Progress is not linear. Not in society in general and definitely not in your fitness life. Powerlifters can’t just add 5 lbs to each lift each week forever. Otherwise, everyone would bench 1,000 lbs. You can’t sustain that initial 20 lb weight loss in the first month for each month afterward. Otherwise you’d weigh 240 lbs less at this time next year.
It just doesn’t work like that. We recently put up a “10 Tips for Success with a Personal Trainer” sign in our studio and the number one rule was to be positive throughout all of the peaks and valleys. Consistency is key to success in any endeavor and fitness is no different.
Know what there’s too much of in the industry right now? Unwanted advice.
Think: any time you go to the gym and approach the rack, somebody has a reason why you’re doing whatever-it-is-you’re-doing wrong.
“You’re struggling with your bench? Have you tried squatting ass-to-grass? I heard squatting ass-to-grass cures cancer.”
“You can’t lose any weight? Have you tried high-intensity plyometric mountain goat jumps on the treadmill?”
“You shoulder’s bugging you? Have you tried CrossFit?” (Just kidding, sort of.)
There’s approximately 1,593,345 different opinions on what you should be doing to reach your goals. But this article will be different. This article is primarily concerned with muscle gain or fat loss. And to be successful at one, I believe it would behoove you to consider how you become successful in the other. Having trouble losing weight? Think about what it takes to gain muscle, and then do the opposite.
You need to eat frequently to lose weight.
This is a SUPER common recommendation that I hear all the time. There are a few good (and bad) reasons for why this recommendation rears it’s ugly head.
- Eating more frequently keeps you full so you don’t overeat at meals.
- Eating more frequently stokes your metabolism so that you burn more calories.
- Eating more frequently helps you get more protein in because protein can be very filling in large quantities. (Though this is a less common reason.)
Let me address these all individually. First, the fact that frequent feeding keeps you full all day so that you don’t overeat at meals. Yes, this is sometimes true. But it is also true that frequent carbohydrate intake leads to frequent insulin spikes, which leads to a host of other issues (like fat gain). It can also cause you to ingest greater total calories throughout the day because you’re eating so frequently, which directly contradicts the fact that you eat less because you’re always full.
Secondly, eating frequently does not stoke your metabolism. See here and here. Unless you’re eating more, in which case your metabolism will be running slightly faster because of the thermal effect of food.
Lastly, sometimes frequent feeding helps keep protein intake high because protein can be filling in large quantities. (I can vouch for this one, I had five eggs and a protein shake this morning for breakfast and haven’t eaten since. I’m literally not hungry one bit. Of course, it might also be carry-over from that Boloco Big Bowl I had last night.)
There seems to be plenty of evidence on both sides of the argument. However, we should remember that anecdotally, it is difficult to gain muscle if you aren’t eating at least 4-5 times per day.
This makes sense. Frequent feeding makes for frequent insulin spikes and, combined with a solid training program, makes muscles.
So here’s a tip to try: If you are trying to lose fat, try eating less frequently and making protein your main focus at your meals.
Here’s another common piece of advice:
You need enough carbohydrates each day to build muscle mass.
This is definitely true. Guys who are building muscle, especially advanced trainees, are burning through muscle glycogen and blood glucose during training sessions. It’s different for everybody, but I know that when I’m not carbed up (it’s like lubed up, but with carbs) I get light-headed during sessions and even nauseated toward the end.
Carbs are primarily used to restore muscle and liver glycogen after these hard workouts. In this way, lifting weights allows you to trick your body and utilize your macro-nutrients to feed your muscles, not your flabs (and you should take advantage of it because there aren’t very many ways to trick the human body). They’re also part of the larger plan to elevate caloric intake above a what’s necessary on a daily basis.
Carbs turn into a bad thing when you spike them up because you think your ten-minute pace two-mile run is worthy of three servings of pasta each night. If you’re eating the right amount of calories or (in a more likely scenario) less than you need, something is taking a whack because your carbs are so high. And it’s probably protein (because we seem to find fat).
Concerned about your bodyfat level? Try reducing carbs, but not below 50-100 grams per day. Your body needs these for your brain to function optimally.
I’m not saying carefully monitor the carbohydrate content of your broccoli to make sure it doesn’t take you above 50 grams. What I’m saying is focus on achieving a high ratio of healthy fats and (more importantly) protein instead of going to town on the raw cookie dough because you earned it in that 5k you ran.
Here’s the third and last piece of advice that I’ll deal with in this article and it deals with food selection:
If you’re trying to lose fat, utilize a diet consisting of lean protein and vegetables.
For muscle gain, find calorie-dense foods such as liquids and nuts.
The science behind these pieces of advice is simple. For overall weight loss, our main goal is to achieve a negative caloric balance. But it’s really hard to maintain that balance if your shakes are full of peanut butter and you drink a big glass of milk at every meal.
On the other hand, CrossFit-er Dan Bailey (6th and 8th place in the 2012 and 2013 CrossFit Games, respectively) is famously quoted as saying multiple times, “You can’t get all of your calories from broccoli.” Seriously. You try getting 3,500 calories a day from chicken breasts, egg whites, and spinach. I don’t even think it’s physically possible. (For reference, a 4 oz serving of chicken breast is only about 150 calories. That puts you at almost 6 lbs of chicken each day to reach 3,500.)
So here’s the lessons learned: If you’re trying to lose weight. Avoid over-doing it on nuts and healthy fats (or unhealthy fats). And definitely avoid calorie-dense liquids (like giant super-shakes from powerlifting websites).
And if you’re trying to gain weight, stop worrying about your meat’s fat content (especially if your meat is organic) and stop your quest for a serving a vegetables at every meal. Try getting your vitamins by adding greens to protein shakes.
So that’s it. There’s three. But I’m sure there’s plenty more. Need to lose weight? Find out what it takes to gain weight and STOP DOING THOSE THINGS.
And the same goes for gaining weight. Stop using diet strategies and then complaining about why you can’t gain muscle despite your 1,800 calories a day.
Nutrition is a tough concept to tackle because there are so many different ways of looking at it. So many different techniques work, but do you know what they all have in common?
Complete proteins. Healthy fats. And healthy carbs. Just balance these out by paying attention more to your food quality then quantity and you’ll be just fine.
Per usual, this wasn’t an attack on any certain nutritional approach, just some food for thought. (See what I did there? Food for thought.)