Almost everyone knows the equation for getting lean and losing fat.
You consume fewer calories, particularly carbohydrates, and increase your activity levels, especially cardio.
This recipe has worked successfully for years and nearly everyone that consistently follows this approach has favorable results.
It is neither the best nor most economical approach. This method has been repeated for years, but we should question it and continue to look for alternative and more effective approaches.
At the end of a day the calories you consume and the activities you perform matter. As long as calories are controlled, there are a lot of different dietary approaches that can work, including ketogenic, paleo, carb cycling or low carb high fat diet.
If we have a bias to any diet approach then we’ve set ourselves up for a harder journey that may not be as successful. One where we optimize our entire environment to meet our end goal can be more successful.
The Key Problems with Extreme Fat Loss Approaches
Your prep coach may follow an approach that sees you slowly raising your cardio while decreasing your carbohydrate intake, except for a few refeed meals. This approach is going to get you lean, if you have enough time. What are some other approaches that can accelerate your results?
Most athletes think they can only get lean by eating less and exercising more. While this approach is effective, it also causes a variety of metabolic problems, including reduced caloric expenditure, as well as hormonal dysregulation, loss of libido, lack of energy and digestive distress1,2,3.
This is a vicious cycle, which just intensifies as the diet continues and often leads to rapid fat regain and digestive discomfort. The aim of this article is to provide you with a few keys that can help you get lean in less time without as much effort.
Remember, the person that has an easier time getting lean retains more muscle. The issue is that we do need to do cardio and we do need to eat fewer calories, but is there a more efficient way of doing it without causing all the negative metabolic consequences?
Adjustment #1: Food Composition Matters
Studies have shown that simply changing the quality of the food you eat leads to faster fat loss regardless of how many calories you consume4. In my opinion, this is a good place to start, but this approach will need to be tweaked towards lower calories as the diet goes on.
Your favorite Instagram follow may post shredded pictures year round and swear they have achieved their physique while eating sugary foods daily. You aren’t that person. You have no idea what was or was not used to get those results. Maybe you’ve tried IIFYM with great success before, but the same problems still hold true.
The longer a diet goes on, the lower your incoming calorie intake. While you could get away with eating a candy bar at the start of your diet, what happens when you have to eat less than 100 grams of carbohydrates per day? Do you really want half of your daily carbohydrates to come from a candy bar?
Satiation is a key factor in the sustainability of a diet. Macronutrient dense foods, such as typical bodybuilding staples like brown rice, sweet potatoes and broccoli, are more filling than a candy bar and these macronutrient dense foods not only fuel your training but help you make it through the rough stretches of your day when your caloric intake is capped.
I will discuss digestion shortly, but macronutrient dense foods are also easier for your body to digest, and are lower in total calories so you can eat more food on a gram to gram basis versus an IIFYM approved food.
Micronutrients also matter. The vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that you get from typical “bro” foods, like chicken breast, salmon, and rice go a long way in fueling your performance and maximize your energy.
Adjustment #2: Use Nutrient Timing
I often feel that physique athletes understand the necessity to eat before and after a workout but don’t grasp just how much nutrient timing plays in body recomposition, losing fat and building muscle.
Carbohydrates pre workout are preferentially used to increase muscle glycogen so you can train harder and for longer. Depletion of muscle glycogen is a key factor in training fatigue so it only makes sense to place a percentage of your daily carbohydrates pre workout.
Post workout carbohydrates have a unique advantage to your workout. Intense training increases translocation of a glucose transporting enzyme, GLUT-4, to the surface of muscle tissue5. This allows your muscle tissue to soak up and use glycogen without the need of your pancreas to release insulin to store that glycogen.
I favor placing at least 50% of your daily carbohydrate intake post workout. One of the reasons that people struggle to get lean is that almost everyone these days is sedentary. Even if you train with weights for an hour, then do another hour of cardio, that’s only 22 hours of a 24-hour day. It’s not enough activity to justify eating the typical amount of carbohydrates that a physique athlete normally eats.
With the exception of that post workout period, you consume carbohydrates in a completely different metabolic environment throughout the day and this places a strain on your pancreas and causes you to release insulin to shuttle glucose around your body.
Again, while calories do matter in fat loss, consider taking advantage of the pre and post workout window if you are struggling with energy to train or want to change your current dietary method.
Adjustment #3: Place More Emphasis on Your Sleep
Not only does your body produce growth hormone during sleep, it also is a time when all of your muscle recovery occurs and inflammation is properly managed6,7. Just one night of impaired sleep quality leads to near diabetic levels of blood sugar and significantly increases cortisol8. While one night of missed sleep is bad enough during contest prep, I’m willing to bet that it’s easier for you to get less sleep than it is more sleep.
If you have trouble getting good quality sleep, follow these suggestions:
- Aim to shut down all tech at least 30 minutes before bed, as the blue light tends to interrupt sleep patterns9.
- Supplement with theanine, a natural calming supplement.
- Set your thermostat between 65-67 degrees, as studies show this is the optimal temperature for hormonal health10.
Adjustment #4: Remove Immunogenic Foods
I’m still surprised that there seems to be backlash from the bodybuilding community to elimination based diets. The goal is to burn fat so we should use every tool possible and by removing foods that are linked with gut inflammation, including diary, soy, corn and gluten, we can achieve that goal faster.
While I would not put any athlete on a gut rebuilding protocol during a contest prep, removing these immunogenic foods has been shown to reduce cortisol, improve insulin health and lower inflammation which itself further reduces cortisol11,12.
Honestly, the typical “bro” bodybuilding diet is very similar to an elimination diet. With some tweaking and reading labels you can optimize your hormone health and drop body fat without bottoming out your total daily calories.
Adjustment #5: Support Proper Digestive Health
Every time I have a discussion with an athlete about digestive support they assume I’m going to recommend a probiotic. While a probiotic supplement is a start, it’s not the end.
By including a diverse selection of gut friendly foods into your diet, like apple cider vinegar (which itself aids in fat loss by improving insulin sensitivity), coconut oil, garlic, bone broth and a variety of green vegetables, you’ll increase your digestive health.
An intense diet with frequent feeding is stressful on your gut and that stress reduces digestion and acts as a stressor on your metabolic system13,14. Removing digestive stress is simply removing another roadblock on your goal to greater fat loss.
Follow this checklist for a more efficient contest prep (or fat loss phase).
- Aim to consume micronutrient rich foods throughout your prep especially as your calories drop.
- Use nutrient timing to get the most out of your workouts and carbohydrates.
- View sleep as an important anabolic aid and develop a nighttime routine.
- Remove immunogenic foods to stabilize your hormones and lower inflammation.
- Include digestive supporting foods for reduced bloating and improved digestive health.
Combine this with reducing calories and bumping up your cardio and you’ll have an easier time prepping, getting lean and retaining muscle.
- Evidence for the existence of adaptive thermogenesis during weight loss
- Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation:nutrition and supplementation
- Anabolic and catabolic hormones and energy balance of the male bodybuilders during the preparation for the competition.
- Comparison of Selected Micronutrient Intakes Between Flexible Dieting and Strict Dieting Bodybuilders
- Exercise, GLUT4 and skeletal muscle glucose uptake
- Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep
- Sleep Loss and Inflammation
- The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones and Metabolism
- Timing of light exposure affects mood and brain circuits
- Sleep and Metabolism: An Overview
- Stress Induces Endotoxemia and Low-Grade Inflammation By Increasing Barrier Permeability
- Causes and consequences of low grade endotoxemia and inflammatory diseases
- Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options.
- Stress and the gastrointestinal tract.