(NOTE: The views and ideas offered below do not constitute professional medical advice!)
If you’re aiming for a figure like that of Leonidas in 300, I may have a few tips to share with you, though admittedly I’m just an amateur. (Having been at it for nearly 20 years, though, I jolly well know at least a couple things!)
Basically, our goal is twofold: to (1) build muscle and (2) burn fat. The strategies for achieving these two goals are actually quite closely related.
A few words of advice before anything else, though (please go through them):
● Please consult a doctor or physician before you start if you haven't engaged in any serious physical training for a few months or even longer. Play it safe.
● Start off light if you're a beginner. Don't be over-ambitious. Get to know yourself. Test the water a little first just to see how much you can handle, then slowly build it up over the weeks.
● Be patient and be diligent. Rome wasn't built in a single day. Depending on how consistently you keep at it and on your current condition, you should allow say a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks for the results to show up. Building muscle mass, as opposed to burning fat, can take considerably longer than that; some all-natural bodybuilders claim on the basis of personal experience that it can take a whole year just to gain 5 to 10 lbs of muscle — assuming that you do it right and stick to it consistently...
● Stop training completely whenever you don’t feel well in any way, as when you feel excessively tired or there’s a nagging pain somewhere in your body. Wait until you have fully recovered before returning to the gym.
● Never train alone. Always train with someone else around, say a trainer or fellow gym-goers. Safety first!
● Don't train just after a meal. Take at least a one-hour break.
● Be wary of products promising easy shortcuts, like special pills or training gadgets. Really hate to say this, but as far as I know there's no substitute (yet) for honest hard work. C'est la vie. If you come across something that promises you an easy shortcut to a figure like that of Leonidas in 300, be suspicious. Ask around, do some research. Has the product received large numbers of positive reviews (and are the reviews all independent by nature)? If it’s a supplement, are the ingredients clearly listed? (If you find that it really produces lasting results without any negative side effects, hey, let me know, I'd be seriously interested!) Here's a list of problematic products to avoid. Creatine is a recognized and legitimate supplement, but it still requires that you work out at the gym before you can reap the full benefits provided by it.
Here's a website that provides a wealth of information on creatine. You can find another one here and still another here.
● Stay away from alcohol. Hate to tell you this if you happen to enjoy alcoholic drinks, but studies have confirmed that they actually pile up fat in your midsection while also apparently exerting a wasting effect on certain muscle groups. They also reduce the level of testosterone in your body, a hormone very important for building muscle and burning fat. So, if you wish to look like Joe Jusko's Tarzan, avoid alcohol. (I suppose a couple very light sips just once a week should do no harm — and that's the furthest you should go!)
I've mentioned that testosterone is a hormone critical for both burning fat and building muscle. Your own body actually produces this hormone naturally (zinc, vitamin D and magnesium are all said to boost the production of this hormone in your body), but as you grow older your body will produce less and less of it, which not only makes it harder to build muscle but leads to all sorts of health disorders as well. In this respect endocrinologist Dr Sam Robbins has placed online a great deal of solid information and advice on testosterone, all for free and in video format — just what it’s good for, how to increase its production naturally in the body, and so on. Check him out!
● Look at shirtless Macho Men more often for inspiration, or pictures of them. Yeah!
Don't fool yourself...
Repeat after me: "I will look like that one day... I will look like that one day..."
WHERE’S THE BEEF?
How, then, do you build muscle? Here's what you need to do:
● Train with weights. This ought to be obvious; what might not be so obvious is that you need to train with HEAVY weights. How heavy? So heavy that, whatever exercise you happen to be performing with them, say the bench press, you can manage only say a maximum of 3 repetitions — done with good form — before muscle failure sets in. This is important: if you use weights too light to challenge your muscles — for example weights so light they allow you to do up to say 10 reps — then your muscles won't grow! Once you can do more than 3 reps, increase the poundage of your weights.
(You can choose alternatively to perform dozens of reps using very light weights, but this merely pumps blood and body fluids to your muscles so they appear larger for just a short time, say a few hours. It won't be real, permanent muscle, and you won't develop any real strength...)
How many sets should you perform for each exercise? (It counts as 1 set when you perform a number of reps and then rest, the next set being when you begin again and execute a further number of reps before resting again.) For the purpose of maximizing muscle growth, you need to perform large numbers of sets according to fitness expert Pavel Tsatsouline, who has recommended 10 to 20! (Personally I settle for just 3 at present.) Massive muscles or a lean, athletic, not-too-heavily built figure? It's up to you. :)
Which exercises or what sort of exercises are best? Exercises using free weights (barbells and dumbbells) as opposed to machine weights. A machine weight here refers to any kind of exercise machine that does not allow you to move freely in three dimensions, but forces you to move strictly in a fixed plane only.
In the many different bodily movements we perform daily, we rarely recruit only specific muscle groups, such as our biceps; very often many of our other muscles come into play as well to stabilize our entire body, to keep it in balance. Here's where the problem with machine weights comes in; according to Pavel, "A machine restricts you to one plane of movement. Your stabilizing muscles get no workout because the machine is doing their job." (P. Tsatsouline, Power to the People!, Dragon Door Publ, MN, 2000; pg 31.) It is therefore free weights that build functional strength, because they train your stabilizing muscles as well. And if that means you get to train more of your muscles, why not? :) (Of course, depending on circumstances, sometimes machine weights may be more readily available as opposed to free weights. In situations like these I think we just have to be less picky about it and settle for second best; after all, it still beats not training at all!)
Two free weight exercises in particular should make up the core of any weight training program: the deadlift and the bench press. Just these two exercises should already suffice to give most of the major muscle groups of your body a solid workout, really (though of course you may elect to add more exercises of your choice, such as the chin-up and a few abdominal exercises in my case). I can say from personal experience that even just the deadlift alone can already bring about noticeable improvements in one’s physique in just a couple months. So if you have limited time to spare at the gym, just focus on these two exercises. Remember: train HEAVY (though not if you're a beginner).
A special piece of advice on the deadlift. While undoubtedly an effective exercise for sculpting a good figure, personal experience has also shown me that doing the deadlift for years can cause the lower back to become increasingly stiff and lead to lower back pain. It would therefore be a good idea to engage regularly in stretching exercises that relax the body (but don’t do them too soon before training with weights; allow for a couple hours). Consulting a chiropractor every few months would be a good preventive measure, too!
The bench press. ALWAYS perform this exercise with a friend to keep a close eye on you if you’re using heavy weights. Safety first!
It is important to do the deadlift — well, any weight training exercise, really — with good form. Your shins and back should be kept as vertical as possible at all times. Always look straight ahead, not down, and do not bend forward at the time you're about to lift the weight. If it helps, try to imagine there's a chair far behind you which you're trying to sit on. Also, when preparing to lower the barbell after lifting it up in each rep, do not lower it slowly (though you should not drop it, either).
The deadlift can be executed by gripping the bar with one hand above and the other below it. That would make it easier with heavier weights.
Tighten up all the muscles of your body as you lift, even your rectal muscles (excuse me). Also, try to think in terms of pushing the floor away from you as you lift, rather than just lifting the weight.
I have provided but a few hints on training with weights. Most of them I actually picked up from Pavel Tsatsouline's Power to the People!, a title I strongly recommend for those serious about learning more. This is one title that has truly enlightened me on many aspects of weight training; in particular the author goes into great depth with respect to the deadlift, and to a lesser extent the bench press, and elaborates on the many different ways the deadlift can be performed to shift the emphasis to different areas of the body. A must for those serious about weight training! (NOTE: I do not earn anything if you purchase this book, and you can search for a cheaper copy here.)
● Do not overtrain. This is a mistake many fitness enthusiasts make; I myself have been guilty of it before. As far as things like building muscle are concerned, more isn't better. Training with weights 5 times a week or more is likely to be counterproductive; 3 times a week should be the maximum. It's probably a good idea not to train on consecutive days, either, but once every 2 to 3 days. Your muscles grow while you rest, not while you train. They need rest to grow.
As the poundage of the weights you can handle seriously begins to increase, you should consider working with weights only twice a week. The heavier the weights you train with, the more rest your body will need.
Pavel has also suggested that you should give yourself 1 full week of complete rest —as in not engaging in any forms of physical training/exercise whatsoever — for roughly every 8 consecutive weeks of training you've engaged in. Many professional athletes apparently follow this rule, and I believe it is indeed invaluable for maintaining your athletic career in the long term, as it can certainly help your body recuperate more fully from various subtle forms of damage and fatigue which have accumulated in the body through prolonged periods of physical training. You need not worry that such 1-week breaks will lead to a relapse into one's previous flabby state; you'll get even fitter and harder when you resume training!
● Get enough sleep and avoid excessive stress. Give yourself say at least 6 hours of full, undisturbed sleep each night, and seek to avoid undue amounts of stress in your normal everyday life outside of the gym. Also, try to go to bed before 12 midnight. Besides being obviously bad for our health, excessive stress and lack of sleep have also been found to trigger the release of a biological chemical in the body known as cortisol, which actually inhibits muscle growth — and promotes fat storage in the body, too! (A wee bit of cortisol is actually good if not vital for the body; we just don't want too much!)
Here's an article on cortisol for those who wish to know more. (You can find yet another one here.)
It helps with your sleep when you cease to engage in all forms of activities which agitate the mind or senses at least 1 hour before going to bed ― such as video games, TV, handphones, the internet, exciting music or reading material etc. Get your mind to quieten down. Try some meditation. :)
● Consume more protein. Your muscles need protein to grow. No amount of training will make your muscles grow without a sufficient intake of protein. Many sources I've come across agree that to build up muscle mass you need roughly 0.75 to 1 gram of protein a day for each pound of body weight. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, consume 113 to 150 grams of protein daily.
Meat is an obvious source of protein, but if you ask me I think it's just not kind to animals to kill them and eat their flesh, besides which animal protein is also less healthy, as shall be explained below. Legumes such as soybeans (regarding which there has been some controversy, as I shall explain) are excellent and effective sources of protein, as are milk, cottage cheese and peanut butter. (You may like to check out this article on the differences between animal and plant protein.) Whey protein supplements would constitute a highly convenient source of protein, of course!
If you choose to supplement yourself primarily with plant rather than animal protein in your muscle-building career ― which I wholeheartedly encourage ― it will then be advisable for you to eat a wide variety of plant food. This is to compensate for the fact that most plant sources of protein do not individually contain all of the essential amino acids needed by our bodies, unlike animal sources. Soy protein actually does contain nearly all of the essential amino acids we need, and would therefore be virtually as complete as animal protein ― except for one amino acid, methionine. So you would still need to get your methionine from some other sources! Plant sources include lentils, seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds) and whole grains.
There has been considerable controversy regarding the apparent health risks of soybeans. I'm confident this article ought to provide a balanced view on the issue, as should this. As for how far you can go in your muscle-building career if you're a vegan, here’s a list of vegan bodybuilders, and several elite athletes who are also vegan can be found in another list here. Who says you need meat? (If you find that any of them are actually suffering from certain deficiency disorders or have in fact been consuming animal protein while no one's watching, let me know ― though I doubt it. :)) Check out also this article explaining why plant protein is actually better than animal protein for building muscle.
Vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke. Not doing too badly at all, if you ask me!
Quinoa is a plant protein that's even richer and more complete than soy in its stock of amino acids; it's perhaps the single most complete plant protein of all. Check out this website for more information on quinoa.
A special nutrient essential to our health but sadly absent in most plant food, or present in insufficient quantities, is vitamin B12. Here is a list of vegan and vegetarian food sources which do provide this vitamin. But we digress — let's get back to protein.
A very good time to help yourself to a dose of protein would be just after a weight training session. This is the time when your freshly worked muscles badly need immediate supplementation! Some bodybuilders have also recommended that the protein you consume each day be spread over 5 to 6 meals to optimize absorption — which many claim also happens to be a great way to lose weight; I shall elaborate below.
Be careful not to consume too much protein, or the extra protein which your body cannot absorb will be broken down, excreted, and therefore gone to waste, besides which the extra work required by your body to process and excrete all that protein will put a strain on your kidneys and deplete the calcium in your system, which will weaken your bones. (This is especially the case with animal protein, because it is harder for the body to digest than plant protein.) Protein-rich food, particularly animal protein, also contains large amounts of certain biological chemicals known as purines, which break down into uric acid in the body ― and excessive amounts of uric acid in the system lead in the long term to a crippling medical condition known as gout, a form of arthritis. (Other purine-rich food items include alcohol, yeast, legumes, mushrooms and cauliflower.)
So don't fall for the simplistic logic that just because protein helps build muscle, more protein will therefore help build more muscle. No, it leads instead to poorer health. 0.75 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight already exceeds significantly the standard of 0.36 grams recommended for normal adults by health authorities such as the Food and Nutrition Board; clearly there is no need to add more!
FLAB TO FAB
Building muscle is all very well, but what good is it if all that muscle is hidden beneath a thick layer of fat? Shouldn't you try and get rid of that fat, then, so the concealed ridges and contours of your muscles may stand out in their full glory? :) (Actually, the work of building muscle would itself already help burn off the fat, but more of that below.)
To burn fat, you need to do the following:
● Don't starve yourself. Many seem to think that the simple way to lose fat is just to eat as little as one can. Sorry, mate, it doesn't work that way, and it can seriously damage your health, too, besides which you need to ask yourself if you prefer to look like a scarecrow or a Greek god. There are healthier, more effective and less miserable ways to lose fat, as you'll find out below. One shouldn't eat too much, of course, but neither should one eat too little!
Which one would you prefer to look like? No prize for guessing which one starving yourself would lead to. :)
● Forget about 'spot reduction'. Don't try to get rid of that 'spare tire' just by doing abdominal exercises such as sit-ups and crunches. It doesn't work that way. You can't lose fat only from a specific area of your body (barring liposuction, of which I'm quite suspicious); either you lose fat from your entire body or not at all. As your overall fat stores diminish, so will your 'spare tire'.
● Train with weights. Hold it! Haven't I said that training with weights is for building muscle? Yes, but it's also good for burning fat! I can say with confidence on the basis of my own experience that this is indeed the case!
Studies have confirmed that after a solid weight training session your metabolism can be raised for more than 24 hours, meaning that you continue to burn calories long after the session. This is not the case with normal cardiovascular exercise, in which the calorie-burning ends once you stop. A consistent weight training program also helps maintain and build up the total amount of lean muscle mass in your body, as a result of which your metabolism will be permanently increased and your body will always burn more fat, meaning that fat will almost never have a chance of accumulating in your body again! (Here's an article on the fat-burning effects of training with weights. You can find another one here.)
So don't do cardio only — and don't do normal cardio, but interval training instead, as shall be explained shortly below — but combine it with weight training; that would be far more effective for burning fat than cardio alone. It's not for no reason that bodybuilders call this combination 'cutting up'!
Now some of you might only want to burn fat and not gain any muscle mass (hey, why not? :)), so you might have misgivings about training with weights. Not to worry; just perform less sets (as explained in the above section on building muscle) and limit your protein intake, and you can still reap the fat-burning benefits of weight training all the same without gaining muscle mass. Do not eliminate protein completely from your meals, though; your body always needs at least its normal daily supply of protein to regenerate itself!
● Do interval training instead of normal cardio. For those who are new to it, interval training is a special form of cardio — some say it shouldn't be called cardio at all, but we're not concerned with terminology here — where short intervals of INTENSE physical activity alternate with comparably short intervals of easy-going physical activity (though not complete rest). An example of an interval training routine which you can try out in the gym (or on the track) would be if you were to run close to your MAXIMUM speed for say ½ to 1 minute, then slow down to a leisurely walk for 2 minutes, then bolt again for ½ to 1 minute after which again you slow down to a light walk for 2 minutes, and so on for say 3 to 5 cycles. You can even do this exercise at home, just by running on the spot!
(You can choose to swim or cycle instead of running; some consider swimming and cycling better alternatives, too, as they have less impact on the joints and are therefore less liable to lead to injuries. If you choose swimming, then you'll have a routine like swimming as fast as you can for ½ to 1 minute and then paddling slowly for 2 minutes, only to charge for ½ to 1 minute again and then slow down to a slow paddle again for 2 minutes, and so on.)
Interval training has been found to burn much more fat (and use up far less of your time, too) than normal/standard cardio — you know, the type where you run at a constant, moderate speed for say 30 minutes. One reason is that your body continues burning fat long after an interval training session, but not after a normal cardio session. Here's an article on interval training that gives more details. (You can find another one here.) Interval training does special things to your body!
There's a further plus point in favor of interval training. Normal cardio is actually catabolic, meaning it can actually break down your muscles. Interval training won't do that, because of the short time intervals, which would not suffice to shift the body into a catabolic state. (To be sure, this breakdown of muscle tissue occurs only as a result of performing excessive amounts of (normal) cardio, so it's not an issue for those who engage only in moderate amounts of cardio. Nevertheless, the short periods of time spent in interval training still speak in its favor.)
You should keep your intervals, both the fast and slow intervals, below 3 minutes in length. When your intervals are too long, you return to normal cardio. Short intervals won't make it too easy, believe me; depending on your level of fitness and the degree of intensity of your fast intervals, by the 3rd cycle the fast interval can seem like an eternity even if it lasts only 1 minute. :) The key word in interval training is intensity and not duration; you're aiming here to burn fat, not to keep running as long as you can. The two are not the same!
Here, as with weight training, don't overdo it, and go light first if you're a beginner. 2 interval training sessions a week, each consisting of 3 to 5 cycles, would already be ample! (You can schedule your interval training days between your weight training ones.) And if you're new to interval training, don't go too fast in the fast intervals, and limit yourself to say 3 cycles. As your level of fitness improves, you may then aim for more cycles and greater speeds.
There's a type of exercise even more effective at burning fat than interval training, or at least just as effective — though unfortunately it's even more demanding, too... VERY demanding. It's called metabolic resistance training — MRT for short. Basically it involves cycling through a small number of weight training exercises which together work most of the muscles of the body, using light to moderate weights, with as little rest as possible when you proceed from one exercise to the next. Here's an article on MRT if you wish to find out more, and here's another. Just remember: take it easy in your first few sessions if you're new to MRT!
● Get enough sleep and avoid excessive stress. Here I have repeated a tip given earlier while discussing muscle building. The fact is that excessive stress and lack of sleep not only inhibit muscle growth, but promote fat storage as well, with cortisol being the main culprit, as explained above. Bear this in mind!
● Watch what you eat. What do I suggest? That you eat more food with a low glycemic index. Okay, now what's this 'glycemic index' thing?
I'm sure you know what carbohydrates are. They're nutrients which supply your body with energy by breaking down into basic sugars such as glucose which are then absorbed and used by your body. Now, not all carbohydrates are the same. Some of them break down slowly in your body, others quickly. And the glycemic index of a carbohydrate is precisely a measure of how quickly that carbohydrate breaks down. The slower it breaks down, the lower its GI ― and the healthier it is.
The GI of a carb can range from below 55 (low) to above 70 (high). A low-GI diet has been found to help reduce weight — plus reduce your risk of suffering from diabetes and heart disorders. The health benefits are not limited to fat-burning alone! Examples of low-GI foods include legumes, milk, nuts, most fresh fruit and vegetables, Basmati rice, pasta, noodles, cereals such as oats, barley and bran, and breads with wholegrains or stone-ground flour. High-GI foods would include almost any food that's highly processed and tastes sweet, and almost anything made from potatoes. Eat LESS of them! (If, like me, you really have a sweet tooth and can't do without certain types of food that are high in GI, then eat them just after an interval training session.)
This website provides virtually all the information you will need about GI and the GI values of different types of food. Check it out!
I agree that they're delicious, but...
There's been some controversy regarding how often you should eat; some claim that 5 to 6 small meals a day — a way of eating which I've actually been following for many years now — will help more with burning fat than eating 3 meals a day like most of us do. Certainly small meals would decrease the workload for your digestive system! You might like to give it a try to see how it works for you; it won’t hurt. Just consume a small meal every 3 to 4 hours, say an apple, a cup of soy bean milk with oats, or just a muesli bar.
A couple more points. First, it's okay to binge occasionally, say once a week. (You can also afford to be a little more lenient with yourself with respect to what and when you eat, once you've made some serious headway with your attempt at building a Macho Man figure.) Don't force yourself never to indulge in food that you enjoy (though I still think eating meat isn't nice), because that will make your fat-burning career a chore and you might eventually give it up. Instead, help yourself to some tasty fare once in a while, say once every weekend. Just be moderate about it.
Second, don't avoid fats altogether in what you eat. Fats have been made out to be something purely evil, to be shunned altogether in the quest for health and a good figure, but this is simplistic. The fact is that our bodies always need some fats, and certain types of fats (in moderate quantities, of course) are actually beneficial ― such as avocados, (real) butter, olive oil and sunflower oil. There are even certain fats that help prevent various diseases once thought to be caused by consuming excess fats. The problem is to choose the right fats, and in this respect this article ought to serve as an excellent guide, as should this. Remember: not all fats will make you fat!
Olive oil in particular is a well-known and widely used ingredient in many dishes, and many have sworn by the health benefits it provides. You can consume say a couple tablespoonfuls a day. Make sure it’s extra virgin olive oil, though, and that the label says ‘Cold Pressed’ or ‘Cold Extraction’. Check out this video on olive oil for more information.
Study the label carefully!
What I’ve offered above are but a few paltry suggestions on sculpting for oneself a Macho Man figure. If you seek further advice ― and you should ― then you’ll need to approach the professionals. Check out fitness expert Jeff 'Athlean-X™' Cavaliere. This gentleman is a walking library of knowledge as far as building muscle and burning fat are concerned, and has a lot to share on nutrition and supplementation, too. On just the abdominals alone — absolutely one of the most important parts of a Macho Man figure — he has produced dozens of videos. You can ill afford to ignore him if you're serious about shaping up!
Another online muscle and fitness expert you can learn from would be Scooby Werkstatt. This friendly giant has had more than 30 years of experience in bodybuilding and weight training (not to mention a sense of humor and a rather cute face to match), and as with Jeff he shares all his knowledge with you free of charge, and knows a great deal about nutrition and supplementation as well. To be sure, I think some of his advice ― such as the counsel "If it tastes good, spit it out" ― would be a little too Spartan for most people, but those in serious pursuit of a Macho Man figure should still find much that's helpful!