There's an old proverb that goes like this: Speak the truth, but leave the room immediately.
Yeah, the truth hurts sometimes. And it doesn't just hurt to hear it; it hurts to speak it. Imagine this conversation: "No, honey, those jeans don't make you look fat. They show how fat your ass has actually become."
Enjoy that doghouse, buddy.
If it's any consolation, our favorite coaches, contributors, and experts know the feeling. They speak the truth to their readers, clients, and patients on a daily basis. They know the truth hurts, because sometimes it costs them the readers, clients, and patients they need to pay the bills. But mostly it hurts the recipients of their tough-love observations and advice, and it hurts in the most vulnerable place of all: the ego.
We went to them with a simple assignment: Give T Nation readers the advice that they're least likely to want to hear and most likely to ignore. Don't worry about their feelings.
They were happy to oblige. You, on the other hand, might wish they hadn't.
Dr. Clay Hyght
Do Your Damn Cardio
"How do I get rid of this?" the person asks as he grabs the excess fat around his midsection. It's by far the most common question I get.
Unfortunately, the answer to that question also happens to be the most ignored advice I've ever offered: "Do more cardio."
Nothing aggravates me more than a person asking for my advice, but not following it. It makes me want to quote Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket: "Were you born a fat, slimy, scumbag, puke piece o' shit, Private Pyle, or did you have to work on it?"
If your diet is in check and your training program is squared away, then how in the hell else do you think you can burn more fat? Is the Fat Fairy going to wave her lipolysis wand and make you lean?
I know what some of you are about to say: "Won't I burn muscle?" To paraphrase Sgt. Hartman: "That's right. Don't make any fucking effort. If God wanted you to be lean he would have miracled that fat off your ass, wouldn't he?"
The fact is, most people don't have what it takes to diet so hard and do so much cardio that they burn any muscle tissue at all, much less a measurable, noticeable amount. Let's review some basic exercise physiology:
The primary fuel for low-intensity exercise – aka steady-state cardio – is fat. The primary fuel for high-intensity exercise – weight training, intervals, and start-stop sports like basketball or hockey – is carbohydrate. Following high-intensity exercise, your body burns more fat than it otherwise would, thanks to EPOC – excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, more commonly referred to as the afterburn.
In neither circumstance is the protein stored in your muscles a significant fuel source.
Only under extreme deprivation does your body try to burn muscle to meet energy demands. And even then, there's an easy and painless way to give your body supplemental protein to use as energy: branched-chained amino acids. Tasty as it is, your body will gladly bypass your muscle tissue if there's an easier way to get what it needs.
But let's forget what I just said, and assume you're training so hard and dieting so seriously that your body has no choice but to burn some of your muscle for fuel. If I said you could get to 5% body fat, but at the cost of three ounces of muscle, wouldn't you take that tradeoff?
If not, then your problem may not be physiological, if you get my drift.
Two more excuses I hear more often than I'd like:
"But I already do cardio." Unless you're Dexter Jackson, you won't get ripped with 30 minutes of treadmill walking three times a week.
"Can't I just take fat burners?" Sure ... if you're already doing three hours a week of steady-state cardio, along with an hour of high-intensity intervals. Fat-burning supplements are not replacements for cardio.
My advice: If you're doing as much as you can with your diet and your strength training, and you still aren't as lean as you want to be, you need to stop looking for excuses and just do your damned cardio.
In all my years in the business, overtraining remains one of the main reasons...er, excuses, given as to why Johnny won't grow.
Sure, Johnny's an overachiever. He's so dedicated to building a big bad-ass body, so singularly minded in his goal, that his body hasn't grown a pound in 5 years. Oh yeah, it's overtraining.
To quote Senator Clay Davis from The Wire, "Sheeeeeeeeee-it."
I'm going to tell you two truths; two truths for the price of one:
- I ain't never made love to an Aborigine woman.
- I ain't never seen anyone overtrain on squats or deadlifts.
There's nothing to say about the first truth, but the second one? It may need some elucidatin'.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll admit it's easy to overtrain on curls, or triceps extensions, or anterior shoulder raises, etc. It's easy to beat the shit out of small muscles and it happens often because, frankly, it doesn't take much to work those muscles. A lot of guys can even carry on a conversation while doing them; maybe even complete Soduko puzzles at the same time.
But squats and deadlifts be different animals, Willis. They work the entire body. They hurt. They make the Tostitos you had for lunch want to see daylight again.
That's why people don't like them, that's why people don't do them. That's why virtually no one works hard enough. That's why nobody ever overtrains on squats and deadlifts. It's certainly possible, but it never happens.
I know what people a lot smarter than me say about the nervous system and not working to failure and heavens, put yer galooshes on before you go out in the rain, you silly boy, but the truth is, you gotta' hug the floor once in a while after a set.
You must tax the body to grow. If you do that every time you train, yeah, you may be overtraining. Otherwise, you're just jerking off, and half-heartedly at that.
Your Weekend Is Fucking Up Your Progress
Years ago, I thought I could train hard and eat clean all week, then hit the buffets on weekends and still make progress. Five steps forward, only two steps back, right?
For a lot of people, weekends of dietary debauchery undo all the good they've done during the week. Eat enough crap, drink enough booze, screw up your sleep habits badly enough, and you'll all but wipe out the previous five days' worth of proper eating and hard training.
You might continue to make progress, but it'll be slow. Over time, body fat starts to creep up, especially for those of us who're no longer 19 years old, eight feet tall, and bulletproof.
I'm not suggesting that you stay home all weekend, eat celery sticks, and become a really buff hermit. But there are ways to minimize the damage of an active social life.
It's entirely possible to go out with friends and not get shit-faced. I've seen it with my own eyes. You can go out to eat at a good restaurant without basting your abs with melted butter. You can even get your ass off the couch and do something active on weekends. For reals! I've read studies.
I'm not just lecturing you here; I'm speaking from experience. Check out the pics of me in this article.
The first is a pre-Velocity Diet photo, back when I thought that weekends could be "free" as long as I was "good" all week. The second is a post-V-Diet shot, after I kicked the bad habits and realized there's a big difference between a nice weekend carb-up and a gluttonous two-and-a-half-day binge. (Yeah, I had some good lighting in that second pic, but it also shows about 16 pounds of pure fat loss and four inches off my love handles.)
I understand it's fun to obsess about splits vs. full-body training, or the best time of day to take BCAAs, or the relative merits of steady-state cardio vs. HIIT. But if your weekends are dietary disasters or tsunamis of booze, none of those issues really matters. Whatever you're doing M-F, you're undermining it on the days that begin with S.
You can still relax, recharge, and have fun on the weekend without derailing your progress and nullifying all your hard work. I've seen it done.
You Can Learn Something from a Bodybuilder ... and a Sprinter
When I competed in bodybuilding, it was common knowledge that you had to get a pump if you wanted growth. But in the past 10 years, functional-training zealots have all but crushed that notion.
So what's the truth? If the goal is bigger muscles, is it important to get a pump in the ones you're training?
Empirically speaking, I'd say yes. The muscles that pump up tend to grow faster than the muscles that don't. Muscles that pump easily are usually the dominant muscles within a specific movement pattern, and are better developed than the muscles that don't pump.
To illustrate what I mean, let's look at an example from outside the bodybuilding world. I'm sure you've seen the unbelievable glute and hamstring development on world-class sprinters. When they train with sprints of 150 meters or more, they experience something they call "butt lock" – the sensation of extreme congestion in the upper hamstrings and glutes.
Athletes that experience intense butt lock typically have the best-developed muscles in those areas.
So, from my perspective, there's a definite correlation. You can argue whether the muscle pump is a side effect or a prerequisite for growth, but either way it seems to be necessary.
The lesson: If you want to make a muscle bigger, you have to develop the ability to create congestion in that muscle.
Don't Mess with Steroids
Buckle up, boys: America is facing a Testosterone shortage, and it's going to be a rough ride. The synthetic Testosterone that comes in a 10cc vial will be tougher to find in this post-Raw Deal environment.
Many of the underground lab operators have been busted. Longevity clinics have been shuttered. Physicians have been arrested and convicted. And the mainstream sports media has fostered an atmosphere in which steroid users are less popular than AIG executives.
Ironically, all this is happening at a time when the natural Testosterone in your blood is getting scarcer as well. A startling study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2007 looked at Testosterone levels of groups of men taken in three waves: 1987 to 1989, 1995 to 1997, and 2002 to 2004.
Bad news: They found that when they compared age-matched subjects in each wave, the men of the 1980s had higher average Testosterone levels than the men of the '90s. The men of the new century have, on average, the least Testosterone of all.
Of course, blood Testosterone levels per se are really just a physiological marker. Most guys really want the things higher Testosterone levels are linked with: more strength, less belly fat, bigger muscles, and more masculine confidence. If you want good stuff like that, educate yourself on the latest research on exercise, nutrition, dietary supplements, and attitude improvement. You can start right here at T Muscle, and then check out my new book, Alpha Male Challenge, which comes out later this year.
But if you're looking for advice from me on how to jack to the max and not get caught, you're out of luck. Sorry bro. As a lawyer specializing in steroid cases, I've spent the past two decades in the marble and mahogany trenches of America's courtrooms. I've seen the burden and heartache that accompanies any criminal case – not just to the accused, but to the family. My advice is this:
Don't illegally import, manufacture, sell, or possess anabolic steroids.
I'm very skilled at defending steroid cases, but trust me, what I just said is the best legal advice you'll ever get. And it's totally free of charge. If you ignore it, you'd better be prepared to pay quite a bit more. Cash. Up front.
Your Conditioning Blows
Strength athletes love to quote the research showing that cardio can decrease force production. I've used it myself to justify doing only 20 minutes of cardio a week so I could spend more time lifting heavy shit. Others use it as an excuse to be fat and out of shape.
I think all of us need some element of conditioning in our training programs. We all need to include something that raises our heart rates and improves our overall endurance. Those activities not only increase our ability to train hard and train well, they also improve our health. And, as Clay Hyght noted earlier in this article, they help us reduce body fat.
That said, I'm no fan of jogging for strength athletes. I won't disagree with Clay about its usefulness to bodybuilders who're trying to achieve low-single-digit body fat – he's the expert, and if that's your goal, listen to him. But if you're more interested in strength performance, I think shorter and more intense cardio workouts will improve your conditioning without any risk of decreasing your strength or power.
Brisk walking, especially if you go up an incline and/or walk with a weighted backpack, is great for general conditioning. Do it a few times a week and you should notice significant improvements in your overall fitness level, along with some noticeable reductions in the size of your gut.
If steady-state cardio isn't your thing, you can try interval training. But I urge caution. Keep the workouts short – 20 to 30 minutes of combined work and rest intervals. Go short and really hard, rather than long and kind of hard.
Some of my favorite cardio workouts:
- One-mile sprint on a bike. If you can't go outside with a real bike, I like the Expresso Virtual Reality Bike, if you have access to one of those.
- 500-meter rows. Try 1 to 5 intervals on a rowing machine, with a one-minute rest in between.
- Five-meter sprints. Here's something you can do indoors, in your gym's aerobics studio. You need to go easy at first – you're at risk of pulling a muscle if you sprint full speed when you haven't done so in a while. Try for 15 to 20 reps with very short breaks in between. If you're outdoors and want to sprint longer distances, I'd keep the total distance of your sprints to 400 meters or less. So if you're sprinting 20 meters, your max would be 20 reps.
- Kettlebell swings. A guy at my gym does 3 sets of 30 reps with 100 pounds, with 30-second breaks in between each set. See if you can match him.
- StepMill. Try somewhat longer intervals – up to five minutes – with whatever time you need to recover in between. Keep your total workout to 30 minutes or less. For more pain, try it wearing a weighted vest.
- Ab-wheel wheelbarrow walks. Hold onto an ab wheel, have someone grab your legs, and then get pushed around. Weave through obstacles to make it harder. It's not the kind of thing you can or would even want to do in a crowded health club, but in the right circumstances, it's a lot of fun and a hellacious workout.
The classics like farmer's walks, sandbag carries, sled pulls, car pushes, tire flips, and sledgehammer work are always good ideas. You're only limited by your creativity.
Spend 30 to 120 minutes per week on your overall conditioning – or more, if you're also walking – and you'll feel better, look better, and have better overall stamina in your workouts and activities. You may or may not get stronger, but you sure don't have to worry about getting weaker.
You Need More Unilateral Training
I can't tell you how many times I've heard guys say, "I don't want to do one-legged squats! I suck at those!"
Exactly my point. You need to do more exercises you suck at, and spend less time on exercises you can already do well. In other words, step away from the bench and do something that actually challenges you.
Like, say, a single-leg squat.
I know that a few of you are ready to quit reading. I mean, of all the tough-love advice you've been given in this article, this is probably your least favorite bit.
The reason for your skepticism should be familiar by now: You tell yourself that "functional" exercises are a joke because they don't build strength or mass like you get from squats or bench presses.
I'll concede the point, while also suggesting that perhaps it's your ego, rather than your strength or size, that would take the biggest hit if you worked some functional exercises into your routine. You'd have to face the fact that you don't have the balance, coordination, and functional strength the exercises require.
Let me put it another way: I've never met anyone who was good at functional exercises but hated doing them anyway.
It's time to step away from your comfort zone and learn an exercise that will help you achieve better muscle symmetry, improved muscle recruitment, and more overall functional ability.
Set up a couple of Airex pads, or weight plates, or two-by-fours, or anything else that's about four inches high. Stand with your left heel at the upper left edge of the stack, as shown. Lift your right foot off the floor, bending your right knee so your foot is behind you. Hold your arms out in front of your shoulders for balance.
Now drop into a one-legged squat, descending until your right knee touches the pads. Rise back to the starting position. Don't rest on the pads, or allow your right foot or shin to touch the pads.
You may be wondering why I recommend this squat variation, rather than the pistol squat. I think this is a more athletic position, and having your non-weight-bearing leg behind you helps you keep better spinal alignment.
The lower you go, the harder the exercise becomes. That's why, as you get stronger and gain more control over the movement, you want to reduce the height of the pads, or whatever you've placed on the floor. Eventually, you want to get rid of the pads altogether and descend until your knee touches the floor.
There's a variation on the proverb we used at the beginning of this article: Always tell the truth, but keep one foot in the stirrup.
Our experts have told you the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not. And now, with the truth spoken, it's time for us to saddle up and get the hell out of Dodge.