A fit brain makes a fit body

I have been in the fitness industry for a while and as a coach and PT, I am always asked the same question worded slightly differently… “Yusuf, how do I get bigger, stronger & leaner?” “What foods do you eat?” and “How should I train?”.

These are good questions but let’s face it, everyone is hoping for a quick answer or secret squirrel tip. However, unfortunately it’s not that simple and it takes sacrifice. Quite often the conversation with clients and players ends up about what’s between the ears. Previously, we’ve discussed motivation and the psychology of training but there is also the physiology of the brain and how this affects performance, mood and happiness.

The brain is, by far, the most complex structure in the world and there is still a lot to learn but from what we know so far, if your brain chemistry is out of kilter then so are you (emotionally and physically). It can affect your personality traits, your energy and even your body composition (not cool!).

All this brain chemistry stuff is wildly complex but there are four chemicals (called neurotransmitters) which are really important for normal function, these are; dopamine, serotonin, GABA and acetylcholine. Each of which affects us in different ways;

Dopamine

Dopamine allows us to stay focused, energised and motivated. Too little can see us having low energy poor focus and find it very difficult to stick to a schedule. Individuals with too little will often use food and drinks as stimulants.

Having too much is also a problem as this can cause you to become overly focused to the point of compulsion.

Having unbalanced dopamine usually causes cravings and emotional swings with an increasing need for things like sugar, coffee and chocolate.

Serotonin

This is often called the ‘happy hormone’. This chemical impacts on how we feel about ourselves in the world and people with high serotonin wake up look into the mirror and like what they see.

Low serotonin is on the flip side, shown to contribute to low self-esteem, insomnia and depression, this often manifests itself through cravings of starchy and salty foods i.e. chips, pizza etc. These people often feel unsatisfied if starch is not part of the meal, and struggle more than others if they attempt a low carbohydrate diet.

GABA

This hormone in our central nervous system gives us the ability to shut down and relax.

Those with low GABA suffer have been shown to suffer from anxiety and may frequently seek out starchy foods. However, they are really content eating anything as long as there is a lot to fill them up. These are what often get referred to as ‘emotional eaters’.

Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine is mainly involved in the processing speed of the brain and manifests itself in the ability to recall events, numbers and names, quickly solve problems and resist brain fatigue.

Those with low acetylcholine function will frequently forget numbers, be unable to recall a name despite knowing a face, and may often forget where they left their keys or wallet. Individuals will often crave fat since fat is a rich source of choline, one of the building blocks of acetylcholine.

A craving for fried foods, hamburgers and pizza, as well as a love of creamy desserts like cheesecake and ice cream, may be a sign of low acetylcholine.

 

These chemicals go and up down in our system everyday but the important take away is BALANCE! Balance your diet, balance your hormones and try to reduce the peaks and troughs throughout the day and this should go a long way to reducing the imbalances in our NTs we all encounter from time to time.

What ways are there to balance these, improve your general wellbeing and even boost performance..?

Well, remember how we started and I said people want a shortcut to looking good and being fit? We should know by now that there are no shortcuts and there certainly isn’t any shortcuts to improving your brain physiology either. Like anything, it requires effort and consistency.

Three key things to stay on top of for balancing hormones and your brain chemistry are;

Sleep – When it comes to sleep, less isn’t more. More is more. Get yourself in dark room and put the phone away for 8 hours. If you don’t have kids or work a night shift job there is no excuse or no bigger bang for your buck in terms of improving your life. Sleep is where the body resets and has a chance to re-balance the biochemistry you’ve been messing with all day drinking coffee and eating sugar! Also, check out the awesome book called “Why we sleep” by Matthew Walker. This is an area I am still working on myself.

Manage stress – Easier said than done, I know. But have a way of consistently deloading your stress, whether it’s swimming, yoga, meditation or a good arm blast in the gym. This will help reduce stress and balance hormone levels. It will also help you sleep better and re-inforce the other areas of your life.

A balanced, nutrient dense diet – Come on, do we really have to talk about this….? Put the energy drink down and grab an apple!

The choices you make in your nutrition and lifestyle will drive your body to respond one way or the other, so if you want to stay in a hormonal state more conducive to greater strength and muscle mass gain then you need to strike a balance.

Learn to manage your brain chemistry early on and you will also enjoy a healthier, happier and longer life overall. What’s not to love about that??

Big love!

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

Dieting is tough, there’s no question.

Being hungry, potentially training with less energy, having to forego social outings (including alcohol!) and even avoiding your favourite foods for fear of blowing your diet can be tough to take.

I don’t know a single person that wouldn’t choose to get lean without having to restrict their calories or to be able to do so whilst eating untracked quantities of pizza and pasta, drinking beers and offering a big, resounding YES to any and all social events.

The reality is, EVERY diet is going to involve at least some form of sacrifice.

The reason why its all so hard? You are forcing your body to burn fat, changing the homeostasis and driving a new change. CHANGE. A wise man once said “to get something you’ve never had before, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before”.

If you’re wanting to simply look a little better on the beach & improve your day-to-day fitness levels, chances are you can probably get used to saying no to that third beer, or avoiding dessert every once in a while. But if you’re wanting to see significant changes (like veins popping out of your abs or striations in every muscle) and make the majority of people react with admirable looks any time you train, chances are those sacrifices are going to be a touch more serious.

So with that in mind, ask yourself one simple question –

Is the juice, is worth the squeeze?

Is the effort you’re putting in and the lengths you’re going to, worth the ‘reward’ you’re chasing? Is it ever ‘enough’? Is having a set of abs that more closely resemble a roadmap, really worth not being able to enjoy a meal out with friends, avoiding alcohol. Because chances are, that level of effort is going to require a fairly extreme approach in order to achieve and more importantly, maintain.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s impossible to get lean without incorporating a flexible diet and lifestyle, but typically to get those sorts of extreme results, flexibility ultimately isn’t really an option at that level of body fat/ calorie intake. It takes effort and huge amounts of motivation for a really long time. Most people I know when they achieve extreme results tell me that reaching their goal wasn’t even half of it, its what they learnt about themselves on the way. As a coach and trainer its important I help people understand that change is proportional to effort.

So, is it worth it for you?

Eating too much is bad, or is it?

If you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. We know that, right?

But what if that “weight” is actually muscle?  We are aware that to build muscle mass (and get stronger) you need to be in a slight calorie SURPLUS, however when you’re dieting and trying to lose fat, eating too much just doesn’t cut it. Being in a caloric deficit is the key for fat loss! You may not spend every single day of your diet in a deficit but on the whole, you need to be eating less than you burn.

So if we reduce our intake to lose fat, then eating a lot less will mean we lose fat faster, right?

Seems logical on the surface but this is simply not the case, in fact, under-eating can be just as detrimental on your physique as over-eating! Like all things in life there is a balance..

Less is not always more, don’t lose out.

Your body can only burn fat at a certain rate (relative to your muscle mass) but if the calorie deficit is too large than you will start lose ALL size (including muscle mass!) meaning all that lean body mass and your hard work will start to disappear as well! Like I said, its balance and means we have to drop the calories to slight deficit and then reassess every week. Ah wait, you thought this was going to be easy…

You can’t fight biology

Your body is designed to change, flex and adapt to its surroundings. This means your metabolism can (and will) adapt to whatever is thrown at it, so if you consistently under-eat your body will simply recognise this and adapt by switching to “survival mode” and prevent fat loss. Hormones will down-regulate, you’ll burn fewer calories, and your subconscious levels of NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) decrease.

You’ll also feel tired, fatigued and irritable. It’s also the reason why many people following extremely low-calorie diets tend to plateau or even gain weight!

How do you have it all?

Simple. Dietary adherence. AKA discipline. AKA hard work. AKA effort! This is the big one!

Too many people think they’re only eating 1,000 calories per day, and then wonder why they can’t seem to lose weight. In actual fact, what they’re doing is probably sticking to this five or six days per week, and binging on the other one or two. Try looking at your caloric intake on a WEEKLY basis or total… this can be a game changer for many people.

By slashing your calorie intake right down, you make yourself hungrier, throw off your hormone levels and increase cravings. A small amount of these is perfectly normal, after all, on a diet we are driving change but the lower your calorie intake, the more you’ll experience hunger pangs and negative effects that WILL drive you to the biscuit barrel.

Willpower only stretches so far, as your body’s physiological and psychological need is for more food to help it “survive”. And so, try as you might, you can’t sustain yourself and ignore the cravings, and so you give in. This normally result in binge where you smash up to 5 times as many calories as you would’ve normally.

This why I preach if you start a diet and know you cannot maintain this for life then it’s not for you.

Is it Ever OK to Under-Eat?

A calorie deficit could theoretically be categorised as under-eating, as you’re consuming less than your body needs.

However, there’s a difference between a small to moderate calorie deficit, where you lose fat, but maintain muscle, strength and sanity! Compare this to a large calorie deficit where you’ll likely lose mass, your performance will decrease and you’re at a higher risk of binging and ultimately taking a backwards step.

I like to encourage my own clients to eat as many calories as possible whilst still being in sensible and sustainable caloric deficit. This might be a slower method than the 8-week turbo cabbage diet, but it’s certainly more sustainable and chances are your results will hang around for longer too. Plus it will keep you with good lifestyle habits.

Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare…..bare that in mind and keep those hard earned gains for life!

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Wasted time

How I wasted time/years

5 years ago I got out the shower and couldn’t help but notice that when looking in the mirror what was looking back at me wasn’t what I wanted to see.

Initially, don’t get me wrong, the gains were great but then despite the fact training and fitness had been semi consistent the progress I had made thereafter wasn’t amazing. (Well nothing to write home about).

That moment, for me sparked what has turned into an incredible journey so far.  I did not want to be in that situation again.

I’ve been a PT, a CrossFit coach and training for 10+ years now. I have lost count of the people I’ve seen in the gym that look pretty much exactly the same as what they did when I first started working out. No lie, the exact same! Maybe they have seen a few fluctuations here and there but a lot have done nothing more than go through the motions.

I completely get it there are those that simply just use the gym to justify their lifestyle and for some it’s much more of a part time hobby.

Cool, but for a lot more of us this is greater and you aren’t one of them.

So here is what I want you to do. Be as truthful has you can be, think about how long you’ve been training for. How many hours you’ve spent inside the gym, prepping meals thinking about the progress you want to make.

Have you been moving further away from your start point?

Are closer to where you want to be?

If not you need to consider why?  

What is going to be your spark moment?

Is it reading this?

Training with friends

You good? Good!

We have all been there….rolled over bleary eyed, only half awake, looked at the clock and contemplated going to gym. But that fatal thought creeps into your mind “I’m tired, I’ll go later or maybe tomorrow”. Its summer, the weathers nice, the beer is cold, motivation is low and excuses are plentiful!

A wise man once said “The road to success is paved with good intentions”.

One of the easiest ways to battle this is simple; train with friends. This could be the only motivation you need for you to get up out of bed, put those trainers on and get out the house. Here are my personal top reasons why training with friends or a partner cannot help with motivation but actually be key to developing long term habits, drive your fitness to the next level and help you in reaching all your goals.

1. Accountability

Seems obvious but how easy is it to press the snooze button again or just go home straight after work, I mean you’re tired right? However if your friends/ training partner is going to be there or you agreed to go with them then your also letting them down. It holds you accountable. It would be pretty lame if you cancelled your gym session with your friends because you wanted to go home and sit on the sofa, or because you didn’t feel like it.

Plus we know from research that those who are closest to you and have good exercise habits affect your personal motivation. Be the change you want to see in the world.

2. Motivation!

When you’re close to quitting on the bike or that last sprint, having your friend or other half there might just be the encouragement you need to get it done. When progressively overloading sometimes the weeks before can feel like a monumental effort, however seeing your friends do it might make the task that little less daunting.  Plus even if you can’t train with your friends having a common goal or challenge might help. Who can do 100 burpees in the fastest time? With social media it’s hard to escape it and easy to keep each other accountable. What’s even better is if you didn’t accomplish your goal having friends to pick you back up or simply tap you on the back can simply mean everything and stop you beating yourself up.

3. It is fun (I promise)

It makes training more fun, sometimes with the hectic lifestyle we all lead an hour of training might be the only time you get to see your friends. What an awesome way to get fit and have a laugh? Double Whammy! Plus it could change your workout routine for the better, instead of resting and looking at Instagram your rest could now be your friends working set as soon as their done you’re on, making your session more intense!

4. Fitness brings people together

We all know that after training endorphins get released making us feel pretty amazing. This is enhanced even more when we get to share that feeling surrounded by friends. That experience can help create an even better bond making friendships that bit stronger.

Also around 40% of individuals drop out of fitness shortly after they begin or attend classes on their own. But with a friend, that dropout rate decreases to 6%. You no longer feel alone and form your own group identity.

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5. Train together stay together

Cliché but there is truth to this. Studies show couples who exercise together are happier in their relationship. Working out together strengthens the relationship and enhances sexual attraction. You can’t fight the hormones!

It also means that you both understand the importance and need for a good training and exercise regime and there is no resentment of time spent at the gym. If they need to train you don’t question it because you understand the why, the passion and the commitment that lifestyle dictates.

So grab a friend or even your better half and go get some exercise done with them. If you haven’t got any friends then drop me email, I’ll come and train with you!

Big love,

Yus

Why is it important that girls and guys need to lift heavy

Don’t be afraid to push, keep striving to get stronger and you’ll see dramatic changes in your body and an increased rate of fat loss.  

Why girls should also lift heavy

As a coach, son and friend I have had many conversations with people about their body image and changes they want to make. One of the easiest and most effective ways to train is using resistance or weight training. Whilst it may seem complicated, confusing or down right intimidating, ask yourself this…

Do you want to look toned, sexy and lean?

Or do you want to look skinny, slender and frail?

If the answer is the former, then you should definitely be lifting weights!

Why is it important that girls and guys need to lift heavy

Let’s look at the science:

As we get older the storage of fat happens easier, this is because of a decrease in testosterone (yes ladies, you have testosterone as well!). This is a massively misunderstood hormone which we all produce and is vital to health and wellbeing. Lifting heavy will help in boosting that testosterone to some degree. So if you want to stay lean & strong, keep the curves and be athletic, then lifting weights is the way to go.

Often people think that lifting weights is down to vanity and body building but it also has other benefits. For example, as we become older our muscles and joints slowly weaken leading us to become more susceptible to injuries and falls.

So if you fancy staying healthy and happy. Then lift heavy!

In my experience working in gyms and especially in the ‘functional training’ world girls love lifting heavy (maybe more than some guys!). It’s also is amazing to see how training heavy boosts confidence and more motivation, and in this day and age that is a beautiful thing!

Same ‘ol routine

Now here is the secret….always shooting for 20-30 boring old reps of the same exercises, not really following a periodised plan gets seriously monotonous and boring. But if you give yourself goals in terms of strength then all of sudden training can become a whole lot more fun. It’s the lifting ‘heavy’ (which is relative to each person) which is absolutely KEY! We need to stress to progress and give the muscles a reason to work hard and grow!! Lifting heavy also means we can vary our training more and everyone enjoys some variety, it’s the spice of life.

Guys you are guilty too

I get this all the time – People believe that to get lean and cut then you need to lift lighter for higher reps, or even they worry if they push too hard all of sudden they will sprout gigantic muscles! Listen up, you’re not the Hulk!

Celebrities like Dwayne “The Rock” and bodybuilder Phil Heath didn’t suddenly get huge as soon as they started squatting and pressing. It honestly takes DECADES of progressive overload, specific nutrition and most importantly consistency to get to the standard most would even consider ‘big’ so there is no need to worry that you might accidentally turn into Mr Olympia J

Practical Recommendations

With all that being said, first things first you need to enjoy your training, but I truly believe the best way to go both physiologically and psychologically is to train heavy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a deadlift, a squat or a sandbag, just make sure you are not going through the motions. Push yourself to move heavier loads and you will begin to see the results.

So where to start

Try starting with 2 to 3 sessions per week focusing on compound lifts like squats, rows, deadlifts, lunges and presses. Keep most of the rep ranges in the 5 to 10 range, occasionally going a little higher and sometimes lower. Keep the total reps to approximately 30, so this might look like;

Squats – 5 sets of 6 reps and Push press 3 sets of 8 reps followed by some cardio…

Don’t be afraid to push, keep striving to get stronger and you’ll see dramatic changes in your body and an increased rate of fat loss.  

What makes a good coach?

 ‘A good coach should become redundant’ – Unknown

A coach has the ability to lead and make things happen, inspires and helps an individual come to a new level of understanding of what is possible.

I can say that this coach (the legendary Dr Matt Vassey) has shown me that. This guy has empowered me, believed in me and has pushed me. Always questions me on why I’m doing that? What is its purpose? Although sometimes annoying, the benefits and his teachings have helped develop me. Wonder who pushed me to start blogging and use my degree to share my knowledge?

In his pursuit to be a better coach he will often set challenges.  If you want to grow as a coach and as a person you need to put yourself in uncomfortable situations and be willing to fail so you can learn from this. He is never afraid to try something new if it doesn’t work he will say ‘Yus we are never doing that again’ and move on.

The challenges aren’t always fitness related sometimes life related and fun i.e. whilst coaching the other day my challenge was to only play music that was Dancehall not everyone’s cup of tea for exercise music but, nevertheless again stretching my abilities. Did we succeed? Let’s just say we changed it after three songs.

When I coach with him I can’t help but also become a student and just listen to his knowledge something he has humongous wealth in.  The science and knowledge bombs he drops are freaking awesome!

A quote I heard the other day which struck a chord was ‘a good coach should become redundant’ – Unknown 

Hmm an interesting thing to say that If I excel at my work as a coach, ultimately I won’t be needed. However, it’s meaning is perfect and true.  It is something in which Vass embodies and hopefully I now do. This means the best thing you can do as a coach is to empower people, teach them what you know so that they can teach themselves.

That’s inspiring, that’s selfless, that’s passion, that’s Vass.

Can’t thank this man enough for inspiring me, pushing me and believing in me.

Brothers for life.

Love you man.