Some individuals like to look good so they can walk around without a shirt on, while others are trying to impress a significant other with a great body! On the other hand, you also have those who are preparing for a spring/summer bodybuilding show. They committed to a long-term cutting plan and need to bring a complete package of symmetry, size, and conditioning to impress the judges and bring home hardware.
In this article I am going to cover three major aspects which I feel are very important when trying to bring yourself into the best possible shape. There is a lot of false information on the web when it comes to fat loss and cutting.
I am going to give you my stance on what you can do to carve a better body. Let's first go over the three major topics:
- Dropping calories.
- Amount of cardio.
- Proper weight training while dieting.
As we go through this article I will give you my advice on the things to do and the things NOT to do regarding your diet. These tips will especially help if you want to stay on course for a good 16-20 weeks and maximize results.
Fat Loss 101: Calories, Cardio and Training
1) Dropping Calories and Entering into a Caloric Deficit
The phrase "patience is a virtue" comes into play when we talk about dropping calories while trying to lean up and hold onto as much mass/size as possible. The first thing people think about when trying to lose weight is: let's just drop a ton of calories, stay in a major caloric deficit, and I will lose a bunch of weight.
Not so fast my friend. This is actually a recipe for disaster. Dropping calories way too quickly can cause a slowing of the metabolism that will actually backfire on the individual. They will have no more room to drop calories because of how low their calories already are. This will make cutting more difficult than it already is.
Let's take for example someone starting a prep for a bodybuilding show, and they want to drop 1000 calories right out of the gate. Assuming they start at 3000 calories as their maintain level, this leaves them around 2000 daily calories. This is too much of a drop. In reality if they had just knocked off 200 daily calories or so they would slowly see results.
Taking a huge caloric drop right from the start of a cutting diet will trigger a faster drop in T3, leptin, and hormone levels. Eventually the body will get used to the huge drop. Now during the coming 4 months when it comes time to make adjustments, you have little left to give. Your metabolism has already slowed to a greater extent then what it should be.
When calories are so low what else can you resort to besides adding cardio? Nothing. Your energy levels will soon be shot and you will feel constantly fatigued. You will start second-guessing your overall goal because you feel terrible. It won't be long until you regret trying to lose fat in the first place.
You will also see many people think: let's drop all my carbs, eat a decent amount of protein and I will instantly see weight loss. While this will work to an extent, there will be diminishing returns. The plan will backfire, and your metabolism will slow. The individual will not longer see a weight loss at the rate they are looking for.
Dropping a lot of carbohydrates will get rid of a lot of water (each gram of carb digested will hold 3 grams of water). So you can see the case for a low carb/keto diet as it can result in a significant drop in weight right away. But let's also factor in the individuals who diet well on a higher carb/lower fat diet (depending on how their energy, mood, and overall strength holds up in the gym).
Patience is a virtue. This is key! Setting your caloric limit as high as possible while slowly losing weight is the overall goal. Giving yourself adequate calories, micronutrients, and fuel to your body will help keep hormone levels, thyroid levels, and T3 levels high while dieting which will help keep the metabolism turning and aid in a more successful cut for holding onto lean mass.
As calories drop and get to critically low levels, all three of those things above (Hormones, T3, and thyroid levels) will also drop. Some individuals will even experience a drop in testosterone levels, sinking into low ranges after finishing contest prep. I have even seen individuals who have had to get on medical treatment to get their levels back into range because of how much the diet played on their overall hormone/testosterone levels from prolonged dieting.
Let's take for example Susie, who will begin a diet for her figure show in 16 weeks.
What things should she factor?
- How much weight she has to lose or thinks she has to lose to get into good shape.
- How much time she has given herself to rev up her metabolism.
- How much muscle mass she has, and how much lean body mass she may have when she is done dieting.
- What diet works best for her (higher carbs or higher fats with moderate protein).
- How much cardio she is currently doing.
She will start at 2500 calories.
- After 2 weeks she found she lost 1.5 pounds which is a good rate of loss.
- After the 3rd week she stalled so she drops calories by 100 per day.
- After the 4th week she stalls again so she adds 10-15 minutes of walking to help burn extra calories.
- After 8 weeks she has had to drop calories 3 times and increase cardio twice due to stalls.
- After 12 weeks she implemented a 2nd reefed day to help keep her hormones, T3, and leptin levels up, but overall calories are now down to 2000.
And the cycle will continue and continue. As you can see, taking things SLOW is the way to cut.
One note I want to add. After going through multiple contest preps I have learned that some weeks the scale will stall, but strength/mood/energy will all be fine. And looking in the mirror you appear leaner. These are moments where you ask yourself what if I keep things the same and ride them out for another week? These are key decisions that you have to make on your own, or that need to be made by your contest prep coach in order to continue success.
So you can see that long term dieting can take a toll on an individual’s body, and that taking is slower is the better way to go. Chipping away at your weight with a rate of 0.5 to 1.5lbs per week (depending on how heavy you are starting) would be a good gage of losing weight while trying to preserve as much lean body mass as possible.
2) Weight Training to Preserve Lean Mass
The common myth associated with training while dieting is: increased reps, more volume, and add glycogen depleting workouts to help me lose weight faster. These are the wrong ways to approach training while cutting, and can lead to a lot more harm than good. Performing nothing but high-rep or hypertrophy workouts will cause more harm because you are simply expanding more glycogen and only activation type II Muscle fibers (also known as fast twitch).
What are Type II or fast twitch muscle fibers? They are much better at generating short bursts of strength or speed than slow twitch muscle fibers. However, they fatigue more quickly. Fast twitch fibers generally produce the same amount of force per contraction as slow muscles (Type I), but they get their name because they are able to fire more rapidly. So in other words, we are negating lifting heavy and recruiting the other major muscle fibers in our body, which will make it difficult to hold onto lean mass while dieting.
What am I getting at here? It's important to utilize both sides of training (heavy and hypertrophy) because they each have benefits and can help you obtain/maintain lean muscle mass.
Training heavy while dieting is the most important thing you can do. Why you may ask? Heavy training can increase your overall capacity for muscular growth through significant strength gains. So in essence high tension stimulus that builds muscle is the exact same high tension stimulus that will maintain muscle mass when you’re dieting.
My suggestion as far as training for a show, especially if you are dieting over the course of 16 weeks, would be:
Alternate heavy workouts and hypertrophy workouts training at least 4-5x a week. (Think upper/lower 4x a week or a PHAT (Power–Hypertrophy routine) to get the best of both worlds.
Your first two days would focus on compound movements using a lower rep range. Later in the week use higher rep workouts while still leaving a rep or two in the tank. This will help to prevent CNS strain that can come from training to failure, especially in a caloric deficit where recovery is less existent.
As contest prep does continue (Think about half way through or later) And cardio is slowly ramping and calories drop something has to give to help combat recovery. This is where I would suggest lowering leg day volume as cardio increases. Think about the strain on your legs and the increased movement on your legs and effort it will take to recover with the little amount of calories you are eating and how the mental strain of trying to sleep gets harder and harder.
Here's a tip: be smart and LISTEN to your body. If you need more recovery time, dropping leg day volume or even an exercise may be wise. This could compensate for the amount you burn through cardio.
So let's look at the big picture now. Can you guess what happens to muscle mass when you reduce weight on the bar and focus on higher reps and shorter rest intervals? When you remove the high-tension (heavy training) stimulus, you remove the signal to build (or in the case of dieting, maintain) muscle mass.
Without the high-tension stimulus of heavy training, the body simply has no reason to maintain muscle mass. The take-home message is: always incorporate HEAVY training regardless of dieting or offseason training.
3) Too Much Cardio!
If your weight loss begins to stall there are two things you can do:
- Increase cardio.
- Decrease calories.
While there is a law of diminishing returns for both of these, dieting is about finding the balance between food intake and cardio; one that keeps you in that sweet spot of losing .75-1.5 pounds per week! Again, let's look at the big picture. Dieting is about an overall caloric deficit over a weekly basis. We take the amount of calories we burn in a given week and strive to eat fewer calories than that number.
Now that we understand how to balance cardio and calories, let's look at the two different types of cardio. LISS (Low Intensity Steady State) and HIIT (High Intensity Steady State) are the two major forms of cardio.
LISS refers to those long walks we have on the treadmill for prolonged periods of time at a lower intensity (such as walking at 3.5 mph). Just enough to start breaking a sweat, but not fast enough to prevent you from holding a conversation with somebody next to you.
So what is the advantage of LISS cardio, and how does it help someone who is dieting? Well for one, LISS helps burn calories. The more time you spend on the treadmill, the more calories you burn for the week, the easier it is to get below your caloric balance level.
LISS cardio is also tapping fat reserves. Those who are forced to lose fat on fewer calories per day will thrive off of this because they are not expanding much glycogen compared to the amount of glycogen HIIT cardio will deplete you of. Therefore, those on lower carbs can utilize this type of cardio because carbohydrates are not their primary fuel source and will not be tapping glycogen reserves, which those who are eating higher carbs will be able to hold. There will come a time in most individual's contest prep where carbs are so low that they have nothing else to pull from because their protein and fat levels are already at, or below, what is recommended (1-2g/lb for protein and around 20-30% Fats).
HIIT cardio, on the other hand, involves interval training which can be done in multiple ways. Most people will utilize a stationary bike or elliptical. Some will even venture into sprinting on a hill, pushing a car, or pushing a sled. Interval training is broken up into 15-20 seconds of all out intensity and energy expenditure, followed by 45-40 seconds recovery (LISS speed).
What advantages does HIIT provide over LISS cardio? First of all, interval training leads to greater fat loss and occurs despite smaller caloric burns (due to HIIT sessions being around 10-20 minutes). The reason being that interval training generates a much larger EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) which leads to an increase in the amount of net calories burned post exercise, and into the next 24 hours after finishing your HIIT session.
Research has also shown that interval training may improve the muscle’s ability to use fat as the primary fuel source, given the individual has adequate carbohydrates in their diet. This is necessary due to the increased use of glycogen resulting from bouts of interval training.
HIIT cardio can be harder to recover from due to the amount of strain placed on your legs and the ability of them to recover. HIIT cardio could be considered a leg workout; sprint up the side of a hill 20 times in a given session and you will experience some leg pain. Individuals whgo are dieting for a contest would find it beneficial to start cutting volume on their leg days in that given week to compensate for the amount of overall volume/strain caused by the addition of HIIT cardio into their routine.
My suggestion would be to implement a few LISS cardio sessions, say 2-3 thirty minute sessions. After the first caloric drop or cardio increase, slowly bump cardio to 3-4 sessions a week. The next move after this is 4-5 times a week at 30 minutes. After this I would implement one HIIT cardio day on an off day (from weight training), and spaced away from leg day if possible (to help with recovery on your legs).
The most cardio sessions I've ever used was two 15 Intervals HIIT sessions and 5 LISS sessions of 45 minutes each. This was during my first contest prep, and cardio was high primarily because I had to drop well over 30 pounds to get into shape and look decent.
My second contest prep I only used LISS Cardio, no HIIT at all, because I only had to drop 15 pounds to get into shape. So this goes back to my first point on how you need to factor in how much you have to lose and what it will take to get into shape. My second contest prep was a much easier diet. My recovery/strength did not suffer as much as my first prep and I looked more vascular, fuller, and thicker on stage than my first go around due to starting prep a lot leaner (a major mistake I made)
So what are the wise choices for dieting? Should I focus more on higher reps or lower reps? Should I do more HIIT cardio or LISS cardio? Well BOTH! Implementing hypertrophy and strength training along with LISS and HIIT cardio while keeping calories as high as possible is the smartest route to go. Remember “Rome was not build overnight” and “Patience is a virtue.” These are two quotes to swear by as you continue your quest towards your dream physique!
When stalls happen there are a few factors we can consider: dropping calories, adding in cardio, or staying on the same course, depending on the mirror and what it may do to us in the future. There are many more aspects we could touch upon regarding refeeding, cheat meals, and diet breaks, but I will save that for another article.
It is odd to think that I could go gorge out on Perkins breakfast foods on a day off from training, look my best the next day and a few days later lose a pound. The same can be said with refeeding on higher carbs while dropping protein and fat levels to help increase T3, leptin, metabolism, and hormone levels to our advantage.
excellent informative article that covered everything I needed to know
well written and based on sound facts
Hi Bob, great informational article!
I just started on my cut, gained 14 lbs and the mirror tells me that a nice part of it is muscle mass. Off course my fat percentage has risen also, but that's why I'm starting to cut.
My question is:
When do I start doing cardio and how do I minimize muscle loss? This is quite an issue for me and I'm afraid of doing cardio and starting to see that I'm losing muscle mass.
Should I do cardio on rest days or after workouts?
Should I fill the calories I burned with cardio to compensate for muscle loss?
Right now I'm having a Harris Benedict bmr of 3000 so I'm planning to cut back to 2550 keeping my macros at 35/40/25 carbs-protein-fats
Thanks for taking the time to read this and again great article!
Thanks a lot for this great article
I have a question: I'm about 145Lb (65Kg) and 175cm and about I think 12-14% body fat... I'm not skinny at all but I'm not shredded and muscly as much as I want (I can see 2packs of my abs very difficult!)
My issue is about my Cardio training, I don't know should I do only HIIT Cardio or I need LISS Cardio too...? How days a week I need to do Cardio (HIIT/LISS)?! Can I do HIIT/LISS Cardio just right after my weight training?
Bob, may you help me with a complete Cardio program? Thank you very much!
Being your height and weight, it would be safe to say without a picture you lack muscle mass, so cutting would turn you pretty thin and string you out which would not be smart. IMO i would stick to LISS cardio. 2-3 x a week of 20-30 minutes tops on top of a very basic weight training program like starting strength, madcow 5x5 or a full body 3x a week routine to simply focus on frequency.
I would save HIIT for when you get into a cutting program and deeper into it, the focus on cutting is as less cardio as posisble and calories as high as possible.
Ronnie, YES you should do that weekly as a refeed as i have stated above. it is very necessary for T3, Leptein, and Hormone levels. If kcals are very low and you have stalled i would consider a diet break or a maintainace phase for 2 weeks where you do raise calories overall for that 2 weeks, maybe even a week off the gym as well and restore your CNS, T3, Leptin levels.
Well put and would agree with most of the points, but I do have a question about the drop in calories. I have read that we need to eat well to drop weight when we are in a cut phase. I have tried extremely low calories and have recently seen my weight loss stall, although I see body definition improving.
Do you suggest increasing my calorie level to sub maintenence levels or - 500 cals, since I am currently at -1000 or -1500 cals for some days....I am trying to lose fat and look decent, but no contest prep for me - yet!!!! thanks
That was very interesting! I realise I had a lot of misconception about dieting.