How long do you need to get in shape for a holiday? Part 1
Okay. It's May. If you are planning a summer holiday or are fantasising that Britain will get warm enough to justify going outdoors for fun then you have something in the four to sixteen week range to book, pack and otherwise get ready.
I personally am not the 'aesthetics' guy. Get strong for the sake of getting strong. If you are healthy, powerful, comfortable in your body and also still fairly well insulated against the cold then by all means strip off when the sun comes out and have fun. I don't want to imply anyone MUST drop weight/fat or whatever. However if you think you would be happier, healthier and more confident a few pounds or percentages down then this series is for you.
This first article is about what to do and where to focus your energy when you have a short to medium term goal such a holiday that you wish to be in better shape for. When your training and diet approach does not match the goal, your current position and your deadline the results will always be substandard. If you try to sprint when you have a marathon ahead you will burn out and not finish and if you take it easy when you should be sprinting you will still come last.
There are fewer 'rights and wrongs' in fitness and nutrition than most people want you to believe. This is because there are often two or more totally valid ways of doing something and also that slight differences in what you are trying to achieve can make a huge difference to what the best plan should be. For example the difference between a program for someone with four weeks to prepare for a holiday or twelve weeks can enough that they barely resemble each other. If you follow a twelve week program for four weeks your results will be unimpressive and if you attempt to follow a four week program for twelve weeks you will probably burn out completely and achieve nothing.
This is because body works in cycles. A rise and a fall, high and a low a peak and a trough. A strict four week program can get you a steady and hopefully even rapid downward trend in weight and body fat. At the end it is likely that some weight will be regained but the holiday photos will still be great. If you attempted to maintain this rapid weight loss program for eight or more weeks you would just burn out at the five or six week mark and regain most of the lost weight in time for your holiday (and likely gain extra while you are away). In addition the loss of lean muscle caused by this too long and overly difficult program would likely leave you with a higher body fat percentage in the long run making future weight loss more difficul. On the other hand if you followed a more moderate twelve week program for just the four weeks you had available then you would simply see far less progress than you could have seen if you had picked a more focused program. As a very rough estimate you are safe to lose 4 pounds a week for 4 weeks (but still pretty intense), 3 pounds a week for 6 weeks, 2 pounds a week for 8 weeks and about a pound and a half a week after that. You COULD lose weight faster that those numbers for longer but you are risking a crash and a rebound and remember that even with those realistic expectations it is normal to see ups and downs in the rate of weight loss and even random increases for no obvious reason.
Another consideration is body shape. Everyone should be more focused on body fat percentage than scale weight. If your weight is at or below where it should be but you still have a too high body fat percentage then your goal should be to build muscle and strength while maintaining the same weight. The percentage will drop as you gain lean mass. If you are well above your ideal weight then the goal is to drop fat whole maintaining muscle. Your body fat percentage will be falling because there is simply less fat. Building muscle takes ALOT longer than burning fat so this has to be taken into account when planning. It might actually be quicker for an overweight but muscular person to get in shape than a skinny person with a slight tummy to build up enough muscle to look athletic. Building even a pound or two of muscle in a month is pretty good going so if you are 6 pounds under weight and your friend is 20 pounds over weight they might have a shorter (although by no means easier) way to go than you.
Once you have decided what you are trying to achieve and how long it's likely to take you will need to know what you actually have to do to make it happen. For people requiring weight loss it should be said that over the first 12 weeks it is 90% what you eat that decides if you are successful. It is important to stay active but as long as you are moving around you will do okay. Death by burpies won't improve your results massively and if your diet isn't tracked you will just eat more to balance out the extra hard work anyway. After that time it becomes more and more important to be gaining strength to continue seeing progress. For this reason I recommend a long slow approach to strength training to anyone with longer term goals. For people looking to improve body composition while maintaining weight the diet and training importance is about 50/50. If you don't do the work then you won't see any results. If you do the work without eating enough protein and calories to support it you won't see any results. Getting underweight people to eat enough to fuel impressive progress is actually far harder than getting overweight people to eat less. Just an observation and not really something I have a solution for.
If you could remove every emotional, lifestyle, personal and logistical factor away from the process of improving body composition then the independent variables you are left with are what you eat (protein, fat and carbohydrate) and what is done in training. These will control the progress towards the target scale weight and bodyfat. If you are not seeing the planned changes in weight or bodyfat then manipulate the nutrition by dropping some carbs or altering protein or increasing the amount of something in your training. After that just wait and see if that did it. If you can maintain this 'science experiment' mentality then success is all but guaranteed. Unfortunately few people operate like machines and keeping to a razor sharp measured diet program can be very challenging. Social lives, unexpected extra shifts at work, cravings and emotional issues will often cause more, less or different things to be eaten than planned. Making your planned diet and training stable is the most important thing.
This is step one. Getting your head right and being committed to finishing what you started has to come before you even sit down and plan the diet and training. This has to be an equal mix of dedication to sticking to the macros and gym work to the absolute letter like they were written on stone tablets and acceptance that you will screw up sometimes and not to give up the moment you have a bad day. Even the most perfectly planned and reasonably paced program will occasionally require an extra rest day or a little extra food. Sometimes you get offered your favourite things by a well meaning relative and can't say no. Sometimes for whatever reason you might have a terrible meal, day or weekend. You haven't 'failed' as long as you take steps to avoid the issue again and are moving towards your goal even if it is three steps forward and two steps back over and over.
Part two of this series will cover how to plan your macros and what to focus on in the gym for shorter and longer term goals. If you don't want to miss that please subscribe to my website through this link.