That pose kills me.
About six years ago I decided to get lean. The goal was to lose as much fat as I could while retaining as much muscle mass as possible.Up until this point in my life I had always focused on building strength and muscle. Dieting was an afterthought.
I’m not sure why this thought struck me, but I decided that I should know what it is like to get really lean. I’ve always enjoyed new challenges, and this fit the bill.
To motivate myself through the difficulties of the process, I decided to book a photo shoot about four months down the road.
Not only was the concept of dieting down foreign to me, posing for a photo shoot was downright terrifying.
However, I have always believed that when you are given options, you should choose the one that scares you the most. Facing those fears forces you to become more than what you currently are. Comfort is the enemy of progress.
So I went to work.
I had a pretty solid idea how to get lean, but I had never gotten ‘photo shoot’ lean before. Sure, I maintained a level of body fat that kept me ready for the apartment complex pool, but this is another level. I had also never ‘peaked’ for an event before either, so I knew this would be interesting to say the least.
I laid out my plan, and it looked solid at the time.
Looking back, the plan was far from perfect. Like, really far from perfect.
I did some things right, but I also did some things wrong.
This is the biggest mistake I made along the way:
I didn’t track my calories or macronutrients.
To be fair, this was back before any of the calorie tracking apps were around. Tracking today is much more convenient than it was just six years ago. We did have a web site called Fitday.com though. I just decided I wasn’t going to use it, for who-knows-what reason.
What I did do was dedicate myself to a few rules.
- I ate protein at every meal
- I limited my carbs to under 100g per day (I hated this).
- I ate only what would be considered ‘clean’ foods.
To give you an idea of what my daily intake looked like, here is a sample day.
Breakfast- 3-4 eggs, protein shake
Snack- protein shake, one piece of fruit
Lunch- 2 hamburgers with cheese, no ketchup, on those flat hamburger buns.
Dinner- 6oz chicken breast or thighs, mixed vegetables.
At the beginning of this diet, I was around 6’3, and 235lbs. For a guy this size, I was not eating enough.
The ‘rules’ I was following were solid, but following rules only allowed me to qualify my food, not quantify it.
This means that I made good food choices, but because I didn’t regulate how much I was eating, I made a mistake that would cost me.
I dove in head first and ate too little, too quickly.
Sure I dropped a lot of fat. The problem is I dropped a good amount of muscle as well.
When it was all said and done, I weighed around 210lbs. That means I lost around 25lbs. Considering I was fairly lean to start out with, I lost way too much weight.
The muscle loss was obvious, but I accepted it as part of the process. I figured it was par for the course.
I was wrong. It doesn’t need to be that way.
4 Simple Methods I Would Use Today:
1. I would track my nutrition intake, even if it meant I had to do it the old fashioned way.
2. Instead of diving in and dropping my calories really low right away, I would ease into it. I would start at around a 25% caloric deficit (25% less calories than I need to maintain my body weight at 235lbs).
3. If progress stalled, only then would I drop calories lower. I would drop calories by about 300-500 per day. I would drop these calories from carbohydrates.
4. I would make sure I was eating AT LEAST 1g of protein per pound of body weight. Possibly 1.15g per pound of body weight. This is to hang on to more muscle while in a caloric deficit.
I made a lot of mistakes, but it wasn’t all bad.
My Training Was Solid
My training varied between a push/pull, and a body part split. Both of these were solid approaches and contributed to maintaining my muscle mass while dieting.
I stuck with mainly compound exercises with some direct arm work for good measure. I did a lot of barbell squats and deadlifts for my lower body, and presses, rows and pull-ups for my upper body.
I did between 3-4 exercises per muscle group, and I made sure to stay between six and ten reps per set, going as heavy as I could. This was a good move, and was probably responsible for me holding on to what little muscle I had left.
Training doesn’t differ much, whether you’re in a fat loss or a hypertrophy phase. However, it is especially important to work with heavy weights during a fat loss phase. This will help you hang on to your hard earned muscle which ultimately makes it easier to get lean.
Although I focused on lifting the heaviest weights I could, I still had to deal with a loss in strength. Hoisting less weight than you’re used to can really mess with your psyche. It’s important to stay positive and focused during times like this. Keep in mind that a loss in body weight can account for quite a bit of strength loss.
Of course, had I not dropped my calories into the basement I would have maintained more strength. But some strength loss is inevitable.
Photo Shoot Prep Was on Point
It’s not enough to just get as lean as possible when you have an event like a photo shoot planned. You need to peak for the event.
The goal is to appear as ripped as possible, with full-looking muscles. This isn’t easy, but here is what I did.
When I was about one week from the photoshoot, I dropped carbohydrates to around 50g per day. This sucked. A Lot. But it helped me to cut any lingering water I was retaining.
I also increased my water intake to well over a gallon per day. This helped flush out any remaining water that the fat cells may have been hanging onto.
About twelve hours before the shoot I cut out water (yeah, this is not healthy) and made one last push to maximize my water intake. The next day, in the hours leading up to the shoot I ate a couple hundred grams of carbohydrates. Normally this is an enjoyable experience, but I was dying for something to wash them down with.
Finally, it was time to pump up my muscles. The photo shoot took place in a park, so I used the monkey bars to do three or four sets of pull ups. I also worked in a few sets of push ups for good measure.
The idea is to pump the muscles full of blood so that they ‘pop!’ for the camera.
Being as dehydrated as I was, this felt awful. I saw it as the last stage of the grind in the pursuit of some great photos though, so I did my calisthenics with a smile.
Would I do it Again?
Maybe. In fact, I’ll go so far to say I probably will.
It is highly motivating to have an event to train for. It doesn’t need to be a vanity focused event like a photo shoot. It can also be something physical like an obstacle race or a powerlifting meet. Or it might just be something simple like a planned vacation.
In any event, having a specific purpose to drive your training efforts will allow you to take yourself further than you could imagine.
Although certain aspects of this experience didn’t support better health, it was a valuable experience that taught me a lot.
Thanks for Reading
A couple months of working with Mitch and I was down 17 lbs and 8 inches. I felt the best I had in years, especially after having 2 kids, with more energy and none of the health problems that had been plaguing me for several years. He is definitely worth it and you DESERVE it!!!
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