I’ve been doing strength conditioning since starting my fitness journey back in 2009. However, I haven’t noticed such radical changes in both my physique and strength while running until very recently.
I had a long-held belief that if I varied my workout routine too much, I would lose muscle or somehow become slower. Silly, right? But that’s what I thought. We have a tendency to stick to what we know and have a fear that if we change what’s worked in the past, we could potentially lose all the hard work we’ve put in. It was only when I let go of my previous routine and fully embraced an entirely new one that I was able to see transformative changes in my physique and performance in running.
In this post, I’ll outline my training regimen over the past year. In line with my other posts, I need to provide a quick disclaimer (especially for new readers) before we dive in. This plan has worked for me – please don’t use this as a definitive guide to getting the exact same results. However, you’re welcome to steal whatever you want.
My Old Routine
It’s important to mention my old routine because although I did see changes at the beginning, my body quickly plateaued and the improvements were few and far between. For years, my focus and priority would be on running. My previous weekly training split involved 3 upper body strength training sessions and some legs and core sprinkled in whenever I felt like it (which was essentially never).
I managed to do one thing right; I did my upper body strength training before my cardio. Despite this seemingly consistent routine, there were still times when I would either neglect my lower body entirely or run prior to strength training. By the time I got to strength, I’d be too tired to endure a long-lasting weight lifting session. Even worse, I would just do the same exercises at the same weight level – a creature of habit and laziness.
When it came to nutrition, I would just eat intuitively, neglecting to track what I was putting into my body. You know where that got me? Nowhere. I would eat healthy 80% of the time, but when I started actually tracking my calories for my fat loss goals, I was way off the mark. When I finally started tracking my calories and macro splits using myfitnesspal, I entered in a few days of my prior eating patterns and noticed that I was in a calorie surplus most days of the week.
So what changed? What was the trigger point that made me radically alter my physique? Last January (2019), a long-term relationship ended; one that was very difficult to walk away from considering we both cared about one another so much.
Once it finally came to an end, I did what I always do – channeled all that energy into another activity to try and minimize the feelings of sadness and loneliness. I decided to shift that energy into two places: my workouts and socializing with my close friends. I started to experiment with new strategies with my diet and strength training. Clearly, my previous routine wasn’t working. I started doing fasted workouts, experimenting with IF, and researching new exercises to incorporate into my routine. I desperately needed a change.
I did have a personal training certification way back in the day, but science has progressed so much since 2010 that I’d probably render a good chunk of that training obsolete. What really moved the mark in my training, however, was focusing on a mindset shift. If I wanted to grow stronger, improve my running, and change my physique, I needed to let go of my old mindset and be open to trial and error to land on a routine that worked best for me. Alongside this experimentation, I also continuously fed my mind with online journals and articles that would help me stay on top of any advancements within the health and wellness field.
I did find a few resources that really moved the mark in my workouts. From a training perspective, I discovered the Anabolic Alien YouTube channel. At first glance, you would understandably make the assumption that this channel was for juiceheads, but you would be very wrong my friend. Mike Rosa has insanely difficult workout videos that are highly targeted to specific muscle groups. You can use the videos as a primer, finisher, or piece a few of his videos together for your entire workout. I prefer to do 2-3 targeted videos 3x a week to work on my muscle endurance before heading to the gym and lifting heavier.
Another great resource I discovered on YouTube is Mike Thurston. I didn’t discover as many new exercises through Mike, but love his advice on overall fat loss, staying lean while traveling, calculating macros, etc.
Jeff Nippard is also one of my favorites. He uses science-backed advice on training and nutrition and includes all the studies he pulls his research from in the videos. I’ve learned a lot about training from Jeff. On an unrelated note, he’s also Canadian, and a super likable guy. To round it all off, his video quality is also one of the best I’ve seen.
Last, but certainly not least, is Stephanie Buttermore. Stephanie has her Ph.D. and like Jeff, uses science to provide accurate and reliable information on training and nutrition. Her videos are great – super engaging and informative.
There’s obviously a ton more, but these are my absolute favourites and I’d encourage you to check them out!
My Training Splits
Over the past 3 months, I’ve noticed the most improvement in my physique by breaking out my training splits to upper body push/pull days and then incorporating 2x core days and 1x leg day (or I would split up legs into 2 days with my core). For those that are new to the terms (as I was 6 months ago), a push workout is where your muscles contract when weight is pushed away from your body. These muscle groups include chest, shoulders, triceps, quads, and calves. A pull workout, in turn, is where your muscles contract when weight is pulled towards your body these muscle groups include your traps, back, biceps, hams, obliques.
So as opposed to breaking out my training days such as the following example:
Monday – arms/back
Tuesday – core + legs
Wednesday – arms/back
Thursday – core + legs
You could do something like this:
Monday – Pull upper body workout (biceps/back)
Tuesday – Pull leg workout (hamstrings/obliques) + core
Wednesday – Push upper workout (chest/shoulders/triceps)
Thursday – Push leg workout (quads/calves) + core
Split 1 was the workout I had been using for years and split 2 is more along the lines of how I train now. However, as I write this, I only use the push/pull method for my upper body. Now, let’s get into the breakdown of the exact routine I’m doing now…
For each session, I’ll choose 5 different exercises for each muscle group and aim for the 8 – 15 rep range for most exercises (also including a few exercises with higher reps). I’ll repeat each exercise 3 times (or 3 sets/exercise):
Monday – Upper body pull – (biceps/back)
Tuesday – Core + legs
Wednesday – Upper body push (shoulders/triceps/chest)
Thursday – Core
Friday – Upper body pull – (biceps/back)
Saturday – Upper body push (shoulders/triceps/chest)
Sunday – No strength
My upper body sessions usually take around an hour or so and lower body + core around 30-45 minutes. I stick to my upper body splits religiously however, I’m loose with my leg days. Depending on how I’m feeling, I’ll split my leg day out in two (with core), just once with core, or I’ll separate it out altogether and do legs in its own session on Sunday. This varies week by week.
I’ll typically follow the same routine for a few weeks and then I’ll add in a few new exercises for each major muscle group and switch up the order. In order to see growth, your workouts need to be challenging and each set should push your muscles to fatigue. Otherwise, they will have no reason to grow. I used to always tell my clients to lift until they physically cannot lift anymore, then do one more rep.
On the topic of muscle growth, an important term worth mentioning is progressive overload. Progressive overload involves increasing weight, reps, frequency of training, and/or decreasing rest periods week-over-week. This is vital in order to see any physical changes to your body. I’m not going to add too much detail about the subject in this post, but will add some additional reading on the topic in the footnotes if you’re interested in learning more.
If you’re one of the people that believe cardio is the way to lose weight, you’re right, but also, very wrong. Let me explain. Cardio burns calories and at the end of the day, in order to lose weight, you need a calorie deficit. You need a deficit of 3,500 to lose 1 lb of body fat. You can expedite this process by doing more cardio as it typically burns more calories than strength training. HOWEVER, if you’re only doing cardio, you’re much more likely to experience big fluctuations in weight gain and loss as your body composition will remain relatively the same. If you do strength training, on the other hand, you build muscle AND muscle burns more calories than fat does.
So by doing strength training, although it can be deceiving as it doesn’t burn more calories at the moment, the lean muscle mass you build will burn more calories in the long run while also increasing your resting metabolism. There’s been a long-standing myth (which I fell pray to as well), that for every pound of muscle mass you have, you burn an extra 50 calories per day during rest. This has been disproven and replaced with a more accurate, 1 pound of muscle burns approximately 7-10 calories per day and every 1 pound of fat burns around 2-3 calories per day at rest. Strength training is also what will really move the needle with your body composition. Cardio has its place for sure. As aforementioned, cardio can burn more calories (so you can eat more), is great for heart health, reduces the risk of disease, etc, etc.
Now that I’ve provided a brief summary on cardio, here’s a breakdown of my what my cardio split looks like:
Monday – Steady-state run 8km/5 mile run (outdoor or treadmill)
Tuesday – High-Intensity Interval Training treadmill 8km/5 mile run
Wednesday – Steady-state run (lower mileage day usually 5-7km)
Thursday -High-Intensity Interval Training treadmill 10km/6.25 mile run
Friday – Steady-state run 8k run (outdoor or treadmill) run
Saturday – High-Intensity Interval Training treadmill 8km/5 mile run
Sunday – Slow long run (+10k/6.25 miles)
I incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT) runs 3 times per week to help build up my lactic thresholds and endurance.
In addition to physical training, I would say that mental training is even more important. Training your mind to provide consistent focused effort over time is what’s going to make material changes to your aesthetic and athletic performance.
Sometimes I get bored. Actually, to be honest, I get bored easily and quite frequently. I’m a high stimulus person, but if I give in to my constant pull of distraction, I’ll be checking my phone at every chance, pulling me away from my workouts. By keeping my phone on airplane mode, I’m forced to focus on the moment and to fully engage my muscles. In Brad Stulburg’s article, The Keys to Consistent Physical Practice, he outlines the importance of focus:
The more you treat each rep independently, as its own workout, the better. This takes a lot of focus at first, but eventually, it becomes second nature. Not only does your experience of training improve, but so, too, does your performance. Whatever happened on the last rep doesn’t matter. Whatever may happen on the next rep doesn’t matter. Only this rep matters.
As Brad says, it does take a lot of practice. Meditation has been a crucial practice to help me stay focused at the gym. Even 10-15 minutes per day of breathing meditation helps keep my mind more focused during my workouts. I’m able to watch my thoughts pass by and stay more present. It’s also been a key ingredient in helping me cross the finish line during endurance races. In fact, during my last 100-miler, I listened to the entire audiobook The Power of Now to remind myself to stay present and take it one mile at a time.
No training regimen would be complete without addressing the importance of nutrition. Like my training, I love getting creative with my nutrition. There’s so much controversial advice out there – like the millennial debate on whether avocados are good for you or the devil’s food. My true belief is that there’s no “one size fits all” diet for everyone. Different diets and macro splits should be determined on an individual basis, not taken from one influencer’s feed who swears by flat tummy teas and promotes waist cinchers.
My biggest recommendation is to experiment with different foods and splits to see what works best for you. I operate best off a high protein, moderate to high carb, and lower-fat diet both physically and mentally. If you don’t already do this, I’d recommend tracking different macro split approaches, while also keeping a journal on your energy levels, mood, etc.
I’ve been experimenting quite a bit and the approach that works for me is to eat in a calorie deficit during the week (Monday to Friday) and increase my calories/ have a refeed day or two on the weekends.
This approach has helped me gain lean muscle without simultaneously accumulating too much fat.
Calculating My Calories and Macros
When I first started this process, I was a bit confused as to how to calculate the amount of calories I needed to consume to help me lose fat and gain muscle. I’m not going to go into any sort of detail on “bulking” because that’s never been my goal. I’ll leave that up to the bodybuilder YouTubers. Below, I’m going to lay out the exact method that I used to calculate mine based on my goals:
The first step is to determine my maintenance calories then choose a weight loss goal in myfitnesspal (ie. lose 1lb per week, 1.5 lbs per week, etc.). I set mine to 1 pound per week. My maintenance calories are ~2,160 (excluding exercises) to maintain my current weight of 140 lbs / 63 kilograms.
Step two is to choose the amount of weight I want to lose per week. 0.5 – 1lb for me is reasonable, 1.5 is a bit aggressive, and 2 lbs per week is VERY aggressive and not recommended for most as it can result in muscle loss as well. I keep mine set at 1 lb per week, which adjusts my maintenance calories to ~1,600 per day + calories burned during exercise.
The last step is to determine my macro split goals. I typically focus on getting 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight then split up my carbs and fats from there. My daily intake goal is, therefore:
Current weight (63 kg ) x 2g/kg = ~126g of protein per day
Depending on how much physical activity I do in a day, my carbs range from around ~ 100g – 200g and my fat intake is almost always under 100g (unless I’m having a cheat day). Some people lose weight and perform better athletically with more fats than carbs. I’m not here to tell you what you need to do – just test out different approaches for yourself and see what works.
Below is a screenshot of what an average day looks like (give or take):
I am a creature of habit and typically eat similar foods throughout the week, throwing in some new recipes here and there. I like to mix up the flavours of my protein powder, try new seasonings, and throw in some new vegetables.
Here’s a quick day in the life of what I eat:
Cutting Back on Drinking
Consuming alcohol has probably been the biggest culprit for hindering my progress; causing me to gain weight and throwing off my workouts. Even a couple of pints at my ripe old age of 31 leaves me feeling drained the next day with little to no energy. I’m not here to be an annoying little fun sucker, but just based on my own personal experience, drinking hasn’t really served me well.
The truth is, if drinking is more than a 1x per week occurrence, it could end up impeding your progress in the gym. Not only does alcohol include a ton of empty calories, but it also inhibits post-workout protein synthesis. In a 2014 study, 8 males completed three trials of strength training followed by HIIT cycling and consumed 500mL of protein and 1.5g per kg of bodyweight of alcohol. The study concluded:
We provide novel data demonstrating that alcohol consumption reduces rates of MPS following a bout of concurrent exercise, even when co-ingested with protein. We conclude that alcohol ingestion suppresses the anabolic response in skeletal muscle and may, therefore impair recovery and adaptation to training and/or subsequent performance. In short, alcohol can impede muscle growth despite taking sufficient protein post-workout.
Since eliminating alcohol from my diet, I’ve noticed immense benefits. I have way more energy and motivation in my workouts, and I’m more consistently sticking to my workout commitments and diet. I sleep so much better and can stay focused at work. It’s a touchy subject for most, but my decision to mostly eliminate alcohol has been the right choice for me.
Since I get asked this quite a bit, I’m going to share the only supplements that I take. Believe it or not, I’ve been asked a few times if I take steroids. LOL…that is a hard no. The only supplements that I take include Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), protein powder, creatine, and glutamine on occasion. For pre-workout/during my workout, I fill my water bottle with 1 scoop of BCAAs and 1 teaspoon of creatine.
For those that aren’t familiar with the supplements mentioned above, I’ve included a very brief description of each:
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) – these are a group of essential amino acids that are taken to help boost muscle growth and enhance performance. The brand I use, Beyond Yourself Amino-IQ also contains 100mg of caffeine giving me more energy during my workouts.
Creatine – Creatine is a natural substance that’s found in the body and the most common supplement in the bodybuilding world. Creatine helps increase muscle growth and strength while exercising. The brand I use is ALLMAX Nutrition (powder form).
Glutamine – Like BCCAs, glutamine is also an amino acid. Some take glutamine as an immunity booster, but from an exercise standpoint, I take it for the supposed benefits of improved recovery and decreased soreness post-exercise. The brand I use is ALLMAX Nutrition.
Protein Powder – Protein powder is a great supplement to help you hit daily protein goals. Some days, I don’t feel like eating meat so it’s a quick and easy way to ingest a lot of protein with minimal calories. The whey isolate I use is Beyond Isolate Cookie Dough Ice Cream Flavour (SO GOOD!) and for Vegan protein powders, I use Vega Sport Chocolate.
This is most people’s favourite part of any sort of fitness transformation post (including my own) – the before and after photos! I’ve saved it at the end as a treat for reading through this LONG ass post. The first set of photos were taken late 2018/early 2019. I was around 135 lbs / 61 kilograms at the time, but had more body fat and less muscle definition.
The second set of photos is where I’m at now. I took all three photos this month (April 2020). My current weight is 140 lbs / 63 kilograms. As you can see from the photos below, I did gain around 5 lbs of muscle, while trimming down the fat.
You’re probably thinking, okay so how has this helped with your running performance? Well, the upper body gains haven’t been much help, to be honest. The mental conditioning has helped me stay focused in the gym and maintain consistency. It was also the catalyst in helping me place 1st (female) in the 100-miler I completed in the fall of 2019. I feel stronger from all the leg sessions while running and am able to last longer before getting sore. My posture has gotten better from all the core work. There is no quantitative data I can add to this besides the fact that the muscle gains make me feel physically stronger. As David Goggins would put it in his book Can’t Hurt Me, keeping a consistent workout schedule has “calloused my mind”, giving me the drive I need to continuously push my own limits.
Although this is my training regimen now, I will most likely mix it up in the coming months to keep things fun and interesting. There is nothing more monotonous than going through the same motions during all your workout routines.
Our bodies are very adaptive so what worked for you last month or even last week may not still work for you now. A key takeaway here is to experiment with what works for you in regards to your nutrition and training.
Progressive overload is key in obtaining muscle growth and tracking nutrition can really help keep you on track to hitting your goals. Given the current pandemic reality, it’s important to keep ourselves healthy with regular exercise (home and outdoor workouts) and healthy eating. Even though we may be limited in our access to equipment and what we can do, we can still try our best to care for our personal wellbeing. There’s a ton of YouTube at-home workouts and I’ve even seen videos of people jogging around their house. Do what you can with what you have and when things get back to normal (which they will), you’ll be primed and ready to move the needle on your progress back in the gym.
Footnotes (for additional reading):
Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24533082
Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4215195/