Bringing It To The Next Level

the-next-level3

I started my fitness journey in 2002. I wasn’t taking measurements at the time, but I seem to recall typically weighing somewhere around 185 – 190lbs. I had no muscle development, so even at a fairly low scale weight I was noticeably out of shape.

Armed with zero knowledge I did what a lot of people do; I purchased a treadmill and started eating less. The thing with me is that I am very disciplined. I set up a running schedule and stuck to it. The weight started to melt off and at first I felt pretty good. Long story short, I ended up somewhere around 162lbs – leaner, but still no muscle definition. I was starting to look emaciated. Definitely not the look I was going for.

This is when I became passionate about learning everything I could about bodybuilding fitness, nutrition, and supplementation. I purchased a Bowflex and started a strength training program. Soon after I hired an online coach and joined a real gym. Since then I’ve experimented with countless nutrition and training programs. Some were successful. Some were not. But I learned something each time.

Fast forward to today. I just ended my latest experiment – a program called the ABCDE diet. The gist of this diet is to take the typical bodybuilding bulk / cut cycle and shorten it to two intervals. The science behind this was interesting. In theory insulin sensitivity should remain pretty good as you are not going for weeks with high carbs and the aggressive 2-weeks cuts should offset any loss in sensitivity. The first round went ok. I gained ½ lb of lean mass and lost 1 lb of fat. However, the following 2-week bulk turned into a disaster. I gained 10 lbs of what appeared to be mostly fat / water.

One the best tools in tracking progress is periodic photos.  Fortunately (or maybe unfortunate) I have a set of photos from July 2014 where I am in fantastic shape.  The brutal reality is that I have not only failed to progress since then, I’ve actually taken a couple of steps backward.

I’m now at a point where the “experiments” need to come to an end. I have collected plenty of data that should start to paint a picture of what works for me and what doesn’t.  So I’ve combed my nutrition, training, and measurement logs looking for the best proven methods.

Here is my plan:

  • Get lean and stay lean. No more “bulking” under any circumstances.
  • Once truly lean (abs fully visible), slowly add calories, no more than +200 calories per week, while keeping close track of composition changes.
  • Incorporate mini 2-week diets any time my waist measurement goes above 32”.
  • Use a calorie / carb cycling diet where at least two days per weeks are below 100gm of carbs.
  • I seem to respond best to high frequency training. Therefore, I will be using a slightly modified version of a program called Fortitude Training. This is basically an intense 4-day full body training program. On day 5 I’ll train calves, abs, and do high intensity intervals (sled runs).
  • At least two steady state cardio sessions per week – adjusted as needed.

My best guess is that I’ll achieve the getting lean part of the goal by the end of March. I’ll probably end up somewhere around 178lb. My goal is to be 195lb at the same level of leanness, so I’ll have a lot of work ahead. The idea is to slowly build on this base in a steady and systematic manner.

Breaking Through Fat Loss Plateaus – Part 2

hormone balanceIn Part 2 of this article we’ll discuss the major hormones that control metabolism.

Now that we have re-examined the fundamental dietary guidelines for fat loss, let’s take a look at the role our hormones play in this area.  Hormones are generally tightly controlled by various receptors and feedback loops.  Our bodies are continuously trying to achieve a state of homeostasis or a stable and relatively unchanging environment.  Unfortunately this often goes against our fat loss objectives.

Furthermore, our body’s production and sensitivity to various hormones is highly individualistic.  Collectively these individual nuances make up our “metabolism” or the rate in which we utilize food for energy.  Those with a fast metabolism use nutrients inefficiently while those with slower metabolism are more efficient.  Many years ago an effeinct metabolism would allow one to survive longer periods of famine.  Today, this efficiency is more of a hindrance than a blessing.

However, if you have slower metabolism don’t be too discouraged.  The difference between “fast” and “slow” is real, but not as dramatic as you may suspect.  Those with fast metabolism also often have the benefit of smaller appetites (yes, I know, it’s unfair).  Although you will only remember the day that you witnessed your supper lean friend eating an entire box of donuts, more than likely he typically eats less than you on a weekly basis.

Long periods of hypocaloric dieting lead to metabolic stress.  When dieting is also accompanied by long bouts of cardio, this stress is magnified.  The four hormones that are most affected by an aggressive fat loss program are thyroid, cortisol, insulin, and leptin.

Please note there are no “bad” hormones.  All are needed and have very important life sustaining properties.  Hormones also work in conjunction with one another and are carefully controlled by various feedback loops and “sensors” within our bodies.

So what happens when calories are too low for too long.  Basically this sets off a series of events.  How these events roll out is somewhat dependent on your current level of dietary carbohydrate and your overall insulin sensitivity.  As you may be aware, insulin is our main storage hormone.  What most are not aware is that is also plays many important roles in fat loss such as kick-starting a series of positive reactions after a properly timed cheat meal or producing anti-catabolic conditions essential to preserving lean mass.  Again, no hormones are inherently bad.  The amount and timing of their release is what causes either positive or negative fat loss results.

I was originally going to do a review of a few select hormones, how they work, and their effect on fat loss.  However, my research was getting fairly complicated and as mentioned earlier, these hormones have different effects depending on the body’s state and the level of other hormones.  So, instead let’s look at a couple of key areas along with some simple steps to help improve your body’s hormonal balance.

Insulin sensitivity
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to benefit overall fat loss, or to remain lean, is to improve insulin sensitivity.  Insulin sensitivity refers to the amount of insulin required to bring blood glucose levels to normal levels after eating.  Our bodies cannot mobilize fat (make it available as fuel) while insulin levels are high.  People with high insulin sensitivity require very little insulin to shuttle glucose and other nutrients into cells.  Therefore, their average daily insulin level remains relatively low and they are able to easily access fat stores for energy.  Conversely, those that are insulin resistant have a hard time using fat as fuel.  So, to be clear, there is generally no issue with insulin itself, it is more our sensitivity to it’s effects that causes issue with fat loss.

So what can be done to improve insulin sensitivity?

1) Control the overall level, type, and timing of carbohydrate intake.  Generally, you will want to keep carbs at 40% or less of your total caloric intake.  This still allows for plenty of good nutritious carbs without causing too much of an insulin response.  Next, try to get most your carbs from vegetables, fruits, and some whole grains.  Eliminate junk, sugar, and other high glycemic carbs.  Finally, our bodies are more insulin sensitive in the morning and particularly after training.  These are the ideal times to consume most of your carbs.

2) Do strength training and cardio.  Not only does training utilize blood glucose, it also makes cells more sensitive to insulin by affecting the enzymes that control insulin signaling (basically the cell’s transporters of nutrients).

more-sleep-less-stress2Reduce stress / Sleep better
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone”, but it is actually one of the most misunderstood hormones in our bodies.  It plays an important role in the metabolism of carbs, fat, and protein.  Cortisol also affects our immune system, thyroid output, hunger, cravings, and overall ability to mobilize fatty acids.

However, the correct amount of cortisol at the right times can actually aid in fat loss.  When insulin is low and growth hormone is elevated, cortisol works it magic by aggressively mobilizing fat.  This condition is set up perfectly during deep sleep.  In fact, some cutting edge nutritionists will recommend prolonging breakfast a few hours in order to maintain this ideal fat burning state.

As with insulin, the idea is to balance our cortisol output and allow our bodies to work for us instead of against us in our fat loss efforts.  Here are some suggestions:

1) Relax!  We live in a fast paced world.  Our bodies can adapt to a tremendous amount of stress.  Unfortunately, cortisol is a key ingredient in these adaptations.  Spend 10-20 minutes each night winding down without the TV before bed.  Get things out of your head and into a system.  I highly recommend the book Getting Things Done by David Allen.  You don’t need to incorporate his entire system, but the basic idea of getting things out of your head and prioritized into a calendar / task list can go a long way in reducing stress.

Long walks, yoga, meditation, etc. — these are all great relaxation techniques.  Do what you can, when you can.  Just realize how important reducing stress is to your fat loss goals and overall health.

2) Improve your sleep.  Start by simply going to bed earlier.  Read in bed with minimal light and no TV.  This may be tough at first, but once your body gets used to it, you will fall asleep faster and get more nightly rest.  There are literally books on this topic, so I won’t go into much detail here.  Again, just know that 7+ hours of quality sleep is an important part of a successful fat loss plan.

I am considering a part 3 to this article in which I’ll talk a little more about two specific dietary “tricks” and a few select supplements that may be helpful in your fat loss efforts.  For now, I hope the first two parts provided at least one or two helpful tips.  Remember, reading and educating yourself on fat loss is important, but it is useless unless you take ACTION.

Please feel free to post questions about this article (or anything fitness related) on the Physique Reality Facebook page.

Breaking Through Fat Loss Plateaus – Part 1

breaking-brickNote: This article is for those that have carefully followed a well designed fat loss program for at least 8 weeks. If you are new or are simply getting back on track, please review this article: Fat Loss 101

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Hypocaloric diet – check. Adequate protein – check. 3 to 5 days of strenuous strength training – check. 1 or 2 days of HIIT – check. In other words you’re doing everything right, yet the fat loss has stalled. What do you do?

As I’ve mentioned in the past, fat loss is largely driven by nutrition. So with that said, let’s take a step back and reexamine all aspects of your diet. Are you truly eating exactly what your plan outlines? How many meals per week are you deviating from your plan? Are you missing meals?

Next, is the plan properly designed? Keep in mind that as you lose weight your total daily caloric needs decrease. Does the plan include adequate healthy fats? If you’re using a low carbohydrate diet, are you periodically refeeding to help your body restore the key hormones that control metabolism?

Most likely there are minor improvements, especially compliance, that can be made with your current plan. If that is the case, recommit to diligently following your plan and reassess things again after a couple of weeks.

Moving on let’s assume that you truly have stalled and that compliance with your program is around 95%. If you are already 15-20% below TDEE (your daily caloric requirement including activity) then reducing calories further is not the answer. In fact, you may find after reexamining the situation that you are actually under-eating. Most researches will argue that short of 72+ hours of fasting, there is simply no way a caloric deficit will cause a weight loss plateau. Perhaps they’re right, but there are too many anecdotal reports of this happening to completely ignore the situation.

So, let’s start again at the beginning by recalculating your caloric needs and macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats). Go here and carefully input your information into the form: IIFYM Calculator. I find that this calculator is very close for males, but slightly overstates the calorie requirement for most females. If you are female, choose the “aggressive” option. Males weighing less than 200lb, please change the protein requirement to 1gm per pound. If your job does not require you to be on your feet most of the day, be sure to select sedentary. If your workouts are more along the lines of typical strength training, females should select light intensity and males moderate intensity. The more intense options are reserved for CrossFit and endurance athletes. Don’t be insulted by this. We’re simply talking about caloric expenditure, not the pros and cons of moving heavy ass weight vs conditioning drills.

Ok, after double checking everything on the form take a look at the bottom of the page to see your total daily caloric requirement along with the appropriate carb, protein, and fat allocations. My guess is that this is probably higher than your current total. So, you’ll likely think I’m crazy when I tell you we need to move back toward this amount. But, yes, this is what needs to happen to get things rolling again. Don’t make any large changes overnight. Instead add 100 calories per week until you get to the new calorie level. Be sure to bring both your total calories and macronutrient amounts inline.

After playing with the IIFYM calculator, let me know if you have questions about the numbers. If you like, I’d be willing to take a look at your diet plan and IIFYM calculations and help you make modifications.

This concludes Part 1 of this article. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll discuss the major hormones that control metabolism and what we can do to help them stay at healthy levels in spite of the stresses associated with a fat loss program.

Allison’s fall / winter update

For the last couple of months Allison has been predominately focused on strength gains.  As I mentioned in my last article : Seasonal Adjustments to Diet and Training, it is not ideal to focus continuously on fat loss and conditioning.  She has build a very strong foundation that we hope to push a little further during the month of December.  Starting January she will slowly switch gears and start incorporating more conditioning work.  At this point her diet will also slowly shift toward a little less carbs and fewer calories.  The idea here is to move gradually from lean gains to fat loss.

Allison 2014-12-01 - 8 Lateral raise (front)

Allison 2014-12-01 - 4 Bicep curl (back)

Allison 2014-12-01 - 7 Lateral raise (back)

Seasonal Adjustments to Diet and Training

seasonsEverything has a cycle. This is a natural part of life. One sure way to stall on a physique development program is to not respect the need for periods of growth, rest, and recovery. In other words, intense strength training, daily cardio, and calorie restriction can only go on for so long before the body slows it’s response (adapts) or the high level of stress causes the immune system to weaken.

Don’t get me wrong. Our bodies are very resilient. Most people can train and diet hard for 16 – 20 weeks before they really get burned out. However, after these intense periods it is best to change focus. The goal is always to make progress, but progress can be measured in different ways whether that be removing inches from your waist, increasing the size of your lateral delts, or simply adding pounds the barbell.

Power lifters call it periodization. Bodybuilders and physique competitors refer to it as “off season” and “contest preparation” phases. The basic idea is that training and diet are cycled in order to achieve optimum results.

Interestingly, each cycle sets up the ideal environment for the next. After a period of intense dieting our bodies are primed to grow. Insulin sensitivity is very good at this point so when calories are ramped up the additional nutrients are shuttled preferentially to muscle vs fat tissue.

The opposite is also true. A period of higher calories provides the fuel necessary to kick strength gains into a new gear. As the body gets accustomed to a higher caloric intake our metabolism speeds up. This in turn sets up the ideal conditions to start a new cutting phase.

Now there are a few caveats. First, the total caloric change should not be too extreme. Second, the weekly change should be gradual. In other words, don’t go from eating 700 kcal below maintenance to 500 over in one week. Ramp up slowly over a few weeks and continue to monitor composition to see how the changes effect your body. Scale weight should be ignored during the first few weeks of a transition, but tape measurements still hold value.

Keep in mind that these cycles are not just dietary. Training needs to be adjusted as well. There should be a specific and quantifiable goal for each phase. To keep things simple, let’s assume the goal of our gaining phase is an increase in lean muscle and the goal of our cutting phase is to shed body fat.

From a programming perspective I would manipulate the major variables as follows:

Gaining Phase Cutting Phase
Total caloric intake Gradually raise Gradually lower
Carbohydrate intake Gradually raise Gradually lower
Strength Training Volume High Low
Strength Training Frequency 4 or 5 days 3 days
Strength Training Rep Range 8 to 20 4 to 8
Circuit / Metabolic Training None 1 or 2 days
Cardio Volume 5 to 8 min (intense) 20 to 50 min (low intensity)
Cardio Frequency 1 or 2 days Ramp to daily or 2x

This is a rather simplistic breakdown and there would of course be varying degrees of “high” and “low”. But the overall concept should be clear.

Finally, cycling diet and training is not an excuse to pig out or to skip workouts. As stated, goals change during each phase. But there still must be measurable progress. Take full advantage and become completely committed to the goals of each phase. It is easy to get stuck in one particular aspect of development, but continual improvement in multiple areas is the only way to achieve your ideal physique.

Muscle Rounds / Power Hooks

I wanted to post this video to show two things.  The first is the dumbbell hooks that I’m using.  They are called Power Hooks and they allow you to rack your dumbbells on a standard olympic bar.  If you’ve done pressing work with heavy dumbbells, you’ll understand when I say that getting the dumbbells from the floor to your shoulders is sometimes more work than the set itself.  These hooks are a great tool and relatively inexpensive.  Highly recommended.

You can’t see the olympic bar in the video, but it is simply on the hooks in the cage.  Here’s a photo of how they attach to the bar:

power-hooks

The second purpose of the video is to show a lifting technique called muscle rounds.  These can be preformed a couple of ways.  The way I’m doing them in this video is based on Scott Stevenson’s Fortitude Training program.  Basically you choose a weight you can handle for about 8 reps.  Unrack and preform 4 reps.  Rack the weight and take 5 deep breadths.  Then, proceed to do five more sets.  On the sixth set do as many reps as possible.  If you chose the correct weight, you will get 3 to 5 reps (I got 8 reps on the last set, so I started to low.)  The next time you do the exercise the goal is to get at least one more rep or increase the load.

 

 

Allison’s 12-Week Progress Photos

Allison’s been training diligently for a little over a year.  This is just a 12-week snap shot of her progress.  She has shown some very nice composition improvement over this period – very impressive!  The recent picture of her back really illustrates her remarkable progress.

allison-3-23-2014-front May 23, 2014

allison-3-23-2014-back May 23, 2014

allison-8-4-2014-front August 4, 2014

allison-8-4-2014-back August 4, 2014

100 Rep Challenge

I’m not claiming to have invented this.  100-rep-challengeThere are a number of 100 rep workouts out there.  However, most are structured a little differently than what I’m about to outline.

Probably the most well known 100 rep routine is German volume training (GVT).  When doing this workout you pick one main lift and perform 10 sets of 10 repetitions.  GVT calls for loads that are approximately 60% of your 1-RM.  So, if your 1-RM on the bench press is 300lb, you would use 180lb.

My version is meant to be done for only two weeks.  It is more intense are uses loads of approx. 75% of 1-RM.  So again, taking 300lb 1-RM as an example, the lifter would use 225lb for this challenge.  There are no sets or rest periods defined.  You are free to organize the workouts however you like.  The only requirement is that you achieve 100 clean, full range of motion, repetitions.

 

WEEK 1

Workout 1: Bench press – Bar must lightly touch you chest on each rep.

Workout 2: Weighted pull-up (neutral grip) – Use a dipping belt.  Arms completely extended on eccentric / chin above hands on concentric.

Workout 3: Deadlift – Straight or Trap bar.  Move to singles if form starts to break.

WEEK 2

Workout 4: Overhead press –  Press to the front.  Bar must go below your chin on each rep.

Workout 5: Barbell curls – No sway.  Bar lightly touches thighs on each rep.

Workout 6: Barbell squat – Full range (thighs touch calves).

 

Do workouts 1 – 3 on the first week and 4 – 6 on the second week.  If you decide to train more than three times these weeks (not recommended), make it very light and lean more toward a conditioning type workout.

That’s it.  This is short two week challenge that will work great just before starting a new routine.

The Rock’s Hercules Diet – Lite

therock-hercules-dietI came across this a few weeks ago.  This is the diet Dwayne Johnson used to prepare for his role as Hercules.  After reviewing the diet I was very impressed with the food choices and macronutrient breakdown and was inspired to create my own version: Hercules Diet – Lite.

The diet on the right totals 5,240 kcal with 508 gm carbs, 507 gm protein, and 128 gm fat.  Obviously I am no where near the size of The Rock.  He also trained twice per day and was on the set 12 hours each day.  I made a couple of minor modifications to better fit my needs.  My scaled back version incorporates a small amount of fruit, some coconut oil (my favorite source of fat), avocado, and peri-workout nutrition supplementation.

Although the goal of this diet is to gain lean mass, I am also continuing to incorporate low calorie / intermittent fasting days.  Currently these are Thursadays and Sundays.

Here is the complete breakdown of Hercules Diet – Lite:

HIGH CALORIE DAYS cal carb protein fat
Meal 1: 8:30am
1 tbs coconut oil (7:00am) 120 16
3 gm fish oil 10 3
8 oz grass fed ground beef (90%) 388 48 24
4 egg whites 88 20
onion / pepper / mushroom 16 4
½ oz raisins 42 11
1 lg. banana 128 31 1
1 cup oatmeal 308 56 12 6
1,100 102 81 49
Meal 2: 12:00pm
8 oz chicken breast 248 50 3
1 gm coconut oil 9 1
1 cup white rice 205 45 4
4 oz avocado 180 8 4 16
1 cup broccoli 31 6 3
673 59 61 20
Meal 3: 2:30pm  
8 oz talapia 216 45 4
1 gm coconut oil 9 1
1 cup white rice 205 45 4
1 cup asparagus 27 5 3
457 50 52 5
Meal 4: 3:45pm → 5:30pm
80 gm (30 pre / 40 intra / 10 post) 320 56 24
8 oz talapia 216 45 4
1 gm coconut oil 9 1
1 cup white rice 205 45 4
1 cup asparagus 27 5 3
777 106 76 5
Meal 5: 7:00pm
8 oz chicken breast 248 50 3
3 gm organic butter 27 3
12 oz baked potato 312 72 12
1 cup broccoli 31 6 3
618 78 65 6
       
Meal 6: 8:30pm
1 scoop casein 113 1 25 1
8 egg whites 176 40
1 gm organic butter 9 1
onion / pepper / mushroom 16 4
314 5 65 2
       
TOTALS 3,939 400 400 87
40% 40% 20%
LOW CALORIE DAYS cal carb protein fat
Meal 1: 1:30pm
1 tbs coconut oil (7:00am) 120 16
3 gm fish oil 10 3
8 oz grass fed ground beef (90%) 388 48 24
onion / pepper / mushroom 16 4
4 egg whites 88 20
622 4 68 43
Meal 2: 3:30am
8 oz chicken breast 248 50 3
1 gm coconut oil 9 1
1 cup broccoli 31 6 3
288 6 53 4
Meal 3: 6:30pm  
8 oz halibut 248 48 8
1 gm coconut oil 9 1
1 cup asparagus 27 5 3
284 5 51 9
Meal 4: 8:30pm
1 scoop casein 113 1 25 1
8 egg whites 176 40
1 gm organic butter 9 1
onion / pepper / mushroom 16 4
314 5 65 2
       
TOTALS 1,508 20 237 58
5% 61% 34%

I plan on sticking with this diet for at least six weeks.  However, I will carefully monitor my body composition and make some adjustments if body fat starts to creep up.

Charleen’s Transformation (so far …)

A picture speaks a thousands words.  Well, how about two pictures:

IMG_0551 September 2012

photo July 2014

Charleen will be the first to tell you that this journey is not over. She has worked very hard to achieve these results and is committed to a new lifestyle that will ultimately allow her to achieve her ideal physique. It’s Charleen’s consistency and persistence that been integral to this success.

Congratulations on this phase of your journey!