Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Holy Grail Body Transformation Program Review

The Holy Grail Body Transformation Program

"Concurrent muscle gain and fat loss is the most difficult goal to achieve. That's why people call it the "Holy Grail"; because it's so elusive."

- Tom Venuto

Who is this book for?

Anyone seeking the most coveted goal of them all: losing fat while gaining muscle. Body recomposition.

What will I learn from it?

You will learn the theory and physiology behind body recomposition strategies and how to apply them in practice. The WHY and the HOW is covered in great detail.

Strong points

* Begins with an outstanding theoretical introduction to the topic.

* Tom's writing is very clean and easy to follow along. He does not get terribly repetitive either, which is a plus (this is otherwise all too common among fitness authors in general).

* The claims and the discussion regarding realistic expectations in the book are not overblown and features some real world examples. Same goes for Tom's ad copy. Going by the general standard in the industry, I'd say this is a very honest form of marketing. Look at this quote:

"But before you download the program or even read another word, I have to warn you. This not an easy goal to achieve and I have no miracles to offer you inside this new book. This is a serious and very strategic program for committed people who are analytical thinkers and hard workers". I can personally appreciate that kind of honesty, knowing that body recomposition requires more work than your general "bulk 'n' cut"-approach.

* The calorie and macronutrient-cycling strategies offered in the book are sound and I can definitely see them working in practice.

* Great value for a very low price-point at the moment (30 bucks until the "real launch" later this fall).

* I learned something new. More on this in the summary.

Weak points

* Tom still sticks by his 6-meals-a-day-setup. Since he's openly admitted that there is no physiological benefit of a higher meal frequency, I have no clue why he would at least not offer the option of fewer and larger meals. Who the hell has time to eat six times a day anyway?

* This is either a plus or a minus depending on how you look at it, but Tom offers different options with regards to cycling strategies and weight training routines. In my experience it's a minus. If it's one thing I've learned in my consulting business, it's to never provide the client with options. I make the decisions. Too many options equals angst and hesitation. I mean this in the context of training and calorie cycling specifically (naturally, food choices can be left to the client).

* One third of the main book consists of meal plans. Maybe not a bad idea for those with poor imagination but considering this book doesn't seem to target beginners, it seems like a waste of space. Space that could have been left to more useful stuff.

* I am in disagreement with Tom's cardio recommendations and consider them counterproductive. Especially if used in the context mentioned in the book. After weights, or 8 hrs after weights, is about the worst time to do cardio**. The research he cites to claim that moderate amounts of cardio can help muscle growth is also flat out wrong (or cherry-picked). However, to his credit, he does advise against high impact cardio like running.

** This is actually going to be the topic for my next article which I hope to get done next week. Stay tuned for my explanation.


The only reason I read this book was because Lyle asked my opinion of it. Don't get me wrong, I like reading and I like Tom, but considering my time is very limited these days I rarely make time for reading anything that isn't from PubMed. Anyway, Lyle thought it was a decent read, so I had no qualms giving it a read through. If Lyle thinks something is "OK", it's generally worth checking out.

And I'm glad I did, because this a very enjoyable book that I have no issues promoting. Like I told Lyle, it's a good book on it's own but "compared to the general standard out there it's even pretty damn good." I do have my gripes with it but much of it is related to how I personally prefer to do things (with intermittent fasting, training, and so forth).

I particularly liked that Tom managed to simplify a complex topic without dumbing it down too much. By presenting the various "X-Factors" and "X2-Factors" that make body recomposition more or less likely to occur - for example genetics, drugs, training status and body fat percentage - he gives the reader a clear understanding of the variables that determine body recomposition success. Along with his clean writing style and honesty throughout the book, it all goes down easily. Some fitness authors are a pain to read and can't deliver a coherent message without also endlessly rambling but Tom certainly doesn't have that problem.

I also picked up a new piece of knowledge, which I thought was fairly interesting (albeit not that surprising). You may have heard of the study where a bunch of overweight women lost a lot of weight (33 lbs) and gained muscle on 800 calories a day. It's very often cited as an example of "newbie magic", that initial honeymoon phase of a few months where weight training beginners can lose fat and gain muscle.

What's not often mentioned is that the subjects muscle mass actually decreased - the muscle growth was localized to the muscle group being trained (in this case the quads).

What we can learn from this is that targeted training for smaller muscle groups that don't get much, or enough, stimulation from compound movements, such as calves and maybe triceps and hamstrings depending on your leverages, should be part of your training regimen on a diet unless you want to risk muscle loss in those areas. Or conversely, if you want to shape your body type by reducing muscle mass in one area, you can skip targeted training for that muscle group during your diet.*

* Anecdote: I have personally experienced this phenomenon by neglecting targeted triceps training during my past diets and I definitely saw muscle atrophy of my triceps. Similarly, on my first diet I really got into running and ran a lot in terrain and hills. My calves actually grew from that, while I lost muscle mass overall (my diet and training was also retarded back then).

OK, that pretty much sums it up I guess. "The Holy Grail Body Transformation Program" is a good book by an author that never seems to disappoint.


LayzieBone085 said...

Martin, did anyone ever partake in "Cheat Against Tom's Diet" and how did they do on the IF approach?

Anonymous said...

Great review. Appreciate the anecdote! I experienced something similar when I was cutting with Starting Strength. I lost mass on my calves because I didn't train them.

Anonymous said...


Any measure of disagreement aside, I'll always listen to what Tom has to say simply because he is a stand-up guy. And by blending that with listening to other class acts like you and Lyle, it serves as a nice system of checks and balances. But above all guys like you serve as a reminder that it is important to be willing to learn from anyone and that disagreement on various issues should never be confused with disrespect, as far too many out there seem to ignore.

As far as the last comment you made about what you learned / what confirmed what you seemed to know intuitively, a low volume of (relatively speaking) heavy direct work for those targeted areas that may not be receiving significant stimulation in the other lifts being used should take care of maintaining muscle mass there without excessively cutting into whatever degree of diet-induced decrease in recovery capacity may be present, yes? (and wow I just realized what a monster run-on sentence that was)

Thanks for sharing the review.

-Dan Bishop

Rick said...

I bought this when it first came out and had good success with the 3/1 zigzag cycle for fat loss and muscle gain. It's also a far more enjoyable way to diet since you get to eat more on high days (truckloads of pancakes in my cases:)) Nice review and I agree with the above poster about Tom being a class act.

morbo said...

Nice review Martin, would love to hear your thoughts on the 'within day energy balance' supplemetary material from Dr. Dan Benardot that is included. I've been listening to interviews with him and they are... interesting, to say the least ;)

Clement said...

Hi Martin,

First of all, I've bought Tom's Burn The Fat. The Holy Grail, while looking promising, certainly will not be a book I would buy as it would not contain information about a diet that I will use, as I'm a huge proponent of your IF eating style. So great book, but not for me.

Secondly, another thing that can be gained from the information about the 800kcal diet study could be that muscle can be maintained or even grow if it's used during a deficit as harsh as this. Granted, such studies do not really show that atrophy will definitely not occur in the long term and such a huge deficit would make one miserable in the long-term,, but for people looking for a fast solution and then easing into maintenance, wouldn't this be an effective way to help them achieve their goal? Also, the fact that they could gain muscle also casts some doubt on the protein recommendations that many promote. How much protein is needed to build muscle? Muscle is transient and inflates the most when glycogen and water are 'fed' to it. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is stimulated through heavy training. But how much protein is needed to build these little fibers? I believe the the satiation factor is sound, but for building muscle, it's really hard to quantify if more protein should be consumed, since amino acids are frequently present in one's body.

Tauren said...

Thanks for the review Martin.

Did you also get the bonus "Within-Day Energy Balance" booklet, featuring Dan Bernadot? It relates specifically to one of your weak points and why Tom is still pushing 6 meals a day.

I should point out that Tom's BTF,FTM was my entry point into nutrition and fitness, so I have a lot of respect for the guy. However this "within-day" stuff just struck me as a total load. Lots of scaremongering about not eating for 3 hours causing LBM losses(!) and large meals being bad. Would be interested to know if you saw it?

Anonymous said...

Are we supposed the eat above maintenance on training days and below maintenance on non-training days for muscle gain and fat loss?

Ankit "Urban Monk" Shah said...


Ive bought the program and read through it. I felt your review was great.

IF we're using the goal he outlines of adding muscle while having some (small) weight loss, would this mesh w/ your 16/8 hour window cycle?

Meaning, could you have the calorie surplus on training days, while eating less on maintenance days; but do it in a leangains format and except great results?

I would love to hear your opinion on if these styles are complimentary, or opposing.

John K said...

As far as I'm concerned the only Holy Grail will be Martin's New Book!!!!!

Bill Pairaktaridis said...

I'm actually concerned about the same thing as Ankit. Are we able to combine what Tom says with the 16/8 Leangains style?

Martin Berkhan said...

Dan Bishop,



"Nice review Martin, would love to hear your thoughts on the 'within day energy balance' supplemetary material from Dr. Dan Benardot that is included."

Damn, I had originally intended to comment on that but totally forgot about it when I was writing the review.

Needless to say I think he's full of shit with his schtick that xxx kcal in one sitting "makes you prone to gain fat".

As a matter of fact he's (Bernardot) a fucking idiot and now that I think about it maybe he deserves a post of his own where I let people know what I think about his theories.

Martin Berkhan said...

Bill & Ankit,

"Are we able to combine what Tom says with the 16/8 Leangains style?"

Yeah, sure.

lylemcd said...

A comment on Bernadot's work. As I recall, he took athletes (maybe female gymnasts, already a group known for disordered eating) and did something like

a. had them self-recall diet
b. had them self-recall activity across the day

And then looked for major excursions between intake and output. Something along those lines.

And found that bigger energy balance excursions correlated with higher body fat or something.

But already we've got
1. Two self-reported data sets
2. A group known for disordered eating

Along with the endless empirical/experiential data of Martin and the IF'ing community showing that it's all a bunch of bs.

there's also a couple of studies showing that, even if net fat deposition IS higher from larger meals during the day, assuming a fixed caloric intake, the body is still using more fat for fuel the rest of the time. Hence 24 hour caloric balance still holds.

that is, while you *might* store more fat after the bit meals, you're burning more during the other times of day. End result = it doesn't matter.

Unless, of course, the bigger meals lead you to EAT MORE (the usual confound in all of this).


morbo said...

Lyle, that is indeed the nature of his research - in fact it is even more laughable than that - they were asked not only to self report activity and diet, but to recall some theoretical 'representative' day:

"On arrival in the laboratory, subjects were asked to de-
scribe a recent typical day's schedule to a trained inter-
viewer. This information included time, duration, and in-
tensity of each activity during the day, with a description of
foods and beverages that were consumed during each de-
fined activity period of the day."

He also jumped to some wacky conclusions in the discussion section.

Highly reccommend everyone listen to Bernadot's interview here:

I listened to it in good faith, what with his credentials and all, expecting to hear a well reasoned and researched argument for his position, instead I found a huge amount of willful ignorance - just for starters, in Bernadot's world. meals are digested instantly, and the body addresses any acute energy deficit with a swift, more or less binary switch from burning circulating glucose, to burning glucose liberated by muscle catabolism. Draw your own conclusions on listening.

Don't expect him to change his mind anytime soon, he has built a whole business model around this idea:

Even has an iphone app - really it's an orthorexic's dream! One can only hope there is a voice that kicks in to warn you when the line crosses the -300 calorie balance barrier "WARNING, Bro! Entering catabolism! Muscular atrophy, commencing!"

Would absolutely love to see him confronted on this stuff at some point, but I'm sure it will never happen. Frankly I'm rather surprised Tom decided to include or even lend credence to this stuff, given his reputation.

Eek said...


At this point Martin's books is more elusive than the real Holy Grail.

Martin Berkhan said...


"Frankly I'm rather surprised Tom decided to include or even lend credence to this stuff, given his reputation."

Yeah, so am I.

Marc David said...

Nice review Martin. I've taken to doing cardio on the days I'm not hitting the weights, to avoid doing any cardio after weights. Although I do see Tom's point of including it in there as some people are pressed for time.

Interesting observation that you think it's best to give less options. Give a person too many choices and they choose none? Or you feel it just confuses them too much?

One of the more interesting and actual human reviews of the Holy Grail Body Transformation program. Most are slap up ad copy and I'm glad to see your honest take on this.

Martin Berkhan said...

Too many options leads to anxiety, stress and, in the worst case, paralysis. The paradox of choice. There's a good book about this that I recommend reading (fittingly titled The Paradox of Choice).

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

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