Truth time: You can’t really shortcut getting a rock-hard body. However, there are some smart ways for you to achieve your chiseling goals without wasting time or—worse—doing things that undercut your efforts. Here, Colette Nelson, professional bodybuilder, personal trainer and coach, and registered dietician, and Doug Miller, professional bodybuilder and co-author of Biology for Bodybuilders, share their dos and don’ts for sculpting a competition-worthy physique.
First, a bit of a surprise: You don’t necessarily need to put in more gym time. “Working out is really only 15 percent of the equation,” says Nelson. Instead, you’ll be spending more time at the grocery store and in the kitchen. “The diet is 85 percent.” Miller suggests tracking what you eat to start with, so you can then look at how to tinker with it.
Major chiseling means seriously changing up your carb intake. Nelson recommends focusing on fiber-full legumes, vegetables, and berries, especially on the days you’re not working out. “Many studies have found that people experience increased satiety, lower insulin levels, and greater weight-loss success on a low-carb/high-fiber dieting approach.”
No carbs at all means no ready energy. Therefore, increase carbs slightly on hard workout days. “The less impactful carbs that are found in sweet potatoes may be eaten one to two per week and post-workout,” Nelson says. Limit it to a small portion, though, such as half a sweet potato or a half-cup of quinoa.
OK, so most carbs are out. What’s in? Protein and fat, of course. Nelson suggests a diet of 40 percent lean protein, 30 percent healthy fat (such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados), and 30 percent fiber-dense carbs.
When looking to lose, people sometimes think skipping meals is the way to “save up” calories. Nelson says this is a no-no. “The body doesn’t work like that: It needs food to burn more calories,” she says. “If you skip meals, it thinks it’s starving, and the liver starts to produce more glucose and this results in insulin resistance. This is all a recipe for more fat storage when you do eat.”
So how much should you be eating? Determining calorie count is very individual, and will vary based on height, weight, age, daily activity level, body composition, and weight-loss or -gain goals. “As a quick rule of thumb, you could take your goal weight and add a 0, and then factor your physical activity.” (More active, add a couple hundred calories.) A more detailed way to determine a baseline calorie need is with this formula:
(10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) - (5 x age in years) + 5; then multiply by an activity-level value from 1.2 (sedentary) to 1.9 (extremely active)
“Remember: Substitution, not deprivation,” Nelson says. “There are plenty of healthy foods that can take the place of not-so healthy alternatives.” Rather than totally DIYing, consider talking to a nutritionist about how you can make choices that work for you. A pro can also do the math for you, and tweak it as needed, to get you on the right program for you.
Think all that careful food planning, including weekly prep sessions on the weekends, is biting off more than you can chew? Invest in a meal-prep service designed for your goals that’ll take the guesswork out of it.
“Your muscles are 72 percent water,” says Nelson. “A hydrated muscle is a stronger muscle.” To that end, being well hydrated is more important than what you eat before a workout to power you through. “Your body doesn’t have a water reserve for storage, so you need to replace fluids every day.” Her recommendation: Be sure to drink 16 ounces one hour before a workout and 24 ounces for every pound lost during a training session (weigh yourself before and after you work out to measure this).
As mentioned, exercise is only 15 percent of the equation, according to Nelson. Still, you want to be sure you’re making your time in the gym worthwhile. For a bodybuilding effect, Nelson suggests a split routine or a push-pull routine. For weight loss or general fitness, plan workouts consisting of full-body circuits. In terms of cardio, you’re better off with steady-state work rather than intervals, which can make you hungrier (and more likely to “cheat” on your diet plan).
A common misconception is that you should go lighter with more reps to cut up muscles. “This is the worst thing to do!” Miller says. “You need to keep challenging yourself with heavy weights so your body will want to hold onto its muscle while cutting.”
To that end, she says you only need an hour of weight training three to five days per week. “More is not better, and harder isn’t necessarily better when it comes to getting ripped,” she says. That also means taking the time in a workout to let your muscles recover between sets.
Rest is essential to recovery from your workouts, as muscles repair themselves while you sleep. “Studies show that those who are up more hours eat more,” Nelson says. “And lack of sleep can also alter human growth hormone release.” In other words, less sleep can inhibit all the results you’re working for.
Bodybuilders have in-season and off-season body weights because show prep is extremely difficult and a show body isn’t easily maintained. Plus, a true cutting phase is mentally and physically exhausting. Make it easier on yourself by finding an equilibrium you can maintain.