Ask a Trainer (Vol. V)

Hi everyone, and welcome to Ask a Trainer, Volume V.

Playing catch-up? Here are the first four volumes for your reading pleasure: Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III, and Vol. IV

You got questions? We got answers! Send an email to with all your fitness, health, and wellness queries. You might even end up in the next Ask a Trainer!

Today we’re going to talk about how not to look like a body builder, how cardio workouts affect muscle growth, exercising when you’re sick, and busting through plateaus.

Can I lift weights without getting bulky or looking like a body builder?

Short answer: Yes. Stop worrying so much and go do some squats!

Longer Answer:

Does playing football with your friends a couple times a week make you NFL ready?

Body Building is a professional sport-level discipline that involves many facets of health and fitness. The semipro- and professional body builder who does things clean (i.e. doesn’t use steroids) is held to a strict – often grueling – schedule of weight lifting, cardio, bulking, cutting, timed eating, timed fasting, macro nutrient tracking, calorie counting, and specified fitness programming. The people who do best are the ones who spend years in disciplined focus on becoming a professional-looking body builder. A typical maintenance body fat – the fat levels held throughout the year during the “off season” – of a male body builder is in the 10-12% range. In other words, six pack abs all year round. During competition season, a pro will likely go through a cutting phase to eliminate another 5-7% body fat in 8-10 weeks of even more hardcore training and controlled eating.

Genetics don’t hurt either. Typically the best looking body builders are Mesomorphs, both male and female. These are the people who are genetically predisposed to looking svelte and trim, who build muscle like it’s their job (which it might be, in this case) and who have natural abilities in line with athletics. Endomorphs (those predisposed to holding fat and shorter heights) and Ectomorphs (those who tend to be tall and thin) can take to body building as well, but the process is often more painful still for them. Endo’s tend to need extreme calorie and nutrient control, because they have the tendency to build fat tissue. Ecto’s need that same control but often on the other end, increasing calorie intake into the several thousands every day just to put on muscle mass.

So, not only can you lift weights without getting bulky, it’s almost guaranteed you won’t! Unless you have the genetic predisposition for looking like Rich Froning Jr…

Rich Froning Jr.

…or Annie Thorisdottir…

Annie Thorisdottir

…after barely picking up a barbell (which is probably less than 1% of the population), then you’re fine. Lift for health and strength, and your body will respond with increased vigor, better overall health, and a nicer butt.

Is cardio bad for building muscle?

Kind of. Your cardiovascular system is a complicated interweave of energy production, transportation, and usage that your body uses to power metabolic activities. Typically, “cardio exercise” refers to longer times of lower intensity movement like running, rowing, and biking. A typical session may last 30-60 minutes and burn 300-750 calories depending on the person and work completed. This type of Endurance Cardio primarily works the Aerobic System, which uses oxygen to break down glucose in order to provide energy for the muscles.

The glucose (sugar) needed for this process is pulled from recent digestive activities (i.e. that candy bar you ate 30 minutes ago) and then from existing body tissues (body fat and body muscle). Body fat is preferentially burned since triglycerides provide a high energy yield per gram burned. Once you run low on glucose, glycerol, and body fat you begin breaking down muscle tissue. Muscle tissue loss from direct metabolism like this is really only an issue in athletes with very low body fat to begin with, so it’s likely not an issue for most people. But…

Muscle tissues may also be lost due to the stress of the exercise itself. Muscle is built by causing micro-tears in the tissue, and exercise is the perfect stressor to cause these small bits of healthy damage. When the muscles are damaged, metabolic systems in the body use ingested protein and caloric energy to rebuild the damaged tissue, which in turn strengthens it. Building muscle, then, is the process of causing and repairing damage, but this can only be accomplished with the right nutrition. Typically someone who is doing Endurance Cardio to lose weight is also on a calorie restricted diet, and may have insufficient protein stores and dietary calories to repair muscle tissues over the long term. This combination of body processes and restricted diet leads to muscle loss from two avenues: energy burning and improper recovery.

To prevent this from happening, remember that both diet and exercise are causes of caloric deficits in your day to day life. Eat enough to maintain your muscle mass while burning all those cardio calories each day, to ensure you kill the fat and not the muscle. This will depend partly on your body type, as well. Here are some basic guidelines for each type:


  • Calories/day: Bodyweight x 15
  • Protein: 1.25 grams per pound of bodyweight
  • Fat: 25% of total calories
  • Carbs: Remainder
  • Example @ 150lbs:
    • Calories/day: 2,250
    • Rounded: 188 g Protein, 63 g Fat, 234 g Carbs


  • Calories/day: Bodyweight x 13.5
  • Protein: 1.4 grams per pound of bodyweight
  • Fat: 25% of total calories
  • Carbs: Remainder
  • Example @ 150lbs:
    • Calories/day: 2,025
    • Rounded: 210 g Protein, 56 g Fat, 170 g Carbs


  • Calories/day: Bodyweight x 16.5
  • Protein: 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight
  • Fat: 26% of total calories
  • Carbs: Remainder
  • Example @ 150lbs:
    • Calories/day: 2,475
    • Rounded: 225 g Protein, 72 g Fat, 233 g Carbs

Should I exercise when I have a cold, flu, or other common illness?

It depends on your symptoms. Most regular exercisers will feel worse for not working out day to day, because your body is accustomed to burning excess energy and stress through movement. The trick is to identify what you’re feeling and not just that you feel like crap. An easy way to do this is with a Neck Check:

Above the Neck:

  • Sniffling, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat: OK to workout; use sanitizing wipes on equipment to avoid spreading the “love”.
  • Fever: Stop! Get some food and go take a nap. Fever elevates your body temperature to unsafe levels at resting. Since exercise also elevates body temperature, combining these can be a dangerous idea. Avoid it.

Below the Neck:

  • Coughing, Slight Aches: You may be OK to workout as long as exercise doesn’t exacerbate these symptoms. If coughing progresses to Chest Tightness or Trouble Breathing, or if the aches permeate the body further, it’s time to stop.
  • Overall Body Aches, Low Energy: If it’s hard just to walk, then running or hard core lifting that day is a bad idea. Go relax, maybe do some light stretching, and take a nap.
  • Trouble Breathing, Bronchitis, Chest Tightness: If you can’t breathe, don’t exercise. Test this by doing a walking lap around your house that includes stairs. Troubles? Get some rest.

If you do feel up to exercising on a sick day, remember that you don’t have to hit your full intensity to see benefits from staying active. Maybe take a two mile walk instead of a run, or do a recovery activity like yoga instead of a heavy weight lifting session.

If you do need to rest, I recommend “Archer” on Netflix for a recovery day. 🙂

Section Sources:

  • Lewis G. Maharam, MD, sports medicine expert
  • Geralyn Coopersmith, MA, CSCS, personal trainer; exercise physiotherapist; senior manager, The Equinox Fitness Training Institute, New York; author, Fit and Female: The Perfect Fitness and Nutrition Game Plan for Your Unique Body Type.
  • Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York; author, The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu

What can I do to bust through a plateau in weight loss or strength gain?

Plateaus normally occur when you reach a type of Fitness Homeostasis. This is where your body feels comfortable with its composition (fat & muscle mass) to the extent that it will attempt to maintain that composition regardless of the stresses placed upon it. What you see happening on the outside is that you stall in either losing fat, gaining strength, or both. As you train or diet, you slowly work into a pattern, and your body picks up on that pattern. Once you do it enough, your body “learns” the pattern and conforms to what it feels is the optimal level of fitness to maintain the pattern results.

So, break the pattern, break the plateau!

Breaking a Fat Loss Plateau

Fat Loss can be jump started effectively using Re-Feed or Cheat Meals. These are meals which depart from the strictures of your normal diet in both calories consumed and foods eaten. Note that this is a Cheat Meal, and not a Cheat Day. Pick a day and then a meal during that day to do your Re-Feed, but don’t become a glutton for a full 24 hours. A “meal” should be a 1-3 hour window where your diet restrictions are lifted and you can eat/drink whatever you want. Don’t go completely crazy, but also don’t feel bad about those three slices of pizza and two beers, either. It’s a Cheat for a reason; enjoy it!

Your body fat percentage can help you determine how often to do a Re-Feed in order to keep making progress. At 16% Body Fat or higher (most of the population), a cheat meal every 10-14 days is generally enough to keep you on track. At 10-15% body fat, add a Re-Feed meal every 7-9 days. At a body fat below 10% you will likely need a Re-Feed meal every 3-4 days.

Breaking a Strength & Muscle Gain Plateau

Much like fat loss, muscle and strength gain can be triggered by switching the body from it’s normal routine to coax additional adaptive response. There are quote a few ways to get past a strength plateau, and they all involve changing one or more factors of your workout:

  1. Reps: If you always work in the 10-12 rep range at medium weights, try changing to 6-8 reps at heavier weights for two weeks. After those two weeks, switch back to your normal routine and try to add weight again.
  2. Supersets: Working one movement at a time can be great, but combining movements can really make the body think. For instance, if you normally complete 3×10 of bench press and then 3×10 of overhead press, combine them into a superset. Each set would then be 10 bench press immediately followed by 10 overhead press, for 3 total sets. You can superset any movements, but complementary muscle groups seem to work best.
  3. Movements: Always doing the same thing? Hit the same muscles with different movements to stimulate new response. Change out barbell bench press for kettlebell bench press, or switch your back squat up with front squat. Small changes can net big results.
  4. Intensity: Slow and steady is good, but sometimes hard and fast works too. Increase the speed of each rep, maintaining good form, to kick the muscles into overdrive.
  5. Rest: Muscles get used to resting much like they get used to lifting. If you always rest 90 seconds between deadlift sets, try reducing that rest to 60 seconds in the next, and then reduce to 45 seconds the week after that. Alternatively, maybe you’re not resting enough! Give yourself 2-3 days off from lifting so you can come back refreshed and ready to go. This extra time may let your muscles rebuild past what you’ve been allowing, thus increasing strength.
  6. Order: Something as simple as doing squats before bench press can make a difference. If you always do your movements in the same order, change them up so everything falls into a different pattern.
  7. Schedule: Much like Order, what days you do your movements can add to your plateau. If you’ve been doing Chest movements every Mon/Wed and Squats every Tue/Thu, switch them!
  8. Tempo: Most movements are a pretty predictable tempo, meaning it takes a certain amount of time to move the weight in each direction. An example would be a back squat that takes 2 seconds to lower and 4 seconds to stand back up. Try varying that tempo to extend the lowering or lifting time each rep. This places your muscles under different stress than usual, and can spur adaptive growth.
  9. Diet: Yep, eat more protein. This was my personal limiter in May of 2014. I realized I was lifting very heavy, but not eating enough protein to fuel the muscle synthesis I needed to repair my muscles most efficiently. My lifts stalled for two weeks, I changed my diet, and in week 3 they started to rise again.

And that’s it! Join us next time for more fitness and health goodness!

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