Lessons From My Recent Fat Loss Experience
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Nov 07, 2016
In my journey to get progressively bigger and leaner, I have previously and will continue to follow the following phasic structure to my nutrition (until and unless science elucidates a comprehensive approach that’s more effective):
1.) Mass (intentionally gain weight, resulting in muscle and fat gain) at about ½% bodyweight per week for about 8 weeks.
2.) Maintain (intentionally maintain top-end weight reached on the mass phase, resulting in a new, higher set point to prevent future muscle loss and a break from hypertrophy training to re-sensitize growth pathways) for about 4 weeks.
3.) Cut (intentionally lose weight, resulting in fat loss with preferably no muscle loss) at a rate of about 0.75% bodyweight per week for 8-12 weeks.
If you run the numbers, you’ll notice that I lose more weight on cuts than I gain on masses, which results in a net loss of weight over the whole process (the macrocycle). This is wholly intentional because my longer term goal for a while has been to reach a lower maintenance bodyfat so that I could be within striking distance of a bodybuilding show.
I’ve done two shows before, but to say that I didn’t come in shape would be a big understatement. I don’t plan on repeating that situation, so the next time I compete I plan to be “stage lean.” On that note, while I considered doing a show at the end of this last cutting phase, some scheduling/business priorities made a traditional (non-show) cutting phase the better option. That being said, I did have the opportunity to peak (and thus try some contest-peaking strategies, which I’ll explain in detail in the next blog post) for a big photoshoot with Mike Rashid down in Miami. Great news: the cut worked very well and I achieved my lifetime leanest and best look! The following write-up includes the basic structure of what I did and will perhaps help you with some insights into your own fat loss plan of attack.
1) Diet Duration and Results:
I ran this diet from July 31st to October 9th, which is 10 weeks. I then did 1 week of peaking for the photoshoot that was on October 17th. I began the diet around 236lbs and ended it around 222lbs, for a total of 14lbs lost over 10 weeks.
2.) Purpose of Diet:
The primary purpose of this diet was to lose fat so as to potentiate future muscle gains. Leaner individuals gain more muscle per unit weight gain (vs. fat) than fatter ones, and when you get lean and then gain weight after, you’re giving yourself the best chances to put on muscle. Thus, after my mass and maintenance phases, I do cuts for the purpose of not just losing fat itself, but to enhance the muscle growth process in the massing phase after. The secondary purpose of this diet was to get to a leaner baseline so as to be within striking range of a show later on next year, and the tertiary purpose was to try out some peaking protocols, the lessons of which will inform my manipulations in the final week(s) of upcoming shows. Lastly, the photoshoot was a minor contributing reason, but since it was planned and confirmed by the time I was 8 weeks into the diet, I can’t say it was really a true “purpose” of this diet, just a cool coincidence and point of finality.
When maintaining this last time around before the diet started, my macros were around 300 protein, 450 carbs and 150 fats. Something to the tune of 4,500 calories, which for me is maintenance.
The following table describes my macro progression through the 10 weeks of hypocaloric dieting, as well as my cardio progression and training style:
||Cardio (in addition to BJJ 3x a week)
||400 calories 5x a week
||400 calories 6x a week
||500 calories 6x a week
||600 calories 6x a week
I trained in BJJ like always, and my training was an average of 3x a week. On the one hand BJJ burns lots of calories, but on the other it’s highly fatiguing and leaves me pretty beat up (literally), which can interfere with bodybuilding gym training. So on cutting, where I used to do MORE BJJ, I now do about the same or even a bit less, and let conventional cardio take up the slack.
By conventional cardio, I mean either incline walking or elliptical. On average I burn about 600 calories per hour when doing such cardio, so it gets the job done. Not a whole lot of fun, but I use this time to watch informational or entertaining videos, listen to podcasts (listened to quite a bit of Sam Harris this time around), catch up on social media, talk on the phone to family, friends, and business partners, and sometimes just listen to music, especially when I’m dragging.
Cardio can stink, but it does a pretty good job of helping burn fat over the long term and lets you eat more food, which is cool. Looking back, I probably could have done less cardio, but we’ll see how the next fat loss diet plays out before I go promising that I’ll never do this much cardio again.
When I say “moderate volume” training, I mean around 14 sets per bodypart per week, usually around 8 reps per set. This style of training is great for both conserving muscle early in a diet and for leaving some breathing room for later training volume increases to occur. In the later part of my diet, I was able to switch to higher volume training (around 18 sets per bodypart per week, reps between 10-15 on average) and not lose any muscle because I was still quite sensitive to the hypertrophic effects of such training (having done moderate volume for so long). Like with most things in a fat loss phase, progression needs to occur for best results to continue, and training volume is no different.
Just keep in mind that your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume) will be lower on a fat loss phase than on a mass phase, so don’t go ham and push it too far. A good rule of thumb is to lower your cutting progressions to about 4-6 fewer sets per week than massing. So if you can handle 22 sets per week on average per bodypart when massing, maybe an average of 16 sets would be a good cutting baseline.
6.) Meal Timing:
I ate higher carb and lower fats pre-, during- and post- training (as detailed and explained in the RP Diet Book). But because I struggle with falling asleep when hungry, I biased my carb intake toward the evening. Thus, even in the last couple weeks when carbs were low, I still had a meal of lots of carbs (well, 50g lol) as my last meal pre-bed, which is one of the only reasons I had pretty good sleep during this cut. Sleep is SUPER important to both recovery and fat loss, so this was a big deal to me. If you struggle with evening hunger, biasing your carbs (and maybe proteins and fats) toward your evenings might be an effective strategy. Is giving up a few percentage points of optimality in periworkout timing worth MUCH better sleep and also more sanity? YOU BET.
7.) Food Choices:
My typical day of eating usually went something like this:
7:00am: Casein/Whey Pudding with whole grain bread
12:00pm: 25g whey protein with 15g Gatorade powder (intra/post training shake)
2:00pm: Chicken breast with veggies and quinoa
4:30pm: Protein bar
(BJJ or cardio at 6pm)
7:30pm: Chicken breast with veggies and oatmeal
10:00pm: Casein pudding
Yep… lots of bland foods, lots of veggies, lots of less-than-tasty food combos like chicken and oatmeal with veggies all mixed together. Why such choices? Please see the “lessons learned” below!
8.) Lessons Learned:
With every phase of every diet, I learn new things. Sometimes they are brand new things, other times they are reinforcements of older ideas that I already knew, but perhaps was undervaluing in importance. This diet was no exception to the constant learning process, and here’s a brief summary of the most impactful lessons it offered:
- Evening Hunger Strategies
When I’m cutting, my BIGGEST enemy is hunger. And I mean, by a long shot. I can will myself through training, I can do all the cardio, I don’t get bored eating the same foods all the time. But being chronically hungry wears on me like nothing else. It creates a ton of stress for me, and lots of stress over the long haul is a great way not to just learn to hate dieting, but also promotes stress hormone secretion and can itself actually worsen your dieting results from the perspective especially of muscle retention. And I’m not alone… the hunger levels of fat loss dieting are probably my best guess for “biggest impediment to weight loss” for even the average overweight person who starts a diet.
People experience hunger differently between one another, with some being hungriest in the morning, some midday, and some evenly throughout their day. For myself, like many others, hunger is worst in the evenings. This is especially bad because if you’re hungry through the day, you’re probably at work or school and can just focus on other things, or (even though I myself don’t use stimulants almost ever) at the very least caffeinate the hunger away. In the evening, you’re supposed to be relaxing, and if you’re hungry, that whole plan goes straight to hell. In addition, evening/night hunger that’s bad enough can downright interfere with sleep, and that’s of course a very, very bad effect on physique enhancement.
Thus, for me, evening hunger attenuation and traditional meal timing must be somewhat of a tradeoff to one another. If I stuck with traditional meal timing (placing most carbs and calories around my workouts to enhance workout performance, stimulus, and recovery as detailed in the RP Diet Book), I’d be so hungry at night that I wouldn’t be able to sleep (see the point on sleep below) and relaxation would take a big dive as well. So that’s a big negative for traditional timing in my case. Now, if I ate MOST of my food in the evenings, I’d have much better sleep, awesome relaxation, but I’d be giving something up on timing optimality with regards to my daily training structure. For example, eating most food at night means small breakfasts… but that also means a lower-than-possible amount of energy for the workouts done in the late morning the breakfast helps fuel.
On the net balance in my case, I chose to bias SOME of my eating to the evening. I didn’t reduce the protein in most daily meals and I didn’t completely eliminate carbs in post-workout meals, but I did make some big cuts especially to pre-workout carbs and carbs in midday meals (especially those before cardio, cause I can get through that with or without much energy). The resulting cuts were shifted towards evening meals (one meal done post-cardio in particular) and this seemed to greatly reduce my evening hunger and helped me both sleep and relax.
Not only did I shift my timing more towards evenings, but I also made several changes to my food composition to fight hunger. I got more of my carbs from veggies, fruits, and whole grains and fewer through shakes or other processed sources. The high fiber, high volume, and other features of such sources makes them very satiating per gram of carb ingested. You might be able to eat 50g carbs from white rice in a split second, but 50g of carbs from broccoli will take you an hour to eat. And when you’re dieting super hard toward the tail end of your cut… just the mouth feel of lots of food reduces stress. By loading my meals to the brim with veggies, I was able to continue to eat very high volumes of food through the diet. Of course I’d rather be eating high calories too, haha, but hey, I’ll take the volume!
Lastly, I continued to experience success using the FPRH to inform my food composition choices. The Food Palatability Reward Hypothesis basically states that, especially in a hypocaloric condition, if you have tasty foods, you’re gonna WANT MORE tasty foods. Whereas if your foods aren’t like, the best thing ever, your actual total cravings go down. A very crude analogy is like a single drink for a recovering alcoholic… quite a bit worse than no drinks at all. The take-home message for those dieting for fat loss is… as a diet gets tougher and tougher, it might be a good idea to just stay more and more away from tasty foods altogether. That way, eating is more like a job and thus something you can approach calmly, without it being a cycle of anticipation, temptation, and anguish.
So what does this imply for the diet I ran? Well, I ate a lot of meals of unflavored oatmeal or brown rice mixed with lots of different kinds of veggies and then salted chicken or fish. YUM! LOL. Not really… in fact, eating such foods on a mass gain phase would be damn near impossible because they just don’t taste that good. But for the last month of a cutting phase, they can fill you up, supply you with all needed nutrients, and take quite a bit of the emotion out of eating, which is a HUGE deal and has helped me substantially in the last several fat loss diets. If you struggle with hunger and cravings on your diets… consider giving some of these approaches a shot next time you choose to lose fat.
- More Cardio is Better (to a point)
Cardio sucks. It’s boring, it’s repetitive, it’s just annoying enough to be unpleasant, and it takes so much damn time! But the deal with it is… if you included it regularly into your cutting plan, you lose weight faster, you lose more fat, and YOU GET TO EAT MORE FOOD. Now, there’s def such a thing as too much cardio… at some point it does in fact burn muscle and block muscle growth in indirect ways and lowering food intake is by far more efficient. But the middle ground likely works best for most people and it sure does for me. If you have to do 1000 calories of cardio a day, you’re either playing catch-up bad and started dieting too late or didn’t make needed adjustments on time. But if you’re not doing ANY cardio, you have to reduce your food intake so much, you might actually lose more muscle by food insufficiency alone! So on this cut, I started with 400 calories of cardio a day (on top of BJJ which is done several times a week) and went up to 600 calories a day. Truth be told, 600 was very fatiguing and probably a bit much, so next time I’ll try to stick as close as I can to 400 calories a day for most of the prep, but that’s a long ways away from no cardio at all and that middle ground is my best recommendation.
- Low Intensity Cardio is STILL KING in Bodybuilding
In previous fat loss cycles, I’ve tried to get all of my cardio from my BJJ training. 6 days a week of BJJ, 6 days a week of lifting. What ended up happening is that my fatigue levels would shoot through the roof and my weight training (and thus muscle mass) would suffer. In addition, I would get physically beat up from BJJ (surprise! It’s a combat sport!) and have too many wear-and-tear nagging injuries during dieting. NOT an ideal situation. This time around I stuck to just 3 weekly BJJ sessions and kept the rest to low intensity cardio (a combination of incline walking and elliptical, done at about 600 calories per hour). This let me keep improving my BJJ game but also allowed me to get in enough cardio without summing too much fatigue. Because very few readers do BJJ and will thus not really get much out of this lesson, I can put it another, more applicable way. If you’re a fan of HIIT, that’s great. Sprint intervals and other such cardio can be a great addition to a fat loss plan. But you’ve gotta be careful about doing too much HIIT, especially if you’re already doing a lot of cardio… I’d say 3-4 sessions a week is about the most HIIT most people can handle… if you wanna do more cardio on top of that, I’d go with low intensity work.
- Layered Progressions Work Best
While this isn’t rocket science, it’s worth mentioning. Something that my friend and prep consultant Broderick Chavez is big on emphasizing is the process of layering your diet interventions. You’ll notice from the table earlier that at no point did the diet “hit high gear.” I started the diet with lots of food, easier training, and very moderate cardio levels. Why? Because to achieve planned rates of fat loss and muscle retention, this worked great at the start. As the diet progressed and the body became more resistant to fat loss and more inclined toward muscle degradation, new layers of intervention were added IN SEQUENCE (not all at once). More cardio was done, less food was eaten, and training became more voluminous progressively to keep results on track. Sounds logical, but SO MANY people mess this up in their fat loss efforts! They’ll start a diet and do things like go right to 600 calories of daily cardio or drop all their carbs out at the beginning. Three problems arise with such an approach: 1.) you’re gonna lose muscle coming out of the gate so quick 2.) you’re gonna lose muscle later when you need to take even more extreme measures to progress 3.) you’re gonna have a hell of a hard time losing fat when your body has already experienced “the worst you have to throw at it” so early on. By layering your interventions and upping them slowly and as-needed (in fact, the very basis of the wildly successful RP Diet Templates I designed), you get a diet that’s effective, not muscle-risky, and psychologically easiest to handle.
- Ultra-Rapid Diets are Usually Bad Ideas
I did one big thing right and one big thing wrong in this diet. What I did right was start nice and early for the goal I had planned originally (be in peak shape in mid-November). What I kind of “did wrong” or at least ended up having to do was to push up the peak to mid-October. The final push (for which I was given only several weeks notice to be in shape for) was for a big video shoot with Mike Rashid (as we’re working on a product line together). I had to be in good shape, and I didn’t have much time to get there. The last several weeks, I dropped my carbs to 150 and fats to 45 (trying 30g on some days and basically almost going insane from cravings and delirium lol) and upped my cardio to 600 calories per day on top of either weight training, BJJ, or yet another 600 calorie session. That was ROUGH and definitely unsustainable for long. It worked to get me that final bit of shape and get me to my all-time best look, but for future preps, especially for a show, I’m going to be taking my sweet time and not rushing. Rushing not only sucks right then and there, but it risks setting you up for a nasty rebound after… something I’ll address in an upcoming blog post.
Not gonna beat around the bush on this one. The benefits of sleep (both quantity and quality) to fat loss and muscle retention on a fat loss plan are MASSIVE. On this diet, especially with the use of evening hunger strategies, I slept better than on any diet I’ve ever run… and it paid off big time. If you’re having sleep troubles, especially in the beginning or middle of a diet (some troubles toward the end might be expected if you’re pushing things hard enough), do what you can to get those sorted out and take sleep seriously. It makes a big impact on your results.
Some people feel “trapped” in a routine life. If they have to wake up at similar times, train on schedule, eat similar meals, they start to go nuts. Me? I LOVE THE ROUTINE, and it’s a very important component of my success in everything I’m good at, including fat loss dieting. When you can have a dependable plan, you don’t have to worry about adjustments and on-the-fly corrections nearly as much as you might have to without one. No worrying about what to make for dinner no having to look at tomorrow’s schedule and try to fit in your meals and workouts… none of that. If you like your life like a machine (at least when in serious fat loss mode, not all the time for mental health!), you get machine-like results. To me, it’s about that simple.
My life during fat loss is like groundhog day… every day is very similar to the next (or at least week, as my daily schedule is a bit different due to teaching times), and that just lets me use what limited mental energy I have left on producing intellectual content and doing a good job at work instead of concerning myself with constant schedule adjustments.
If you can learn to love the routine… you’ll be giving yourself a MAJOR upgrade in your chances of success on a fat loss plan.
- Things to try for next time
In my next cut (minicuts aside), I’m plan to take about 16 weeks to get in shape. What this might allow me to do is to eat more food and do less cardio throughout, especially since I should be starting that cut with a leaner physique than ever. Every cut I do, I rush the process less, and every cut I do goes better… I don’t think that’s a coincidence and I will be trying to slow things down just a bit more to see how things go. And you can bet I’ll be taking the lessons of this cut with me for future cuts!
Next time… I’ll post about the peaking process I experimented with to look my best-ever for the video shoot! Thanks for reading!