A couple of Japanese friends came up to me in the gym after seeing the blog post about Scott asking questions. They are into the 6 meals/day, 5 days/week split-training method. They couldn’t read what I had written, but they could understand the figures and they knew what that meant. They were impressed, and it seems like they’re now willing to give the IF principles an ear.
J-Bro 1: “So why did Scott grow then? Advanced trainees are not supposed to grow when dieting.”
Andy: “Yes, it’s rare with your current style of dieting, but it does happen when people switch things up.”
J-Bro 2: “So what’s different with Berkhan Sensei’s Leangains then?”
I explained, but I wasn’t as eloquent as I would have liked in my Japanese, and altogether I felt rather disappointed with myself for not completely nailing this rather obvious and predictable question.
So that’s what this article is about, it’s the case I’ll present to those two Japanese lads. I’ll get it translated professionally, and I’ll memorize it so that next time I’ll blow them away. As this is going to be the base for the translation please bear with me on a few things as I’ve kept it a little simpler than I would like, but I’ve tried to not compromise on the fundamentals. I’ve also reached out a little with a couple of things I’m not entirely sure on which I’ve noted below, so if you know about those things I’d appreciate your thoughts (correction or addition) in the comments. In any case, you’re an English speaker which means I can link you on to sources much better written by those I respect and look up to.
This then, will hopefully serve as a key article in helping me to spread Martin’s Leangains (LG) system in Japan for him
Why did Scott grow on his cut?
Two fundamental things that Scott changed were his training volume and the switch to using Martin Berkhan’s LG* diet principles.
This basically means he changed from the “6 meals system” with the same overall calories/macros every day regardless of training, to a cyclic-calorie diet (specifically having a calorie-surplus, high-carb training day followed by a low-carb, deficit-calorie rest day) and then combined it with daily Intermittent Fasting.
(*If someone asks you to explain that in a sentence then 1. Breakfast skipping, combined with 2. Calorie and macronutrient cycling, will usually suffice. You’ll soon see if that piques their interest at which point you can explain further.)
Here are what I feel to be the most important things:
- Reduced training volume allows for recovery and growth.
- Calorie cycling helps counteract the negative hormonal effects that happen when dieting.
- Calorie Partitioning* is more efficient (*More of the calories eaten go into muscle tissue, less in the fat cells when overfeeding; more energy comes from fat stores relative to muscle burned when dieting. -a really good thing!) This is due to…
- Macro/Carb cycling
- Putting the majority of the day’s calories PWO (leads to a compensatory response.)
- Fasting in the mornings caused more fat burning throughout the day.
- Late night eating (due to hormonal modulation).
1. Reduced training volume allows for recovery and growth.
The ability of the body to recover is hampered when dieting as it stresses the central nervous system (CNS). This is especially true when dieting to very low body-fat levels. Training volume was cut back so as not to add greater stress on the already burdened CNS, and to avoid overtraining.
Why is this important?
CNS recovery plays a huge role in how much you gain from your training efforts. The term “overtraining” means cumulative CNS fatigue. If you end up overtraining (or under-recovering) you won’t be able to train as hard, you’re more likely to get sick and miss sessions, and (worst-case) you’ll get weaker.
It is possible that with his previous training plan, at his level of advancement, Scott needed a lower volume training schedule in order to recover sufficiently and grow. Had more fatigue accumulated than his CNS could recover from? This could explain why when he switched to a lower training volume he became stronger. As Martin put it very well on a Reddit forum thread in reference the pitfalls of lots of cardio while cutting recently, “A calorie deficit is a recovery deficit. Avoid deficit spending.”
Further reading: “Overtraining: What it is and what it isn’t.”
2. Calorie cycling* helps counteract the negative hormonal effects that happen when dieting.
(*Typified by eating above and below maintenance energy requirements everyday, rather than everyday-deficit calories.)
When a person starts a diet, within a few days hormonal changes kick in and start telling your body you’re not eating enough. This causes hunger and leads to metabolic slowdown, (leptin decreases, ghrelin increases combined with drops in thyroid -among many others) meaning you have to eat even less to shift the fat. Muscle breakdown also becomes easier due to drops in testosterone, and increases in cortisol.
The body does this as a natural defense mechanism to slow the rate of fat loss and ensure survival. Put simply, the body doesn’t care for you to be looking good on the beach, and it rebels. The end result is that traditional dieting sucks. You’re hungry, and it gets progressively harder to shift the fat costing you increasingly more muscle when you really start dialing it in. Thus it can become necessary to try and correct these negative adaptations if further progress is to be achieved on a diet. Many bodybuilders don’t do this and they end up losing their hard-earned ‘off-season’ muscle gains in the summer.
Enter Diet-Breaks and Cyclical-Dieting
You may have heard of the term “diet-break”. Lyle McDonald postulates that as many of the negative hormonal adaptations after starting a diet take a few days to kick in, single-day, high-carb/low-fat “refeeds” once a week – while great in that they help refill glycogen, stops muscle catabolism and can have an anabolic effect – might not be enough to reverse these hormonal adaptations. Thus after a person has been dieting for extended periods of time he suggests diet-breaks to ‘reset’ the hormones back to normal levels which makes the fat loss come quicker once the diet is resumed. In practical terms this means a person will usually eat at maintenance calories from a period of several days to a couple of weeks.
With LG we have a refeed every other day with interspersed days of dieting. It begs the question: Is cycling calories in this way enough to limit the negative hormonal response despite there still being a weekly overall deficit?
I don’t believe there have been clinical studies on it, but with their experience I’d love to ask Martin, Lyle or Alan Aragon their thoughts*.If the answer is yes then it might explain why the results are so good. -With fewer negative hormonal adaptations the rate of potential fat loss that can be achieved without muscle loss is greater. (Besides the potential for muscle growth to continue). -Quite a contrast to regular, everyday-deficit dieting.
* If you know somewhere that they have talked about it then please share it with us and put a link in the comments below.
3. Calorie partitioning is more efficient.
Ideally all the food we eat would go towards recovery and growth, and all our energy requirements would come from fat stores. Unfortunately this just doesn’t happen. When overfeeding we will always gain some fat with the muscle, and when underfeeding we’ll always burn some muscle with the fat.
The ratio in which the body burns/stores muscle proportionally to fat, known as the p-ratio, is largely genetically determined. -Which explains why there’s always that one grinning idiot in your gym that doesn’t pay any attention to his diet yet is always ripped, and uses this as a qualification to dispense diet advice. (Yes, he’s in my gym too.)
Genetic inheritance aside, we can improve on this ratio by how we eat or train. Lyle speculates that we can swing this ratio about 15-20% in our favour. Does the Leangains system improve on this figure further? Interesting question.
Here are four things that the diet does that helps us improve on our p-ratio – the calorie partitioning effects – which if I lost you a little in the science above means we can maximize the muscle gains/minimize fat gain on surplus days and maximize fat loss/minimize muscle loss on rest days.
(i) Macro/carb cycling, (ii) Timing our meals so that most calories come post-workout, (iii) Fasting in the morning, (iv) Late night eating.
i) Macro/Carb cycling and ii) Putting the majority of the day’s calories Post-workout
Cycling our calories to burn fat one day only to put it back on the next just so that we can “avoid the negative hormonal traps” would be a little pointless. This is where workouts and nutrition timing come in. Here’s the theory:
Workouts cause an increased anabolic sensitivity of muscle to protein feedings that can last up to 24 hours. While this means that we don’t have to rush to our gym bag for a protein shake, it does mean we have a window of opportunity to repair and build muscle that the smart bro will take advantage of.
Part of the reason for this is that the workout causes glycogen depletion, which leads to increased insulin sensitivity, glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis. This helps shuttle more of the carbs into the glycogen stores for muscle building, which is a fancy way of saying that more of our food will find its way into the muscles rather than be stored as body fat.
One way to increase this effect is through entering the post-workout (PWO) window in a more glycogen depleted state. This can be done by,
a) Increasing our training volume –Which for CNS recovery issues we’re not going to do. b) Consuming fewer carbs the previous day.
c) Putting the majority of our carbs PWO.
By combining the latter two we can theoretically achieve something called glycogen super-compensation, which means we can fill the muscles with glycogen as the carbs are stored in the muscle at a faster rate. This is awesome because of it’s positive, anabolic calorie-partitioning effects – for short periods we can actually overeat carbs and continue using fat for fuel.
I’ll slip into a conversational style to ease the explanations…
“So we should eat a whole load of food and it will be not only fine but beneficial on this day, right?”
Well unfortunately not. While the chances of the carbs being stored as body fat are low, dietary fat will be readily stored as there are excess calories on this day. So the recommendation is to keep fat intake low, carbs high.
“Ok so how about the training. Can I use my usual body-part machine-training split-routine but cram it into 3 days?”
Glycogen super-compensation can only occur in the muscles trained, so the most optimal thing to do is to train the whole body in a single workout, or as much of it as possible given our recovery capacity. Given that we want to keep volume low this makes the use of compound barbell movements, dips and chin-ups perfectly suited to this. While the Squat, Deadlift and Press might have the superficial look of being leg, back and shoulder exercises, they train the whole body. Don’t make the common mistake that because you can’t conceptualize the other muscles working that they aren’t. This is the reason people spend hours doing crunches when all they actually need to do is squat.
“So in order to maximize “b” and “c” the suggestion is consume no carbs on the rest-day and train fasted?”
Partially correct yes, though it doesn’t have to be as extreme as consuming zero carbs on the rest-day, keeping carbs low can be beneficial for further reasons that I’ll come to in point ‘iii’.
Though it’s an understudied area it seems that fasted training can have a whole bunch of benefits. If your English is up to it I’d highly recommend that you read the article, “Fasted Training for Superior Insulin Sensitivity and Nutrient Partitioning” by Martin. I hope to have a Japanese version of it done for you in the coming months.
In practical terms whether you train fasted or not will depend on your schedule. As most gyms in Japan aren’t open in the early morning this kills the opportunity for the person with a “typical” work schedule, but don’t worry about this. Scott trained fasted for the first half of his cut, and then when his work schedule changed he switched to having a meal before his workout. He still consumed the larger part of his daily calories post-workout (~60%) and it still clearly worked well. This might have something to do with the benefits associated with late night eating, which I will cover in point ‘iv’.
Is the Leangains system enough to produce glycogen super-compensation or am I guilty of just talking too much theory here? Not sure. Recent discussion on a Reddit forum would suggest not. Does it have to be total depletion for there to be any super-compensatory effects though? Or does partial depletion give partial super-compensatory effects? -One to ask the experts.
Further reading: “Fasted Training Boosts Endurance and Muscle Glycogen” – Martin Berkhan. “Calorie Partitioning” – Lyle McDonald
iii) Fasting in the mornings stimulates more fat-burning throughout the day.
One of the most thrilling afternoons of my (clearly) very sad life lately was spent reading a book by Lyle McDonald called “The Stubborn Fat Solution”. It took Lyle a throughly riveting 93 pages to explain, so forgive me if my 3 sentence explanation is lacking.
- For fat to be burned it needs to be released from the cell into the blood stream. Insulin puts the freeze on fat burning stopping this, so to avoid this a good way to keep insulin low and increase our fat burning window each day is by skipping breakfast in the morning.
- During fasting catecholamine release (adrenaline and noradrenaline) is high, which stimulates further fat breakdown.
- Blood flow then needs to be sufficient to carry fat from the cells to be burned around the body. This is improved during fasting.
- Finally the fat will float around in the bloodstream until it is taken up and used as energy by the tissues in the body.
“So why low carbs on the rest day?”
I’ll quote Lyle here:
“Fortunately glycogen depletion also increases fat utilization by the muscle, which increases how well your body can use fat for fuel. This is important both from the standpoint off fat loss and protein sparing because, the better your body can use fat for fuel, the less it will need to break down protein for energy.”
So we eat fewer carbs to keep muscle glycogen lower.
iv) Late night eating
It appears that eating late at night leads to better fat loss and overall health. Alan Aragon (master broscience debunker and author of the leading monthly industry magazine on nutrition/training research in ‘the West’) describes it very well in his December 2011 issue:
There might actually be something slightly magical about the classic night-time carb-heavy gut-bomb. And I’d emphasize “might” because the evidence base for this is still relatively thin & racked with important limitations. However, in controlled studies, the results are strikingly consistent. Martin Berkhan has already done a good job of compiling the research in this area , so I’m not going to recount all of it.
Nevertheless, the most recent study in the saga is truly provocative. In a 6-month trial with a larger-than-typical subject sample, Sofer et al saw greater reductions in total weight, fat mass, and waist circumference in subjects who consumed the majority of their carbs at dinner, as opposed to a more evenly spread consumption throughout the day in the control group. A slightly lesser drop in leptin was seen in the experimental group, which the authors speculate is what led to greater satiety/lower hunger levels. Furthermore, the experimental group had better improvements in measures of glucose control, lipids, insulin sensitivity, and inflammation. If the study went on any longer, you’d think that the subjects in the experimental group would develop superpowers.
Nothing to add to this really except that if your English is up to it, and you like these kind of things you can check out a free issue of Alan’s Research Review here. I really love his stuff and I’d like you to appreciate it too, so I’ll have a Japanese introduction post of him in the coming months for you.
Ready to try something new this year?
So there we have it gentleman, before you start your summer cut and potentially burn off your year of hard work, are you sure you don’t want to give Martin’s Leangains a go this year? – Click for The Guide. -Good luck!
Note to the English readers: While I’ve tried my best, I fully expect there to be some mistakes in the above. I’m kind of hoping that some of you clever people out there will pick me up on them so I don’t embarrass myself in Japan. Either way, it’s been good to thrash out some theories when writing this.
Odds and Ends
- For the smaller things, small successes and whatnot I’ve been increasingly using the Rippedbody.jp Facebook Page, so if you want to keep up-to-date please check it out.
- I’ve updated the Leangains FAQ quite a lot in the last month and will continue working to improve it.
- Think you can help to spread this in Japan? Please get in touch and we can work on something together. (If not then Twitter “shares” and Facebook “likes” are helpful for the google battle. 🙂
Feel free to leave a comment as always. Thanks! -Andy.
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