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The Ultimate Guide to Getting Jacked—Instead of Fat—in College

Experts explain how to prevent the Freshman 15... and the Sophomore, Junior, and Senior 15.
The Ultimate Guide to Getting Jacked—Instead of Fat—in College

The Freshman 15 is a bit of a misnomer. Most guys gain weight all four years of college, according to research published in Appetite.

One reason? Calories in generally exceed calories burned. All-you-can-eat cafeteria meals (however good or bad they might be), nights fueled by ramen and microwaveable mac and cheese, beer pong, and vending machine food can all add calories in. Meanwhile, if you’re coming off of a high school career as a quarterback and track star to a college career as a bookworm, you’re not going to come anywhere near burning off the crazy huge meals you used to pride yourself on putting away, says sports dietitian and strength coach Marie Spano, R.D., C.S.S.D., C.S.C.S.

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Another factor: Sleep. (Or, to be more specific, lack of sleep.) Between frat parties, late-night cram sessions, part-time jobs, and early-morning tailgaters, most college guys don't sleep often—and when they do, it's periodic naps through chemistry lectures. That combination of sleeping fewer hours and sleeping erratically contributes to weight gain, especially among guys, according to a study published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine.

The solution to that problem is simpler than you might realize: Prioritize sleep time, and try to wake up in time for a meal, since a high-protein breakfast is an important way to manage your weight. Here are 10 more expert-approved tips to getting jacked (not fat) in college.

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When researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health followed 10,500 healthy men over the course of 12 years, the guys who spent 20 minutes a day lifting weights put on less abdominal fat compared to the men who cranked out cardio for the same amount of time. That’s because while cardio burns calories from both fat and muscle, strength training burns fat almost exclusively, and while building metabolism-boosting, calorie-torching muscle, says certified trainer John Rowley, International Sports Sciences director of wellness. He recommends divvying your time strength training into at least two hour-long sessions per week. If you have time for more, try to hit it hard in the weight room three to four days per week.

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A bench press is harder than a bicep curl for a reason: It works for muscle and requires more energy (aka calories.) “Multi-joint compound movements give you a bigger bang for your buck than do isolation moves,” Rowley says. Among his favorites: bench presses, squats, deadlifts, and rows. 

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A bowl of cereal doesn’t count as breakfast. Starting your day with a high-protein breakfast like a veggie-packed omelet is key to getting your energy levels up first thing in the morning and preventing between-meal hunger that leaves you heading for for the vending machine, Spano says. According to 2013 research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating a high-protein breakfast (shoot for about 350 calories and 35 grams of protein) triggers your body to pump out the gut hormone Peptide YY, which leads to increased fullness through the afternoon and evening.

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That’s a week, not a day. It’s unhealthy to have more than four alcoholic drinks per day, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. If you’re going to knock 'em back anyway, try to spread them out a bit to prevent the booze-fueled munchies. By reducing your body’s levels of leptin, a hormone that tells your body when you’re full, alcohol can make binging more about your biology than your willpower. Having just three drinks in one sitting reduces your feel-full levels by 30 percent, according to Alcohol & Alcoholism. That’s why a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, on average, men put away an extra 168 calories from food on days that they drink alcohol. On days they drink, they also eat more fat, saturated fat, and less produce. 

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If you’ve always played sports but suddenly find yourself without a team when you go off to college, consider joining an intramural league, suggests Lamar Gordon, training manager DavidBartonGym Century City. Apart from scoring you a great workout, getting outside and enjoying a team atmosphere again can do wonders for your stress levels, and help prevent coping with it by drinking, eating, and playing video games.

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It can be tempting to take the shuttle to class, especially when you're freezing or you just can’t be bothered to put one foot in front of the other. But walking is exactly what you need to do, Spano says. Simply walking to and from every class can make a huge dent in your overall activity level, and make the difference between weight lost and weight gained. If you don’t already have one, try investing in a fitness tracker. In one Indiana University study, when people wore step-trackers, they reduced their daily on-their-butts sitting time by 17.5 percent, increased their activity levels, and lost weight.

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When you head to the dining hall, start by filling at least half of your plate with a variety of phytonutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. Then add some fiber-rich whole grain and a form of lean protein or fatty fish, or, on occasion, red meat. These animal-based proteins, when enjoyed in moderate portions and accompanied by plant-based foods, can be incorporated into a healthy, balanced diet.

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At the end of most cafeteria lines is an array of cookies, cakes—and don’t forget the fro-yo machine. “Enjoy dessert a few times a week and limit portion sizes. Don’t feel like you have to load up in one sitting,” Spano says. “After all, the dessert options aren't going anywhere. They’ll be there tomorrow.” Once you get out of the “scarcity mentality” ("I’ve got to eat this now because I don’t know when I will have the chance to eat it again"), you’ll find that you really aren’t as big of a sweet tooth as you thought you were.

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No matter how balanced your three meals a day are, every once in a while, you’re going to wind up hungry half-way through a study session or on your way to class. By making sure that you always have healthy snacks that you enjoy, you eliminate the need to run to the quickie-mart in your dorm’s lobby and hit up vending machines in the library. Stock your mini fridge with cheese, Greek yogurt, and carrot sticks, and your drawers and backpack with nuts and dried fruit.

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Whether you live on or off campus, try to cook as often as you can. People who cook most of their meals eat an average of 140 fewer calories per day, according to 2015 Public Health Nutrition study. Commercial food (whether it comes from a box or a restaurant) is notoriously stacked with saturated fat, salt, and way too much sugar. Can’t even have a hot plate in your dorm? Cook a bunch of healthy meals when you’re home over break, and then stock your freezer.

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