Peaking is for Competitors
In most sports, including powerlifting and bodybuilding, training and contest preparation lead you to a "peak." This term generally applies to any sport where performance is at a peak level for a short duration. Extreme displays of strength, muscle mass, or low body fat are what we're talking about.
Extremes are needed. Powerlifters train to hit peak strength via supercompensation during a training cycle, and bodybuilders diet and train in a way to show extreme muscularity and conditioning. Both competitors understand that these peaks are something they can hold for only a short period of time.
Extremes Aren't Meant To Be Sustained
There's a reason why the word "extreme" is appropriate in this context: extremes are never sustainable. They're not meant to be. If you want to achieve a single-digit body fat percentage, it usually requires taking in extremely low calories for an extended period, often with a significant amount of cardio on top of it.
The average lifter should NOT be considering these kinds of methods when creating a lifestyle in order to get lean and stay that way.
Notice I didn't say "ripped." I said lean. There's a big difference between being ripped and being lean. It's damn near impossible to stay ripped year around, and only some genetic outliers can do it. But average lifters can stay lean year round, if they embrace a degree of moderation and find balance in training, eating, and conditioning.
Where It Goes Wrong
Two types of people really screw this up:
1 – Noobs
The gym newbie is a perfect example of why extremes are not sustainable.
Every January the gym is filled with new people who've decided to change their body, diet, bank account, relationships, favorite sandwich and everything else under the sun. They all vow to trade sitting on their butts and eating brownies for the gym, chicken breasts, and broccoli. Six weeks later, most of the "new-year-new-me" people have sunk back into the life they were leading prior to January 1st and are never seen in the gym again.
Obviously, these people never get into the same level of extremes that a competitor does. But in comparison to their previous way of life – where they picked up KFC after work and spent the rest of the evening on the couch – working out and eating at home is extreme.
2 – Lifters Who Suck at Diets
We all know some lifters who've tried to get lean, couldn't hack it after a few weeks, and went right back to fast food and binge drinking on weekends. Or maybe their bad eating habits were a little more subtle than that. They stopped taking care of their diets because they believe they must be perfect in order to do it at all.
The Problem with Deep Calorie Deficits
The area where both noobs and experienced lifters go wrong is that they don't understand the need for restraint.
- They eat less food, which puts them into an energy deficit.
- They add cardio on top of that, which creates more of an energy deficit.
- They increase their lifting volume, which creates an even greater energy deficit.
And they often do all the above the moment they decide to lose some body fat. Now the dieter isn't just tired and hungry, but pissed off all the time because the energy deficit created by all of this is too deep.
Then What Happens?
The person now moves less, does fewer sets and reps in training, skips some cardio here and there, and can think of nothing more orgasmic than bathing in a vat of melted dark chocolate and peanut butter while watching Food Network. Actually that does sound pretty good.
This feeling is common. Anyone who's tried to start a diet, cardio, or lifting strategy before and found themselves ravenous and falling off the wagon weekly or bi-weekly can confirm.
Their problem, like most who just want to look good naked but quit or fail, is that they didn't find the middle ground between going all-out and doing nothing. They never create sustainable habits.
The key to consistent fat loss and maintaining ideal body composition is achieving the desired energy deficit for fat loss, but not one that's so great that it can't be done on a daily basis or without getting easily derailed. This is why it's vital to create habits you can maintain based on moderation, not extremes.
You Need The Energy to Work Out
Your caloric deficit cannot be so great that you're too tired to do the same physical activity you'd been doing before.
Some people think every time you hit a fat loss plateau you need to reduce calories even more. But if your caloric intake lowers your training or general movement due to fatigue, then you're simply moving less to accommodate for the lethargy.
You get trapped in a destructive cycle: You eat less because you stopped losing fat, but then your energy levels drop and you begin to move less, in the gym and out. It's a wash.
Let's say you've been losing fat, your training is going well, and the hunger is manageable... but then your fat loss stalls out. The logical answer for most people is to lower calories further to create a greater energy deficit. But with that comes a greater degree of fatigue. Now you lift with less volume and intensity, and you may even skip cardio or bypass some lifting sessions altogether.
A week or two later, the scale hasn't budged despite the drop in calories. Frustration sets in and you start filling the bathtub with the caramel and dark chocolate.
What people don't understand is that fat loss occurs over weeks of being consistent with a moderate energy deficit. If you drop calories so low that you're too tired to do all your normal NEAT (non exercise activity time), then there may be a few hundred calories a day that were being burned but now are not. If you're cutting your workouts short, or skipping sessions, then the caloric reduction was counterproductive.
The Smarter Deficit
The person who gets the most out of his or her diet factors in fat loss from a more complete perspective. They consider ALL the factors that will affect them today and weeks or months later, like these:
The more satiated or full you are, the less likely you are to binge and blow your diet. This is why food selection is important in creating a sustainable eating lifestyle.
Protein-rich foods are highly satiating and have the highest thermic digestion rate of the three macros. This means that digesting and assimilating these foods actually burns more calories than the other two macronutrients: carbs and fats. And studies suggest that your body has a hard time converting protein to fat.
Your time in the gym should be spent on building or retaining muscle mass. The more muscle you have, the more energy your body uses each day just to maintain it. During exercise, a muscular body will expend more calories than a non-muscular one. There are simply more muscle fibers available to recruit, which will use and demand more energy (calories).
Want a faster metabolism? Build more muscle. If you're trying to lose fat, muscle retention should be your most important goal. Problem is, it's hard to retain muscle if your calories are too low for too long. Your body eats through fat and muscle at an almost equal rate.
Food Selection Matters
It's not just about satiation. If what you're eating sucks, it'll be hard to get into the gym and have workouts that are worth a shit. There are many who say that it's all about calories in versus out. But if you live by this logic and eat nothing but "moderate" amounts of crap, you'll become so tired that your workouts will suffer. Is this really a shock to anyone?
Junk food that's engineered for overconsumption is not going to make you feel healthy. And it sure as hell will be hard to stick with the appropriate serving sizes given what this stuff does to your brain, your neurotransmitters, and your gut.
If better body composition is your goal, then food composition matters. It's pretty hard to go wrong with quality proteins for each meal, veggies, and a modest serving of good fats from sources like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.
Cardio as a Fat Loss Supplement
If you're in a calorie deficit, you still have high-level lifting sessions, and your hunger is manageable, then think of cardio as your "supplement." Cardio doesn't burn a lot of calories unless it's performed at high intensity or for a lengthy period of time. The problem? It can also stimulate your appetite.
Don't use cardio to achieve a significant degree of energy debt. Half an hour of steady state cardio done 3-4 times a week, along with some intervals now and again, will net you a slightly deeper energy deficit without making you ravenous. Over the course of weeks and months, this will add up.
Where to Start: The Numbers
The first thing to do is identify how many calories you're currently eating at your body weight. This caloric number is like your starting point on a map. From here, don't change training, don't change cardio, don't change any other habits. You'll simply reduce calories first.
So, if you're at a ballpark of 3,500 calories a day or below, simply adjust downwards by 300 calories a day. If you're at more than 3,500 calories a day to maintain, then shoot for a reduction of 400-500 calories a day.
Again, don't change a thing in your training, cardio, or NEAT. Keep everything else the same. After two weeks see what changes have occurred. If you've dropped 2-4 pounds, then you're right on track. If nothing happened, increase or add in cardio. Again, it's beyond the scope of this article to cover every possible situation, and there's some lessons you need to learn through trial and error. So bump up the cardio, or add it in.
After a few more weeks, if things have stalled, do another caloric drop. Set a "floor" on your caloric drop. Multiply your bodyweight by 8-10. Then write that number down. You'll use that depending on your goals and how lean you're trying to become. And you probably don't need to go this low if you're not trying to peak for a special occasion or event.
At the bodyweight x 8-10 point, you'll most likely want to play with your cardio in order to continue creating a larger energy deficit, but don't let your calories dip below that floor. And make the floor temporary. A 200-pound muscular male should not need to spend his life eating between 1600-2000 calories in order to stay lean.
Putting It All Together
Lifting, cardio, your overall calories, and where those calories come from will create a synergistic fat loss effect that's sustainable. You get to keep your hard-earned muscle, you get to be lean, and you can manage staying there with minor tweaks on occasion.
Even in a fat loss state, calories should be high enough so that you...
- Can still have productive training sessions. If your performance has bottomed out and you're consistently having poor workouts, then calories are probably too low.
- Aren't talking yourself out of cardio sessions or lifting. Walking for 30 minutes should never feel exhausting.
- Don't see a reduction in your NEAT. You're still doing laundry, you're not parking in handicapped spots, and you're not opting for the escalator instead of the stairs.
- Are satiated at least 90% of the time... and not watching Food Network in orgasmic ecstasy (unless you do that anyway, which is fine).