I get asked a lot of questions from guys that are trying lose fat and get “jacked.” I can respect that, but when I probe them about what they are currently doing, I see that most of them are going about it ass-backwards. I do not blame them for being confused; it certainly can be very difficult to sift through all the conflicting and contradictory advice out there. It usually boils down to one of three problems (or sometimes a combination of all three).
1. Overdieting. This manifests in several ways. For some, overdieting means dieting for too long in a caloric deficit. For others, it means drastically lowering calories too fast. Some do both. Either are recipe for disaster because overdieting will slow down your metabolism. If you are in a caloric deficit for too long, your body becomes more efficient at storing energy, meaning you burn less calories and hold on to more fat. The same thing happens when you drastically cut your calories very fast. Your body goes into starvation mode and holds onto the fat you do have. Webb et al. perform a study to prove this phenomenon whereby subjects are placed on a 1,000 calorie diet for 6 weeks after going 3 weeks on maintenance calories. On average, sedentary energy expenditure decreased by over 12% (Webb). This is significant when you consider how long the caloric intake is to begin with. That means that after just 6 weeks you could have to decrease your caloric intake to 880 a day to achieve the same weight loss results. It becomes a vicious cycle too because the more you lower caloric intake, the more the metabolism slows down.
This process is also an energy zapper, meaning you will be less inclined to exercise and you will not be able to put 100% into your workouts, which means you will not burn as much fat. LC de Groot et. al put subjects on an 8 week slimming diet using a very low calories approach and observe that “measurements of physical activity indicated a reduction of spontaneous physical activity during slimming” (de Groot). This really just seems like common sense. If you are not eating enough, you will be too tired to do a whole lot throughout the day. Why is this important? Dr. MJ Dauncey compares the effects of diet and exercise on energy metabolism and concludes that “physical activity can cause a greater change in the metabolic rate of an individual than any other factor” (Dauncey). When it comes to weight loss, diet will always be king, but exercise is a crucial opportunity to spike the metabolism and burn fat in the process. If your caloric intake is so low that you cannot workout hard, you have gone too far.
The takeaway message here is that dieting with a crashed metabolism is an exercise in futility. I know you want results overnight, but unless you have just a little fat to lose, it won’t happen. You didn’t get fat overnight did you? Take your time. Slow diets are more effective and they are better at retaining muscle mass. There are several things you can do to diet smartly. One would be to employ an isocaloric diet only slightly below maintenance levels so you lose fat consistently without feeling completely drained. This way may be the best approach for people that want their diet to be as simple as possible. The other way, and what I think is the best way personally, is to cycle calories. This means that some days you will eat at maintenance, some days will be below maintenance, and some (though proportionally fewer) will be above maintenance. Using this approach, you will be in a net caloric deficit but will still be stoking your metabolism periodically to keep it from crashing. I like this approach because it allows you to place your higher calorie days around your hard workouts so you give it all you’ve got.
2. Not focusing on getting stronger. A lot of guys not only overhaul their diets when trying to get lean, they also overhaul their training program. Heavy lifting is replaced with marathon cardio sessions or light circuit training. The rationale behind this approach Is twofold. One, you sweat more during a long cardio session or a machine circuit, so you must be burning more calories, right? Second, since you are in caloric deficit, you are not going to build muscle anyway, so what’s the point in lifting hard anyway? Not so fast. There are several reasons why I think this is a bad idea.
It may be true that you burn more calories during a cardio session than a lifting session (though again, this depends on how you set up your lifting session), but we have to remember that exercise does not exist in a vacuum. The body is constantly burning calories all day, not just while we are exercising. Exercise scientist use oxygen consumption to measure energy expenditure. Simply put, the more oxygen you consume, the more calories you burn (and potentially the more fat you burn). This is TOTAL exercise consumption, meaning during and after exercise. In fact, post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) can be where the most calories are actually expended IF you train correctly. EPOC is influenced by the type of exercise performed, the duration, and the intensity. Numerous studies show that weight training raises EPOC far more than cardio, even the heralded HIIT.
So what is wrong is circuit training then? Actually, circuit training would be better than traditional cardio, but the problem with most circuit training is that the weights are too light; in practice, it is really akin to doing cardio with weights. This won’t cut it. Kathleen Thornton performs a study where a group of women perform nine exercises for 2 sets of 15 reps at 45% of their 8RM during one session and 2 sets of 8 at 85% of their 8RM and measures heart rate, pre and post lactate levels, and EPOC. The results reveal that heart rate and EPOC were significantly great with higher intensity exercise (Thornton). Exercise physiologist Scott Stevenson sums it up best when he states, “if you equate the work performed during your weight training session (reps multiplied by weight), the more intensely you train (meaning the heavier the weights or the more muscle mass you engage), the greater the EPOC.7 In other words, when it comes to EPOC, ‘go heavy or go home’ is the bottom line” (Stevenson). As a national level competive bodybuilder in additon to being a Ph.D, I’d say Dr. Stevenson knows a thing or two about getting jacked.
Beyond just EPOC, there is another key reason why it is important to continue heavy lifting during a diet. Shelby Starnes, competitive bodybuilder and co-owner of Troponin Nutrition, avows that “muscle is the best fat burner.” The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you will burn at rest. If you do not focus on building (or at the very least maintaining) strength levels, on a diet, you will lose strength and subsequently lose muscle mass. Mancini et al. show a clear distinction between muscle atrophy, reduced exercise capacity, and metabolic abnormalities (Mancini). You have to hold onto as much muscle and possible to keep your metabolism elevated.
But I thought you can’t get stronger on a diet? Wrong! While it is true that you will probably not put on significant muscle mass in a caloric deficit, you absolutely can get stronger and gain some muscle, or at least what you’ve got. There are plenty of bodybuilders that do it all the time. The key is that you have to be smart about your diet and you have to believe you can get stronger. If you resign yourself to getting weak, you will. If you commit to getting stronger and fight tooth and nail to do so, you may surprise yourself. Even if you do in fact lose a little bit of strength and muscle in the process, you are still better off than if you drop all lifting from the get go.
Science aside, think of this. The goal is not just to lose weight; the goal is to get “jacked.” Being jacked entails two things: low bodyfat AND a good deal of muscle. There is more to being jacked than simply being lean. Most guys overestimate how much muscle they have and are disappointed when they diet down to see that they basically look like a smaller version of their previous selves. You don’t want to get the dreaded “skinny fat” title.
Lift hard and always have strength as your primary focus of your training. You can never go wrong with strong. Let the diet take care of the fat and add cardio judiciously when needed to augment the strength training, not replace it.
3. Not training legs. I love training legs, but I realize that I am in the minority. For people that train just for the sake of looking good, I can somewhat understand why legs would not be atop the priority list. After all, how often do other people see your legs anyway? And let’s be honest, by the time anyone does, you’ve likely already sealed the deal. But here is how my mind works. What happens if, heaven forbid, you actually do get someone to come home with you? What’s she going to think then? You can’t hide those twigs then buddy.
Even if you don’t care about having muscular legs, you should still train them, and train them, and train them hard. Remember what I was saying about EPOC? Nothing causes an increase in EPOC like a brutal leg day. In Dr. Stevenson’s article, he cites an experiment performed by Mark Schuenke et. al where the researchers have subjects perform 4 sets of 10 reps of back squats to failure with 2 minutes of rest between sets which shows that “metabolism was elevated for at least 38 hours, and the bout generated a whopping estimated EPOC over 700 calories.” (Stevenson). Those 700 calories are just the afterburn. It does not even include the workout itself. Stevenson correctly concludes that you get “a double bang for your training buck.” You would have to do an extra hour of hard cardio to burn those 700 calories. I’d rather not, thank you very much.
It has also been argued that leg training increases muscle growth in the rest of the body. This makes sense when you think about. Unless you are doing isolation movements, leg exercises involve the upper body to a large degree just supporting the weights. Moreover, leg training causes an acute hormonal spike in the body that cannot be matched through other training means. Robert Schwab et. al perform an experiment that shows that there is a significant increase in serum testosterone concentrations following four sets of squats, and the spike is greater with heavier weights (90-95% of 1RM) as opposed to lighter weights (60-65%). These hormonal spikes are systematic so your entire body is affected. Seeing as testosterone has been shown to decrease fat and increase lean muscle (i.e. get you jacked), this is extremely important, especially when you are in a caloric deficit where testosterone levels are often suppressed. Yet another reason to train your legs heavy and hard. You will burn more calories during exercise, increase EPOC, build more overall muscle and burn more bodyfat. It’s really a no brainer.
So just to recap:
-Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to dieting
-Keep the focus of your training on getting stronger above all else. Use the diet and add metabolic work sparingly as needed.
-Train your legs HARD
Follow these steps and I think you will like what you see.
-Dauncey, MJ. “Factors affecting energy metabolism.” Nutrition & Food Science, Vol. 79 Iss: 5, pp: 2 – 4, 1993.
-De Groot, LC, AJ van Es, JM van Raaij, JE Vogt and JG Hautvast. “Adaptation of energy metabolism of overweight women to alternating and continuous low energy intake.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol 50, pp: 1314-1323.
-Kraemer, William, Keijo Häkkinen, Robert U. Newton, Bradley C. Nindl, Jeff S. Volek, Matthew McCormick, Lincoln A. Gotshalk, Scott E. Gordon, Steven J. Fleck, Wayne W. Campbell, Margot Putukian, and William J. Evans. “Effects of heavy-resistance training on hormonal response patterns in younger vs. older men.” Journal of Applied Physiology. Vol. 87, Issue 3, pp: 982-992, September 1999.
-Mancini, DM, G Walter, N Reichek, R Lenkinski, KK McCully, JL Mullen and JR Wilson. “Contribution of skeletal muscle atrophy to exercise intolerance and altered muscle metabolism in heart failure.” Department of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. American Heart Association. Vol 85, 1364-1373
– Schwab, Robert, Glen Johnson, Terry Housh, James Kindler, Joe Weir. “Acute effects of different intensities of weight lifting on serum testosterone.” The American College of Sports Medicine. Volume 25, Issue 12, pp: 1305-1441, December 1993.
-Stevenson, Scott, PhD. “Discover the Afterburn.” Muscle Mag International. May 2010.
-Thornton, Kathleen. “Effects of resistance exercise bouts of different intensities but equal work on EPOC.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
Volume 34, Issue 4, pp: 715-722, April 2002.
-Webb, P and Abrams T. “Loss of fat stores and reduction in sedentary energy expenditure from undereating.” Hum Nutr Clin Nutr. Volume 37, Issue 4, pp:271-82 July 1983.