Week 7: Hormones, fat loss and cholesterol

Deadlift day and girls looking strong

I’VE heard it said by women hundreds of times in relation to lifting weights that they don’t want to get “too bulky” or “develop big muscles”.

In my week 2 blog update I went into some detail about the importance – for women and men – of having muscles.

And when you consider that from the age of 30, when testosterone levels begin to drop, most of us will find it more difficult to retain muscle mass (on average we lose about 10% every 10 years as we age) and the importance of lifting weights as part of our lifestyle becomes even more critical.

The fact is – no matter what you’ve been led to believe – that for women to become “too bulky” or “develop big muscles” is incredibly difficult and, in many cases, impossible unless they take growth hormone or are genetically advantaged.

Resistance training, for men and women, is essential for healthy muscles and bones

Why that is so comes down to one hormone in particular, testosterone. This hormone not only determines, pre-birth, whether we are female or male (we all start out as females, hence the nipples), but it’s the hormone which boosts metabolism and keeps us leaner.

Adult males have about seven-eight times as much testosterone as adult females. It’s a steroid hormone that in men is naturally secreted from the testicles and in women the ovaries. A small quantity comes from the adrenal glands.

The many functions of testosterone

Ben, one of my crew on the Amazing 12 Chichester program out of Core Results Gym, asked me the other week what testosterone does and so I’ve put together a chart (above) highlighting its many functions.

I’ve also created a second diagram (below) which shows what can cause our testosterone levels to fall, what are the possible consequences of low testosterone and the many natural ways in which we can increase testosterone.

What causes low testosterone and ways to boost it

I wouldn’t recommend taking testosterone (steroid) supplements unless medically advised to do so. It can cause health complications and a list of side-effects. Testosterone is one of many hormones in our bodies and these hormones – estrogen, insulin, cortisol, leptin, testosterone, thyroid and growth hormone – all work together.

If one set of hormones is unbalanced it will affect all the others.

Take even more seriously that everything – from how we perform physically, our moods, our strength, our thinking, our health, our digestion – comes from optimal, balanced hormonal function.

So if you think hormones don’t matter, think again. They are in charge!

For those of us who overeat or have weight and excessive body fat issues, it is not because we can’t stop ourselves eating, but more a case of the hormones which regulate that decision-making being out of balance.

As doctor Mark Hyman says, “Our hormones have been hijacked by Big Food – the giant food corporations.”

Hormone expert Sara Gottfried, a doctor and author who overcame her own weight issues and is an expert on the subject, adds, “hormones dictate what your body does with food.”

So if you can’t get leaner or crave sugar or lack sleep or have fluctuating moods or often feel overwhelmed, the chances are that your hormones are out of whack.

Stacey has a sweet tooth and for years has struggled with sleep

Extra belly fat can be an indication that one or more of hormones is out of balance. These hormones regulate our metabolism. When the metabolism is broken, our bodies go into fat-storage mode as the food we eat is stored instead of used for energy.

Sleep plays an important role here, too, because when we sleep well it influences positively the hormones which control our appetites and increase metabolism. No hormone is more adversely affected by poor sleep than testosterone.

Another reason for lowered testosterone is the massive exposure in today’s world to estrogenic compounds. Many of these comes from plastics and pesticides and chemicals found in our food sources (particularly meat and non-fermented, genetically modified soya), the water we drink and pollution.

The trouble with meat that isn’t from grass-fed animals or animals consuming a natural diet is that the toxins in their diets enter ours. Our livers don’t know what to do with these toxins and put it aside as fat.

Pressing ahead…Adriano’s on a mission

The more abdominal fat we have the faster we are likely to age and the greater we are at risk of heart disease and diabetes. Tummy fat can indicate that we have either high estrogen or low testosterone or low DHEA (adrenal gland hormone) or high insulin or high cortisol (the stress-induced hormone).

Estrogen dominance makes overweight women store more fat instead of burning it. It does this because our microbiome, the collective DNA of the microbes living in our gut, begins to extract energy for storage instead of fuel.

Also, the higher our insulin levels, the more fat we store and the more inflammation in our body.

Cooking and then consuming industrial seed oils, for example, is incredibly inflammatory. What this means in relation to testosterone is that we end up producing more of what are called aromatase enzymes that in men cause testosterone to be upgraded to estrogen and the opposite in women. 

What’s also interesting is that testosterone is produced from cholesterol, which is manufactured naturally in the body but also derived from eating healthy fats (like coconut oil, avocados, unheated olive oil, ghee, nuts and seeds etc. As said already, avoid vegetable oils like soy, canola, safflower, cottonseed and corn).

The real enemy is inflammation although there is still mass contention in the science and nutrition world on the subject of what causes it.

Interesting story in this week’s edition

For example, the cover story on this week’s New Scientist magazine is all about cholesterol and whether the war on cholesterol has been in vain.

The article talks about how for “30 years, cholesterol-reducing statins have become some of the most widely prescribed drugs” after the connection between cholesterol and heart disease became widely accepted in 1984.

However, one independent Danish researcher claims, “the cholesterol campaign is the greatest medical scandal in modern time.”

What’s clear is IF cholesterol is associated with heart disease, it’s not the sole contributor. Half of all heart attacks and strokes occur amongst apparently healthy people with normal or low levels of ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.”

Studies have also shown that the side effects of taking statins have caused patients to become more sedentary and adopt less healthy diets, mainly because, thinking they are cured, they become complacent.

Adriano slam-dunking his way to fitness

Complacency can, of course, affect us all. It’s the beginning of the slippery slope.

There is no way around it. Mistreat or neglect your body and, eventually, it will hit you back.

Practice makes perfect…Adriano is hyper-extending here, whereas Jo’s form is solid

Adriano is determined to not allow that to happen when he finishes the Amazing 12 this time (he did it first in 2015). He’s driven towards staying fit so he can keep up with his young son. So we’ve been devising a plan for a continued training and nutritional program after the A12 has finished.

Ben, too, is eager not to see his hard work go to waste. He has aspirations to take up boxing. But Ben’s biggest challenge is getting to grips with eating and diet. So far he’s struggled with the A12 guidelines and preparing food as it is not something he has ever had to do.

A lack of understanding of what foods do, where they come from and what to do with them is at the root of why we make poor food choices.

This week has been Ben’s toughest by far. He’s felt tired and that’s most likely down to (a) not eating enough and (b) not eating enough of the right foods. Ben also struggles with sleep.

Don’t try this at home…Ben showing his strength

Unquestionably, he’s getting stronger, but not eating according to the A12 guidelines will not only limit the effectiveness of the program and losing fat, but he’ll end up burning muscle, too, and his recovery between sessions will suffer.

“I’m just not feeling it,” he said earlier this week. “I feel weak.”

As off-colour as he felt, Ben still performed well. The reality is that the Amazing 12 program doesn’t get easier as it goes on, but you get stronger. That’s how most good training programs work.

To cap his week, Ben ended up pulling a muscle in his chest, which I am hoping is not serious. I prescribed rest until it was assessed. He missed his first session and was gutted.

Jo working hard and holding her form

Jo, too, had an up-and-down week. At the end of week six, however, she had lost 11lbs in weight, 4% body fat and told me she could fit into a pair of jeans she hadn’t been able to wear in ages.

Stacey had lost another 3lbs and was only 2lbs short of having lost a stone from the start of the program. “I’m one happy lady,” she told me.

To stay happy and healthy, we need to be like our hormones and work together on all fronts and not just those we prefer. It means, for starters, consuming the right foods and in the right proportions and quantities, moving our bodies often, doing some form of resistance training and drinking lots of clean water.


The Amazing 12 Chichester offers more than just a training program to enable you to uncover your true self and physical potential. It’s a journey of learning not only what you are made of, but also about the importance of progressive resistance training and a healthy lifestyle. The next Amazing 12 Chichester wave will be in April/May. Want to know more or book your place, contact me at Claude@Intelligentstrength.co.uk

Week 6: Get off your phones!

Caught red-handed…on their mobiles

I HAVE conversations with my 10-year-old son about what life was like growing up without electronic devices and he looks at me in disbelief, like “how could you have existed like that?”

The phone-dependency in the gym is somewhat similar. Yes, believe it or not, there were days when people went to the gym without a phone and you never saw one for the duration of a class or training session and our accomplishments were not broadcast all over social media.

This week in my Amazing 12 Chichester class at Core Results gym, I had to impose a restriction on mobile phones.

In truth, I saw it coming a long time ago. I should have insisted on it from the beginning. For any other coaches out there reading this, I’d strongly suggest you do so.

Paying the price for breaking the phone restriction

Also, it’s mainly the men – Adriano and Ben – rather than the ladies, Stacey and Jo, who are the culprits.

When I saw the use of phones getting in the way of training and maximising performance, it was time to clamp down. I could see concentration slipping.

With six weeks gone and my group making progress, I don’t want anything to get in the way.

In the gym they are all doing very well. Outside of it there are tweaks here and there still needed – mainly with regards to following the food guidelines. But, slowly, we are getting there.

Trimming up, Stacey on the battle ropes

As of the end of week 5, Stacey had lost 9lbs (from the beginning) and is steadily dropping body fat. She was only 3lbs more than what she weighed pre-pregnancy – close to achieving one of her goals and we’re only halfway. Jo, too, has dropped body fat, is changing shape and was down 11lbs in weight from day 1.

Working hard, Ben digs deep towards the end of the week

Weight isn’t so much the issue, though – as I explained in my Week 4 blog. For the guys, most noticeable in Ben has been his strength gains and in Adriano improved fitness.

With that progress in mind, I didn’t want any curve balls. So it was time to tackle the most pressing problem this week – the use of phones.

Chilling out between sets

Instead of talking to one another or focusing on recovery or assessing their form or mentally preparing themselves for the next set or grabbing some water or stretching or just hanging out by yourself to steady your heartrate or thinking, between sets the phones would come out…and then they would be lost in the world of either surfing the web or sending text messages. There’s no place for it in the Amazing 12 or any other program.

If someone comes to me for the best results – and is paying for it – then my job is to deliver. Phones in class get in the way. They hinder focus and, as a result, performance.

Stacey concentrating on arm curls

I’ve been guilty of it myself, so know exactly how it undermines the quality of training. Now, unless I need my phone for filming (for technique) or as a stopwatch or to monitor my heartrate, I put it away.

Imagine if, as the coach, I spent my time checking messages and texting and scrolling through pages when I should be observing, offering advice and making sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to? My clients would demand their money back.

The addictive nature of phones causes a dopamine (pleasure) rush that means the person on the phone simply can’t put it down. You then lose track of time.

Deadlift day

“I understand why you insisted on it [the restriction],” said Ben. “But it’s really hard [to stop]”.

When you are training to set timed intervals and need to be prepared properly for your next rep and/or set – mentally and physically – having phones around simply doesn’t work.

You could also be training really well and then receive a message on your phone that causes stress or concern and your workout instantly takes a nosedive. I’ve seen that happen countless times.

Ben and Adriano both improving in fitness and strength

So, for those of you who lead busy lives and spend all day attached to your phones, you need time to detach yourselves. Make your gym time that time.

I recall reading an article several years ago about the importance of time spent alone in the weight room and how that was a vital quality in strength development. Why? Because lifting well and getting stronger wasn’t just about going heavy, but also making time to recover and being patient, which often meant walking around or sitting down and waiting. Certain personality types (like myself) find that much easier than others. The impatient ones can’t do it. 

If you require or have wired yourself to need continual stimulation, it’s going to be tough to ignore the phone. But all the more reason to do it, because it’s probably not happening anywhere else in your life.

Focused on the job, Ben and Adriano side by side

Adriano, who was the first to break the restriction (and everyone got penalised as a result), admitted, “If the phone is there, in front of me, I will pick it up. It’s the temptation.”

Simple solution. Either don’t bring it or put it away before class and look at it afterwards.

With six weeks to go, let’s see what difference it makes. I genuinely believe it will.

Think the Amazing 12 could be for you? Want to know more about what it entails and if you are a suitable candidate? Contact me – Claude@intelligentstrength.co.uk – to find out more and for details of the next wave that I am planning in May 2017. 

Week 5: It’s all a confidence trick

Ben, growing in strength every week

BESIDES muscles, strength, stability, flexibility, mobility, cardiovascular fitness and health (and I could go on), there’s something incredibly important that the right type of training offers: confidence.

I see it with my four Amazing 12 Chichester candidates every day as we train at Core Results and I notice it each Sunday when I work with the ladies in my two morning weight-lifting groups.

In conversation, I hear it expressed a lot how “when I was younger I never thought twice about…but now…”

As adults, we overthink things and, consequently, feel fearful and doubtful, all of which leads to a lack of confidence. As children, we just got on with it.

But it’s seldom a case of ‘I can’t’. More often, especially when fear kicks in, the reality is ‘I won’t’.

The Amazing 12 is about delivering confidence, enabling you to achieve what you thought you could not.

Sue Saunders, who graduated with me last year, is a classic example. Hindered by a shoulder injury, she had surgery and then wasn’t sure it would withstand the type of training that the Amazing 12 demands. Guess what? It did – for 12 weeks – and she became impressively strong and looked every ounce of it.

Last workout of the week, Adriano is stepping on the gas

When you reach the end of the Amazing 12, which is an accomplishment in itself, there should be a sense of pride from the discipline, motivation and consistency it takes to apply oneself towards a goal and stick with it.

But it requires confidence, too, because along the way there are going to be doubts and you need to find the ‘yes I can’ inside of you…over and over again. Overcoming doubt requires courage. From courage we become stronger.

Our limits often reside in our heads and not our bodies. Paul McIlroy’s philosophy is NOT to keep testing your limits.

Push your limits too frequently and you will find them. Avoid your limits intelligently and you can continue to grow. Most of the great minds in strength training understand this.

Ben running with the prowler

Hence the saying, ‘the body achieves what the mind believes’. I know each of my quartet has inside them much more strength than they believe they possess. I can only convince them by enabling them. The Amazing 12 program slowly reveals to them to what they are capable of.

Take Jo, for example. I’ve worked with her on and off for several years. During that time she’s always struggled with push-ups. It’s actually one of her least favourite movements.

Out on the town push-up challenge

Last weekend she was out on the town in Brighton with friends – on a night off from training, of course. A few drinks were shared (and allowed) and, being a little more relaxed I suspect, Jo ended up in a push-up challenge with some guy and, for want of a better expression, whipped his behind.

So there’s an example of when thinking doesn’t interfere with doing. I’m not suggesting we fuel ourselves with alcohol to remove any fears and hit our PRs (much to the disappointment of many, I am sure). But you get the point, I hope.

The reality is we each have within us untapped strength. We just haven’t learned how to skilfully and easefully release it. The Amazing 12 does that.

Stacey (above) is someone else I have worked with for several years. But even in her prime she was unable to do an unassisted pull-up. I’ve set myself the challenge of changing that.

Ben, too, can’t do a pull-up or chin-up but wants to – desperately. He’s never trained before doing the Amazing 12. But I’m confident he will achieve it.

The Amazing 12 has a method. It’s to get you from point A, where you start, to point B, your goal, in the most effective and smartest manner.

Adriano getting stronger in the back squat

What I really enjoy about the Amazing 12 is how strength and confidence creeps up on you. My clients become stronger without even realising by how much (and, in truth, I give away only as much as I need to). Patience is required.

Jo, who has both strength and technique, practising the deadlift

Week after week they are making progress. Ben’s not yet missed a session. Jo’s got more bounce in her step though had to miss one class this week through illness, Adriano’s on par with where he was when he first did it two years ago (in spite of a week off in Africa for work a few weeks back) and in Stacey I can see improvements to her form and overall strength and conditioning as she bids to regain her swagger after having a baby six months ago.

Prior to starting five weeks ago, Stacey hadn’t lifted a weight (in the gym) for more than a year and felt as unfit as she’d ever been.

Jo and Stacey focusing on the task at hand

Confidence is crucial for someone like Jo, who’s had issues with low self-esteem. But I know she likes lifting weights and she’s good at it. Getting her to be consistent – because that will make the most difference – is the challenge.

Back when she was 16, Jo gained a black belt in Kyokushinkai karate, where she had to take a five-hour test that included 60 push-ups and 100 sit-ups.

“I can’t imagine how I did it,” she told me. “But I did. I liked the routine of it.”

I like to think Jo will look back on the Amazing 12 in the same way and use it – and a stronger body and mind – to propel her forwards to take on new challenges.

Need a boost to your training or a lifestyle overhaul? Want to learn about diet and combine it with safe and effective training in order to get the results you’ve always wanted? Why not consider or sign up for the next wave of the Amazing 12 Chichester? Send me a message to Claude@intelligentstrength.co.uk for more details


Week 4: The numbers game

OUR bodies are incredibly resilient. They are wired for survival. That’s why, in spite of abuse from over and under-eating, poor nutrition, drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, stress etc, our bodies keep on going…until they can’t.

The truth is we take advantage of our bodies.

Sometimes – actually, probably quite often – we get warning signs telling us something is amiss or that we should perhaps change the path we are on. But we either ignore them or the signals go misinterpreted or we just think we are invincible. And then we end up in a situation where our health and well-being is compromised and the quality of our lives diminishes, which is not a place anyone of sound mind wants to be.

While the body is strong and wants desperately to stay alive and keep soldiering on, our minds can undermine that durability. Out of our minds come thoughts. These thoughts lead to actions. These actions/choices, if harmful or poor, ultimately cause our demise.

But what’s driving our thoughts is our beliefs. Change your beliefs and you can alter your thoughts and then your choices.

That’s why it is said that to change your body you must first change your mind.

Jo pulling a weight that is more than double what she thought was her limit two weeks ago

So why am I raising this subject? At the start of the week during training at the Core Results Gym, Jo had a concern because while she is losing body fat, her scales revealed no change in weight. Should she be worried?

A few days later Ben said he had weighed himself and felt disappointed – even though he hadn’t weighed himself prior to starting the program (so had nothing to compare his current weight to).

Stacey’s been weighing herself daily since her late teens. It’s now just a habit. “I jump on the scales every morning,” she said. “I’m not really bothered by what it says, but I just want to know.”

Stacey back squatting for leg development and overall strength

That all led me to thinking about the whole belief-thought-action connection and, more specifically, numbers. What numbers should we be interested in and are relevant and/or significant?

Body weight tells us how heavy we are and it could, for instance, be an indicator of whether the portion sizes of our meals are too great. But for generations we have been fed the myth that our weight is everything. And, much to our detriment, many of us believe it!

Weighing ourselves regularly doesn’t measure progress unless the aim is to lose or gain weight. But then I would ask the question: is losing or gaining weight a smart goal? (I’ll come back to this later)

Arnold in his prime – obese or not?

I don’t pay much attention either to BMI (Body Mass Index) because it seems flawed to me to determine a person’s health based solely on height and weight. By that criteria Arnold Schwarzenegger (above) in his prime was obese, which he clearly was not.

Knowing our weight would be significant if, for example, you were a combat sportsperson or take part in a competition separated by weight divisions.

Beyond those circumstances, the only reason to be concerned by where the needle falls on the scale is if you believe it matters. Ben was disappointed solely because he had in mind a weight that he thought he should be.

I’m saying your weight is the least valuable number worth tracking.

So what numbers are vital to know?

Let’s start with body fat. It’s more critical to know than weight, but harder to calculate. Too much body fat is harmful to us in many ways. But your body fat can go down while your bodyweight increases, which creates confusion if you are attached to the thought that weight equates to success.

The fact is that in most circumstances having muscle is more essential and healthier than having more body fat. And, as I’ve said, muscle mass is heavier than fat.

Jo has already lost several per cent in body fat which, at four weeks, is a healthy rate of improvement.

So if losing body fat is the goal, here are what I would regard as some sensible targets. For women, 26% would be a good start, 23% above average and 21% getting into great shape. For men, over 22% means you have work to do, 17% is ahead of the game, 14% in shape and 12% lean. Under that and you’re getting towards being ripped.

Measuring the circumference of different parts of the body can be useful and is simple. I’d say the stomach (around the belly button) and hips are the most beneficial for ladies. But it’s important not to over-do it. Take measurements infrequently for it to make sense and for your sanity!

Ben would struggle with light weights when he started, but now can comfortably press heavier dumbbells

Strength can also be measured and it’s a valuable statistic. So pay more attention to the numbers of the weights you can lift and the number of the repetitions of the exercises you are able to do than the needle on your scales.

The weights, reps and times on the Amazing 12 program assist me, as coach, to monitor progress. I can see who’s getting stronger and fitter. Even though it can’t be calculated numerically, more crucial than how much you can lift is how you lift. Never sacrifice form for reps. So when I talk about how well someone is doing in terms of weight and reps, take it as a given that I am always referring to quality repetitions (unless specified).

Adriano demonstrating good form on the bench press

Then there are some more imaginative ways of using data, like the number of times in a day that you consume healthy, fresh vegetables. Or the number of times in the week that you exercised or played sport or went to the gym or took a walk. Or the number of hours you didn’t spend sitting down, either at your desk or in front of the TV. Or the number of litres of water you consumed in a day. Or the number of times you did something that brought you pleasure and helped you to relax. Or the number of hours you managed to go without checking emails and social media. Or the number on the clock when you go to bed. Or the number of squats you completed to negate the hours you spent seated.

I could keep on going. But you should by now have the message: there are more sensible things than weight to keep track of. 

Last, but certainly not least, however, make note of the number of quality hours sleep you get each night.

Numbers are just markers. And let’s not lose sight of a key goal – to complete the program as prescribed. Make note of the number of workouts you have attended or the number of times you felt like quitting, but didn’t.

If you’re going to track anything, be sure it helps rather than hinders you. Otherwise don’t do it.

I discuss some of these factors weekly with Jo, Stacey, Adriano and Ben. Why? Because it matters. It’s not just to optimise results on the Amazing 12. Getting into the habit of focusing on the important numbers will help you to stay healthy (in mind and body) and strong and vibrant beyond the Amazing 12 and into old age.

Stacey improving her curls

So how did the quartet do in week four? My statistics show steady improvement in strength and fitness. Steady – rather than meteoric – is how I want it. 

Jo said to me after a tough day 3, “should I be feeling less fit?” and I explained that when the load is more challenging she’s having to work harder. That’s all.

It’s all a numbers game. Just choose which numbers are worth obsessing over and disregard the rest.

Here are some numbers for you to consider: how many years have passed training without getting the results you desire? How much money have you spent without success trying to get fit and/or strong and in shape? If you are not happy with your investment/result ratio, perhaps it’s time to consider the Amazing 12. If you are serious or curious, drop me a line at Claude@intelligentstrength.co.uk