I’ve been asked many times on how I got my present physique and how one can gain lean mass (LBM) and cut fat mass (BF) — what did I eat? How did I train? What about carbs? Protein bro whattabout protein bro? Along with other various questions relating to fitness and nutrition. The principles behind transforming one’s body are pretty simple, easy to implement, but in a culture of fad diets where carbs are demonized and pseudo-health and fitness advice (i.e. woo and broscience) have become the conventional wisdom, finding accurate, science-based information can be difficult to damn near impossible to discern or trust. So I’ve written this primer for you — it is not meant as an exhaustive guide to dieting or fitness — but a quick overview to get you started. And as always, research and confirm what you read on the internet. Skepticism is your best friend.
My training and nutrition program follows three main principles:
- CICO (Calories In, Calories Out.)
- Flexible Dieting (IIFYM: Calorie restriction, not macro elimination.)
- Progressive Resistance (Weight Training)
I will describe the three principles and other facets relating to them below.
It’s physics. You can’t cheat physics or navigate shortcuts around it. The more you eat and the less you move, you will gain body mass. The less you eat and the more you move, the less body mass you will have. A calorie is a calorie to your body. Your body doesn’t “see” a carb from a potato and “decide” to “get fat.” 100 calories of donuts = 100 calories of almonds. (They are not nutritionally equal of course.) Elimination diets like Atkins, Paleo, etc where a macro, like carbs or foods like processed foods or grains that greatly restricted or eliminated, are diets that have a high failure rate among adherents. When dieting (i.e. cutting) you are in battle to feel satiated — to feel full. This is how you need to think when dieting. Ultimately, one must leverage their eating, and the foods they choose, in pursuit of their goals.
In order to know how much to eat you will need to establish a few things about yourself first.
BMR: Basal Metabolic Rate is the baseline amount of calories you need a day to survive. Your BMR is the calories you burn minus Total Daily Expenditure. (TDEE)
TDEE: This is for all activity including exercise within a day. Vacuuming and folding laundry or cleaning your basement is not exercise but covered under your TDEE. Only exercise is exercise. One hour weight training is exercise. A 5k run is exercise. Do not cheat this number: you can’t cheat exercise.
There are number of online calculators that you can use to establish what our BMR and TDEE is, this is one I happen to like and use:
For example when I enter my numbers in…
- Male, 44, 5’11”, 205 pounds
- Formula: Katch-McCardle BF: 11% (Because I know my BF percentage, otherwise use Mifflin.)
- Exercise 5 times a week. I am returned with these values:
BMR = 2161
TDEE = 3161
2. FLEXIBILE DIETING (IIFYM)
Now that I know what my BMR and TDEE is, I have to come up with a plan, a strategy to lose weight. One method is to subtract 10-15% from my TDEE and only eat to that level of calories thus inducing a calorie deficit. That’s too much math for me, so I use this method instead, I just subtract calories.
While there is some debate over how many calories a pound of fat equals, 3700 seems to work as a pretty good rule of thumb. If I would subtract 500 a day from 3161, I am left with 2,661calories a day to eat for a pound a week loss. For me, that’s really difficult so when I cut, I cut at the rate of -250 calories a day, 2,911, which gives me a half pound loss a week. Much better. People live.
IIFYM is a great for all classes of dieters: the cutters, the bulkers, the maintainers and recompers and is sustainable for a lifetime since it is a strategy — a methodology — of responsible eating predicated upon moderation.
I can eat whatever I want as long as I stay under 2,911 calories a day. Generally, I try to eat as much whole foods as I can. For macros, I concentrate on eating more protein, to help maintain as much muscle mass as possible because while cutting you are not only cutting fat, but some muscle as well. (The other macros, fat and carbs, can be in whatever percents remaining — I really don’t care.) You want to preserve muscle mass, because it is muscle which raises or maintains your metabolism. All the cardio in the world will not help you raise your metabolism, but increasing muscle mass (LBM) will. Sustaining LBM requires more calories to maintain itself at rest.
This is essence of IIFYM. No food or macro elimination, just calorie restriction. I don’t want to make it sound like a panacea, because it can still be difficult to cut (it is for me) but having a glass of wine or bowl of ice cream while cutting can be an enormous relief and motivator to know you are still losing BF while having something that you enjoy. We all have our comfort foods and needs and we can enjoy them as long as we stay under our caloric ceiling.
Because IIFYM is so flexible, and if you must practice macro elimination or reduction — like carbs — go right ahead. In any case, you will still need to stay under your caloric ceiling and remain in a caloric deficit for weight loss to occur.
I do recommend eating all the calories allotted to you in day. You are already eating at decifit and by leaving calories on the table you risk a possible future binge, getting frustrated, and quiting. Binges will still happen, but its important to remember tomorrow is a new day and one binge isn’t the end. Relax.
Caution: Unless medically supervised, do not to attempt to lose MORE than a pound a week. For most of us, it is extreme and dangerous attempting to lose 2 or more pounds a week. Not only will you starve and probably go on epic binges afterwards, you will learn nothing about eating in moderation and you will eventually fail and give up your weight loss goals. I have seen this happen again and again. (And you probably know this first hand.) IIFYM is all about moderation. If you want to do something extreme, I would recommend becoming extremely moderate.
We live in an awesome and incredible age of internet anytime in the palm of our hands. In order to determine how much to eat and what you’ve eaten, you need to add those calories up. With calorie tracker apps, one can also pre-log that days eating before they’ve eaten it to stay consistent and on target.
Some smart phone apps to check out: My Fitness Pal (preferred), My Plate, Calorie Watcher, Lose it!, etc… Just find the one you like, but pick one that allows you to scan in the barcodes of the food you eat with your phone’s camera. After you found the app you like and entered in your calorie goals, track everything! And don’t forget to track the fats you cook with like olive oil and butter.
NOTE: The most accurate and reliable way of tracking food is to weigh all your food with a food scale. Portioning is not as accurate, at least it is something. And always, take the highest calorie count for a food or dish (unless verified), and the lowest calorie burn for an exercise session.
I get asked quite a but about protein shakes. I would only recommend supplementing with a whey protein shake — a broshake — if you can not get enough protein from whole foods throughout the day. (Which is what I have to do.) When cutting you want to hold on to as much LBM as possible, and unfortunately while cutting, you are losing some muscle along with fat. General recommendation for protein dosage is 0.5 to 1.0 grams per pound of Lean Body Mass (LBM). http://examine.com/faq/how-much-protein-do-i-need-every-day.html/
With your remaining calories, eat whatever carbs and fat you want, as long as you stay under your caloric ceiling.
The scale is but one method in tracking your journey, yet as a data-point it can be highly misleading. Your body’s weight can fluctuate as much as 5 pounds in day. (Don’t panic!) I highly recommend investing in a cheap pair of skinfold calipers and use this tool ( http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/how-to-measure-your-body-fat.html
) to figure your body’s ratio of LBM to BF. Measure at the start of your journey and every four to six weeks — since these changes in body composition take longer to register. When checking your weight by scale, do that at the same time, same day, once a week when cutting. Try to keep out as few variables as possible as it will help troubleshoot later if the need should arise.
Weight loss is not linear! You will have weeks of significant weight loss and other weeks you may even gain. (Usually this is excess water.) If you’ve seemingly plateaued, then you may have estimated your TDEE too high, not measured or weighed your food accurately enough, or both. There are no special snowflakes. Trust the process — you can’t cheat physics. How long did it take you to become overweight? Expect the same amount of time, at the very least, to lose it.
NOTE: Avoid BIA (Bioelectric Impedance) scales as they are highly inaccurate. BIA works by measuring resistance of a small current through your body. What you have in your stomach, how much water you’ve drank, the time of day, to what you have or not have eliminated in your body can widely skewer the results.
For just about everybody, supplements are not necessary. In the industrial west, we get plenty of micronutrients in our diet. I would only recommend a multi-vitamin or vitamin supplement if you are in deficit for those micronutrients. For me, I run very close to anemia so I take extra iron and B-12. (I have had a several full blood panels to determine this.) Avoid any supplement with packaging that states “Propriety Blend.” Its a loophole way of cheating you out of what you think you are buying, and I won’t go into the long bloody history of the DSHEA which allows that.
If you have no problems getting enough of your macros through eating whole foods, then you do not need a protein supplement.
Avoid. Complete waste of money. If they burn any calories at all, its probably only a few dozen. Besides, supplement to reduce? Oxymoron. Save your money. Hard work is free.
DETOXES, JUMPSTARTS, DOCTOR OZ
3. PROGRESSIVE RESISTENCE
Cardio is all fine and dandy to burn lots of calories, unfortunately, one is also catabolizing some muscle while one is getting their run on… which is why one needs to lift weights and lift progressively in a program that is sustainable over weeks, months and years. I am not saying give up cardio, just be aware that cardio has its limitations.
Generally, you want to pick a program centered around the major lifts: squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press. These are barbell exercises, not single-joint brocurls like preacher curls or machine leg extensions. In fact, try to avoid any exercise performed on a machine if you can.
Gaining strength in these four lifts will engage more muscle and burn more calories — since they are compound movements — and give you the biggest bang for your buck for your time spent in the gym, and make you a badass as you smash goals and set PRs. (Which is highly rewarding and satisfying.) Not only that, these are functional exercises which can help you in just about everything.
And plan! Look at your schedule, and determine when you can train. You are not just working out, but training. Commit to it. Plan on it.
I am going to assume that most readers are novices so I will recommended novice lifting programs, like Stronglifts or Starting Strength. The principles of weight training, apply to both men and women and from these programs you will how to program for yourself as you progress along.
- Starting Strength (Read the book, do the program, get the app.) Highly recommended and more comprehensive beginning strength training program.
- Stronglifts 5×5 (Get the app to track your sets/reps/progress.)
These programs are premised on what is called “linear progression.” You will gain strength and become a badass.
Who doesn’t want be a badass?
Otherwise, if that’s not your style, find a program on Bodybuilding.com
and download the Bodyspace app and train with that. Shortcut to Shred, Shortcut to Size, Chris Gethin’s Daily Trainer, The Arnold Blueprint are all excellent resources for novices to get their feet wet. The only drawback is that these programs are not progressive weight resistance training programs. You will not build that pure strength over time – but I am a powerlifter and I am highly biased toward progressive lifting. (*** Flexes bicep. ***)
For a little more specialized lifting program for women, women may want to check out:
- Jason Blaha’s Ice Cream Fitness
- Strong Curves: Lift like a Man, look like a Goddess.
NO GYM ACCESS?
Not everyone has time or resources to belong to a gym, in these cases bodyweight training might be the way to go.
Body-weight programming is awesome. With just your body (and an optional pull-up bar), you can build an impressive physique and look badass while doing it.
INTERMEDIATE TO ADVANCED PROGRAMMING
After about a year, your newbie gains will plateau and you will get bored. In that case, take look at Jim Wendlers 5/3/1 which I highly recommend. 5/3/1/ is a periodized progessively linear programm, unlike the linear programs of 5×5 or Starting Strength. I am currently running 5/3/1 after running Giant Robot for a year. I took a five year hiatus from the gym and went back to a linear program to make strength and size gains. Giant Robot is the program I developed and from that I achieved training rep maxes for Bench Press for 225x4x8, Squat 265x4x8, and Deadlift 365x4x8. (Your results will not be the same as mine as I am an older and an experienced lifter… twenty some years and counting.) I am currently writing the full program and will publish it when its primetime.
Whatever you decide to do, always track your sets/reps and workouts. Always. Non-negoitable.
ADVANCED to ELITE PROGRAMMING
If for some reason you’re reading this and you at this level, then you are by far a more advanced of I lifter than I am. While 5/3/1 can be configured for the Advanced and Elite lifter, I would take a look at Brandon’s Lilly Cube, or Mike Kroczaleski Insane Training. I’ve not run either of these programs, but they seem to offer a methodology for that level of lifter (who is probably on gear… lol).
There is a lot of other programming you could follow. DUP, PHUL, and Full body workouts are all the rage now. Google around.
4. RECOMPING, MAINTENANCE, and BULKING
You followed the principles above and as a man you‘ve cut down to 9 to 11% BF or as a woman, you’ve cut down to 15 to 18% BF and now you want to add some muscle to your frame so it’s come time for a bulk.
Bulking is the process of adding more calories to your daily caloric intake so that you are in a calorie surplus. You need to be in a surplus to create new muscle. You want to clean bulk, that is, build muscle without adding to much BF. This is why you added +250 over your maintenance calories. For me that would be 3,411 calories a day. However I found that I needed to eat about a 1,000 calories extra a day and that could have been because I was underestimating my calorie burn with an artificially low TDEE or both. A dirty bulk is any surplus over 250 calories a day.
My 2014-2015 (6 month) bulking results:
- 03-19-2015: 206 lbs, 14.10% bf
- 02-12-2015: 204 lbs, 13.90% bf
- 12-18-2014: 200 lbs, 11.10% bf
- 11-23-2014: 196 lbs, 10.20% bf (Starting Weight)
As of this article, I have since cut down to 11.1% body fat but have been increasing my calories as I am approaching a powerlifting meet. The more calories you eat and the more BF your body contains can really assist your lifts — which is why so many people enjoy bulking.
You get to eat big and lift heavy. I so can’t wait to bulk again. Load up the food ramp!
After I cut down to 10.2% body fat I increased my calories to 4,500 a day bulking. I dropped them down to 3,350 because that’s as low as I could comfortably go after a few weeks of playing with my calories to find the right level. (I had a goal of 9% BF, but lifting as heavy as I do that was not possible. To quote Jim Wendler, you can’t “serve two masters.”) What I decided to do was go into recomp mode.
Recomping is the process of trying to build muscle while losing fat. This is a slower and much harder process to transform your body, but it works.
When you eat at maintenance, you eat at your TDEE and eat back your exercise burn. (At least half of those calories.) You are not trying to build muscle or lose any more body weight. If you are cutting and find that you are cray-cray hungry from your training, try eating half your exercise calories back.
WHAT ABOUT ABS? WHAT ABOUT MY ABS!?!
While you can spot train an area (like triceps) you can not spot reduce an area like doing sit-ups. Abs are made in the kitchen. Caloric deficit will reveal the muscle underneath, which is why bodybuilders use bulk/cut cycles in pursuit of their overall physique goals.
Because you are hacking your body — and hacking your body is not easy — you need to be as methodical and as scientific as possible in pursuit of your goals. You need to track, measure, pinch, record, and take progress pictures. Become a lay expert wary of bullshit and miraculous fitness claims. But most of all, you need to do the work. And work hard. But the harder you work at it, the greater the reward.
If you have any questions or comments (or praise, I will take praise too), please state them in the comments section below.