Dos and Don’ts for Toning up Without the Bulk
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These days, the average guy isn’t aiming to look like a bodybuilder. He just wants to be muscle shirt-ready, prepared to ditch his shirt at the beach in the summer, and – when it comes down to it – look good naked. But in their quest to develop a strong yet lean body, many guys take it too far, prioritizing muscle mass over everything else, sometimes to the point of taking steroids to achieve super-human size.
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That’s totally fine if you’re building muscle for you, to reach your own goals, but what if you just want to make yourself more attractive to the opposite sex? New research into women’s physique preferences in men reveals some interesting findings. Yes, women still love a man with sturdy shoulders, a broad chest, and a flat stomach, but it turns out that there are diminishing returns: one study, for example, found that when asked to choose between six male body types, ranging from out of shape to “built,” women’s preferences increased incrementally with the man’s perceived strength.
There’s a catch, though: another study asked women to rate the torsos of famous men, from personal trainers to celebrities, and consistently found that while muscle definition and low body fat were important, too much bulky muscle actually turned women off. And which celebrity did women consistently rate as the most attractive? Brad Pitt in Fight Club, of course: lean body, toned muscle, and athletic.
So how can you strip away excess fat and build strong, lean muscle mass without developing muscle hypertrophy like The Hulk? We talked to a few experts to bring you a simplified list of dos and don’ts.
How to Get Lean Instead of Bulky
Do: Pay More Attention to Your Diet
What you eat is certainly going to matter, if you are trying to lose weight and let your toned muscle take the spotlight, but there’s one universal truth that will continue to hold: The simple formula behind weight loss is that the calories you burn must exceed the number of calories you take in. Every diet plan is a means of limiting calories to some extent, says fitness expert Jeff Halevy.
Even if your cutting diet plan is incredibly healthy and clean, if you’re consuming more than 3,000 calories per day without tackling any physical activity such as weight training or aerobic exercise you’re not going to lose weight – or at the very least you will remain at a stasis. “Your body is simply storing energy that you’re not using,” says Halevy.
The key is to find a nutrition method that works for you and the way you’re training. Keeping in mind, that there are some essentials you’ll still need to include regardless of your diet plans – such as vegetables and water. Celebrity trainer Don Saladino, owner of Drive495 suggests pounding 50 ounces of water for every 100 pounds of body weight.
Don’t: Overestimate Your Calories Burned
You know that number on the treadmill that tells you how many calories you’ve burned? Ignore it. OK, you don’t have to completely ignore it but you don’t need to trust it to be 100 percent accurate. In fact, Halevy suggests that you purposely subtract from any device — such as a fitness tracker or heart rate monitor – that measures calories burned. If it says you’ve burned 300 calories, Halevy suggests pretending it said you burned 100.
“It’s like sound financial planning,” he adds. “If someone gives you $300 you keep $100 and put $200 away. It’s like protecting yourself.”
Do: Mix up Your Training
If you’re training the same way all the time, you’re likely going to get the same results. Mix in high-intensity interval training (HIIT), strength training, and aerobic exercise.
“Should you do high reps with lighter weight or fewer reps with heavier weight? The answer is yes,” Halevy explains.
You want variety but most importantly you want to achieve EPOC or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Essentially, this is a scientific term for the after-burn effect that allows your body to continue burning calories well after you’ve left the gym.
Halevy even suggests incorporating lower threshold activities such as walking into your routine, especially if you’re going hard regularly with high-intensity or high-volume workouts. A long walk is an effective way to burn calories while giving your body a rest from the constant pounding.
“Go on a one-hour walk, it’s not sexy but it will burn up incremental calories,” he says. “It’s not going to drive [your] appetite.”
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Don’t: Stuff Your Face
You’ve started working out harder, that’s great. But that doesn’t mean that you now have a license to demolish everything in the refrigerator. Remember, your calorie intake shouldn’t be higher than your calories burned. “You have to burn more calories than you consume if you want to lean out, shred, tone, or not be as bulky,” adds certified personal trainer and performance coach, and founder of Mind in Muscle Coaching, Keith Hodges.
This doesn’t mean you have to give up all your favorite foods. Hodges notes that as you get further into your training routine and boost your metabolism, you won’t need to be quite as focused on the caloric deficit. “You should consume fewer calories initially to place yourself in a caloric deficit, and if you’re consistent, you may increase your daily calorie consumption as your metabolism increases,” he says.
Do: Take Shorter Rests During Workouts
This doesn’t mean you don’t take any days off but, when you are working out, you’ll need to find ways to increase your workload without overworking your muscles. That’s where interval workouts – with minimal rest at high intensity – come into play.
Circuit training, which Hodges describes as “performing a series of resistance training exercises consecutively with as little rest as possible in between,” is another great pick.
“There are many forms of circuit training, but generally speaking, they consist of at least three exercises per circuit,” he says. For example, you can create a circuit involving pushups, weighted squats, and jumping jacks, completing three to four rounds of each exercise for 30 seconds before moving on to the next movement.
Supersets are another option. With this technique, you do one set of an exercise for one muscle group and then another set for an antagonistic muscle group. For example, complete one set of bench presses followed by a set of bodyweight squats, allowing one muscle group to rest while the other works, all while keeping your heart rate elevated.
Don’t: Think That Cardio Is the Only Answer
Yes, you’ll need cardio if you want to drop pounds but going on long, slow runs is not the holy grail of achieving a toned physique. In fact, Halevy says that too much can work against you. “Intense cardio is going to make you hungry,” he says. “It’s like a time bomb.”
Saladino confirmed most people focus on exercises that keep their heart rate up all the time and neglect to develop muscle tissue density. It’s important to build strength and power if you want strong, defined muscles.
That being said, many people have a narrow view of cardio and think that it only involves spending time on the treadmill, elliptical, or spinning bike. But the truth is that any form of intense training that gets your heart rate up and involves minimal rest is a form of cardio whether that is rowing 1,000-meter or doing three sets of heavy kettlebell swings.
Saladino warns not to neglect resistance training. Training with resistance and lifting weights burns a lot more fat than steady cardio training.
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Do: Be Explosive
Using plyometric training that requires your body to move quickly and aggressively is another way to torch fat fast and build lean muscle only using your body weight. Hodges agrees, “incorporating plyometric training into your fitness program is key if you are looking to stay strong without carrying too much bulky mass,” he says.
Plyo exercises such as box jumps, burpees, split jumps, and lateral or broad jumps can all increase athletic performance and build lean muscle. Meanwhile, if you want to incorporate running into your routine, sprinting or running hill workouts is another great way to build muscle and burn fat. Instead of going on a five-mile run, hit the track and sprint 10×100 meters with 45 to 60 seconds rest in between.
Why is this the case? Hodges shares that it all has to do with the fast twitch muscle fibers that are used during this type of workout and the metabolism-boosting EPOC it leads to. “Fast twitch muscle fibers are used during short bouts of explosive movements, which will result in a higher caloric expenditure in a shorter amount of time. Since these bouts are short and explosive, they elevate our heart rates and can lead to EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption),” he says.
Don’t: Compare and Lose Patience
Your body composition is the result of many things. Part of that is your diet and exercise routine and part of that is your age and genetics. “We all have different genetic make-ups – meaning we do not build muscle or burn calories the same. It’s easier for some and harder for others,” says Hodges.
“Social media has made it easier for us to compare our results to strangers and that can be discouraging! We find ourselves wanting to look like someone else instead of becoming the best version of ourselves. Literally comparing ourselves to complete strangers with totally different genetic codes.”
He recommends being consistent with your training and diet, but also having patience and not focusing too much on a number on a scale. “The scale only gives us a number! It doesn’t tell us what the number means.”
If you are trying to gauge results and see if your body is getting leaner, the way your clothes fit might be a better indicator. “If your clothes are fitting looser, you are leaning out no matter what the scale says.”
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