BY ANDREW HEFFERNAN Mens Health
There's no way around it: To gain muscle and lose flab, you have to pay the iron price. And sweat buckets. And rethink your grocery list. But the ultimate cost (in time, especially) depends on what you know. In our never-ending quest to help you get in the best shape of your life, we tapped the country's top fitness minds and combed through cutting-edge research to find the 25 most effective ways to reveal the stronger, leaner man inside you. In short, we're about to fast-track your fitness.
RETHINK YOUR NUTRIENT INTAKE
The traditional food pyramid—which the White House unveiled as a plate-shaped pie chart in 2011—is heavy on refined carbs and light on protein and fats. So it doesn't meet the nutritional needs of active men who want to build muscle and burn fat, says Men's Health nutrition advisor Alan Aragon, M.S. That's why he created the "food tower" below—it provides the ideal balance of muscle-building foods and flab-defying nutrients. Use it as the basis for your daily diet.
LOAD UP ON GREEN ENERGY
"When athletes start eating more vegetables, they don't fatigue as easily," says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., cofounder of Cressey Performance in Massachusetts. "It's common to see them setting personal records in the weight room within a few weeks." His favorite trick: Throw a handful of spinach into a blender and combine with 2 cups almond milk, some frozen berries, rolled oats, chia seeds or flaxseeds, and a scoop of protein powder. You won't even taste the greens.
GET MORE VITAMIN D
A dearth of D can lead to impaired athletic performance, according to a recent review published in the journal Nutrients. Other research shows that men with higher levels of vitamin D tend to have stronger muscles than those with low levels. Odds are that you fall into the latter group; in fact, no less than 77 percent of people in the United States are deficient in vitamin D, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Your goal: 600 IU a day.
SPREAD OUT YOUR PROTEIN
This much is obvious from the food tower: To build muscle, you need more protein. But men who divide their daily protein among six smaller meals instead of three larger ones build muscle faster, say scientists at Skidmore College. "Try to eat 100 grams [more than half of your recommended intake] by lunch," says Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., owner of Results Fitness in California. Three eggs for breakfast, a midmorning shake, and grilled chicken and Greek yogurt for lunch will do the trick.
FIND YOUR WHEY
Different types of protein work better at different times. In the morning, go with whey, which can help control cravings all day, report scientists in the Journal of Nutrition. "Whey is also best pre-workout because it digests quickly," says Nick Tumminello, C.P.T., owner of Performance University. Postworkout, use casein, which burns slowly to provide a steady stream of protein. Forty grams before bed can also boost overnight muscle growth by 23 percent, say Dutch researchers.
WORK YOUR ENTIRE BODY, EVERY TIME
When it comes to building strength, how often you work a muscle is just as important as how hard you work it, according to research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. "You need about 10 to 15 sets per muscle group per week to see results," Tumminello says. Shoot for three total-body workouts a week; during each one, complete 3 to 5 sets per muscle group. Follow the training plan on this month's workout poster to accelerate your gains.
LIFT SOMETHING WEIRD
Most of the objects you lift in everyday life—shopping bags, overstuffed suitcases, toddlers—aren't as conveniently sized as dumbbells and barbells. To build strength that translates beyond the gym, incorporate sandbags, kettlebells, fat-grip barbells, and other odd-shaped training tools into your workouts, says Anthony DiLuglio, founder of artofstrength.com. Can't find such oddities in your gym? Wrap towels around a chinup bar to make it tougher to grip.
MASTER THE PULLUP
"The pullup targets more muscles than any other upper-body exercise," says MMA strength coach Chad Waterbury, M.S. And because it's typically done with body weight, it's also an indicator of relative strength (how strong you are for your height and weight). "The benchmark is 15 in a row," Waterbury says. If you can't do that many, work your way up. "Do 1 set of max pullups each morning and evening for three days; take the fourth day off," he says. "Repeat the sequence until you hit 15 reps."
MOVE MORE WEIGHT (RIGHT NOW)
Bend the Bar
When you bench-press, try to bend the ends of the bar away from you as you press it up. "You'll fire more muscles in your upper back, creating a more stable platform on the bench," says Wil Fleming, C.S.C.S., owner of Force Fitness and Performance.
Spread the Floor
As you squat, press outward against the floor with your feet (but don't actually move them). "You'll feel your glutes activate, which will boost your power," says Fleming.
TRAIN YOUR CORE THE RIGHT WAY
Ditch crunches and situps. "Moves like those create motion around your spine—precisely what your core is designed to resist," says Waterbury To build a chiseled, functional six-pack, do anti-rotation exercises like the single-arm wall push. Assume a pushup position facing a wall with your hands 2 feet from the baseboard. Place your right hand on the wall and push for a slow 3-count. Repeat with your left hand. Do 10 reps per side. Too easy? Do a pushup between reps.
RUN LIKE YOU LIFT
"Don't do the same thing every day," says Dave Dellanave, owner of the Movement Minneapolis gym. "Vary your training stimulus to avoid plateaus." That might mean tempo runs one day, hills the next, and finishing the week with intervals.
FINE-TUNE THE TREADMILL
Spinning your wheels indoors requires about 16 percent less energy than moving at the same pace outside, report researchers in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. When you hit the treadmill, set the incline to 3 percent to mimic outdoor running.
TRADE LONG RUNS FOR INTERVALS
Take your pick: five hours of steady-state cardio or 90 minutes of intervals (alternating sprints with active rest) per week. Both produce similar gains in aerobic capacity (your body's ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles), according to a review in the Journal of Obesity.
COMBINE STRENGTH AND CARDIO
End strength workouts with finishers—quick metabolic drills that boost your heart rate and caloric burn. Try this one: Do a single kettlebell swing, then 10 goblet squats. Next, do two swings and nine squats. Keep going until you hit 10 swings and one squat.
RUN A MILE IN UNDER SIX MINUTES
"Being able to run a sub-six mile is a sign that all systems are go—you have a strong heart, healthy bones and joints, and powerful muscles," says sports medicine physician Jordan Metzl, M.D.
SCALE UP YOUR H2O INTAKE
You'll burn more calories. Drinking 16 ounces of chilled water—the volume in a typical consumer bottle—can raise your metabolism by 30 percent, say scientists in Germany and Canada. Better still, the metabolic boost can last up to 90 minutes.
MAKE SMALL CHANGES
Most diets fail because they ask too much, says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Make three 100-calorie changes each day: Take your coffee black, order salad instead of chips at lunch, and cut prepackaged snacks.
DIAL BACK THE RUNNING
"It's not that it doesn't work; it's just not as effective as some other weight-loss strategies," says Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., of Results Fitness. Instead, do high-intensity strength circuits, which will keep your metabolism revving long after you leave the gym.
NEVER STOP MOVING
To lose pounds, you also need to increase "nonexercise physical activity," according to scientists in Scotland. That can range from washing dishes to having walk-and-talk meetings. The payoff is considerable: As many as 2,000 extra calories burned a day.
SLEEP MORE, EAT LESS
Just five days of insufficient sleep (less than five hours a night) can lead to chronic overeating, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Fortunately, "recovery" sleep (nine hours) can reverse the trend.
MOVE LIKE A SPIDER
Think of the exercise below—the high-knee walk to spiderman with hip lift and overhead reach—as your one-move warmup. In just a few reps, you'll improve bloodflow and range of motion and fire up your nervous system. "You'll prime almost every muscle for action, enhancing your power and performance," says Eric Cressey, C.S.C.S., president of Cressey Performance. "I don't know of any other exercise that accomplishes so much." Do it at the start of every workout.
BUILD MORE POWER
"Many guys confuse strength and power," says Mike Robertson, C.S.C.S., co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training. "Power is the ability to express strength quickly." To increase yours—and to jump higher, throw farther, and sprint faster—begin your workouts with a few explosive moves like vertical jumps, Olympic-style lifts (cleans, push presses), or medicine ball slams. "You'll soon notice that your workouts carry over into sport and life," says Robertson.
PLACE A PRIORITY ON RECOVERY
Giving your body a day of rest between intense workouts is a start, but you'll enjoy even greater gains if you treat recovery as an actual goal, says Todd Durkin, C.S.C.S., author of The Impact! Body Plan. Dedicate an hour each week to recovery activities, such as foam-rolling, massage, or yoga, all of which can ease tight muscles and break up scar tissue, accelerating repair and growth.
MAKE REST MORE ACTIVE
Between sets, do fillers—"low-intensity exercises that enhance mobility and reduce injury risk," says Greg Robins, C.S.C.S., a trainer at Cressey Performance. "Focus on problem areas with moves that hit different muscles than the primary exercise." Do body-weight squats between sets of bench presses, for example, or mountain climbers between sets of chinups. "You'll fire up sleeping muscles, loosen tight ones, and move more smoothly," says Robins.
INCREASE YOUR AGILITY
"Most workouts focus on strength," says Ben Bruno, a trainer at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. "But to perform at your best, you also need speed, agility, and a quick reaction time." Build all three with the ball drop: Have a partner hold a tennis ball out in front of his chest, and face him from 6 yards away. When he drops the ball, try to grab it before it bounces twice. If you do, repeat from 7 yards away. Continue until you miss. Then it's his turn. Whoever gets farthest away wins.