Those Quality Street did a number on you, too, huh? Right. Now is the time for a good, hard look in the mirror. Go on, do it. Soak it all in. Yes, look at him. That’s you. What have you done to yourself? No, wait, don’t cry. It’s fine, buddy. Buddy?
Wipe those tears. The good thing about festive excess is that it’s entirely shiftable. A powerful January is all it takes to undo the damage, as long as you know what you’re doing. To that end, we made it our New Year’s resolution to comb through the most important research into weight loss, muscle building and fitness and whittle it down to what really counts. The result is this compendium of the most-effective, science-backed methods for building a new you.
Best put the mirror away for now. We’ll see you in a few weeks.
First things first: bin the scales because weight isn’t a particularly accurate indicator of body fat. In fact, if BMI was anything to go by then the England back row would be considered obese and the forwards would likely qualify for free mobility scooters. So forget the pounds and measure your progress by inches instead.
When it comes to choosing a method, as soon as you find yourself facing advice that goes beyond the simple equation of burning off more than you eat, you know you’re looking at a fad. As far as exercise scientists are concerned, it really is a case of calorie deficit (eating less) + increased energy expenditure (moving more) = fat loss.
Of course, certain nuances can either help or hinder your progress – supplements, meal quality and sleep all have a role to play. Plus the intensity of your chosen energy expenditure method will dictate the rate at which you can start tightening that tape measure.
As a rule, if quick results are your aim, the Journal of Strength & Conditioning notes that exercises that focus on explosive strength boost your resting metabolic rate – the speed at which your body burns calories when at rest – by nearly 20 per cent, even the day after your workout. So work plyometrics (explosive bodyweight moves like jumping squats) and powerlifting into your routine, which can otherwise focus on regular exercises like running, cycling or swimming.
The perfect fat-loss diet is a little counterintuitive: eat more. But eat right. McMaster University scientists found that, while you’re in a calorie deficit, increasing the amount of protein in each dish ensures that you can keep or even gain muscle mass as you burn blubber. What’s more, as you eat, your body uses calories to digest food and protein demands the most. Eat meat, burn fat. Simple. So long as it’s not dripping in peri-peri sauce.
Fitness is a broad term. To a CrossFitter it probably means something like being able to bash out 20 straight muscle-ups while wearing a weighted vest that’s on fire. To a footballer it’s performing to the best of your ability for 90 minutes, or at least until it’s time to feign injury.
To most other people it means your ability to do regular exercise-y things without passing out or vomiting on your shoes. This is particularly challenging in the new year, when the only thing you’ve been training is your ability to projectile after an ungodly amount of cheese and booze.
We can’t help you with your gag reflex, alas. But we can forestall your lactate threshold and boost your anaerobic fitness, ensuring your limit is a little further on the horizon than it was last year.
Lactate builds up in your muscles during exercise, which leads to an increase in acidity and eventually that burn you feel during lap two of the park. Your lactate threshold is the max effort you can maintain over a period of time. This, along with cardiorespiratory prowess, is considered the most important predictor of fitness.
Boost yours by mixing fast-paced runs into your regular endurance work: jog over a mid-distance of say 5-8K, intermittently bursting into fast runs then easing off as it starts to burn. This is known as a fartlek run. According to the Journal of Physical Education and Sports Management, this method will greatly improve your coordination and speed as well. Double-win if getting back into five-a-side was your resolution.
As for cardiorespiratory fitness, just work hard. A study in the journal PLoS One confirmed that intensity is key when it comes to boosting your lung power, so either finish your endurance runs with some intermittent hill sprints, or set aside separate days for intense interval workouts involving skipping or bursts of intensive cycling. Taking a sick bag with you is optional.
One principle needs to be made clear from the outset and painfully so: it’s compound moves that beget big gains. While resistance training of any kind performed with the right level of intensity will elicit muscle damage and therefore growth, nothing builds muscle as effectively as the four horsemen of the ab-pocalypse: messrs squat, deadlift, bench press and pull-up.
It’s upon those big foundation moves that you can build your routine, adding fancy design flourishes like preacher curls and pistol squats later on. But without those four pillars you’re building your house upon sand and risk injury and little long-term development.
From there it’s less about specific moves, more about how you periodise them. As superhero movie personal trainer David Kingsbury says, “Your most important move is progressive overload.” That means gradually overloading your body by increasing the weight and/or rep range as you notice progress. That way you’re always building, never stagnating. If it worked for Wolverine, we’re certainly not going to argue.
Next, eat like it’s your job and approach recovery with as much razor focus as you’d bring to a one-rep max deadlift. The latter can be difficult during this time of year: the University of Birmingham found a correlation between vitamin D and the rate at which you can build muscle.
That means bad weather can dampen your gains. So supplement with D that comes in a fish oil capsule, which a study by the Washington University School of Medicine found increases protein synthesis: the rate at which your body turns protein into muscle. It’s no magic bullet, but a pill that builds muscle is nothing to sniff at.