Most articles on weight/fat loss are directed at the people needing or wishing to lose 30 pounds or more. There are also people “in shape” though that still want to get a bit tighter, leaner, and better defined. Not to the degree of a bodybuilder, but perhaps sporting the six-pack of abs. Or gaining that mystery vein that runs from the sleeve to the forearm in the athletic and laborers. When you are fit,you may want to lose a bit more to show your conditioning, or just meet a personal goal. Do you just keep doing the same thing as the people battling a bulging tummy?
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
We have all made progress in losing fat, only to hit a plateau. Two basic responses occur in most people’s mindset. They either double-down like an addicted gambler and do the same thing more aggressively. Or they struggle mentally and physically until defeat sets in and give up entirely. Neither is right, neither is less wrong. Here are two quick lessons for you: 1) NEVER stop progressing, and 2) NEVER ignore what your body is telling you. When the time comes that you are not making any changes (or worse sliding backwards) listen to your body.
No printout tells your body how it will respond to prior workouts or real-life issues that might motivate or drain you. I have seen people use periodizing programs that were well designed, but did not work for them. Perhaps their employment did not allow them to recover between workouts. Or to increase the resistance loads at the pace predicted. Maybe they have a sleep disorder (or unruly teen-agers) that interferes with recovery and growth. Your family may not support the dietary restrictions of your program. Or perhaps temptations are around.
RE-EVALUATE YOUR PROGRESS
If your program never worked, or stopped working, re-assess what you are doing. If you were making progress, but after a couple months you discover that your weights and reps have not changed over several workouts, step back a minute. Assuming factors outside the specific diet or exercise are not a contributing cause to your plateau, what do you do with your training and diet? First, get away from the demands and tracking and goal setting for a couple weeks.
Maybe you are over-trained, or completely adapted to a non-varying training routine. Perhaps you are catabolic from cutting your calories or carbs too low. Whatever it is, something is affecting your body’s ability to respond to the challenges that should tap into fat reserves and/or build muscle. If this is happening, it is your physiology fighting for survival.
Training harder or dieting more will only result in you getting weaker and sicker. Some people become desperate to reach a unobtainable goal. They may even turn to pharmacology to combat physiology. Let’s take a rational approach and see how continued progress can be achieved in a healthy manner.
TAKE A BREAK
Thankfully, the “age of enlightenment” is arriving to the world of bodybuilding and body-shaping. Recently, I attended a sports nutrition conference. While there, I noticed a theme among many of the speakers. They spoke of re-feeding, over-training/over-reaching, and nutritional imbalances. The solution common to most of these talks – take a break. First, give your body a couple weeks to accommodate to its newly acquired state.
Second, take measure of where you stand. There are natural limits to (low) body fat. Men can reach 6% body fat at best without the body beginning to deplete lean mass (muscle) to survive. For women, the number is higher (approximately 10 – 12%.) The negative effects are more tangible with changes in menstrual cycle realized by many. Some people can go a percent or two lower, but they are gifted with the benefits of good genetics.
EAT SMARTER & STAY BUSY
During this two week hiatus, don’t think you get “cheat meals” and an all-inclusive couch potato lifestyle. Eat healthy foods, but don’t count calories, weigh food, or even read labels. Ss long as you are eating whole food you will be okay. Eating should not be a chore or a taboo during this period; it should be natural. Make sure that you don’t binge. Your body may compelled to do this if you have messed up your metabolism by being too severe.
Make it a whole food experience; get away from the shakes, bars, powders, and potions. When my wife and I take a vacation, it is to all-inclusive resorts where we eat what we want. I come home about three to five pounds lighter. This is due in part to a lot of beach walking, yoga, swimming, and other fun activities. I also sleep more soundly. This suggests that my mind doesn’t wind down at night at home. At night, I try to relax with low-lights, casual reading, and conversation with my wife.
The resort meals we eat are healthy choices, bigger than I would eat at home, and I have dessert most nights. Why do I lose weight? Well, despite the activity, it is not enough to account for the weight loss. So some of it must be water, as I don’t take creatine during vacation. Is some muscle mass? I don’t believe so, as we make use of the resort gyms a few days of the week. And we stayed inactive.
WHAT IS YOUR BODY TELLING YOU?
Take stock of what you were doing when the progress stopped. A common mistake is dieting too severely, or training too frequently. It is possible to catabolize lean mass despite using weights and chowing down on protein. The muscle needs to be fed and responds to a sufficient number of calories for energy (i.e. carbohydrates and fat). Muscles also need amino acids (i.e. protein) to build.
However, when fuel stores or building blocks are insufficient, growth will not occur. Worse, if the rest of the body, such as your organs and brain, are deprived of nutrients, they will rob the muscle to “survive.” Were your calories too low? Did you go low-carb or ketogenic and stay there too long?
My wife and I competed last year and arrived onstage in great shape and very lean. But I was depleted of strength, and feeling lackluster for much of the last month prior to the show. This go-around, as we prepare for another show, we have increased our calorie count and carbohydrates once our body fat approached show condition. And we continue to make progress. My wife is already leaner than she was last show, and I am only 1/2% above show condition at six weeks out. We follow a six or seven feeding per day schedule, as that is what works best for us.
We have decided to keep our carbs primarily low-glycemic. We have pre-workout oatmeal, casein cake, and our post-workout MRP. That along with a quarter of a sweet potato. We don’t have any carbs after our 6:00 p.m. meal. Just in the last four weeks before the show, we have begun doing fasted cardio in the morning. This may help us shock just a bit more fat loss. We do moderate, steady-state cardio.
WHAT WILL WORK FOR YOU?
The style of exercise people choose is personal. Some prefer functional Cross-Fit style, while others may enjoy heavy weight training. And still others yet may prefer a nice long bike ride or run. Regardless of what you do, find something complimentary that allows variety. Something that stimulates your body in a different manner. I have found yoga to be an ideal compliment for me.
Not only for the physical benefits, but also the breathing, posture, and mindfulness component. Yoga is also somewhat social, as the rest of my training is an individual endeavor. If you need to do “something” every day, Yoga can give you a low-intensity alternative. It can allow your body time to recover from your primary exercise modality .
One more thing that will give you a greater appreciation for bodybuilding is practice posing. Though to the audience, it may seem like a static and short-lived act, posing is quite strenuous. It is essentially an isometric workout that you are forced to perform without the benefit of deep breathing.
Instead, you are forced to breathe shallowly and smoothly while holding every muscle from the tips of your toes to the top of your head rigid. Lee Labrada has several excellent videos on posing. These videos give instruction for those of you who have never done more than flex your arms in the bathroom mirror.
In coming articles, I will describe some specific examples of how I made (and likely will continue to make) mistakes. Also, how I recognized these mistakes, and the steps I took to correct my wayward behavior. In writing these articles, it is possible that the person who learns the most will be me, as I am forced to confront day-to-day errors that can be dealt with as long as they are acknowledged. Perhaps each reader who truly wants to learn will be inspired to log their own efforts and results. “Scientists” hate the comment, but we are all unique which makes us experiments of one.
About the Author
Daniel Gwartney, M.D. took the path less traveled and combined his passion for health, fitness, and bodybuilding with the knowledge and experience learned during his medical training. A former world-ranked natural bodybuilder, appearing on the covers of Muscle Media 2000 and Ironman Magazine, and a regular contributor to several of the top bodybuilding and fitness magazines, he provides unique insight into the application of fitness into medicine and medicine into fitness.