Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Secret Benefit of Being Lean

I sometimes get asked how it "feels to be lean" or hear remarks like "it must be awesome to be lean all the time".

I reply that I feel great and that being lean feels great. But that's not the whole truth.

People with a remote interest in fitness and health usually aspire to get lean and maintain that condition. They may also assume that reaching a satisfactory or awe-inspiring condition will elevate their lives to a new level. Much like people assume that winning the lottery will make their lives indefinitely better in just about every aspect.

In striving towards this goal, some people have an ideal body weight in mind. Others may have a mental image of their physique or an arbitrary body fat percentage in mind. Goals may vary a lot but expectations do not. Once the goal is reached, everything will be great.

I was only slightly different than the Average Joe in this regard. The difference being that I had been fairly lean for a good while. Most people would probably settle for that perfectly respectable condition. So while I didn't expect my life to improve much once I reached my ultimate goal, the goal was more like an itch that needed to be scratched until it went away. And once the itch was gone, I think I expected that it would elevate me to new heights in some vague undefined ways.

I reached my goal a few days before Christmas 2007. It was a great anticlimax.

The anticlimax

I was content and proud of myself for the fact that I finally conquered the goal I've had for several years. That I had reached a condition that I would be perfectly content to maintain rather than to seek constant improvement.

I decided this was good enough.

But the experience was disappointing in many ways. Is this it? It left me with a sense of a void inside myself. After all, I had invested a fair amount of energy in this over the years. Mental energy first and foremost. Having had to master thoughts of doubt (Am I really losing body fat? Should I be cutting calories further?). Spending time thinking about how to tackle social events without affecting progress negatively. At times having to exert restraint when cravings came.

In the final weeks maintaining the diet was not an issue. Intermittent fasting made it a breeze relatively speaking. But I was still plagued with doubt and worried whether I would reach my goal before Christmas. I was adamant in reaching my goal before Christmas, since I wanted to switch to maintenance before the ensuing food fest on Christmas Eve. Trust me, ending a diet on a holiday such as Christmas is a bad idea.

The secret benefit of being lean

It wasn't until after a few weeks that it dawned upon me what the real benefit of being lean is. That is, lean enough for you to be completely content and happy about your physical condition.

Are you ready? Because I'm about to reveal to you something that is rarely talked about. Something few people might not understand before they've been through the same experience.

The secret benefit of being lean is that it's an immense time saver.

Be honest with yourself: if you're on a diet, you spend a fair amount of time thinking about it. Being perfectly content saves up an astounding amount of mental energy. Gone are the worries, doubts and obsessions about diet, weight and all other issues pertaining to reaching your goal. The itch is gone. No need to scratch it anymore.

But that void needs to be filled with something. You will suddenly rediscover new interests and hobbies - I did. Don't fill the void with more training*. Fill it with reading, family, friends or whatever you like. Learn to be content once your ultimate goal is reached. Set new goals**, but learn to accept slower, gradual progress.

* Guys have a tendency to fill the void with more training in order to pack on more muscle once they consider themselves done dieting. If they're not dieting, they're training themselves into the ground. Yes, I used to be that guy a long time ago.

** I set a few new goals related to relative strength. Progress in relative strength is in my opinion the best measure of lean muscle gain while maintaining low body fat.

What's the lesson here?

After my experience, I tend to view fitness related goals as means to self-improvement, not happiness. Setting goals and conquering them leads to a sense of achievement and it teaches you things about yourself. If your "itch" is to achieve and maintain an extraordinary physique, getting there will make you a better person. But not for the reasons you might initially think. If the goal is of particular importance to you, as it was for me, it frees up an immense amount of time once the goal is reached - time that can be spent on improving yourself in other areas of life.

Related resources:

Maintaining Low Body Fat
Intermittent Fasting, Set-Point and Leptin
The Marshmallow Test
How To Look Awesome Every Day

Friday, March 26, 2010

Alan Aragon On Intermittent Fasting

"My thoughts in IF, briefly, are that it's a highly understudied area.

The more research I review, the more I've come to find out how well-adapted the human species is to prolonged periods of zero food. There are several variants of IF, some are less conducive to typical recomp goals than others. I have come to appreciate many of the virtues of the incarnation of IF that Martin Berkhan has developed. In the past I have been highly critical of lower meal frequency, but much of that was a product of being stuck in the dogma of the mainstream curriculum. None of the 'stoking of the metabolic fire' stuff has been solidly supported by research. Now, whether IF has any *special* effects remains anecdotal. I will concede that I was incorrect about my former negatively slanted stance towards IF. "

- Alan Aragon

Recent quote from the bodybuilding.com forums. He is right on point with regards to intermittent fasting being a highly understudied area, particularly in the context of controlled human studies. Much of the research I'm looking at involves various confounders such as ad libitum calorie intake and no non-IF-control group. Not to mention that studies on intermittent fasting and weight training are completely lacking.

There have been some studies on athletes during Ramadan fasting, which show interesting results. I briefly mentioned one such study in this post. However, one very obvious confounder that plagues the Ramadan-studies is that of fluid restriction. One would presume this would impact various performance related parameters negatively. Yet interestingly, tests suggests that both aerobic and anaerobic performance is left fairly intact in most studies on the topic.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Animal Pak Vs Leangains

I started posting about my approach to intermittent fasting back in 2006.

Back then my writings and results inspired many to take the leap themselves. My blog came into fruition 2007 and more people decided to give intermittent fasting a chance. My clientele grew exponentially.

Since then I've received numerous e-mails from people, telling me about their results and thanking me for the inspiration and advice on this blog and the various forums I've posted on throughout the years.

Success stories

I've decided to post some of these success stories on the blog. If you have a success story of your own, feel free to e-mail me and tell me about it. If you have some before and after pics that would be great too. To narrow it down, I'm only interested in success stories where you feel I played some part. Maybe you feel you learned something useful from my writings that helped you change your physique for the better.

Bob Kupniewski

First out is Bob Kupniewski who recently won a muscle gaining contest, Iron Contest 2, hosted by Animal Pak (a big supplement company). The cool thing is that he did it by going against the advice of the trainer*, which was to eat seven times a day. Bob fasted at least 16 hours daily and ate two to three times a day. And won the damn thing.

* The trainer posted general diet and training guidelines on the Animal Pak forum.

Bob and the Animal Pak trainer at Arnold Classic.

Bob converted to the Leangains approach after having read my posts at bodybuilding.com. Here are his before and after pics that won him the competition. These were taken Nov 30th 2009 and March 1st 2010.

Stats in the before-pics.

Weight: 153 lbs
Squat: 235 lbs x 7
Bench: 220 lbs x 5
Deadlift: 225 lbs x 10

Stats in the after-pics.

Weight: 171 lbs (+ 18 lbs)
Squat: 275 lbs x 8 (+ 40 lbs and + 1 rep)
Bench: 255 lbs x 5 (+ 35 lbs)
Deadlift: 285 lbs x 10 (+ 60 lbs)

According to BodPod-readings, Bob's body fat was 11% in the before-pics and 11.2% in the after-pics. This must be off by a few percentage points as in my view he's more along the lines of 14-15% in both pics. It's not often you see someone pack on 18 lbs without their body fat percentage changing much. The quality of the weight gain was very high. Well done, Bob.

I asked Bob to write about how he felt about intermittent fasting and this is what he wrote.

"I came from a background of working with previous trainers that always approached a higher meal frequency. Everything had to revolve around 4-6 meals per day in order to 'Keep the metabolism going, and stimulating muscle protein synthesis the best.' I would always be in a hurry to packing my food everyday, spending countless hours in the kitchen, and while working 2 jobs over the summer and not having much time for a gym, and food prep consuming my time I knew that something was not right and there was an easier alternative out there.

I am a full time education major, on top of that I am getting a minor in Economics to add to my resume. My time is very limited, and I cannot afford to sit around and eat throughout the day as my schedule does not allow much time for breaks. I saw a few people from the bodybuilding.com forums who took the Leangains approach to intermittent fasting, and I thought I should give this a try myself to see how it would suit me.

How do I feel about intermittent fasting? It's more of a lifestyle if anything, I enjoy eating big and eating a few times a day. I have had the best workouts of my life fasted and I have spent less time at the dinner table but yet am making incredible results in the weight room and in the mirror. Once I have turned this way I really don't see why I should ever turn back.

Now I can go out and enjoy family social events where food may not be very clean, but I can just eat a very large portion of protein in a meal prior and graze on foods to meet my caloric total for the day and not stress about a damn thing and be social without having to pull out Tupperware and eat some nasty ass fish or eggs.

Fasted training has brought the best of both worlds. Increased energy, better focus, and it has provided personal records for me over and over for the last 4 months. Even dealing with a low testosterone issue I am still seeing gains in the gym by keeping my gym time short (45 minutes) and not training as frequent (4x a week max). I used to do 5 day splits, hit every bodypart at least 2 x a week, and spend over 60-90 minutes, but then I got so worn out and tired that I saw no progress and cortisol levels were stressed to the max. It was not worth it and I needed to change my ways.

Martin's idea of less time in the gym and more rest seemed odd at first, but once I got the hang of it my body and lifts exploded. I do not see myself ever going back."

- Bob Kupniewski

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Mainstream Debunks The Myth

It' about goddamn time. New York Times nonetheless.

What I find frustrating is that he says "some" studies have found health benefits with smaller meals, when the opposite is true as well. And not to mention, while some studies found an insignificant increase in metabolic rate with a dozen mini-meals per day, the great majority of meal frequency studies actually point in favor of lower meal frequencies as noted in a widely cited review of the topic (but the difference is statistically insignificant). It's puzzling that the high meal frequency myth has managed to survive for so long.

Click here to see my review of the study mentioned in New York Times. You can also click the meal frequency tag if you want to read my other posts related to meal frequency, fasting and metabolism. There's all kinds of goodies here...

And if you love me, make sure you tweet the shit out of this.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Intermittent Fasting, Set-Point and Leptin

I ranted a little about diet approach, leptin and the set-point theory on bodybuilding.com.

Figured it could make for a decent post here. I added some extras in the form of a short review on the effects of intermittent fasting on leptin.


Short background on leptin and set-point

Leptin is a master-hormone with downstream effects on other hormones related to metabolism (T3/T4, neuropeptide-Y, epinephrine, among many others).

In the long-term, leptin is regulated by total amount of fat mass. A drop in leptin affects the other hormones negatively and vice versa. Low leptin leads to an increase in hunger and a decrease in metabolic rate, much like high leptin leads to a decrease in hunger and an increase in metabolic rate.

Generally speaking, lean people have low levels of leptin while obese have high levels of leptin. However, in the latter case, leptin resistance develops. This is likely an effect of chronically elevated leptin, much like insulin resistance is an effect of chronically elevated insulin.

The set-point theory of body weight-regulation is intimately connected to leptin and has a strong genetic component to it. Naturally lean people maintain a low body fat set-point by being leptin-sensitive; they can maintain a low body fat percentage and function optimally even with low leptin. But most of us aren't so lucky, which is why getting really lean is typically a difficult task.

Dieting in the single digit body fat-range

Lyle McDonald paints a dark picture of life in the low body fat percentage-range. Yet I and my clients maintain a low body fat % without any of the often cited symptoms, such as anhedonia, low libido and a general sense of weakness. It's hard to argue against the literature on the topic, since it's substantial and shows that these side-effects indeed occur. However, it bears mentioning that the studies looking at leptin levels after dieting are limited in the sense that they often use conventional dieting strategies that entail a pronounced weekly calorie deficit for both men and women.

I too experienced the aforementioned side-effects in the past, That is, before I finally "got it right." What does that mean exactly?

Me at a skinny 165 lbs. Editorial work in Milan. My approach to dieting back then wasn't exactly ideal.

During my last cutting diet, that is the one that took me to 5.5% where I have hovered ever since, I did the following things right:

1. I lost the final pounds of fat very slowly and the weekly calorie deficit was subtle. The scale moved down as slow as one pound every other week. On the other hand, I barely felt like I was dieting and I maintained strength and muscle surprisingly well.

2. I was able to make a smooth transition into maintenance. I did not count the days until the diet ended, and I did not sit and plan a big refeed to celebrate when I was done. I didn't feel deprived, daydreaming about food.

3. I would do a extremely controlled and modest refeed 3x/week or 3x/8 day (on training days).

Now contrast this to what I did in the past, which caused me to feel miserable during the whole process and experience rebound weight gain:

1. I wanted to lose as fast as possible so I could work on muscle gaining. The weekly calorie deficit was fairly substantial given my already low body fat percentage - I was losing in the range of 1-1.5 lbs/week. I felt deprived and just wanted to get it over with. Strength and muscle loss was substantial.

Another one. From a shoot in M√ľnich. Weight around 165 lbs or so.

2. 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).

3. I did no refeeds during the diet.

So what's the lesson here and how does it relate to the topic at hand?

Leptin: science versus real world

Leptin is controlled primarily by two things, which are

a) Short term: acute energy balance. A high calorie deficit causes leptin to drop lower than what can be explained by fat loss, and a caloric surplus raises leptin higher than what can be explained by fat gain.

b) Long term: total amount of fat mass. Fat cells are factories for leptin production. Not having many factories obviously impairs production and the aboslute amount of leptin in circulation.

If A can be manipulated via a subtle energy deficit and regular refeeds of the right macrocomposition (carb refeeds acutely increase leptin, while fat has no effect), this should prove beneficial to circulating leptin levels during the diet. It might prove fruitful to "trick" the last few pounds of fat off while venturing into the single digits. Another cyclical diet that has much in common with this strategy is The Ultimate Diet 2.0 though I'm in favor of more frequent, more modest, refeeds and no glycogen depletion outside what occurs with a low-moderate training volume.

If anecdotal reports mean something, this is my standard approach for clients and it's working well. I'm not an isolated case. For example, have a look at Andreaz in this post on maintaining low body fat. And we're no ectomorphs by any means. I grew up fat. Science dictates I wouldn't be able to stay this way (low body fat) without feeling completely miserable, but that's just not the case. The avatar pic was taken at the end of 2007, and I've stayed that way ever since. But I failed many times in the past. Only when I learned patience did I attain my goal.

Now, this little theory of mine, that fat needs to be lost very slowly in the single digit range, still leaves questions as it pertains to B, which is that leptin is ultimately controlled by total amount of fat mass.

Several years and 30 lbs later, I finally "got it right".

Low fat mass equals low leptin. Can leptin sensitivity increase if weight is maintained on a low body fat % for a prolonged period of time? Sadly, there are no studies to suggest that for the time being. Can it increase through other means? Well, exercise and fish oil seem to improve leptin transport, so there's that.

But what I think people really want to know is how intermittent fasting affects leptin levels and there's some interesting research on that topic.

Intermittent fasting and leptin

Generally speaking, studies show a neutral effect on average leptin levels during intermittent fasting. While the fasting period decreases circulating leptin, this is compensated by a big boost when refeeding. In comparison to conventional meal frequencies, intermittent fasting induces a "peak and valley"-pattern in leptin synthesis. Leptin secretion is thus entrained to the meal pattern and shifting meal timing causes a comparable shift in plasma leptin rhythm.

However, there are some interesting discrepancies here in that women actually show a big increase in mean leptin levels during intermittent fasting. This occurs even in the absence of weight gain which is all the more fascinating. In the quoted study, despite calorie intake being elevated in comparison to baseline intake, the women actually lost weight and lowered waist circumference and body fat percentage. Intermittent fasting was also shown to decrease neuropeptide-Y, a hormone that stimulates hunger. This could probably be explained by elevated leptin levels, but there was no linear correlation between the two in this case.

Similar effects have also been shown to occur in men. That is, fat loss occurred without any reduction in leptin - and these were fairly lean athletes to begin with.

Intermittent fasting may also be of benefit when dieting in the single digit range due to the effect of fasting on the fat mobilizing hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. When you’re in the single digit body fat range, you’re likely to have low circulating levels of leptin. One of leptin’s downstream effects is on epinephrine and norepinephrine output. Low leptin equals impaired output of the aforementioned hormones. This is part of how leptin regulates metabolic rate. However, it seems that these hormones increase regardless during fasting. That is, leptin is not able to exert it’s usual power over these hormones. In this case, their increase cannot be mediated by leptin which allows fat mobilization to go on unabated during fasting.

That's it for now. There's plenty more on this topic, but I'll save that for some other time.


* Fat loss in the single digit body fat-range needs to be slow and tempered. In my experience, this allows for a smooth transition into maintenance and minimizes muscle loss. I also believe it might lessen the negative effect of dieting on leptin, which ultimately makes maintenance of low body fat achievable. I think most people diet too hard, which has a profoundly negative effect on leptin - and this is part of the reason why the weight gain rebound is so common in folks who finally manage to reach their goal (and then screw up everything by binging).

* Planned and regular refeeds should be in place. This affects leptin positively and allows for maintenance of muscle and strength. Even if your goal ultimately is fat loss, entering an anabolic phase with post-workout overfeeding will serve you well.

* Intermittent fasting seems to have interesting effects on leptin synthesis. Whether this has benefits for low body fat maintenance or circulating mean leptin levels is up for speculation for the time being.


For more on leptin and set-point, read this and this. I've also talked about the effects of our obesogenic environment on set-point and weight regulation in this post. Somewhat related to the topic at hand, I've also posted on strategies for maintaining low body fat.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

When Supplements Do More Harm Than Good

"...in physique development and sports performance, even rather intelligent folks can be resistant to removing any one element of the puzzle when they are currently pleased with the results being produced and see things consistently moving in the desired direction over time. Are there any practical ways to help such people break the 'perception is reality' mindset where they would otherwise embrace evidence to the contrary that may be presented but are pleased with their results to the point of wanting to stick to the current recipe or rotation of recipes 'as is'?"

That was part of a comment a user made in response to Alan Aragon's recent post. The quote raises an interesting point in regards to how some people think about supplementation. Which is, despite being aware of the lack of any evidence of efficacy of the supplement in question, they continue taking it once they started.

Among some people there is an almost superstitious fear involved in removing any "pieces of the puzzle," due to a belief that on some level it might affect their results. The pattern of thinking is similar to that of obsessive compulsory disorder. The individual is aware of his irrational behavior, but dares not break the pattern for fear that bad things will happen.

Not unique to supplementation, this thought-pattern also includes certain behaviors related to training and diet. I've met and conversed with a fair share of educated people that clung to certain irrational beliefs in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence disproving them. But let's focus on supplementation for now.

What's the harm? Is it a money issue? Partly. After all, you're spending money on stuff that isn't doing you any good while supplement-company CEOs are laughing all the way to the bank. Then again, most people, including me, spend money on things with questionable usefulness. Unless your supplement regimen is seriously impacting your economy, this argument may be a moot point.

The real problem in this obsessive over-reliance on supplements is that they may actually be hampering your efforts on many levels. Here are few examples of what I mean:

* I've dealt with a fair share of clients that were resistant to the idea of omitting the post-workout-cocktail that they had relied upon until working with me. These "recovery shakes" consisted of an ample amount of very high GI-carbs, such as waxy maize starch, maltodextrin or dextrose, mixed with whey protein. In some cases this added more than 400 calories to their diet. That's more than 400 non-satiating liquid calories with low nutrient value that were a big part of why they couldn't lose fat efficiently in the past. These post-workout-cocktails serve no function whatsoever for the recreational weight trainer. Faster muscle glycogen synthesis is a moot point for everyone but elite athletes, who may train twice a day. The use of recovery drinks during a fat loss regimen is extremely counterproductive. Those calories are much better spent on whole foods.

* Over-reliance on protein shakes to meet protein intake poses a similar problem. People need to learn to eat and enjoy whole food protein. In more than a few cases it's just an issue of laziness or habituation.

* Some people believe that supplementing with BCAA on top of an already BCAA-rich diet has benefits despite any evidence to suggest so. Alan deals with this issue in his latest research review. Similar to the points made above, that this only provides additional non-satiating calories to your diet, there's also evidence to suggest that BCAA-supplementation may have "anti-anorexic" properties and stimulate appetite. Certainly not a desirable effect during dieting. If you're eating high quality protein sources such as meat, fish, cottage cheese and egg-protein, there is no need to supplement with BCAA.

Note: I recommend BCAA-supplementation for fasted training, but not in addition to meals or in between meals. My stance hasn't changed much since the BCAA-roundtable I participated in.

* A high calcium intake equals better fat loss, but very high intakes are linked to prostate cancer.

* Mega-dosing omega-3-fatty acids seems to be a trend in some circles, but this comes with a list of not so desirable side-effects. The less serious ones includes fish breath and diarrhea, and the more serious one is excessive bleeding. Fish-oil has a blood-thinning effect which may cause your blood not to coagulate quick enough if you suffer a cut or injury. And if you're unlucky enough to suffer a major injury, this side-effect can potentially prove fatal. You could also be increasing your risk of exposure to chemicals and toxins like mercury and PCB (on a related note: see this).

* Antioxidants are popular these days. They claim to do everything from slowing the ageing process to help with recovery from training. But recent studies show that ingesting antioxidants from supplements weakens the body's own response to deal with free radicals created by training. In a similar vein, excessive Vitamin C-intake slows mitochondrial biogenesis and prevents some cellular adaptations to exercise.

I hope I'm clear: some supplements can be useful, which I covered in my supplement guide. But in some cases, they may do more harm than good, be that from a purely behavioral point of view or a physiological point of view.

Monday, March 8, 2010

10 Random Thoughts On Weight Training

Just some random stuff I've either discussed or thought about in the last few days.


1. The deadlift is poorly suited to a high training frequency. I've never derived any benefit from training the lift more than once per week; and even that is pushing it in terms of recovery if I'm squatting heavy within that same week. Generally speaking, I've had my best deadlift-sessions while training the lift no more than once every 8-12th day.

2. When increasing the weight for a movement, you need to pay attention to the percentage increase in load. This may seem like common sense, but people are prone to ignore it and only think of the increase in terms of poundage. Guys are sometimes stumped about why they lose a lot of reps when switching to a heavier set of dumbells. They go from 50 lbs x 8 for seated dumbbell presses to 55 lbs x 5-6 - a loss of 2-3 reps accompanied by a feeling of "Oh shit. This was a lot heavier than I imagined." Well, a mere 5-lb increase in load for dumbbells often represents a +10% increase in load unless you're fairly strong. Assuming strength is unchanged, you'll lose about 1 rep for every 2.5% increase in load. Thus a 10% increase may cause the loss of 4 reps if you didn't gain any strength since the last session. So when you're moving up to the next pair of dumbbells, consider the percentage increase in the load you'll be working with. Make sure to get at least 8 reps with your current dumbbell-pair before jumping to the next pair; this will give you some leeway with regards to potential loss of reps and hopefully be able to eek out at least 5 reps using the new weight.

3. Going all out on some compound movements, i.e RPT, warrants a day of rest before returning to the gym. Attempting a second session within 24 hrs after the first is more often than not a losing strategy. I always note a negative effect on my strength on the second session - even if the lift(s) trained on the preceding day(s) involved completely different muscle group(s). For example, squats to failure will affect pressing strength on the next day. This is likely due to effects on the central nervous system caused by failure-training (such as RPT or HIT).

A crumpled old "training log". Don't matter where or how you keep it, but you better make damn sure you have one. For as long as I can remember I've been using old post-it notes to keep track of my workouts.

4. The primary function of weight-training on a diet should be to preserve muscle mass and maintain strength. If this attitude is in place, it's possible to increase strength and muscle mass while losing fat depending on the training status of the client.

5. I am not a fan of "metabolic" workouts or glycogen-depletion as a means to fat loss. It's inferior to regular weight-training and not a time-efficient way to increase calorie expenditure. It also tends to increase the perceived challenge of the diet; lactate-inducing workouts can be gruesome. My goal is always to make the diet as painless and easy as possible. Painful workouts are never part of the plan.

6. During fat loss, no one needs to weight-train more than 3x/week. Muscle groups don't need higher frequency than 1x/week if intensity is high. Find more productive things to do with your time. Most people screw themselves over by being in the gym too much and too often. Less is more and this is especially true on a diet.

7. Studies suggest greater strength gains with longer rest periods. In a recent study, 5 minutes was superior to 1 and 3 mins. Too bad they didn't measure muscle gain. I wonder if longer rest periods would yield greater hypertrophy in the long run. I suspect it will.

8. Personality traits play a role in ultimately determining the right training routine. My experiment with high frequency training taught me a few things. One of those things is that I am hopelessly addicted to high intensity training and ill suited to be allowed in the gym for more than three sessions per week.

9. My experiment also taught me that high frequency training is quite effective when temperance is exercised. My template had me benching, chinning and squatting every fourth day with good success, but in only one of those sessions I was allowed to go anywhere near failure.

10. Generally speaking, people have no business contemplating specialization-routines for lagging body parts until they achieve two out of the following four goals: bench press 1.5 x body weight, chin-up 1.5 x body weight, squat 2 x body weight or deadlift 2.5 x body weight.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Maintaining Low Body Fat

February was a busy month and I didn't get around to posting much.

Since things have cooled down a bit and I need to get back into the habit of writing, I'm gonna kick off this month with an article that touches on a few factors that I believe are important for anyone wanting to maintain a lean appearance at all times of the year.

I've never been a fan of the bulk and cut approach. An approach often taken to the extreme by some of my peers, with the net result being that they only look decent during the summer months. Simply not my style. Perhaps it's a consequence of growing up fat. Perhaps it's because I'm more impressed by feats of great relative strength, for which leanness is critical. I'm not sure. It is what it is, like the saying goes.

Once I cut down to 5.5% body fat by late December 2007, I decided I wanted to stay that way if it was possible. Possible in this case meaning if I could maintain my sanity, social life and not feel miserable. I questioned the possibility since I failed many times in the past. Sure, I got plenty lean before. That wasn't the problem. I managed to get very lean for shows and photo-shoots back when I was modelling. Getting there wasn't the problem. Staying there was.

But I'd come a long way since my semi-starved modelling career and had managed to adopt a new perspective on things. It would prove to be crucial for my success this time.

This is my current condition. I'm a little heavier than I was in October, but not by much.

Maintaining the lean state

I use and work with four different approaches to intermittent fasting. All of them entails a 16 hour fast followed by 8 hours of feeding. 3 meals usually, 2 or 4 meals less usually.

1. Fat loss. Maximizing fat loss and minimizing muscle loss.

2. Lean gains. Maximizing muscle gain and minimizing fat gain.

3. Bodyrecomposition. Simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss.

4. Lifestyle (or maintenance). Incorporating intermittent fasting as a lifestyle diet that is very sustainable in the long run. The difference between this and other approaches are in the form of much looser guidelines and lessened focus on macronutrient and calorie-cycling. Slow bodyrecomposition can still occur.

The diet changes depending on what my clients favor, but they have many things in common. There's a system to it - specific guidelines for each approach. There's no guesswork. I'm fairly specific. Left are the lowest common denominators that I believe are conducive to maintaining, or achieving, the lean state. I will cover a few of them below.

One of my clients, Andreaz, after months on a lean gains phase. As you can see, he remained lean throughout the whole process. Weight gain was slow, but fat gain almost non-existent. This picture was taken a few days before we switched to a fat loss diet.

Intermittent Fasting

Well, this one was fairly predictable. Nevertheless, it needs to be addressed first and foremost in this article since it played such an important role for me. Intermittent fasting was a key factor in allowing me to stay very lean and looking great 365 days a year. It was the golden ticket. While I don't think intermittent fasting is for everyone, it released me from the chains of feeling the need to eat every 2-3 hours. It spared me the torture from having to be content with tiny kindergarten-style meals that would only leave me wanting more.

Some people may feel differently. Maybe they feel "just right" after a small meal every so often, and maybe they maintain a low body fat doing just that. But I never really felt satisfied with that approach. I always failed when I tried, and I tried for years. I did 5-6 meals of 400-500 calories or so and still felt like I was dieting. Sooner or later I'd blow my diet and overeat (a lot).

I prefer to eat big. When I eat, I eat. When I don't, I don't. That's how I'm wired and trying to fight against my natural inclinations always caused me to fail.

Intermittent fasting is in my opinion a very effective way to maintain some hedonism in your life while staying lean. I'm able to eat awesome meals (some go as high as 2000 kcal) without adding body fat. I wouldn't be able to do that on the six-meal-a-day-diets I tried to maintain on in the past. I never get cravings anymore. I don't fiend around for snacks. I don't need them.


The foundation of a diet conducive to maintaining and achieving the lean state needs to be built on a few specific dietary fundamentals.

My framework contains a few rules that I adhere to most of the time. Following these rules makes maintenance of the lean state possible and enjoyable. These dietary fundamentals can be said to establish a low body fat settling point (not the same as set point). This is what you can control to make sure you remain lean despite not having the genetic makeup for it. I sure don't. I grew up fat. But with the following strategies, I've remained very lean for years now. And it feels great.

However, I should note that these rules are meant to be broken from time to time. Life will come in the way some days. Flexibility and a non-rigid mindset are important traits to make this work.

Robert has been on a lean gains diet for almost four months without any noticeable fat gain. He's made substantial strength gains despite only gaining 4 lbs.


Some people rely heavily on cardio in order to maintain their leanness. This allows them to be somewhat more lenient with their diet. I am however no fan of cardio and don't use it to stay lean. In my view cardio as a strategy to maintain a low body fat percentage is not only time-consuming, but also a sure-fire way to hamper muscle and strength gains. If nor time or muscle gain is a concern then by all means continue your cardio regimen. But considering my priorities and those of my clients, I focus on the macrocomposition of the diet to maintain the lean state.

You'll often hear that 1 g protein/lb body weight is a good guideline for muscle gain. That's true. Studies show no additional benefit in going higher than that, assuming adequate calorie intake. But protein has other important qualities. I put great emphasis on it in every diet I design and believe it needs to be kept higher than the generic guidelines.

First and foremost, the effect on satiety is far superior to both carbs and fat. This ensures good diet compliance, since you won't get hungry and risk overeating.

Secondly, TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) is much greater for protein than for both carbs and fat. It's so significant that a researcher named Livesey proposed that protein should actually be counted as 3.2 kcal and not 4 kcal as the current guidelines state. In simple terms, in comparing two hypo-energetic diets at the same calorie intake, the diet with the highest protein percentage of total calorie intake will show superior results.

Last but not least, a high protein intake is absolutely crucial during fat loss if you want to optimize retention of muscle mass while losing weight.

A high protein diet is a key strategy to prevent overeating and warding off fat gain when attempting to gain qualitative weight. For fat loss additional benefits arise in terms of greater satiety, accelerated fat loss and sparing of lean mass.

Food choices

Most of your diet should consist of whole and unprocessed foods. One critical mistake people make when transitioning from dieting to (failed) maintenance or a muscle gaining diet is changing the food composition of the diet significantly. Out goes the fibrous veggies and whole food protein and in comes the refined carbs and protein shakes. Such foods invite overeating sooner or later. Most people don't have a problem gaining weight, they have trouble keeping it off - especially after dieting and reaching a low body fat percentage.

What you ate during your fat loss diet, satiating foods like veggies, fruit, berries, meat and cottage cheese, should also be a staple of your diet regardless of goal (muscle gain, bodyrecomposition, lifestyle). And minimize liquid calorie intake. Chew your calories, don't drink them.

While I'm not big on supplements, there are a select few that should be added to your diet if there is a need for it. For example, calcium increases fat excretion and Vitamin D plays an important role for metabolism. Making sure there is no lack of these micronutrients is therefore conducive to maintaining the lean state. For more on this, check out my supplement guide where I list the stuff I consider useful.

Calories and macronutrients: timing and cycling.

I've talked about this numerous times on the site, but in short I believe macronutrient and calorie cycling is an important part of a proper intermittent fasting setup. I've mentioned the potential benefits with regards to partitioning in the past, but this time I'd like to put a little more focus on the behavioral aspects. Simply put, there's a tendency for people to go lax and take too many liberties on diet setups and don't cycle phases of over-and underfeeding cycles.

Surplus calories should not be consumed each and every day, but in conjunction with training - when they are likely to be used for repair of damaged muscle tissues and recovery of glycogen stores. Conversely, slight underfeeding on rest days may have benefits mediated via mechanisms that kick in during calorie restriction (on top of the independent and positive effects of intermittent fasting), such as improvement in blood lipids and other health markers.

And then there's the fact that people simply get more productive with a lessened focus on food on rest days - they get stuff done. But this effect is unique for the short term. It's certainly not something that occurs with prolonged dieting, where thoughts of food may become overwhelming and obsessive. I actually prefer to have a few dieting days now and then. I've noticed I am at my most productive during those days and I certainly don't experience "dieting" symptoms such as increases in hunger.

So, cycling between overfeeding (training days) and slight underfeeding (rest days) is another excellent strategy to remain lean regardless of your goal. The benefits are not only physiological, but also behavioral.

Social events/eating

Some of my clients get anxious about attending social events, such as big family gatherings, parties and weddings. There will be tempting foods, maybe alcohol and various snacks and they will likely deviate from their diet. And when some people deviate from their diet, they lose control and overeat (usually on a plethora of sub par foods and snacks). Learning how to tackle social events that involve eating is therefore important for anyone wanting to get lean and remain lean - unless you plan on living your life like a hermit.

These events can be made into smaller issues with a good dose of self-control. But I can't assume that everyone is able to "eat in moderation." No, I have special strategy for such occasions. Assuming the event is in the evening, and that the client initiates his feeding phase around noon, I tell them to eat their full allotment of protein for the day before attending the event. They should keep everything else low; fat and carbs are consumed in whatever low amounts that are contained in the high protein foods eaten before the event. This creates a big caloric buffer for social eating AND ensures that the client comes to the party reasonably satiated and less prone to eat a bunch of junk.

Consider this easy and non-challenging strategy yourself. It has been a great help for myself and many clients.


* I follow intermittent fasting to maintain a shredded physique 365 days a year. For me and many others, it's an excellent way to enjoy dietary freedom without feeling deprived and constrained to your diet.

* I maintain a high protein diet and cycle carbs and fat depending on day. I chew most of my calories and my diet consists of whole foods primarily. By doing this, I'm rarely hungry and the diet is enjoyable and varied. I also believe that there physiological and behavioral benefits to macronutrient/calorie-cycling.

* I'm flexible and never let my diet rule my life get in the way of enjoying myself. Remember, it's the diet that you maintain 80% of the time that will dictate how you look. Not the occasional indulgences.

* There are easy strategies for tackling social situations, such as saving up for a "caloric buffer" later in the day.

So that's all for today. There's a little more to it, but I might save that for another article. Or my book, whenever the hell that will be out.

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

Welcome to the Internet's leading resource on intermittent fasting and all things related.

FeedBurner FeedCount

Google Friend Connect

Join Me on Twitter


Follow Me on Facebook

Recommended Reading

Lame Title, Good Book

Recommended Reading

Intermittent Fasting for Fat Loss

Recommended Reading

Covers All Bases

Recommended Reading

Awesome Recipes for The Paleo Diet
Recipes for the Paleo Diet - Two Cookbooks - 120 Recipes Each!>

Recommended Reading

Fat Loss Made Easy

Great Interval Timer

+1 If You Think Leangains is Awesome