Written by Nate Winkler
Nearly all of us have a similar goal: Get stronger, look better. Is that too much to ask? No one thinks these two things can happen simultaneously, but for 99% of us, luckily they can. You just have to consider a few, key variables, and throw away the misleading garbage that society is telling us.
The Lies & The Truth
Why Calories Matter
The first step in most fat loss programs is cutting calories. You’ve been led to believe, ‘It’s simple mathematics, if I burn more calories than I consume, that equals weight loss.” Well, not exactly. Cutting calories from your current consumption level, surprisingly, is one of the worst things you can do when trying to burn fat. For the vast majority of my clients, I actually increase their caloric consumption when they are aiming to lose ‘weight’.
Calories must remain high for many reasons — mainly because cutting calories drops max strength potential and after a week will cause your metabolism to plummet. Cutting calories causes leptin levels to drop in your body, your brain interprets this signaling as a threat to survival and communicates to your thyroid to reduce your overall metabolism (lower T3 hormone) and increase hunger. The result, reduced strength (lower energy, less lean body mass, reduced testosterone production) and increased junk food consumption due to internal ‘panic’ response. Cutting calories is not the answer, you will need to unlearn this myth our society has fed you — a society who’s the most obese in the history of mankind, by the way.
The Reason Behind Nutrient Timing
Another lie is that nutrient timing doesn’t matter. Often times, coaches argue, “It doesn’t matter when you’re eating something, it just needs to be healthy.” This couldn’t be further from the truth — go ask all the obese people roaming the isles of Whole Foods if eating ‘healthy/organic’ alone has improved their physique. Nutrient timing is crucial, when you’re eating something is just as important as what you’re eating.
I had this very conversation with a coach at the Become Unstoppable Seminar. They were adamant that nutrient timing doesn’t matter. I respect to a certain extent that the body will adapt and respond ‘positively’ to any diet regimen. But when the body is so heavily impacted by the minute by minute changes caused by chemical impulses (nerve impulses are chemical reactions that allow messages to be sent from brain to body), hormones (chemicals of the endocrine system), exercise, and food (chemical reactions occur when we eat it) — how could nutrient timing not be important to achieving your performance/body composition goals? In short, it is. (For more on Nutrient Timing strategies read ‘PR Smashing Nutrition’ and ‘You, The Only Thing That Works’)
How Aerobic Work Fits In
There is one truth that we must consider if your goal is getting stronger: aerobic work is an antagonist to maximal strength. Luckily, 99% of us are not at a level of performance where aerobic work will prevent us from gaining strength while using it to burn fat — if it’s the right kind of aerobic work. Most of us need more volume and work capacity in our programs anyway, aerobic work will give us this element. Aerobic work will also improve recovery and fat burn — if it is interval, alactic based.
I never understand when people who are 20-50lbs overweight think it’s a great idea to start running 5 miles/day. Do you think training your body to sustain long term energy expenditure is REALLY the best strategy for fat burn, do you think pounding your joints/ligaments repeatedly while over weight isn’t going to produce injury? When considering the type of aerobic work you’re going to do, think about the way Olympic 100m sprinters and marathoners look — both are ‘skinny’ but which athlete do you want to look like? Make your life easier and do interval based cardio, 20-30 seconds on, 40-120 seconds off, for 20-30 minutes total. It’s that simple — there’s lots of ripped people with Gold Medals that do the same thing (I’ve seen them do it first hand, check out my article ‘Why Your Hard Work Is Making You Fatter‘ for more information on this topic).
Real Life Example
A few months back we launched STRONG360, a community of strength, focused around creating an environment for improvement / information exchange. Within this community are forums where members can post questions specific for their circumstances, body’s, and goals. Often times, it’s simple to criticize and coach theoretically. In real-life, training/nutrition are not separate, unrelated categories, they are interdependent. I wanted to give you a example of how this might work for someone in real-life. Below is a question from ‘John’ about preparing for a powerlifting meet while trying to lose a substantial amount of body fat. (Learn more about STRONG360 and listen to an exclusive interview with Brandon Lilly)
I’m preparing for my 1st real meet in April. My main focus at the moment is being more healthy over all. I’m now around 280lbs, wanting to get to 220lbs, maybe lower depending on how I feel when I get there. I do feel like I’m carrying enough fat to get there, it’s mostly in my upper body lower back. My only issue is: nutrition is confusing me. I know i have to be in a deficit to lose fat. But Everything I read I get a different break down on Carb/Fats/Protein. I also understand that trying to lose fat while coming up on a meet might be counterproductive to my numbers but I want to compete for the experience. So I guess my real question is how should my macros/calories be looking.
John, you’re caught in a difficult place here. Dropping from 280lbs to any weight class beneath that will be an interesting challenge, going to 220lbs in 4 months could actually be dangerous from a metabolic standpoint. So let’s aim to be around 256 a week from the meet and cut the rest prior to weigh-ins.
Realistically, you can lose 2 lbs of fat per week, on an aggressive fat loss plan. You’ll of course need to limit your aerobic work because aerobic capacity increases almost always imply a reduction in 1RM numbers. You don’t need to drop calories to burn fat, you just need to increase the time between carbohydrate servings in order to emphasize fat (lipid) utilization in the metabolic processes.
With a goal & program like this, you should expect to lose 1.5lbs/week, that’s 6 lbs per month and in four months that’s 24 lbs — 256lbs, which is of course our goal weight.
On a traditional powerlifting program, you’re going to lift heavy 3-4 days per week, you’ll need to do some aerobic work the other 3 days to aid in fat loss on ‘off’ days. You shouldn’t do any aerobic work that induces muscle soreness, rather, do walks on the treadmill (20 min), bike tempos, etc.
If you’re 4 months away from your meet, I would ‘front load’ your program with high volume lifting and more aerobic work, so you hit your 256lb goal sooner (this is not to say that you shouldn’t have 2-3 reps at high %’s while getting to your goal weight). This will allow you to almost completely abandon aerobic work as you head into the meet (1RM strength emphasis) while keeping body weight at a good number to ‘cut’ from.
Assuming you train in the evening, use the early part of ‘training days’ and ‘off days’ to burn fat — start the day off with my ’40 Hour Fat Loss Morning Mocha’ — 1 cup coffee, 1/2 cup almond milk, 1-2 tbsp coconut oil, 2 tbsp peanut butter, 1/2 scoop protein (vanilla/chocolate), a pinch of stevia — blended. Then don’t eat until lunch time. If you’re training that day, eat carbs at lunch, if you’re not training that day, don’t — but keep calories high via animal protein and fats (avocado, almonds, etc). There are only two rules — never train heavy if you’re carb depleted (hence the lunch time carbs), and always consume carbohydrates while training heavy during your training session. You will utilize the explosive, glycolytic pathway better by replenishing carbohydrates during training. (This is why Carb Backloading doesn’t work for performance — it demands that you abandon carbohydrates when you need them most, but that’s another discussion altogether).
After training heavy, because your focus is fat burn, and you have adequate glycogen stores from eating carbs at lunch and during training — go low carb, high protein/fat/veggie, until it is time to prepare for your next heavy training session.
This should help you progress towards your meet in April in a logical manner. No crash dieting, no aerobic training close to a powerlifting meet. Just consistent, sustainable fat loss.
In my new book, ’40 Hour Fat Loss’, I spell out every exercise/set/rep at multiple program levels that allow you to maximize strength and fat loss. This book will also have TONS of quick recipes like the Morning Mocha above that allow you to realistically meet your body/budget goals and work full time.
Until then, good luck, and keep in touch with your progress.
Making This Information Yours
This information is useless until you incorporate it into YOUR program. What are your goals, your sex, and your schedule — and how can you use this to improve YOUR results? Progress, sustainable progress, is made over the course of weeks and months, not days. Fat loss is not just about working out harder, it’s about making a lifestyle change.
Paul Nobles of Eat To Perform made a brilliant statement to me concerning his approach to fat loss, “We have to first get people healthy enough for fat loss.” That is such a genius concept that many overlook (check out our discussion below). Fat loss isn’t dependent on the next ground breaking circuit workout, it all depends on your ability to commit to consistently reversing the habits in your life that caused you to gain body fat. Cut the TV off, get into bed, cook your own food, eat what’s right when you’re supposed to eat it, and train hard. It’s that simple, the only remaining question is — will you make the sacrifices necessary to reach your goals?
Many of you like having scientific resources cited when making claims like these above. Scientific research is useful and has a purpose in creating more accurate hypotheses, but they do not reveal bedrock fact in the real world. If I put numbers beside everything I say will that permit me to make claims that are truly unfounded in reality? There are studies out there citing that single leg squats build the squat better than the traditional back squat does, do you believe them? Look, science and research done in labs is useful for theoretics only — the majority of the time they are done on the elderly, diabetics, or endurance athletes. Please take this into consideration when you read ‘research’ moving forward. The test subjects might as well be from another planet when compared to the fine tuned machinery occurring in competitive athletes under the age of 40, or to the stress/energetic demands the average mother experiences each day. Science directs my experimentation, real results drive my claims. My goal is to help people, it’s heartbreaking to see individuals continually mislead while their hard work/money/health is wasted. I intend to put an end to that.
Here are a couple of studies for further research on the interdependency of leptin signaling, thyroid (T3) regulation, and calories/food consumption. I hope you find them useful.
- Simple, Short, but effective Introduction
- Ahima, R.S., et al. 1996. Role of leptin in the neuroendocrine response to fasting. Nature. 382:250–252.
- Great Discussion on Leptin