The Goal For Weight Loss
For weight loss, ideally we’d like to lose unwanted fat, and at least not lose or possibly even gain muscle. I think that this should be a general goal of weightloss, especially as we age, since it is very hard to grow muscle (although studies conclusively show that the ability to do so is one of the few things that does not change with age: You can grow muscles at 80 much as you can at 18.) Going into a catabolic state for an extended period (meaning several days at least, with a very specific hormonal profile) will cause a loss of muscle. My strategy is to use insulin to slam the breaks on catabolism and to then somewhat restrict carbs at other times so that the body has to use up fat stores. You cannot be in a catabolic state if you are having increased insulin in your system. You never reach a carb depleted state with your muscle glycogen. This will also protect you against metabolic syndrome and I started doing this type of eating as a way to escape the prevalent diabetes in my family. Then I found out it totally rocks as a training strategy. Couldn’t be happier too.
To grow muscle you (and that’s all of you, male and female) need testosterone and insulin. This presupposed that you have enough stress coming from exercise to trigger growth. All the hormone manipulation and protein drinks in the world are useless if you do not back them with exercise. Testosterone is produced in the muscles and is therefore not gender specific, i.e., is it a myth that women who do power training get more masculine. Trust me. Unless they are taking them (illegally!) women get a lot more, well, girl-shaped for lack of a better term. Also, we are a sexually dimorphic species (as are most mammals), meaning that females are roughly 85% the size of a male and there is a marked difference in upper body strength naturally. There is not much difference in lower body strength for similary sized male and female athletes. To start the growth process though you must have your metabolism in anabolic (growth) mode rather than catabolic (weight-loss) mode. You cannot do them both generally because the metabolic profiles are different. Think of trying to drive a car in reverse and fifth gear at the same time.
Oh and never, ever take testosterone, human growth hormone or any other such anabolic steroids. Ever. I never have and have run into many people who have ended up with osteo-necrosis (joint death, often found in people who take steroids for asthma), heart issues, testicular atrophy (yes guys, why should the body keep them around if you’re getting the hormones elsewhere? And no, you can’t “do it” without a pair, so since they don’t recover, your long-term prospects are truly bleak) and other issues. Make no mistake, testosterone is my favorite recreational drug, but the fun is in producing it naturally as part of training, where there are no bad side-effects. The muscles themselves produce it and it stays in place. Since there is more of it in your system you get a nice little boost and the sort of training I outline is, actually, just what a doctor would suggest if your levels were naturally low. Sure muscle growth a bit slower than doing it artificially, but what’s the rush?
Athletes that are lean are usually extremely insulin sensitive, often naturally. This is a good thing (and if you insulin resistant, your doctor will try to change your diet to make you more sensitive). How do I do this? I train hard, eat high carbs immediately after my workout so my body gets trained to put the glucose into the muscles and liver, like it should. Otherwise, I have a fairly low carb diet to keep insulin at a normal level. I feel a lot better (no blood sugar spikes means fewer headaches) and it is actually difficult to gain weight. What’s more, I find I have more continuous energy throughout the day since I (correctly) burn of fat as my major source of fuel. I just stay pretty lean (in a very good way) and not really ever have to think much about weight control.
How Much Do You Need To Eat?
We are usually told that after our mid twenties we should seek to lose a little weight each year. Again, this is pretty lame advice. As long as you manage your weight this is not needed. For instance, for many years I was at about 172 – 175 lbs and 8% bodyfat. I decided to increase that and am on my way to hitting 180 lbs lean weight (expect to be there around Dec. 2012). Why? Why not? I am my hobby. For the basics though, here is what I suggest.
To calculate your basic caloric requirement, take your weight (first thing in the morning) and
- Male: multiply by 17 (very active), 16 (moderately active), 15 (inactive), 14 (very inactive)
- Female: multiply by 15 (very active), 14 (moderately active), 13 (inactive), 12 (very inactive)
There are a lot of online calculators for estimating your caloric requirement. My issue with most of them is that they heavily correct for age and height. Sometimes this is necessary. My rule of thumb works pretty well.
E.g. In my case, I weigh 187 and am very active so this works out to about 3,100. This gives you a baseline. Add in the number of calories you need for activity. So if you weigh 187 lbs. (um, like me) and run 3 miles, this means you have burned off 150 calories/mi. * 3 miles = 450 calories. Take into account other activities, so add 300 – 500 calories per day, depending on how heavy you have been training. So if I really hit the gym hard (heavy lifts or lots of active training) I am pushing 1,000 calories a day. So all told, I am eating 4,100 calories a day to maintain weight. Trying to do a serious bulking routine with lots of heavy lifts can push this to 4,600 calories. Nom nom nom. This is a lot of food, make no mistake. Were I trying to lose weight, I might run a calorie deficit of 500, bring the total down to 3,600. It is *easy* to lose weight with this level of activity and, in point of fact, maintaining weight when I am very actively training is the ongoing issue. The most common complaint in the men’s locker room is guys who weigh themselves and find they are losing weight. I suspect this is different in the women’s locker room but have not been in a position to verify it. Nor am I likely too…
Computing meal sizes
I normally take my daily allotment and divide by 16. This gives me a basic snack unit. So assuming am having a light day and need 3600 calories, here is what it looks like: One snack is 3600/16 = 225 calories. I eat 3 snacks a day and 3 meals. Two meals are equal to 4 snacks, the major meal (post workout) is 5 snacks. So my major meals would be 1125 calories vs. 900. Generally your largest meal is immediately (as in within an hour, two at most) post-workout and it should be very high in carbohydrates and protein. Typically, I get a bit about of half my carbs at the major meal. Other meals are much lower in carbs. The reason for this is you want an insulin spike as part of “metabolic training” so your body gets accustomed to taking excess glucose and stashing it in muscles and the liver.
Composition of meals
I tend to aim for 20% of calories from protein, 35% from fat and 45% from carbohydrates. (Standard nutritional guidelines are 10% protein, 20% fat and 70% carbs.) I use the following notation of [carb, fat, protein] in grams. Note they are listed in alphabetical order. I also use parentheses to denote calories (because a “(” looks like the letter “c”) hence 100 calories = (45,35, 20) = [11, 4, 5].
My post-workout meal contains roughly 50% of my daily calories from carbs, and I accordingly keep the protein the same and fiddle with reducing the fat. So if my meal is 1125 calories, I need 1125 = (800,100,225) = [200, 11, 56]. That’s a really big meal consisting of a huge plate of, say, spaghetti with a low-ish fat meat sauce. Note that this is taken from the daily total for carbs, so other meals (usually breakfast) tend to have a higher fat component. In a pinch, a few of those low-calories microwave lunches work well and are a topic of conversation in the lunch room…
I have not specified what to eat, just looked at macro nutrients.I do not advocate gimmicks either. Generally aim for whole grains and fruit for carbs rather than Sugar Frosted Chocolate Bombs. Lean meats are also good and get lots of veggies. This should be quite a liberating experience for you. No weird gimmicky food either.
Dieting done right
So I used to be a fat kid and lost roughy 140 lbs. over two diets. I now run about 185 lbs. at about 9% or less body fat. and have for a very long time. My family consists of mostly spherical German/Irish so there would seem to be a genetic predisposition to being fat — which I roundly discount. How to do it? I outlined above how I eat for insulin sensitivity. This is the most major component that changed over time. The other is getting better habits of not just eating a junk food.
Don’t Just Cut Calories.
If you want to lose weight I would argue against just blindly cutting calories. If you run a deficit of about 1,000 calories a day, then you will lose 2 lbs a week, which is what the suggested guidelines for healthy dieting are. Certainly, this works if you are very obese. Starvation is pretty nasty (see below). For people who are athletic, the downside is that 25% of all weight you lose will be muscle. So if you have been working for months to gain some muscle, you can undo all of the gains in a month or two of dieting.
Body sculptors often follow a bulk then cut regime, where they will eat lots and lift heavy then go on a strict diet right before competition. They calculate how much they need to bulk to get a net increase. This is very strenuous and often unhealthy and cannot really be defended on health grounds. Much advice in magazine follows this because the results can be pretty eye popping. This advice is also used by far too many combat athletes trying to get in shape for a bout. Body sculptors know that on competition day they will be loopy from hunger and fairly well disoriented. This is fine if you are just showing, but awful if you are going to hop into the ring. More than one martial artist has squeaked into a new weight class then barely known which end is up in the ring.
What happens when people starve? There is about 2,000 calories of energy stored as glycogen at any given time in the average body. Once this is used up, the brain still requires glucose but can partially switch to ketones, which the body creates from fat. (Ketones are fairly toxic to the rest of you and are similar to acetone (nail polish remover) in chemical composition. They break down into acetone. The amount of acetone in exhaled air increases if ketones are used, resulting in a condition called ketosis typified with a pronounced fruity stench. People who are heavily dieting have this.) If the body has been doing this for an extended period, (which is several days), it moves to the next step in which muscle and other lean tissue is broken down and converted into glucose. The brain requires at least some glucose no matter what and during starvation this drops to roughly 10g/day which means roughly 30g of muscle must be converted.
This is a unique adaptive response that allows humans to forage for food even though they are critically starving. A common cause of death in starvation is that the diaphragm is metabolized and respiration becomes impossible. People were not made to starve, unlike some animals — e.g. bears, which can do it fine for months on end. Near as can be told, people are made to be active and eat constantly, with the random harsh day possibly now and then or even a week or two of little to no food. Heavy exertion is followed by heavy eating and people have to expend sometimes considerable effort for food. Compare with a cat that has very high energy requirements when awake, but offsets this with 18 hours or so a day of sleeping.
I point this out because there is a very specific ratio of fat to lean tissue loss that occurs during prolonged dieting (which is indistinguishable from starvation by the body.) Roughly 1/4 of weight lost dieting is lean tissue and this stays pretty constant regardless of caloric requirements once you are in catabolic mode. This assumes you are eating something, rather than fasting. Because of this, it is possible to still retain a fair amount of fat while starving. Anorexics often have passable amount of fat on them when they die but have managed to progressively (=repeated diets) destroy all their lean tissue until they have the symptoms of late stage starvation. Fasting causes the body to almost wholly metabolize muscle, which converts to roughly 600 cal./lb. but is more quickly usable as sugar by the brain, so yes, extreme dieting pretty much leaves fat alone. You must therefore be thoughtful in how you cut calories. Anorexics don’t look “skinny” (meaning there is still some over the thighs or abdomen) in the mirror which confuses them into thinking they can still lose some more weight. They also often try to get “healthy” by doing fitness (using machines, which are almost completely ineffective) and hours of steady state cardio (like running which when coupled with a diet accelerates muscle loss from everything but the legs). They may gain back weight, but usually not much lean mass. Then they go on a diet again. At no point (from a training perspective) are they ever able to offset their lean tissue loss with an effective weight gain strategy.
A Practical Weightloss Exercise Program.
What is the best way to exercise if you want to lose weight? Run a slight deficit, roughly 300 calories a day and 3 times a week do high intensity circuit training. I normally do 4 different full body exercises for 30 seconds each, wait 1 minute then repeat for a total of 4 sets. So my weight loss program consists of 33 minutes of activity a week. This is very different from the hours of cardio most people assume you are supposed to do. Besides, do footwork drills and rolling/falling floor combos and you’ll increase your stamina and agility in martial arts training. This is a double win!
What I did yesterday at lunch for training (3/5/2012)
- Farmers walks, 100 ft with 175 lbs. — a type of walking plank exercise
- burpees with a jump
- Hanging rows
- Feet elevated pushups
Each exercise took about 30 seconds (bit longer for the walks, since those are for distance and that’s a lot of weight), then 1 minute between sets. I then went to the combat room and finished with a full compliment of rolls plus some floor work:
- Side fall + rock and roll
- Back fall + shoulder sprint
- forward roll to shrimp
- Front tap + sit through
- A few random aerials for the heck of it cause they’re fun.
Total workout time was about 20 minutes. The rolls were just horsing around.
Comment. If you eat as I outline, then you should be burning fatty acids pretty much constantly excepting during a workout, when you rely on stored glycogen. The practical effect is that you are used to doing this and in my scheme, a slight deficit means you just burn up more fat. Carbs post workout are still very important and you must replenish them in the muscles, so no skimping there. Going on a diet (which I do once in a great while as a matter of fine tuning, since I don’t micromanage my diet, usually just for a couple of weeks tops) for me means… Skip a couple of snacks, get bouncier during the week. I get none of the usual symptoms people associate with a diet, since I never change my basic metabolic operating strategy. No real hunger pangs, no headaches, no blood sugar crashes and the impact on my eating is minimal. I just get a bit leaner. Downside is that it requires patience. Losing 5 lbs. of fat might require a couple of months rather than a few weeks.
Steady state cardio does not really burn up that much energy and you only burn it for as long as you are doing it. As soon as you finish that run, you cease to burn calories. The sort of circuits I advocate give you a strong metabolic boost and continue to burn calories for up to 48 hours. The net effect — and many studies confirm this — is that high intensity circuit training burns vastly more calories than steady state cardio. It’s also a great deal more fun and you can work on any number of skill sets in the process to make your life easier.
Just to be clear, larger people or people with mobility issues might not be able to do circuits. For them, steady state cardio is a fine thing to do. It is not awful, just a lot less effective than most people think. One study had people walk 2 miles and asked them to estimate the calories they burned. They over-estimated by an average of 850 calories. People are generally awful at estimating their caloric uses. If someone is very mobility impaired, such as being elderly, longish walks are a good option too….
What will also occur from circuit training is a gradual body composition change. Research shows this happen on a 5:4 ratio of fat:muscle. So, taking 1.5 lbs/month as the max you can gain, 2.5 months of this training will mean you lose 5 lbs of fat and gain 4 lbs of muscle. Your weight will barely budge (down a single pound) but you will definitely notice the difference. I have used this several times and it works great. The problem is that the training has to be very intense indeed (burpee tabatas would be a good candidate for this.) Fairly explosive training is the bodyweight equivalent of going heavy on your lifts, which is why you grow so much muscle. You can also do this with strength circuits, such as doing 10 sets of 6 reps of squats at 60% of your max, repeat 10×6 with pullups or lat pulldowns, pushups and 10×10 swings. But I really do prefer full body circuits.
And The Final Word From My Grandfather
Once when I was a lot younger (like 4 or 5 years old) I was carrying on fiercely about something or other. My grandfather watched this dispassionately for a bit then finally told me that no matter how much I carried on, that nope, “I can’t take a dump for you — there are just some things you have to do yourself”. He was, of course speaking in his usual euphemistically folksy way, but the message is as true then as now. And so it goes with health and nutrition. Nothing I have written will help you unless you opt for the “strenuous life” in Teddy Roosevelt’s famous phrase.