Matt Gemmell

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Workout

health 15 min read

On the last day of December 2013, I was getting dressed to go out and celebrate the New Year (which we call Hogmanay here in Scotland). As always, I was wearing a suit. I hadn’t made any resolutions yet.

I noticed that my trousers were a little tight around the waist, but I struggled through. By the time I was undressing again at home in the early hours of January 1st, I had a red mark around my middle.

Two years earlier, in November 2011, I got married. I remember my wedding suit fitting comfortably, and those trousers were a 30” waist. The ones I wore last New Year were 32”, and I had trouble fitting into them. Those don’t sound like big numbers, but I’m short (5’6”), and I have a very slim build - thanks to my mother’s ballerina DNA. I’d let myself go a bit.

My 2014 resolution followed naturally: my project was going to be myself. I’d like to talk a little bit about my journey towards getting back in shape.

Let me give you a little background. I have a sedentary profession (I’m a writer), and I used to be a software engineer (which is probably worse). I’m also in the privileged position of having worked from home full-time for the last 7+ years. I’m 35 years old. These facts motivated me: I needed to improve my health, and I have enough control over my schedule and environment to do so.

As I write this in early October of 2014, I’m a different man than I was on New Year’s Eve. My waistline is 28” (actually a little less), I have very little body fat (8.2% as of today), and I’m in better shape in terms of tone, build and cardiovascular fitness than I’ve ever been. I feel healthier than I did when I was 16 and playing rugby several times a week.

I haven’t gone on a fad diet, and I don’t have a gym membership. What I do have is stubbornness, willpower, and a compulsive personality. And a new wardrobe.

This piece is focused on men, because I’m a man. Women have different fitness and body goals, and I can’t speak to those - but the core idea of making small changes and sticking to them applies to everyone.

Here’s my experience:

  1. You can transform yourself in six months.

  2. You don’t need to make huge changes to what you eat.

  3. If you can give an hour a day, six days a week, you’ll be a different person by next Summer.

If you can’t find that amount of time, find some. Consistency and moderation are the real tricks. Thirty minutes in the morning before work, five days a week, will soon start to pay dividends.

Stretching

Stretch before and after you workout. You’ll avoid about 99% of painful muscle-cramps if you do this. Stretch gently and carefully, and you’ll notice you develop more flexibility as the weeks go by. Standing facing a wall, palms on the wall, and extending one leg behind you with toes on the floor will help stretch out your thighs and calves, particularly. Spend at least a couple of minutes doing that before and after every single session.

Cardio

Let’s face an unpleasant truth: to lose weight and improve your health, you need to get your heart rate up. Regular cardiovascular exercise is fantastic for your heart, lowers your resting pulse rate, and keeps your blood pressure at a sensible level. It also strips off fat, and being overweight is massively correlated with all-causes mortality. We all know this.

Cardio isn’t much fun, at least to start with (it becomes fun later, I swear). There’s a lot of breathing heavily, feeling your heart thudding in your chest, and throwing sweaty workout clothes into the washing machine. Get used to the concept now.

If you’re someone who can run, I’d recommend it. Try Couch to 5k. All you need is a decent pair of running shoes, and an environment with gravity, which means the entire surface of this planet.

I have a psychological block for running. I was very asthmatic as a kid (that’s completely gone now - bye, blue inhalers), and I always had a lot of trouble with cross-country running and such. I’ve never really got past the idea that I find running hard, and it also has a habit of killing my knees. On the upside, running is cheap, you can do it anywhere, and there’s almost no equipment cost. It should probably be your first option for cardio.

My own choice is cycling, using a stationary bike. You’ll get a better burn, and increased muscle workout, by using an actual road bike, but I like to write at the same time. I have a laptop stand that lets me work while I’m on the bike, which has the nice side-effect of not cutting hours from my day.

I’d try starting with 30 minutes per day on the bike. You can set a calorie target if you like, but just try to find your comfort level. Set the resistance low to begin with, and keep your knees in line. Try to get a sweat going, and take regular breaks to hydrate. I worked my way steadily up over the months, and I now do more than 120 miles per week. My current comfortable maximum is about 1,200 calories per session.

I do three bike days per week: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. I also take every opportunity to walk, and I try to keep the pace up. I go and meet my wife on her way home from work every day (about a 50 minute round-trip walk, almost entirely uphill on the way). My brother constantly gives me grief about how quickly I walk. There are a lot of opportunities for some extra cardio during the day, and it all adds up.

(I’m not a step-counter user, but if that’ll motivate you, then go for it. If you have an iPhone with iOS 8, your phone is already tracking your steps: open HealthKit, then go to Health Data, and tap Fitness.)

Strength

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are strength days for me. I often do a bit of cycling afterwards, but my main focus is muscle development and toning. As a man, you’re probably looking for three things:

  1. Toned abdomen, and maybe a six pack.

  2. Bigger upper arms.

  3. Bigger chest.

You can make serious progress on all of those things with no equipment whatsoever, and if do you want to get some gear, it costs very little.

I use an iPhone app called FitHIT to keep me on track. It doesn’t monitor what I’m doing; it just sits on my desk and lists the next exercise I need to do. When I’ve finished a set, I double-tap the screen and it moves on. Each exercise is colour-coded, and it times the entire workout session. It’s very simple and flexible. I don’t care about historical data, and I don’t know if it keeps records.

On strength days, I do the following exercises:

  • Leg-lifts. Lie flat on your back, knees and ankles together. Inhale. As you exhale, lift your legs (keeping them together and straight) so that they point straight up to the ceiling. Inhale as you gently lower them down again, and repeat. Try not to let your feet touch the ground between repetitions, and make sure your entire back stays flat on the ground at all times - don’t arch your back, particularly as your feet approach the floor. Start with ten. These will build your abs.

  • Push-ups. You know how to do these. Get face-down on the floor, holding yourself up on your flat palms and the tips of your toes. Try with your palms about shoulder-width, and in line with your shoulders. Get your chest right down to within a fist’s height of the ground on the way down, and make sure your arms become fully straight on the way up. Exhale as you push up, and inhale as you settle back down. Start with five. If you feel that you have very low upper-body strength, start with two. You can also try having your knees on the ground, instead of your toes. These will build your arms, chest and shoulders.

  • Pull-ups. You’ll need a bar for these (here’s mine), but a convenient structure can do in a pinch. I’ve done them off the edges of gazebos, playpark equipment, bunkbed frames, and the like. Be very careful, and ensure that the surface can take your weight. You must be able to get underneath the bar.

    Stand facing the bar, reach up and grip it. You can either grip it with your palms facing back towards you, or facing forwards away from you. Palms-back is considerably easier, so start with those. For palms-back, keep your hands at shoulder width; for palms-forward, put your hands one hand-width outside your shoulders. Adjust til comfortable. Inhale. As you exhale, pull yourself up in one smooth motion. Make sure your forehead, nose, and chin don’t collide with the bar. Don’t jerk. Hold it at the top for a moment, then inhale as you lower yourself smoothly down. For a complete novice, start with 2 consecutive palms-back pull-ups (don’t put your feet down between them). For palms-forward, start with one. This will build your chest and shoulders. I also like to pull my knees up to my chest with every pull-up, essentially also making it into an ab crunch.

    Pull-ups are hard. Don’t rush them, and don’t over-exert yourself. Add one every few days, or whenever you feel you can. They will hurt your palms (along the base of your fingers) every single time, but that’s normal. You’ll develop calluses in week or two. Don’t wear gloves or put a pad on the bar; you’re also trying to develop your grip strength, which will be useful in other exercises (and indeed in life generally).

  • Dumbbell curls. I have a few different sets of dumbbells, but the ones I use most are 4kg per arm. I like to do a high number of reps with moderate weight. If you’re just getting started, try 2kg or 3kg per arm. Crouch down between the weights, back straight, grip them tightly, and stand up using your legs. Don’t bend over and pick up weights using your back. Twist your arms so that your palms are facing forwards, and the weights are hanging in front of your thighs. Inhale. As you exhale, curl the weights outwards and upwards in front of you until they’re resting in front of your shoulders. Keep your arms in line with with your elbows and shoulders at all times. Try to keep your elbows stationary, locked into your ribs, but don’t over-tense your upper back. Keep your head facing forwards, not looking down. As you inhale, smoothly lower the weights to your thighs again, and repeat. Start with ten.

  • Dumbbell flyes. This is a chest (pecs) exercise, and you’ll be lying flat on your back for it. Have the weights out to the side of you, about level with your ribcage. Grip them with your palms facing up to the ceiling. Inhale. As you exhale, lift the weights upwards and inwards until they’re above your chest, with your arms outstretched. Keep your arms straight at all times. As you inhale, smoothly lower them to the ground again, but don’t let them actually touch the ground before you repeat the exercise. Start with ten. After a couple of days, you’ll feel sore across the chest (particularly just under your arms) in the morning. You can take the ache away by doing a few quick flyes again.

  • Dumbbell tricep twists. This exercise builds your triceps, which are the muscles on the underside of your upper arms if you’re doing a classic bicep flex. You should only start this one after you’ve had a few weeks of curls, so that your lower back has been strengthened. You could also get a weightlifting belt for support. Pick up just one weight, and let it hang at your side, perpendicular to your chest (instead of parallel as for a curl). Put your free arm across your waist, like you’re hugging yourself. Inhale. As you exhale, smoothly lift the weight and, on the way up, turn it so that you finish like a regular curl, with it in front of your shoulder and parallel to your chest. As you inhale, reverse the manoeuvre. Start with ten, then do the other arm. If you’re having trouble visualising this exercise, here’s a quick video.

Generally, just listen to your body. Focus your mind on the muscles you’re trying to develop (they’ll tense slightly when you do that, increasing the load). Start gently, and stop immediately if anything hurts, or if you start to wobble. Always exert on exhalation, and return to initial position on inhale.

Always warm up and warm down, with plenty of stretching. Stay hydrated (your urine should be very pale or clear). Check with a doctor if you have any concerns.

I tune my workouts constantly, but a current snapshot of my strength days is as follows. This is for a single day, and I repeat it three times per week. I’m just listing total numbers of reps for each exercise type; naturally, I mix the exercises up so I’m not focusing on any one muscle group for too long.

  • 400 leg-lifts
  • 120 push-ups, shoulder-width
  • 240 dumbbell curls, double arms, 4kg per arm
  • 65 pull-ups, palms-back
  • 35 pull-ups, palms-forward
  • 20 push-ups, narrow hands (about 6” apart; to build pecs)
  • 160 flyes, 3kg per arm
  • 50 dumbbell curls per arm, single arm, 4kg per arm
  • 50 tricep twists per arm, single arm, 4kg per arm

This is, of course, extreme - and takes longer than an hour. It’s also the result of ten months of work, six days per week. If you can work up to doing a tenth of that, you’ll be doing very well indeed, and you’ll have an entirely new body.

Clothing

Proper workout clothing is an enormous help. You want something that fits well, doesn’t chafe, wicks away sweat, and allows your body to regulate its own temperature. I wear Sub compression tops and regular shorts. I also have some Under Armour tops. I recommend both wholeheartedly.

Recovery, rest and sleep

Immediately after a workout, you need to take something to help you recover. To promote muscle growth and prevent wasting, aim to get some protein on board, and some carbs. There are a million different supplements, but just remember that they all contribute a fair amount of calories, so don’t overindulge.

I use PowerBars: one after each workout session. They’re delicious, and yes, they do confusingly have the same name as the pull-up bar I use. Don’t eat the wrong one. For the record, each one has about the same calorie contribution as a Snickers bar.

Take a day off (from working out) each week, or two days off if you prefer. I take Sundays off. If you don’t take a break, you’ll actually limit your muscle growth. If you stick with your regime, you’ll reach a point where you really, really want to work out every day. Resist that temptation, and enjoy the break.

The single greatest life-enhancement you can make is having a regular bedtime and waking time. You almost certainly need 7+ hours of sleep per night. Keep the room dark, and above all keep it cool. If you’re travelling, bring some earplugs and maybe a sleep mask. Sleep fills your battery-meter more than anything else. Don’t cheat yourself out of it.

Diet

I’ve never gone on a diet. You’ll find people talking about ketones and so forth; I’ve never bothered. I love food. Chinese, Italian, Thai, tapas, burgers, chocolate, ice cream, caramel shortcake… the list goes on. I still eat all that stuff. I had a burger last night in the pub, along with several pints. I love eating out, and getting take-out. You won’t find me nibbling on a raw carrot. I’m not going to have a health-shake for lunch.

The key is moderation.

As an adult male, you’re supposed to have somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day, depending on various factors (and fewer calories for women). I’m a short and slim-built guy, so I use 2,000 as my guide. I do not count calories or have a food diary; I just keep it in mind.

95% of your six-pack is made in the kitchen, not the gym. Here’s some common-sense stuff you can do:

  • Have a sensible portion size. Cut it down a little; say a quarter less. Give it a couple of weeks.

  • Cut down on alcohol, not just for weight loss but general health. The UK recommend maximum number of units is about 20 per week for men. You probably shouldn’t be drinking that much. Also, have a couple of days per week where you don’t drink alcohol at all. You don’t need wine with dinner every night.

  • Be sensible with treats, desserts, and starters. More than one course should be an exception, not the norm.

  • If you can’t resist the junk, don’t have it in the house.

  • Keep reasonably healthy snacks on hand for that low-willpower time in the afternoon. Fruit, nuts, seeds and all that stuff is readily available at the supermarket. Pay attention to portion sizes there too. I personally like satsumas, cashew nuts, and sultanas.

Here’s an interesting suggestion: reacquaint yourself with hunger. When was the last time you really felt hungry? I mean the feeling where your stomach is actually making noises, and you feel empty. Most people never get there. We schedule our mealtimes, and we snack between them, so that we never really get to the point of actual hunger.

I’ve re-learned what hunger is over the past ten months. Hunger isn’t a bad thing. I always used to get really wacky when I hadn’t eaten for a while. I’m not sure if I was actually hypoglycaemic or such, but I would feel odd. I’d feel weak, a little faint, clammy, and very irritable. My blood sugar was probably all over the place.

Since I’ve had a regular workout schedule, and have allowed hunger back into my life, I can tolerate those occasional delays we have in getting fed. Maybe the restaurant is slow, or someone is delayed, or we get caught up with some work. I can weather the storm now. My body takes it in its stride. I can be hungry, but still think clearly and act reasonably. For me, that’s a big change.

I also have a new relationship with food. I think about food more often, and look forward to mealtimes much more than I did previously. But I’m also more in control of what, when, and how much I eat. I think that’s a net win overall.

If you can do all of that and you have a regular workout regime, you can still eat the things you like - without guilt, and without setting yourself back.

Results

I don’t have any “before” photos that will be meaningful, because you don’t tend to have photos of your body when you’re a bit ashamed of your flabby waistline. I wish I’d taken a photo at the New Year, but I probably thought that it would just jinx the resolution.

Here’s a photo from the last couple of weeks.

Compression fit blue

We had a really hot day in Edinburgh a couple of months ago, and a Twitter conversation prompted me to do a Wolverine impression. Those blades are Bic pens. You can see some of my home-office stuff in the background, including the exercise bike (York c101) with a Belkin laptop cushion set into its locked handlebars.

Wolverine

I’ve also wanted to buy a Superman top for years, and have my own actual abs showing through it. That’s a standard guy thing, right? Well, here it is. The top is from Under Armour, by the way.

Superman compression-fit base layer, from Under Armour

Finally, this is me on my 36th birthday (June 2015), wearing my old pair of workout shorts from about 18 months earlier. I’m not stretching the elastic, either.

Weight loss apparent when wearing old workout shorts

I’ll spare you the rest. Unless you follow me on Twitter, in which case, yes, I occasionally indulge in some narcissism.

Onward

A lot has changed for me in 2014, particularly physically, but in a lot of ways things are much the same as they were before.

My diet hasn’t really changed. My breakfasts are the same: shredded wheat and semi-skimmed milk, then some decaf coffee. I try to have a reasonably healthy lunch twice a week. I still eat out, or get takeout, two or three times a week - because I really love doing that.

I still drink alcohol, but I try to take three nights off a week, and I don’t exceed about 12-14 units per week. I still have the occasional dessert. I’ve mostly cut out treats (other than dessert) during the day. My lunch and dinner portions are the same. My breakfast portions have increased, because I need the energy for my workouts.

I just don’t habitually overindulge. I’ve learned to say “no, thanks”. The big test for me was a family holiday over the Summer, where I was naturally being offered various treats all through the day, as befits wonderful hospitality. I said “no, thanks” most of the time. It’s a simple trick.

And I stick to my workout schedule. It’s possible to take it too far, of course. You can lose sight of your goals, or make yourself unwell. We don’t have scales in the house at all. I don’t log anything. I could get obsessed with that. I don’t want to go there.

My goals are simple, and I think they’re psychologically healthy too:

  1. Feel good.

  2. Like what I see in the mirror, and have confidence in my body.

  3. Be able to occasionally indulge in unhealthy food or a heavy night of drinking guilt-free, knowing I’m in a good position overall.

I’m there, and I plan to stay there for as long as possible. You can absolutely get there too.

You could even start tomorrow.