Just as abs are made in the kitchen, summer bodies are built in January – or at least the foundations laid.
Like most clichés, there’s truth behind this thinking. By allowing plenty of time, and slowly dialling it up, you are able to implement manageable lifestyle changes that you might actually stick with.
While you can craft a holiday physique in four weeks, you’re going to have to suffer for it, probably with a painfully sharp boot camp-style routine that, even if it does have an effect, is so unsustainable (not to mention unpleasant) that you’ll fall back into your bad old ways immediately after your holiday. Only your results should be drastic.
Ultimately, a summer body should be for life, not just for summer. And besides, it’s a hell of a lot easier to be virtuous in Dry January than sunny June, when the beer garden beckons.
Start Your Packing
“Building muscle is the best way to get and keep a good body,” says body transformation specialist Tim Walker of Evolution of Man Fitness. “It’s also the thing that takes the longest. Dropping a kilo of fat can take as little as a week but putting on a kilo of muscle takes about a month.”
Muscle is your friend: it burns more calories than fat and makes you solid where you’re flabby. So even if you only want to tone, you need to get familiar with the free weights area.
“The quickest moves to build muscle are squats, deadlifts, rows, chin-ups and overhead/bench pressing,” says Walker. “Start in the 10-12 rep range and gradually add weight while reducing your rep count by two every few weeks until you’re down to 6-8 reps. Then increase your reps back up to 10-12 while keeping the weight the same.”
You don’t have to bulk then cut like a creosote-tanned bodybuilder either. “You can build muscle and burn fat at the same time,” says Walker.
Despite the keg-bellied connotations, strongman-style moves like pushing a sled, flipping a tyre or hitting it with a sledgehammer are particularly effective double whammies, while sprinting is another powerful muscle-building, fat-burning tool: “But you can get a similar benefit from most cardio activity by going with 100 per cent intensity for short, 10-15 second bursts.”
Going to the hardware store isn’t a prerequisite for going hard either. Simply combine those classic muscle-building exercises into a basic circuit: say, 8 reps each of squats, chin-ups, bench-press, deadlift and overhead press, with 15-30 seconds rest between exercises. Do three rounds, with 60 seconds rest between each.
“By training in this way, you’ll burn a lot of fat during the workout, and continue to afterwards,” says Walker.
Stockpile Your Arsenal
Invest in some training gear – at least enough to get you through a whole working-out week. Nothing derails the train to Gainsville after a few days like realising that you have no clean workout clothes. Or, if you’re as anally retentive as this correspondent, no clean workout clothes that go together.
For that reason, buying training gear in exclusively white, black and grey is eminently sensible. Even multiples of the exact same top and shorts. If you have to expend mental energy on outfitting for the gym, then you’re giving yourself another excuse not to go. Albeit a pretty weak one.
Again, it might sound anal, but buy a notebook so you can track your sets, reps and weights. A training diary ensures that you’re making progress, even just incrementally, and keeps you motivated until those results are reflected in the mirror. You’ll also want to re-up on Tupperware so that you can prep meals and snacks. (More on that below.)
One thing you don’t need to shell out for is expensive supplements. Beyond protein, caffeine and creatine, very few are conclusively, double blind-proven to have any effect. And if they do, it’s the extra 1 per cent that only competing fitness models need worry about.
Instead of buying dodgy banned supplements online, drink a black coffee before your workout. And maybe a protein shake after, if that’s convenient. Or just, you know, eat some food.
Clean Your Environment
Despite what diet plans will tell (and sell) you, eating well really isn’t that complicated or unpleasant. Every meal should have a good whack of protein, a not-excessive helping of low GI (i.e. slow-release) carbs and healthy fats (depending on your activity level) and a ton of vegetables. The hard bit is sticking to it through thick until thinner.
“You will fail or succeed by the choices you make, especially when you are at your most vulnerable,” says Jeremy Snape, a former England cricketer turned psychologist and founder of Sporting Edge.
The problem is that making decisions is exhausting. Literally: ‘decision fatigue’ is one of the reasons why you make worse food choices later in the day. Ideally, you want good choices to be your default, but new habits take a while to form: anywhere from 21 to 66 days, according to the science.
One of the quickest ways to change your habits though is to change your environment. What’s around you informs your choices – like that cake on the side of the office kitchen. Make it easier for yourself to stay on the straight and narrow with packed lunches and snacks. “Preparing healthy food ahead of time will protect you from grabbing unhealthy options on the go,” says Snape.
While you can’t control the feeder in the office, you can at home. “Buying your shopping after a meal prevents you craving sugary foods,” says Snape. “Moving the alcohol and treats out of easy reach to, say, the garage meanwhile may just encourage you to grab some nearby fruit or nuts rather than make the extra trip into the cold.”
Better still, don’t buy any in the first place.
Clear Your Head
Stress is your hidden summer body enemy. On a logistical level, a hectic schedule makes it harder for you to train and eat right. On a biochemical level, the stress hormone cortisol cannibalises your precious muscle and holds onto fat. And if you’re already on the brink of collapse, intense workouts and strict dieting will tip you over.
“If you’re constantly in a state of flight or flight, your muscles won’t recover, standard workouts will feel harder and you won’t make the progress you desire,” says Mario Christou, a personal trainer turned life coach. “Train your mind before you train your body.”
Some things, like work, can be beyond your control. (Although you could always look for a new job.) But you can control your reaction to those things by practising mindfulness via an app such as Headspace. As the stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “We are disturbed not by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens.”
Training sessions can themselves be meditative – if you focus on the muscles working rather than your phone. Alternate high-intensity sessions with low, and while you should ring-fence workouts in your diary where possible, don’t beat yourself up too hard if you miss one, or eat the occasional pizza. Exercise should relieve stress, not become it.