Q: Your physique is amazing, and you’re at a level where people dream to be. Plus, you’re natural, and so am I. I’ve been training a few years now and like to think I’m a fairly experienced lifter; however, I think I need to hear advice from people like you, as I’m struggling with a few training and strength issues. I lost more than 56 pounds dieting for a photo shoot. Unfortunately, despite training as hard as I could, I lost a fair amount of strength—weird. What do I do now? I’m struggling with certain lifts because mentally, I am trying to lift the same as I did when I was at 224 pounds, and I just can’t get my head around the fact that I may need to drop weight. I feel kind of stuck in the middle of nowhere and going through the motions with training. If others asked me, I’d say drop the weight and make sure you get your reps. Why is it so difficult to take my own advice?
A: It’s not surprising that your strength went down a lot when you lost 56 pounds. I don’t know how long you dieted to lose that much weight, but, if you didn’t lose the weight slowly, you probably sacrificed some muscle in the process of getting ripped.
When I’m dieting for a competition or photo shoot, I try to lose only one to 1 1/2 pounds of weight per week. It’s very difficult to conserve muscle tissue when you’re losing bodyfat, so by keeping it to a pound or so per week, I can still eat enough to feed my muscles the nutrients they need to survive the lower calories and cardio that come with losing fat.
When you lose fat slowly, you should be able to maintain most of your strength. You’ll definitely lose some strength because you’re eating fewer overall calories, whether they’re from carbohydrates or fats, but if you can keep most of your muscle tissue, you should still have most of your strength remaining even when you’re ripped.
Don’t settle for being weaker at a lighter bodyweight. Instead, figure out a way you can add back the muscle you lost during your diet while still staying lean. Now that you’ve lost most of your excess bodyfat, it will actually be easier to add lean mass than it used to be.
First step: Figure out how many calories you were eating when you were dieting to lose the 56 pounds. Along with the calories, determine how many grams of protein, carbohydrate and fat you were eating each day on your diet.
Now that your body is lean, your metabolism should be much faster. You can slowly add extra calories—protein and carbohydrate—to slowly add more muscle mass without gaining back all the fat that you lost.
At 168 pounds you can shoot for a diet that contains 1.5 grams of protein for each pound of bodyweight. That would add up to 250 to 255 grams per day. Choose protein whole foods—eggs, egg whites, lean ground turkey, chicken breasts, round and sirloin steak, salmon—plus a good protein-powder supplement.
You restricted your carbohydrate intake when you were dieting, right? Now, you can slowly increase your carbs. Because you have less bodyfat, the carbs are more likely to be stored in your muscle cells instead of your fat cells. A lower bodyfat percentage makes your muscle and fat cells more insulin insensitive. Your muscle cells will attract the carbs, provided you eat the right amount and the right kind of carbs at the right time.
Obviously, you should stick with complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber, as they will digest slowly. That’s important because you want to avoid raising blood sugar too rapidly, which typically happens when you eat simple, quickly digested carbs. A quick rise in blood sugar will tell your body to release a surge of insulin and shuttle calories and carbs into fat cells.
Carbohydrate foods like oatmeal, sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole-grain bread and vegetables are digested slowly and stored as glycogen in muscle cells. Not only is the glycogen used as energy for your workouts—meaning you can lift heavier weights—but it will also help keep muscle cells fuller and harder looking.
The best time of day to eat complex carbohydrates is morning—when the fat cells are more insensitive to insulin—as well as before and after a workout. Eating more carbs before a workout will give you the energy to lift heavier resistance and generate more intensity during your training session. The carbohydrates you take in after your workout restore to the muscle cells glycogen that you used up when you were training. The carbohydrate replenishment after your workout dramatically increases your recuperation time and increases muscle protein synthesis.
By keeping a detailed nutrition journal of everything you eat, you’ll be able to figure out the optimal combination of calories, protein, carbohydrate and fat that you can take in to increase muscle mass slowly while still maintaining your new lean physique. As I mentioned above, your body is in a very anabolic state now because your bodyfat is so low. Take advantage of that and add some quality muscle tissue to your frame by slowly increasing the right distribution of macronutrients, such as protein and complex carbs.
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com, or send questions or comments to John@NaturalOlympia.com or P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at www.NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM