I'm not fat I'm husky
June 29, 2008 4:50 PM   Subscribe

What should I change about my current diet and exercise regimen to see some success in shedding fat?

I'm 28 years old, male, 5'9" tall, and around 155 lbs. I think my weight and overall level of fitness are healthy, but I would dearly love to rid myself of the fat around my middle. I've been surprised that my current fitness regimen hasn't been more successful in this area, and I suspect that some simple changes may be all I need.

After being almost completely sedentary for several years, I took up rowing again 18 months ago. I belong to a club that has a small gym, and in addition to occasionally actually rowing in a boat on water, I've worked out using rowing machines religiously, two nights a week after work. For those of you familiar with the numbers, my workout is 30 minutes long, three sets of 4, 3, 2, 1 minute cycles of 20, 22, 24, 26 strokes per minute. I typically row about 6400 meters in that time. Other than that, and a certain amount of walking around town and up the very steep hill I live on, I get no other exercise. I work behind a desk all day.

A couple of months back, I started thinking that maybe an upper body weight-lifting workout, in addition to the rowing cardio workout, would be beneficial. My leg and back muscles are in great condition from the rowing, but my arms and chest were lacking. My logic was that by adding more muscle, I would burn more calories throughout the day and thus lose some more fat. I added two more nights a week at the gym, doing lat pulldowns, bench press, military press, bicep curls, and tricep pulldowns, interspersed with various situp-like exercises, followed by a 20 minute "calorie burning" (according to the machine) stairmaster workout. Although I definitely have more toned arms and chest, I think I look about the same in the gut department. There's definitely muscle under there - I use it all the time when I row. I just need to get rid of the flab!

In terms of diet, I think I eat pretty well. Almost no junk food, no soda, candy, or chips. I drink around a liter of water per day just at work, plus water or juice with meals. For the first eight weeks of weight lifting, I cut red meat and pizza (two otherwise pretty regular staples) out of my diet entirely. On a typical weekday I'll eat cereal or oatmeal for breakfast, a fresh deli sandwich or burrito for lunch, and maybe fish and rice, or Indian food, or stir fry (all from Trader Joe's) for dinner. On the weekends a lot of times I'll only have two meals - a big brunch/breakfast and a moderate-sized dinner. I don't eat huge portions. I don't snack at all. I read labels and try to avoid fake sugar, trans-fat, and other stuff like that, but overall I try not to be obsessive and masochistic about my diet. I like to eat and cook for myself!

The only ideas I've had myself on what I might change are diet-related. For one thing, I probably drink about six beers every week. Doesn't seem like that many, but they're certainly empty calories. Maybe I should cut out some or all of those?
Also, I tend not to eat breakfast until I get to work, maybe around 10am. Then I have lunch around 1, and dinner around 7 or 8. Maybe if I consistently ate breakfast at home, earlier in the day, and/or switched to more frequent smaller meals, that would help. And perhaps I should be more diligent about getting in 3+ smaller meals on weekends instead of the big breakfast/dinner routine.

I have no problem motivating myself to go to the gym - I find the workouts enjoyable, I feel great afterward, and if I didn't go I would just sit at home and watch TV. I see friends there pretty often as well, so it's social. Our gym is relatively limited in what it offers: rowing machines, stationary bikes (pretty crappy ones), stairmaster, free weights, kettle balls, bench press, pulldown weights, two kinds of leg weight machine, and the new, entertainingly large and unwieldy "fitness tree" (on which I think you can do dips, pullups, leg lifts... dunno what else). Any suggestions on what I can do within those confines, I am absolutely open to.

I guess the reality is that I'm looking for an aesthetic change more than anything else. I'm not interested in "losing weight," I expect to gain some from muscle. I also don't want to be a calorie counting diet nazi. I think I'm close to my goal, and I'm hoping you guys can suggest some tweaks to bring it all home. Thanks in advance (and, on preview, sorry this is so long) : )
posted by autojack to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
you can choose between two options in order to shed weight quicker: reduce your calory intake or exercise more.

I would suggest that your diet is relatively okay (you're not going nuts in either direction, so that's fine for now) with the exception of the beer but that's a minor point. so let's concentrate on revving your workouts a bit up. does your gym have personal trainers? if so, chat one up.

consider going three or at times even four times per week and also running on a treadmill. you should be able to get the couch-to-5k program done rather easily considering your age and stats mentioned above. other threads have elaborated on that, so forgive me for skipping this part. once you get to a point where you are running 20-25km per week, you'll be burning significantly more than you are now on a given day. keeping your diet as-is will tilt the scale significantly withing a couple months and it will also change the way what you have looks. you'll be getting some seriously good looking calves, a firmer core and so on...

please do let a trainer show you how to go about this. please do not just do it alone. please let someone help you find the right shoes. injuries are not fun and there are so many little things you can do that actually cause you to burn way less calories than you otherwise would (holding on to a treadmill being my personal pet peeve with people in gyms).

also: ,a href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=6I990Wbr1JE">do plank holds every time you go to the gym. (do side planks later, just try to do three of one minute each for now) these are great for your core. (btw: the runners world youtube channel is great for instructional videos.)
posted by krautland at 5:15 PM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

if you aren't getting results from your abs work, you probably aren't doing the exercises correctly. it's hard to describe proper form, but basically you want to draw in your gut (as if you were trying to suck your navel into your spine) as you contract your muscles so you engage your deep abdominal muscles. that's what will trim your waist. the tendency is to pooch your tummy out as you sit up, but you need to do the opposite.

if there is a trainer at your gym, talk to them and get them to show you what to do. once you do the exercises correctly, you'll see results.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:36 PM on June 29, 2008

Swimming. I'm the exact same size as you - 5'9, 155lbs with a few of those as flab. The only way I've lost weight over the last few years was a regimen of 1.5km of swimming five times a week. After six weeks of that was down to 145, but I was perpetually exhausted so I quit.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 5:45 PM on June 29, 2008

155lbs at 5'9"? That's pretty skinny, isn't it? Only about 22 BMI? How that possibly be "husky"? Do you have an unusual build, or was that a typo? (For reference, I'm an inch shorter than you and over 20 pounds heavier, and currently about 15% bf, slight spare tire, hint of abs.)

And two nights a week isn't really much cardio at all.

So in summary:
- you don't get that much cardio exercise
- you don't do squats, deadlifts, or any lower body weights at all
- you don't eat that much
- what you do eat is pre-made and light in the protein department
- you don't have much muscle to speak of

Obviously, one or more of those things has to change...

If you want to lose fat, you will need more cardio and fewer carbs. The currently fashionable approach appears to be high-intensity interval training, which certainly worked for me when I tried it.

If you want to gain significant muscle, you will need to add squats or deadlifts and eat more, but especially more protein. You will inevitably add a certain amount of fat at the same time, but you can focus on that later.

If you choose to go for fat loss from here, and you eat enough protein to keep the muscles you already have, they'll look a bit bigger because there will be less fat hiding them.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:48 PM on June 29, 2008

Adding weighted compound movements to your lower body exercises can have a dramatic impact on overall metabolism.

Squats and deadlifts are fundamental and extremely beneficial if your body can handle them (good form is critical).

I would suggest a reduced carb diet heavy in cruciferous vegetables and meat (red/white).

Lots of healthy fats. Nuts, avocado, wholesome oils.

If you aren't already taking a quality fish oil, take 10 of these quality epa-dha (omega 3 fatty acid) capsules daily

Keep workouts under 45 minutes, which is approximately when cortisol is released (which can reverse fat loss benefits).

Good luck!
posted by bradly at 5:52 PM on June 29, 2008

Seconding bradly - more protein, more good fat, fewer carbs:

I cut red meat and pizza (two otherwise pretty regular staples) out of my diet entirely.
Keep the red meat, for variety. Good for you for ditching the pizza!

On a typical weekday I'll eat cereal or oatmeal for breakfast
Try eggs, cheese, meat, avocado, or any combo of those instead. Or add some protein to your oatmeal: whole milk and some nuts, maybe.

a fresh deli sandwich or burrito for lunch
Skip the bread or the tortilla. Or get a salad or a meat/veg entree.

and maybe fish and rice, or Indian food, or stir fry (all from Trader Joe's) for dinner

I love TJs, but most of their pre-made stuff has a lot of added filler (carbs are cheap, protein isn't). Skip the rice and the TJ's Indian food (which is mostly rice), stick with the fish and veggies instead.
posted by chez shoes at 6:42 PM on June 29, 2008

Most fundamentally, what you are wanting to do is lower your body fat percentage. You can do that by losing weight, or by adding muscle as you lose the fat and ending up at the same or higher weight.

But just doing lifts and bulking up muscles won't necessarily make you lose the fat. Yes, there is some metabolism effect of more muscle -- but there is no contradiction between having a fat belly and having large and very strong muscles. Look at a lot of guys who do physical labor, run jackhammers, things like that -- they often have sizable bellies, but they are physically extremely strong.

So you are back to the good old fashioned diet and exercise choice. Exercise-wise, you need more of it -- walking, running, biking, swimming, etc. What gets called "cardio," I guess -- you just want to burn calories consistently a bunch of days a week, over and above the weight work you are already doing. Diet-wise, it's partly just a caloric issue (trimming those six beers to three, and so on) and partly making sure that what you eat is maximizing nutrition and goodness per bite. So lots of protein, lots of vegies, complex rather than simple carbs, etc. Not rocket science, but making those changes usually gets complicated because you have to make your lunch instead of eating out, change your favorite meals, change your shopping, etc.

Lastly, not everyone has an easy time getting and keeping the six pack abs. I have a fairly lean body normally, but to get visible abs for me takes a tremendous amount of work; I feel hungry all the time and get cold in the winter and so on. And some people have even more stubborn bodies, that are genetically really motivated to keep a little paunch for when the famine comes. I find that I feel ten times healthier overall when my body is a bit heavier than the ultra-lean, very cut look -- those extra 15 or 20 pounds (or about 10% of my weight) make me feel much better, vanity aside. So be realistic in your goals, and listen really closely to your body, and make sure that you are doing what makes you genuinely feel good and can be sustained over time.
posted by Forktine at 7:24 PM on June 29, 2008

It has been said before, but I'll say it anyway - you're most likely not overweight, and you may wish to cut out breakfast cereal and oatmeal, as well as juice (all are high in calories, specifically simple and complex carbs.)
posted by KokuRyu at 7:29 PM on June 29, 2008

Response by poster: Some general comments:

My "gym" is just a small fitness room in the private rowing club I belong to, so I don't have immediate access to a trainer. There are other knowledgeable athletes I can talk to, but they aren't professionals. This is one reason I haven't pursued running as an exercise. I have a friend who injured herself by just starting up a running program on her own.

thinkingwoman: I wasn't actually expecting the ab work to specifically cut fat in that area, I just do it as a break in between the weights. I'll try your suggestion though.

qxntpqbbbqxl: I've thought about swimming, but I don't really want to get into another paid fitness program (i.e. pool or gym-with-a-pool membership), and my swimming form itself is terrible. I'd need a few pointers before it would be useful. On the other hand, my rowing club has a bay-swimming program that loads of people do. It would be easy for me to get some instruction and a swimming partner from them. Maybe I'll look into that.

i_am_joe's_spleen: The title is a random quote; I don't think I'm husky or fat or overweight. I'm just looking to get rid of the beer gut/spare tire/whatever. Yeah, I'm a skinny guy everywhere except my middle. Rowing is a pretty solid lower body workout in itself. The motion is the same as a dead lift, it's all legs and back. Non-rowers tend to assume that it's all back and arms, but that's only if you're doing it wrong. But yeah, the reason I wasn't targeting lower body more is, I feel like my legs are already very muscular. I'm surprised you think my diet is light in the protein department. I didn't say it explicitly, but I generally eat meat with lunch and dinner every day. I'm not specifically interested in building a lot more muscle, just in losing the gut. I've thought about cutting the carbs but I figured the cardio I was getting was enough. I could bump that up to four nights a week and see what it gets me. I'll have to see if I can find some rowing workout suggestions for interval training.

bradly: Dude, ten fish oil capsules a day? Uhhhh... can you explain WHY?

I meant to mention before that I am perpetually thinking I don't eat enough fruit and vegetables. I've been very suspicious of the carb-free diets, but I'm willing to give it a go since almost all of you mentioned it. I can see working to swap the carbs for fruits and veggies, so to speak. Practice buying more of the latter and less of the former. I'd be interested in more specific suggestions about carb management, and also how long I should try that for before I might expect to see any results.

Thanks for all the responses so far! I'm certainly open to more : )
posted by autojack at 7:33 PM on June 29, 2008

OK, thanks for sorting out the confusion. Blame my disconnection from pop culture.

When you write "a fresh deli sandwich or burrito for lunch, and maybe fish and rice, or Indian food, or stir fry (all from Trader Joe's) for dinner" my assumption was that meat is a minor component of those things. I do think it would be worth actually working out what proportion of your intake is protein. Also, I would be suspicious that any premade dish I bought had more sugar and more fat in it than a home-made version.

The reason people suggest squats and deads for lifting is because they are whole-body exercises that many people believe elicit a greater hormonal response than any other kind of lift. The intent is not to beef up your legs and back even more, it's to stress the biggest possible group of muscles at once.

The idea of eating more protein when you are trying to lose that last bit of fat is that your body is inclined not to support a bunch of useless muscle. If you lift briefly but heavily, and eat enough protein, the theory is that your body will retain more muscle than if you don't.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:28 PM on June 29, 2008

Have a look at High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

It's more effective at burning fat than a regular workout (i.e. your current rowing regimen). You should probably get a heart rate monitor if you want to do things properly, but it isn't required.

You could easily adapt your rowing to become a HIIT program - at least give it a go for a couple of weeks, I've found it really effective.
posted by jozzas at 8:40 PM on June 29, 2008

If you aren't getting results from your abs work, you probably aren't doing the exercises correctly. it's hard to describe proper form, but basically you want to draw in your gut (as if you were trying to suck your navel into your spine) as you contract your muscles so you engage your deep abdominal muscles. that's what will trim your waist.

Untrue. This might well be a description of proper form, but you cannot decide where to burn fat, i.e. you will not burn more fat from your abs by doing ab work.

Anyway I sympathize with you, you sound like me. You're probably not fat, you probably just have a normal level of body fat and it's on your gut, which is where men usually have it. Having strong abs will make your gut stick out more, because obviously you'll have more muscle mass there. I also can't really get the last bit of fat off my gut, and I also enjoy about 6-8 beers a week, and I've come to accept myself. You could always try going without the beer, and you can always try fewer carbs and more protein and combine that with big lifts like squat, bench, etc., sort of like you're doing. Fewer carbs, more protein and bigger lifts is always a good idea. The idea is that when you gain muscle mass you also raise your metabolism in your resting state. But like I said, you're probably fine, your problem is probably just that you spend too much time comparing yourself to underwear models. To have really visible, cut abs you have to have very low body fat, and it's really difficult and probably not worth it for anyone with a normal lifestyle and a real job. To get an idea: can you see the outline of your abs through the fat when you flex your stomach, and if yes, how many abs can you see? Two? Four? Six?
posted by creasy boy at 3:24 AM on June 30, 2008

It's going to be tough to get one of those great-looking bodies you see on tv, but not impossible. To be honest, as a 5'9.5" guy who used to weigh 155 lbs, I think you sound pretty small(weak) if you still have fat over your stomach and I believe gaining muscle should be your priority. I can give you more specific weight-lifting/weight-gaining advice if you wish. But what follows is some generic fat-burning, ab-sculpting advice.

Abs shouldn't be done "as a break in between the weights." Abs need to be treated as any other weight-lifting exercise. That means intensity, proper form, progression and rest. Lots of people do crunches incorrectly, and that's not going to accomplish anything. You need to make sure your really contracting your targeted abs (crunches: upper, leg-hip raise: lower). Core strength is important, especially if you want a visible 6/8 pack.

Your rowing routine sounds like a great workout, but how long have you been doing the same routine? You're body is probably accustomed to it by now. You say "I typically row about 6400 meters in that time." You need to up that number and really exercise. Get a heart rate monitor and make sure you're in the zone!

The only way to lose that belly fat is going to be through a lot, and I do mean a lot, of intense workouts or a significant change in your diet. I wish I could help you with the diet, but most people don't like hearing my advice. Eating vegetarian (vegan), no meat and no dairy, with a protein supplement works wonders (protein is going to protect the muscle you already have from deteriorating). It's healthier and eating the same quantity of food (ounces per day) will most likely result in the calorie deficit you'll need to lose weight. Plus, dropping dairy helps remove some of the bloatedness in the stomach area that you didn't know was there. There's only one way to lose weight and its a calorie deficit. Accomplish it by eating less or burning more calories through exercise.

If you want to gain significant muscle, you will need to add squats or deadlifts and eat more, but especially more protein. You will inevitably add a certain amount of fat at the same time, but you can focus on that later.

i_am_joe's_spleen is correct. Deadlifts and squats will do wonders for building more muscle mass. But adding more protein alone will not cause a significant gain in muscle. More protein plus more calories, a lot more calories, is what builds muscle mass. Though that will inevitably add fat.

If you're satisfied with your current strength and muscle mass then focus on aerobic exercise and lift weights in a full-body approach only once a week (deadlifts, pull-ups--or lat pull-downs--squats, incline bench, military press, throw in your favorite arm exercise if you must). It is practically impossible to gain significant mass while losing fat simultaneously, so choose one plan and stick with it (meaning, 1 day lifting per week will be enough to build-up your current muscles if you're upping your aerobic and going for fat loss).

Also, do not do aerobic exercise after lifting. No more stairmaster after lifting. Your body should be exhausted after lifting weights and adding more exercise is only going to hurt your muscle recovery. Also, make sure your doing all lifts with proper form and are concentrating on using the targeted muscles. Check out Vic's workouts on you-tube to double check your form(His lat pull-down form demonstration has helped my lat width tremendously. I thought I was doing them correctly, but I wasn't).

If you would prefer to gain muscle mass and worry about dropping those inches from your waist later, then you have to eat more, lift more, row less, and eat more. Oh, did I mention that you're going to have to eat more? Well, you're going to need to eat more. I would recommend checking out a beginners program at exrx.net if you take this route.

This post is already too long, so I'll try to wrap it up. Keys for lifting: hit the gym with a plan. Log your totals for every workout. Beat those totals the next time you're in the gym (this is progression). Warm-up with every lift before hitting your work sets ( I do three warm-up sets for every exercise; 10 reps at about 35%, 8 reps at 50-60% and 6 reps at 80-85% of the weight used for my 'real' sets ). Make sure the targeted muscles do the work for each lift. Stretch after for better recovery. Oh, and eat. You have to eat a lot to gain real mass and if you want to keep up your aerobics, which you should, you'll need to eat even more on those days.

Ask if you have any specific questions.
posted by trueluk at 8:28 AM on June 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the other comments folks, there's lots of useful information in here.

I think in terms of the exercise side of things, I'm going to try a few weeks of interval training. I found a simple interval workout for rowing that seems like a good place to start with that. I'll try weights just one night a week, push myself on them more, and no cardio after. I have a heart rate monitor but I can't get a reliable signal from it for some reason. I might upgrade to a Polaris one, which has the side benefit of being visible on the rowing machine's LCD, unlike my current one. Trueluk's comment rings most true here - when I was lifting twice a week I felt like I was constantly starving. Not literally feeling hungry, but I woke up every single day with a headache, which immediately went away upon eating breakfast. It was annoying and maybe indicative of a counterproductive diet, but good to know I was making a difference.

On the diet side, I'll see what I can do about lowering carb intake. When I think about it, it does seem like I get a pretty hefty dose of simple carbs with almost every meal. I'll try cutting out more of those and switch the remainder to complex carbs where I can. Also I think if I diligently grocery shop on Sundays and Wednesdays, I can keep a lot more fresh stuff in the house and eat less of the packaged stuff from TJ.

I don't want to sound like I'm obsessed with my appearance to an unhealthy degree. I'm mostly just curious if there are simple changes I can make that would help me burn more fat. I'm not interested in being a total gym and diet slave, so if this is the best I can do, I'm pretty happy with it. It's nice to know I'm in a lot better shape than most Americans.

Thanks again for all the suggestions, this is one of the best outcomes of an AskMe question I've gotten!
posted by autojack at 11:34 AM on June 30, 2008

You could also cut out Indian food (it's loaded with fat) and burritos (fat and carbs).
posted by KokuRyu at 4:28 PM on June 30, 2008

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