The best-laid (exercise) plans of mice and men
December 27, 2010 8:22 AM   Subscribe

Vanityfilter: Smart, busy people of Metafilter, how did you get in incredibly good (looking) shape?

If you have ever been in incredible shape, how did you accomplish it? (“incredible shape” - you looked really, really good with your shirt off. You had a body that you were happy to show off at the beach).
-What was your exercises plan?
-What did you eat? What was your eating schedule?
-What was your overall plan? What combo of eating / exercising / other stuff worked for you?
-How tough was it? Did everything fall into place fairly simply once you got the diet / exercise combo right? Or was it a constant struggle requiring monk-like devotion to accomplish?
-Where did you find your motivation? Any advice for sticking with a regimen mostly for looks?
-How did you balance it with your job and your life? (bonus points for addressing 9-5 office jobs)

Obviously, there isn't a single correct answer. I want to hear many people’s experiences with getting into really, really good-looking shape. You may define ‘in shape’ however you like - muscular, thin, etc. Either way, I want to hear your experience. This question is about appearances, not about getting healthy or psychoanalyzing me, so please no derails about body acceptance.

Background: I’ve worked out consistently for 5 years and had results that I’m happy with. I occasionally go on a tear and get in REALLY good shape, but as with all fitness plans I eventually plateau. I’m gearing up to go on another tear, and I’d like to hear how others have gotten into really, really, ridiculously good shape so I can gather ideas for how to outdo myself this time around.
posted by Tehhund to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Having a "fit" appearance is pretty simple. That it's simple doesn't necessarily mean it's easy, but it comes down to 2 things -- having muscle mass and being lean. Which one is more important to focus on depends on where you're starting from and where exactly you want to end up. But anything you hear about "toning" or "shaping" muscles or certain types of exercise that "build long, lean muscle" is nonsense. Basically you can build muscle and you can lose fat and the rest is genetics.

I wrote a long answer yesterday about how to start out building muscle. You can get most or maybe all of the way to your appearance goals with just a few basic exercises. The being lean part comes largely from nutrition and possibly from some extra cardio-type activity, but it doesn't have to be anything fancy.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 8:50 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Very simple: find the closest gym and go there every single day without fail. Cardio one day, weights another. Sometimes I don't feel like going to the gym or working out or really doing anything, so Ill stretch for an hour. Or I'll practice slow yoga balance movements for an hour. I have absolutely no plan whatsoever. In the end it doesn't matter what the exercise entails, but it has to be something every day.

Consistency is the only answer.

As for food, I eat regular meals in regular intervals. No supplements. No special diet-restrictions. Eat when you're hungry, and always leave yourself a tiny bit hungry. Stay away from fried shit, saturated fats and sugar, in roughly that order.

Motivation is easy: buy a full-length mirror and look at yourself naked every morning.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:23 AM on December 27, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, but I'm not asking for general tips and basics. I'm looking for specific stories that I can learn from. Care to share your stories?
posted by Tehhund at 9:34 AM on December 27, 2010

I am only partly qualified to answer your question: I look pretty good for me - a formerly-obese thirtysomething - but I will never look like a slender conventionally-hot twenty-year-old on spring break, in part because I never have, even when I was twenty. Depending on your age and how well you've taken care of your body in the past, you may have a leg up (since you've gotten in good shape in the past and currently work out, you have better odds), but at some point it's about managing expectations.

For the most part, though, getting in shape for vanity reasons is about the same as getting in shape for any other reason. Work out regularly, vary your workouts, and always make sure you are being challenged to some extent. If you can breeze through your workout, you've plateaued and it's time to level up. I've found that, as a general rule, the more hypey any sort of exercise is about burning 1000 calories per session! or toning flab! or anything appearance-based, the more bullshit it's likely to be. I've also found that setting fitness goals that have nothing to do with appearance are more motivating than ones that do, but that's just me and you might be different. Eat well - vegetables, protein, fiber, low in processed anything - but there is nothing really you need to do beyond that, diet-wise.

I have no good advice on how to balance exercise with everything else in life. It's kind of hard to have a social life and a full workout schedule.

On preview: this is all fairly general because the specifics that worked for me may not apply to you, and because it's been easier for me to live by the general rules and adjust the specifics as my circumstances change.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:51 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

A few years ago, I got dumped hard by a girl and barely ate for two months, then spent two months lifting daily in hopes of running into her at the gym. I was miserable, but I looked fantastic.
posted by nicwolff at 10:02 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd like to preface this with me saying that I'm not where I want to be at yet after 9 months of work and I'll probably never be "done" but everything I'm doing works incredibly well for anyone that just sticks with it. So here is my story.
Starting in March, through just simple eating and lifting, with no cardio, I went down to an incredibly lean 158lbs @6ft.
I started a clean bulk in April and I managed to get to a lean 185lbs.
I was going to go up to 200lbs but with all the rock climbing, goaltending, and other things I do I've decided that 175 is the best weight and that 200 would be very hard to maintain. So I've cut down to 175 and have been floating around that number for a months.
I'm by no means a big guy at 175 but I'm at least bigger than the twilight guys, strong, look good naked.
I've found with me that "sticking with it" is the only thing that really matters. Like just when I thought that I would never gain another lb of muscle in my life and wanted to puke from drinking a gallon of milk a day + 2500 calories in clean food weight finally started pouring on.
So I just try to pick something to do that isn't wussy, do it, keep doing it, don't deter.

I currently lift 4 times a week using the 5/3/1 percentages and progressions.
Monday - Press, Weighted Dips, Weighted Chins
Tuesday - Deadlift, Hanging Leg Raise, Good Mornings
Thursday - Bench, Kroc Rows, weighted Push-ups
Friday - Squat, then squat again 5 sets of 10 at 50% of my max, weighted sit-ups.

I've eaten about 95% clean this past year. Every meal was planned, bread maybe once every two weeks. The same breakfast of 4 eggs with hot sauce, and oats everyday. Modified with either a 1\2 cup of oats,1 cup of oats, 16 oz of milk depending on phase of training.

Different Protein powders.
6 fish oil capsules a day.
BCAAs more recently to help me lean out a bit for some upcoming mountaineering trips.

I think beer has been my only obstacle. I went without for 3 months but since then, drink some. It interferes with training, mass building and throws everything else off a little.
One glass of wine a night I found has next to no effect though.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:16 AM on December 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

Thin is easy - eat less. It takes less time than eating more.

Strong is not so easy. No pain, no gain. You have to do the work.

Since you seem to want easy I would focus first and foremost upon diet. The easiest diet is probably a low carb one as it naturally reduces your cravings. Fill yourself with high fiber, high protein, low calorie, low carb foods and your hunger will be kept in check. You may still crave some sweets and carbs but that is easier to control than raw hunger pains. For instance, a lunch of 2% fat cottage cheese with some fruit thrown in will satisfy for hours with very few calories. Wheat germ goes well with this also. Protein powders and shakes are also satisfying for long periods and are very quick, just watch out for the carbs as some prepared shakes are quite high in the carbs. Protein powder in your morning cereal will stave off hunger until lunch. This sort of diet has worked for me and many people I know.
posted by caddis at 10:56 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've worked out for a very long time and tailor my diet and training based on what I'm trying to accomplish. I also work in a "9-5" job and tailor my workouts to the small amount of time I have.

It sounds like you're not training for any specific event so you just want to get lean and cut. In that case, I would suggest CrossFit inspired workouts. High repetitions and high intensity for a short period of time. Some of these workouts are done using your own body weight, so you're not restricted to using a gym.

A CrossFit inspired workout I did just yesterday was - 5 rounds (timed) of the following: 10 Pullups, 25 Pushups, 30 Situps, 30 bodyweight squats, 15 Burpees, and 45s plank.

Training is just part of the pie though, you need to have a solid diet plan as well. The "Paleo Diet" has recently become popular and may be something you could consider. Here's a food list.

Good luck!
posted by cad at 10:59 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

The fastest way (NOT EASIEST) is via high intensity interval training... It is very fast but VERY HARD... If you find a HIIT program and knock out sugar in all forms and simple carbs, you wont recognixe yourself in 3 months... It is very hard, I warn you. I lost 40 pounds of fat this way, and gained several pounds of muscle. It is very hard to sustain, for sure.
posted by jcworth at 11:12 AM on December 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: For several months in my mid-twenties when I had no life, no job and lived at home, I would power walk about 30 minutes to the gym while listening to club music, spend another 35-40 minutes doing a fast uphill walk on the treadmill (still listening to music) and then spend another hour doing floorwork and hitting the weight machines. Afterwards I would head to a nearby salad bar to eat a vegetable salad and drink lots of water. For snacks I ate 0-fat pretzels. I then walked back home which would take another 30 minutes. Let me underscore that I had no life then, all my days were spent at the gym and half-heartedly looking for work. Yes I looked amazing but once I grew up I was never able to maintain that kind of regimen along with working, paying bills and having a relationship. Normal life stress ensued, dysfunctional eating habits surfaced, weight ballooned and I no longer had time for this kind of binge exercising so was forced to get by on my brains rather than my now defunct beach body ;o)

In the time since then, I've occasionally resumed my exercise binging with the idea of getting back my beach body, but came to realize that I eventually burn out, end up disliking the exercise and then drop it altogether. What seems to work better for me is a shorter but fairly intense workout of no more than 20 minutes, if not every day then most days. I've found that if I don't look forward to the exercise and find the routine enjoyable and manageable, then in short order I'll drop it altogether. What keeps me motivated now is the resulting good night's sleep, calming of the nerves and doing what's "good" for my overall health... No, I no longer have a beach body but thankfully that has dropped down on my list of priorities (although admittedly, not fallen off completely, because hope springs eternal ;o)
posted by braemar at 11:34 AM on December 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I I fit the bill to answer your question with bonus points. About 4 years ago my body was the most ripped it has ever been...looked better naked than with clothes on sort of stuff...all while working 50-60 hour weeks. Here. Is. My. Story.

I grew up tall and skinny - and I didn't like being skinny. While it never affected me socially in any way, I had simply always wanted to look intimidating. To deal with this, I started working out in highschool and throughout college with some success - learning from the "big guys" in the gym, but it wasn't until after college that I really achieved my goals.

I was in a long distance relationship and trying to climb a career ladder, but I had my nights and early mornings free. I bought the Anthony Ellis program and followed it to a T. This was the first time I had ever recorded my whole routine and literally planned every meal. It worked and I saw crazy gains over the course of about a year / year and a half...I went from around 175lbs - 195+ but honestly the time commitment was insane. All my free time was either spent working out...or more and planning my meals. All the fucking time. I spent almost as much time in the kitchen as the gym. It became my life...and as a result, things that I care about more (photography, hiking etc) took a backseat. I also would not have been able to do it had I needed to spend time with my gf in the evenings.

Eventually I phased out of the Anthony Ellis thing and put together my own routine that was more managable...looked something like this:

Gym: Monday - Friday. Evenings.
M: Chest / Back
T: Arms / Shoulders / Abs
W: Legs / More Back
T: JumpRope / Pushups / Punching bag - cardio
F: Full Body workout - bodyweight exercises + ab circuit
S: Rest
Sometimes I would mix this up. Concentrated on Squats, Deadlifts, lunges, bench press and pullups. Compound was the way to go for me.

Morning: Protein shake - almond butter, whey protein, almond milk, Flaxseed Oil, Frozen Berries, Stevia, Oats
Mid Morning: Myoplex meal replacement shake + supplement stack
Lunch: Brown Rice with 8-10 oz of chicken and veggies
mid afternoon: 2 Hardboiled eggs, oatmeal
Dinner: Brown Rice 8-10 oz. chicken and veggies
Post-workout: Another protein shake (same as morning) + supplement stack (creatine, glutamine, various other things at times)

This routine kept me pretty big.

It is now 4 years later and I don't work like that anymore. I may in the future, but I'm not as obsessed about mass these days. Now I concentrate on keeping a fairly clean diet, eat 3-4 times per day. Don't plan my meals. I focus on bodyweight / Crossfit style exercise 3x per week and I recently got a GTX suspension gym (you can also check out the TRX suspension gym, or make your own) for variety. I bought a deck of blank cards and wrote various body weight exercises on them (various pushups, squats, lunges, pullups, curls, abs) and I shuffle them to get a unique workout every time I workout.

My body has kind of gone back to where it wants to go...I'm lean now, and since I don't eat nearly as many calories (where I used to eat 2700-3500 a day) I am much more thin. I read starting strength back in the day - has good info...but there is a cult around that book. Foreal.

Finally, my motivation to get ripped / fit was due to my own insecurities - which is fine. I achieved my goal by following a strict, regimented schedule that barely left me time to do other things I enjoy. This is why I have stopped it. I found my current life balance, and it doesn't include the time required to put mass on my particular bodytype. I'm ok with this for now.

I am slightly more insecure about my body now, having reverted to college levels (still fit, but not "underwear model" - but its a tradeoff. I'm either slightly insecure about my body, or I'm massively anxious about all the time I'm spending keeping my body fit and bulked. As I get older I'm tending to find that its easier to accept my body as the leaner more ectomorphic body it wants to be...but its likely that a major life event, like suddenly being single again...might get me back into bulking hardcore.
posted by jnnla at 12:33 PM on December 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

In another thread I had this advice to give. It's an incredibly simple routine to follow.
posted by dougrayrankin at 12:48 PM on December 27, 2010

Ten years ago I wandered down to the river and saw a bunch of middle-aged ladies hoisting and putting boats in the water. They were an informal women's crew team. They looked strong and lean. I joined them at 6 a.m. five days a week, was highly focused on learning to row (not exercise) didn't change my eating habits, and I was in the best overall shape of my life for two years. I miss it tremendously and so does my body. Everything since has felt like work.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:58 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: caddis: Since you seem to want easy

Well, yes and no. I worked very hard previously and got results. When I plateaued I wondered if the only answer was "work harder" or if there was something that I could do to make it easier. I suspected the answer was "work harder," but I wanted to hear it from someone who wasn't trying to sell me a fitness supplement :). So I came here, and AskMe delivered.

Thanks everyone, I'll be checking back all week if any latecomers want to add their stories. Sounds like "do what worked before, just do it harder" is a pretty good plan, because the stories I'm hearing here are fairly similar to my own with an extra dose of dedication.
posted by Tehhund at 2:29 PM on December 27, 2010

I trained with a personal trainer 3x a week at 6am for an hour. Within 9 months I got into the best shape of my life. We did mostly weights, with a bit of cardio as a warmup during our hours together. Otherwise I was running and hiking on the other days, with 2 days off a week.

I'm starting again in January after a few years' layoff due to a car accident.
posted by seawallrunner at 3:10 PM on December 27, 2010

There isn't enough time in the day without cannibalising something else, so cannibalise something you don't actually like and which is already wasting your time - driving to work.

So I cycle to work. It's as quick or quicker than sitting in rush hour gridlock, so it costs me no time, and it means I don't have to go to the gym.

Everyone thinks "Oh well that's pretty cool for you, but that wouldn't work in my situation because...", and the "..." is always self-deluding bullshit. Don't fall into that trap.

It also means I cycle to lunch, and studies are showing that being active in multiple bursts throughout the day is more effective than a big burst once a day (like the gym) because of metabolic changes that are Really Bad that occur when you're not doing much for a long period of time each day (ie. if you have an office job)

Speaking of cannibalising useless time and office jobs, a few people I know have their desk raised, so they can work standing up instead of always in a chair. Some others use one of those giant inflatable balls instead of a chair. There are also office chairs now with built in resistance bands for exercise while you work.

Basically, my suggestions is to not try to cram exercise into your schedule, but to figure out ways to be less sedentary while going about your existing schedule.

Exercise only works if you can stick to it for life. That means its got to become part of how you live, and creating time out just to go to the gym fails that test for most people.

As for cycling to work, the trick is to learn how to do it without fail. Rain doesn't bother me because I have wet-weather gear and I arrive dry. Freezing temperature doesn't bother me because I'm exercising and I arrive at work warmer and more comfortable than the shivering people who drove. Hot weather doesn't bother me because I wear white, take it easy, take a bit more time, and arrive cool enough to not need a shower.

In short, I've set it up so it just works, rain or shine, to cycle. So there is never any reason not to get exercise, and never a lack of time to do so.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:30 PM on December 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

When I plateaued I wondered if the only answer was "work harder" or if there was something that I could do to make it easier.

That's the one thing about exercise: there's a direct input -> output correlation. No magic, no voodoo, just work * time = results. It's very democratic. And while there aren't any shortcuts (worth mentioning), there's also pretty-much guaranteed results if you're willing to put in the time. Personally I've found that if I just go, it hasn't mattered what I end up doing.

I'm not asking for general tips and basics. I'm looking for specific stories that I can learn from.

No. Go find your own motivation. You need your own reasons for doing it, you can't crib that.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:30 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suspected the answer was "work harder," but I wanted to hear it from someone who wasn't trying to sell me a fitness supplement :)

I have read, paradoxically, that one way to break a plateau is to actually scale back your workouts. I have personally never tried this, but its based on the Colorado Experiment and was recently made popular by Tim Ferriss - which makes me suspect that its horseshit. If you're all about bulking though, there shouldn't be any harm in resting for a week when you hit a plateau...and doubling up on calories. Personally if I was hitting plateaus it was because I wasn't eating enough. I had to eat until I got sick...every day.

Good luck and keep on!
posted by jnnla at 6:00 PM on December 27, 2010

That's the one thing about exercise: there's a direct input -> output correlation. No magic, no voodoo, just work * time = results. It's very democratic. And while there aren't any shortcuts (worth mentioning), there's also pretty-much guaranteed results if you're willing to put in the time. Personally I've found that if I just go, it hasn't mattered what I end up doing.

If you've been lifting for a long time and are past a beginner stage you need programming. It's not as simple as lift 400lbs 2 more reps or add 1lb. Work harder doesn't really translate.
People that lift really hard all the time and do all sorts of crazy cardio hours, etc, are getting results but not results that are as good as just figuring out what works for their body, programming a workout, working hard for that workout, getting a good amount of sleep\rest and eating correctly corresponding to their workouts.

We obviously have no idea what OP's physique looks like or his goal body. If someone's goal is to look as skinny and as small as possible then to work as hard as possible with minimal eating is the correct answer.
posted by zephyr_words at 6:06 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

My husband occasionally gets seriously ripped "just to see if he can". He is already in very good shape to start with (lifts three times a week, cycles everywhere, weighs about 73kg at 6 foot height, body fat of around 12%). When he wants to look amazing, he basically eats next to nothing for two weeks (i.e. no snacks, no fat, no sugar, about 1500 kCals a day), and adds an hour of cardio twice a day.) This pretty consistently drops his weight to around 68kg, and his body fat decreases to below 8%.

During these two week periods he also suffers from dizzy spells, can't stay warm, can't concentrate on anything, and is hungry all the time. I do not recommend it at all.
posted by lollusc at 6:44 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to work out at home then there are two programs that are awesome for changing your body Insanity and P90X. Insanity is more cardio/intervals-until-you-vomit. P90X has longer daily workouts and more weights. Both build muscle and trim fat. Insanity is more of flab cutter and P90X is more of a muscle development series.

(I have no affiliation with these workouts. I'm simply a fan.)
posted by 26.2 at 9:48 PM on December 27, 2010

Best answer: Set goals. "I'm going to lead 5.11." "I will drop back to my wrestling weight." "I am going to get 275 pounds overhead." Even if you fall short, aggressive goals force you to drop a bunch of bullshit out of your life in order to have a fighting chance, which is usually enough. Setting goals is also a good way to decouple your progress from whatever else is going on in your life.

My best results in recent memory came when I set some fairly reasonable goals, and structured my schedule around training for them. I biked to work, from work to the climbing gym, and from the climbing gym home, and I ate small amounts of nutrient dense food. And I ticked off 5.11a, got down to 172 pounds (I wrestled at 160), and put 255 lbs overhead. It was good enough for me to feel like I'd made progress (although I responded by setting my goals a little higher, of course). My sister was dating a Special Forces guy and he asked what I did to stay in shape. That felt like validation. (I also started bagging ski mountaineering peaks.)

It's really hard to go 100% all the time. Right now I'm more interested in finishing my dissertation. I got badly injured (unrelated to training) and put on more weight than I'd like to have (it's tough to run or bike when you can't even stand up). Since my daughter has started climbing and doing gymnastics, though, it's getting easier -- anything that gets you into the gym will get you stronger (my garage is my gym), and any goal that emphasizes power-to-mass ratio will force you to rethink shitty eating habits. Those are the two things that consistently kick me back into shape.

I assume you've looked at Crossfit. For all its faults, the basic idea behind Crossfit -- doing something a little different pretty much every day -- builds a strong base for specialization and offers a great deal of variation. You don't need to pay for a general physical preparation program, just use your head. Coaching and specialization are worthwhile when you hit a wall in your chosen sport, but if all you need is to lose weight, run more, sleep more, and eat less.

YMMV. I don't care as much about how I look as I do about how I perform.
posted by apathy at 11:23 AM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

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