Written by Mike Over
We are entering the stage of the year where “summer body” programs and marketing madness begin. With the average American trying 120+ diets and workout plans in their lifetime, you can see why such subject lines get the society hooked.(1)
Unfortunately, these marketing ploys and strategies often lead to more backfire than good, or simply don’t work at all and leave many further from where they initially began.
What gives? Where do these strategies go wrong? Let’s look at just three of the biggest mistakes I see with people trying to get their summer body in tip top shape.
1: Extended Caloric Restriction
There is no doubt, you have to eat less than you burn to lose weight and body fat. However, the common error many make is simply thinking they should and can do it for extended periods of time. Let’s remember, dieting is a stress to the human body, and while it’s entirely possible to do for periods of time (when healthy), too much of it can come with its own set of problems.
Ever hear of the term metabolic compensation or resistance? The two are very similar in that they involve, to put it simply, the slowdown of your metabolic rate.
Metabolic compensation is the body's natural response to dieting, fat loss, and periods of lower calorie intake. As you lose weight and lower calories, your body adapts to having less mass to carry around, while also becoming more efficient at using less energy due to the decrease in food availability. Again, this is natural. It's a survival mechanism to help keep us from starving and wasting away.
Metabolic resistance is similar in that it also involves those same mechanisms of dieting and calorie deficits, but is also exacerbated by other factors as well, including excess cortisol production and stress, poor sleep and too much exercise, nutrient deficiencies, or things like poor hormone production, autoimmune diseases, metabolic diseases like diabetes, PCOS, and other unknown issues.
Metabolic compensation is normal when losing fat. Metabolic resistance is what we want to minimize at all costs. When you are cutting calories for extended periods of time, these bad boys can be more harm than good.
My advice: If you plan to cut for a trip or summer, don’t expect miracles in a short time frame unless you are already relatively lean (less than 15% bodyfat for males or 20% female).
Also, plan to keep your strategy inline with your annual goal. If you have been cutting 70% of the year and eating like a bird, then are only coming off a month of maintenance calories, don’t expect magic or the results to happen. Your body is smart, and needs treated as such if you’ve been dieting excessively.
2: Adding too much cardio
We know movement is a good thing, and cardiovascular work burn calories, but what many forget is that is comes with added stress to the body. The extra HIIT workouts, spin classes and bootcamps are not necessary or conducive to many lifestyles unless you are a professional athlete with the in-home chef and ability to recovery without outside obligations.
As a thing to remember, mental fatigue is a real thing. Studies have shown that the brain plays a significant role in regulating endurance performance and is supported primarily by human studies. Many of us have jobs, kids and daily tasks that take priority. Adding in extra bouts of higher intensity cardiovascular work can send your cortisol levels soaring. Now, this is not a bad thing, but if you are doing it multiple times a day and adding in the stress of life, these extra cardio sessions you are doing could potentially make you less resistant to insulin or mess with your adrenals to a point of unwanted stages of exhaustion.
This is why you see many bodybuilders go through cycles of poor sleep, mood swings, depression and fatigue. While most can tolerate some extra cardio work, many of our population have it in our heads that you must also diet. Going after this notion is a recipe for disaster. Think of it this way, we need MORE sleep to recover more as it being our number one ability to sustain performance and physique. So why would eating LESS and training MORE be the route to go if you want to get the body you want?
Remember, the overall goal of health is to keep our body’s in a parasympathetic state longer than our sympathetic.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the key regulator of rest, recovery and regeneration. Common metrics associated with the PSN are lowered respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure and pupil dilation among many more, and an increased localized blood floor into systemic function of the gut and internal organs.
On the other side of the central nervous system spectrum we have the sympathetic response, which has become widely known as the “fight of flight” response where the body prepares to perform against threat or challenge. The physiological response during a sympathetically driven threat is polar opposite of the PNS, where the respiratory rate, heartrate, and blood pressure all increase, while the pupils dilate and blood flow is syphoned to the active locomotive muscular structures to aid in movement efficiency. We want to be able to balance both optimally to keep our cognitive function in check.
Outside of the foundational factors or lifestyle stressors and nutritional practices, smart programming helps by optimizing recoverability. Simply put: if your training program drive you down into the ground beyond your ability to repair with volumes, intensities, frequencies or methodology that is a mismatch for you, your goals and your needs, that program is a recipe for long term disaster.
Instead of always thinking about adding cardio, try taking LESS of your plate. You might find this easier and less daunting to do. If you are one for punishment and like the thrill of 2 HIIT sessions a day instead of eating single ingredient foods, then more power to you.
My Advice: Stick to lifting weights. If you are in a deficit, reduce your volume slightly and keep your sessions under 45 minutes to avoid excess stress to the body. Think full body workouts 2-3 days a week and cycle in your favorite cardio 1-2 days a week where one is more anaerobic like sprints and the other more steady state or even GPP work.
Check out one of my articles for a busy man’s guide to strength training here for ideas.
3: Workout Selection
I don’t know what it is about the work “summer body” that has everyone amped up to automatically think workouts need to be dialed in higher heart rate zones, supersets, and circuits.
While these can be great way to save time and get a solid workout, they are not required for “summer bodies.” Let’s remind everyone that the amount of lean muscle you have adds to the over appearance you are looking for. This means progressive overload, mechanical tension and muscle hypertrophy. No one is arguing that burning more calories can help you stay in a deficit to drop weight, but so can taking less off your plate and focusing on getting quality work sets in to keep your muscle you’ve added.
Some who are relatively new to lifting may be able to get stronger while in a slight caloric deficit, so that is a win you should run with not demonize by silly programs that only focus on making you sweat.
My Advice: If you have a solid 4-6 weeks prior to your event or vacation, dedicate it to a split that fits your lifestyle. If you have the time, my favorite is a push/pull/legs for summer. Everyone thinks abs are the focal point to a fit body, but personally, seeing guys with jacked traps and a built back is more impressive and a signifier of fit.
Keep your exercise list to 3-4 per workout and 2-3 good working sets for each. If you want to add a 4th day go for vanity and target lagging muscle groups or things like arms and abs.
Remember, the quest to getting lean and rocking that summer body is a lot more than a workout and meal plan. If you are not healthy going into your summer “shred,” then beware for a tough road ahead.
The easiest way to start is by accepting the fact that the key to getting lean is mediated by your ability to be consistent in more areas than one.
Anderer, John, et al. “Food Fads: The Average Adult Will Try 126 Different Diets during Their Life!” Study Finds, John Anderer, 15 Jan. 2020, https://www.studyfinds.org/food-fads-the-average-adult-will-try-126-different-diets-during-their-life/.
Nybo L.Hyperthermia and fatigue. J Appl Physiol104: 871–878, 2008.