The world of fitness is a huge, sprawling landscape, taking in everything from protein-laced yoghurts to foam rollers and refrigerated-recovery machines. Naturally, getting to grips with all of it can be a taxing undertaking and one that takes years. But the latest gimmicks aren’t necessary to lead a healthier, more toned life. You don’t need to go on a juice detox to get abs, or flip tyres all day to build your legs. With that in mind, we corralled the fittest men we could find to break down the basics. Read, absorb their advice, then put it into action. Simple.
Meet The Experts
James Castle-Mason is an expert trainer at London’s elite Roar Fitness
Keith McNiven is the founder of London-based personal training company Right Path Fitness
Luke Worthington is a human movement and elite performance specialist
David Wiener is a training and nutrition specialist at fitness app Freeletics
Kemo Marriot is a health and wellness coach at Base Bangkok
1. How Many Calories Do I Need?
“A guide for the average man looking to maintain his weight is 2500 calories per day, and for women it’s 2000,” says McNiven. “Obviously, if you want to lose weight, you need a calorie deficit and if you want to gain muscle, you’ll have to increase calories.”
So far, so simple, but how do you work it out?
“Calorie counting is always a tough one,” says Castle-Mason. “Government guidelines are speculative and vague, and your height, weight and activity levels should always be taken into account. A simple way to work out the number of calories needed for bulking is to take your body weight (in pounds) and multiply between 16-18, depending on how active you are. If you’re trying to lose weight, multiply it by 10-12, with the higher number representing a higher activity level.”
2. Should I Eat Before A Workout?
“There are arguments for and against eating before a workout, but in my opinion you should eat at regular times (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and train around this,” advises McNiven. “I’ll often have a banana or a protein bar about 20 minutes before I train, or something with slow release carbs depending on what exercise I’m doing.”
3. What Should I Eat Before A Workout?
“What you eat before a workout has a massive effect on your performance,” says Wiener. “If you exercise on an empty stomach, your body won’t have enough energy to perform at its best. However, it’s equally bad to eat too much before a workout or consume the wrong types of foods because all your energy will go towards digesting that food, which really isn’t what you want when you’ve got a workout planned. Some of the best foods to eat before working out include bananas, porridge, sweet potatoes and lean sources of protein like chicken.”
If you want to get specific, McNiven has some suggestions: “Carbohydrates are always good before a workout, but stick to low GI foods that give you a longer release of energy – things like fruit, brown rice, nuts and vegetables are ideal. And if you’re strength training and then added protein is recommended too.”
4. Are Pre-Workout Supplements Bad For You?
“No,” says Wiener. “Used correctly, these supplements can be beneficial, but you need to really understand what you’re putting into your body, and why. You also need to make sure any products you’re using aren’t full of additives and unnecessary ingredients.”
“I’m a big believer that too much of anything is bad for you,” adds Castle-Mason. “Pre-workout supplements are no exception. Some pre-workout supplements are bunk, due to being full of proprietary blends with hidden ingredients and junk that simply isn’t necessary. A simple pre-workout supplement with scientifically backed doses of proven performance increasing ingredients such as caffeine, L-tyrosine, Citrulline malate and Beta alanine, can be useful for better performance in the gym.”
5. How Do I Get Started Working Out?
“Going to the gym for the first time is a pretty scary prospect,” says a sympathetic Castle-Mason. “There’s no telling what to do or how to plan your workout. The simplest advice I can give is to download a simple programme that you can be consistent with. This is key. A good way to build muscle quickly for a beginner is to focus on using machines. They are simpler to use, and the lack of required skill compared to bigger free-weight movements means there is less room for error.”
Marriot recommends you prioritise “finding something you enjoy” (say, a boxing or spin class), while Wiener recommends getting into the swing of things at home first: “Try a fitness app like Freeletics, which can guide you through a home full body workout from the comfort of your own living room. Once you’ve mastered the basics you’ll feel more confident, and ready to join a group fitness class, or venture into the gym on your own.”
6. What Should I Eat To Build Muscle?
“To gain muscle, you need a lot of protein,” says Castle-Mason. “How much exactly is speculative, but a good rule of thumb is about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. You need to eat a complete spectrum of amino acids from various protein sources to get muscle building benefits, plus some carbohydrates to provide the fuel for your workouts.”
“Your muscles use up their glycogen stores during exercise,” says Wiener. “This results in your muscles becoming depleted of energy, and some of the proteins in your muscles also get broken down and damaged. After your workout, your body needs to try and rebuild this damage and replenish its energy by eating the right balance of foods. For maximum gains following a workout, you should eat protein-rich foods like eggs, lean meats, or low-sugar protein bars or shakes. Cottage cheese, nut butters and avocados are also great foods to eat post workout.”
Basically, lots of protein, some fat, and carbs to replenish your muscles. And, make sure you’re actually doing the work before piling up your plate, or you’ll only gain around your middle.
7. What Are The Best Muscle Groups To Train Together?
“It’s no good walking into the gym with some transfixed approach of just training your biceps and chest, because ultimately you’ll look ridiculous,” says Castle-Mason. “Aim to train everything in balance, and you’ll look better for it. If a body part responds well to training, aim to train a bit more on lagging body parts.
“Your weekly exercise plan should ensure you target all muscle groups so that your body isn’t lacking strength in one area,” adds Wiener. “It’s a good idea to train muscle groups that aren’t directly related, and so won’t exhaust each other; so legs and shoulders might be a good combination, back and abs, or chest and triceps. Allow time for recovery; don’t train biceps one day and triceps the next, as you’ll be sore.”
Or, for a more athletic approach, you may want to focus on compound movements that work multiple muscle groups at once: “Focus on movements not muscles,” says Marriot. “Learn to squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull and you’ll keep your body in tension. You’ll find that by optimising the above, you’ll develop your athletic ability, and will end up looking like your favourite athletes.”
8. What’s The Best Thing To Eat After A Workout?
“It’s great to replenish yourself with protein and carbs,” says Marriot. “But please do not think that you need to consume a protein shake within 30 minutes. The evidence shows that you’re fine if you consume your recovery meal within a couple of hours.
“In addition to the above, blueberries, bananas, sweet potato, eggs, or a handful of fruit and nuts are great,” adds David. “After a workout, it is also important to rehydrate, so drink lots of water.”
9. How Often Should I Work Out?
“Personally, I think 3 to 4 days a week is the sweet spot,” says Castle-Mason. “Too much working out is just as bad as too little; if you go to the gym all the time, you won’t recover. I like to do a day on/day off approach unless I’m doing completely different muscle groups, then I might do 2 days in a row. Remember, you grow when you’re at rest, not when you’re training.”
Your workout needn’t eat into your day either, as Wiener explains. “A good, full body workout needn’t take hours, just 20-30 minutes of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) a few times a week can make a real difference to your fitness levels.”
10. How Long Does It Take To Get In Shape?
Or “how long is a piece of string?”
“This entirely depends on how hard you’re working, whether you’ve trained before, and whether you’re looking at your diet too,” explains McNiven. “Six and 12-week transformation packages are really popular, essentially 3-4 training sessions a week, with nutrition advice added in. Do one of those and be thoroughly committed to it, and you can see definite results in 6-12 weeks.”
“To see real, sustainable results, I would recommend sticking to an exercise programme for a minimum of three months to allow your body time to change,” advises Wiener. “It is likely you’ll see results way before this, but there’s no quick fix when it comes to getting in shape and staying there – you really do need to put in the hard work and continue doing so if you’d like to maintain your fitness levels.”
11. What’s The Best Way To Lose Weight?
“To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume,” says Castle-Mason. Simple, right? “The more aggressive you are, the more you’ll lose, but the harder it is. The best way is to ensure you maintain a high-protein diet, and eat a lot more low-calorie but satiating foods like green vegetables. This way you can still eat big enough portions.
“Combine this with an increase in your activity levels such as some cardio on top of weight training or getting in more steps per day and [your weight] should drop. It comes down to how well you’re tracking your food intake, if you’re not doing this then you’re simply guessing.”
But while diet plays a part, you have to put the work in, too – be that HIIT or resistance training: “Cardiovascular and HIIT training is key for weight loss,” says Wiener. “But regular bodyweight or resistance training can help to boost your metabolism and the number of calories your body burns on a daily basis, resulting in weight loss, too.” How come? Well, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn through.
12. What’s The Fastest Way To Gain Weight?
“To gain weight you need to be working on a strength training programme alongside a solid nutrition programme,” says McNiven. “Gaining 10 pounds of muscle equates to eating around 3600 calories a day for an average man.”
But it isn’t all about scarfing chocolate bars or the fabled ‘dirty bulk’…
“Muscle building isn’t a quick process; you can’t force feed muscles to grow quicker. If you’re packing on the pounds too quickly, you’re simply gaining fat fast,” he adds. “Aim for half a pound a week for higher quality mass gains. Sixteen to 18x your body weight in pounds is a good ballpark starting point for calories to consume. If you’re struggling to eat, use a few higher calorie cheat foods on top of a healthy diet to max out calorie intake.”
13. What Are Love Handles And How Can I Get Rid Of Them?
“The term ‘love handles’ typically refers to the excess fat around the hips and torso area,” explains Wiener. “Fat can accumulate anywhere in the body, but there are a variety of factors which could increase the likelihood of gaining and retaining fat around this area including hormonal imbalances, age, and a diet high in fat.”
“Where fat stores on a person are is largely down to genetics,” adds McNiven. “No amount of crunches or ab workouts will reduce this fat, you must focus on the dietary side of things.”
Worthington has more bad news: “You can’t spot reduce body fat, unfortunately [i.e., you can’t specifically target this area]. A calorie defecit will gradually reduce overall body fat, but everyone has their own problem areas where they will lose it last. One thing you can do is develop the muscles that contrast these areas; building strong glutes and your upper back will give the illusion of a narrower waist, for example.”
14. Which Exercises Burn The Most Calories?
“Compound, multi-joint activity is great,” says Worthington. “Opt for squats, deadlifts, and presses. Fortunately, they’re also the same exercises that are best for building muscle.”
“Compound movements performed to a high intensity are a great way to burn calories,” adds Marriot. “This is because they require lots of muscle mass and power output. Heavy weight lifting and explosive movements are a great way to do this.”
And, if weightlifting isn’t necessarily your thing, McNiven has an alternative: “The most calorific exercises you can do are high-intensity exercises such as HIIT cardio workouts, or sprinting. However, if you focus on just being more active in your day-to-day, getting your step count up and general activity levels up by busying yourself with things that aren’t having you sat down, you’ll be surprised at how much it all adds up.”