Is Low Carb The Answer?

Everything Sounds Great Before Your Start

Do you start every new training program or diet with the conviction that THIS IS IT?  Do you believe that every change is the answer to the riddle.  This is what will take you over the top.  This is the missing link and the system that will make all the difference.  If not, you should.  After all, why would you do anything if you were not sure it would work?  Its human nature to think that way.

However, there is another approach.  The approach is to look on each change as an experiment without expectation.   To try something new in order to learn something.  Discovering what doesn’t work is as important as discovering what does.

  • Decide on a change you want to make
  • Decide on one change you want to make
  • Determine how you will measure the impact (weight gain, weight loss, strength gains, etc)
  • Establish a start and end date of for the experiment
  • Make the change
  • Measure and make a decision – yay or nay

 The January Diet

I dropped six lbs in January following the holiday eating binge.  Half of it was fat and I felt pretty good about that because my bodyfat % came down.  That’s a good thing.

Then I started doing some research and came across this quote:

“some hapless individuals will lose as much as one pound of muscle for every 2-3 pounds of fat that they lose when they diet”

That comes from Lyle McDonald.  Lyle is a nutrition guru that used to write for Hardgainer and Cyberpump.  He wrote a book called “The Ketogenic Diet”.   Lyle is a person that I used to follow regularly and I respect what he has to say.

Before I read that, I thought of January as a success.  Now I’m questioning that.  Is it possible to do better?

The overall theme of the particular article referenced above is that the body will tend to gain or lose in the same percentages.  In other words, if I were to gain six lb of muscle, I can expect roughly to be muscle.  As a result you wind up where you started.

In May 2015 I weight 164 lbs at 12.4% body fat.  Today I weigh 164.2 at 12.7% body fat.  In between I went as high as 172.  My gains were slightly more fat than muscle and my losses were roughly 50-50.

The approach works in terms of gaining and losing.  But it does not work in achieving the larger goal of changing the ratio of fat to lean muscle.

How do we do that?


If you want to stay in shape you have to plan ahead for weekday meals.   It is only by making decisions in advance, such as “what will I have for lunch” that you stay on track.  One of my weekday lunches this week is steak, asparagus and yam.

The problem I always have with steak is the same problem I have with everything – overcooking.

Another answer from Alton Brown.

This week I bought a 3/4 lb sirloin.  I always estimate that the cooked weight is 75% of the raw weight.  That’s probably high but until I get a food scale its the best I can do.  Therefore, I estimate that I end up with 9 oz cooked and split into three meals.

What about the vegetable?  Asparagus was on sale this week – decision made!  12 spears give me the approx calories I need in a meal.  It does not take very long to cook so I either throw it in the oven for a few minutes while something else cooks or I steam it separately.

One half of a yam (also on sale) rounds out the meal.  Bake one yam, and you have it for two meals.

Calorie and nutrient breakdown - steak, asparagus, and yams

January 2016

Say Hello To January.

Its the start of a new year and I’m here in a place that so many of us can relate to.  Hung over from the holiday eating binge and left with a lot of work to do.

Have you ever been there?  Not completely out of shape, but far from where you was six months ago?  From November through New Year’s I tend to slack off.  It starts with Thanksgiving and then just  continues with all the parties over the next six weeks.  I had a great time but now there’s a price to pay.

Enough Is Enough.

Now its time to get motivated and  get back in shape.  Actually, motivation is the easy part.  There are so many thing that I’m excited to try this year.  The hard part is narrowing it down.  The strategy is one thing at a time.  Build some momentum and keep trying the little experiments.

The Start and The Finish

I started the month weighing in at 170.2lbs and 14.2% body fat.  That’s pretty big for me.

I ended the month at 164.2 lbs and 12.7% body fat.  In other words, I dropped six pounds a bit more than half of it fat.

That’s a pretty good result.  January was a success.

The Goals

  • Establish a daily calories needed for maintenance
  • Drop my body fat percentage
  • Work on my bench press

Mission accomplished on all three.

The January Plan

  • Average daily calories – 2,350
  • Macro nutrient breakdown – 40% breakdown, 30% carbs, 30% protein
  • Supplements – none
  • Training – twice weekly strength training, no aerobic training

The Experiment

The January experiment was to employ some of the cold tactics described by Tim Ferris in The Four Hour Body.  Specifically, I drank lots of ice water and took cold showers every day of the month.

The cold tactic works.

Some of the stuff I’ve read on the subject says that cold showers can actually boost your immune system.  I came down with a cold before starting the program.  It was gone a few days into the routine.

The Results

My body weight leveled off at the end of the month at 164.2 lbs.  I am confident saying that 2,350 calories is my maintenance level for this body weight.

No strength gains to report.  This was month one of a three month cycle.  All planned exercises / weights / reps / tul were achieved with the exception of one workout skipped due to the after effects of snow shoveling.  I chose recovery over training.

The Beginner’s Guide To Bodybuilding: Part 2

Everyone has an opinion about reps

Rep counts are everywhere.  Do a search on the subject and you’ll find information from people who recommend sets of 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 5, 3 or even singles.  Here’s what you need to know about rep counts:

They all work

That’s right.  All of them.  There are differences in Rep rangesthe results that you’ll get, but those differences will be slight if you stay way from the extremes.  In general low reps are about building strength and high reps are about cardio and muscular definition.  The differences  are probably marginal for the beginning bodybuilder and that’s why the number you choose is probably not that important.

But let’s pick one.

Consistency is necessary.  Without consistency its impossible to track progress.  So we have to pick a rep range and stick with it for at least one cycle.

It would seem that the majority of us should stay in the middle of that upside down pyramid.  Lets try to get the best of both worlds and keep the sets at somewhere between six and twelve reps.

Wait a minute.  I said “pick one” and I give a range.  Yes, a range.  Do it this way – pick a weight you can handle for six reps and gradually work it up to twelve.  When you get there, add weight and do it again.  If you find a six rep increase to be a bit difficult, narrow the range.  Try 8 to 10 instead.

But there is an alternative

I’ve said in previous posts that there are better ways to track workouts than counting reps.  In fact, I think that focusing entirely on rep counts can be a bad thing.  The goal of any exercise should be to keep the bar moving continuously at an even pace in strict form.  No bouncing, jerking, heaving or cheating.  Reps counts can be a bad thing when you sacrifice good form in the pursuit of “one more rep”.  It is the pursuit of one more rep at all costs that  short circuits so many cycles and prevents so many of us from making the gains that they should.

Its an easy line to cross.  After all, a workout is a multi-tasking event.  Humans are only capable of focusing on so many variables at a given time.  Good form is hard to maintain.  Think of all you have to pay attention to when under a heavy squat bar.

  • Retract your shoulder blades
  • Chest out
  • Weight on your heels
  • Back straight

That’s only a short list.  Add to that the task of counting to ten.

Was that 8 reps or only 7?

It might sound like a joke, but can you say that you never asked questions like that during a hard set of squats?  Those with training partners don’t have that problem, but people like me in the basement gyms do.

In the face of the pain that goes along with an intense workout its understandable that you might lose your count.  If you are focused on counting at a time when your muscles are weakened, you form will break down.  You might hit your rep target but the result is only the illusion of progress.  Your cycle will stall.

Why not try TUL (Time Under Lift) instead of counting reps?  Take your cell phone and bring up the stopwatch function.  Start the timer and get the bar into position.  Glance at the watch to get the start time and lift until you “can’t lift no more”.  Check the time at the end and you have your TUL.

Try this:

  • Each movement gets two warm up sets of five reps each and one or two work sets.  Don’t bother counting reps on your work sets, because…..
  • Work sets are done for time, not for reps.  Keep it going with slow, continuous movement done in strict form for anywhere from 45 seconds to 1 minute.
  • Choose a weight heavy enough to make it a challenge to get to 60 seconds TUL with the weight.  After you hit 60, increase the weight, drop the goal down to 45 seconds and gradually progress until you hit 60 seconds.

Equating the two approaches, a set of ten reps done at a 3/3 cadence (three seconds up and three seconds down) would give you sixty seconds TUL.

Whichever way you choose, remember that the differences are insignificant.  The only thing that matters is effort.



The Beginner’s Guide To Bodybuilding: Part 1

“Bodybuilding” is misunderstood.  Every workout routine is a bodybuilding routine.  Most people don’t like to think of it that way but its true.  Every physical activity that we undertake with the expectation of improving our physique is bodybuilding.

So get over the terms.  That goes for men and women, young and old.  We are all bodybuilders.  That doesn’t mean that we have to diet down to 5% bodyfat, buy a Speedo and quit our jobs in order to spend more time in the gym.

I don’t have time for that and I’m guessing that you don’t either.  Time is the limiting factor for most of us.  Fortunately, effective bodybuilding has more to do with quality than quantity.  If you can spare thirty minutes twice a week that should be plenty.  Forty-five minutes is better, but thirty will do it.

It sounds like a joke.  How could you make progress on that little amount of training?  “My trainer recommends three days a week of hour long workouts consisting of 12 – 15 sets plus cardio.”  Sound familiar?  That approach can be effective, there are problems:

  1. You will lose motivation after a few weeks of marathon sessions.  Even if you could keep the motivation, we all have other things to do.
  2. Cumulative fatigue will stop you from training hard or lead to an injury.


Anything else won’t do the trick and won’t keep the cycle going.  That’s why 2/3 of Americans who hold a gym membership never use it.  They tried, it took too much time away from things they’d rather be doing and they did not see the results they wanted.  They lost motivation and they quit.

Don’t train too often. Don’t train too long.  Just train hard.  That’s all the beginning bodybuilding needs to know.  By the way, almost everyone is a beginner.

So what should you do with that thirty minutes?

First you should warm up.  That doesn’t mean stretch and it doesn’t mean ride the bike for a half an hour.  It means do a reasonably quick routine to get yourself ready for action.  Save the stretching for the end of your workout.  After the warm up train three or four of the basic movements for one or two warm up sets plus one or two work sets.

What are the basic movements?

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench Press or Dips
  • Military Press
  • Bent Row
  • Chin Up or Pulldowns
  • Calf Raises

“Why no arm exercises?  What about barbell curls and triceps press downs?”  They aren’t necessary.  If you train hard enough on the upper body movements you do not need direct arm work.  In my experience, the indirect work you get from bench presses and bent rows is far superior in building both muscle and definition.

“OK, but what about other exercises like leg extensions, leg curls and lateral raises?”  Those are isolation movements.  They isolate one muscle as opposed to compound movements which train a group of muscles.  For example, the lateral raise hits only the deltoids while the military press trains delts, triceps and pectorals.  We want to get the maximum benefit for our training time.  Compound movements give us that efficiency.

Let’s face it, the list of possible movements is endless.  I’ll admit that there are benefits to almost all of them.  However, a beginner is not about complexity.  A simple routine that you can do it with minimal equipment is all that is necessary.  Give it a try for a month and see.

Let’s get to the details.  What about sets and reps?

I’ll save that discussion for part 2.

Embrace The Constraints

55 – 30 – 15.

That’s the ratio of protein to carbohydrates to fat that works.  I worked for me in the past.  My most successful diet was 2011 and that was the breakdown.

I can’t do that now for two reasons.

The first is that today I prefer to go supplement-free.  What do supplements have to do with it?  Its not easy to get to 55% protein without using powders and meal replacements.  I try hard to watch what I put into my body.  Unprocessed food is my goal.  Is there is anything more processed than supplements?

There’s a constraint.  Personal choice.

“So why not just eat more animal proteins?  Its possible to get to 55% with real food.”

True, but that brings me to the second reason.  My gut won’t let me do that ratio with real food.  It would take a whole lot of animal protein to get over the hump and it would just not go well.  Conventional wisdom says that the body can comfortably digest approximately 40 grams of protein per meal.  In my experience, this figure is accurate.

Could I eat more frequently.  Not without getting up in the middle of the night to eat.  I’ve done it, I don’t recommend it.

There’s two more constraints.  A physical limitation that I can’t do much about and the number of hours in a day.

Let’s summarize what we have so far.  The identified constraints are:

  1. Choices
  2. Physical
  3. Time

These three are common.  Some bodybuilders are vegetarian, some are allergic, some work two or three jobs.  Everyone has an excuse to explain their lack of success.  Stop seeing them as excuses and start seeing them as constraints.

Embrace your constraints.  Don’t look at them as limits but parameters.

Diet is a problem for lots of people.  How much should you eat?  Here’s how I use the constraints to figure it out.

By avoiding the unprocessed foods, many options available to the average person are off the menu.  Even pasta is something I prefer to avoid.  Instead, my list is pretty simple:

  • vegetables – lots of them
  • steak, chicken and fish
  • milk, cottage cheese and eggs
  • beans
  • nuts and nut butters
  • oatmeal and rice
  • fruit

The constraint sets the menu.

If you buy the idea that the body can only use 40 or so grams of protein at a sitting, that will dictate your portion size.  Another constraint working in our favor.  Its an advantage because it removes the guesswork.  You’re limited by what you can handle.

Next step, the ratio of protein / carbs / fat.

40 grams of protein * 4 calories per gram – 160 calories.

Let’s say that we aim for 40 – 40 – 20.

I need 160 calories of carbs (40 grams) and 80 calories of fats (approx 9 grams) per meal to round out my ratio.

Total calories per meal = 400.

I have time to eat six meals per day.  I can max out at 2,400 calories per day if I do everything else right.

Let the constraints work in you favor.  They are there to set the guidlines, not to prevent you from succeeding.

How To Make The Most Of Bent Rows

Hypothesis – most trainees stay away from barbell bent rows.  They prefer chins, pulldowns, seated rows, dumbell rows or even T-bar rows to the conventional barbell bent row.


The problem with bent rows is the decline in the strength curve.

What I mean by the strength curve is the loss of power from one part of the range of motion to another.

The movement from full extension to approximately half way up is disproportionately strong when compared to the second half.  Partial reps can keep going long after the full reps are done.  But if you want full reps you have to be prepared to leave the big plates on the sideline.

I am not opposed to partial reps on bent rows and don’t consider it training beyond failure if :

  • reps are done at a controlled pace bordering on superslow, and
  • reps are done with slow, continuous tension.  No pausing at the bottom or “heaving” the weight up by moving your entire torso.

But maybe we don’t have to bother with the partial reps.  Maybe we can solve the  problem by doing two things:

  1. Underhand grip. By taking an underhand grip, similar to what you would do for barbell curls, you put your biceps in a stronger position. Most people know that the weak link in a compound movement is the smaller muscle groups.  In the case of bent rows, the biceps is that muscle group.  By putting them in a stronger position you can keep the focus on the lats for a longer period of time.
  2. < 90°.  I’m talking about the angle of your torso during the movement.  Gravity is not your friend when you are at a 90° angle to the floor.  By reducing the angle even slightly you can reduce the path that the bar has to travel while still preserving the peak contraction potential of the movement.  Think about bringing the bar across your things to your belly instead of through the air to your nipples.

Putting the biceps in a better position and shortening the bar path might sound like a bit of a cop-out.  Are we trying to make the exercise easier?  No.  Bent rows are a special case.  The leverage sucks to begin with by implementing these two changes you can compensate and get a bigger bang for your training buck!

One more point.  With all back movements, retract the shoulder blades after taking your grip and before you start the set.  Keep your back in this position for he entire set, don’t let up.  Full range of motion in a lat movement has nothing to do with releasing the shoulders.

Bodybuilding Meal Preparation

I’m not one for the mainstream or the popular approach to bodybuilding.  That goes for the majority of material available on the internet in general and YouTube in particular.  However, nutrition is one subject where it pays to see what other people do.

This week I’m interested in meal planning.  One of the major reasons for diet failure is poor planning.  Without a supply of readily available, healthy food that tastes good you are screwed.

Here are a few videos that I found helpful:

  • How to Prepare Meals for Bodybuilding by Hahnchampion

  • Bodybuilding Food Preparation by Matty Fusaro
  • Bodybuilding Lunch For The Whole Week by Brosisfitness Emma and James

  •  Weekly Meal Prep Example by Barthelfitness

    The approaches might differ slightly but the basic ideas are the same:

    Batch the task.  By doing all of the prep for the week at one time you will save time later.  In other words, cooking every day for four days takes a lot longer than cooking one day for the next four.

    Planning your meals avoids decision fatigue.  Humans can only make so many decisions in a day.  Decide today what you want to eat this week and set up your food groups.  It goes protein, vegetable, starch.  Not complicated and all decided in advance.

    Use spices, not condiments.  Condiments add calories.

    A few of these videos show food scales, poultry shears, etc.  If you have this stuff, great.  Those tools are helpful, not essential.  Do the best you can with the tools you have.

    For example, let’s say I buy a 4 lb package of chicken cutlets.  I know how many ounces I want to eat in one meal (4 oz) and one day (12 oz).  Armed with that knowledge, I know how to divide the chicken after its cooked.  Since I figure it loses at least 25% of its weight in the cooking, 4 lbs is 4 days of meals for me.  Split it into four equal portions.  Eyeball it.  Minor fluctuations are not a big deal.

    The same goes for rice.  I want 1/4 cup per day.  If I cook a full cup I have 4 days worth of rice.

    By the way, I do not own a rice cooker.  I’m sure it works better than the old “pot on the stove” method but the later works fine.

    As far as shears go, I don’t own those either.  I use a knife.  It might take a bit longer but who cares.  The end result is what matters.

    Follow up:

    This meal tastes very good and keeps well in the fridge and freezes well.  I am very happy with the early returns.

    Mid week cooking will prove a bit more challenging.  I may have to cut corners and roast the cutlets without cutting them up first.

How To Gain Muscle

Train hard and eat slightly more than you need to maintain your current body weight.  That’s the Mike Mentzer approach and though he did not spend a lot of time discussing nutrition with his readers, he did break it down to a simple approach.

Simple answers are always a bit of a let down but this one is correct.  The hard part is figuring out how much you need to “maintain”.

First, weigh yourself as soon as you wake up tomorrow morning.  Then, track your diet for the next five days.  You need the following information for each day:

  • How many calories?
  • How many grams of protein?
  • How many grams of carbs?
  • How many grams of fat?
  • How many meals per day?

Write everything down.  Don’t leave anything out.  While that might sound like a terrible inconvenience, there are things you can do to make it easier.  One is consistency.  Eating the same things for the next five days will make it easy.    Most people have no problem doing that for breakfast and lunch at the very least.

On the morning of the sixth day, weigh yourself again.  Then take the daily average of the above numbers.  Did you gain, lose or stay the same?  If you stayed the same, you now have a pretty good estimate of what maintenance is.  Eat slightly more than that and you will gain.  (NOTE:  “Slightly” means 300 calories).

If your weight fluctuated you can either estimate what maintenance is or adjust your calories and try again.

Continue to watch the scale, track your diet, watch the mirror and watch your progress in the gym.  The last factor is most important.  If you are not getting stronger you are not gaining muscle.


The Paradox of Choice

There are not that many variables.

  • Frequency
  • Exercises
  • Sets
  • Reps

Those are the big ones.  We can get into some more obscure issues like rest between sets, but if you want to build muscle or lose fat or just stay in shape those are the four big variables.

The biggest secret about training is that those four variables are very difficult to screw up.  There are tons of good information out there.  Many great prorams just waiting for you to try.  Although the possible combinations are endless, results will differ only slightly from approach to approach.  Just pick one and go.

The paradox of choice refers to the idea that endless possibilities are a problem.
“Paralysis by Analysis” is another way to look at it  When presented with too many choices most people get confused and just want someone to answer the questions for them.  But you don’t really need anyone to answer those questions. You have to answer the right questions for yourself.

The right questions are not about sets and reps.  They are about circumstances and desire:

How much time do you have to work out each week and each day?

How much time do you want to devote to working out each week and each day?

Circumstances and desire.

Circumstances limit your choices.  Desire makes the decision.  Rest and nutrition have more to do with your success or lack there of.  You will spend far more time sleeping and eating than you will in the gym.

So figure out what fits your schedule and what you can get excited about and go with it.

Happy lifting!

photo credit: big box via photopin (license)