What to focus on (and what not to) in order to look better than ever in a bathing suit!
Summer is fast approaching. If you’re interested in bringing the best version of yourself to the beach or pool this summer, now (not the last week of May) is the time to start preparing. There are few people who wouldn’t like to look better on the beach or in a bathing suit, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.Unfortunately, commonly used strategies are wildly ineffective and leave people looking the same year after year. I get it, there are more important things in life than looking good during the summer, and for most people, this can and should be a secondary goal.
What do I mean by that? For sustainable health, it behooves you to strive to be stronger, eat healthier, prioritize sleep, and move more. If you focus on these four areas, it's almost impossible not to end up looking phenomenal in a bathing suit.
"Chase health, and aesthetics will follow". One of my favorite podcasts, Mindpump, likes to remind people of this. If you prioritize health and building lifelong habits, your physique will improve by default.
Sadly, when most people set a purely physique-related goal, they end up focusing on the wrong things; quick fixes which involve calorie restriction and cardio. Being healthy and sustaining it long term requires a fast metabolism, a low (but not too low) amount of body fat, a reasonable amount of muscle mass, energy to move throughout the day, and eating enough food to be satiated at the end of each day so you’re not always going to bed hungry.
Performing cardio and eating less and less over time tells your body to do the exact opposite of these things. Yes, cardio is very healthy, and it also burns calories. Yes, eating fewer calories will help you lose weight. Cardio shouldn't be ignored, but it shouldn't be your focus when it comes to fat loss and physique improvement. Also, eating less will ultimately be required for you to lose body fat, but again, shouldn't be your first step.
First, what NOT to Focus on
Cardio for Fat Loss
Cardio is great for your cardiovascular and mental health. If you enjoy it, I fully support you continuing with it. If you don’t do any, I recommend doing it at least once a week or, at minimum, walking more. But utilizing it as your primary fat loss strategy is a recipe for long term failure and disappointment.
When you do cardio, you send a signal to your body to slow its metabolism down and become more efficient. If you’re an endurance athlete focused on performance, more efficiency is a good thing. You’ll be able to run (or bike or swim) longer and faster while expending less energy.
If you're a regular person with fat loss goals, more efficiency is not advantageous.
Over time, your body will burn less and fewer calories during your cardio sessions which will require you to add more cardio or eat less to continue progress. While cardio is healthy, too much cardio is terribly unhealthy. Ultra marathon running (30-200 mile races) is one of the most unhealthy sports you can partake in. Cardio is also a catabolic activity, which means it burns tissue.
The two types of tissues we’re concerned with optimizing in the body are fat (less of it) and muscle (more of it). When cardio is the main focus (and not resistance training), you end up losing just as much (or more) muscle as body fat.
This leads to a slower metabolism over time, which again means you’ll need to up the volume on cardio or further restrict calories. While this can be managed for short periods of time, it eventually becomes unsustainable.
Those who try to continue to sustain it end up running into a myriad of hormonal problems, injuries, overtraining, and complete burnout. In short, cardio is great for health, and shouldn’t be neglected. But it should not be your go-to fat loss strategy.
Cutting calories has the same effects as cardio in regards to decreasing your metabolic rate. Yes, it’s required for fat loss, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. If you’re already strength training and consuming plenty of daily calories, cutting is easy, sustainable and totally safe.
For example, I eat ~4200 calories per day to maintain my weight, and if I were to start a cut I’d probably reduce calories 3700/day to start out. Eating 3700 calories daily still means I’m getting enough protein, enough nutrients and not feeling like I’m starving myself.
Eventually, however, 3700 per day will be my new maintenance level because of the body’s incredible ability to adapt and maintain homeostasis, and I’ll have to cut from that number again to, say, 3200 for a few weeks. Still, this is more than many people eat in a day and ample calories to sustain health, muscle mass and satiety.
But if you haven’t spent at least several months focusing on weight training, eating to fuel it, sleeping, and movement or walking, your maintenance calories are likely much lower. I’ll use 1800 calories per day for weight maintenance as an example (a pretty common amount, believe it or not). If you start to cut calories from 1800 per day, for a few weeks you’ll be at 1500 (although most people make much more drastic cuts than 300/day which I don’t recommend if you’re already sub-2,000).
Then, inevitably, your body will adapt (because it doesn't like to be in a calorie deficit) and 1500 becomes your new maintenance. You’re still not as lean as you want to be, so you then cut to 1,200…and so on. It’s nearly impossible to sustain health when you’re eating so little.
At 1200 calories per day (regardless of body size) you need to be very precise (every single day) with your nutrition to ensure you’re consuming adequate protein and micronutrients. It’s also very unsustainable to eat 1200 calories per day for the rest of your life, and if you begin to go over this number, since you’ve spent so much time slowing down your metabolism, rebound fat gain is inevitable.
This is why it’s relatively easy to lose a significant amount of weight over a 30-60-90 day period, but people who do this almost never keep it off. We don’t have a weight loss problem, we have a problem maintaining it. There are several reasons for this, but I believe misinformation and lack of focus on the right things is up at the top.Fortunately, there's a solution! If you want to get into a position where you’re eating more daily calories so that you have a more comfortable number to start cutting from, continue reading.
The Four Pillars of an Epic Beach Body
To get ready for the summer correctly, and look great from June to September (and hopefully continue forever) your focus should be on resistance training, sleep, healthy nutrition habits, and daily movement.
All of the negative effects cardio has for your fat loss goals can be completely negated by resistance training (weight training, lifting, strength training, all the same). Remember when I said not to quit cardio if you love doing it?
As long as your main focus is strength training in a progressve manner (meaning getting stronger or better over time), you’re welcome to keep doing cardio. But if you could only choose one, resistance training takes the cake.
Basic guidelines are to train each muscle group 2-3 times per week. There are countless effective training splits. For a beginner or intermediate lifter, 2-3 full body training sessions per week is great. My kickstart program is ideal for this.
If you’re more advanced, you can benefit from splitting your training into different body parts on different days. Either an upper/lower or a push/pull/legs/upper/lower split (like my 19 Week Hypertrophy Program) are great options.
To build muscle, you’ll want to aim for 10-20 hard sets per week, per muscle group. A hard set means it’s close (but usually not all the way to) failure. Your rep range should be anywhere from 5-20 per set. Again, if you’re unsure where to begin, I highly recommend following a structured program.
Worried about getting too bulky? I promise you, it’s extremely difficult to get bulky. It takes years and years of consistency and dedication, and for most people, performance enhancing drugs. Strength training for 4-5 months will not make you bulky (although I wish it did!). Resistance training is just one piece of the puzzle. To make progress, you also need to sleep and eat right.
I harp on sleep a lot. To make progress, you need to prioritize it. Perfect nutrition and a great training program will do next to nothing if you’re not sleeping. Additionally, over time your training will suffer, along with your nutrition. Sleep is when you recover from your hard training sessions. It also regulates your hunger and satiation hormones, along with your insulin sensitivity. To read more on sleep, I suggest you check out this blog post. Just know that if you’re not getting 7-9 quality hours of it per night, you’re missing an essential piece of the puzzle.
Nutritional success and consistency is all about developing habits. If you have poor habits now, trying to change all of them at once can be daunting. Despite several claims, there’s no magic diet, pill or potion that will cause you to adhere to a diet. You’ll need to put in the effort yourself.
A strategy I like to use is to have people add, and not subtract, dietary changes. For example, instead of saying “I’m going to quit drinking soda”, you say, “I'm going to drink half my bodyweight in ounces of water per day”. This, by default, will result in you feeling better, being healthier, and also cause you to drink less soda.
For non soda drinkers (good for you!), Instead of saying, “I’m going to cut out carbs”, try an approach like “I’m going to eat lean quality protein and vegetables and/or fruit with every meal”.
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient. Veggies and fruits are loaded with fiber. Combining these foods will not only fuel your gym sessions and make you feel better throughout the day, but they’ll also keep you full and result in you craving fewer carbohydrates, especially the processed sugary ones that result in overeating.
Combining strength training, sleep, and nutrition will get you most of the way there. The final part of the equation is movement.
We live in a world that is designed to promote laziness. We sit in a car to drive to work. When we get to work we sit at a desk all day. When we come home from work, we plant ourselves on the couch and watch Netflix.
It’s easy to go a whole day without getting any more than 2,000 steps. Unless you have an active profession, an effort must be made to move more. I’m a big proponent of 10 minute walks. If you’re tight on time, at least making an effort to walk for 10 minutes (it works great if you pair it with another habit, like a post meal walk) 3 times per day is the bare minimum recommendation.
If you can, aiming for 7,000 steps daily can be a game changer. 10,000 is even better. There’s nothing magic about 10,000 steps, but it's an excellent tool to gauge whether you’re being active enough. Walking, unlike cardio, is recuperative, stress relieving, and will not slow down your metabolism. Depending on your body size, walking 10,000 steps daily can allow you to eat an extra 200-500 calories. This adds up significantly over time!
There you have it! If you change your mindset from “eat less, burn more” to “build muscle, sleep, move, and eat to fuel it all” you’ll be on your way to your best beach body yet. You’ll also be healthier, feel better, and uncover a stronger version of yourself.
I understand it’s not always easy to be consistent. Some days will be better than others. Motivation is fleeting, which means it comes and goes. Take advantage of it when you have it, but know that even when it isn’t there and you still put forth the effort, that’s when real growth occurs.
I hope you now have a better understanding of how to get in shape. Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts, questions or concerns in the comments section below.