Effort is necessary to achieve a lean physique, but you also need a basic understanding of what needs to happen in order to get super lean and muscular.
In order to maximize fat loss and muscle hypertrophy, you must:
- Perform high-intensity strength and interval training in order to build muscle and deplete glycogen stores
- Increase Lipolysis (fat breakdown) by lowering insulin release and amplifying hormone-sensitive-lipase activity through dietary manipulation
- Burn fatty acids as the primary source of fuel by becoming fat-adapted
- Decrease fat accumulation and formation by modulating insulin and lowering blood sugar
- Maintain or increase muscle mass
- Maintain optimal metabolic function and hormonal profile with nutrition and recovery strategies (1)
Not only do you need to adhere to these basic elements of fat loss, you must understand the limits of the human body and realize that physique modification is a moving target.
The suggestions and observations to follow can save you a lot of time and frustration and improve your chances of achieving the ultimate physique.
This list is based on my experience as an athlete and trainer and is geared towards the physique athlete but is valid for anyone who trains hard and wants to look good.
1. Leanness has limits.
How lean can you get before your efforts becomes counterproductive?
Just as there is a limit on how much muscle you can build within a given time-frame, there is a limit on how lean you can get before your body starts to aggressively cannibalize your hard earned muscle.
The leaner you get; the more aggressive your body becomes at protecting you by slowing metabolic rate and burning lean tissue. In order to prevent the loss of muscle, you need to know your body composition (lean mass and fat mass) numbers.
Many competitors use the mirror as a guide to determine their progress, but this is not good enough. If you want to maximize muscle mass and minimize bodyfat you need to get frequent and accurate skin-fold tests by a qualified professional. The information gained from skin-fold tests will allow you to make necessary adjustments based on data. The skin-fold test is not foolproof but it is much more accurate than the mirror test and eyeballing it.
I recommend a minimum of a 7-site test, and even if you don’t calculate the actual body fat percentage you can keep track of the total sum of all skin folds. I use a 10-site skin fold measurement because the more sites you take the more accurate a picture you get of overall body fat.
Accurate skin fold tests are an integral part of my practice and they allow me to make adjustments when necessary.
- Get your bodyfat tested once per month in the offseason and twice per month during pre-contest prep.
- A skilled trainer or strength coach can be a valuable source of unbiased feedback.
- Stay as lean as possible by following sound nutritional practices; don’t gain fat in the offseason if you want to be lean for many years to come.
2. You must earn the right to eat multiple (5+) meals/day.
Here is a sample meal plan for a 38 yr old female who works 9-5pm and trains at 6pm and whose stats are: Height: 5’7 / Weight: 142 lbs / Body fat: 18.5%
Meal 1(breakfast): Omelet or scrambled (cook in 1 tsp organic butter): 2-3 whole organic omega-3 eggs; peppers, onions, and vegetables of choice; Canadian bacon, diced; High protein caffé mocha; Blend 1 scoop Chocolate Physique 2.0, 2 tbsp organic half & half, 4 oz water, Add 2 shots espresso to protein mix
Meal 2 (lunch): Large Romaine lettuce salad with diced vegetables, eggs (No croutons):Grilled Salmon or Chicken over salad; 2 tbsp Olive oil based dressing (sugar-free); 1 small gala apple; Iced Tea w/lemon, unsweetened
Meal 3 (snack): Physique 2.0 protein shake (immediately after training session) (or Post-workout) 2-3 grams of Omega-3 fish oil
Meal 4 (dinner): 4-6 oz Lean red meat or 5-7 oz grilled fish: 1-2 cups Green Vegetables; (asparagus, broccoli, green beans) sautéed with butter; 2-3 grams of Omega-3 fish oil; Iced Tea with lemon (sugar-free)
No Food after 9pm
The multiple-meal (5 or more meals/day) eating schedule, which requires that you eat every 2-3 hrs, is standard protocol for most physique competitors and fitness buffs. The idea is that frequent feedings allow you to maintain stable blood sugar and an anabolic environment which is conducive to muscle growth.
Is this a great way to put on muscle? Yes. Is this the best way to get lean? Not in my experience.
Despite what you’ve been told, frequent-feeding is NOT the most effective nor healthful strategy for health or fat loss (2).
When insulin levels go up, you store fat and glycogen, when insulin drops a few hours after a meal, you lose fat. Continually raising insulin by eating every 2 hours does not allow the fat burning process to be maximized.
Chronically elevated insulin and blood sugar is a bad thing as far as long-term health is concerned. Insulin levels are directly correlated to systemic inflammation and a cause of insulin resistance (3).
Meal frequency, like training frequency, should be cycled based on training goals and needs.
- The frequent-feeding protocol can work if you are very lean (<7% men, <10% women) and carry an above average amount of muscle tissue.
- Until you get to the very low body-fat levels, you will be better off consuming 3-4 meals per day (4-6 hours between meals), no grazing.
- You are not going to shrink and blow away in the wind, but you will improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood glucose levels. Remember, a consistently elevated insulin level locks fatty acids into the fat cell which decreases your efficiency at using fatty-acids; this is not what you want when trying to get lean.
- Frequent feeding is a tool for athletes which should be used as such; not a way of life.
3. Phase-shift diets are the best diets.
A phase-shift diet is a periodized eating plan where you shift between periods of low carbohydrate intake to periods of high-carbohydrate intake. The high carbohydrate periods can last from 1 hour to 2 days. The Metabolic diet, Anabolic diet, carb-cycling, TNT diet, and BodyOpus are a few examples of phase-shift diets which allow you to switch between phases of low carbohydrate and higher carbohydrate intake. This is a very effective tool for maximizing muscle tissue and accelerating fat loss.
The built-in variations on phase-shift diets help to circumvent the inevitable metabolic slow-down and boredom of long-term dieting. Limiting carbohydrate intake to pre and post-workout meals is an example of a phase-shift diet; carbohydrate intake is lower on non-training days. The amount of carbs ingested would depend on your current body fat level.
- Follow a meal plan with built in variation.
- The leaner you are the more often you can consume carbohydrates.
- Low carbohydrate, high fat, moderate protein phase-shift diets are the goal standard for drug-free athletes.
4. NEAT is is more efficient than LISS
(non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is a more efficient use of time than low intensity cardio for those who are typically inactive during the day.
I am not a fan of low-intensity long-duration cardio exercise and I do not prescribe it for physique athletes. My facility has 1 spin bike and 1 rowing machine and these pieces receive limited use.
Excessive cardio training can contribute to elevated cortisol levels which can increase fat storage due to cortisol’s effect on lipoprotein lipase and testosterone.
High cortisol + elevated insulin = more body fat.
Now there are exceptions to this rule; individuals with very high testosterone don’t experience the same issues and tend to stay lean regardless.
Low intensity cardio is an inefficient use of time; you would be much better served performing a 15 minute flexibility routine that addresses any structural issues you may have instead of spending 30 minutes on a treadmill.
If you like to do cardio, do it. I recommend no more than 4 sessions/ week for a maximum of 30 minutes/session (this does not apply to endurance athletes).
In place of a planned cardio sessions, I recommend getting your extra activity during the day by increasing spontaneous activity or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).
Ways to increase NEAT:
- Park farther away
- Walk faster
- Stand as much as possible
- Take the long way
- Walk the dog more often and farther than normal
- Don’t sit for more than 30 minutes at a time; get an alarm, set it on a 30 minute timer, get up and move for at least 5 minutes every time it goes off.
5. You MUST consume enough good fat to maintain metabolic health.
Decreasing fat intake is a short-term strategy that is effective for those who are fat-adapted; those who are not fat-adapted will lose tremendous amounts of muscle (along with fat) and may damage metabolic function.
The number one reason physique competitors gain fat after competition is because they follow low-fat, calorie restricted diets for too long; 14 days is the longest I would recommend following a strict regimen without some variation. Low carbohydrate, high fat, moderate protein diets are very effective but problems arise when a low carb diet morphs into a low carb, low fat, and high protein diet. When fat intake is too low, hormonal profile is compromised and muscle tissue is cannibalized.
Warning! If you consistently follow very low fat, high protein diets, you can break your metabolism and experience rapid fat gains after contests. This happens more often with female athletes who perform excessive cardio and follow a low fat diet. Don’t be a victim of low-fat diets.
I am not a calorie counter or macronutrient ratio advocate, but in general, I recommend that about 30-50% of your energy intake come from good fats (grass-fed animal fats, organic eggs and butter, olive oil, coconut oil, and fish oils). Fat loss is about manipulating insulin and blood sugar; insulin is primary, calories are secondary. Compared to carbohydrates and protein, fat has the least impact on insulin secretion.
Don’t fear fat, sugar and starchy carbohydrates are the main problem.
- Pasquale, Mauro G. Di. Amino Acids and Proteins for the Athlete. Boca Raton : CRC Press, 2008.
- Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat. New York : Random House, 2011.
- Low-carb Diet Reduces Inflammation And Blood Saturated Fat In Metabolic Syndrome. Center, Suny Downstate Medical. 2007 : s.n., 2007, ScienceDaily.
- Taubes, Gary. Good Calories, Bad Calories. New York : Anchor Books, 2007.
- Evolution, body composition, insulin receptor competition, and insulin resistance. S. Boyd Eaton, Loren Dordain, Phillip B. Sparling. 2009, Preventive Mediciine, pp. 283-285.
- Pasquale, Mauro G. Di. Amino Acids and Proteins for the Athlete. Boca Raton : CRC Press, 2008.