Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Maximum Muscular Potential of Drug-Free Athletes (Updated Dec 31st)


What is the maximum muscular potential of drug-free athletes or natural bodybuilders? And what does it take to get there? That's the topic I'm going to revisit today. 

I've talked about the maximum muscular potential before in the short article "What's my Genetic Muscular Potential", where I presented a formula based on the heights and body weights of natural bodybuilders on competition day (i.e. 5-6% body fat).

Suffice to say, the bodybuilders that appear on the cover of muscle magazines serves as poor role models for what's possible without "assistance". Establishing reasonable goals and limits for natural bodybuilders and athletes is important in order to put things into context. A ripped 170-180 lbs is often scoffed at in some circles. You're not "big" until you're 210-220 lbs (or so the talk goes). What these people don't realize is that ripped 170-180 lbs would look very impressive on a guy of average height. In fact, few natural guys will ever achieve those stats due to the consistency in training that it requires.

29th Dec Update: "Applying the Formula: Theory vs Real Life" (Fourth section from the bottom.)

31st Dec Update: "Limits of The Formula" (Third section from the bottom.)

"The Law of Diminishing Returns." (Second section from the bottom.)

A No Bullshit Formula

The formula is simple, yet surprisingly accurate and predictive of real world results.

The formula goes as follows:

(Height in centimeters - 100) = Body weight in kilo ("shredded", i.e. 5-6% body fat).

Example: If your height is 180 cm (5'11), subtract 100 and you get 80.

80 kg (176 lbs) is your maximum muscular potential when you are in peak condition; rock hard abs with visible veins running across them, striated arms and delts, and so forth. Scroll down a bit to see examples of what I mean.

Now, the inquiring mind would probably like to know why I determine the formula by "ripped" body weight and not something a little more moderate like 10-12% body fat. 10-12% body fat is still lean and a great look if you've got some muscle behind that.

Well, the reason is that competition day body weight is the best standard to use. If you want to predict maximum muscular potential with any reasonable precision, you need to have some kind of equalizer. Saying you can get to this and that body weight without drugs doesn't mean anything unless you consider the body weight in relation to height and body fat percentage. On competition day, most guys are typically in a fairly tight interval of body fat percentage (4-6%) which makes this a good standard.

Furthermore, competitors usually have years of consistent training behind them, which makes another case for drawing conclusions based on competition weight.

Fine Tuning The Formula

Another question that might pop up is how much your "hydrated" body weight would be, as the body weight on the weigh in before competition day will be lower than usual. This will vary a bit depending on the type and severity of water manipulation and depletion protocol.

I typically see a 2% drop in body weight that is independent from regular weight loss. Meaning that the body weight of my clients drops 2% in the final days and then rebounds back up by the same amount once normal feeding resumes.* Then again, I use a very easy and non-dramatic approach compared to others, i.e. no glycogen depletion (!) and no hardcore sodium/water manipulation.

* Actually that's not quite true as there is a larger rebound first, after which body weight settles down again. This has to do with sodium manipulation and is temporary.

So basically, the formula is closer to (height in cm) - 98 = kg body weight when hydrated.

Furthermore, while 100 is a nice and round number, you'll obviously see some variance here as well. All things considered, a more precise formula for maximum muscular potential would look a little something like this:

(Height in cm) - 98-102 = kg body weight on competition day. Ripped and slightly dehydrated.

(Height in cm) - 96-100 = kg body weight. Ripped and under normal circumstances.

Is this formula the final word on maximum muscular potential? Well, I've only known a handful of guys who I was 100% sure of being natural. They all abide by this rule. As with everything, there are outliers but I've yet to meet anyone who I was sure of being natural that exceeded the body weight yielded by the formula by a significant amount (i.e. height - 90-95).

This is a very controversial topic. Can I possibly know for sure that the clients I'm about to post as examples of maximum muscular potential are really clean? Can you know I'm clean? Well, of course not. I'm as skeptical and cynical as the next guy (more so), so all of this really boils down to me trusting my clients and you trusting me. Now that I've covered that, rest assured that I am not interested in any philosophical argument or debate that starts with "You can't really know...", etc.

Without further ado, below you'll see examples of natural clients that competed fairly recently. A breakdown of their height and body weight on competition day will follow afterwards. While I won't go as far as saying that they've all reached their ceiling in terms of muscle gains, they've come very far. I will also tell you what each one of them has in common: what it takes to reach your maximum muscular potential without the use of drugs.

It's worth noting that Andreaz and Robert were both tested and passed (2 out of a total of 6 doping tests done that day).


Marcus made it to the finals and placed 6th out of 17 competitors in Luciapokalen Classic Bodybuilding +178 cm two weeks ago. Considering this was his first competition, that's an exceptional result. Even more so impressive when you take into account that he didn't even practice his routine for the finals and just went on stage and struck a few poses at random :D I would have done the same...I don't have much love or interest in usual proceedings on competition day.

Anyway, below you'll see pictures from Marcus's bulk, at 185 lbs/84 kg and lean, to competition day at 175 lbs/79 kg and shredded (height: 181 cm).

The whole process took 8 weeks which is a very short diet compared to the norm (same for Andreaz and Robert). I helped Marcus out during his bulk and as you can see he kept his body fat percentage in check.

"Off-season" (8 weeks out)

185 lbs/84 kg

3 Weeks Out

180 lbs/82 kg

Competition Day

175 lbs/79 kg


Nordic bodybuilding champ Andreaz decided to try his hand at the Athletic Fitness Championship in September. He placed 5th out of 8 in the -180 cm class.

7 Weeks Out

165 lbs/75 kg

2 Weeks Out

162 lbs/73.5 kg

Competition Day

157 lbs/71 kg


Robert competed in the same competition as Andreaz. He placed 5th out of 8 in the tall class (+180 cm).

8 Weeks Out

194 lbs/88 kg

4 Weeks Out

186 lbs/84 kg

Competition Day

181 lbs/82 kg

Height and Body Weight Breakdown

Marcus: 181 cm/79 kg (-102). Estimated body fat on competition day: 4-4.5%.

Andreaz: 169 cm/69-71 kg (-100/-98). Estimated body fat on competition day: 5-6%. Weight varies slightly; Andreaz was drier in his last bodybuilding competition and weighed in at 69 kg (-100). However, being too ripped on stage for Athletic Fitness can get you minus points. Not taking it too far this last time was a planned and conscious decision.

Robert: 182 cm/82 kg (-100). Estimated body fat on competition day: 7%.

Myself: 186 cm/87.5 kg. With an expected water loss of 2%* body weight as mentioned earlier, my stats would put me at 186 cm/86 kg (-100) on competition day (5.5% body fat). I'm including myself for reference and an additional data point. I haven't competed but I am natural.

(For more on my progress, check out "My Transformation" and the tag with the same name.)

As you can see, there is no substantial variance in the body weights of these natural trainers. Everyone ends up weighing their height - 100, or very close to it, on competition day.

Applying The Formula: Theory vs Real Life

It didn't take long before this article was published before there was an influx of genetic marvels in discussion forums that claimed my formula was wrong and that they would surpass it once they got down to the body fat percentage it applies to.

Well, I got news for the keyboard experts out there; you're wrong. Here's why:

1. You're most likely fatter than you think. There's a lot of 5'11 200-225 lbs guys with 10-12% body fat on the Internet. In reality, their "10-12%" body fat is more like 15% body fat or more. Everyone thinks they're on their way to single digit body fat as soon as they see a blurry four-pack in the right lighting.

2. You can't use your current body weight in the calculation if you're bulking. It's not uncommon to see an instant 2-5 lbs drop in body weight after one week of dieting depending on carb intake and size, and that ain't 2-5 lbs of fat you're losing. It's some of your overstocked glycogen stores dropping, causing water loss. Reduced stomach content is also a contributing factor.

If you want to make any reasonable estimate based on theoretical calculation of your stats, take your average body weight in the second week of dieting and use that in the formula.

Key point: Your final body weight at 5-6% will be a lot less than what you think. So to all you keyboard experts that arrive at some fantasy stats and claim that my formula is wrong: bitch, please. Talk to me again when you get in contest shape.

Limits of The Formula

1. The formula is for men only. I have not worked with a sufficient sample of female physique athletes to establish an accurate formula for female maximum muscular potential.

2. The formula assumes average genetics. A minority of the population falls into the category of "non-responders" to resistance training and might not ever reach the same maximum muscularity as the rest of the population no matter what they do. Along the same lines, there are high-responders that might possibly exceed the formula. However, in my experience, high-responders simply gain muscle mass faster than someone of average genetics; the cap for maximum muscular potential (height - 100) does not seem to be raised by much.

3. The formula is not perfectly linear and is most accurate for men in the 170-190 cm height range. Very accurate for guys smack dab in the middle of that range (180 cm). Shorter guys (below 170 cm) seem to skew the formula towards being heavier. Vice versa for taller guys. In reality, the standard height - 100 formula might look a little something like this depending on height.

190 cm: height - 101

180 cm: height - 100

170 cm: height - 99

160 cm: height - 98

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Am I saying that height (in cm) - 100 is the absolute limit for most drug-free athletes? No, but I'm saying it's pretty damn close and that the true limit will not differ from height - 100 in any meaningful way. This can be explained by the law of diminishing returns.

During the first six months of weight training, one might see a muscle gain of 1.5-2 lbs per month; that sweet newbie magic, where you gain muscle at a rapid rate. It's not uncommon to see that muscle gain accompanied by fat loss.

After six months and through the second year, you might see muscle gain of 1 lbs per month. You're able to increase weights linearly in the gym and everything is still pretty awesome.

Things slows down significantly in the third year, to the tune of about 0.5 lbs muscle gain per month.

In the 4-5th year of training, progress is slow. 1 lb of muscle every 4th month.

5-10th year, 1 lb per year.

Beyond a decade of consistent weight training...well, you get the point. You might be lucky to see 0.5-1 lb of muscle every other year or so.  These figures are not exact by any means and progress will obviously vary depending on genetics, training, diet, etc. My point is that the law of diminishing returns kicks in real hard once you hit height - 100. Muscle gains slows down to a snail's pace. A trainer that hits height - 100 after 12 years of consistent training will not be that much bigger on his 17th year of consistent training.

What It Takes to Reach Your Maximum Muscular Potential

What do we, the guys above and myself that is, have in common besides having achieved a very similar level of muscularity? What factors are important if you hope to reach your maximum muscular potential?

1. Consistency. We've all been weight training for more than a decade. I for one lost many years due to foolish diets and training regimens - but for better or worse, that's part of the process. I never gave up in trying to find what's right for me and that's what matters in the end. I stayed consistent no matter what.

With the right approach from the get go, you could probably save a ton of time. That being said, you can't reach your genetic ceiling in six months like some internet marketers wants you to believe. It takes consistency and patience to reach your maximum muscular potential.

2. Hard work - but not HARD work. Your workouts should be hard in the sense that you push yourself, but not hard in the sense that going to the gym feels like a burden. Don't buy into the myth that you need to live the life of a stereotypical bodybuilder to build an impressive physique. Going to the gym shouldn't interfere too much with the rest of your life. Remember, you're in for the long haul.

I've spent less than 2 hours per week on average building my physique, but I've done so over a long period of time. This partly comes back to the point I made above about consistency. Naturals who spend 5-6 days at the gym per week usually don't last long. They burn out and end up looking mediocre 10 years down the road.

3. Measure and quantify your progress. Only then can you tell if something really is working. Measure progress short term and long term and do it in hard numbers; your body weight and what kind of weight you could handle at that body weight are two very important variables to track. Log all your workouts and use a checkpoint system. For more on this, read "How to Look Awesome Every Day."

Not only is measuring and quantifying vital to make progress but it's also a great aid in order to find and maintain your motivation in the long-term. Going to the gym becomes a joy once you see your progress manifest itself in hard numbers. And if the hard numbers improve, so will your body.

OK, so this post actually started out as a client update, but then I went off on a tangent and started writing about something different. Anyway, that'll be all for tonight.

P.S. As you may realize now, the various rumors that has been floating around about my demise after the latest cheesecake showdown are untrue. I survived, but just barely. Right now I'm sick of thinking or writing about anything related to cheesecakes. However, when the time is right, I shall show you exactly what went down that fateful Christmas Eve.

Speaking of cheesecake mastery, I am pleased to see that my teachings have inspired many aspiring cheesecake masters: "Cheesecake Mastery 2010 Death Match."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's That Special Time of The Year Again


I'm not talking about Christmas. I'm talking about Super Christmassacre 2010.

This time my cheesecake mastery will be pushed to its utmost limits. I can sense the ominous presence of the cheesecake that awaits me tomorrow from miles ahead. Its dark and brooding power is not to be trifled with.

However, I will not come unprepared. I have honed my skills. Mastered new techniques. Just a few weeks ago, I made quick work of a cheesecake that had teamed up with a goose. I ate them both. Whole.

No one knows how this battle will go down. Anything can happen. One thing is for sure; I'll give em hell.

Merry Christmas everyone.

P.S. Want to avoid unwanted weight gain during holiday eating? Then you better check out "Cheat Day Strategies for a Hedonist."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Poll: Do You Have Any Issues With Viewing or Loading My Site?


Some folks have reported issues with viewing or loading my site. Such as: site takes a long time to load, site freezes or the browser is spazzing out.

Going by some feedback, it seems to be mainly Internet Explorer (7.0 or lower) and Firefox with tons of extensions causing trouble.

It seems my site is best viewed with Google Chrome and Safari. I'm personally using Chrome, which in my opinion is the fastest and most user friendly browser, and I've never had any issues with it.

Either way, I'd appreciate if people who's having issues, or has had issues, took the time to fill in the poll I'm running. It's located right below "About the author" on the right sidebar. That would allow me to identify the culprits and give recommendations on what browsers this site is best viewed with.


Here are the results from the poll.

Firefox: 18%

Google Chrome: 12%

Internet Explorer: 65%

The remaining 5% were split between Safari, Opera and Netscape Navigator. I think it's quite clear that it's mainly Internet Explorer causing issues.

Thanks to everyone that voted.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fitness Blog of The Year


Text: "Popular over here, but really popular abroad."

According to the Swedish fitness and bodybuilding magazine "Body". It ain't the Nobel Prize but it's something.

Client and former Nordic bodybuilding champ Andreaz Engström took a very respectable third place with his blog "No Sugar Added."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Leangains Interviews, Meals, and Recommended Reading


For those of you who haven't read the interviews with me over at Richard Nikoley's site, head over there and check them out.

Here's the first part: "Martin Berkhan Means It."

Second part: "Martin Berkhan's Workout Approach."

Third part: "Leangains: The Dietary Approach." This is the latest one where I talk about net metabolizable energy of protein, the benefits of post-workout carbs, insulin sensitivity and more.

You'll also find a great deal of ideas for Paleo-friendly and Leangains-certified meals over at Richard's site.

Richard is a skilled practitioner of meat mastery.

Leangains Meals

You'll find more examples of Leangains meals here:

"Leangains Meals."

"Leangains Meals Part Two."

And let's not forget the now worldwide famous "Protein fluff"-recipe.

Interviews and Resources

I've done quite a few interviews over the years. The most extensive one, which describes my approach and how it came to be, can be found here: "Intermittent Fasting with Martin Berkhan."

Recommended Reading

I was recently asked to give some book and resource recommendations for trainers over at "Functional Fitness," a Swedish site. Here's what I recommended:

"Beyond Brawn: The Insider's Encyclopedia on How to Build Muscle and Might."

"Starting Strength (2nd edition)."

"Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism."

"Näringslära för Högskolan." (Swedish, nutrition.)

"Eat Stop Eat Expanded Edition." (Intermittent fasting, link goes to my review.)


Furthermore, I recommended a few good and information-packed websites for training and nutrition related information:

Lyle McDonald's Site. Lyle has a great deal of free information on his site. For someone who wants to dig deeper, see: "Book Reviews: Best of Lyle McDonald."

Alan Aragon's Blog.

James Krieger's Site.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Leangains Goes Global


I'm thrilled to have such an enthusiastic and loyal following. Thanks to a few of them, two of my most popular articles have been translated into several languages. You'll find links to the various translations in this post.

Swedish translations of "Top Ten Fasting Myths Debunked" and "The Truth About Alcohol, Fat Loss and Muscle Growth" are confirmed, as is a Dutch version of the former. I'll need to double-check with the Czech translation, so it'll be "unconfirmed" until further notice.

If you're interested in translating an article to put on your blog or forum, let me know. I'll be adding your translation to this post and notify people whenever a new translation is available.

My demands are:

1. That you do a decent job. It goes without saying that you can't just run it through "Google Translate" and hope to get a coherent article.

2. That you keep the hyperlinks intact.

3. That you link back to the original article.

4. That you notify me beforehand in case someone else who speaks your language got the same idea. Wouldn't want people to waste their time if someone else is working on the same translation.

5. I want to know where you plan on publishing it.

What are the benefits of translating an article? Well, first of all, it's a great way to drive traffic to your blog or forum.

But - most importantly - you'll be doing your part in the fight against broscience. And that, my friends, is doing the Universe a big favor that will yield good karma in all eternity :D

Top Ten Fasting Myths Debunked

Original article.

German translation.

French translation.

Spanish translation.

Norwegian translation.

Polish translation.

Swedish translation.

Japanese translation.

* Czech (unconfirmed).

The Truth About Alcohol, Fat Loss and Muscle Growth

Original article.

French translation.

German translation.

Spanish translation.

Polish translation.

Swedish translation.

The Leangains Guide

Original article.

German translation.

French translation.

Finnish translation.

Polish translation.

Spanish translation.

Japanese translation.


Original article.

Norwegian translation.

Am I forgetting someone? Please notify me and I'll add you.

P.S. Today is the last day to vote for me as "Role Model of The Year". If you think I'm worthy of the award, don't forget to put in your vote before it's too late. Read this post for instructions on how to vote. It should take less than a minute of your time. Thanks to everyone who's voted so far. (Voting is closed. Thanks to everyone who voted for me.)

P.S.S. I've added a few new posts about Leangains and intermittent fasting here: "Intermittent Fasting Blogs." (See "Added Dec 3rd".) Check out Richard's and Raj's awesome results and read Clement's story about how he conquered his eating disorder.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Healthy Business Awards and a Few Good Reads


So apparently I'm nominated for "Role Model of The Year" in "Healthy Business Awards 2010". I guess you could say it's the Swedish fitness industry's version of the Emmy's.

Here's what it says for nominations in my category:

"This award goes to the person that during the past year has made an effort or an achievement which has been positive for the business. In our evaluation we also take into consideration whether the nominee has contributed to increased mass media interest in the business."

I'm not sure how highly they value the people's vote, but I thought I'd ask you to put in a vote for me if you've benefited from the information I've provided on my site.

Then again you could always argue that I'm not much of a role model, as I like to drink and eat cheesecake...

If I win I promise to continue my work to improve the health and living conditions of cheesecakes everywhere.

Note: Voting is closed. Thanks to everyone who voted.

Anyway, the page where you vote is in Swedish, so here's what you do:

* Click here to go the page.

* Scroll down to "Årets förebild," or whatever it says when you run Google translate, and you'll see my name and my site.

(Or just hit Ctrl + F on your keyboard and type in "leangains", and you'll find me.)

* Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the button ("Rösta!" or whatever it'll say once translated). And that's it.

Easy peasy. Should take less than 30 seconds of your time. The poll closes on Monday, so please go do it now rather than wait till it's too late.

After you've voted, here's a few good reads you should check out.

A Few Good Reads

1. A new study on the Paleo diet came out two days ago: "A Paleolithic diet is more satiating per calorie than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease." You can download the full text free.

This was a Swedish study and most of the authors actually live nearby. Staffan Lindeberg is a long-time and fairly well known proponent of the paleo diet. The name should ring a bell for anyone who's done their reading on paleolithic nutrition.

The diet approach used in this study was "ad libitum", meaning that participants could eat as much as they wanted out of a few food groups. Based on the food logs, protein intake was estimated to be 27% and 20% in the paleo and Mediterranean diet respectively. The results aren't really that surprising, as high-protein diets always come out on top. I've talked about the effects of various macronutrients in "Cheat Day Strategies for The Hedonist."

2. In a fascinating video, "D3hundred" showcases his transformation from a 300 lbs powerlifter to a 300 lbs body weight training specialist. The gap between powerlifting, which relies on high maximum or relative strength (in his weight class it would be maximum more than relative), and calisthenics (strength-endurance) is huge.

3. Lyle McDonald talks about choosing the right diet and training approach in "Does the Training Determine the Diet or the Diet Determine the Training?"

4. In this talk on why we overeat, David Kessler explains the effect of food on reward circuits and much more. I just found this among my old bookmarks, which goes back about a year or so, so I can't quite recall the talk in detail but I remember it being very good. I watched it after a friend recommend Kessler's book: "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite". I haven't gotten around to reading it but the recommendation was from a person who's opinion I value.

Another book that's on my "stuff I want to read"-list is "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human". Lyle gave it two thumbs up, so it's likely a good read.

By the way, if you're planning to order from Amazon and want a good book on training, I recommend "Beyond Brawn: The Insider's Encyclopedia on How to Build Muscle and Might". This was the book that set me straight with regards to weight training and I've talked about it in this old post.

Still have my old copy of Beyond Brawn. Great book, especially if you're just starting out or want to get serious about making progress.

5. Some humor from The Oatmeal: "Why I Don't Cook at Home". Hilarious... :D Excellent contrast to Jonah Lehrer's "Why Making Dinner is a Good Idea", which I mentioned in the last round of good reads.

That's it for tonight. Keep up with me on Twitter if you want to get more tips on read-worthy material.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Leangains Helped Me Earn My IFBB Pro Card


Time for another success story. This one is from Danielle Reutter who used the Leangains approach to get in amazing shape.

Actually, "amazing" is a huge understatement, as she won her class in the 2010 NPC Nationals (Figure) and earned an IFBB Pro Card.

This makes Danielle the first American "professional" Figure competitor who uses Leangains (as far as I know).

We need people like Danielle in the health and fitness community - people who aren't afraid to go against the mainstream. Why? Their success motivates others to change. Bodybuilders and fitness competitors tend to be very locked in their thought processes when it comes to nutrition. They're usually slaves to diet myths and these superstitions dictate how they approach contest dieting.

The problem is not that the "6-meals-a-day"-approach doesn't work, because it does for some, but that it just isn't right for everybody. And if people are afraid to experiment due to some nonsensical belief that doing this or that will (insert here: "slow down metabolism"/"cause muscle loss"/"prevent fat loss", etc.), then clinging on to it will prevent them from reaching their goals.

In my own case, I've talked about how I couldn't attain my goals when I was obsessively eating every 2-3rd hour, thinking breakfast was crucial and trying to avoid eating in the evening. These behaviors were "forced" on me - they did not exist due to personal preference.

When it slowly dawned on me that my behavior or diet had no scientific basis, that eating every 2-3rd hour did not yield any metabolic boost and so forth, I left it all behind and switched to something that felt right with me.

Unfortunately, most people never find the truths about the diet dogma that permeates the fitness and health mainstream and that's a shame.

Enough of my ranting, here's Danielle's story.

Leangains helped me earn my IFBB Pro Card

"I am proud to say that I just earned my IFBB Pro Card in Figure at the 2010 NPC Nationals in Atlanta, GA. This was my 3rd Figure show and I have learned a lot through these couple contest preps. I have been a personal trainer since I got my ISSA Certification is 2007. It has been and continues to be a journey of constant learning and growing."

"My 2nd Figure show was the 2010 Arnold Amateur. After this show I realized that eating every 2 hours had made me a little nutty. That constant eating was making me constantly think about food. I was spending way too much time with my mind occupied on food and there were more important things in life that I needed to focus on. So I began researching and found Eat Stop Eat."

Danielle three weeks out and 115 lbs.

"Eat Stop Eat is a great book and I began implementing the two 24 hour fasts per week into my lifestyle. This totally helped me break the constant need to eat. I found it to be very freeing. Then when I was getting ready to start my next prep, I began doing more research into other ways of fasting – and I found Leangains."

"I took what I had learned about my diet from previous shows – as to what works for me, and used that along with fasting 14-16 hours per day, Leangains style. I quickly realized how much less stress this was."

"Being a busy mom, it’s so nice to not have to worry about eating right away in the morning. I have my food packed and I eat at work. Also I’m not hungry until later now, so I don’t even think about it."

Danielle stole the show! Fantastic physique. Notice how she looks just perfect and healthy, without the emaciated and "overdieted" look that some competitors have on stage. She weighed in at 108 lbs.

"Currently I am preparing for my first Pro Show – the Kentucky Muscle. I am using the same diet, fasting and training regiment as I did for my last show. I am so thankful to have found Leangains! It has made these preparations so much easier – and not to mention my results have been incredible. When I won my Pro Card, I came in 5 pounds lighter than my previous shows. Not only was I lighter, but leaner and tighter."

Danielle placed 16 out of 28 in the Kentucky Muscle Pro, which is great. Keep in mind that the competition is crushing at that level. Not to mention that doing two shows back to back is very challenging and tough on your body.

Let's wish Danielle all the best for future competitions. People need role models like Danielle, as they are living proof that you can win major fitness and bodybuilding competitions without becoming a slave to Tupperware-containers.

By the way, here's a picture of Danielle from last year, shortly after her pregnancy at 150 lbs:

Quite a difference, wouldn't you say? Goes to show what kind of amazing change people are capable with determination, consistency and the right diet.

Check out the success stories, or clients, on this site for more examples of people that have gone through all sorts of radical transformations. And you will see more examples of people placing or winning major fitness and bodybuilding competitions in the near future. In the meantime, here are a few examples of fitness and bodybuilding competitors that uses the Leangains approach, all of them featured on this site at one point or another:

Andreaz Engström (Also see: "Leangains Pre-Contest Training".)

Kristine Weber

David Höök

Seth Ronland

Robert Nilsson

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cheat Day Strategies For A Hedonist


Can you avoid fat gain during cheat days and holiday feasts like Thanksgiving and Christmas? Sure, you can. But if you're a big eater that loves food, like me, it's more a question of minimizing fat storage than attempting to avoid it. And trust me, there's a few nifty strategies that can be used for damage control while still enjoying holiday hedonism, cheesecake mastery and spontaneous feasts of all sorts.

The key to damage control during ad libitum ("at one's pleasure") eating sprees lies not only in how much you eat but also with the choice of macronutrients. Food combination voodoo? No, just pure facts based on nutrient metabolism and science.

The question is also how to quickly get back on track for there is no doubt that big eaters can eat thousands of surplus calories that do lead to fat gain and post-holiday bloat. One of the "secrets" to maintaining low body fat while still being able to enjoy wild excess from time to time is therefore to make a quick turnaround in the days after.

Last weekend I ate mounds of porter beef, stuffed goose and cheesecake. Ah, how I love such days of unfettered hedonism.

Cheat days and Refeeds

In this article I'll be using "cheat day" and "feasts" interchangeably but they are both synonyms for short-term overfeeding of various durations and magnitudes. The same general principles will apply, more or less. A "refeed" is often used in the context of a structured diet approach. It tends to be more strict and planned in terms of macronutrient composition (high-carb, low-fat.)

While I will discuss refeeds in brief, this article will mainly discuss overfeeding of a mixed diet - that is, what you should take into consideration on Thanksgiving, at the Christmas dinner table, or any other occasion where you will be presented with lots of tasty foods.

My plan is not to tell you exactly what to eat or how much of it - that would be absurd. I don't encourage someone to count calories on Thanksgiving Day or similar such occasions. Instead, I'll talk about some factors that will determine how much fat you end up putting on and how you can potentially reduce the time spent making up for your splurging.

First, let's look at the general effects of overfeeding and do some myth debunking in the process.

Effects of Overfeeding

I tend to look at cheat days and feasts mostly as psychological relief and fun, but you'll often see some overly optimistic claims about cheat days being made in the fitness community; how it boosts your metabolic rate and tricks your body into "fat burning mode" for the rest of the week. There's some truth to this, but the real impact of cheat days are exaggerated if you look at the numbers you're dealing with.

Studies on overfeeding shows that metabolic rate typically increases about 6-8% for up to 24 hours after feeding. There's also large differences in between individuals, illustrated by the fact that the magnitude of the increase ranges from 3-10%. Those prone to obesity ("thrifty" phenotypes) tend to be in the lower range (3%), while the naturally lean ("spendthrifty" phenotype) tend to be in the upper range (10%). Either way, from a fat loss perspective it's not really justified to eat thousands of surplus calories to burn a few hundred calories extra.

The other argument, about tricking your body into fat-loss mode, usually alludes to the effect of overfeeding carbs on leptin. For a lean person, or for someone one a prolonged dieting stint, low leptin is an issue. This hormone, the king of hunger regulation, controls metabolic rate, appetite, motivation and libido, among other things. Leptin drops whenever your body senses a calorie deficit and when fat mass is lost.

The reverse happens when your body senses a calorie surplus. A surplus temporarily boosts leptin, which leads to downstream effects on fat oxidation, thyroid, dopamine and testosterone. In the context of dieting, refeeds are therefore beneficial.

However, similar to the effects of overfeeding on metabolic rate, a leptin-boost is also rather transient and drops again once you resume your diet and your body senses the deficit. It's for this reason I prefer to use frequent but moderate overfeeding, or refeeds, as part of the Leangains approach. Usually in conjunction with weight training to take advantage of the anabolic effects.

What macronutrient causes the greatest boost in leptin calorie per calorie? The hierarchy looks like this:

1. Carbohydrate. (Glucose - not sucrose or fructose.)

2. Protein. Glucose is superior to protein, but I suspect it might be a better choice to sucrose or fructose. (I'm quite sure that protein hasn't been compared to sucrose and fructose, but I'll look into it just in case.)

3. Dietary fat.

4. Alcohol. Ethanol has not been directly compared to the other macronutrients. However, the effect is a negative one. While one study actually found a positive effect on leptin, most studies point towards an inhibitory effect. Strangely, a reverse effect has been seen in women from red wine. I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that alcohol consumption is associated with lower body weights in women but not men. I'll have to look into that.

Due to the superior effects of carbs on leptin, and leptin's downstream effects on metabolism and anabolic hormones, a high-carb, moderate-protein and low-fat refeed is traditionally recommended for dieting purposes.

Lyle Mcdonald has written a great deal on this topic, most extensively in "The Ultimate Diet 2.0." Though I am no fan of the diet itself, the book is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in the physiology of dieting and its impact on various hormonal parameters.

Lyle has also written a lengthy and detailed article series on leptin. I highly recommend it if this topic piques your interest: "Body Weight Regulation: Leptin Part 1."

However, a low-fat, high-carb refeed is obviously not so doable during Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, or any other such occasions. A few different factors should be taken into account on cheat days and feasts.

Rest assured that I have documented my recent cheesecake mastery in great detail. This time I used an ancient and dark technique that is not to be taken lightly. I'll tell you more about it in the near future.

Nutrient Metabolism: A Quick Primer

This is a quick primer on nutrient metabolism, as it will help you understand some of the concepts discussed later on.

The easiest way to think about nutrient metabolism is in terms of the Respiratory Quotient (RQ) and insulin. They are associated - when insulin is high, RQ is high, and vice versa. Here's a quote from "Intermittent Fasting and Stubborn Body Fat":

"After you eat, insulin and fatty acids are elevated. You are in the fed state and there's zero fat burning going on. Your body is relying completely on glucose oxidation during the hours following the meal."

This doesn't mean that you'll be burning more body fat if you follow a low-carb high fat diet, or that you'll never burn fat on high-carb diets. In energy balance, 24-hour RQ is reflective of the macrocomposition of the diet rather than fat gain or fat loss per se. Dietary fat has insulin-independent storage mechanisms (ASP) and "fat balance" (net storage of dietary fat) is primarily dictated by total calorie intake at the end of the day. The time course and trend in substrate metabolism will be different dependent of the carb:fat-ratio, but not the net effect.

Key point

Overfeeding elevates RQ for several hours - up to a day even - and indicates that glucose metabolism is dominant. Since glucose metabolism is high, fat burning is low or insignificant. This metabolic state allows net storage of dietary fat. Carbs, protein and alcohol all elevate RQ and affects fat burning negatively. Dietary fat does not affect RQ but has insulin-independent ways of getting into fat cells.

Knowing this is, are there some ways to limit fat gain in mixed-diet overfeeding or is it all about calories? To answer this, let's look at the energy costs for fat storage of various macronutrients.

Energy Cost of Fat Storage: The Macronutrient Hierarchy

During overfeeding, surplus calories are stored as fat with a great deal of varying efficacy.

(From most likely to be stored as fat in adipose tissue during overfeeding to least likely.)

1. Dietary fat.

The energy cost for storage of dietary fat is minimal (0-2% depending on saturation.)

2. Carbohydrate.

The conversion of carbs to fat, de novo lipogenesis (DNL), is hardly significant in humans and usually only occurs when glycogen stores are saturated (i.e. prolonged high-carb overfeeding). This does not matter much in practical terms, as there will be plenty of dietary fat in mixed-diet overfeeding. Carbs promote fat gain by reducing fat oxidation, as explained before. There's some variance between individuals here, based on genetics, metabolic state and habitual diet-patterns. Enzymes that modulate DNL are up-regulated in habitual high-carb diets and in the obese. Another factor that play a role is insulin sensitivity. There are similar individual aspects to the storage of dietary fat as well (mediated by LPL and ASP.)

In metabolically healthy humans, the energy cost for DNL is approximately 25%. In practical terms, this means that 3 out of 4 calories can be used for fat synthesis once a "carbohydrate surplus" is achieved (after saturated glycogen stores). Given that glycogen stores are never full in conditions of energy balance, people have a large "carb-sink" to use up before carbs contribute to fat gain directly. (Until then, the effect of carbs is indirect via suppression of fat metabolism. Am I being redundant yet?)

The above is in particular reference to glucose; sucrose and fructose are more lipogenic due to some differences in metabolic pathways. Fructose do not go to muscle glycogen stores, but to liver glycogen - and this glycogen depot is significantly smaller than muscle glycogen. One study comparing DNL from glucose and sucrose overfeeding in lean and obese people, showed DNL to be 10% and 20% higher respectively after the sucrose-experiment.*

* From results: "The type of carbohydrate overfeeding (sucrose or glucose) had no significant effect on de novo lipogenesis in either subject group." Which means that the difference (10-20%) was not enough to be deemed significant from a scientific standpoint. Fructose-overfeeding has not be compared to glucose in a controlled study, but judging from this study, DNL would likely be substantial (sucrose is half fructose, half glucose)

3. Protein and alcohol.

The energy cost for storage of amino acids and ethanol as fat are very hard to quantify for methodological, biochemical and (in the case of ethanol), ethical reasons. No controlled studies has been performed. However, it's safe to conclude that these two substrates serve as very poor precursors for fatty acid synthesis for a few different reasons.

First of all, the thermic effect of the separate macronutrients is 20-30% for protein, ~5% for carbohydrate, and 0–3% for fat. Total TEF is generally said to be 10% of total calorie intake, but this number is for the standard American diet, which is low in protein, relatively speaking.TEF for alcohol is harder to estimate, as values range between 10-30% in various studies. I talked about alcohol and TEF in "The Truth About Alcohol, Fat Loss and Muscle Growth":

"Alcohol is labeled as 7.1 calories per gram, but the real value is more along the lines of 5.7 calories due to the thermic effect of food (TEF) which is 20% of the ingested calories. This makes the TEF of alcohol a close second to protein (20-30% depending on amino acid composition)."

In a similar vein, the real caloric value of protein would be closer to 3 kcal/g and not 4 kcal/g as it's currently labelled. Indeed, arguments that we revamp nutritional labeling to more closely match the true metabolic impact by various macronutrients has been made. Livesey proposed that protein should be counted as 3.2 kcal/g, for example.

Further complicating the issue in regards to quantifying fat synthesis from protein is the amino acid composition of the protein consumed, as it varies depending on the protein source. Amino acids are either glucogenic, ketogenic, or both, and use different metabolic pathways for fat synthesis. For example, a glucogenic amino acid must first be converted to glucose (de novo gluconegenesis) once it can contribute to fat synthesis via de novo lipogenesis, while a ketogenic amino acid can contribute via a more direct pathway (via acetyl-CoA).

I might revisit this topic again some day, as I've discussed it with some smart biochemists, but the key point here is that protein cannot contribute to fat gain directly to any meaningful degree. Even in highly artificial scenarios, such as overfeeding thousands of calories of pure protein, would yield fat gain that is a lot less than what's estimated from traditional formulas (i.e. 700 calorie surplus of fat or carbs = +0.1 kg weight gain is not true for a protein surplus).

Similar to carbohydrate, protein and alcohol act similarly as carbs in regards to metabolism. That is, they blunt fat oxidation. However, while carbs can contribute to fat gain directly once glycogen stores are full, protein and ethanol are unlikely to do so. (Ethanol metabolism was explained in detail in "The Truth About Alcohol, Fat Loss and Muscle Growth".)

Key point

In mixed-diet overfeeding, macrocomposition matters. In comparing two diets at the same calorie intake - say 5000 calories - the one with the highest percentage of calories from protein yields the least fat gain. This is mainly explained by TEF and the poor efficacy with which protein can contribute directly to fat synthesis.

What other factors need to be considered for someone who wants to minimize fat gain during overfeeding?

Satiety: Effects of Macronutrients

This is a complicated topic to address in real life terms, as most people do not eat "protein" and "carbs" - they eat food, and food composition matters greatly. While protein is clearly superior to both fat and carbs, a whey shake likely provides less satiety on a calorie-per-calorie basis than - for example - an equicaloric amount of fibrous veggies, even though the former is lower in protein and higher in carbs. Similarly, an equicaloric amount of steak and whole eggs is more satiating in both the long- and short-term than chicken and rice.

Adding to that, there's a good measure of difference in between individuals, as evidenced with the varying amounts of success people have with high or low-carb diets respectively.

Further complicating the issue, there's the "hedonic" aspect to consider. Simply put, a tasty and/or sweet protein, carb, or fat-based meal might affect how much you end up eating.

With that in mind, here's what research shows.

1. Protein.

Protein is superior to carbs and fat intake in both short-term and long-term hunger suppression. This seems to be related to not only a stronger effect on appetite-regulating hormones (i.e. ghrelin, PYY and GLP-1), but also to its high TEF.

2. Carbs and fat.

Up until a few years ago, carbs were generally regarded as superior to fat in terms of satiety on a calorie-per-calorie basis. The problem with the studies this belief was based on was the short duration used for measuring appetite-regulating hormones and subjective measures of satiety and fullness. In recent years, better methodological approaches show a more nuanced picture. In summary, it can be said that carbs suppress appetite better in the short-term, while fat wins out in the long-term.

The carbohydrate hierarchy in terms of best appetite-suppression from source: Glucose --> sucrose --> fructose.

With regards to satiety from different fatty acids, there's no significant difference between saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat. (Another study showed similar results.)

3. Alcohol.

From "The Truth About Alcohol, Fat Loss and Muscle Growth":

"Is higher TEF a reasonable explanation for lower body fat percentage in regular drinkers? We need to consider that alcohol does not affect satiety like other nutrients. The disinhibition of impulse control that follows intoxication may also encourage overeating. Ever come home from a party in the middle of the night and downed a box of cereals? That's what I mean."

Adding to that, note what I wrote about leptin earlier:

"Ethanol has not been directly compared to the other macronutrients. However, the effect is a negative one. While one study actually found a positive effect on leptin, most studies point towards an inhibitory effect.

Alcohol clearly provides nothing in regards to satiety and may even encourage overeating by affecting impulse control and/or leptin. For occasions where large quantities of alcohol is consumed, you may find the strategy outlined in my article about alcohol useful ("How to lose fat or prevent fat gain when drinking.")

Key point

Food composition, individual differences and hedonic aspects aside, protein is superior to carbs and fat in terms of satiety and appetite-suppression.

I've now covered what you need to know about macronutrients in order to make an informed decision about food choices on cheat days or holiday eating sprees. Let's look at how this information can be put to use in practice.

Cheat Day Strategies

Here are some strategies you might find useful. They are how I approach cheat days and holiday feasts, and what I encourage my clients to do. First, however let me address what you should not be doing.

1. Don't stress it.

Some people "pre-compensate" holidays by training themselves into the ground and/or reduce calories significantly in the days leading up to the feast. I highly recommend you do not do this, since I can almost guarantee that you will end up eating a lot more than you would normally if you approach holidays or feasts in a "deprived" mindset.

I touched on this issue in "Intermittent Fasting, Set-Point and Leptin." On the folly of "planning" a big meal or refeed at the end of the diet instead of taking it nice and easy, I said:

"...I would sit and plan my big refeed meal at the end of the diet. I would count every day like an inmate counting the days to his release from prison. And once I reached my goal, I would go bonkers, eat a bunch of crap, take several steps back and then go back to dieting in a feeble attempt to make up for my screwed up 'refeed' (aka binge in my case)."

Take it nice and slow - don't do anything stupid in the days before. No need to train your butt off and deplete glycogen, no need to up your cardio to two hours a day. You'll just end up eating more junk if you do. This is due to a combination of psychology and physiology (i.e. plummeting leptin.)

The topic of calorie-compensation is a well-known phenomenon; it's part of why exercise doesn't produce the predicted weight loss in some people. This is based on studies on Average Joes and Janes, and do not apply in most circumstances to the people reading this article. However, with specific reference to holiday eating and cheat days, I definitely notice a tendency in myself to eat more than I normally would if I train or reduce calories in the day leading up to the occasion.

Surely some people get away with it and don't compensate but in my experience those who think they are exempt from the rule are the ones to which the rule applies.

2. Create a calorie buffer.

On the day of the feast, you'll want to make sure you have a buffer saved up for the occasion. You'll either want to reduce your meal frequency as much as you can or reduce your calorie intake in the meals leading up to the feast.

If possible, fast up until the big meal. This is easy and a bit of a no-brainer for those used to intermittent fasting. If you are used to 16-hour fasts per my usual recommendations, it should not be an issue to prolong it further, i.e. doing a 20-24 hour fast ("Eat Stop Eat"-style).

Make sure you eat a high-protein meal on the day before, as usual - preferably with fiber to slow down absorption. That's also a good practice for regular Leangains-fasts but it's even more so important for >16-hour fasts to avoid hunger pangs in my experience. Should hunger become unbearable, which I've never experienced even during prolonged fasting, drink some coffee and/or eat a plate of fibrous vegetables.

The second best strategy if you're not used to intermittent fasting is to use a "high-protein low-everything-else"-diet leading up to the feast. This will maximize satiety for the lowest amount of calories. Here's an example assuming you have your big feast planned for dinner or around evening, 5-8 PM or so:

10-12 PM: 40-50 g protein, trace carbs and fat (~200-250 kcal)

2-3 PM: Same as above.

5-8 PM: The grand feast. Be it Thanksgiving Dinner, cheesecake mastery or whatever else you have planned that involves eating yourself silly.

For a regular guy, the above plan allows about 2000 calories of goodness during the big meal until any significant fat gain occurs. Still, if you're like me you can eat a whole lot more than that in one sitting. Next we'll have a look at what you can do for damage control during the meal itself.

By the way, here's a pro tip: If you don't know how to make a "high-protein, low-everything-else"-diet bearable, you need to try protein fluff. I've yet to encounter a more satiating and tasty high-protein treat.

Protein fluff; I mistakenly wrote that you'd need casein or milk-protein isolate for this, but people report getting respectable fluffs with some whey protein brands as well. Give it a go - you'll love it.

3. Protein priority.

In the short-term, splurging on high-carb, high-protein and low-fat foods would lead to insignificant fat gain, as glycogen stores would soak up most of the carbs (which would severely limit DNL.) However, such an approach is not very appealing, or realistic, if you want to experience the splendor of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I don't know about you, but I never think of the gifts on Christmas - I think of all the food I get to eat :D

Here's how I suggest you approach the eating spree that is about to ensue:

* Vary fat and carb intake to personal preference but make protein a high priority. "Protein first - carbs and fat for taste". If you think of your meals like this, it'll automatically raise the percentage of protein during the meal, increasing TEF and satiety.

* In regards to the order which you eat your foods, I suggest mainly focusing on protein, fat and volume (i.e. veggies) first and then add carbs in later. In my personal experience, this tends to maximize both short-term and long-term satiety and reduce calorie intake later on. Fat has a latent effect on appetite-suppression, so eating more fat earlier on makes sense.

* Do not neglect food volume - if possible, try to fill up on veggies in your early meals and save the more calorie-dense stuff for later on.

* Sucrose, fructose and liquid calories, i.e. treats, cakes and alcohol, should preferably be added in last, when you're full from the main meal(s).

4. Limit choices, not amounts.

Studies show that when people are presented with multiple food-choices, they eat more. In fact, calorie intake during a buffet scales almost linearly with the amount of different foods to choose from. If I offered you unlimited amounts of turkey and cheesecake, you'd likely only eat so much of it before you felt "full" and satisfied.

However, if I threw a third food into the mix, like potatoes or chocolate pudding, you'd end up eating a lot more - even if you weren't a fan of potatoes or chocolate pudding in normal circumstances. Humans are wired a bit funny and some behaviors are maladaptive in our environment of excesses. Having a taste of everything was a good strategy during our evolution, since it protected again micronutrient-deficiencies.

By "mentally limiting" the food choices you allow yourself, i.e. only eating that which you absolutely love and crave, can be a very effective strategy in regulating calorie intake without feeling deprived. Remember, you don't need to taste of every damn food or treat that is offered. Stick to that which you truly enjoy eating and skip the rest.

My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

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