I usually blog about technology, trends, and industry news on a less-than-frequent basis, but I'm taking a sharp left turn with this blog post to talk about something personal - diet and fitness. I've spent the last two years trying to improve and iterate on my physical well-being to some degree of success. I'm going to use this post both as a personal reference sheet for past learning, but also to hold myself accountable for the next year of fitness gains. I'll structure the piece below to assume someone is coming in with zero fitness experience, like I did two years ago. If you see anything in here that looks odd, feel free to point it out!
Before I kick this off proper, I'd just like to state the obvious about what I'm trying to accomplish at a high level. I'm trying to 1) improve physical aesthetics 2) gain functional strength/endurance 3) improve mental performance and 4) increase life longevity. That list is ordered in terms of priority, so keep that in mind.
The first step to tackling any problem is to start with accurate data. The problem with most fitness programs, in my experience, is that they are two metric programs. What does this mean? They track two metrics - height and weight - as the end-all, be-all for determining how to create a fitness plan. The problem with this approach is that it does not actually address anything relevant to looking good or being strong. You can have a fat 6'0 man weighing in at 160lbs, just like you can have a 5'11 bodybuilder weighing in at 220. Not having proper metrics defined up front messed me up when I first started (see below), so hopefully others can learn from my mistakes!
A Fitness Metadata Model
You should be tracking the following metrics:
- Total Weight (daily)
- Body Fat Percentage (quarterly)
- Lean Mass Percentage (quarterly)
- Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) (quarterly)
- Daily caloric intake (daily)
- Any caloric energy burned through cardio (daily)
Height and weight can be collected from any tape measure and scale, respectively. Nothing new there. However, how does one go about collecting body fat percentage and lean mass percentage? Below are some options:
- Calipers - requires a trained professional for accurate reading, still not 100% accurate
- Bioelectrical impedance - found in most "smart scales" these days. This is wildly inaccurate (~8% margin of error) as per this source and personal experience.
- Hydrostatic Weighing - They submerge you in water and use math to figure out bf% based on how much water you displace. Very accurate, costs $40-60, finding a location is difficult
- DEXA Scan - You are blasted with xrays, and software figures out which parts of you are fat versus lean based on scatter patterns. Most accurate, costs the most money, and finding a location is difficult.
- BodPod - They put you in a pressurized capsule and calculate the amount of air displaced. Similar to the hydrostatic method, but just with air instead of water. Incredibly accurate, costs $40-60, and there is a location in every major city. I use this one, but here is a link to find a location.
I'd like to start this whole post on the single biggest mistake I made in the last two years: not getting accurate quantitative figures of my overall fitness from the start. This is especially true for someone who is classified as "skinny fat", or someone with a high body fat percentage but low overall weight. This very special place of fitness hell is hard to work out of, since it requires losing fat while putting on serious muscle - something that requires a very deliberate plan or an insane workout/diet program. I decided to try and diet my way out of skinny-fat, and thought I did a great job, having cut my weight from 170lbs to 145lbs. However, given what I know now, I cut my body fat percentage from ~30% (obese) to ~20% (overweight), and should have gone lower before "bulking" to gain back muscle. I didn't have the right data at the time, and ultimately made poor decisions just based on a single flat metric - total weight.
- Height: 6'0
- Total Weight: 151.4lb
- Body Fat Percentage: 19.6% (29.6lb fat)
- Lean Mass Percentage: 80.4% (121.6lb lean)\
- RMR: 1481 calories
- Total Weight: 164.6lb
- Body Fat Percentage: 24% (39.5lb fat)
- Lean Mass Percentage: 76% (125.1lb lean)
- RMR: 1538 calories
- Total Weight: 178.1lb
- Body Fat Percentage: 28.6% (50.9lb fat)
- Lean Mass Percentage: 71.4% (127.2lb lean)
- RMR: 1582 calories
Creating a Plan
Ok, so you have data, what do you do now? Create a plan! My plan is to minimize body fat percentage while maximizing lean mass, which should be everyone's high level goal! However, what are some "safe" limits for each number? Lean mass has a theoretical genetic maximum number (hence why we don't have 700lb bodybuilders - eventually you hit a genetic cap), so there is no worry there. However, body mass percentage has optimal ranges that are different for men and women. The below chart and visual should give you an idea of what body fat percentage you want to target - between 10-14% is my target.
The Myth of "Gaining Muscle While Losing Fat"
Gaining muscle mass while losing fat mass is extremely difficult to do except in a couple oddball scenarios. The whole premise of eating less than what is required for your body to function (causing your body to dip into fat stores) while also building complex proteins is a little crazy - the body and thermodynamics simply don't work that way.
That being said, I did say it is extremely difficult and not impossible. There are plenty of folks out there that have gained lean muscle mass while losing fat mass. Lyle McDonald actually has a decent writeup on the subject. I won't copy/paste his arguments, but the TLDR is that it is far more efficient to have one goal in mind. If you have a high body fat percentage - focus on cutting fat mass. If you have a low body fat percentage, then focus on building lean mass. Simple as that.
First off, if you have zero idea how weight gain/loss happens from a data perspective, I thoroughly recommend reading FourmiLab's "The Hackers Diet". The author gives it away for free here, so there is no reason not to read it. It may be a bit old (2005), but the fact that it holds up today is a testament to how fundamental the information presented is.
Regardless, weight loss literally comes down to simple thermodynamics. What does that mean? Calories in minus calories out = delta fat loss or gain. Calories "in" is easy to measure - just track whatever goes into your mouth. Apps like MyFitnessPal make this incredibly easy, so there is no reason to track calories. Calories out is more interesting, since there are two factors here. You know that RMR number you got from the BodPod assessment above? That (multiplied by an activity factor, usually 1.2) gives you your "TEE", or total energy expenditure. This is your "maintenance" calorie count - eating below this will cause you to lose weight, while eating above will cause weight gain. Easy peasy.
However, before we go "losing weight", we need to understand exactly what we are trying to lose. The answer is obviously fat - but what does that mean? How does that happen, and how quickly? Well, a pound of fat has roughly 3500 calories worth of energy (this is actually a debated topic in academia - current estimates are between 2800 and 3900 calories, but 3500 is a universal estimate). So applying our formula, it takes a 3500 calorie deficit to lose a pound of fat per period of time. If you are aiming for a pound of fat a week, then a 500 calorie deficit per day will get you there on paper. Again, easy!
So what is the "limit" to this formula? Can you technically eat nothing and have ~-1800 calories a day, which would burn 5lbs of fat a week? Short answer: no. Long answer: adipose tissue (fat) can only be broken down so quickly by the body. This "velocity" metric is often overlooked by dieters, mostly because it is not well known. A 2004 study found that a pound of fat can release 31 calories/day worth of energy. In my case, I currently have 29.6lbs of fat, which means I can run a 917 calorie deficit (29.6 * 31) before my body turns to lean mass for energy. Typically the body prefers to burn fat over muscle, muscle over organ tissue, and organ tissue ONLY as a last resort ("starvation mode"). Since my TEE is roughly 1850 calories, and the total amount of fat energy I can derive is 917, I'm safe eating as low as 950 calories during a cut. So we have a theoretical max fat loss per week - 1.83lbs/wk (derived from 917*7). The amount of calories to cut needs to be adjusted up (about 50 calories a week) to account for less fat being available to use as fuel, which again drives down the theoretical fat loss per week. TLDR: it gets harder to lose fat the skinnier you get. This Google Spreadsheet is my plan for the first two months of 2016.
Gaining Lean Mass
According to the above weight cutting spreadsheet, I should be skinny as hell around the first week of March (6'0, 137lb, 11.5%bf). My end goal is to be 160lbs @ under 14%bf, so the direction is clear - I need to put on some serious lean mass.
After a little bit of research, it is clear that there is no clear-cut formula around gaining lean mass. There are tons of anecdotes, "bro-science", and supplement profiteering going on. but very little actual research around how much muscle a new weightlifter can gain. A summary of the anecdotes show that new weightlifters experience "noob gains", where liftable weight increases by 5lbs per workout on complex/accessory lifts. During this time it is not uncommon for the new weightlifter to gain 10lbs-25lbs of lean mass over the course of a year, which comes out to 1/4lb to 1/2lb of muscle gain per week. Since the anecdotes point in that direction, it looks like my goal to be [email protected]% might be attainable over the course of a year.
Picking (and sticking to) a weightlifting plan is pretty critical to the success of gaining lean mass. The general consensus around picking a weight-lifting plan go back to your overall goals. See below at to what I mean here:
- Low repetitions (5x5), high weight = plan built around increasing strength
- Medium repetitions (5x8-12), medium weight = aesthetics
- High repetitions (5x20), low weight = endurance/cardio training
- Given the goals I stated at the beginning of this blog post, I'm going with the middle option. The best type of aesthetic plan is called PPL (Push-Pull-Legs), of which I'll be following this one that a Reddit member put together. The focus of the plan revolves around one complex lift per day (Bench Press, Deadlift, and Squat, respectively) with a plethora of accessory lifts mixed in. The plan is to track liftable weight along with body weight on a weekly basis.
On the topic of nutrition, a couple things come up here. Just like losing weight, gaining lean mass starts in the kitchen. The goal is to eat 15%-20% over my TDEE, which should come out to around 2100 calories per day. Getting enough protein as part of that 2100 is fairly important, however not as important as originally thought. The study linked there claims that there is no observable difference in muscle synthesis when eating 1.35x your bodyweight (kg) in grams of protein per day than 2.5x+ your bodyweight in grams of protein. Since that is a confusing statement, the authors are pretty much saying if you weight 67kg (around 150lb), then you should eat at least 90g of protein per day. Anything above that has diminishing returns, but that should be your minimum protein target daily. Oh, and it doesn't matter when you consume protein (pre or post workout), its all the same!
And lastly, supplements. A 2003 meta-analysis of most supplements in the fitness space showed that only one supplement actually works - creatine monohydrate. Supplemental creatine taken daily increases lean mass gains significantly according to eighteen studies done on this exact topic - in fact it almost doubles leans gains (see the meta-analysis linked above for references). Outside of consistent workouts, diet, and creatine, there isn't much else to do!
So after all of that - my weight loss plan starts January 1st. It ends the first week of March around 11.5% bodyfat, whereby a new BodPod assessment will be performed to ensure that I am at that bodyfat percentage. After that it will be 9 solid months of PPL-style workouts! I'll post an update around March, then another again in 12 months with actual data to support the execution of the plan.