It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor.
In this third and final instalment, I’m going to delve into how I was exercising before the cut, how my approach changed, the results it yielded, successes and fails.
Before we get down to business, a shout-out to the people out there who think not having access to a gym will prevent them from training effectively. For most of my cut, I didn’t have a gym nearby, so all of my workouts were done at home, five days a week, before I left for work. I bought a yoga mat and two pairs of adjustable dumbbells; that’s all. Don’t be discouraged by what you don’t have and make the best of what you do have. It may take a little longer or require a few tweaks, but you can still make it work. Determination was my greatest piece of equipment.
Now, to the rest of the article!
✔️Proper strength training was the main focus of my workouts. I say “proper” because I thought I was already doing “strength training”, but the truth is, I wasn’t.
When I first took an interest in lifting weights, I added a 15-minute arms workout at the end of my running session on the treadmill. This was back in 2016, when I had no clue how ineffective a light arms-only workout would be in my situation, especially when performed after a whole hour of running.
However, as an absolute newbie, I saw moderate strength gains (at the time I would have made progress by glancing at a barbell, mind you) and enjoyed the altogether different feeling to what my grinding cardio sessions provided, so about a year later I decided to take this type of training “more seriously”. This meant picking a bunch of YouTube workout videos based on three aspects: the estimated caloric expenditure, the word “HIIT” in the title (my brain was in a funny state at this point, if you remember Part 1, so burning lots of calories was my primary goal), and the descriptor “full body”. Each workout was about 35 to 45 minutes long, Tabata style, performed with high repetitions and light weights.
In months and months, I never progressed past my starting weights. However, the calories allegedly burnt in each workout averaged 600-750 per video, so I was content to trade strength gains for a supposedly high caloric expenditure. My only goal was to prevent weight gain, not develop strength. My “funny state” overrode any attempt at logic. I was stuck doing the same useless workouts for almost a year to the point of overtraining and didn’t get any of the benefits of HIIT. I got skinny fat instead of fit, I was always tired, slept poorly, had frequent mood swings, and came to dread my workouts. Overtraining is the opposite of fitness, so beware of it.
In the end, I could no longer put up with training to exhaustion five days a week, working from 9am to 6pm, and feeling like death every weekend. Finally, I did actual research on what strength training is. I started doing it properly, using heavy weights, and I made progress. Simple as that, yet it took me over a year to figure it out.
✔️I incorporated warm-ups and cool-downs into each workout. I used to neglect them, thinking I was saving time. What I didn’t realise is that skipping them made me more tired and contributed to my lack of progress. When I made the change, I saw a vast improvement in my recovery.
✔️Simple and effective compound movements became the staple of each strength training session, which was about 45 to 50 minutes’ long, including warm-up and cool-down. I trained on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with a handful of free weight exercises that recruited the major muscle groups in my legs, back, shoulders, and chest. At the end of each workout I would also perform two bodyweight exercises in a superset. This is a training technique in which you perform one set of an exercise immediately followed by one set of another exercise, then you rest and repeat. For my bodyweight superset, the usual combinations were upper body/abs or upper body/legs (read: I did a lot of push-ups).
✔️Without testosterone and top surgery, I had no delusions I’d get my chest to look exactly the way I wanted, so I decided to focus on as good a V taper as I can get. I targeted my deltoids and lats, aiming to develop them while shrinking my waist. My shoulders are my biggest weakness, so I made a habit of starting each session with a variation of the shoulder press as my first or second exercise. Since you’re stronger at the beginning of a workout, I feel like privileging delts really helped build more strength in that area.
You can take a look at my results in the pictures below:
In the second picture, my torso looks thicker, my upper back musculature is more defined, and my lats and traps are wider. Bonus: my hips are way less noticeable than they were before, which I didn’t expect. I love the masculine edge they give my shape, at least from behind. Double win!
✔️I didn’t ditch cardio, but I only did it twice a week – on days when I wasn’t strength training – for about 30-35 minutes. I went out for some HIIT-style sprints in a local park or stayed indoors for a full-body kickboxing workout. At first I was doing HIIT both times, then shifted to one HIIT and one kickboxing session. I enjoyed the variety, which didn’t slow down my progress.
✔️I did 10 minutes of bodyweight core work after my cardio sessions to strengthen my mid-section. When you perform compound exercises, your core provides support, so you actually target it quite a lot, but I wanted to focus on it in a separate session as well to develop more strength (… and I hoped to see my abs pop, let’s be honest).
Here’s what I got:
No washboard abs to speak of yet, but the rows are starting to make an appearance, which is more than they were doing before, so I can’t complain.
✖️What Didn’t Work
✖️Still influenced by my twisted view that “more is more” (only true in the sense that “more BS is more BS”), for the first couple of weeks I used a lot of supersets. Since supersetting exercises is taxing, it’s not recommended to do it too often as it can thwart your efforts to lift heavier weights. Surprise surprise, I wasn’t making any progress on my weights during those two weeks, which also coincided with the fat loss plateau mentioned in Part 2. Coincidence? I think not.
When I adopted straight sets – that is, one set, rest, another set of the same exercise, rest, and so on – I found them the best way to practise proper form and increase strength. The only exception was the abovementioned bodyweight superset at the end, which saved me some time and allowed me to push myself even without an external load.
✖️Lifting my ego was an all too easy trap for Super Proud Me to fall into. Sometimes I lifted a weight for far too many reps because “it was written on my workout log, so it was a weight I could handle and I’d be a wuss if I didn’t”. Of course, my training sessions went a lot better when I actually listened to my body, but at least I’m learning from my mistakes and trying to swallow my ego more often now…
I hope you enjoyed reading about my fitness journey so far! Leave a comment if you have any questions. I’d be happy to connect with you and answer to the best of my abilities.
As a bonus, here’s a sample full-body home workout session I used:
Warm-up: 3-5 minutes of light cardio and dynamic stretches
Dumbbell Arnold press 4x10
Dumbbell squat 4x10
Dumbbell Romanian deadlift 4x10
Dumbbell floor press + glute bridge 4x10 (check out my Instagram to watch the video I uploaded on November 12th 2018!)
A1: Floor leg raise + Dumbbell hold 3x12
A2: Diamond push-up 3x12
Cool-down: 3-5 minutes of static stretches
In Future Episodes:
Next week I’ll share my views and findings on meal frequency: how many meals should we eat and is it really important?
In the meantime, get in touch with me and recommend a topic. I write loads, so don’t be shy!
What’s your workout schedule at the moment? Are you cutting, bulking, or maintaining?
A personal trainer who likes superheroes, bread, lifting weights, and studying “fitness stuff”.
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