In an earlier column I wrote about how my husband’s decision to get an assessment and meal plan from a nutritionist changed the course of our lives. We had always been regular with exercise but could not figure out how to eat in the pursuit of building muscle, burning fat, and staying energised. With the onslaught of information we receive on this topic, it seemed like we should be able to figure it out from reading the right books or articles, but thankfully we wisened up and went to a professional for guidance.

Chennai-based Rahul Gopal (@_rahulgopal_) has many credentials as a trainer and coach, including but not limited to: Certified Sports Nutritionist (International Society of Sports Nutrition, USA), Henselmans Certified Personal Trainer (Menno Henselmans), ASCA Strength and Conditioning Coach (Australian Strength and Conditioning Association), and Certified Functional Strength Coach (Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning, USA). Like my husband, he firmly believes in following evidence based science, and has produced tremendous results in both himself and many clients.

In spite of all the interesting things there are in the world to discuss, when we gather, many of us can’t help reverting back to that same old topic of how to lose weight and keep it off. There is a certain diet that took India by storm in the past year, with adherents shedding many kilos for a drastic result. But one year later, almost all of them have put the weight back on, because such a restrictive diet is impossible to maintain for life. Intermittent fasting is another hot favourite, and easy to follow for many people who were already in the habit of skipping breakfast. But if these people are exercising on a totally empty stomach, they may be breaking down muscle rather than building it.

While both men and women make these mistakes, I wanted to interview Rahul mainly about women’s fitness myths and biases, because these are more pervasive and harmful. Even educated women are measuring their goals solely by the number on the scale or on their dress tag, not realising that putting on muscle can make both those numbers increase, and this isn’t always a bad thing. They would also rather run on an empty stomach than lift weights after drinking a protein shake! My hope is that any women reading this will release any erroneous pre-conceived notions about this topic, and instead start a journey that will lead them to true strength and longevity. Here is that interview below:

Is weightlifting as beneficial for women as it is for men? Would you say it is imperative to a woman’s fitness routine?
Lifting weights is imperative for everyone, irrespective of gender. As we age, muscle is the currency we require to make sure we stay healthy and mobile while also being resilient to falls and injury.

Resistance training is arguably the most important interventional strategy for overall health and well-being, yet a large percentage of the population isn’t aware of its vast benefits.

You don’t need to spend hours at the gym every day. An hour a day for 3-4 days of the week is more than sufficient for 95% of people, provided that the training program is sensible and effective.

In spite of all the information available, I continue to meet women who have a strong bias against lifting weights, saying that they do not want to become “too muscular” or bulky. What can we say to these women to get them to see the light?
This is a commonly encountered misconception. You are not going to get “too bulky”. Most women get the aesthetic body they desire (toned arms, shapely butt etc.), when they focus on lifting weights and getting stronger over time.

Many women I’ve known focus solely on cardio, and equate increased sweating, heart rate and exertion with a great workout. As for the diet aspect, they love cutting carbs, or intermittent fasting, anything that has them eating much less. What is the potential downside of this approach?
I prefer to use the word “training” with my trainees as it correlates well with learning and long term progress towards constantly evolving and advancing goals.
A “workout” tends to imply a short term fix mentality. Now, elevated heart rates, sweating and exertion have nothing to do with meaningful progress. Better markers of meaningful progress are lifting more weight, for more reps, with better technique and with less effort, over time.
Losing fat means you have to respect the laws of energy balance. Consuming less energy than is required to maintain your current bodyweight and adding on some activity is the smart way to do it.

Most people who resort to drastic measures go back to their old ways in no time at all, because whatever they chose to do is too restrictive.

Years of bad eating habits and lifestyles cannot be fixed in two weeks.

Isn’t it interesting that men look to get bigger by eating more, whereas women want to shrink by eating less, and both genders see this as a way to get an attractive physique? To me it is reflective of women feeling they have to be feminine, dainty, require less food, and take up less space. What have you observed about the difference between men and women’s mentality from your coaching?
While you do have to eat more to gain muscle, it’s not by too much. Most people overshoot drastically and end up adding more fat than is necessary. They also don’t train hard enough. I don’t mean hours at the gym. I mean training with enough load and effort.
Now while it’s true that you have to eat less to lose fat, it’s not necessary to go all drastic with cutting calories. A gradual approach works better.

While it is true that most women fear getting “too bulky”, once they see the week on week gains in strength, and how activities outside of the gym become more effortless, and their newfound strength translating into simple things like being able to change a water can or carrying a gas cylinder, the addiction to iron become strong!
I love coaching committed women because they train without any ego, with constantly improving form and with effort and intensity.

Instagram has a huge role in exposing people to different exercise and diet lifestyles. What are the pros and cons of this, and does one outweigh the other in your opinion?
I would just ask people to not look at the ‘gram for advice with regards to training and eating and work with a professional IRL (in real life).

The ‘gram is mostly choc-a-bloc filled with people with hardly any qualifications narrating their ill-informed, n=1 experiences and preaching that as gospel.

Don’t say you’ve not been warned!

The meal plan you prescribe consists of lean protein, veggies, carbs and good fats at every meal for four meals a day. What are some other health benefits that women can get from this meal plan aside from fat loss? For example, I noticed a huge improvement in my PMS symptoms.
It’s not a plan per se, but it goes with current scientific evidence. A balanced meal has adequate lean protein (which most people, especially Indians, don’t eat), healthy sources of fat, some carbs and veggies to make sure macro and micronutrient bases are covered.

A meal plated in this way offers higher satiety and will also make sure you stay full for 3-5 hours on average.

Most people are awake for around 16-18 hours, so it makes sense to eat four well plated meals spaced 3-5 hours apart.
How much you eat at these four meals depends on your goals (fat loss, maintain or gain muscle).

From years of working with clients, this approach not just addresses problematic issues with food habits, but also contributes greatly to overall health because you’re getting nutrients that you probably haven’t so far.