“Spring forward” is a mnemonic meant to help us remember that in accordance with Daylight Savings Time, we move the hands on our clocks forward one hour in an instant time change designed to provide one additional hour of daylight. But there is nothing “instant” about gearing up for fat loss to get a beach body. It’s not a process that should be rushed into, for both physical and psychological reasons. Just as it’s not wise to walk into the gym and go right to your heaviest weights without a thorough and proper warm-up featuring several sets of gradually increasing resistance, losing substantial amounts of body fat is a process that should also be eased into for best results.
The Case for Making Haste Slowly
Both mentally and physically, our bodies don’t respond well to sudden, drastic change. It’s better to gradually adjust variables so you have time to acclimate. It’s not a good idea to go from eating whatever you want to a strict type diet in one day. Going from having done no cardio at all for months to hitting it for 45 minutes every day is a brutal punch in the face to your system that typically has negative results, similar to someone who hasn’t squatted in months getting under 405 and expecting to do a good set. If you’ve been gorging on things like fried foods, desserts, pizza, and alcohol, going cold turkey will probably have you craving the bad stuff again soon. Not to mention the fact that sudden and drastic reductions in overall caloric intake force the body into survival mode in which the metabolism is slowed down in the body’s effort to do the one thing it’s designed to do – stay alive! And because cardio involves a certain amount of repetitive stress on your knees, ankles, and feet, it’s smarter to start off with lower intensity, volume, and frequency to rebuild strength and endurance in those areas. Otherwise, you increase your odds of incurring tendinitis, bursitis, stress fractures, and muscle strains (minor muscle tears). What we are going to do to make this transition smooth is the following:
• For several weeks, your calories will still be well above maintenance level, thus facilitating muscle gain.
• The transition phase both psychologically and physically allows you to adjust to the changes with less trauma.
• Because your diet will become stricter over a period of a couple of months, you will begin losing body fat and have a head start once your official “cut” begins.
• Cardiovascular training will be ramped up gradually, giving you a chance to rebuild your stamina and thus be better prepared for a more demanding cardio regimen as summer nears.
Nutritional Spring Cleaning
First off, don’t feel like a failure because you went off the wagon there for a while. Nearly all of us do once the weather starts getting cold. The gluttony begins for many Americans at Halloween, a holiday marked mainly by the wanton consumption of candy, which provides few nutrients but loads of sugar and fat. We buy enough for a theoretical battalion of trick-or-treaters, yet ultimately wind up eating most of it ourselves when they don’t show up at our door because parents in this era don’t allow their children to leave the house. Then along comes Thanksgiving, where we celebrate and honor the Pilgrims by force-feeding as much turkey, gravy, stuffing, candied yams, and pie as possible before passing out on the couch in a food coma after watching football. This is immediately followed up by the Christmas/holiday season. Even if your workplace has a PC non-denominational holiday theme, you can rest assured there will still be plenty of delicious foods rich in sugar and saturated fat to feast on: trays of cookies, pastries, and doughnuts – for free! There will also be home parties and dinners where food and drinks flow as freely as something out of an afterlife promised to the supremely faithful. If the host is either Italian or Latin, bet on an even greater abundance of decadent dining. The year ends with New Year’s Eve, where we ring in a new year by imbibing as much alcohol as we are able to without vomiting. Though the next day is typically marked by some form of grand resolution where eating better and losing weight often figures prominently, we don’t all act on this noble goal right away. And here we are.
As I said, we are going to progressively ease you into eating cleaner, a little bit more every week. By doing it this way, we can comfortably make these changes without shocking your system or feeling deprived and awake at night with cravings. Here’s how you will do this over eight weeks.
Eliminate starchy/complex carbohydrates from final meal of the day.
Cheat meals should be a maximum of four per week. This means meals where you eat whatever you want, in any amounts you want. Note this is one meal, not an entire day of eating crap.
Reduce the amount of bread and dairy you consumed in the off-season by one-third.
Regarding the bread, you should never eat white bread. Opt for whole wheat or whole grain. Ezekiel Bread is very popular with fit people and competitive physique athletes. This brand is sprouted, made from whole grains and legumes, and contains no refined flour or sugar. This is purely an unpaid testimonial, but it also has a lot more flavor than any white bread I’ve ever tried.
Cheat meals should be a maximum of three per week. All other variables remain the same.
Eliminate starchy/complex carbohydrates from final two meals of the day.
Bread and dairy consumption should be reduced to half the amount you were eating previously, during the rest of the year before your 8-week fat-loss program began.
Cheat meals should be a maximum of two per week.
Reduce your bread and dairy so that it’s roughly a third of how much you consumed during the rest of the year.
Cheat meals are still allowed this final week at two for the week.
Eliminate starchy/complex carbohydrates from final three meals of the day. Ideally, two of your meals with carbs should be the meals before and after training.
Bread and dairy should either be fully eliminated or reduced to two servings of each per week.
Week 0 – Cutting Diet Officially Begins
Complex carbs should be eaten with no more than three meals per day, though this is an individual matter. Some people can lean out while still taking in ample carbohydrates, while others must consume very low carbs to lose fat. Again, the two meals where your carbohydrates will be utilized best will be your pre- and post-workout meals, so plan accordingly depending on what time of day you train. If you train in the evening, your carb meals will be eaten later in the day as opposed to someone who trains in the morning.
You should not have more than one cheat meal per week, and some who have a tougher time dropping body fat should not have any cheat meals.
All bread and dairy products should be eliminated.
Easing Back Into Cardio
Though you may feign ignorance, you are doubtless aware of the benefits of cardio. Yet even knowing it’s necessary for both maintaining good cardiovascular conditioning, i.e., a strong and healthy lungs and heart, as well as keeping body fat in check, many people drop cardio from their program the minute they decide they have kicked off their off-season. And trust me, I get it. Cardio is something most of us never signed on for. Personally, I started lifting weights at age 13-14 and didn’t begin doing any type of cardio until I had already been competing as a natural bodybuilder for three years. Even then, I did it grudgingly, holding it in contempt as a necessary evil if I wanted to shed the layer of blubber I’d accumulated via force-feeding at least double the amount of calories my body required in the form of 2-pound baked potatoes, bowls of rice large enough to use as helmets, and the sugar-laden mega-calorie weight gainers in vogue at the time. I did what many bodybuilders still do today, which was to take my cardio from zero to 60 overnight. I was able to get away with this shock to the system back then as I was just a whippersnapper in his early to mid-20s. By the time I was on the wrong side of 30, I was alarmed to find how badly I would suck wind if I returned to cardio after more than a month or so away from it. That’s when I realized it would behoove me to keep a certain amount of cardio in my program year-round.
Unless you are one of those rare metabolic freaks who stays lean without any conscious effort, or you have a physical job that keeps you breathing heavy and burning calories, you too should strive to include a bare minimum of three 20-minute sessions per week. But let’s assume you’ve done what so many other lifters do and stopped all cardio as soon as the leaves changed color. Here’s a reasonable schedule to ease you back into a level of cardiovascular fitness so that when it’s time to drop the hammer and enter full cutting mode, you’re more than ready.
3 x 20 minutes, moderate intensity
Perform three sessions of 20 minutes per week, moderate intensity. That means it shouldn’t be so easy you can type clever comments on Instagram posts and stories, but you shouldn’t be gasping for breath like a fish on the dock either. You should have a light sweat by about halfway through. When you do these three sessions, as with any time you’re getting your cardio in, is up to you, your schedule, and your availability. We can all argue the relative benefits of fasted cardio versus doing it after your weights, or even in a fed state on days off from weight training. No studies have ever proven superior fat-burning results, though many people have verified over the past 20 or so years through their own experience that fasted morning cardio does seem to burn more body fat than doing it at other times. This seems particularly true once your body fat is already low. Since we’re not trying to get shredded in this transition phase, don’t fret if you can’t do fasted cardio. You can do it after your weight-training workout, though I would save your post-workout shake with carbs until after the cardio, so you don’t have that shake sloshing around in your belly. You can eat breakfast before heading off to the gym or to your own cardio machine at home; just give your body a good hour or more to digest it first.
I can say that I felt physically better and more energetic performing cardio with a meal in me. Those of you who follow Dr. Layne Norton know that he has effectively debunked the need to do your cardio in a fasted state. So long as you get it done and burn the calories, it really doesn’t matter.
4 x 20 minutes, moderate intensity
We are adding another cardio day now, which takes you to four 20-minute sessions per week. For those of you grumbling about that, try to look on the bright side. In the old days, you had only your Sony Walkman and a cassette to keep you going during cardio, which eventually became a CD and a Sony Discman. MP3 players and iPods were the next evolution. Now, all of you own smartphones with access to almost unlimited text, audio, and video content.
4 x 30 minutes, moderate intensity
For our final three weeks of spring training before it’s time to jump into full-fledged cutting, we’re keeping the frequency at four cardio sessions per week, but the duration bumps up from 20 to 30 minutes. Do the math and this has you hitting a total of two hours of cardio a week. That’s enough to make a real dent and melt away some of that winter hibernation fat you put on. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing the biggest difference in your body fat at this stage.
By now, the more detail-oriented among you might be asking, what about the weight training? What should I change, if anything? You may know from some of my previous articles that I believe in utilizing more intensity techniques such as drop sets, supersets, and giant sets in the off-season rather than in the cutting/prep phase as most people prefer to. This is because anything that ramps up your workload and intensity also takes a higher toll on your recovery ability. It makes sense to work harder and longer with the weights when your body has more resources to apply toward recovery. That’s why you should put those techniques into practice when you are in a surplus of energy and calories rather than a deficit.
Assuming you are doing this, the spring training period should see you gradually scaling back toward more straight sets. If you’re doing drop sets or supersets at every workout for every body part, start limiting them to just two exercises per body part, then one. Try to match the rate you transition back to straight sets with your increasing cardio frequency and your decrease in carb meals per day and cheat meals per week. Think in terms of overall energy expenditure, or energy in (food) versus energy out (weights and cardio).
As you can see, there’s no need to ever drastically jump into or out of fat-burning mode. Work your way into the summer cutting phase gradually with this “Spring Forward” spring training program, and you’ll be in an excellent position to launch your successful shredding regimen.
3 TIPS FOR ‘GETTING IN SHAPE TO GET IN SHAPE’
Stop Buying Foods You Shouldn’t Eat
Unless you share your living area with junk-food junkies (or children), you’re in full control of what you stock your refrigerator and cupboards with. You can’t eat crap like cookies, muffins, or frozen bean burritos if they aren’t in your home in the first place. Try to do your food shopping on the perimeter of the supermarket where they stock the healthier basics like fruits, vegetables, fresh meat, fish, eggs, and poultry. Stay the hell away from the aisles full of cereal, snacks, soda, and candy. They can be very tempting, especially if you spy some sweet two-for-one deal. You’re better off leaving those aisles alone.
Start Meal Prepping
It’s always easier to eat cleaner when you have clean food already made that you just need to heat up in the toaster oven or microwave. Meal prepping is something a lot of people only start doing after Memorial Day when they panic and realize it’s going to be beach weather in a few weeks. Don’t wait that long! Start taking one day a week, maybe Sunday, to grill, fry, and bake batches of chicken, ground turkey or beef, and fish to freeze so you won’t have to cook the rest of the week. Otherwise, if most of us must choose between cooking fresh, clean food every day if not several times a day or going for fast food, the easier option often wins out even if it means we know we aren’t eating right. We are all busy in 2023, so use your time wisely. Be prepared to eat clean, and it won’t be an excuse not to.
Take a Break From Social Media
I confess I stole this one from four-time Classic Physique Olympia champ Chris Bumstead. Like me and most of you, he has no love for cardio. One way he makes the time pass by faster for his fasted cardio is to not even check his texts, emails, or messages on social media until he’s on the treadmill or StepMill. If you’re even a remotely busy person, answering those should take up a good chunk of the time you’re huffing away burning calories. Before you know it, you’re done!