Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW CC, Starting Strength Staff
When it comes to dialing in the training there are numerous valid approaches that will result in changes in bodyweight, body composition, strength, and conditioning. The trick is to manipulate the correct variables at the correct time to get the preferred result. Each individual has specific goals, needs, and concerns that their particular training and nutritional approach should meet and in this article we’ll attempt to cover the most common goals, troubleshooting techniques, and dietary/training tweaks that actually work.
Case Study #1: Jane Smith
- Weight: 165lbs
- Height: 5’8
- Age: 35
- Body Fat: 24%
- Current Nutrition:
- Jane currently eats “pretty well” and is a Paleo Diet follower. She sticks mainly to meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and similar products 85% of the time. A few times per week Jane disregards her Paleo underpinnings and has ice cream, pasta, pizza, or other tasty foods. Her compliance is pretty good, but she knows she can do better. She does not currently weight and measure her food, either.
- Current Training:
- Jane has developed a proficiency in weight training with her sessions mainly being comprised of squats, deadlifts, presses, chins, and other compound movements.
- Current Cardio:
- Jane also does cardio 2-3x per week, with one of the sessions being more “interval” based training.
- Jane would really like to take it to the next level with her body composition. While she is happy with here current level of leanness, she really wants to push the envelope and get down to a level where her abdominal muscles are starting to come out so that she’s ready for swimsuit season.
To tackle Jane’s quandary in the least amount of time with the smallest amount of intervention necessary we need to develop a baseline of nutrition first. We need to give Jane some homework in that she starts to record and measure her macronutrients and calories that she is currently consuming for a full week. We need not worry about implementing any sort of change in her nutritional protocol just yet; we’re just interested in getting a baseline reading. So we send Jane on her way to get us some data and here is what we get:
- Protein: average= 105
- Carbohydrates= average = 150
- Fats: average= 100
While these averages might seem a little off to some people, we must remember that Jane occasionally goes off the rails and has a cheat meal here and there which influences the average macronutrient totals. In an effort to lean Jane out quickly we need to reduce her intake of energy-dense nutrients while providing enough building blocks so that she can preserve her current level of muscle mass or slightly add to it via training. We can do this in an intelligent fashion by manipulating the macronutrients in a step-wise fashion as the process goes on.
The first thing to do is to set the daily protein intake at a level to sustain her muscle mass whilst also not being so excessive as to preclude her from dropping some body fat. The range of between 1.0-1.5g/lb of bodyweight is a nice place to start. Let’s start Jane right in the middle with the protein for the following reasons: she’s already used to eating meat frequently as a Paleo dieter, but not large amounts of it apparently. Furthermore, she has a pretty good chunk of lean muscle tissue we’d like to keep and she trains hard multiple times each week.
Protein total= 200g/day
Next we need to take care of the energy requirements. While we could get all fancy and describe a carbohydrate cycling plan for Jane to follow, it would be such a drastic shift from what she’s currently doing that compliance might suffer as a result. So let’s start this nutrition plan with steady amounts of carbohydrates and fats and leave their manipulation for another time. These amounts of energy-dense nutrients will allow for energy restriction, which is important when it comes to losing body fat. However, the carbohydrates are not so low that Jane runs the risk of ruining her metabolism and getting spun out. Similarly, her fat intake will not be so low that she will have to worry about decreasing fat-soluble vitamin absorption, hormonal status, etc.
Carbohydrate total= 150 g/day (35g coming from fiber)
Fat total= 50g/ day
Total Calories= 1850 calories per day
So we’ve induced a slight calorie deficit with Jane while shifting her macronutrient profile. The other step in this initial change is make two of her weekly “cardio” sessions interval based for the following reasons: long-lasting uptick in metabolism, hormonal stimulus to preserve lean muscle tissue, better carbohydrate and fatty acid metabolism properties. I’d have her stick to 20-30 second sprints followed by 1:30-2minute “active” rest periods x 7-9 total intervals. The interval session would be capped by a 5 minute warm up and cool down. So now, Jane is good to go!
Each week we’d assess Jane’s fat loss and measurements and adjust the macronutrients down in a step-wise fashion. The first thing I’d do is strip away 10g of protein and carbohydrates and leave the fat where it’s at. After that, I’d strip 10g of fat away while leaving protein and carbohydrates the same. During each of these steps I’d consider adding in additional conditioning sessions one at a time. Losing a solid pound per week is likely and if this is happening then just hold steady until there is a plateau and then start manipulating your variables. Pictures taken at the same time weekly also tell the tale and this is a nice addition for bookkeeping.
Case Study #2: Joe Gunz
- Weight: 180lbs
- Height: 5’ 10”
- Age: 28
- Body Fat: 12%
- Current Nutrition
- Joe Gunz currently isn’t eating anything particular but typically sticks to meats, vegetables, rice, oats, whole wheat breads, potatoes, nut butters, healthy oils, and copious amounts of protein powder. There are days the Joe doesn’t eat all of his meals and also days in which he scarfs down a pizza, burger, or some Chipotle as he is a busy young professional.
- Current Training
- Joe is a training juggernaut, constantly switching to the latest and greatest training protocols published on the Internet yet he consistently gets stuck at certain weights after two weeks on a “new” program. He sticks to the big movements like squats, deads, presses, and pulls with a bit of isolation work although he hasn’t seen much progress on his lifts in the past few months.
- Current Cardio
- Joe doesn’t get any formal cardio done on a regular basis. Sure he throws down in the occasional metabolic conditioning workout (CrossFit-esque) and does some sprints when he reads an article about how sprints develop massive legs, but he is neither consistent nor scientific in his approach to cardiovascular system development.
- Joe wants to get jacked, pure and simple. He wants to gain muscle mass whilst remaining lean or getting even leaner. What’s a boy to do?
While it would be easy to prescribe something very complicated like a carb-cycling nutritional protocol, interval training, and undulating periodization in the training- these things aren’t practical for Joe as they are too different from what he’s currently doing. While this large shift to a novel stimulus would likely work for a few weeks it would be a pain to implement and we don’t know enough about how Joe would respond to smaller-scale changes to properly manipulate any of the variables we changed. In my opinion, the best way to help Joe out towards the path to uber-man physique is to employ small, SMART, changes systematically. Here’s how.
First I’d introduce a post-workout shake consisting of 30g of protein and 90g of simple carbohydrates. This 1:3 ratio has time and time again proven to be an effective muscle builder in the exercise science literature. I’d prefer if Joe utilized a fast-acting high quality whey protein isolate and equally fast-acting simple carbohydrate source like waxy maize. This would be step one in Joe’s nutrition plan and this slight bump in calories around his training time would most likely increase his protein synthesis, recovery, and thus muscle growth. Adding 5g of creatine to this shake would be another smart idea. In short, introduce a post-workout shake consisting of whey protein isolate, waxy maize (or similar), and creatine. The other two nutritional changes I’d make off the bat is to get Joe to start keeping a log of his nutrition and to add a cup of instant oats to one of his protein shakes, preferably in the earlier hours of the day or around his workout time.
The log of his nutritional intake will allow use to make more intelligent tweaks to his plan in the future, as we’ll know what he’s actually eating. The extra serving of oatmeal results in an additional 50g of carbohydrates which both provide extra fuel for the training while also allowing for increased muscle growth by stimulating protein synthesis. These three changes, post-workout shake, logging nutrition, and extra oats will work synergistically and aren’t so novel in that they will prevent Joe from being compliant.
After a week’s worth of time on this new plan we can assess Joe’s results. Pictures help a ton in this instance as well as tracking the scale. Optimally, Joe should be about the same weight (or slightly heavier) and the same level of leanness. If the pictures show a slightly more muscular Joe with no noticeable increase in visceral body-fat then he has successfully added muscle mass with the requisite body fat, but he hasn’t added MORE body fat than muscle mass. This is an important distinction. It is literally impossible to add lean muscle tissue without ANY body fat, as the two are part and parcel. What is possible is an increase in lean muscle tissue with a similar percentage increase in body fat. If a person goes from 180lbs at 12% body fat to 200lbs at 12-15% body fat then they have added a significant amount of muscle mass compared to the insignificant amount of body fat the comes with it. It just isn’t physiologically possible to add ONLY LEAN MUSCLE MASS with ZERO FAT in the absence of chemicals, or being a rank novice. Besides, someone at 200lbs and 12% body fat is much larger and more muscular than someone at 175lbs and 10% body fat. Do not get caught in the trap of trying to increase muscle mass whilst decreasing body fat- it just doesn’t happen that way. What we are intending to do to Joe during this phase is add muscle mass without getting sloppy. We can intelligently enter a “lean-out” phase after he is happy with his new muscle growth, but if we try to lean him out while gaining muscle then we will be unsuccessful in both accounts.
Training wise, we would be smart to reset all of Joe’s lifts and modify his conditioning protocols. We need to allow Joe enough of an on-ramp to really push his lifts past his same plateau points while providing enough stimulus to actually cause him to get stronger than these current sticking points. An easy way to do this is to add in a small amount of additional volume to his training program that won’t over extend him. I would like to see Joe take 10% off each of his lift’s last work sets. So if Joe recently squatted 275 x 5reps then I’d have him start at 245lbs and do the following rep protocol: 5-5-5+, or in other words, do two sets of five to prime the pump and then hit a max-effort set for as many reps as possible which should be around 10 or so reps. Each week he would add 5lbs to this lift and continue to rep out the final set until he cruises past his previous sticking point. Additionally I’d like to see his warm-up sets consisting of 3 reps each and moved as fast as possible. This accomplishes two things. First, it increases the total volume of the workload, as most people only do one or two reps at each consecutive weight when they’re “warming up”. Second, this focus on moving the weight as fast as possible will recruit more muscle fibers, further potentiating Joe’s ability to crush the weights when he gets to his working sets. Here’s a sample warm up routine for Joe’s recently reset squat weight:
Bar x 5 reps x 2 sets, 95lbs x 3 reps (fast), 135 x 3 reps (fast), 155 x 3 reps (fast), 180 x 3 reps (fast), 205 x 3 reps (fast), 225 x 3 reps (fast), 245 x 5-5-5+.
Finally, instead of introducing a competing stimulus like sprinting, metabolic conditioning, or other high intensity conditioning protocol I will simply have Joe walk briskly first thing in the morning for 30 minutes starting with a frequency of four times per week. As the pictures and results come in, we can adjust this as necessary. If Joe is staying lean and gaining size then there’s no reason to mess with success- just stay the course. However, if Joe is getting a little soft then we’ll increase the frequency of this fasted cardio to six times per week while adjusting the nutrition as described in the following paragraph.
At some point Joe will stop responding to our initial three changes we made nutritionally. This is not the time to throw all this data out the window and start fresh, but rather it is the time to intelligently modify the variables to suit Joe’s needs. The tweaks will be determined by the results. If Joe has stopped putting on size then this calls for a slight increase in energy (food), however if Joe is getting a little soft in the midsection then this calls for a slight decrease in his intake. In the former situation I’d like to see another cup of oats being added to a shake, or another shake added entirely (protein + oats) as this is a very small change and easily done. In the latter case, I’d like to see an elimination of either the cheat meal (if applicable) or if this is not relevant, then an elimination of an energy source at one of the meals outside the two surrounding the training time. For instance, if Joe normally has a serving or two of nuts with breakfast or his last meal, I’d like to get rid of this. I want to keep the energy around the workout (post workout shake and added oats) to fuel the training efforts and muscle recovery, but the added energy sources (fats and carbs) outside this peri-workout window are less important and thus, are the first things to go.
The summation of these small changes, post-workout shake, manipulated energy intake, rep scheme, weight reset, and conditioning protocols we will be well on our way to getting Joe dialed in. Each person has a sweet spot with regards to training and nutrition and as such, it requires some trial and error as well as record keeping to find out what this is for each person.
Case Study #3: Betty Purse
- Weight: 155lbs
- Height: 5’4
- Age: 57
- Body Fat: 31%
- Current Nutrition
- Betty is set in her ways. After hearing the “heart-healthy whole-grains” and “low-fat” mantra for years she’s fully inculcated in the standard nutritional dogma. She regularly consumes a breakfast of either fiber-rich cereal plus a piece of fruit and fruit juice or some oatmeal, coffee, and a fiber supplement. For the remainder of her day she focuses on not overeating and eats a small salad for lunch with a pauper-sized dinner consisting of vegetables, lean meat, and a low-fat starch.
- Current Training
- Betty is fresh off the couch. She has started a walking regimen and has scheduled her first training session with her new trainer, Lindsey. Other than that she tends to housework and cultivating her small garden while making sure she’s on the couch in time to watch her shows.
- Current Cardio
- Betty walks between 40 minutes and 60 minutes 4-6 times a week at a light pace because she has noticed herself becoming winded as she goes about her activities of daily life.
- Betty wants to get stronger, lose some body fat, and feel young again. She has recently come to the correct conclusion that she is becoming deconditioned and wants to right the ship. Osteoporosis and type II diabetes also run in her family so she’d like to avoid these two maladies.
Unfortunately, this scenario is all-too-common with regards to the population we normally see. The standard dietary advice dictating the client’s eating habits and what some consider being common sense dictating the client’s training habits, or lack thereof. What needs to happen is a large shift in the mindset of the client, which may or may not occur via judicious prodding. The best thing Betty’s trainer, Lindsey, can do for her is to convince her to give a different diet and exercise protocol a shot, as hers obviously hasn’t been working for her. Additionally, the results need to happen quickly if we have any shot at hooking Betty into this lifestyle for good. So what could Lindsey do to if given a two-week window with Betty to really change her life?
During this two-week time period Lindsey has the opportunity to make some real progress, however this cannot occur under the guise of small changes to Betty’s lifestyle. On the other hand, any radical advice will likely be dismissed as pseudoscience if it’s too out there. What we have here is a sedentary individual with significant body fat to lose. Additionally, Betty is so deconditioned that simply getting her to be able to perform the most basic functional exercises will help her immensely. We can do a whole lot without getting crazy, but how to start?
Nutritionally speaking, Betty needs a plan that’s both easy to follow and rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. We can get away with encouraging Betty to eat similar meals to what she’s consumed previously and simply stringing these meals together for days, weeks, etc. It is highly likely that Betty has once eaten a breakfast consisting of eggs and a piece of fruit before. Similarly, she has also probably had a salad with grilled chicken and balsamic vinaigrette dressing before. Finally, it’s probable that Betty has had a piece of lean meat and vegetables for dinner at one point in her life. If we can get Betty to buy in and eat in this manner for this two-week trial run period then it is entirely possible that she could lose a large amount of body fat and weight in short order.
Training wise, Lindsey would be well served to teach Betty how to squat (if even to a box, bench, or similar), press overhead (with dumbbells, PVC pipe, or empty barbell), row, deadlift, and chin (on an assisted machine) during her first two sessions. In the remaining time, she could focus on increasing the difficulty of each movement by altering the load/assistance, increasing the range of motion, altering the leverages, etc. The goal at the end of two weeks would be to have Betty be able to perform a free-standing body weight squat, put a barbell or heavier set of dumbbells overhead, and deadlift more than she started at. These improvements will dovetail nicely with the weight loss and increased feelings of “getting fit” that Betty is likely experiencing. Likewise, this is not the time to mess with Betty’s conditioning protocol, but rather it is a time to encourage her to keep as active as possible in order to increase caloric expenditure, increase cardiorespiratory capacity, and get her just plain MOVING!
If Lindsey can implement all these things with Betty she can change her life in short order and large strides can be made towards Betty reclaiming her life!