Train smarter not harder

Want to be a fitness warrior without taking up residence at the gym? Give your muscles (and mind) an overhaul with these expert answers to some common questions.

How to get more from your exercise


Trimming your waist and building muscle before, during and after weight loss doesn’t have to involve chaining yourself to a weight machine or doing push-ups until your arms give out. It’s about training smarter – not harder. Read on for some expert advice about how to get a fitter, stronger body, minus the pain factor.


“Should I start developing muscle tone before or after losing weight?"

“You should be looking at building muscle at the same time as losing weight,” explains exercise physiologist Allan Bolton. Why? Muscle is much more metabolically active than fat, which means the more muscle you develop, the more kilojoules you’ll be burning, even when your body is resting. In fact, if you don’t do some form of strength training while losing weight you could end up losing more than just fat.

“One of the biggest problems with dieting is that both fat and muscle mass are lost,” explains Dr Nathan Johnson, exercise physiologist at The University of Sydney. “However, regular resistance training while eating a balanced diet, will help to preserve muscle mass.”

Activities that include resistance and bursts of strength are the best opportunities for developing muscle tone. “Paddling, rowing and swimming are all excellent cardio exercises that help you lose weight while providing resistance for the upper body, since you’re using all those big muscle groups to drive you,” says Bolton. “For the lower body, uphill bike riding or stair climbing are great all-rounders, with a broad range of fitness benefits.”


“I’ve trimmed down, but can’t tone up. Why?”

Dr Johnson explains the phenomenon. “The principle for maximising muscle mass gain from exercise is to focus on resistance exercise at high loads that allow six to 12 repetitions to be completed before fatigue sets in.” Using free weights, weight machines or doing body-weight exercises, such as push-ups or sit-ups, all give effective results.


“I’m keen to turn my one-pack abs into a six-pack. Any tips?”

To work on your six-pack you need to do abdominal exercises, such as the basic crunch. More importantly, you need to be lean enough for the muscles to show. “We all have a six-pack hiding under there,” explains Bolton. “You can achieve improved tone and development of this muscle through abdominal exercise, but the way to get a six-pack to show is by getting leaner.”

After the age of 30, however, it’s difficult to get lean enough to display a six-pack, unless you’re a serious athlete. Also, abdominal muscles aren’t as easy to build as other parts of the body. “You work on your arms and you get good results, but the abs require a lot more work,” Bolton explains. The solution? Be realistic about what your body is capable of. Instead of focusing on developing a six-pack, focus on trimming down and improving overall muscle tone.


“Will lifting a lot of weight at once help me bulk up my arms more quickly?”

“Lifting a very heavy weight once is not a good idea,” cautions Bolton. “All that’s going to do is tear your biceps. Lifting too much at once with reduced repetitions is, for the most part, not recommended.” If you’re an Olympic weightlifter, it might be a different story, but for the rest of us, it’s the repetitions that provide the quickest and safest path to building well-toned muscle. Use a weight where you can do six to 12 reps, resting in between to avoid injury.


“Why does my mate get much better results than me when we do exactly the same training?”

Training with a friend can be both incredibly motivating and incredibly demotivating at the same time. Why? Playing the comparison game inevitably leaves one of you feeling disappointed. There are countless reasons why your friend may be experiencing better results, including their age, diet or even the way they exercise. According to Bolton, genetics can also play a part. “If a top-notch marathon runner does weight training alongside an elite sprinter, he could knock himself out for a year, but he’ll never achieve the same results as the sprinter because they have very different muscle profiles,” he explains. “You can certainly improve, but one cannot become the other.”


“What is core strength and why does it matter?”

“The muscles involved in the term ‘core strength’ can be described as the ‘corset of the torso’,” explains Bolton. “They are the muscles deep in the abdominal area and back, attached to the spine and pelvis. These hold the torso together and keep it stable. Having good core stability sets a strong foundation for the body and allows greater stability of movement.” Bolton adds that many people don’t place enough importance on core strength. “When you run, your core stabilises, so you’re doing some good work. But, for people who mainly do gym work like push-ups, bench presses and lat pull-downs, often the core stabilisers aren’t being worked.” Try pilates as part of a balanced workout program, since it starts from your middle and works outwards.