5 Ways to Lean Out That Have Nothing to Do with Food

I strongly dislike the term “losing* weight.” “Losing weight” can mean anything: clothes? bones? brain matter?? When people say they want to “lose weight” what they typically mean is that they want to lose fat, or what many refer to as “leaning out.”

[*As much as I dislike the term “losing weight,” “loosing weight” is even worse.]

Most professionals would agree that your body composition is largely due to your diet. Those percentages can range anywhere from 80-95%, but what about the other 5-20% of your life? There are other factors we need to think about if we are looking to lean out.

Your diet can be full of leafy green vegetables, grass-fed protein, and good fats, but if you’re sleeping 4 hours a night, you’re probably still not in great shape. Sleep is your body’s chance to reset. Lack of sleep means that appetite hormones such as leptin and ghrelin are thrown off, your stress hormone cortisol is sky-high, and your brain won’t make great decisions during the day, especially when it comes to food. For people working the night shift, it’s even worse news. Even if you’re getting 8+ hours of sleep during the day, your circadian rhythm is thrown off and you experience similar effects of only getting a few hours sleep. In an ideal world, you’re getting 8+ uninterrupted hours of sleep in a cool, dark room at night.

Whatever that means for you, relax and have fun. Spend time with friends, go for a walk with your family, listen to your favorite music, get a massage, etc. The goal here is to lower stress. Lowering stress lowers cortisol and lowering chronic cortisol is a good thing. Cortisol is not inherently a bad thing – it’s part of the fight-or-flight response to danger. But if we are consistently stressed out, this hormone will tend to store fat along the midsection and mess with other non-essential functions including our memory and immune system.

One of the best ways to lean out is to strength train and build muscle. The goal here is not to burn calories WHILE exercising (a common misconception), but to build an engine that will burn fat throughout the day. Muscle is very expensive tissue – it takes a lot of calories to maintain muscle compared to fat, so let’s take advantage of this fact. This goes for men and women alike – put those 5 lb. dumbbells down and pick up a barbell. Compound movements such as the back squat, deadlift, and push press are all great muscle builders. Women: that “toning” that you want? This is the best way to get it. Bulking up like a professional body builder won’t happen the way you think it might. As an initial goal, men should be able to squat 1.5x bodyweight and women should be able to squat 1x bodyweight.

Sprinting can be in the traditional sense of running, but it can also be any acute, high-intensity exercise. The benefits are almost too many to list: fat loss, better insulin sensitivity, increased growth hormone to build muscle, better circulation and heart health, etc. Sprinting is efficient, easy to do (no equipment needed!) and has a myriad of benefits that I’ve already listed and that you can Google. Only once or twice a week is needed – that’s how potent these things are. Do a hill sprint every 2 minutes for 14 minutes and you’ll know what I mean.

Vitamin D is actually not even a vitamin, it’s a hormone and it’s essential. It’s incredibly good at countering stress (cortisol), increasing bone density, increasing testosterone, boosting the immune system, and reducing inflammation – all things related to leaning out. The best way to get vitamin D is directly from the sun. It only takes 15 minutes to get the best exposure from the sun, but in winter months or cloudy days, you may want to grab some Vitamin D3 from a store. You should do some research on how much to take – I find that most brands will recommend far less than is actually optimal. You might find recommended doses of 400 IU on the bottle, but I’ve read about people taking upwards of 20-40,000 IU. Personally if it’s winter or dark out, I’ll take 8-12,000 IU and don’t experience any negative side effects. Depending on your skin tone and other factors, your mileage may vary, so do your own research.

What you put through your pie hole absolutely matters when it comes to health and body composition. But there are a few other factors to keep in mind that aren’t related to food. Getting quality sleep, reducing your stress, strength training, sprinting, and getting adequate Vitamin D are all going to help you lean out. Instead of trying to do all things at once, pick one that you think is achievable and set a goal of being consistent with that for two weeks. If you can do that, add another element and continue in this fashion until you hit all five.

Lastly, don’t let the pursuit of perfection get in the way of good. Yes, in a perfect world you’re getting 9 hours of sleep in a cool dark room. If you are improving from 4 hours to 7 hours interrupted by a crying baby, is that failure? No way! (Am I speaking from personal experience? Maybe) We’re all on a journey and will have different priorities at different times in our lives. Do what’s best for you right now and don’t worry about everyone else. Do you.

World’s Best Salsa Recipe

Not one for hyperbole, I truly think this is the best salsa recipe out there.

Whenever we travel down to Austin to visit Ditty’s family, they have this addicting homemade salsa that puts the Tostitos and other store-bought varieties to shame. For some reason we never actually put that recipe into action until recently. So although my brother-in-law told us to bottle this up and sell it, I’m going to share the World’s Best Salsa Recipe with YOU! (Thank you to Trixie for the recipe!)

high res-2016-01-09-Recipe salsa-5372

2 cans (14oz each) peeled or diced tomatoes (If peeled, then dice and use all the liquid)
1 can (4 oz) green chiles
3-4 spring onions (scallions)
2 cloves garlic minced
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro chopped
1/4 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/3 can jalapenos or fresh chiles (if you want spicy. If not, leave out)

1. Dice the scallions, mince the garlic, and chop the cilantro.

high res-2016-01-09-Recipe salsa-5375

2. Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Pulse for a few seconds at a time until all ingredients are mixed together. You should have a darker red color with flecks of green (which is the cilantro and scallions)

high res-2016-01-09-Recipe salsa-5376

4. Store in a container and refrigerate. Makes about 4 cups worth of salsa. Keeps for 2-3 weeks. You may also make batches and freeze some.

high res-2016-01-09-Recipe salsa-5378
Note: This is a bit “runnier” than a standard Tostitos salsa, but then again, it’s 100x better and is Paleo approved. Above is an example of using it on breakfast tacos: corn tortillas, bacon, fried egg, and World’s Best Salsa. Yum.
 Feel free to share this and spread the word!

7 Things I Learned from 7 Years of CrossFit

Traveling recently, I dropped into a CrossFit box and the owner asked how long I had done CrossFit. I responded, “Almost seven years” and he said, “Whoa, you’re old!” Of course he didn’t mean it as an insult, but gone are the days that names like Josh Everett, Nicole Carroll, Freddy Camacho, and Jolie Gentry are recognized by everyday CrossFitters. Two years ago I did a write up for my 5 Year CrossFit Anniversary. In that post, I describe my first workout on Jan. 30, 2008 which called for 95# thrusters. I dropped the number of reps from 15 to 10 and used 65# at first, but had to drop to 45# after the first round. Don’t even get me started on the deadlifts. At one point I wrote in a forum “Never liked doing big lifting, but after feeling my lower back during dead lifts, can see the value in them.” Three months ago I squatted 400# and two weeks ago I deadlifted 501.5#. Oops, I guess now I LOVE big lifting!

 After 7 years of CrossFit, 5 years of coaching hundreds of athletes, and more workouts than I care to count, I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two. Here are seven. These are not necessarily aimed just at beginners (that might be a post for the future), but general observations and things anyone can take away. I’d be curious to know what you’ve learned, whether you’ve been doing CrossFit for a week or ten years.

2014-09-06 CrossFit Thermal high res-2913-2

© Chris Plentus

#1: Squat heavy and often. And sprint.
If you only have time for one thing, squat. As in squat with a heavy barbell on your back. Do it for 3-5 sets and 2-8 reps, depending on your goals. I’ve found that heavy back squats transfer a great deal to other things: running faster, jumping higher, cleaning heavier, deadlifting more. Plus, it hits your CNS (central nervous system) and hormones in a good way that you can recover from quickly. If you don’t have a barbell and weights, then sprint. It will have a similar effect. But really, find a barbell.

2014-01-18 CF Thermal Grand Opening high res-5258

©Chris Plentus

#2. If you want to be good at something, you need to do it.
Is this an obvious statement? Maybe not. I was once intimidated by the 70 lb. kettlebell. The idea of swinging a piece of metal that was half my bodyweight over my head was not all that appealing. But there came a point where 70 lb. kb swings were showing up in WODs more frequently. I knew I needed to swing it, so I just DID. At first, I only did Russian swings (to eye level) and once I got comfortable, I went a little overhead, and a little more. Eventually I could do a few reps and then have to set it down. Some time after that (probably 6 months or so), I did “Eva” which includes 150 kb swings at 70 lbs. While I don’t suggest just picking up a 70 pounder if you’ve been using a 26, don’t be intimidated to do something heavier or more difficult. If you want to be better at double unders, practice them. If you want to be better at cleans and snatches, you need to do cleans and snatches. If you want to be better at rowing, you need to row! Wishing something to come true isn’t nearly as effective as actually practicing it. In the past few months, we’ve seen an amazing number of members get their first rope climb – because they actually tried it instead of just doing the regular substitute of rope pulls! Related: What Malcolm Gladwell has to do with Olympic Lifting 


#3: Consistency is key.
Whether it’s nutrition, strength, endurance, or skill, consistency is key. I can be on-point with my nutrition for 3 months, but one bad week can set me back that entire time. Same thing when it comes to working out. Recovery days are absolutely vital, but taking an extended period of time off will set you back months or even years. (I do advocate a few days-week off every few months, but that should include getting good sunlight, going for hikes or longer walks, etc. and NOT sitting around and eating junk) After my shoulder surgery in 2012, I went on a pity party for myself and barely worked out for 2 months. When I finally did a mini-metcon that lasted about 4 minutes, I almost puked. Consistency is key, so do whatever you can to avoid playing catch up.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 1.26.57 PM

2009 (pic by Aimee Lyons) vs. 2012

#4: Mobility matters – a lot more than you want it to.
Weightlifting is a big part of CrossFit. Doing the cleans, jerks, and snatches play an integral role in being athletic, strong, and they are great markers for transferability (how well that athlete can do other things.) After coaching hundreds of athletes, the ones who have better mobility tend to succeed more at these movements. Being mobile doesn’t mean being the MOST flexible person, but good mobility establishes a foundation for being in good athletic positions. I can take a super strong dude who benches 315 for reps, but if he doesn’t have the mobility to squat below parallel, these movements are going to be really tough for him. Conversely, I’ve seen a plethora of supple athletes who had no idea what a clean was, but because they could sit ass to grass with a PVC pipe overhead, they were able to start with light weight and work themselves up to bodyweight+ snatches and 1.5x+ bodyweight clean and jerks in short time. Mobility is the one thing we all know deep down matters, but hate working on if we don’t have it.

caleb and me-1

#5: Abs are made in the gym, but revealed in the kitchen and the bed.
Get your mind out of the gutter! Very simply, if you “want abs” you need to fix your nutrition and sleep. Doing sit ups, crunches, or even toes to bar will work your midline, but will not “get you abs” like you want. Working out for one hour per day is still only 4.167% of your time. What are you doing with the other 95.833%? There’s way too much to cover here, but there are plenty of websites, blogs, books, and magazines out there that can help. And if you do decide to work on your nutrition and sleep, remember number #3: Consistency is key. Related: Guest Post: 8 Tips for Better Sleep by Dr. Jackie Halpern


2012 CrossFit Open – © Chris Plentus

#6. Women benefit more from lifting weights than guys do.
I’m absolutely stereotyping, but I think I come from a credible position. After training hundreds of women and running women-only strength groups, I love seeing women lift weights. Deadlifts, bench press, cleans, you name it. Kids, teens, twenty-year-olds, sixty-year-olds and up; not only is there a benefit for health and longevity (as we get older, what happens? We lose muscle mass), but they also get stronger mentally and emotionally. Most women do not train with real weights before CrossFit (2 lb. pink dumbbells do not count). But now it’s normal and expected that they deadlift 200+ pounds, bench press 100+ pounds, and do unassisted pull ups. This is cool! Unsurprisingly, they even lean out, don’t get bulky like they think, and suddenly stresses at work or home are easier to deal with because they think of that crazy-ass metcon they did yesterday. Teenage girls suddenly have a new definition of “beauty” and eat for performance instead of starving themselves. I’m not saying that guys don’t get the same benefits, but on average, I’ve seen the impact of weight training affect women way more than dudes. Related: BarBelles Testimony – Gina 


Olympian Natalie Burgener – needed a FAST shutter speed to catch this – © Chris Plentus

#7: Form first. Then Speed. Speed kills.
In CrossFit, being fast is better. You can’t jump on a 50″ box slowly. You can’t clean 225# slowly. The faster you are, the better. The caveat, of course, is that you need to have the form down first, then you can unleash the beast. It’s not worth going fast if it’s going to be slop. I’ve seen dozens of members hit PRs or breakthroughs when I tell them to move the bar quickly and they do it with good form. Deadlifts, cleans, snatches, box jumps, muscle ups, squats, presses – FAST UP is usually the answer. Build a good foundation of skill first, then go fast.

I could probably write another dozen or so observations, but I’m going to keep it at a manageable seven. I’m curious to hear from you though: