No fat chicks

no_fat_chicks_treadmill_graphicI was sitting on a cold, paper-covered exam table when the doctor told me I was too fat. The sterile, crinkly surface rustled as I shifted awkwardly, trying to conceal my embarrassment and anger. I had gone in to find out why my hip hurt so much (I later figured out that it was exacerbated by my being a TV junkie in third year undergrad, and parking my ass in front of hours of TV every day). The doctor explained that my extra weight was putting pressure on the joint and was the likely source of the pain. Then he said simply, “Lose weight,” and left the room.

So I took up step aerobics. Guess what happened. The pain didn’t go away. It just found a friend. My knee started hurting too. I thought the problem was with me. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that a lot of conventional advice about diet and exercise is not geared to folks who are out of shape.

If you’re a significantly overweight beginner, the last thing you want to do is jump around like a fool on already overstressed joints (and let’s face it, who wants to endure a perky instructor who has no problems moving around?). Traditional advice about exercise for beginners seems to have been written by folks for whom running 10 miles a day is a pleasant pre-breakfast constitutional. It’s time to rethink everything you thought you knew about the right way to start losing weight.

Scroll to the end of this for a suggested routine for an overweight beginner.

rule #1: do what you can

You know the drill. “Do 30-60 minutes of aerobic activity 3-6 times weekly.” The more aerobics the better! Sweat to the oldies! Get that heart rate up and keep it up!
Obviously the physicists in the audience never pointed out that for significantly overweight beginners, jumping up and down puts a great deal of stress on the joints. Overweight folks get the same joints as skinny folks, which means that the joint is already under significant stress. Adding more stress in the form of sustained impact is hard for a beginner to manage.
In addition, a body which is carrying a lot of excess fat is already working hard to move itself around. Overweight people who are avoiding moving around aren’t lazy, they’re sensible. It’s a lot of effort to get going when you have excess mass to carry along with you.
So, what should the overweight beginner do instead? She should work in short bursts throughout the day, within the capacity that she feels is manageable. Instead of getting up the energy to drag through an hour-long aerobics class, try incorporating a series of 5 or 10-minute bursts of activity into your daily routine. Climb a flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator. Park your car farther away from the store. There are many little ways to begin. Many overfat folks like water aerobics and swimming because of the reduced strain on the joints.
Do not, I repeat, do not, leap into a fitness routine if you are an overweight beginner. Take it slowly and do one new thing every week. Injury is very discouraging.

rule #2: cardio is overrated

I can hear the gasps of righteous horror from here. Cardio overrated?! Blasphemy!
Yeah, well, if endless bouts of cardio are so great, why do marathoners all look like beef jerky? What the heck happened to all their muscle tissue?
While doing cardio can contribute to the development and maintenance of aerobic fitness, cardio training on its own is not necessarily the best way or only way to lose fat. It merely assists you in creating an overall caloric deficit which contributes to your body burning more resources than it takes in. It is a sensible part of a fitness regimen, but it is not the be-all and end-all, and it should not stand alone.
And don’t believe that stuff about “low intensity burns fat for fuel, while high intensity burns sugar, so you should do a bazillion hours of low intensity cardio.” First of all, doing so much low-intensity work is as exciting as watching amateur shuffleboard on TV, and second of all it’s not true. While different activities utilize different fuels, it’s the big picture that matters to your body. Your body is a dreamer and visionary, not a nitpicker. Weight training, while it burns sugar-based glycogen for fuel in the short term, ultimately helps the body burn more fat. Building and maintaining muscle is much more metabolically demanding in the long run than a few turns around the block. Combining sensible cardio with weight training is the one-two punch that will keep fat loss going. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should immediately start into a sprinting program. See rule #1.

rule #3: weight training is a must for long term fat loss

One of the stupidest pieces of advice I’ve heard is that overweight people shouldn’t weight train because it will build muscle that will push the fat out more. It’s very hard to build that kind of muscle mass in a short time, or ever. In fact overweight folks are perfect candidates for weight training.
Any loss of bodyweight involves a loss of both fat and muscle. The key is to maximize the fat loss and minimize the muscle loss. You do this through both your diet and your training. In terms of training, cardio alone doesn’t cut it. Extended bouts of cardio are catabolic to muscle, which means they contribute to muscle mass loss. So you might lose some fat, but in the long term, your metabolism is compromised because you’ve lost muscle too. For long term body recomposition, nothing seems to get results that measure up to weight training combined with other activity (if desired) and sensible nutrition.
Weight training has other benefits besides retention of muscle. It helps keep you motivated as you see strength gains quickly, as most newbies do. Many folks report that strengthening the muscles results in less joint pain and less difficulty in moving around.
This doesn’t mean you should run into the gym and start killing yourself. The beauty of weight training is that it can be easily modified to every trainee’s needs, and adjusted as the trainee becomes stronger and more familiar with technique. Many overweight beginners are surprised to discover how strong they actually are.

rule #4: do something you like

Weight training is a must, as I said, but every other activity you do is your choice. Find something fun and do it. If you hate aerobics, don’t do them! Don’t listen to other people telling you what you should like. Get out in your garden instead, or walk the dog, or anything that gets you moving around. Try a variety of activities to see which ones you enjoy and can do. See rule #1 about not overdoing it and incorporating your activity into your day in short bursts. Of course, if you don’t like anything, then you are in deep sheeyat, my dear.

rule #5: whatever you do, stick to it

One common pitfall for overweight beginners is quitting after a few days or weeks when they don’t see results. Something is always better than nothing, and starting small will mean that your results are gradual.
This is another reason why weight training is a good idea: gains in strength occur almost immediately and can be observed easily by the trainee, unlike gains in muscle or fat loss. Focus on how much you’re lifting for the first 6 months, and meeting your process goals — ie. rather than losing X lbs, make “sticking to a healthy eating and activity plan” your first goal.

rule #6: don’t drop calories too low

So you have decided to lose weight, and you’re eating carrot sticks and rice cakes, and you feel like crap and don’t want to exercise. Then your fat loss stalls altogether and you can’t figure out why. Too low a caloric intake is the likely culprit. Yes, I said too low.
There are a few ways to calculate your daily dieting caloric intake, and they’re based on your existing level of bodyfat, as well as your overall activity level and age. In general, though, intake is based on bodyweight. The higher the amount of bodyfat, the lower the intake coefficient (the number that you multiply by your bodyweight to figure out caloric intake).

  • For a woman who’s fairly active and doesn’t have a lot of bodyfat to lose: multiply bodyweight (in lbs.) by 10-12 to get daily intake.
    For example: A 200 lb. person’s daily intake = 2000 to 2400 calories daily.
  • For moderately overfat and/or somewhat active and/or older women: multiply bodyweight by 8 or 9.
    For example: A 200 lb. person’s daily intake = 1600 to 1800 calories daily.
  • Very overfat and/or sedentary and/or older women: multiply bodyweight by 7 or 8.
    For example: A 200 lb. person’s daily intake = 1400 to 1600 calories daily.

These numbers are NOT carved in stone. If you are very overfat and still getting good results using 12 x bodyweight, great. Keep careful track of progress so that you know for sure. If appetite is a problem, try raising your intake slightly. And don’t forget to adjust intake upwards as bodyfat decreases. Men can use these formulae too. Their intake will often be slightly higher than women of comparable bodyweight. Men in general can often get away with a higher intake coefficient than women, and tend to lose bodyfat more effectively. What can I say, the rules of biology suck sometimes.
For more on proper dieting protocol, check out Dieting 101 and the rest of the articles in the “eating” section on this site.

rule #7: monitor progress closely

This goes for both positive and negative results.
Positive results include fat loss, increase in endurance, and strength gain. Adjust workouts accordingly to match your increased capacities.
Negative results include pain, fatigue, and discouragement. If you’ve started an activity that you’re not enjoying, or you had a bad workout, figure out why and try to solve the problem for next time.

rule #8: supplement wisely

As an overweight beginner you are at risk for joint problems, so head them off at the pass before injury happens. My suggestions:
1. A good multivitamin. You can’t go wrong here.
2. MSM, aka methylsulfonylmethane. This is a good all-purpose supplement and can be found at most drug or health food stores. Take 1-3 grams daily in divided doses with food. Start at 1g per day and work up gradually. If you’re already experiencing joint pain, you can take up to 5 g daily (but again, do this over a period of time, and pay close attention to the dose that works for you… you may be experience relief with only 2g daily).
3. Chondroitin and glucosamine sulfate. Used in conjunction with MSM, these help heal and keep joints healthy. You can usually find combination chondroitin and glucosamine products, again at drug and health food stores. Follow dosage instructions on the label.
4. Don’t waste the cash on diet drugs. Most don’t work, some are dangerous, and none are a long term solution. A few people may benefit from carefully prescribed medication, but this is something you should discuss with your doctor. Don’t self-medicate.

suggested workout plan for overweight beginners

Note that this plan is for weight training only. I assume that you’ll be incorporating some additional activity into your routine every day, as laid out in rule #1. This plan is intended for those folks who are overweight/sedentary beginners, who have bravely joined a gym or who have some equipment at home. I’ve planned this out so that you gradually ease into a workout program over several weeks. I’ve also planned it so that as your workout capacity increases, the workload increases. If you feel that you need more time to adjust before you go to the next level, then by all means take a few more weeks to do so. Conversely, if you improve very quickly, then you’re welcome to challenge yourself within your limits. Just don’t push it too far in the beginning. There is always time to improve.

week 1

Familiarize yourself with the equipment you have access to. If you’ve joined a gym, ask one of the trainers to show you around, and show you where everything is. Now, they’re likely to breeze past the free weights in favour of the foofoo machines, so this is where you have to get tough and tell them clearly you’d like to see their free weight section. Ignore them if they tell you that machines are safer than free weights (or, if you want to watch them squirm, ask them to provide clinical research which proves that machines are safer). Read the section on this site on free weights if you want some ammo.
Make a realistic plan of how much time you can devote to training. Even 2 days a week is good in the beginning. Once you’ve decided how and when you’ll incorporate this into your routine, write it down like an appointment and stick to it. You should allow around an hour, although you won’t use this hour up at first.
Read up on correct form for exercises. You can find this information on this site or at sites such as ExRx and Biofitness.
Get checked out by your doctor to make sure there are no contraindications to your beginning a fitness program.
Get a notebook, preferably the kind divided into sections. In one section, record your workouts, in another section your food intake, and in the third, the following measurements: weight, bust, waist, hip, thigh (taken at midpoint between groin and knee), calf, upper arm and forearm. Take a picture too, if you like. Write down the date. You’ll come back to the measurements page soon.

week 2

You’ve booked 2-3 days to get to the gym, now do it. Bring your notebook and record what weights you use, and how many reps of each you do, as well as how you feel.
Here’s your routine. You will do this at least 2 days a week, making sure to get at least one rest day in between. Remember good form. Most of these exercises, except the lat pulldown and calf raise, are designed to be done with free weights. If you don’t have access to machines, then do rows instead of lat pulls and single legged calf raises on a step, holding a dumbbell. These exercises require minimal equipment: all you need is a bench and a barbell and/or dumbbell (you can modify all exercises to be done with dumbbells).
If you get out of breath, take breaks as needed, but aim for about 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
1. Warmup: 2-3 minutes of light cardio (slow walking on the treadmill is good)
2. Gentle dynamic stretching: get the joints moving by gently bending them and slowly moving them through their range of motion
3. Squat with no added weight (hold on to something sturdy for balance if you need to), 1 set of as many reps as you can manage (work up to 20), through as full a range of motion as you can do
4. Lat pulldown, 1 set of 10-12 reps
5. Bench press, 1 set of 10-12 reps
6. Dumbbell shoulder press, 1 set of 10-12 reps (ideally do these standing, but you can do seated if you feel very unbalanced)
7. Dumbbell or cable row, 1 set of 10-12 reps
8. Calf raises, 1 set of 12-15 reps
9. Ab crunches, 1 set of as many as you can do
10. Cooldown: gentle static stretching for 5 minutes
Cardio is optional at this point, but if you feel up to it, do 5-10 minutes of gentle walking after your workout.

week 3

This week you will focus on making sure you get to the gym regularly. Bring a notebook and write down what you do (weight, reps) and how you feel. If you feel up to it, add some more cardio. If not, don’t worry about it.
You will also begin to keep a food diary. The point of this is not to be obsessive, but to figure out what you eat during the average day and when, so that you know where to make changes. Record what you eat, how much (portion size), when you eat it, how you’re feeling when you eat it.

week 4

This week you will focus on your diet and getting to the gym regularly. Read Dieting 101 and make one small change in your eating habits, such as eating 5-6 small meals daily or decreasing portion size.

week 5

This week you will increase the difficulty of your workout routine. Changes as follows:
1. Warmup: 2-3 minutes of light cardio
2. Gentle dynamic stretching: get the joints moving by gently bending them and slowly moving them through their range of motion
3. Squat with added weight if you’re strong enough, or continue with no added weight if you’re not. 2 sets of 10-12 reps in good form. Use a light bar or hold a couple of dumbbells.
4. Lat pulldown, 2 sets of 10-12 reps
5. Bench press, 2 sets of 10-12 reps
6. Dumbbell shoulder press, 2 sets of 10-12 reps
7. Dumbbell or cable row, 2 sets of 10-12 reps
8. Calf raises, 2 sets of 12-15 reps
9. Ab crunches, 2 sets of as many as you can do
10. Cooldown: gentle static stretching for 5 minutes
You should be adding in some cardio at this point. Aim for 10-15 minutes.
Continue to focus on diet and regular gym attendance. Make another small change in your eating habits, such as getting more lean protein.

week 6

Same as week 5. Slightly increase either the duration or intensity of your cardio, and/or of the daily bouts of activity if you are able to do so.
Make another small change in your eating habits, such as eliminating some regular junk food.

week 7

Same as week 5. Slightly increase either the duration or intensity of your cardio and/or daily bouts of activity if you are able to do so.
Make another small change in your eating habits, such as switching to water from sugary juices and soda.

week 8

Time for a progress report. Take the same measurements you took on the first week. If you see little improvement, don’t panic. Your strength will be the first thing to show noticeable progress, while fat loss will take longer.
Also take this opportunity to address any problems which have cropped up, such as missed gym time. If you’ve fallen off the wagon, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just get back on.
Workouts are the same as in week 5. Increase cardio time and/or daily bouts of activity if you are able to do so.
Make another small change in your eating habits, such as adding a multivitamin supplement.

week 9

Time to increase workout difficulty again!
1. Warmup: 2-3 minutes of light cardio
2. Gentle dynamic stretching
3. Squat with added weight if able, aiming for 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps in good form.
4. Lat pulldown, 2 sets of 10-12 reps
5. Bench press, 2 sets of 10-12 reps
6. Dumbbell shoulder press, 2 sets of 10-12 reps
7. Dumbbell or cable row, 2 sets of 10-12 reps
8. Calf raises, 2 sets of 12-15 reps
9. Ab crunches, 2 sets of as many as you can do
10. Cooldown: gentle static stretching for 5 minutes
You should definitely be adding cardio to the end of your workout at this point. Instead of making the session longer now, try making it harder (you can even try cutting the time down and do 10 challenging minutes rather than 20 moderate ones). Increase the incline of the treadmill, or the level of resistance on whatever machine you’re using.
Make another small change in your eating habits, such as cutting down on caffeine or alcohol intake.

week 10

Same as week 9.
Make another small change in your eating habits, such as adding an extra piece of fruit or vegetable every day.

week 11

Same as week 9.
You’re probably well on your way to good eating by now!

week 12

Congratulations! You stuck with it for 3 months! Reward yourself.
Take progress measurements and pics again.
Continue with this workout routine for another 4-8 weeks, then select another one of your choice from the workout section. You should be able now to handle much more activity. If you like the workout you’re currently doing, simply increase each exercise to 3 sets.
Continue to increase the difficulty and duration of your cardio, up to 30 minutes per session (or you can split it into several sessions per day of 5-10 minutes).
One reader liked this page so much she emailed me to say:
What a smart, wild woman you are. I am a 37 year old woman who loves to lift. Been keeping extra pounds on for too long and am finishing the BFL thing. Much better shape now. Anyway, love your site and
your advice for the overly fat. I suppose I’m not fat anymore but your suggestions are so right on. Lift and forget about intense cardio until you feel better and, well, just plain physical again. Then cardio can begin to feel fun or at least tolerable. Push yourself to lift more and more and just get in 20 minutes of something that moves your legs throughout the day. You’ll burn more fat when you are packed with muscle anyway. Anyway, I used to model and eat NOTHING and that is when I let my weight training go. I steadily got fat over several years even though I was eating NOTHING. At 31%BF I got sick of being sick and started to lift again. The fat fell off. Just fell off. Eating 1800-2000 cals a day. I felt like I was stuffing myself compared to what I had been doing and now that I ripple with muscle instead of fat I kinda like those silly step classes again just to watch the other, younger girls wince with pain when the burn kicks in. Hee, hee!