do that you need to cut down on your body fat percentage. The easiest way to do that is to add muscle while maintaining your body mass (because as you add muscle, if you’re maintaining mass, the excess mass in your body will come from somewhere, and that’s your fat stores). The less fat you have, the more you’ll be able to “see” your muscles through your skin — arms, legs, chest, and, yes, six-pack-abs, they’re all muscles, and all abide by the same formula.

What are these muscle groups that you target?
I do not do any isolation exercise. Every lift I perform, I perform because it’s compound (works a bunch of muscles) and I believe it will assist me in real life. I squat, as much as possible – because everybody has to squat. I do overhead presses because, well, there are times that I need to lift shit over my head. I do “pull” exercises (first rows, now pull-ups) because I have nightmares of having to pull one of my children up from over a cliff. I do chest-press exercises (first bench press, now push-ups and dips) because it’s far more cool to get out of the pool by propelling yourself up on the side than stepping out from the stairs or the ladder. Eventually, when I’m strong enough, I’ll be doing handstand push-ups because I think they’re cool. All of these use a variety of muscles – I do not touch any of the machines at the gym.

But don’t you need to work your core?

Look at the previous closely. I do work my core with every lift I do. When I squat, I need to keep my core activated, lest my upper body falls forward or backward as I get up from a squat. When I overhead press, I do so while standing, and my core supports my body, keeping it rigid. The main reason I’ve switched from the bench press to dips is because, while the primary muscles worked are much the same, doing a dip forces you to keep your core active, lest your lower body sway as you try to dip – and that keeps you from completing the exercise. The entire time you’re doing push-ups, you’re maintaining some form of plank. When I’m finally able to maintain a handstand, well, you need to keep your core active or your legs will just fall forward.

I fear I may never have six-pack abs, but that’s not because of lack of core work — too many years of too little attention to my body has this nice layer of skin around my middle — even if my body fat were to shrink to the point where I should start seeing “a six pack” (12-15% for guys), the skin will just hang there.

How much protein should I eat?

This is more complicated. My philosophy is that I want to hit my calorie goals — 2700 calories on a day that I don’t work out (I came to this number via a LOT of trial & error since the start of 2013, when I started trying to lose weight in earnest — 2700 seems to be what I need to keep me where I am, which is consistent with a lot of calorie calculators for a moderately active 36 year old man). Add 300 calories if I lifted. Add 800 if I ran more than 6 miles or cycled more than 20. Add 1000 if I both lift and run in the same day.

For those calories, I try to only eat when I’m hungry. When I eat, I try to chose high-protein foods (lean meats — enjoying a good steak works lovely here, eggs, I mix protein powder into my morning coffee — protein satiates me more than anything else) and shy away from sugary foods. I don’t shy away from fat, though I try to avoid trans-fats like the plague. But I don’t stress over “hitting my macros,” because then I get a little bit crazy, and “just eating and logging” starts to feel like a diet.

One of the most useful side-effects since the start of 2013 is that I know what it feels like to be hungry. I’m fortunate enough that, if I want food at any given moment, I can have food. Even if money is tight, I have something in my pantry that I can eat or I can scrounge in my truck and find a few quarters for a trip to the vending machine. But since I’ve been really giving thought to what I’ve been eating, I’ve allowed myself to get hungry. I hope to know that feeling on sparse occasion, and only when I consciously want to remind myself what it feels like – but it’s useful. I try not to eat because “it’s time to eat,” (though I do try to make sure that I’m starting to get hungry at a time that is “socially acceptable” for dinner), and I won’t allow myself to eat because I’m bored.

What is this (pointing to the Smith machine) good for?

In my opinion, the Smith Machine (a machine with an attached barbell on a rail that allows you to make fixed, vertical movements) is good for very little. Squatting is one of the key motions that everybody has to perform – but when you squat in real life, you do NOT squat on a fixed vertical axis – there’s a little horizontal movement. I squat, now, to add muscle and to ensure that I’m able to squat “worry free” for as long as possible (getting old sucks). Using a regular barbell on your back, you need to squat properly. Sure, if you fail, it’s scary (that’s why I always squat in a safety rack – if my muscles simply won’t allow me another repetition, I can just sit down from the bottom of the lift, and then be a man, walk around, and take the plates off the bar before re-racking it), but that’s also how you get better.

The Smith machine is great for learning how to do pull-ups. You can set the bar at different heights for inverted pull-ups, which I think are far better to getting yourself to doing actual pull-ups than bands or counter-weights.

1 I should note that I love to eat. Like, seriously. Looking through the book that my parents made of all of my grade-school art projects & stuff, I recently ran across an “all about me” book that I made in the second grade. It read “My name is John. I have a cat. Her name is Ebony. I love to eat.” My cat’s name, now, is Pip. The rest of that autobiography? As accurate today as it was in the second grade.

Because I love to eat so much, I’ll readily admit that the main reason that I’m loathe to add calories to my diet2 is that I do not trust myself to add more calories than I should, in the name of “gotta bulk up.” I can keep myself honest at present. The other reason is that I am a runner, I enjoy running . . . and it’s easier to propel a 212 pound body for 26.2 miles than it is to run that same distance with a body that weighs, say, 250 pounds.

2 Here, I’m using diet as a noun, as in what I eat on a daily basis . . . I do NOT diet (verb). I am not looking to cut my caloric intake — just watch what I do eat.
  1. Hi you. I just got back on the wagon after a bit of a … hibernation?

    It’s inspiring and maddening all at once to follow you over at MyFitnessPal. I don’t know where you squeeze in all that stuff. I’ve managed to find a guided workout I can do in 20-25 minutes that uses mostly body-weight resistance strength training and cardio in combination and it’s kicking my sad and outofshape ass, but in a good way. That said, between that and parenting and working and writing and keeping the house from turning into something out of hoarders, that’s about all I’ve got.

    Still… it’s something.


    • Something beats nothing . . . always.

      I JUST changed my plan to encompass body-weight training, entirely. I’m following progressions to one-armed push-ups, muscle-ups, pistols, and handstand push-ups. It’s a long path, but I’m enjoying it so far.

      And I think that’s the secret – finding something that’s enjoyable that you can carve into every day.

      That and logging into MFP every day just to keep those who might also be logged into MFP on their toes when the numbers jump from the 5-10s to the hundreds 😉

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