‘Dad, dad, come to the end of the beach so we can catch a wave?’.
‘Na mate, maybe tomorrow?’
There I was. On a stunning beach, with awesome waves and I didn’t have the energy to walk 200m to get rolled around in some white water with my son. Sure I was jet lagged. Our baby daughter had been up in the night. I’d just eaten an ice cream and was lying comfortably, but it wasn’t right!
The truth is I was just plain out of shape. I didn’t have the energy to play with my son and I didn’t like myself because of it.
Just ten years earlier I’d been a professional soccer player whose weight hadn’t changed for a decade. Then I stopped playing, went back to school to get a degree, took a series of deskjobs, got married, had a couple of kids and slowly but surely gained 50 pounds that wasn’t muscle.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but that moment of self loathing I had on a beach 3 years ago was my ‘trigger event’. Something reported by 60% of the National Weight Control Registry (people who’ve lost +30lbs and kept it off for at least 6 years).
Unlike previous attempts I decided to get serious. Instead of thoughtlessly throwing on my running shoes I did what I’m good at. Research!! I started reading nutrition textbooks, academic papers and blogs, plus watching a lot of youtube. I quickly discovered there is a whole community of ‘evidence based fitness’. This is a fascinating hybrid of academic research and natural bodybuilding, filled with the world’s leading fat loss experts. People like Lyle McDonald, Alan Aragon, Eric Helms and Danny Lennon.
All of this reading pointed in the same direction: energy! So I got to work learning how to manage my energy balance. Here’s what happened:
Over the space of 12 months I lost 24kg (52lbs). At the start I was +30% body fat and by the end I was 13%. I would have got leaner, and more muscular, if I’d done more lifting and tracking, and less reading. But I never really into the weights and I do like my food.
In this piece I’m going to share with you 11 insights I learned during my year of researching the weight loss methods of bodybuilders. I dearly hope they are just a fraction as useful to you as they were to me 😉
1: Your First Priority Is Energy
Natural bodybuilders are better than anyone else in the world at losing fat. It’s actually their sport. But even serious bodybuilders get their priorities wrong from time to time. Eric Helms noticed this was such a common problem that he developed The Muscle & Strength Nutrition Pyramid to help people get their priorities in order. Here’s what it looks like:
2: Your Energy Needs Are Unique
Before a bodybuilder begins their cut they first work out their maintenance (how many calories they use). Most regular folks do this using a calorie calculator, but bodybuilder prefer to track their macros and scale weight instead. And with good reason. Human energy needs are actually quite varied. I did some digging and found this data buried in the Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes.
3: Macros Are An Incredible Tool
When you ask a normal person how they lose weight they’ll often say something like ‘I cut out bread’ or ‘I stopped eating dairy’. When a bodybuilder describes their diet it’s generally in terms of ‘macros’. These are the grams of protein, fat and carbs they eat in a day. This waterfall chart gives you a rough idea how they set up their diet. They then adjust over time.
4: Protein Is A Dieter’s Best Friend
Bodybuilders are obsessed with protein. There are three solid reasons for this. Protein builds muscle, is the most filling macronutrient and has the highest thermic effect (energy used in digestion). The best evidence of its benefits I’ve seen comes from a 2005 study where they raised the share of protein in the diet from 15% to 30% of total energy. This resulted in a spontaneous calorie reduction of 440 kcal/day, and over the course of 12 weeks produced an average weight loss of 11 lbs (5 kg).
5: Your Food Choices Still Matter
Even though bodybuilders focus on their macros, they still tend to eat a lot of whole foods. Although they can hit their macros eating junk, this doesn’t help them stay full or feel good. The foods that dominate a bodybuilders diet are the ones that fill them up. This Filling Food Plate gives you a quick summary of the classic foods bodybuilders use. Lean protein, colorful veggies, natural fats, watery carbs and juicy fruit.
6: You Should Probably Lift
Bodybuilders lift heavy and eat plenty of protein to protect their muscles. You should probably do the same. When you create a caloric deficit your body needs to meet the energy shortfall with stored energy, and you want this energy to come largely from fat. The graph below is from a study where each group lost about 12 kg (26 lbs) in 21 weeks with a brutal 800kcal diet. The resistance training women managed to gain a small amount of muscle while the aerobic and non training groups lost some.
7: You Don’t Need Cardio
Cardio really isn’t essential for weight loss, and it can waste a lot of time. When bodybuilders realised you could get lean without it there was quite a backlash. Personally I think cardio its a great tool to have in your locker if you get stuck, but it often distracts people from diet. In the broader picture though this misses the point. Cardio isn’t a fat loss tool, it’s a health tool. Take one look at this graph. Fit people live longer!
8: Your Metabolism Will Adapt
A male bodybuilder that begins his cut on 2,600 calories can easily finish it at 1,800, numbers similar to my own journey. This is because our bodies adapt to protect themselves from fat loss by using energy more frugally. To try and shatter the myth that your metabolic rate is some fixed number I’ve grabbed a graphic from a paper that modelled the most extreme controlled underfeeding experiment in history: The Minnesota Semi-Starvation Experiment. What the model showed was that if you take a bunch of men who need 3,600 calories a day and feed them 1,600 their energy expenditure will collapse in response (the orange line). A reverse adaption occurred when they were overfed.
9: Tracking Food Has Its Costs
If I wanted to look like a fitness model I would without doubt track all my macros. There is just no better tool for that job. But for me personally, constant tracking comes with some costs I’m not prepared to pay. Here’s what food can start to look like if you track macros to intently.
10: Natural Bodybuilders Are Incredible
The only world class athletes I’ve ever known was during my soccer career. Apart from talent, the thing that separated the great from the rest was a brutal ability to focus on the moment. In most of big money professional sports (soccer, football, basketball, baseball) athletes just need to focus for 1-2 hours a day at best. odybuilding is different! The lifting component is much like a regular sport, but the diet is insane. Towards the end of their preparation bodybuilders are doing strenuous exercise while eating very little food. This is a 24/7 challenge. Just look at where 3DMJ athletes bottomed out in their various preps.
11: Getting Shredded Isn’t For Everyone
I quit my weight loss experiment at about 13% (just a little bit leaner than the before/after picture above). At that point I’d lost 26kg (57lbs) and been dieting on and off for over a year (I had a few diet breaks). At 13% body fat, and having lost a quarter of my body weight, it was pretty clear to me that the path towards single digits looked horrible. So I did what any sensible person that doesn’t want to get on a bodybuilding stage should do. I stopped dieting and let myself drift back up to a healthy body fat range (∼15%). Where I remain till this day. I look better, I feel better, I move better, I’m healthier and most importantly I’ve got energy to run my kids ragged!! I’m dearly thankful to the community that helped me lose weight, but getting shredded just isn’t for me 😉
One Last Thing . . .
The problem with a post like this is that given eleven useful bits of useful information most of us will act on none. So I wanted to give you just one single takeaway to chew on. Here goes:
Calorie control is the essential weight loss skill. You need to find a method that works for you!
This might involve tracking your food, meal frequency changes, macro tweaks, purging junk food from your house, quitting certain foods or learning portion control. Whatever works for you . . . works for you! You’re running the show.
Thanks for reading!!
If you’d like some help losing weight check out the Weekday Weight Loss Program.