Overwhelmed by all of the conflicting information found online about getting into shape? Not sure what diet or routine you're suppose to do in order to reach your goals? Well look no further! This very detailed, no bullshit guide to all things fitness will give you all of the knowledge you need to make a clear plan of action for reaching your goals, without the need of ever hiring a personal trainer. We cut straight through all of the nonsense and misinformation and give you a clear understanding of how it all works and comes together. From things as simple as "what is a calorie?" to more complicated subjects like "what is training volume?", it's all here!
If you have any other fitness related questions that are not covered here, feel free to leave a comment in the comment section and I will reply with the best of my knowledge!
- What are calories and macros, and how do they relate to body weight and fitness?
- How do I find my maintenance calories?
- What does "body composition" mean?
- How do I build muscle?
- Do I need to lift weights to get into shape?
- How do I lose fat?
- Do I need to lift weights when losing weight?
- Can I lose fat and build muscle at the same time?
- I'm a very active person and I'm always on my feet, why can't I lose weight?
- I eat like a pig but I can't seem to gain any weight. What's the problem?
- I'm completely new to fitness and just want to get into decent shape, where do I start?
- What is the best routine that I can do to build muscle or lose fat?
- Is it true that to tone a muscle you should train in the higher rep ranges?
- Is it true that low reps are better for strength and high reps are better for hypertrophy?
- What is training volume?
- How much volume should I do?
- So what is Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) and Minimum Effective Volume (MEV)?
- Should I train to failure?
- What is progressive overload?
- Can I build muscle with resistance bands or bodyweight exercises?
- What does periodization mean?
- What is autoregulation?
- What kind of foods should I eat to lose or gain weight?
- Do I need to go on a low carb diet if I want to lose fat?
- I really don't like most healthy foods, what can I do to lose weight?
- Do I have to track my macro-nutrients to make progress?
- Q: What are calories and macros, and how do they relate to body weight and fitness?
- Q: How do I find my maintenance calories?
A: To find your maintenance calories, you can use an online calculator like this one, and then test it's accuracy for a couple of weeks. All that is needed to test is basic math skills and consistency. The first step is to make sure you weigh yourself once a week at the same time of day and under the same conditions. Then you would eat the same amount of calories every single day for a week, and at the end of the week weigh yourself again and note any changes in body weight (this may take multiple weeks to get a more accurate result since body weight sometimes fluctuates naturally).
Remembering that it takes about +/- 500 calories daily for a week straight in order to lose or gain a pound, you can take the difference in body weight from the beginning of the week and the end of the week and calculate how many calories above or below maintenance you've been eating. If you were eating 2000 calories daily and you lost a pound at the end of the week, then you know the calories you're eating are roughly 500 below your maintenance calories, which puts your maintenance at roughly 2500 calories. Remember, it's not important to be EXACT; as long as you're estimating closely and being consistent, you will make progress.
- Q: What does "body composition" mean?
A: Body composition simply refers to what your body is composed of. Your body is composed of body fat and everything else that we refer to as "lean tissue" (muscle, bones, ligaments, organs, etc). The terms "body fat percentage" and "body composition" are directly related to one another, as body fat percentage simply refers to what percentage of your body is composed of fat rather than lean tissue. You will see the term body composition used a lot in this Q&A guide. Your body composition determines how you look; a person with a higher fat to lean tissue ratio will look less athletic because their body fat percentage is higher and their percentage of muscle is lower. When someone wants to get in shape, they want two things: they want to reduce body fat and increase muscle tissue, resulting in an improved body fat percentage, or a body composition consisting of less fat and more muscle. When getting fit, the number one goal should be in improving overall body composition.
- Q: How do I build muscle?
A: You build muscle by resistance training (surprise!) and then recovering from said training. When you perform resistance training you create damage to your muscles in the form of micro-tears; when resting after a bout of resistance training, your body repairs those micro-tears resulting in a bigger and stronger muscle.
Muscles grow when you are resting and allowing them to recover, NOT during exercise. In order to continue building muscle you must constantly overload your muscle with more and more stimulus. This can be in the form of adding resistance to an exercise (more weight for example), performing more repetitions or sets, or some other method of progression. This is called progressive overload. If you continue to perform the same amount of resistance for the same amount of reps and sets every workout, your body will eventually stop building muscle as it is already adapted to the stimulus. So your goal should be to consistently increase performance when training.
The reason it is suggested to be in a caloric surplus to build muscle is because building muscle is a difficult process for the body, and thus any muscle built while not eating in a surplus is minimal to non-existent (exceptions exist such as beginners or untrained muscle groups). This is why diet is key and if you are struggling to build muscle, you need to make sure that you are gaining weight and gaining strength. Often times when people complain that they can't build muscle it is because they are simply not eating enough. No matter how much you think you are eating, if you are not gaining weight, you are not eating enough.
- Q: Do I have to lift weights to get into shape?
No, you do not. However it is recommended that you do perform some form of resistance exercise in addition to cardio. This can be done with bodyweight or bands as well. While lifting free weights is the fastest and most efficient way to get stronger and build muscle, it is absolutely not the only way to get into great shape.
- Q: How do I lose fat?
A: You lose fat by eating less calories than your body burns in a day. If your body burns 2,000 calories and you consume only 1,500 calories, your body will turn to it's fat stores for the extra 500 calories that it needs when it runs out of food to use for energy. Fat loss is not based on what type of foods you eat or even how much exercise you do, it is a product of being in a caloric deficit (eating less than your body burns). It doesn't matter whether you eat "clean" or "dirty" (healthy vs junk) foods, what matters is how much you eat. If person A and person B both burn 2,000 calories per day, and person A eats 1,500 calories of junk food while person B eats 2,000 calories of healthy food, person A will lose weight while person B will not. This is not to say that you should be eating unhealthy junk food, simply that in order to elicit weight loss, counting calories is the key.
There are two ways of creating a caloric deficit. The first is to reduce calorie intake, and the second is to burn more calories. Generally speaking you want to create a caloric deficit by first eating less and then adding in exercise to compliment the reduced calorie intake. Utilizing both a low calorie diet and increased activity will be optimal. However, eating less should be prioritized over increasing activity in the initial phases of dieting because it is not practical to consistently create a large deficit with exercise only, and you can easily undo all of the calorie burning affects of exercise by being too loose with your eating habits. It is much easier to eat 300 less calories than it is to burn an additional 300 calories on a consistent basis. It is entirely possible to lose body fat while doing zero cardio.
- Q: Do I need to lift weights when losing weight?
A: If you want to lose fat, and not just weight, then absolutely. When someone says they want to lose weight, they really mean they want to lose FAT. There is a vast difference between the two. Simply creating a caloric deficit and losing weight without doing anything to preserve or build lean tissue (muscle) puts you at risk of losing lean tissue along side the fat. If Person A and Person B both lose 20 pounds, but Person A performed resistance training while Person B didn’t, Person A will lose more body fat, while Person B will have lost a mixture of fat and muscle. Person A will also have improved their body composition to a much greater extent than person B, despite both losing the same amount of total weight.
- Q: Can I lose fat and build muscle at the same time?
A: The short answer is no, not to any significant degree worth doing. Beginners who are in their first few months of lifting may see both fat loss and muscle gains, but after this point you must work on one goal at a time. Losing a significant amount of fat requires that you are in a caloric deficit while building a significant amount of muscle requires that you are in a caloric surplus. As you can see, the two goals use conflicting methods since you cannot be in both a caloric deficit and surplus at the same time, and must thus choose to work on one goal at a time.
What you can do, however, is what we call a recomposition diet in which you switch from being in a deficit to being in a surplus on different days. This will cause SLOW progress in both fat loss and muscle building (though technically not at the same time), however this will be sub par to working on one goal at a time for reasons that are too lengthy to discuss here.
- Q: I'm a very active person and I'm always on my feet, why can't I lose weight?
A: Because you are not eating less calories than your body burns in a day. No matter how active you are or how many times a week you exercise, you will not lose weight if you are not consuming less calories than your body burns every day. Therefore you need to do one of three things; reduce caloric intake until you are in a deficit, increase activity, or the preferred method of doing both. Diet is the most important aspect of weight loss and you cannot out-train a bad diet. You can perform cardio all day, every day, but if you consume too many calories you will not lose weight.
- Q: I eat like a pig but I can't seem to gain any weight. What's the problem?
A: You simply are not eating enough calories. No matter how much you THINK you are eating, you are not eating more calories than your body burns a day. You need to start tracking how many calories you are eating in a day, and then increase that amount by 200-500 calories. Some people have a hard time eating enough and will have to utilize certain techniques to get in more calories. My first recommendation is usually to start increasing the amount of liquid calories you consume. Add a healthy shake to your normal daily intake, for example.
Gaining and losing body weight is simply a numbers game, and the solution always lies in caloric intake. If you are not gaining weight you are simply not eating enough, and if you are not losing weight you are simply eating too much. It's simple science, your body will not ignore the law of thermodynamics.
- Q: I'm completely new to fitness and just want to get into decent shape, where do I start?
A: For 99% of the population who simply want to be healthier and get into shape, the best course of action would be to learn the very basics of dieting and exercise. This will all be covered in detail in this FAQ, so you’ve come to the right place.
When it comes to exercise, there are an unlimited amount of exercises and routines that you can do, but as a beginner almost anything will work as long as it follows some basic principles. Exercises are typically divided into two types: aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (resistance/weight training). Typically, the most effective method of getting into shape is by utilizing BOTH of these. As a beginner, there’s no need to stress out about the “perfect routine” or the “perfect exercise”. As long as you are utilizing both cardiovascular and resistance training while tracking your diet, you will make progress as long as you are consistent.
That being said, I think the most OPTIMAL way to train as a novice is to follow a full body, 2-3x a week strength routine, and depending on whether you want to gain or lose weight, adjust calories appropriately.
- Q: What is the best routine that I can do to build muscle or lose fat?
A: There is no one single routine that is the "best", as there are multiple paths to success and it will also vary from person to person. Also, your routine does not dictate whether you gain or lose weight, your diet does. That being said, there are some rules that a routine should follow in order to produce optimal results. Generally speaking, a good routine will focus on the big compound movements (Bench, Squat and Deadlift variations) while also having the proper frequency and total weekly volume in place, with a good progression system; which is an entirely different subject all together, because this will vary from person to person and experience levels.
Generally speaking, you do NOT want to create your own routine if you are not already an advanced lifter with years of lifting under his/her belt. There are plenty of free routines out there right now that have been proven to work. For a beginner I highly recommend a strength focused, full body or upper/lower split routine for optimal results, and for intermediate to advanced lifters anything from a full body routine to an upper/lower split or even a push/pull/legs split can work when proper periodization is used.
- Q: Is it true that to tone a muscle you should train in the higher rep ranges?
A: This is a misconception as there is no such thing as making a muscle more "toned" by training it in a certain rep range. When someone refers to a muscle being "toned", what they are really talking about is a muscle that simply has very little body fat covering it and can thus be seen in detail. To get this effect you have to reduce overall body fat by eating in a caloric deficit. It has virtually nothing to do with the rep range you train in. The idea that you need to train in the higher rep ranges when trying to lean up is complete nonsense. It's arguably better to train HEAVIER when you are losing body fat in order to maintain your strength levels, which are directly related to muscle retention.
- Q: Is it true that low reps are better for strength and high reps are better for hypertrophy?
A: This is a common misconception that has been held as truth for many years; only recently has research come out to show that this is simply not the case. While strength and muscular endurance ARE tied to rep range, hypertrophy is not. When controlling for total amount of hard sets ("hard set" being defined as a set taken to 2-3 reps of failure), all rep ranges will produce comparable amounts of hypertrophy. So 4 sets of 8 will cause the same amount of muscle growth as 4 sets of 12 if both are taken close to failure. What you want to do is choose a rep range that you personally feel allows you to get enough quality sets and produce enough quality volume per week. How much volume you should be doing per week is an entirely separate discussion. Just note that rep range is not important for hypertrophy, but amount of total "hard sets" is. So more sets in any rep range will result in more hypertrophy.
- Q: What is training volume?
A: Training volume is simply the amount of total work you do. Depending on who you ask and what sport they are a part of, you may get a different answer for how volume is defined. It can be defined as sets x reps (so 5x5 would be 25 reps of volume), others define it as sets x reps x pounds (5x5 with 100 lbs is 2500 lbs of volume) and others define it as total amount of “hard sets” done.
Personally, the most practical and optimal way to define volume in order to keep track of it as a natural lifter who simply wants to get strong and muscular would be to define it as total amount of "hard sets" for sets including reps of 6 and higher. A hard set simply refers to a set that is taken 2-3 reps from failure. For sets of 5 reps and below, it's a good idea to follow Prilepin's chart. This is because studies have repeatedly shown that when dealing with rep ranges of 6 and above, muscle growth is relatively the same across all rep ranges when total amount of sets is controlled for. In other words, 5 sets of 6 will build just as much muscle as 5 sets of 15. On the other hand, when you begin to increase the intensity and lift heavier, the type and amount of fatigue caused by these sets is slightly different and much more taxing on the CNS. For heavy sets, Prilepin's chart is a great starting point for managing optimal volume.
- Q: How much volume should I do?
A: There is no way to give you an exact number for the perfect amount of volume, because quite frankly, that number does not exist. It will vary from person to person, muscle group to muscle group, and will even vary within each individual at different times. It is true that the more volume you do, the more muscle and strength you will gain up until a point, however, the KEY here is recovery. If you do too much volume, you can actually lose strength and stall your progress due to not being able to recover from the amount of work you are doing. Remember, your body grows stronger by adapting and recovering to the fatigue you put on it. If you do too much volume and your body can’t recover, it can’t progress and get better. This is why deloads and/or training with sub-maximal weights (leaving reps in reserve on each set) is VITAL to proper training.
When it comes to training, I believe that volume and recovery is by far the most misunderstood aspect of training. The ultimate goal is to properly balance recovery and volume. You want to do as much volume as you possibly can without causing recovery issues. This leads to the introduction of concepts like Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) and Minimum Effective Volume (MEV). Read on for more information regarding these concepts.
- Q: So what is Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) and Minimum Effective Volume (MEV)?
A: MEV is simply the minimum amount of volume that will cause your body to grow. If you did this amount of total work per week, you would progress but at the slowest rate possible; anything less would simply be maintaining.
MRV is the maximum amount of volume that you can do and still recover and make progress with. Doing any more than this amount means that you will be under recovering and you will eventually burn out and no longer make progress, or even potentially begin to move backwards and perform worse until you take a deload or reduce your volume.
The goal is to be as close to your MRV as possible while training, without going over this amount unless you have a deload coming up. A common training style that is very effective is to start out training at your MEV and then slowly add volume over the weeks or months (or any other pre planned time frame) until you go OVER your MRV, at which case you then take a deload to fully recover and then start the process over again. This is a form of periodization and overreaching.
- Q: Should I train to failure?
A: The short answer is not on the majority of your lifts. Training to failure should be saved for only certain situations such as leaving it for only the last set or two or if otherwise prescribed by your current routine. The majority of your sets should leave 2-3 reps in the tank, also called training with an RIR 3-2 (Reps in Reserve). The reasoning for this is quite simple, but seems to be a concept that many people don’t figure out on their own until later in their training career. The research shows that taking a set to failure does provide a slight increase in hypertrophy in comparison to not going to failure, but it also has a much larger increase in training fatigue and is much harder to recover from. In other words, while training to failure gives a slight edge in building muscle when comparing single sets, it is also much harder to recover from, making leaving reps in reserve a much better way to train in the long run for continual muscle building progress.
This means that the trade off is not worth it, since the main driver of progress is volume (total amount of sets) and then recovery. It is much easier to get in more total volume when you are leaving reps in the tank. If my goal was to get 10 sets of bench press in a given workout, there is no chance that I could get that many working sets if I were to take every set to failure. And even if I did, the fatigue would be so difficult to recover from that I probably would not be able to get in a quality workout for the rest of the week, reducing my overall weekly volume. However, if I left reps in tank for every set, this goal would be much more achievable and recovering from that work would also be a lot easier, meaning I could go into the gym again a couple days later and do even more volume. This again goes back to managing volume and recovery. You CAN train to failure on some sets, but you need to be strategic with it and the majority of your training should not be done to failure in order to make sure you recover between workouts and get in enough quality work. My recommended training range would be an RIR of 3-2 for most sets.
- Q: What is progressive overload?
A: Progressive overload simply refers to progressively making your workouts harder so that the body has to adapt and improve. If you perform the same amount of work every workout, your body has no reason to adapt and get better and it will simply not improve. Progressive overload can be achieved in many ways.
Some forms of progressive overload are doing more reps, doing more sets or total work, adding more resistance (adding weight to the bar or using more band tension), shorter rest times, or working out more frequently (thus increasing total work per week). These are just a few examples, but there are many different ways to make sure you’re progressing. Just remember, if you are hitting a plateau, look at your workouts and see if you’re striving to do MORE over time.
- Q: Can I build muscle with resistance bands or bodyweight exercises?
A: Yes, you can. As long as you are training hard enough and finding ways to progressively make your workouts harder, you will build muscle. You can build muscle faster with weight training because it is much easier to achieve progressive overload using weights, but you can still build a solid physique using only resistance bands or bodyweight exercises as long as you are consistently improving your performance and challenging yourself. Remember that the key to progress is total workload (volume) and making sure that your workouts are getting progressively harder. As long as these elements are present in your routine, you will make great progress.
- Q: What does periodization mean and why is it needed?
A: Periodization is exactly what it sounds like, it is a form of periodizing your training by changing variables from workout to workout. Once you get past the beginner phase, you need to implement some sort of periodization in order to continue making progress and avoid what we call accommodation. If you continue to perform the same exercise for the same sets and reps, week in and week out, progress will either stall or actually regress due to the body accommodating to the stimulus. To counteract this, periodization must be performed.
One quick example of periodizing your training over a four week period would be to slowly decrease the volume and increase the intensity over a four week period. This is called linear periodization. So on a given lift, you would perform it as:
- Week 1: 5x12
- Week 2: 5x5
- Week 3: 4x3
- Week 4: 4x1
- Q: What is autoregulation?
A: Autoregulation simply means that you regulate your training based on how you’re feeling that day. Let’s say that you are planning on doing 5x5 on the bench press today and your routine allows autoregulation. If you go into the gym and the weight feels extremely heavy and you struggle to get 5 reps on the first set, you would simply reduce the weight by 5-10 lbs and continue hitting your 5x5 goal. This method can be extremely beneficial, as it allows you to listen to your body when it’s telling you to back off a little bit so that it can recover while still getting quality work in.
- Q: Do I have to eat a very healthy and clean diet to improve my physique?
A: Gaining or losing weight is not a result of WHAT you eat, but HOW MUCH you eat. Weight loss, for example, is done by eating less calories than your body burns in a day. By doing this, once your body burns through the food that you eat and it still needs energy to function, it will turn to itself and burn stored fat as energy to make up the difference. In regards to weight gain or loss, the only thing that matters is total caloric intake. This means that you do not need to suffer by force feeding yourself foods that you may dislike, as it will have no affect on progress as long as you follow your calorie guidelines. This is not to say that you should not eat healthy, but it is not a requirement when it comes to changing your body composition.
- Q: Do I need to go on a low carb diet if I want to lose fat?
A: Generally speaking, any low calorie diet will naturally be relatively low carb. When we want to lose weight we want to do two things: keep protein intake high or even elevate it and reduce caloric intake. This means that the only place that we have to reduce calories from is Carbs and Fats, which typically results in a lower than normal carbohydrate intake. It is completely unnecessary to reduce carbs any more than needed to create a caloric deficit, and doing so can be detrimental to your exercise performance. Extremely low or no carb diets are unnecessary and should only be reserved for rare exceptions such as someone trying to get into single digit body fat in order to be stage ready.
- Q: I really don't like most healthy foods, what can I do to lose weight?
A: You don't need to eat healthy in order to lose weight (but you should for health purposes!). Simply eat the foods you enjoy while maintaining a protein intake of about .8 grams per pound of body weight, and reduce your caloric intake until you are in a 500-1000 calorie deficit. You do not need to eat any specific foods in order to induce fat loss, the only thing that matters is that you consume enough protein and maintain a caloric deficit. Fat loss is a result of how much you eat, not what you eat.
- Q: Do I have to track my macro-nutrients to make progress?
A: As long as you are tracking total caloric intake and making sure to consume an adequate amount of protein, it is not necessary to track macros in order to make progress. Only those who are going from lean to shredded would be candidates for someone I would suggest to worry about counting macros. Being too meticulous with your macros can add unnecessary stress to managing your diet. It is typically a better idea to track calorie and protein intake closely and let the rest fall into place.