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Keeping Muscles Full While Leaning Out

Q: I’m looking at your photos from the IFBB Titans Grand Prix and Kentucky Muscle pro men’s physique competitions. How the hell do you stay so full while dieting down that lean? When I’m in a calorie deficit, I get flat. When cutting, I usually take Blackstone Labs DMZ 2.0 to help spare muscle. Do you have any advice—supplements, diet or anything else?

A: Your problem of getting flat while dieting is something I hear about quite often. The main issue is getting enough nutrition (and calories) to maintain lean tissue while creating a big enough deficit to force your body to tap into stored fat.

While it seems pretty simple on the surface—burn off an extra 3,500 calories for every pound of bodyfat that you need to lose—it’s not just a numbers game. You must take into consideration fluctuations in hormone levels and metabolic down-regulation. When you are doing it drug-free, you have to walk a really fine line. It takes some trial and error, plus attention to detail, but I’ve seen some people actually gain muscle while dropping bodyfat.

The first step is to get your bodyfat measured so that you can figure out approximately how much fat weight you will need to lose. My preferred method for physique athletes (and I use that term to include bodybuilders and figure, fitness, bikini and men’s and women’s physique competitors) or anyone who trains to be lean and muscular is skinfold calipers. Our main goal is to reduce subcutaneous fat so that our muscular shape and definition can be seen. Measuring skinfold thickness is the most convenient and cost effective way of monitoring fat-loss progress.

Measuring body composition by underwater weighing, Bod Pod or DXA scan—dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry—are extremely reliable and effective, but access to those methods is often limited, and the price is usually much greater. I steer athletes away from using electrical impedance analyzers to determine bodyfat percentage because, in my experience, for extremely lean and muscular individuals the results can be very inaccurate (on these devices I usually come out 16 to 18 percent while I’m in contest shape).

Another thing to bear in mind when determining body composition is that the formulas for skinfold calipers were derived from hydrostatic weighing; so measurements done by those two methods should come out approximately the same. The formulas for the Bod Pod were derived from DXA-scan numbers, and those two usually come out pretty close to the same. They also come out 4 to 5 percent higher than bodyfat percentage determined by the skinfold and hydrostat methods.

After you get your bodyfat measurement, you can figure out how much weight you need to lose. I recommend that you give yourself at least one week for every pound of fat that you need to lose. That pacing is very important. At up to one pound per week of weight loss you can be fairly certain that all of the weight you are losing is bodyfat—assuming that you are on a solid weight-training and nutrition plan. This is where a lot of people get into trouble and end up losing muscle and getting flat.

If you’re dropping much more than a pound per week, it’s likely that a portion of your weight loss is lean tissue. If you are losing more than two pounds per week, you will certainly be losing some muscle, and the faster you lose weight, the greater the proportion of muscle lost. You may read articles about champion competitors who drop 25 to 35 pounds in just two months and look great at their contests. Keep in mind, though, that if they are using bodybuilding drugs—the anabolic ones are preserving muscle, while other cutting drugs may be accelerating fat loss. My recommendation is, plan to do it slowly and do it the healthful way—drug-free. It’s harder, but it’s well worth it! Look at me—I’m almost 55 years old!

Once you determine how many weeks you need to diet, formulate your plan to burn 500 calories per day more than you’re consuming (500-calorie deficit x 7 days = 3,500 calories burned, or one pound of fat). The best way to do that is with a combination of diet restriction and increased exercise. So if you cut your maintenance-level diet by 300 calories per day and burn an extra 200 calories—walking fast or jogging for two miles, for example—you’re there.

Yes, that looks really simple and easy. Unfortunately, when you put yourself into a caloric deficit, your metabolism down-regulates at some point. That’s where weekly skinfold and bodyweight measurements come into play, along with precise exercise and diet journals. When you hit the inevitable plateaus in fat loss, you just make a small decrease in calories and/or an increase in exercise to get the fat coming off again. Making gradual adjustments helps preserve muscle while shedding more fat.

More than likely the reason that you are getting flat is that you are creating an excessive calorie deficit when you start your cutting phase. When you do that, several things are set into motion. First, your body starts tapping into protein for energy (especially during very low-carb diets). Second, testosterone drops and cortisol increases. Third, because of all that, your metabolism rapidly down-regulates, you burn significantly fewer calories at rest, and it becomes harder to lose fat. Once you put yourself into that downward spiral, it’s very difficult to reverse, and it takes time.

The best course of action is to do things gradually and methodically. Start by setting up a structured, nutrition-rich diet that makes relatively small cuts in your calorie consumption and small increases in the amount of exercise you’re doing. As you hit fat-loss plateaus, make modest calorie reductions and sensible additions in exercise volume or intensity.

Remember, the key here is to coax your body into dropping the fat. If you create too big of a deficit, your system goes into a catabolic state (because of decreasing testosterone levels and increasing cortisol levels), and that’s what you need to avoid. Planning and timing are critical!

Now, let’s address your supplement question. DMZ 2.0 is a pro-hormone product. For some people the pro-hormones are converted to testosterone in the body, and they work well. For others they are converted to estrogen, and you get the opposite of the intended effect. You won’t know which effect the products will have on you until you try them.

When pro-hormones first hit the supplement market in the mid-’90s, I was asked to try some with the possibility of an endorsement deal. That’s when I found out that they didn’t work the right direction for everyone. Because of the risk, I don’t usually recommend pro-hormones.

The supplements that I do recommend, especially when reducing bodyfat, are branched-chain amino acids, tribulus terrestis and, for over-40 lifters, growth hormone stimulators. Supplementing with BCAAs spares muscle protein. I especially recommend using it before and during cardiovascular exercise. Xtend by Scivation is my favorite. Tribulus terrestis has been shown to stimulate natural testosterone levels. I take four capsules of ZMA-T (by Muscle-Link) before bedtime to boost testosterone and enhance recovery.

Finally, my favorite growth hormone stimulator is GH Stak by Muscle-Link. Increased GH aides in both muscle building and fat loss. If you go to bed on an empty stomach, have the recommended serving in water and drink it before bed. I never go to bed on an empty stomach, so I take my GH Stak as soon as I wake up in the morning.

Just one more thought about a muscle-loss culprit that I’ve seen over the years. I’ve seen bodybuilders build tremendous bodies by training hard and heavy doing the basic exercises, and then for some reason, when they start their contest diets, completely change their training programs to lots of isolation exercises with little or no rest between sets. While that style of training has a valid place in your ongoing program, dropping the basics altogether is never a good idea—especially when following a calorie-restricted diet. Your basic bodybuilding program that built your muscle is the best program for maintaining your muscle when you’re dieting. Or as we say in Texas, “Dance with the one who brought you!”

When you start another cutting phase, give yourself plenty of time to get shredded. Send me some pics so that I can watch your progress.

Editor’s Note: See Dave Goodin’s blog at Click on Blogs in the top menu bar. Check out his new Web site at To contact Dave directly, send e-mail to [email protected]. IM


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