Everyone wants to know how Gemma Atkinson sculpted the incredible figure that is now turning heads on the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing show.
Former Emmerdale actress Gemma took on a 12-week transformation with Ultimate Performance to get in the best shape of her life to take on the flagship BBC dancing show.
Questions flooded in from fans and followers of the 32-year-old star who chronicled the ups and downs of her Ultimate Performance journey in her own weekly blog.
Gemma and her UP personal trainer Mark sat down to answer these questions as Gemma reached the half-way mark of her 12-week transformation which was recorded live on Facebook.
Here are Gemma and Mark's answers to some of your most burning questions about the weight training, nutrition and lifestyle that were behind the actress' new body…
Q: How many times a week do you train?
Gemma: I train in UP four times a week for around 45 minutes to an hour. It’s no more than an hour for my weight training sessions.
I have two cardio sessions a week which can be anything from a long dog walk, to 45 minutes on the bike or cross-trainer, and I have one day where I do absolutely nothing, and I have a rest and recovery day.
I think a lot of people assume you have to train for hours and hours, but our sessions are around 45 minutes.
Mark: The idea with Gemma’s training, because she already does a lot of training and has done a lot in the past, was just to refine it and ensure it was quality over quantity.
So when Gemma comes into the gym, we repeat a lot of the same exercises – split squats, deadlifts and a lot of big movements.
Then what we do each week is ensure that Gemma is actually progressing; the weights are going up or we’re doing extra reps each time or an extra set.
This is so that every week there’s some measurable progress. That way we can guarantee that over 12 weeks we’ve improved her performance.
Q: How many times a week do you train each body part?
Gemma: I do a Monday and Tuesday session, the Wednesday is cardio, then Thursday and Friday.
So it’s repetition of the session on Mondays and Thursdays, then I do the same on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Mark: We’re looking for full body workouts. So every time that Gemma trains, we use her full body. So we move from a lower body exercise into an upper body exercise in each superset.
So a superset means doing two exercises together.
So an example from today is we started off with a split squat, and from there we went into a row.
Then we did a pendulum squat into a pulldown. That was the weights session finished – the rest of the work was then finished off with HIIT training, which is high-intensity intervals….
Gemma: …which is horrendous. Absolutely horrendous. We do either medball slams, or we go on the bike at the end of each session.
Q: What are your suggestions for a healthy breakfast, lunch or dinner?
Gemma: With food, the first thing Mark said to me was ‘your food depends on what your overall goal is and also what your starting situation is and your activity levels’.
Mark: So in terms of actual amounts, we take a person’s starting point into consideration; as Gemma said, activity level also plays a part.
But in terms of types of food, that never really changes.
From a client who has been training for years, to a client who has never really trained before, we still recommend healthy foods from good sources of lean meats, good sources of fish, and vegetables.
If we are going to recommend carbohydrates, it’s going to be from real food – so things like potatoes or rice to make sure that everything that Gemma is eating is not going to be processed and it’s a natural, real, healthy food.
Gemma: If it roams or grows, then it’s edible. If it doesn’t, don’t put it in your body.
Gemma: Breakfast-wise, I’ve been eating three eggs, spinach and half an avocado. Or I swap spinach for kale.
It’s basically protein, fats and fibre for my breakfast. Then I have my oats and whey mid-morning, which I love.
Mark: That’s a pre-workout meal, so the oats and whey will be before the workout when she comes and trains around 1 or 2 pm.
Gemma: My lunch is normally white meat and veg. I don’t eat any red meat. I have only chicken and fish, and I have that with a load of vegetables again.
Post-training is my whey shake with a banana, which I have straight after training. Then again, my evening meal is white meat, lots of veg and sweet potato. That’s it really.
Mark: It sounds pretty simple, and it is.
We’re getting good at making the healthy ‘boring’ food taste great.
We’re coming up with lots of different ideas for chicken and salmon and different ways to make food interesting.
We are fortunate to have Jenny (Ultimate Performance's in-house professional chef) who creates a lot of recipes, and we post a lot of those on our social media.
Ultimate Performance now also has its own meal prep service EatUP to take the stress out of meal prep and combine gourmet cuisine with optimum nutrition to help both UP clients and the general public get real body transformation results.
Gemma: Instead of having a whey shake, I’ve been having a protein pancake with raw egg white and seasoning stuff.
I’ve been putting pesto, herbs and spices on things too; it sounds really bland, but you can make it so, so tasty.
With my boiled veg, I fry mine in coconut oil and add loads of herbs, spices and garlic, so I don’t smell great, but my food tastes nice!
Mark: That’s the key to any plan – it needs to be sustainable, it needs to be something that a client can be consistent with.
This is one of the things that we work on quite heavily with clients; they need to enjoy the food.
We teach clients how to cook well, how to spice their food and make sure they’re not going to get bored.
When motivation is high for that first couple of weeks, it’s easy.
Then after a bit, it’s a good time to start adding spices and a bit of variety to keep the food tasting good.
Q: What kind of carbs can you eat?
Gemma: I eat sweet potato, rice and oats. With my sweet potato, I’ve been frying them, so it’s like having sweet potato chips.
Mark: We’re looking for real food rather than processed food, just for this period of time.
Q: How do you deal with sugar cravings, especially at different times of the month?
Gemma: Yes, it is difficult for me. And I think most women will have the same problem.
Sugar-free jelly I’ve been introduced to – it’s 10 calories a pot, and it’s been a lifesaver for me. It used to be dark chocolate, but I didn’t realise how many calories were in that until I spoke with Mark.
The Hartley’s sugar-free jelly – I’ve been having those at night if I have any cravings.
Mark: It’s worth pointing out, that what Gemma is doing now is not a long-term thing. She is doing everything she can to get the best 12-week transformation she can.
The long-term strategy, having things like dark chocolate isn’t the end of the world if that stops you going away and bingeing on lots of sugar.
But what it does for us now is it adds a lot of extra calories in and right now one of the biggest things we’ve done is quantify the amounts of food Gemma eats.
So she is eating a set amount of calories a day – a set amount of protein, fats and carbs.
By adding in extra bits, like dark chocolate, that can really bump calories up.
One of the other things we look at with clients is when they come up to that point where they start to crave more foods, we get them to have a few more carbohydrates a day or two before – so, extra sweet potato, extra oats or extra rice, just to offset the cravings and what could happen further down the line.
So the reason women tend to crave the carbohydrates and sugar around that time is that it takes a lot of energy to menstruate and that’s the reason behind the ravenous cravings you get where you’ll pretty much eat anything.
Q: How do we get rid of stubborn flab and underarm flab?
Mark: It’s a different situation between male clients and female clients. Male clients can get away with putting themselves in a calorie deficit and getting generally lean all over, whereas female clients tend to struggle with their arms and their legs.
You will see a lot of females who can be very lean on their stomach and upper body, but struggle to lose that fat around their legs or lower body region and around their arms.
That’s often due to hormones. So you will store fat around your arms and legs due to oestrogen, which is the female hormone.
Gemma: That’s what I struggle with. I keep saying that the top of my legs are stubborn. My stomach has gone leaner, pretty much straight away, but the top of my legs are the slowest place to lose from.
Mark: One of the things we have to be careful of is not to put Gemma in too much of a calorie deficit. What can happen then is the body almost panics. A female’s body functions to reproduce and to menstruate, so what we need to do is ensure we supply enough energy, so Gemma’s body thinks it’s okay to lose body fat, and it doesn’t have to prioritise storing fat around the arms and legs.
It’s finding that right balance between maybe eating a bit too little and doing too much cardio, and just finding those right amounts so we can lose fat from all over.
Q: Do you have to work abs to get abs?
Gemma: We’ve not done any (so far). Well, we’ve not done any work specifically targeting the abs yet. Obviously, I’m using my abs in a lot of the workouts I do. But I think it’s more to do with body fat.
Mark: It’s a little bit of both. Obviously, genetics plays a part. Doing the whole body exercises; things like split squats works. We do a lot of loaded carries like farmer’s walks, which require a lot of bracing and core activation.
With Gemma, she already has some visible abs starting to show through, so we can start to work abs into the programme as Gemma gets leaner. But our priority is to drop body fat over the first six weeks.
If we move through to the next six weeks, we might start to introduce some isolated ab work to get those final touches done.
Q: A lot of people use having a busy lifestyle as an excuse, but how do you find time to train around social commitments and work commitments?
Gemma: What I’ve done is plan my workouts as if it’s the most important bit of ‘me’ time I can get. I’ve scheduled them into my day like you would a meeting.
Everyone has a hectic life, and it’s harder when you have children especially. But it’s just about prioritising it for yourself.
It’s just literally 45 minutes. Once you’ve been here at UP, and you’ve had your induction, you learn so much about your food intake and what you do and don’t need anyway. It all goes with itself – you just get into the routine of it. But for me, the reason why I’m specifically making this time is because I perform better in every other aspect of my life when I’m in the best physical and mental place I can be.
I’m actually at the stage whereby, if I don’t train, I feel tired and lethargic, strangely enough.
There are some things that have to slide. If I’m going out with the girls, I’m probably the first to leave, or I’m the taxi for everyone. But it is only a short-term 12 weeks. It’s not forever. Just knuckle down and get it done.
Mark: It’s a common barrier for people before they come through the door and start training. Clients often think ‘I don’t have a lot of time to do exercise’. The total for Gemma is quite heavy compared to other clients. But it’s no more than five hours total a week. It’s not a ton. It’s 45 minutes a day with some days to rest.
What you do find when you eat well, get healthier and train, you tend to feel more focussed, and you get more work done, and you also feel like you’ve got more energy, so you create more time in the day. When you thought you had no time, you end up with more time.
Gemma: I get up at 4 am to go to work, which sounds horrendous, but even when I wasn’t doing the radio, I still used to get up at that time to do some stuff on my exercise bike at home before my day started. It’s just kind of getting up earlier and going to bed a bit earlier and making time for yourself.
Mark: In summary, when Gemma came through the door, a lot of people ask this question, she was already training. One of the main things we did was quantify the types of food she was eating – so the amounts. Then making sure it was all coming from a real source of food, whether that be meat, fish, vegetables and potatoes.
Then we kept it simple and made sure Gemma was progressing on everything. So every time she comes to the gym, every set, every rep, every exercise we do has a purpose, and it’s all working towards the same goal at the end.
Q: Protein powder doesn’t agree with me, is there anything I can use instead?
Mark: We have this problem with a lot of clients. It could be a few reasons. One reason is if they’ve had a lot of whey protein in the past, they can become intolerant to it. Or there might be a few lactose issues.
One of the things we recommend, if our clients eat meat, is we recommend a beef protein.
This doesn’t mean you’re going to be having protein powder that tastes like beef, it could be chocolate or vanilla flavoured, but the protein just comes from beef as opposed to coming from dairy.
We also recommend some plant-based proteins as well.
Q: How do you know if you’ve got yourself a good PT?
Gemma: First and foremost is your relationship with them – how they make you feel initially.
Mark and Steve made me feel really, really comfortable and we’ve got the relationship where during the gym session, for those 45 minutes, you just knuckle down and do it. But before and after there’s a ‘Hi! How are you? How have you been?’ If I’ve got any questions with regards to food, I can message, so they’re on hand every time. They are constantly checking in with me.
I think overall the result is where you have to put the work in; you have to physically do it. But these guys encourage me in the best possible way.
I might tell them to ‘F-off’ a few times, but in a good way.
It’s a mixture of all things. I think if you’ve been with a PT for more than three months and you’ve not changed your body at all, you really have to look at the effort you’re putting in or how they are training you.
Mark: Results are always going to be one of the biggest things. If you go to your personal trainer for results, and you’re not getting results, I’d want to know why.
It should be in your trainer’s interest too. Your trainer should care more about your results that you actually care about them yourself, because that’s what you’re there for.
Q: Do you mix any cardio in with your resistance training?
Mark: Interval training we put at the end of the resistance training session. There are pros and cons to this. But one of the biggest things for our clients is time.
People don’t have the time to split workouts up, so what we try to do is get the resistance training in first – we always prioritise that – and then get interval training in at the end.
Then Gemma does separate cardio on Wednesdays and the weekends.
Q: Do you struggle at women’s cycle times and how do you get through it?
Gemma: I’ve found when I’ve been craving sugar, and I’ve only had one coffee for the day, I make myself a shot of coffee – I’m not sure why, but it helps to get rid of my cravings and stop me eating everything in sight.
A shot of coffee with a little bit of stevia in it and that does the trick for me.
Mark: We get all our female clients to track their cycle and let us know, as we’re very open about it. It’s something that’s always going to influence weight. It’s normal to be heavier at different times of the month, so there’s no real need to panic as you get heavier and lighter at different times.
One thing we also track is when female clients are experiencing sugar cravings. If a female client gets big sugar cravings on Day 13 or Day 14 of their cycle, we will make sure we increase carbohydrates intake a day or two beforehand through things like oats, potatoes and rice to lessen those cravings later on in the cycle when they come around.
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