Recently I’ve been asked “What’s the best way to get fit?” and “Should I do tons of cardio, diet and only afterwards start lifting weights to build muscle?” Right away I’ll respond with a definitive no as this is totally backwards and the wrong approach. InshAllah through this article I’ll touch upon all the reasons as to why this is wrong and how instead you should go about approaching your goal of getting fit.
Over the years I’ve seen many people left disappointed with their fitness results. They bust their heart and soul but fail by doing it wrong. Going through lots of programs, fad diets, crash diets, starvation, extreme cardio sessions, ‘lifting light weights for high reps’, with nothing but either a skinny build or an an identical unfit but smaller version of themselves.
I’ve been there myself and I want to stop others from repeating the same mistakes I did. There is a always a terrible or wrong way of doing things and then there is a correct or better way of doing things. I would have wasted far less time and had far better off results prior to and up until this point if I had followed a very basic but correct approach to training and nutrition.
I had no one to educate me or stop me from my mistakes. I went by myths and grandma tales. I fell for weight loss program advertisements, gimmicky supplements and spent a lot of money. It led to a lot of adventuring and experimenting. I did however through all this experience learn a thousand different ways of how not do it and ultimately learned how to do it right. Alhamdulillah through it all I gained a ton of knowledge which I wish to share with others, to benefit others in their journey of physically improving themselves to be a healthier, happier and stronger Muslim inshAllah.
I hit 6 feet [182cm] shortly from the onset of puberty and my weight stabilized in my teens around 180lbs-190lbs [81.65kg-86.18kg]. I was an active kid, training martial arts for a total of ten years and playing sports at school and with friends. I’ve never been a small kid either and by no means ever concerned with what I ate. While young our hormones are so high that no matter what we eat and do we’ll remain fit as long as we’re somehow active.
I stretched to a height of 6’2 [188cm] by the beginning of college and my weight jumped to 210lbs [95.25kg] before my nikkah and walima (wedding) after college. Travelling abroad visiting family for two months led to a first time 230lbs [104.3kg], going for my ‘honey moon’ for one month in the United Arab Emirates led to an all time high of 260lbs [117.93kg]. I laughed it off, I came back, I stopped junk food and I ate overall less while training myself martial art routines I’ve been accustomed to. As a result I dropped down to 240lbs [108.86kg] but then I stopped caring… Work stress and an indulgence in my mother’s and wife’s cooking led to an all out disaster. From 240lbs [108.86kg] I shot past my previous record high of 260lbs [117.93kg] all the way to an astronomical 290lbs [131.54kg]. I could have gone further but I realized this was going in the wrong direction.
I knew nothing about nutrition and I suddenly became obsessed with the idea of ‘weight loss’. What happened to me? I started looking for ‘quick fixes’. Along the way I almost stumbled upon success with programs like P90X but I failed to follow the nutrition plans. The positive thing I learned for the first time was some weight lifting, but I kept ignoring the most crucial aspect: nutrition. It was still either eat anything or eat nothing.
I then ended up worse off by stopping weight lifting all together. I turned to a program called beachbody insanity which promised a shredded fat free physique. The program had no weight lifting involved and I ended up doing insane amounts of cardio while dieting. Yes the scale spoke of success, yes I fit in smaller cloths and yes I dropped to an all time lowest horrendous weight of 165lbs [74.84kg]. The result of that rapid weight loss in a year or less? Loose skin, weakness and might I say no muscle. I no longer was obese but was I fit? I was skinny, no worse… I was skinny fat…
Things soon took a hard turn for the worse and Allah (swt) tested me with a variety of medical problems. I developed hormonal problems and aside from my inability to put on muscle or lose fat no matter how I ate or trained, I got a skew of other challenging issues to deal with as a result. I was quite set back in life but alhamdulillah once I sorted everything out I set out once again to seek success in my goals. I’ve been striving to improve and keep on track of my nutrition and weight lifting ever since.
What did I do differently? I learned about basic traditional resistance training and weight lifting principles and methodology. Programs and methods that are classical and readily available for all. 5×5, 5/3/1 all meant to start building up strength and building up some sort of muscular foundation. I also learned various training principles such as pyramiding, supersets, drop sets, etc…
There is absolutely no need for any kind of modern commercialized fancy named lifting programs that are sold on DVDs for money making purposes. What worked for past Bodybuilders, Powerlifters and Olympic Athletes will work for everyone today. Everything else is just a recycled version of the same principles. Bodyweight and barbell weight lifting routines. That’s it. Basic compound movements: Deadlifts, Rows, Push Presses, Benching, Squatting, Curling, Pushups, Dips, Pullups, Chinups.
Next I learned how to eat better, I understood the importance of whole food and not ‘shakes’ or supplementation. The need for quality protein, unprocessed carbohydrates, avoiding junk and genetically modified garbage and yes veggies which I once hated but today love.
What did I do wrong that many other people also do wrong?
- I stopped lifting weights and/or did not lift weights which in fact are crucial to building and maintaining your body’s lean muscle mass
- I did not recognize the importance of nutrition whether trying to build muscle or trying to shred fat.
- The two above cannot go without each other both are equally as important as the other. If you want successful results the two are absolutely mandatory TOGETHER.
Any time you hear of an advertisement for a diet plan or supplement claiming that you will lose 10lbs in 10 days, RUN! RUN FAR FAR AWAY in the opposite direction!!! Anything too far fetched is more than likely too far fetched or a disaster waiting to happen.
From as far back as I can remember, the idea of weight loss was instilled in me by my surroundings. I want everyone from this point onwards to please eliminate ‘weight loss’ as their ultimate goal. Of course if you are obese you do want to actually lose weight, but as an overall goal do not think of weight loss as your primary or ultimate goal. Continue reading to understand what I mean.
Whenever someone is unfit or fat there’s always this talk of losing weight. Bragging about losing ‘x’ amount of weight on the scale. If you chop off an arm you can lose weight. Having a blind overall goal of weight loss alone is a terrible idea. Anyone can lose weight by just starving themselves. What you want to strive for is to be athletically FIT. A very different approach, idea, plan, goal and end result.
What happens when people just diet hard and cardio hard? They burn off EVERYTHING. The first initial weight loss is just water weight. Lo and behold as these people amaze themselves at their initial rapid weight loss the weight loss then stops. They appear leaner because of the reduced water bloat then to continue the weight loss these people will proceed to further decrease calories (starve more) and/or increase their cardio intensity.
The weight loss will continue until it stops again and then the viscous cycle is repeated over and over again. The weight loss that occurs is nothing but lean muscle mass going down the drain. That’s what you’re really losing. Along the way you’ll lose fat, but ultimately you’re mostly wasting away lean muscle mass which instead you should be striving to keep or grow. The end result? You end up skinny or a skinnier fat version of your old bigger fat self. Suddenly you are feeling down about not getting ‘toned’ or ‘ripped’ as you imagined you’d be. STOP before you continue any further!
Weight lifting importance
Going back to the original question. Should you cardio hard, diet and not lift weights? By now you know my answer is no. The most important aspect to getting fit is actually lifting weights — resistance training.
Whether male or female the same rules and methodology for getting fit apply. It is our hormones and genetics that will differentiate our size and distinct shape characteristics between genders. Going progressively heavier with greater intensity is necessary for both genders. No female will ever get as big as a male unless she were to take additive exogenous male hormones. For males all other factors such as hormones and genetics aside, it is food that will ultimately help determine our size. Getting stronger is possible without gaining muscle, but size will be determined by the amount of food.
Muscles are what give us shape and form. If you have no muscle and were to take away the fat you’d be left with loose skin and bone. When you build up a foundation of muscle mass and you sculpt away the fat, you will look aesthetically and athletically fit. That’s it, that’s the basic formula.
Weight lifting is so important, whether you are trying to gain muscle or lose fat. Your goal should always be to keep your muscles stimulated. When ‘bulking’ aka building muscle it’s a no brainer and when ‘cutting’ trying to shed away fat, weight lifting will help you maintain the muscle you already have. Without it your body will gradually flush away your muscles as it’ll find no use for them.
Whether cutting or bulking your lifting routines should remain the same, the only aspect that might perhaps change is your volume while cutting — it may drop which translates to less exercises and sets being performed. You will strive to do the same recorded weights and repetitions that you previously achieved on all your lifts. There is no such thing as lifting ‘high reps’ for burning fat and ‘low reps’ for building muscle. This is an outright lie and a myth. If some famous trainer were to repeat this to you it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a myth and a lie. They’re just further propagating a myth. It stems from bro-science of the last century. It’s far detached from reality or plain common-sense.
If you lift 400lbs [181.4kg] for 8 reps on some exercise you don’t suddenly start doing 100lbs [45kg] for 15 reps in hopes of maintaining your strength and size. You’ll just get weaker and smaller. The goal is to strive to MAINTAIN that 400lbs [181.4kg] for 8 reps while cutting and then as you progress throughout your cut, you might drop a rep or drop a bit of weight on your lifts but you keep struggling your best to maintain your lifts just as they were before you started cutting.
The next problem people face is their eating and nutritional choices. Normally I make people focus on training first so they become accustomed to discipline and hard work before introducing nutrition as to not overwhelm them, however nutrition is the determining factor to everything. I can’t repeat myself enough, training and nutrition go hand in hand.
There are some common-sense things you should already be aware of in terms of nutrition and if you are not I am going to drill this into you. Stop the consumption of processed and artificially fortified foods such as white rice, white breads, white pasta, cereals, processed sugars, corn starch, genetically modified garbage, junk food, soda pops, sugary drinks, cakes, cookies, muffins, chips and any other monstrosity loaded with all kinds of weird sugar derivatives. You need to stop consuming these no ifs or buts. These changes alone will help you towards your success and more importantly will improve your overall health. The most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of is a gym with “Pizza Fridays”.
Some people will exercise hard but eat whatever they want. These are those very same fat people who are at the gym year round and never changing. You can’t just exercise (even if you exercise right) and expect results with a poor diet. When I say diet I mean nutrition plan, not ‘starvation plan’.
You have to eat healthy and you have to eat consistently year round not yo-yo back and forth. It’s a life style change. You have to eat whole food, you have to eat meat as a source of protein (lean chicken, fish, beef, turkey), you have to have a quality unprocessed source of carbohydrates for smooth energy and fibre (such as brown rice, quinoa, oats) and you have to have an adequate source of minerals/vitamins/fibre from salad/veggies/greens. Limit your fruits as they are high in natural sugars. Too much of a good thing can be bad too.
Nutrition is THE determining factor in getting lean as well as the determining factor in gaining lean muscle mass. Remember the saying “You are what you eat”, well it’s totally true.
There are two types of proteins for our needs. Fast absorbing (whey) and slow absorbing (casein) protein. Proteins are the building blocks of the body, not just for muscle but for organs and everything else. Think of it this way. Your body contains engineers and mechanics otherwise known as hormones and steroids who read your source code (your genetic make up – DNA) . Using the building blocks you consume and your source code as a blueprint they to get to work to build, repair and grow your body. Bottom line is protein is very good for you, do not neglect it and it will be the determining factor to muscular growth and even fat loss. I will post a few articles on this very subject soon inshAllah.
Carbohydrates on the other hand are a source of immediate energy. There are fast (simple) and slow (complex) absorbing carbohydrates. In effect these are different forms of sugars and starches. The bottom line is we need them for our brain, organs and muscles. For muscles they get stored as glycogen, immediate energy for muscular performance. We need to consume just enough carbohydrates for our needs, more when we burn them in an active state such as exercise and after to replenish our glycogen stores. Consuming more than what we need will result in excrement through bowel movement but more than likely as actual storage as fat. Carbs are not evil, but consuming more than you need will be detrimental to your health and will get you fat fast.
Fats on the other hand are a slow but readily available source of energy for the long-term hence why fats get naturally stored on our bodies to protect us in cases of dire needs when food may not be readily available. Fats are also necessary for hormone production. Generally if you are inactive fats are a nice long term source of energy, they get absorbed slowly and slow down absorption of everything else. Fat calories are more dense than protein or carb calories. If you are an active athlete carbohydrates are a preferred source of energy. Athletic performance is superior with carbohydrates than fats but fats are certainly not evil just as carbs are not evil. Generally I keep my fats very low as I am active and keep it to healthy fats only such as fish oil, olive oil and nuts in moderation.
Don’t buy into the all calories are calories propaganda. This may seem true for ectomorphs who are naturally ripped and lean no matter what they eat, but for the majority of people this is not true. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s still not a healthy way of eating even if you are blessed with naturally lean genetics. The body processes all calories differently.
Lastly not all calories are equal. Yes there are calories which are ’empty calories’ such as processed junk food and alcohols. Calories that our body has a hard time processing and that can harm or hurt our body with no benefit. They generally will also result in obesity or medical problems.
Skinny or Skinny Fat
If you are already skinny or skinny fat, your best choice is to focus on strength building and ultimately some hypertrophy training to build up a foundation. I see skinny guys running their hearts out on the treadmill all the time deterring themselves from any progress. Unless you want to look like and be a marathoner you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. If you have little or no muscle mass you’ll do yourself a huge favour by maybe even putting on a bit of fat while putting on a lot more muscle in order to down the road cut and then have some positive results from those gains. Remember, it’s a two step forwards, one step back game. You have to look at it this way when building your body. You have to put on a little bit of fat to gain muscle and lose a tiny bit of muscle to lose fat. It’s a constantly back and forth task to success.
Furthermore if you are an ectomorph you have no business on a treadmill or with high volume training. You should focus on eating more and lifting with intensity progressively heavier and heavier weights if you want to succeed.
I advise everyone to get a full health and blood panel check up. Check if there is anything your body is deficient in or out of balance with. Don’t obsess with the idea that you might be sick, but it’s good to get checked up. Doctors here in the west are quick to want to prescribe stimulants, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications rather than check you in detail so be sure to be demanding and avoid these quick fix medications. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed out of their office. Prescribing medications based on a check list without detailed blood analysis is not sound medicine to me.
It’s important to be aware of all your potential health issues and strive to be in optimal health in order to be successful. Sometimes doctors will overlook thyroid issues by not checking T4, T3 and free levels while relying on a basic TSH check. Why is this important? If you are hypothyroid you are going to have a seriously difficult time losing weight or getting lean.
When it comes to other hormones they may not even get checked leaving you completely unaware of their potential problems. When asking to check Testosterone levels, there are various things that must be checked alongside a basic Testosterone check which most general family doctors may miss or not understand in detail. Free levels, Total levels, SHBG levels, Estradiol levels, DHT levels, Prolactin levels. All hormones in the body that play a crucial role and have a relation to one another. It’s important to know everything. Furthermore some doctors will feel satisfied if your Testosterone levels are low normal even if you are in your early 20s which actually is not normal.
Why am I advising everyone to do this? If you are still struggling with energy levels, mood, irritability, putting on muscle mass, losing fat, and you are doing everything by the book while having your stress, sleep and nutrition in check you may have an underlying health issue.
Your stress levels, rest and sleep, your dietary intake and nutrition and finally your hormone levels all have to be in order. Anything off could play a crucial undermining role in your health and fitness goals. You are either not healthy to begin with and exercise and nutritional changes will help you propel past these issues or if you are already doing everything by the book and still experiencing these issues something could be off.
In my own struggle with hormone problems I had to do my own research, be demanding and demand to be referred to a specialist (endocrinologist) who actually knew what he was talking about. Educate yourself for your own benefit and always be aware of your own state of health and strive to better your health. It just might be the one thing stopping you from further progress.
Mandatory for success
#1) Lift weights. No matter what your goal, lift weights. I lift weights Monday to Friday in a bodybuilding routine although strength/powerlifting routines which are Mon-Wed-Fri are great too especially for beginners in order to build a foundation. This comes first before and above ANYTHING else no matter what your goal.
#2) Equally as important as the above, once you have your lifting in check nothing is more important than nutrition and how you eat. This will determine whether you get lean, cut, shredded. vascular, veiny, or muscular. No amount of supplements, fat burners, whey powders, performance enhancing drugs, or anything… will get you to the most optimal of success without dialing in your nutrition.
#3) Last but not least cardio helps with heart health and with caloric expenditure. When you drop calories/carbohydrates during a cut, adding in cardio will further aid in burning fat. It’s a mistake to just drop calories and do nothing (no weight lifting, no cardio) You have to stimulate your body to burn calories just as you have to stimulate your body’s muscles to signal the body that it needs to grow or keep muscles (weight training). Hence cardio has it’s place.
For me as a meso-endomorph, dropping calories alone does nothing even with lifting weights but that’s because I’m a natural fatty. I have to introduce cardio and increase my volume of training. I do 7 days a week cardio without stopping until I meet my goals gradually dropping carbs. That’s the case for naturally fat guys also known as endomorphs.
As an ectomorph the same may not apply to you, but if you are a muscular ectomorph and you want razor sharp low single digit body fat cardio can help assist you getting there. It just becomes more of a finishing touch if you already have everything else dialled in. Hence cardio is not as important as the first two but a necessary finishing touch to get things moving in the right direction when seriously cutting.
- Whatever your current state or ultimate goal, your goal should never ever be ‘weight loss’. Getting athletically fit is what you should be striving for. Building muscle and then losing fat while trying to maintain the muscle you have.
- For the skinny guys and skinny fat guys, focus on strength training and putting on muscle. Running your heart out on the treadmill will not make you a fitness model. Lift weights and eat.
- Nutrition is the key to success for fat loss and for gaining or maintaining muscle. Remember, you are what you eat.
- Be sure to get a doctor’s check up and be fully ware of anything your body is deficient in, out of balance with or struggling with. This could be an underlying road block for your success.
As closure to this article I present to you the below list I jotted down and kept from a picture I once saw. It pretty much summarizes what I am trying to say and differentiate in terms of method and results.