Approaches to Fat Loss – Old skool vs. Nu skool vs. Play skool

This piece was kindly submitted by a friend of mine who I regularly discuss all things exercise and nutrition with. I thought you may enjoy his take on current fat loss diet trends. He is without doubt a twisted genius. If you are into your exercise nutrition then you should find this a very interesting read.

DISCLAIMER: You may or may not agree with any or all of the following, but I definitely don’t care.

Old skool

OK, let’s start at the beginning. Say you’re doing a diet routine out of FLEX magazine. This means that it’s pretty much a derivation of what I’ll call the “old skool” bodybuilder approach to fat loss. Now, on the one hand this is tried-and-tested methodology. The way sh*t got done by bodybuilders (BBs) looking to get stage-ready, and the way that sh*t still gets done today by many. The simple fact is that this approach has been run so f*cking often that every last inside-out piece of it is understood.

BUT – and this is important – THAT DOESN’T MEAN THAT THIS METHOD ISNT OUTMODED IN MANY WAYS. No-one is saying “that won’t work”, because it’s worked many, many times. What many are now saying is that it doesn’t need to go down like that.

So let’s look at the key tenets of this typical approach I’m talking about (NB this is generic, not specific)

– Eat every few hours. Small, pre-prepped meals on a tight schedule.
– High protein, moderate carb, moderate fat (carbs tend to be varied depending on training / rest days)
– Protein tends to be lean; carbs tend to be low-GI, fat tends to be mono/poly unsaturated
– Carbs may well be tapered; carby breakfast / reducing from there
– Emphasis is steadfastly on clean eating, “cheating” is few and far between and usually only comes in at the end of the cutting cycle
– Weight training replaces intensity with volume the longer the diet progresses
– Steady-state cardio is a big part of the approach; the amount is usually inverse to the amount of body fat left to lose (the closer to the end goal, the more the cardio load)
– Similarly, use of stimulants/fat burners is typical and inversely proportional to the amount of fat left to lose

So what’s the basis on which this kind of approach is effective? Because, as I’ve said above, you can’t just come out and say “diets like that are BS”, because they’ve been used for ages and are still used today. But think on the following:

1. This diet is designed to take you TO A POINT THAT YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO SUSTAIN. This is a huge aspect that many people don’t take into account. This isn’t a diet that gets you to 8% bodyfat and keeps you there, not unless you’re a masochist / freak show. The diet works because of a few key factors which bite in the short-term but don’t tend to work so well in the long run.

The fundamental principle is predicated on energy input / output. As you go through an approach which is constructed like this, your metabolism takes a nosedive and continues to drop. Thus, you have to work harder to keep your fat loss going:

– More weight-training volume
– More cardio
– More stimulants
– Lower daily calories
– Occasional cheat meal if fat loss stalls (accompanied by increase in cardio / work volume)
– Other certain drugs also help

This means that the diet works for an “endgame”, but is pretty naff when it comes to everyday life. Diets like this are one of the prime reasons (in my opinion) why cutting and bulking are an everyday part of a bodybuilder’s psyche. Because this method of fat loss effectively involves a game of “what time is it Mr Wolf” with your metabolism. Eventually it gets you; the trick is bringing the whole thing to a peak when you have to get on stage. (Hence the reason people talk about “peaking”. In my opinion this is inappropriate and actually “breaking point” would be better).

2. Cutting in this way is psychologically a full-time pursuit. It’s very hard to prioritise anything else or do anything else. This is also why the lifestyle is so addictive; it’s just so absorbing in terms of everyday life. This is absolutely fantastic for some people, who really seek out that level of dedication to something and make it their all. It’s also therefore abhorrent to many others who can’t even fathom that level of immersion. Personally, I couldn’t do it. Not because I literally couldn’t do it; because I literally wouldn’t want to.

3. The basis for eating in such a regimented fashion (i.e. 6 small meals a day) is not physiological. It’s a brutally effective control mechanism which is perfect for the diet. It’s been pretty much proven beyond doubt now that small, frequent meals have jack-all impact on metabolic rate. Bodybuilders know this, but many don’t care. Why not? Because making food such a focus of the diet, and establishing such a regimented pattern of eating, makes the whole thing much more controllable. It’s a tried-and-tested, powerful mental hook. If you’re never thinking more than a couple of hours ahead, you’re not going to wander off too far (mentally or otherwise).

4. Similar to this point re: meal frequency, a lot of the other tenets of the diet approach are simply not relevant (or even optimal) in physical terms. In the overall context of massive regimentation of calories in / calories out (characterised by keeping this balance on the negative by reducing food intake over time and increasing workload as your body becomes more and more efficient at operating under these conditions), the various other aspects of these diets that you see are pretty fu*king irrelevant when it comes down to it. You basically beat your bodyfat into submission in a well-planned, systematic way.

Summary: diets like this are a war of meticulous attrition. It’s precisely because of this that they’re so favoured by bodybuilders. They squeeze your bodyfat into a corner it cannot get out of, in a regimented, controlled way. They’re not fun, or glamorous. You win because you’re relentless. Your victory is predictable if you do what’s asked of you. But this doesn’t make it the best or only way to win.

So what else is there?

BB style diets for the everyday person

Many alternative approaches to the “old skool” method above have been borne out of trying to take what works from regimes like that and making them less onerous. This – one might argue – is a complete and utter paradox, because it’s the level of onerous commitment which makes the diet work in the first place.

Hence, a lot of popular bastardisations (the most popular in recent years being “Body for Life” which made Bill Phillips well over $100m – AMAZON LINK), are founded on the basic principle of being rigorous for (say) 6 days a week, with one day off, and then having a set exercise template which doesn’t change in duration or intensity.

What these diets do is have absolutely fantastic effects for overweight people, bringing them down fairly rapidly to a healthy set-point and keeping them there, as long as they stick to the prescription. My general rule of thumb is that if someone is obese, it’s because they can’t control themselves in the modern world, therefore forced discipline ingrained for 6 days a week is no bad way to rectify that. That’s why you’ll see me recommending these “BB lite” diets to people who are new to fitness. They instill some discipline, get people into exercise, aren’t TOO onerous, and will put them in better shape than pretty much everyone they know within 6 months (or 12 months, in extreme cases)

What these diets typically won’t do is produce “remarkable” results – i.e. (a) get people more lean than what you might call their “natural set point” (which if they’re previously obese might have been impaired somewhat due to blunting certain hormonal triggers); or (b) drive performance or gains greater than a fairly basic (albeit better than average, because average is pitiful) level.

Therefore, people who start – and do well – on this kind of “BB lite” approach will quite often go off and get more absorbed, searching for the path to greater and greater things. This is perhaps where they’ll run aground, because as I discussed above, the “full BB” approach is not for the common man, it’s for the obsessed / dedicated man.

I know this last part because that’s exactly what I used to do. I did BFL very successfully in 2001, and not only was I then completely married to the basic construct of a BB diet (6 meals a day, meticulously programmed eating etc), but I was chasing all over the f*cking place for countless years afterwards trying to look “exceptional”. It wasn’t happening though.

“Healthy” food diets without the prescription

Paleo (WIKI LINK) is probably the best example of this. These diets are in some ways a bit of an antithesis of the BB diet, because they seek to throw the regimented template (i.e. the whole engine room of the BB diet) out of the window and instead base the principles around food choices.

Of course, there are some sacrifices that need to be omitted from the BB food list into the Paleo food list (mainly carbs), meaning that what you’re left with is an all-natural list of things you are allowed to eat, whenever you like, as long as your body is telling you that you need it.

What I’ll say about these kinds of diets are:

– If you can fully transition into them and stick by them, you’ll be in pretty good shape. A bit like the “BB lite” kind of diet, you’ll eventually find a natural set-point if you stick with it long enough

– BBs often struggle like crazy with the “freedom” of a Paleo (or similar) diet

– The holier-than-thou attitude of people who stick to these diets winds me up. The diets themselves are great for not being a sad fat mess (DO NOT get me wrong on this), but the way people act like their sh*t doesn’t stink is infuriating. You sh*t DOES f*cking stink, it’s all that f*cking ruffage you’re eating, what are you a f*cking horse?
“Nu-skool” diets for performance and fat loss

Nu-skool fat loss is what I would say is a “hormone based” approach which looks to surf the cutting edge of science where it can. Currently evolving, but interesting to say the least.

The main goals of utilising these principles is to take the major benefits of a full BB diet (i.e. getting into awesome (not just “good”, I mean awesome) shape, but without the many drawbacks (metabolic pant-pissing, ever-increasing cardio, onerous life commitment, general misery, etc).

So how does one do this? The basic principles are as follows:

– The “engine” of the diet is not controlled dietary precision, but manipulation of key hormones;

– The emphasis is on preventing metabolic downgrade, and not just trying to “outrun” it with more cardio/stimulants, and fewer calories. Steady-state cardio is generally the enemy here (NB that does not include walking, this is not exercise it’s just f*cking moving around);

– Unlike a BB diet, “not eating” is a tool that can be used to great effect, as long as you get sh*t set up correctly and don’t try and make like Ghandi;

– The basics of these diets are one thing; but everyone has their own individuality and will need to make their own adjustments to make their diet (a) easier, and (b) more effective. Unlike a BB diet, which typically involves blunt-force trauma to smash fat (e.g. “your fat loss wasn’t good enough last week, cut cals by 100 per day and increase cardio volume to 40 mins instead of 30 mins”), the “Nu skool” approaches tend to need subtle changes (e.g. “add in a postworkout shake with 100g carbs after X workout, see what happens)

How to set up a Nu-skool approach

– There are a few basic axioms that I would recommend putting into place. On a day-to-day level you can be free around these, but these should hold firm.

1. Get your engine running on the right fuel. Always start a diet with 10-14 days of a diet which is approx. 60-70% cals from fat, 30-40% cals from protein. I’d say that the bigger / more muscular you are, the more you should be towards a 60:40 fat:protein ratio.

Why? Because your body has 2 basic mechanisms for cellular energy: glucose and fatty acids. Glucose is used preferentially; fatty acids secondary. The longer your body gets used to using fatty acids for energy, the more it will prime the entire system to run off of them. It will tool up the factory appropriately – but you have to give this process time to run. Eventually, your body will forget where it put its glucose-using tools and will be all-guns blazing for fatty acids. Given that you’re planning to liberate as many of these bastards as possible and burn them the f*ck up, this is what you want.

NB: Lots of people sh*t on about how low-carb diets make them feel lousy. This is usually for one of 2 reasons: (a) They don’t do it long enough, so their body never properly gets into the groove of fatty acid metabolism and they take the natural “dip” in energy in the transition period as some kind of fatal flaw in the whole thing; and (b) they don’t eat enough fat. For a lot of people, going “low carb” usually means just cutting out carbs and maybe eating a bit more protein. If you’re going to focus your diet on one thing, focus it on getting in enough DELICIOUS FAT

2. Re-introduce carbs, using them to spike insulin and have fun: If you’re anything over 12% (ish) BF, I’m going to make this pretty damn simple. After your 2-week no-carb primer, 6 days a week, keep carbs as low as possible. Keep to your diet of 60-70% fat, 30-40% protein (as much as possible, frankly it’s not a massive deal if you stray out of this boundary to some degree).

One day a week, you take a day off and go nuts with some high-insulin carbs. Watch out for fructose content (i.e. high-fructose corn syrup), because that does f*ck-all good to anyone, but have fun with chips, white flour products (assuming you’re not gluten intolerant) and other carby goodness.

Why? Because you’re going to kick your metabolism in its gaping nutsack.

Once you get under 12% BF, where you go in terms of carbs depends entirely on progress and how you’re reacting.

3. Make your post-carby day a PSMF (Protein Sparing Modified Fast – WIKI LINK)day. I extolled the virtues of this in Shredded in Six (an eBook written but never fully released by Mark). I take some credit for this being a long time before a lot of the mainstream got behind the concept of being restrictive the day after a carby refeed. But the concept is simple: you know in those cartoons where Wile-E-Coyote pedals off a cliff and keeps going until he realises that he’s gone over the cliff? That’s what you’re going for, except you don’t let the plummet-to-your-doom part of it happen.
On the day after your carb day, have nothing but 6 protein shakes with ~30g protein in them. Evenly space these for your sanity more than anything else.

NB: If your engine is primed for fatty acid utilisation (see 1 above) then the PSMF day will be a lot easier than it sounds. You’ll sail through without too much hassle (albeit a rumbling stomach)

4. Don’t eat much, if anything, in the mornings. There’s some debate here about what’s better, but frankly as far as fat loss is concerned then you have to be a spectacular moron to balls this rule up. That’s why I like it. Don’t eat before 12pm, its simple enough.

Why? This again piggybacks off of the fact that you’re primed to burn fat because of your overall diet and the way you’ve set it up. Similarly, as far as daily hormonal patterns are concerned, this is when you’re naturally most predisposed to burn fat. The simple act of not eating anything lets these factors work together.

NB: If you’re thinking “I couldn’t do that, I need brekkie”, then I’m guessing you haven’t experienced the benefits of priming your body to burn fat. One thing you should notice after your initial 2 weeks is that you get less hungry if you don’t eat. This is because your body is primed and happy to eat its own fat stores. If you don’t eat, it’s more efficiently able to access the Bank of I’m a Big Fat Tool

NB: Worried about losing muscle? Eat something then. But try not to make this decision on blithe concerns that you might waste away, base it on performance tracking over a number of weeks. Want to find out whether or not you benefit from a morning free of food? Try it out, see what happens. If you do end up with the muscle mass of Kate Moss, come and talk to me about it. I won’t be scared because you’ll be a f*cking weedy sh*t show. Win-win for me.

5. Train hard with weights. Doesn’t really matter how, doesn’t really matter when. Just do it. Make a program and stick to it. Attack the workouts. The only piece of prescription that I find useful is to train in the morning / early PM of the day after your carby day (i.e. the PSMF day). You should be stuffed with plenty of glycogen and be able to knock out your best workout of the week, as well as burning through a bunch of the glycogen and re-righting the fat loss steamroller for another week of awesomeness.

6. Use 4-point performance tracking. Once a week, take the following measurements:

a. Weight
b. Sub-scapular skinfold (with an Accu-measure, if you don’t own one, buy one FFS)
c. Waist circumference (to navel, relaxed, no breathing in)
d. Front / back photos, relaxed (no posing/tensing), with flash

Don’t not do this. When I say “do this”, people sometimes think I mean “I suggest you do this”. I am not suggesting it, I am insisting on it. If you put all this effort into fat loss and can’t even be bothered to spend 5 mins per week taking some simple tracking metrics, you are a moron of epic proportions. FACT.

7. Temporarily give up boozing. There’s virtually nothing about alcohol that helps fat loss, and virtually everything about alcohol that hinders fat loss. If you’ve got a lot to lose, give up the booze.

NB: Once you’ve got where you want to go, recreational drinking isn’t a problem, it doesn’t have to snowball you into being a fat f*ck. It’s just a case of picking your moments and not lapsing into drinking 10 pints of beer every night of the damn week.

And that, as they say, is that. Notice that I haven’t mentioned any of the following:

• Calories (these will set naturally based on an approximate protein and macro ratio target, no need to obsess over them. If you get hungry, eat a delicious steak)
• Cardio (walk the dog or whatever but don’t fart around on a treadmill)
• Stimulants (use them, don’t use them, just don’t expect me to care)
• Meal frequency (irrelevant)
• Training style / volume / duration (I don’t care. Do what you like to do as long as you do it with some f*cking passion)

So what are the main benefits here?

1. No metabolic slowdown, you should be able to get pretty lean doing the above whilst basically having a bit more freedom in your life.

2. No prescriptive workouts or onerous cardio. For example, you were going to train tonight but your mates are having an impromptu get-together. So you go to it instead, and leave the gym because you can go another time. Like a normal person. It won’t matter because when you do go, you’ll bring the f*cking RAGE and punch the lights out because you’re such a BAD MOTHERF*CKER (Note from Fran – I told you he’s a little twisted)

3. No dietary prescription; other than the hard rules above. For example; it’s a work night, your missus wants to go out for a meal because you’ve not “seen each other” for a while. Instead of saying “sorry love I need to go home and eat chicken and rice at 6pm, and a protein shake at 9pm”, you say “OK”. If you can get a steak and some veg and then some cheese or whatever for dessert, you’re good. What the calories or whatever of the meal was, or the macro split was doesn’t  matter. You stuck to the rules. You don’t need to give a sh*t about the rest because it’ll work itself out

A few closing remarks

– People always try and construct arguments on the exception, not the rule. Don’t be the guy that picks out our favourite BB or fitness icon, and uses what they do (or what they say they do) as “proof” of something or other. So Joe Muscleman follows a basic BB diet all year round, doesn’t ever “cut” and walks round at 7% BF all the time? Whoop de f*cking doo for him. Doesn’t have a shred of relevance to you. And Jeff Lean doesn’t really diet at all but does 100 pushups and 100 situps every day and he’s RIPPED? Couldn’t care less. Heed these words good: if you were the exception, you’d know about it. You’d be exceptional.

– I don’t care what anyone does. If someone is a full-on BB and cuts down to 5% BF and looks AMAZING, then well f*cking done to him. Whatever he did in order to do that, it deserves respect. That’s why people who trade in back-and-white and say things like “this diet sucks” are either (a) missing the point; or (b) trying to sell you an alternative. Only you know what you want to live like.

– If you’re trying to lose fat, you are NOT trying to get stronger or gain muscle. You are trying to shred the f*ck up. Once you’ve done that, you can play with sh*t and try and achieve those goals. Don’t be the sad sack who has one naff workout and decides they’re probably losing muscle and they should start a bulk immediately.

That’s about it. And yes, the diet outlined above is basically Carb Nite (LINK), except that it’s got a PSMF day because they’re brutally awesome, and I advocate a semi-IF (intermittent fasting) approach to things in that most people do better just not eating sh*t in the morning.

Mark W. 

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