Hard Truths

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Talk about a fast start. Cristina Vujnich attended her first bodybuilding show in 2007, joined her first gym in 2008, and won her class in her first contest — the St. Louis Natural Bodybuilding and Figure Championship — in 2009. How’d she rise so quickly?

“I always think that there is some girl somewhere working out right now, and she may end up standing next to me on a stage,” the Chicagoland phenom explains. “Also, I used to have panic disorder. I had to find a way to work through the anxiety, fear and panic, and I found that at the gym. Lifting heavier weight and not being afraid, I was able to overcome it, so I remind myself that every trip to the gym was one step closer to getting over obstacles and roadblocks in my life.”

Now focused on scoring an IFBB pro card and perhaps becoming the next Jillian Michaels among fitness icons, the WGN-TV associate producer and face of Optimum Nutrition’s “True Strength” campaign chatted with M&P about fitness misconceptions women commonly encounter. We couldn’t have found a better source. “I love being an advocate for women in fitness and a role model,” she says. “It’s good to be healthy and lift weights. You don’t have to be the runway model who doesn’t eat — you can have a bit of muscle and still be attractive.” Here are some of the biggest myths she sees and how to beat ’em.

MYTH No. 1: Lifting heavy will give you a manly physique.

VUJNICH SAYS: “Lifting heavier weights actually helps you build lean muscle mass, giving you a more defined look. For example, I weigh about 120 pounds, and I can rack deadlift 225 and curl 30-pound dumbbells. That’s not giving me a huge back or vascular, giant arms — it’s giving me a stronger, tighter back and toning my arms. You don’t start there, but if you keep lifting the same weights, you won’t get results. If you’re only grabbing the 2-pound weights, not the 5s and 25s, you’ll never know how strong you can be. You have to push yourself to change your physique. Pick up a weight, and if it’s too light, pick up the next one.”

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MYTH No. 2: Cardio means an hour on the elliptical, the bike or the treadmill.

VUJNICH SAYS: “Focus on intensity and calories burned rather than time. If you do 20 minutes at an eight incline at 4 miles per hour, you can cut your workout time in half and burn more calories. Also, cardio doesn’t have to be walking on the treadmill every day. You can be more active with it. You can skip steps on the stair climber. You can go to your local high school and do sprints up the bleachers. You can swim. You can run outside with your dog. You can do high-intensity kettlebell exercises. If you’ve got your heart racing, you can do your cardio and your workout at the same time.”

MYTH No. 3: There are no friendly people at the gym.

VUJNICH SAYS: “If there’s a trainer or someone by you who looks like they know what they’re doing and you don’t know how to use a machine, don’t be afraid to ask them. I hate it when I see people using a machine completely wrong. People in the gym are there for a reason, and most are willing to help.”

MYTH No. 4: You need to do 1,000 sit-ups a day to get abs.

VUJNICH SAYS: “I’ve heard the saying, ‘Abs are made in the kitchen.’ You get some definition at the gym doing crunches and obliques, but a good 75 percent of it comes down to what you eat. Competitors get ripped abs by dieting and eating right and watching carbs and calories. You want to have a fairly high protein intake, low sodium and low carbs. That means chicken with brown rice, rice cakes and peanut butter for a snack, and not having cheat meals every day. Also, someone who has abs all year long, genetics plays a part, so be realistic with your goals. You may have to work a little harder to have a flat stomach.”

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MYTH No. 5: Too much protein will bulk you up.

VUJNICH SAYS: “So many times women freak out when they hear protein. I get 150 grams a day. One gram of protein per pound of bodyweight a day keeps your protein levels high so that you can still gain muscle while you’re losing fat. If you have low protein, you’re not going to get the nutrients that your muscles need to grow, and you won’t have a very firm and toned look.”

MYTH No. 6: Protein shakes taste chalky and gross.

VUJNICH SAYS: “You can get your protein in several different ways, as long as you get the protein powder without putting it in a doughnut! Blend some protein powder with water, ice, peanut butter and cinnamon, and it tastes delicious in the morning. Add strawberries, blueberries or other healthy ingredients that make it taste better. Mix protein powder with a little bit of water, and it almost tastes like chocolate mousse. (You have to convince yourself!) Some people even make protein pancakes. For the first year that I drank shakes, I drank the same flavor every day. If you stick with 100 percent chocolate or vanilla whey protein and add your own little ingredients, that’ll be a good starting point.”

MYTH No. 7: You need to eat less to lose weight.

VUJNICH SAYS: “If you starve yourself to lose weight, that’s not healthy at all. When you only eat one or two meals a day, it slows your metabolism down, and your body goes into survival mode, so it holds onto everything you’re taking in rather than burning through it. I eat six times a day. They’re not huge steak-and-potato meals — 4 to 6 ounces of food in the big ones, with a few healthy snacks in between. Eggs and oatmeal in the morning, 6 ounces of chicken at noon, a protein shake midafternoon, a shake after working out, a grilled chicken salad with some almonds, and then a casein protein shake, yogurt or cottage cheese before bed. That keeps the metabolism going. It’s OK to eat and be full.”

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MYTH No. 8: Supplementally, a multivitamin is all you need.

VUJNICH SAYS: “You do need that. But if you’re looking to build lean muscle and get the physique you want, there are other things you can stack with it to help you get there. Again, they are supplements — you can’t work out and not eat right. First and foremost, you can take branched-chain amino acids, the building blocks of protein. That’s going to help your muscles develop, along with straight protein. Glutamine is good for helping preserve and maintain the muscle that you’ve worked for while you are losing fat. And a basic antioxidant formula with all the necessary vitamins will help you fight off illnesses and keep you healthy.”