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Nutrition Q&A by Erik Ledin of Lean Bodies Consulting

Q: How should I lift weights while dieting? Everyone at the gym and all the magazines say to go high rep to burn the fat. Does high rep training really burn fat better? Is this the best approach to training while dieting?

absA: While high rep, short rest interval training does have the potential to burn a fair number of calories, training during a fat loss stage should be used to preserve (or even increase) muscle mass as opposed to stimulating fat loss. Fat loss is going to, or should, come primarily from nutrition, with the rest coming from various forms of cardiovascular work (HIIT, interval training, some steady state cardio, etc.) Your weight training should be focused primarily on getting strong, and keeping the muscle you have, not fat loss. Let the other 23 hours of the day take care of the fat loss.

Your best bet is to avoid a lot of high-rep, low-load training while dieting. Your body already has a limited capacity to recover due to a lack of fuel/substrate when on reduced calories. Light weights while in caloric deficit will likely result in more muscle loss, as your body, while attempting to adapt to a caloric deficit will try to 'slow down' over time. This happens via various hormonal responses as well as by eliminating the more metabolically active tissue - muscle. Your body will always attempt to adapt to any change you throw at it - and this includes a caloric deficit. The more you deviate from your 'set point', the more your body will respond to bring you back.

Hormones respond to over and undereating. On reduced calories and as your bodyfat drops, catabolic hormones rise, promoting increased amino acid oxidation (protein breakdown) and anabolic hormones fall. Net protein accretion/retention decreases, protein oxidation increases, cell volume generally decreases, leptin production decreases, etc., etc. Remember, what builds muscle is what keeps muscle, and if you don't use it, you'll lose it. You need to give your body a reason to hold onto the muscle and this requires you to be training above a minimum intensity threshold. So, quite simply don't bother with these 15-20 rep sets. Train heavy and try to get and/or stay strong.

The other thing to consider when comparing heavy versus light training while dieting is the effect each has on the look, or quality, of the muscles. Training with heavy weights improves both myogenic and neurogenic tone. The first refers to your muscle tone at rest while the second refers to muscle tone that is expressed when movements occur. Neurogenic tone is improved due to the effect lower rep training has on the sensitivity of various motor neurons. Myogenic tone is affected by the density of your muscles and is improved by stimulation of the contractile proteins, again via heavy low, low rep training. Higher rep ranges unfortunately do not offer these benefits, and let's be honest, high rep training just isn't fun anyway. When a body is stripped of much of its fat, muscle density and hardness go a long way to enhancing the quality of a person's physique. Excluding the heavy, low rep work in favour of the oft prescribed high rep, short rest interval work for fat loss training will not have nearly the same effect that focusing your training on heavy loads will have.

The last thing to keep in mind and this was touched on earlier, is that your capacity to recover from training is decreased on reduced calories. As a result, the volume of your training (sets x reps) needs to be reduced. Always keep in mind the goals of resistance training while dieting - maintenance of strength and muscle size. You're simply not going to be making significant muscular gains while in a caloric deficit - no matter what anyone tells you. If you try to keep the volume as high as you might have it when your calories are above maintenance, you're going to find yourself burning out, getting weaker, and regressing. You can decrease volume by as much as 2/3 when dieting. I'd typically err on the side of caution and do less when you want to do more.

Remember what builds muscle, is what keeps muscle.

andyQ: What's the best macronutrient breakdown for fat loss? 40/40/20 or 50/30/20?

A: First and foremost, this is obviously very goal dependent. Meaning, that these numbers would most likely be different whether one’s goal is primarily fat loss or muscle gain. That aside, the idea of looking at macronutrients as a percentage of your total caloric intake is highly overrated. There is no magic or even any great advantage to any specific percentage of protein, carbs, or fat in your diet.

By using percentages you’re working on a ‘relative’ scale (relative to your total calories) and there are potential disadvantages to using this approach. For example, 40% of 1500 calories is a lot different than 40% of 2500 calories. This approach fails to take into consideration overall caloric intake, which is affected by a number of different variables – the amount of muscle you carry and whether your dieting for fat loss or more focused on muscle gain for example. So while the percentage is constant, the absolute number of protein, carb, or fat grams is much different, and this is what is important – how much you’re putting in your mouth. Even with what seems like good percentages, you could still be getting too little or too much of any macronutrient. Maybe you’re shooting for 40% protein; assuming 1500 calories, this works out to about 150 grams of protein. Depending on one’s bodyweight, this could be reasonable. However, let’s take that 40% and apply it to a 2500 calorie diet. That same 40% now equates to 250 grams of protein. Something tells me this is likely overkill for most of women - regardless of what someone might tell you. The science does not support the idea of huge protein intakes. In the end, the wisest approach is to focus on how much of each macronutrient you’re eating per pound of bodyweight. You could be eating 40/40/20 every day, but if you're eating 10000 calories a day, it doesn't matter.

What matters is how much you're eating, not the relative amount of one macronutrient to another. The most important aspect of any nutritional program is the overall calories; how much you're eating for your body. The most important elements are setting the right caloric intake, and getting adequate protein and essential fatty acids. Everything beyond that is secondary.

Q: I've been dieting for several months now and at first things were great but it seems like I'm not losing any more weight. I keep my calories pretty low, I'm doing lots of cardio, I'm eating clean foods still and yet, my progress seems to have stopped altogether. Someone told me I might have messed up my metabolism with all my dieting, and they know a lot more about this than I do. If that's true, how do I fix it?

A: Damage to one's metabolism is a very real phenomenon ... and these days extremely common place. The relieving thing is that it's generally repairable. First off, you need to lose the short term thinking and adopt a longer term mindset.

Even though this might go against 'common wisdom', you're going to have to eat more, at least for a little while. You might find it hard to wrap your head around this concept, but trust me, it's necessary. However, just ramping right up to an appropriate caloric intake isn't necessarily the right approach for everyone. There is more than one way to approach the repair but I'd suggest you do it in steps - systematic and regular increases. This has the benefit of one, allowing you to gradually get used to eating more food, two, potentially preventing some fat regain, and three, maybe even causing some fat loss. So one approach is to take your present intake and just add 10-15% or so to it every week until you hit maintenance intake. Then you need to stay at maintenance for a couple of weeks before even considering going back into a caloric deficit. Might you gain some weight at maintenance? Maybe, but some will surely be water, muscle glycogen, etc. Again, long term versus short term thinking. You need to correct the problem before you can move past it. Two weeks at maintenance will make further fat loss much more likely when you return to a caloric deficit. Planned diet breaks are one of the most underrated dieting strategies out there.

With a depressed metabolism you can generally assume something like 14x bodyweight is going to be around maintenance. It might be a bit lower depending on how severe your caloric deficit has been and for how long, but keep in mind that metabolism is only going to slow so much. It doesn't shut off. The generic numbers are 14-16x BW depending on metabolic issues. So, take the low number for yourself. Even if it's still slightly low it's a big increase from your current intake. It's an approximation, but so are the more complicated equations.

When you return to dieting, take a moderate approach and shoot for approximately 12X bodyweight which is close to a 20% caloric deficit. Stay there for a couple weeks, assess your progress, and make adjustments as needed. If you're getting leaner and your measurements have decreased, stay there. If you're not, try decreasing calories by another 10% and reassess again two weeks later. Remember, all these general caloric recommendations are just approximations; they're starting points. Everyone's a bit different, so the key to long term success is being able to trouble shoot your program.

waterQ: I'm competing in a bodybuilding show this summer, and I'm confused as to when I should cut my water. I'm hearing all sorts of conflicting information about cutting it out 6 hours before prejudging, 12 hours out, even a full 24 hours out! I've also heard about systematically reducing water intake over a number of days.

A: Everyone seems to have a different recommendation when it comes to cutting water for a contest. I typically see two mistakes made very often. The first, people cut their water (and their sodium, which will be discussed in a future Q&A) too early, thinking that the earlier they cut their water, the more water they'll lose and the harder and drier they'll look. Not so. The second involves systematically cutting water over the last few days - for example, cutting water intake to half of normal one day, then half of that the next day and then half of that the next day until it's completely cut out. I can't tell you how many shows I've been at where I've overheard competitors talking about how full, hard and vascular they were the day before the show, and yet, are soft and flat looking on show day. Again, for most people this isn't the wisest approach to "drying out," and especially not for a drug free competitor. Why?

Well, the key to drying out is the manipulation of the hormones that govern fluid balance in your body - hormones such as aldosterone and antidiuretic hormone, for example. When aldosterone is low, your body flushes out water and sodium. This is good. However, when aldosterone is high, it promotes the reuptake of water and sodium in the kidneys. This isn't good. So how do we suppress aldosterone levels? Drink tons of water and eat sodium. How do we elevate aldosterone levels? Cut your water and sodium. So aldosterone responds to both water and sodium intake.

The key is short-term manipulation of this system. Of course, the body's response to change isn't like a light switch. It takes time, and this is the key. If you cut your water and sodium too early - and this includes the systematic decrease over a number of days - yes, you'll dry out nicely, but you'll likely peak too early. By the time contest day rolls around, you'll wonder what the heck happened to your condition. You'll probably be flat, appear a little soft, and have little vascularity, especially if you also cut sodium too early, which is another big mistake. Why? Because your body has had time to adjust to the change in water and sodium intake, and has adjusted hormone levels up to promote reuptake of water and sodium. You need to time the system right so that you're on stage in your hardest, fullest, driest condition before your body has had a chance to sense the change in water and sodium intake.

So how about a recommendation? I would suggest that you keep the sodium in your diet. Keep it stable. It is the key to fullness and vascularity. Don't cut it out too early. In fact, I wouldn't even cut it. Starting about 10 days out, increase your water to about three gallons. What happens when you do this? You end up hitting the bathroom every 10 minutes (the fluid managing hormones are suppressed and you're flushing water). The day before your contest, you can decrease (do not cut it) your sodium intake a little and keep pounding the water back. About 16 to 18 hours from the prejudging, cut your water. There's also the option of reintroducing sodium a few hours after you cut your water. This can help pull water from under the skin into your muscles. Most importantly, keep in mind that some people dry out faster than others, so use this as a guide for your first show and make note of how your body changes. Better yet, make sure you're in shape a couple weeks early and take it for a test drive and then adjust the timing based on when you look your best. If anything, you might have to cut the water closer to the show, not further away. If you wake up a little flat the next morning, drinking some water can help you out. If you wake up hard and tight, you're ready. Have a nice fatty/sugary breakfast to get things rolling, and you'll be good to go.


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