Understanding what it really takes to cut fat and tighten up your physique.
By Devlin Brown
If one were to remove one of the legs of a tripod it is quite obvious what would happen. The three legs work together in a way that makes the tripod stable and secure. Any missing leg, or any weakness in any leg would compromise the whole setup. Half a leg would result in it falling over, a cracked leg would weaken it. One leg – well that is a circus act.
The point is quite clear. The three pillars of fat loss work in much the same way. You can not have a complete, or long-term sustainable fat-loss programme without all three pillars firmly in place. What are these pillars of fat loss, these non-negotiables?
Diet, weights, cardio. And the top of the tripod is hormones.
Sure, you can lose weight with just a diet, you can lose weight with just cardio, and, you guessed it, you can lose weight with just weight training. But we are not talking about losing “some weight”. We are talking about fat loss in the bodybuilding sense. We are talking about a change in body composition that is noticeable and lasting; a reduction in body fat that goes beyond shedding “a few kilos” for summer. We are talking about hardcore shredding for aesthetic purposes to bring out the muscular detail.
Dieting for bodybuilding is a long, hard and meticulous process. It is not about dropping a few calories. In this sport it is a science and an art form. A competitive bodybuilder will not try and reinvent the wheel with his diet as he dials in his best condition before a show. There is a reason for this. The hardest work, and months of dedication can quite literally go out the window with a few days of messing around.
There are a host of different diet strategies, ranging from carb cycling to ketogenic diets, but the point is that whatever approach is used needs to follow two simple rules. First it needs to be followed properly from beginning to end, and secondly it needs to work for the particular athlete. This is where time and learning one’s body comes into effect. In this edition alone we have quotes from different bodybuilders who eat carbs differently. The point is, whatever works best for you is what you should be doing, and no expert is going to be able to tell upfront exactly how you are going to respond to a particular diet.
With this in mind, despite the various strategies and diet types, there are a few fundamentals that have stood the test of time. The old saying holds true: if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it. A well-rounded diet with the macronutrients timed well has worked for a century and will continue to work for another century. Eating lots of good-quality lean protein, unprocessed, whole carbohydrates, good fats and plenty of vegetables. How these ratios change as you get closer to the show (or trip to the beach) is worked out with your trainer and mentor. And then, in the final stretch, dropping water and other strategies take months of hard work and quite literally make you pop out into the lean, ripped muscle machine that you have spent months working on.
Lean muscle has a higher basal metabolic rate than any other tissue in the body. This means that muscle requires more energy just to exist. A bodybuilder, by definition, has a very high ratio of muscle to body weight, which is why his metabolism will be higher than a regular Joe. The more muscular you are the more you burn fat. It is like a snowball effect, and when you think about it, it is quite exciting.
That said, there are other benefits to weight training when it comes to fat loss. The obvious is the energy expenditure required to perform the workouts, especially when using compound exercises and intensity strategies such as supersets, giant sets and drop sets. Just take a moment and remember the last time you did a high-rep low-squat set, dropping down below parallel and driving that weight up, time after time. Remember the amount of oxygen you had to suck into your lungs before dropping for another rep once you got to reps 8, 9, 11 and 13? These compound moves put a huge demand on your energy systems as its not just about your anaerobic system. This type of training is also very taxing on the aerobic system. There is also the Epoc effect – excess post-exercise energy consumption. Your metabolic rate rises after a heavy lifting session as your body scrambles through a whole host of processes to bring your body back into a resting state. In other words, for 48 to 72 hours after a weights session your body is a fat-burning furnace.
Secondly, as a bodybuilder you want to lose fat but hold onto as much muscle as possible. Presuming your diet and supplementation is spot on, there is no better way to do this than expend energy (burn calories) while actually training the muscles themselves. Look, your arms need to hold onto as much muscle as possible if they are being put through their paces.
Lastly, the hormonal response from big compounds is unquestionable. A big squat session triggers a release of growth hormone and testosterone. We all know the anabolic effect of these hormones, but they also serve a fat-burning purpose, and result in a more favourable body composition.
People have been doing cardio for fat loss since the beginning of modern bodybuilding. The debate on cardio for fat loss for bodybuilders goes two ways. First there are those who argue (with their incredible physiques as proof) that you cannot get cut up like a loser in a knife fight unless you put in the hours of steady-state cardio. Others claim (and they have their bodies as proof) that too much steady-state cardio causes them to lose too much muscle tissue. In this debate common sense prevails – no two bodies are the same, and people will all react differently. However, cardio performed at a lower intensity, and with sufficient muscle-saving nutrition and supplement strategies in place has proven time and time again to be exactly what is required, alongside the primary weight training, to bring the body into the leanest state possible.
Then there those bodybuilders who won’t use cardio. But it must be remembered that they are not starting their competition prep with double-digit body fat. They will start at around 8% which is leaner than 99% of the general population. Here, high-intensity training works for them. It is like so much else in this sport – use what works best for you and how your body reacts. However, for the overwhelming majority of people, steady-state cardio is required as it is the only way to preferentially tap into stored fat.
Others perform high-intensity metabolic conditioning types of fat loss workouts. These blast fat. But being a bodybuilder means that holding onto muscle is paramount and these kinds of workouts start tapping into muscle stores. The leaner you get, the more strategic you need to be in terms of shedding fat while still holding on to muscle.
The hormones are what create the environment within which everything else happens. This holds true for muscle building and fat loss. While anabolic processes happen with the help of our body’s anabolic hormones, fat loss is also highly dependent on the hormonal environment.
Insulin, cortisol, testosterone, among others, affect fat loss. And when bodybuilders are down to the last few grams of stubborn fat it is often the hormones that are either holding them back or taking them forward.
Cortisol is a stress hormone – this is caused by work stress as well as stress from prolonged training sessions and lack of sleep. This is why you always get told to sleep more, keep training sessions under a certain amount of time and go easy on the stress. Insulin is spiked by sugar intake, and this is why you are always told to eat unrefined, lower GI carbs that do not result in a spike of your insulin levels. Testosterone’s effects on the body are well-documented. The take home point here is that a healthy hormonal environment is vital to so many of the body’s functions. And following all the time-tested (and common sense) tips such as sleeping eight hours a night, eating low GI carbs, training with compounds to stimulate anabolic hormone release and supplementation will go a long way to turning you into the muscle-bound, fat-burning furnace you want to be.
Final word and secret magic trick
The pillars of fat loss are simple enough to understand and clear enough to implement. Actually, sticking the different elements together takes hard work and dedication. However, what is more important is understanding how the different elements fit together, because doing something with the knowledge of why you are doing it makes it more fruitful and effective. And then, the secret magic trick to shredding the fat: hard-headed dedication, day after day, week after week and month after month. It is the only proven magic trick, so stick to it and never quit.