Due to popular request (or more correctly, continual hinting by my mate Rhys in Sydney) here is the first in the series of detailed posts on exercise and nutrition.  This post is written for what I call the middle group, people who exercise a bit already, but want better results, people who kinda are aware of what they eat, but know deep down they probably need to do better.

While this post is NOT intended for someone who doesn’t exercise, some of the tips still apply.  I will do separate posts for the great unwashed (ie non exercisers) later.  It’s also not written for those after elite hyper performance, and for who cutting 0.03 seconds of their 100m time matters, or who need to train for 4 hours+ a day to get the performance they need. 

This IS written for most people that currently go to a gym, or do some other form of structured exercise for the purpose of health/looking good and feeling better.

I need to start with a brief disclaimer: Although I work in the exercise industry (and have done for for 20+ years), and owned gyms for most of that time, I am NOT an exercise professional.  I am fortunate in that I regular present at and attend fitness/exercise conferences around the world each year and get to hang out with the worlds best exercise gurus, and pick their brains for the very best ideas.   I also work out myself and have done for 20+ years,  and I am simply sharing my experience from this about what works (for me, and others I have observed), what doesn’t, and how to get the best bang for your buck in terms of effort in and results out.

If you are in NZ, the best way to get great exercise advice for you is to use the services of a Registered exercise professional (the link takes you to a search engine so you can find one!), so go on, do that now.

OK .. so … on with the show.  This turned into one BIG post, with LOTS of stuff, so read on ….

Before you read this, I STRONGLY recommend you read my post on Exercise food and weight loss – the low down.  It explains a number of key principals, especially relating to cardio training, resistance training and why running is such a bad idea (in my opinion).

You will also see I do a lot of external links.  I do this for lots of reasons.  Partly to help readers better understand some of the terms I use, but mainly I do it to show that I am talking about is stuff that others write about (so you can do your own research on my opinions by following these links).

I want to start by saying this post is about exercise and nutrition NOT exercise and diet.   IMHO, there is WAY to much focus on diets, and way to little focus on eating well.  My personal view is eat well, part of which is not overeating, and the whole calories thing takes care of itself – well it does if you do one other important thing – EXERCISE.  Anyway .. let’s get to some tips:

Area Common Mistake My tip Some more detail on why
Weight loss Lots of steady state cardio 1

Time wise, focus should be 80-90% on resistance training (weight training) and 10-20% on high intensity interval training (HIIT).

As I have explained before the human body (in fact all animals) are not designed to run long distance.  You can SPRINT short distance or walk long distance.  It’s how we are designed to function.  We are not designed to work at moderate intensity for moderate to long periods. Forcing the body to do so just stresses it (which releases cortisol, the stress hormone, which tells the body to store fat, weakens the immune system and lowers bone formation - it’s all listed here!)

Resistance training burns heaps of calories, raises your  metabolic rate for up to 36 hours after workouts and and having more muscle also raises your basal metabolic rate (so even sitting down you still burn more calories – cool eh?).    This does NOT happen with cardio training.

HIIT is simply very inefficient when it comes to using energy, so it burns calories FAST all without making you feel stuffed.  The key is working at your maximum effort for 20 seconds, but no longer.  If you can train for more than 20 seconds you are going to slow.  Oh, and treadmills don’t work well for HIIT, they take to long to speed up / slow down. Rowers or bikes are best.

How often to train Too much 2

If you are someone trying to GAIN weight, and have difficulty doing so, train LESS.  Train 3 times a week at most, and no more than an hour at a time.  Resistance training is the key here (no cardio).

If you are trying to LOSE weight, the train up to 5 times a week, but no more than 3 of these should be heavy resistance training session, even if you have a split routine (ie you only do part of your body in one day, and the other part on another day).  This is because that if you are training hard in the gym (which you should be) and using big muscles (which you should be) then it puts strain on your nervous system, and it too needs rest – at least 2 days a week.

Many people (normally guys) training to gain weight over-train. They follow the same routine that people trying to lose weight do – ie they train every/most day(s), do a mix of cardio and weights and all days are moderately hard.  This is NOT the best way to gain weight!  The cardio just burns calories (which you cant afford to do).

For those trying to lose weight, add in HIIT (which can easily be done just before resistance training).  Doing an hour of cardio training on ANY day is not the best use of your time (nor a training day) IMHO.   If you want a light day, do 10 x 20 second HIIT sprints on a rower (100m is a good distance for this) and then any rehab exercises you have (most exercisers have the odd niggling injury), and do them properly, in the FULL quantity.  And then things like abs (assuming your body fat is lower enuf for abs to show – if not you are wasting your time).    Repeat the 10 x 20 seconds HIIT sprints at the end of your workout too (on your light resistance training days) as your nervous system isn’t too strained that day, and the extra calories burnt will be heaps!

What exercises to do in the gym
WAY too much focus on small isolating muscle groups3 Do BIG muscle groups, and compound exercises. Squats, chin ups (or lat pull-downs if you must), bench press etc are all great exercises.   Bicep curls are NOT on this list. Too much to explain here – see note 3 below.
What bit of the exercise to focuses on The exertion phase (when you push/pull/drive the weight) Most people incorrectly focus on the concentric phase of exercise (when the muscle is contracting, or exerting force).  While you should focus on ALL of the exercise, for muscle growth, if you are going to focus on ONE part, focus on the eccentric phase – ie when you are lowering the weight. or letting it return to where it started

You are actually MUCH stronger (around 20%) on the eccentric phase.  That’s why can always LOWER a weight that you lift (so all those big boys that drop weights on the floor with a crash bang are just being lazy most of the time).    The body actually responds to eccentric load MUCH more than it does to concentric – so you get more muscle growth, more hormone production, all good stuff from this phase.  Oh and it means more muscle in the long term too, so a higher basal metabolic rate, meaning more calories burnt too!

So when next doing an exercise, lift the weight and then focus on lowering it (most people focus on lifting it, then let it lower).

How much weight to lift Thinking weight (or even reps) matters The only thing that matters is OVERLOAD. Arnie has a line “Muscles are blind” meaning they don’t know how much weight you lift, nor how many times you lift it (muscles cant count either).  The thing to focus on is OVERLOADING muscles, and doing a weight that’s too heavy is NOT the best way to do this.  Muscles can’t count either – so whether you do 10 or 16 before you get to failure doesn’t matter.   Train with each set till you cant do any more with good form (and if you so feel inclined, cheat a little on a few more on the concentric phase, but ALWAYS know you are cheating and ALWAYS continue to do a controlled eccentric phase).  Even better, do a drop set if the exercise works well with it (like lat-pull down). Muscles respond to being overloaded (hypertrophy).  In simple terms muscles will respond when they are trained BEYOND what they can normally do.  If they can easily do an activity they do not need to adapt to do it again.  If you ensure muscles can NOT do an activity easily, they will respond by adapting, or in this case growing
Rest Continually training Have a week off every 8 weeks. During this time you can still be physically active, just no resistance training or HIIT (and you have already dropped steady sate cardio training right?). You are letting your nervous system recover, as well as muscles adapt and recover from continual training.   Training lightly every week is NOT the same training moderately hard for 8 weeks and then having a week off – so don’t cheat the rest bit!
Intensity of training Focusing on the numbers

As explained above, overload matters, not #kg lifted, or #reps completed.  When people start resistance training a big mistake is just giving up when it hurts a little.  In fact its normally not hurt at all, its just discomfort, and those new to exercise mistake this signal for pain (which is isn’t) and then stop.

Those exercising for a while make another mistake – they train to a number – they stop when they get to a # of reps, or train some massive amount if sets/reps in an attempt to get a greater result.  Here’s the rub: If you want a better result, train to failure, and do it with BIG muscle groups.

Failure for most people means, in technical speak, positive failure – where you can no longer lift/push/pull the weight without assistance.  You should train to this point on most (if not all) sets.

If you choose to have someone spot you, or you want to cheat so you can get a few more out (and remember KNOW you are cheating) then that’s good, so you can now continue to train the ECCENTRIC part of the phase, while still exerting maximal effort in the concentric part (albeit that this maximum isn’t enough to lift the weight).   If you keep doing this until you can no longer LOWER the weight then you have reached negative failure. Try this even now and again, and do it instead of ding extras sets.  Remember its not NUMBERS it’s overload.

Some more reading on failure here.

Nutrition Fat is bad right?

SUGAR is bad. In fact if you don’t eat any fat, you will eventually die, if you don’t eat any protein you will eventually die, if you never eat sugar again your body will do just fine thanks very much (and probably thank you for it).  And remember that’s the three (main) macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) that provide you with energy, with sugar being a simple carbohydrate.

Everyone want the “evil food”, when in reality there is no such thing, but if there is ONE thing to cut down on its sugar (simple carbs, or for those who like modern terms – high GI foods).

Back to my principle here – eat well. Eating natural foods that a nutritionally dense (ie lots of goodness) rather than focusing on low calories, or low fat.  So for example I think nuts are great – sure they have fat in them (many quite a bit) but they have extremely high nutritional content coz after all they are designed to grow something MUCH MUCH bigger (like a tree) out of that small wee thing.  For the same reason eggs are nutritionally dense (and good).

Like anything, moderation is the key.  Eating cashew nuts all day is gonna make you fat, but then again so is eating low fat protein bars.

Stuff to eat: Natural foods high in protein (so lean meats are great – chicken is my fav here), vegetables (fresher the better), fruit (veges beats fruit, but fruit is still good), nuts, eggs.  Basically what we WOULD have eaten 10,000 years ago.

So no, not a big fan of rice, pasta and so on.  What about brown rice you ask?  Well yes brown rice is better than white rice (same with bread) but its still rice.  High in high-GI carbs, low in protein, and not a whole bunch of nutritional dense stuff either.

If what you are eating has more than 20% of the ingredients of stuff you go “WTF”, then its probably not on my list.  Oh, and let’s be clear here I DO eat processed foods – I live in the real world, I just know its not the idea thing to eat, and try to get as much as I can from the above list.

I said at the beginning of this post this is NOT for non exerciser, or those super new to it.    If you currently don’t exercise then ANYTHING is better than nothing.  Yes, you can even run (as much as I hate it, and don’t recommend it to anyone that already exercises), because ANYTHING is better than nothing.  Think of it this way: If you were starving to death eating a Big Macs every day for a month to stay alive is a good idea.   This post is also not for elite athletes.  If your coach says run 50km every day, do it.  I don’t wanna be the one that screws up your training regime!


  1. My favourite thing to hate.  Well that’s a strong word.  I should read say “despise”.  For one simple reason: The body is not designed to do moderate to high intensity activities for long periods.  We are designed as predators, we walked long distances then sprint short distances to catch pray.  We DON’T start running and keep running till we catch someone.  Funnily enough no animal does this – no animal except man runs long distances EVER!  Doing so just stresses the body through repetitive hammering (impact), and even for low impact activities (like on a bike), it strains the wrong bit of the boy’s systems so it stresses the body rather than making it feel better after-wards.   Even with this put aside, its quite simply not efficient.  We actually it IS efficient, in a bad way, from an energy point of view – do anything physical activity for more than 10 minutes and your body will start converting fat to energy SLOWLY.  Problem is this is a very efficient system so doesn’t burn a whole bunch of energy this way.  By comparison High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is extremely inefficient when it comes to using energy, so wastes it in truckloads
  2. Its important that the standard disclaimer about not for non exercisers, and not for elite athletes is repeated here.  These groups well well not train enuf.  But for MANY in the gym world, people over-train rather than under-train,
  3. Have a look at your current exercise programme and check out how many sets you do on say your legs, and compare this to how many you do on your biceps.  Many will find they have 2-3 exercises on their legs, each with 3 sets, so that’s between 6 and 9 sets on legs, with say 1 or 2 on biceps – so thats 3 to 6 sets.    Taken the mid point of both – that’s around 4 to 5 sets on biceps (a tiny muscle on one side of your arm only – remember triceps too) compared to 7 or 8 on legs.  Legs contains not only the largest muscle group on the body (the glutes) but two very big muscle groups (quads at the front of the leg and hamstrings at the back), and we haven’t even started on calves yet!   This ratio is WAY out of proportion.   This is a problem for two reasons: Firstly many people want to tone up muscle AND lose some weight.  Training small muscle groups does not burn many calories (that’s why I often say the best exercise for a guy wanting abs is doing squats – coz it burns heaps of calories).  Secondly, doing resistance training of LARGE muscle groups gets far more response from (ie creates distress for) your endocrine system, which then increases production of anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone.  Most people massively over-train their small muscle groups (biceps, triceps, even shoulders) and under-train their large muscles groups (glutes, legs, back, chest) by comparison.  Remember also that by doing compound exercises (such as chin ups) rather than isolating exercises (like bicep curls), you get a double-whammy benefit since chin ups still work the biceps while training a large muscle group (the muscles in your back).
    If I only had 30 minutes to workout I would do squats, chin ups and some sort of press (bench press) activity.  If I am gonna add one more exercise it it would be a biggie on my legs again – dead-lifts, or maybe lunges (ideally something in all 3 planes of motion- like a weighted courtesy lunge, but that’s a whole new topic right there!)   That’s gonna hit 95%+ of my muscle groups, burn a whole bunch of calories, get a massive response from my endocrine system and most importantly give me the two results I want – muscle toning and fat loss. The key is training to failure on each exercise, and doing good form so it’s overloading the right bits in the right way so the body responds.
    And let’s be clear here – yes you can train biceps if you want, just in proportion to everything else.  Biceps are one side of half your arm.   At a guess you arm in turn is like 1/4-1/3 size of your leg (in mass).  You do the math from here.   Unless you are doing 20 sets on your legs, any more than three isolating sets on your biceps is overkill – just do some more chin ups – better all round.

Black and White Version: For exercise and nutrition I go back to basics, and 10,000 years ago – train as we are designed to function, and eat the foods that we got used to eating.  It all builds from that.

Post to Twitter Post to Delicious Post to Facebook Post to StumbleUpon