Over the years, I can say that I’ve gotten pretty lean. I’ve competed a few times and I’ve done my fair share of photoshoots. So I know what it takes to get there. When I first started in this industry I was always under the illusion that I had to be walking around with paper-thin skin and rocking the best six-pack possible. This is what I saw as a success when it came to my physique.
It was always fun walking around with the deep lines, the cuts, and the veins running around my body like some kind of alien roadmap; not to mention, the utter look of disgust of some of the fellow gym-goers and fitness enthusiasts. I admit I loved it all!
In hindsight though, I wish that someone would’ve slapped me and shoved some sense into my thick head!
From a different perspective, looking “totally shredded,” is no doubt, a really cool and sometimes fun goal to shoot for. It just isn’t a realistic expectation to think it can be held year-round. What most guys want to look like and think girls want have, comes with a pretty hefty price tag.
What kind of price you may ask?
Well, for one, I was always exhausted when I was shredded to the bone. I would walk around like a zombie that was solely fueled by black coffee and ephedrine. This came in the form of an expectorant called Bronkaid that I would buy from the local Walgreens. This kept me awake and kept my appetite suppressed. But it didn’t do anything for my ability to think clearly or rationally in some cases.
On most days I would wake up completely drained, dreading the tasks ahead, especially my workout. I’m sure you can imagine what this did to my training intensity and my strength. I mean, after all, I was eating way less than my body required. And the longer I did it, the worse it became.
Have you ever met someone whose training for a physique or bodybuilding competition?
Have you noticed that they’re completely void of personality, easily triggered? And all they can talk about is how terrible their diet is? Yeah, they’re definitely a delight to be around, aren’t they? These guys (and girls) go through this hell for sometimes 16-20 weeks or even longer depending on the damage they did in the off-season.
The word “seasons” brings me to another topic. Since body fat serves as an insulator for us and back then I walked around looking like a paper-cut could end my existence on a daily basis, I was always cold, very cold, like, all the F’ing time.
Now, this was a problem but what was even worse was the fact that my strength was next to nothing. I would nudge to say that I’ve always been a pretty strong guy. And I would also say that I’ve always had a pretty good tolerance to issues or side effects. But to be that cold all the time paired with being weaker than my grandmother was in the later stages of her life, it definitely took its toll over the days, weeks, and months.
Did I mention I lived in Chicago during that time period?
No? Okay, well, I lived in Chicago where it got so cold in the winter that your damn tears would freeze on your face during that magical season.
As said, the cold wasn’t my only issue, my strength floored out too.
This is why you hear all the “gym bros” spewing out the idea that you lift more reps to get leaner and lift heavier to bulk up. This just simply isn’t true. It was probably perpetuated by the fact that as you get leaner, like really, really lean, your strength plummets. And the only way to ensure you’re hitting the correct volume targets would be to drop the weight and rep out.
I mean, it sounds legit, right?
When dieting for extensive periods, with a heavily restricted caloric intake, the body becomes extremely catabolic. This means that your body is always looking for a reason to cannibalize all your hard earn muscle. It does this to make up for all the food you’re not consuming.
Yes, it’ll break down muscle before fat because fat is the body’s defense mechanism against starvation. Since living the “shredded life” means living in a constant state of starvation, it will always opt for muscle first. This is why you should never try to get super lean until you have a good deal of muscle mass on your frame.
Muscle loss is inevitable while extreme dieting but there is still hope!
As that old saying goes, “if you don’t use it, you lose it”. These words couldn’t hold any truer when you’re eating as much a 12-year-old girl, all while doing enough cardio to make Lance Armstrong feel inadequate.
While dieting and training like this, you need to lift as heavy as you can in what are referred to as density sets. Volume is still important but heavy mechanical tension is absolutely needed in order to create a stress stimulus that tricks the body into thinking that it still needs that muscle in order to protect itself.
As you can guess, this is a lot harder than it sounds.
I’ve mentioned a lot of crappy things about dieting but this wasn’t even the worst part about maintaining that “stupid lean” physique. Not only did I have next to no margin for error when it came to planning out my macros but I also no margin for error when it came to eating out, committing to social events or seeing friends and family. This made life pretty difficult at times, I must admit.
My days always had to be planned extremely well. I had to have everything I would consume weighed out in advance and carried with me every day. This meant that barcoded foods just weren’t meant for me. The reason for this is because most prepackaged foods have up to a 20% caloric variation which meant that it would throw my whole day off and I would either stall weight loss, gain weight, or I would have to work it off with extra cardio.
I’m completely serious about that. It sucked but if you want a sub 5% body fat level then every calorie needs to count.
But what if I did eat out you could also ask?
If I ate out or overate, I would expand like Hindenburg blimp and explode in the same fashion. Okay, that’s not really true but what is true is that since I was on such a low caloric intake of whole foods, high sodium intake wasn’t kind to me when I would consume it in quantity. I would bloat up like crazy, lose all almost all my hard-earned definition and wear that look for a day or two. It wasn’t unusual for me to gain 10-12 pounds of water retention overnight and even much more at times.
Back then I wasn’t just lean AF, I was also skinny AF. I mentioned above how the body loves to eat muscle when dieting that hard. Well, it also can’t maintain a solid pump when it’s that depleted. Even at the gym, I didn’t feel good. No matter what I did, nothing felt good. Training sessions would drag on, my shirts would fit loosely because of the muscle loss and all this was while in a constant state of starvation.
Did I mention yet that I was hungry too? Like, all the time. Ephedrine or not, I would finish a meal and it would feel like I hadn’t eaten anything at all.
That all was back when I first started though.
I know that eating a pizza with my fiancé because it’s her favorite food, is ok even though it could add a little extra fluff. But then again, it could also help push me past some of the plateaus that I may be stuck at in the gym. I remember now that life is meant to be lived, and that this “training and dieting thing” needs to fit in and around that, even if there might be times where it does have to become a priority above all else.
Now I fill out my t-shirts just fine and can get those “skin-tearing” pumps in the gym again. My weights continue to improve. I can actively spend time with more specific goals of becoming stronger, bigger, or faster. The most liberating part about it all is that I have more flexibility with my foods. This means that I can once again, enjoy hitting my goals and the process to get there.
What this doesn’t mean though, is that I’m suggesting you throw your physique goals out the window and start using a shovel as your weapon of choice when eating. This actually isn’t what I want or am saying at all.
What I do want, is that you align with your own expectations.
The overall goal is to make this a lifestyle which means that it has to be sustainable; you want to be able to enjoy this for a lifetime, not just some short chapter of your life. Figuring out how to get lean and stay lean in a healthy manner while having the option to get “totally shredded” in a couple of weeks if you choose to, is much more manageable than the “yo-yo” dieting and bouncing all over the board.
Spend some time eating more calories while tracking them and see how your body responds. In doing so, you will learn your body and build yourself a good base before taking aim at the more extreme sides of this industry. Smaller, regular changes now, can make a huge difference later.
If you’re unsure of what I mean by this or if you’re confused and have no idea how to start – don’t worry.
I’ve been there myself.
I know exactly what it’s like to have only one goal of looking like I just stepped off of a fitness mag cover but not being able to get there because I just wasn’t big enough.
Sometimes you need to make the harder decisions, ones like figuring out if you should be adding more mass and enjoying life a bit. Or you should be getting ready for a special occasion and tightening up the diet some. This is something I help with helping within another article on my website, “Should I Bulk or Should I Cut?”
No matter what, just remember that sometimes it does take more than hard work to achieve success. Sometimes you just have to get into the habit of being uncomfortable so you can gain the knowledge and experience needed to not just reach your goal but even more so, maintain it.