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By Jordan Feigenbaum MS*,CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach
I started out writing about all the ins and outs of dieting down in a period of four weeks and the article was just getting ridiculously long. Instead of continuing down that path I thought I’d simplify everything and dial-in anyone who’s serious about getting lean in on how to manipulate their nutrition/cardio/etc. for getting seriously lean for summer. First things first, are you in? If you’re ready to be diligent, accountable, and consistent then read on. However, if you’re not so sure then come back to this at a later date.
To begin with, what is really lean? Lean is abs, striations, vascularity, and the “knuckle test”. To perform the knuckle test, pinch the skin on the back of your knuckles and gauge its thickness. This is the same thickness that any skin-fold you grab anywhere on your body needs to be in order to really be lean. If you have “an inch of pinch” then you’re not as lean as you could be. This may or may not coincide with your goals, but it is important to get the vernacular straight.
Anywhere in the 12-19% body-fat range is relatively lean with some people falling towards either end of the scale depending on their proportions. At no point is 25+% considered “lean”, only “leaner”. I don’t say this to be a jerk, but facts are facts. I am not trying to stir up controversy, but rather provide the information that you need in order to achieve your desired level of leanness.
Finally, a word on compliance as it pertains to nutrition and training. There is no nutritional protocol or training regime I can fathom that will allow you to outwork poor choices. Like the old adage goes, “you can’t outrun a donut.” At some point the decision needs to be made to drop the shenanigans and just pour all your available resources into getting lean for a punctuated period of time. What we’re setting up here is a 4-week “peaking” phase that will get anyone willing to actually do it very lean. It won’t however, allow for gross missteps along the way, or “weeks off” of the diet or training. I’m sorry; I don’t make the rules I just know what they are. So again, if you’re ready to take the reigns and “get after it” then let’s stop talking about it and start the transformation.
Part I: The Setup
There are a few things you’ll need in order to be totally prepared for this cycle. One is a nice food scale that measures in both grams and ounces. The next is a decent set of Tupperware that you can store food in if you’re on any sort of restricted schedule. Additionally, it might be useful to have a decent lunchbox and cooler packs. Finally, a set of measuring cups and spoons rounds out the bare necessities (cue the bear from Jungle Book).
Part II: The Method
We’re going to be following a 5-day cycle in which the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) are manipulated. Essentially it’s four consecutive days of low-carbohydrate type eating with a “carb up” day incorporated on the fifth day. Think of the four low-carb days as your “fat burning” days and the fifth day as your metabolic reset day. The carb-up serves two purposes. One is that the thyroid gland reacts to both caloric and carbohydrate total by either increasing or decreasing it’s output of thyroid hormones (T3/T4). If someone were on a low-carb diet forever and ever they might run the risk of down-regulating their thyroid. Normally or physiology takes over and we have a little (or big) cheat meal that provides this reset naturally. On the other hand, if one were to be following a ketogenic diet ( a real one- for long periods of time with no cheats) then this doesn’t happen because the presence of ketone bodies in the blood keeps the thyroid gland humming along. The carb-up also serves to replenish glycogen (sugar) stores in the muscles to allow for strength training to be actually productive. In other words, it’s important. Here’s how I would set it up, using a 140lb female as an example.
Protein: on low days protein is 1.5x bodyweight, and on high days it is 1.25 bodyweight. For our 140lb female this gives us 210g protein on the low-carb days and 175 for the high-carb days. All protein sources should be from lean sources including chicken breast, turkey breast, egg whites/substitute, lean beef, white fish, protein powder, lean pork, etc.
Carbohydrates: on low carbohydrate days it is 0.25 x bodyweight and on high days it is 1.5 x bodyweight. For our 140lb female this gives us 35g of carbohydrates on the “low” days and 210g on the “high” days. All carbohydrate sources should come from cleanish sources like oats, rice, potatoes, rice cakes, oat bran, vegetables, or some fruit.
Fats: on low days fat is 0.25 x bodyweight and on high days we limit fat to only trace fats, fish oil, and the essential cooking oils. All fat sources should come from things like nut oils, nut butters, nuts, animal fats, etc. For our 140lb female this gives us 35g of fat on the “low” days and ~0g on “high” days.
*Note: While I definitely believe there are health benefits to eating clean foods and that the diet will likely be more successful if done in this fashion, you can pretty much eat whatever you want to IF IT FITS YOUR MACROS (IIFYM). Take that to the bank.
Before going any further we need to talk about cardio. Cardio needs to be done on all the “low” days since we are really trying to burn fat on these days and we can get a reprieve from the cardio on the “high” days. The only requirement is that the “high” day must fall on a training day. Even if you aren’t training with me that day you need to get to the gym and do some weight training. You are all capable of loading a barbell and banging out some reps so this shouldn’t be a problem. Ideally the cardio would be first thing in the morning on an empty stomach with a bit of black coffee or green tea before hand to pump up the metabolism. If cardio cannot be done first thing in the morning then it should be done after weight training. If it is done on a non-training day then do it at least 2-3 hours after a meal. Duration should be at 30 minutes and the intensity should be somewhere between moderate and high, or in other words a nice pace in which conversation or singing would be difficult. I don’t know where that analogy came from, let’s move on. Here is a sample template for the 5 day cycle:
Low Days- Days 1-4 210g protein/35g carbohydrate/ 35 g fat
Wake Up: black coffee
AM Cardio: 30 minutes
Meal 1: ¼ cup oatmeal, 2 scoops of whey protein powder mixed in, 1 packet of stevia, cinnamon to taste and perhaps a teaspoon or so of psyllium husk for fiber
Meal 2: 7 ounces of chicken breast in large spinach salad, 1 tablespoon of EVOO and balsamic vinegar
Meal 3: 6 ounces of turkey breast (cooked), 2 cups of asparagus, 2tbsp of all-natural peanut butter
Weight Training Workout
Meal 4: 7 ounces of lean fish (tuna, cod, tilapia, etc.), 1/3 cup of brown rice (cooked measure)
*on a non-training day switch meal 4 to meal 2 and vice-versa.
High Days- Day 5 175g protein, 210g carbohydrates, trace fats only
Meal 1: 6 egg whites, 1 cup white rice (cooked measure)
Meal 2: 6 ounces chicken breast, 8 oz sweet potato, 1 cup broccoli
Meal 3: 2 scoops of whey protein, 1C of oatmeal (raw measure)
Weight Training Workout
Meal 4: 7 ounces of eye of round steak, 1 C brown rice (cooked measure), large green salad
So there is the first five days of the plan. After the carb up day simply return to the low carbohydrate menu for another four days with the daily cardio included (add 10 minutes to the duration=40 minutes). After the second cycle through this 5-day plan, which would be on day 11, you will be returning back to the low carbohydrate menu for the second time. At this point I want you to cut your daily carbohydrates in half. For our 140lb female this takes her from 35g of carbohydrates to 17.5g of carbohydrates. Also at this point I would add five minutes to the daily cardio- now totaling 45 minutes on all the low carbohydrate days. This will take you through the third cycle of the plan. After your fourth carb-up day you will have to make a decision as to whether you need to bump the cardio up to 60 minutes or not. If you’re looking for additional fat loss then do it, if everything is going fine the stay the course. It may be more suitable to break up these longer cardio sessions into two separate times, one in the AM and one in the PM, depending on one’s schedule.
To summarize the entire plan:
Days 1-4- standard low carb + daily cardio plan
Day 5- carb up + weight training
Days 6-9- standard low carb + daily cardio plan (+10 minutes in duration)
Day 10- carb up + weight training
Days 11-14- ½ carbohydrates on low carb plan + daily cardio (hold at 40 minutes duration)
Day 15- carb up + weight training
Days 16-19- ½ carbohydrates on low carb plan + daily cardio (hold at 40 minutes duration)
Day 20- carb up + weight training
Days 21-24- ½ carbohydrates on low carb plan + daily cardio (add duration to cardio if needed)
Day 25- Carb up + weight training
Days 26-29 = see peaking schedule
A word on salt and water; consume between 1-2 gallons (3.74-7.5L) of water daily and there is no limit on salt, just make sure you’re salting. We will manipulate these variables during “peak week”.
Part III: The Final Peak
When you’re entering the final cycle of the program you should be really lean and chomping at the bit to show off your hard work. We will manipulate salt, water, and carbohydrate intake to really make you pop (if you want to) for that special Memorial Day pool party. After the last carb up day, return to the standard ½ carbohydrate low-carb menu for the next three to four days, depending on when your “event” is. The day BEFORE YOUR EVENT do not salt any of your meals and stop drinking water around 8pm this day. Additionally, even though you started out this day on the low carb template (your first two meals) end the day with two meals from the high carb template (your last two meals). This will help you to fill out your muscles, and pull water out of the subcutaneous tissue.
On the day of your event sip as little water as possible and salt all your foods. This will continue to repartition any remaining water away from just underneath the skin, giving you a dense, “toned” look.
If you’re not lean then don’t worry about this peaking trick, it only works if you pass the knuckle test (or are close to it).
To summarize, you now have a set plan for four weeks to get lean for summer. Four weeks really isn’t a whole lot of time to commit to a diet so I hope you can wrap your heads around it and get the results you want. I know that the macronutrient totals don’t add up if you count every trace thing in every food. For example, oatmeal also has protein and fat in it besides carbs, but I just want you to count it as a carbohydrate. This is okay and keeps the calories slightly higher than what this otherwise would be. If you have any questions feel free to email me.