Ever meet someone that was super fit and had to ask them…how did you get like that?
That was my experience when I bumped into Brion. “Wow dude your ripped” I exclaimed.
So how did he get in shape? See for yourself…
Where it all Began
So as you see there I was, just after completing my first year of medical school.
An arduous year consisting of long laborious days, late night pepperoni pizzas and even later nights of stress and red bull fueled study.
With three months of summer before me I was relishing the fact that I could finally commit to an exercise program that was more than just a 20 minute aimless fart around the limited dusty dormitory gym in the basement of my student accommodation.
Thankfully, I wasn’t too drastically out of shape, walking around at 165 lbs. 75 kg, 6’1, 18 years old.
My fast metabolism accounted for the repercussions of how I knew the delivery driver of Route 66 Pizza on a first name basis and quite possibly his work schedule too.
I wasn’t particularly fat, but I didn’t have veins on my abs either, or visible abs at all now you mention it. I was middle of the road, an in-betweener somewhat, and subject to a mainstream term in the health and fitness industry nowadays known as “Skinnyfat”.
I didn’t have much muscle mass so I was relatively skinny, but I was also carrying some additional body fat, and so you see how the term was coined and how it applied to me.
In July 2014 I was about as motivated as I have ever been. I began weight training at a local hotel gym, it was neither state of the art nor particularly glamorous.
But after seeing some “hardcore, no excuses” bodybuilding motivation on Youtube it sternly convinced me that it had everything I needed.
My training split consisted of various upper body sessions three times per week with an intensity lacking and often non-appearing leg workout reluctantly tossed in there somewhere.
In terms of diet I consistently ate about as much as I could stomach, force feeding myself into gaining weight and hoping muscle growth was attributing to at least some of that weight gain.
My diet very strictly consisted of the “bro foods” that I saw the professional bodybuilders eating; oats, egg whites, chicken, fish, brown rice (I had somehow been convinced that white rice was not as anabolic as brown), sweet potatoes (supposedly vastly superior to white potato), pasta.
And of course the celebrated, sought after and unquestionable protein shakes that I guzzled down within minutes after training to ensure I capitalized on the glorious and elusive “anabolic window”.
Knowing what I know now almost four years on, it’s almost comical to think how little I knew back then, or even more frightfully what I thought I knew.
What’s more amusing again is the fact that it actually worked. Within a matter of a few months I had made gains.
Considerable ones. My strength and muscle mass had improved substantially thanks to the fitness formula I had cracked all on my own with just some intermittent help from the trusty YouTube search bar.
Some may find it ironic that I see my nutritional and training practices as comical despite actually yielding quite significant results, but the truth be told I hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was doing.
I was clueless as to what calories or macronutrients were, even worse I hadn’t even considered what my own nutritional needs were with respect to my goals.
Worse again my training was completely unstructured and my form when performing exercises in the gym was far from optimal and at times could have even been considered dangerous and injury provoking.
To top it all my righteous compass had become completely skewed, I was no longer striving towards a healthier approach to diet and lifestyle, I just wanted to have more impressive beach muscles, hence skipping the leg days.
And this is precisely the reason why the “well it worked for me” approach is somewhat naive and ill-advised, yes it may arouse some results but only to a certain degree and at what cost?
Unbiased, conclusive evidence based research definitively reveals the methods that are scientifically proven to yield the best results in the most efficient manner whilst simultaneously improving our general health.
An approach that I will define in detail in the latter part of this piece.
And so I religiously continued with my training parallel to the hardcore “eating big to get big” mentality, where whatever number of meals, gainer shakes or supplements was still never enough in regards to the pros and this continued right up until almost two years later,
- April 2016, where I found myself at 90kg / 198lbs.
- After realizing the hard way that the addition of the daily gainer shake to my already pretty stacked intake hadn’t done me any favors in the lean gains department.
I therefore concluded it was time to embark upon the second venture within the realms of fitness nutrition, to shed the excess body fat and maintain the coveted muscle, more widely known as the “cutting” process.
It was at this point I timely discovered and began following advocates of evidence based research, where I myself began to learn the science of nutrition, energy balance, how to tailor nutritional needs individually and what science had actually proven to be the most efficient way to improve body composition.
I began to employ these principles for a 12 week period in my first ever cutting phase and by June 2016 I was overwhelmingly pleased not only with the results but particularly with the rationale of the process that got me there.
That then brings us to June 2017
…After applying the same principles to a subsequent lean gaining and later cutting phase where executing the fundamentals of establishing sustainable, healthy dietary practices became key not only to improve training performance but the principles dovetailed nicely with the promotion of health.
The Science of How it Can Be Done
Before delving into specifics, there are some basic principles of energy balance to understand.
Energy balance is essentially calories in (caloric content of food & beverages consumed) VS calories out (calories burned by exercise and our natural body processes).
- When caloric input is greater than caloric output, weight gain ensues.
- When caloric output is greater than caloric input, weight loss ensues.
- And when caloric input and output are equal, body weight remains the same1.
This is by no means ground-breaking information but it is the outright basis of what direction we will decide to take our diet and training.
Figuring out our first step can often be the most challenging task however the answer will be determined by our starting point and of course by what our personal goals are.
Generally speaking in terms of general population, the goal will be to obtain a healthy and more athletic body composition.
Therefore the decision making process essentially boils down to which one of the following phases we choose to adhere to:
1. Lean Gaining
Where caloric intake is less than output in order to lose our excess body fat whilst maintaining/possibly gaining strength and muscle levels4 .
3. Maintain & Recomposition
Here we also look to maintain/re-gain strength & muscle levels whilst shedding excess body fat. The difference between here and cutting however is that caloric input can be at maintenance level and equal to output.
This is primarily for subjects who were well trained in the past but are now returning to training after a “holiday” period whose bodies are “recompositioning” back towards previous levels of body fat and muscle5,6 .
Having found the most suitable category above that is relevant to you the next step is to determine caloric intake needs.
Caloric input will be continually based and regulated by TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure).
This is made up of a few components but essentially means how many calories our body burns on a day to day basis and can be very simply calculated by referring to an online TDEE calculator.
It is worth mentioning that TDEE differs among everyone and that it can be considerably different from any given day to another due to the fact that we also burn calories from daily activities that it not strictly considered as exercise.
Activities such as standing, walking and any general movement, this also contributes to TDEE and is known as NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis)1.
Setting Up Your Own Nutritional Approach
So now that we know our required caloric intake we need to begin to consider what foods will make up those calories, or more specifically what amounts of each macro-nutrient.
The three macro-nutrients are protein, fat and carbohydrate.
Therefore the foods making up our diet will depend on their macro-nutrient profile in conjunction with our own personal and preferred macro-nutrient targets.
It is within best interest that 90% of our diet be made up of wholesome nutrient-dense foods such as; lean protein sources (meats, seafood, eggs, beans, chic peas) complex carbohydrates (green vegetables, whole grains like oatmeal and pasta, rice, potatoes, quinoa, cous cous) and finally healthy fat sources (oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds)10.
The remaining 10% may be made up of foods that are not necessarily as nutrient dense however they make our life that bit easier in terms of dietary adherence because in truth the best diet for an individual is the one that they have greatest adherence to.
Recommendations for setting macro-nutrient targets for an individual partaking in resistance training with an over all goal of increasing strength and muscle mass will be as follows.
The daily protein intake requirement that has been researched and proven to be adequate for appropriate protein synthesis and muscle growth is 0.8-1.2g (1 gram) of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.8-2.6g of protein per kilogram)7.
That’s not to say that protein intake outside this range is inadequate however the aforementioned ranges have been widely researched and proven to provide maximum growth.
The recommended guideline is that 15-30% of daily caloric intake be dedicated to fats8.
Finally for carbohydrates, we essentially just fill in the gap and allow the remainder of calories that are not already dedicated to protein and fats be reserved for carbohydrates8.
Using myself as an example, taking into account my daily activity TDEE calculator gave my TDEE as 2900kcal and as I am currently in a period of lean gaining, eating at a moderate surplus of 300kcal, my daily caloric requirement is 3200kcal at a body weight of 83.5kg/184Lbs.
Protein: 147-220g Protein/Day
(184 lbs x 0.8 or 1.2)
Fat: 53-106g Fat/Day
(3200 x 0.15 or 0.3 = 480-960kcal/Day from Fat Divided by 9 (as fats contain 9kcal/gram)
Carbohydrates: 340-533g Carbohydrate/Day
Regarding the ranges between each macronutrient; these are completely down to the personal preference of the individual and their diet.
In terms of tracking calorie and macronutrient intake from the foods we eat, easy to use apps like My Fitness Pal or My Macros Plus make life much more manageable.
As tedious as weighing and tracking food may sound to some, it is really the most accurate and reliable means of holding yourself accountable when it comes to dietary adherence.
Total daily caloric intake can be thought of as a financial budget, we would never purchase many items without knowing their cost relative to our budget and so the same principle can be applied to the “caloric cost” of certain foods relative to our “caloric budget”.
Of course not all of us have time nor wish to weigh and track our food before getting to finally sit down and enjoy it. However in the worst case it is recommended to carry out the process for at least a few days to begin with as this allows us to understand what calories/macro-nutrients will look like on our plate. This experience alone will be very beneficial down the line.
As a few parting words I would like to emphasize the importance of building the foundation to establish healthy dietary practices for life and noting how impertinent it is to avoid starvation, “Yo-Yo” and “get shredded in just one week” dietary fads.
The truth is there is no secret. Of course adherence to a diet of consistently choosing healthier alternatives can sometimes feel like an arduous task.
However it should be stressed that it’s nearly impossible to never eat any of our favorite foods again and this is what the other 10% of our diet mentioned earlier is for, to make adherence easier.
Sure we slip up and fall off for a period of time here and there but we should always be seeking to make healthier choices for life, creating a diet that is healthy, enjoyable and most importantly sustainable 9.
- SACN report Dietary Reference values for energy 2011 gov.uk
- Modeling Energy Dynamics in Mice with Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Fed High Calorie Diets. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27076790
- Energy and carbohydrate for training and recovery. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16766497
- Calories in, calories out and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28765272
- Muscle memory and a new cellular model for muscle atrophy and hypertrophy.
- A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women–a follow-up investigation.
- Protein Recommendations in Elite Athletes: A Focus on Body Composition and Performance https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29182451
- Nutrition and athletes.
- Macronutrients and caloric intake in health and longevity. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26021555
- US Dietary guidelines https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/