‘The Lean Muscle Diet’ – A Detailed Review of Lou Schuler and Alan Aragon’s New Book

Lou Schuler is an award-winning fitness journalist and author. Alan Aragon is one of the world’s most influential figures in the modern movement towards evidence-based sports nutrition. They have the best part of 50 years of experience on the right side of this industry between them, and this is their first book collaboration.

Knowing the work of both of these gentleman, it was a foregone conclusion that this book was going to be good, and it doesn’t disappoint. Despite high expectations, it has still managed to pleasantly surprise me in multiple places, and I feel it falls short in only one. This is an excellent book, and I’d go as far as to say it’s probably the best book on dieting that I think has hit mainstream bookstore shelves in… well, ever really.

Ready? Let’s get into the details then.

What is ‘The Lean Muscle Diet’?

It is a book providing an easy to understand breakdown of what the science currently says is likely to be optimal for chasing your physique goals and a guide on how to implement that. Despite the name, over half the book is dedicated to training.

The priorities of the diet are as follows:

  1. Hitting your target for total calories
  2. Hitting your macronutrient targets, especially for protein
  3. Getting almost all your food from whole and minimally processed sources

No surprises then.

There’s also the highly sensible & realistic suggestion that 10% of your calories for the week can be allotted to what most people consider junk foods – which I think Alan defined as highly processed stuff that would survive a nuclear war.

Who is ‘The Lean Muscle Diet’ not for?

  • It’s not for those looking for a simple fad diet – I’ve mentioned on the site before that it seems some people simply have to go away and fail a few times before they are willing to listen to a voice talking about the (devastatingly effective) ‘middle ground’ and moderation.
  • This is a diet book for the mainstream. It’s not for those looking for the super geeky, nitty gritty details on nutrition. For that, you want to be checking out Alan Aragon’s Research Review, or Lyle McDonald’s BodyRecomposition.com. I’ve read every corner of both, and while they are brilliant, they aren’t suited for most people.
  • It’s not for those looking for detailed discussion and explanation of training periodization theory and implementation – i.e. what to do when you stop getting gains from your workouts. In fairness, this can get very complicated, very quickly, and to attempt this in the same book would only add layers of unnecessary complication into the mix for most readers. I’d guess this was a purposeful omission.

Who is ‘The Lean Muscle Diet’ for?

  • This is for anyone that has been strung out, unsuccessful and frustrated with their lack results from their diet efforts so far. It is especially relevant for anyone that has been caught in the fad diet bandwagon.
  • There is a good deal of not so common, common sense discussed and explained in layman terms that the vast majority of people will enjoy.
  • I can see it being useful for someone perhaps subscribed to Alan Aragon’s monthly Research Review, who perhaps enjoys the study analysis but has been struggling to put it all the information together.
  • The information in the book is equally applicable to men and women, but it’s written in a way that will reverberate more with male readers. Personally, I think this was a smart move – serious female trainees won’t care and will love it anyway, and it leaves Lou and Alan the opportunity to make a small fortune next year, by putting some butterflies in the corner of each page, and rebranding the book as “The Slender Look Diet“.

There is a quick history of diets and dieting. A bit of myth busting. Practical guidelines on calculating required energy intake, macros, and specific foods to eat to fit that. There are useful summary action points at the end of each section, and example diet set-ups for four separate men that I think works particularly well in showing people how to implement things for themselves.

Now that we’ve got that summary out of the way I’d like to discuss some of the dirtier details that I know regular readers of this site will probably want to know.


The Diet Section

Calorie and Macro Calculations

Alan describes a more simplified way of calculating calorie requirements than I have seen him do before, based on bodyweight targets. I like it, as the math is simpler and people are less likely to get it wrong.

Macro calculations from there are done in a similar method to what you see on the site. As they were based on his work reviewing the scientific literature anyway, that it no surprise.

Carb cycling is discussed as an option but stops short of going the full hog and discussing fat cycling too. That’s probably a good thing in honesty as too many people would get confused.

This still assumes that people can make a reasonable guestimation of getting their body fat percentage. Alan points out that BIA machines in your gym are to be avoided, and that calipers will likely give dodgy/inconsistent results. DEXA and BodPod are mentioned as unrealistic (but more accurate) methods, but I would have liked him to have pointed out that these aren’t very reliable or consistent either, just to stem the increasing number of people from going out and attempting to get these tests done periodically at great and unnecessary expense. Alan suggests using an online calculator where you measure your wrist, ankle, and other girths to get a ballpark figure for body fat percentage. Do I think this is good enough? For most people to begin with, yes.

Which brings me to my one and only criticism of an otherwise excellent book – I feel there should have been a section on how to track progress and then make adjustments to calorie and macro intake when progress stops or slows down. (I’ll come back to this at the end of this review, and include some of my own guidelines.)

Meal Plans

To those that aren’t used to counting their calories or macros, you need to be disciplined initially so that you get an idea of what is in your foods. That’s 2-3 weeks of pain before you get used to it and can relax.
I really like the food charts included, with their calorie, macro, and fiber amounts listed and categorized, and I think it strikes a good balance between being complicated enough, without being overwhelming. Also, because it’s not possible to list every single thing in there, it teaches people quickly that “close enough” is perfectly fine. Trying to get everything to the last gram isn’t a realistic or a healthy attitude – an important concept that Alan emphasizes.

When you give people an online calculator and say, “ok count your foods” certain personality types get so wrapped up in getting everything exact, that when they can’t find the foods they want to eat in there, instead of looking at the macros in a similar food, they quit eating it entirely. I think it can be quite stressful for some people to try and find everything exactly in an online calculator, and these charts look like a good balance to me.

I like that the leucine amounts are listed for the protein sources for both meat eaters, and for the vegetarian options, as this could turn out to be very important for vegetarians depending on what future studies into ‘leucine threshold theory’ turn out.

Meal frequency, nutrient timing, supplements, and alcohol are all topics that are addressed.

One of the excellent food charts included in the book.

One of the excellent food charts included in the book.


The Training Section

The level of attention to detail in the training section was a pleasant surprise. Approximately half of the 300-page book is devoted to it. The warm-up guide is excellent. Their suggested program, a mix between classic bodybuilding and strength work, is solid. Readers of RippedBody.com will see that I have a strength bias in my training guides, so the number of exercises used in the program recommended in the book is more than I generally do, but I don’t disagree with any of it. It looks interesting. Interest drives motivation to get the work done with the required intensity to force adaptation and is an essential part of any program. So, if you think you prefer this over the more raw, strength based routines on the site – do it, give it your all, stick to it and you’ll do well.

As I’ve said before, there are multiple ways of coming to the same result, different doesn’t mean better or worse, it’s just different.

I’ll quote Lou here, “Just remember that the goal of training is to make adaptations, and a workout is only as good as the adaptations it produces, while it’s producing them.” He estimated the program will take around 14 weeks for an experienced lifter but will produce gains for longer in those with less training experience.

I’ll point out that as good as this section is, this is not the book to buy if you’re looking for a guide specifically on the barbell lifts. For that you need something more dedicated like Mark Rippetoe’s ‘Starting Strength.‘ – Rip is a maniac with detail and devotes over 100 pages just to the squat chapter, so this is not a criticism of Alan and Lou’s book.

Example taken from the warm up section, part of the detailed exercise guide.

Example taken from the warm up section, part of the detailed exercise guide.


The Missing Links

Now to two notable places where the book doesn’t go into the detail that I think it probably should have: tracking and adjustments. Without these parts, the book to me feels incomplete.

A guide to making adjustments I feel is important for two reasons:

  • Calculations are only an estimation & people are going to mess them up anyway.
  • Calorie needs change as we progress.

Calculations Are Only An Estimation & People Are Going To Mess Up Anyway.

People routinely mess up their calculations for two primary reasons.

  1. We all want to believe we have a lower body fat percentage than we do (and thus more muscle mass) and so our calculations (which depend on estimating body fat percentage) will come out higher than they should.
  2. People tend to overestimate their calorie expenditure from activity.

Alan provides one of the best guides to calculating calorie and macro requirements I’ve ever seen in a mainstream book and then gives four detailed example case studies to apply it to get an initial setting, but then the chapter abruptly ends without any mention of adjustments ever being needed, which is a shame. I feel it should have been stated more clearly that calculations of energy requirements will always be a guess, and what matters is how those calculations put into practice over a few weeks pan out because from there you can make adjustments.

 

Calorie Needs Change As We Progress.

People will plateau with their progress at some point. This happens due to training, of course, but another reason for plateaus is diet. This is because whether in a fat loss phase or a slow-bulk phase, our energy needs change as we make progress and our metabolisms adapt. The authors explain that different folks will have different NEAT responses (don’t worry if you don’t know what that means) which comes into play when setting calorie requirements, so it wouldn’t have been too much extra work to expand that theory a little, and then move into a small section guiding on adjustments.

Admittedly as this is what I do for a living my own bias may be making me place overdue importance on tracking and adjustments, so I’ll try to put some figures here to help support what I’m trying to say. I’ve been doing this for a while and have coached around 500 people now over a minimum of a 12 week period:

  • In around 30-40% of cases, I won’t need to make any adjustments to the client’s calorie or macro intake to get on target with the prediction that was given at the outset, for that entire 12 week period. That rest (60-70%) will need an adjustment of some kind.
  • In cases where I’ve worked with people for an extended period (24 weeks+) I can’t recall ever not having to make a diet adjustment to keep people progressing and on track with target.

Based on my experience then, I’d say it’s likely that most people will need to make adjustments to their diet within a few months of starting (assuming even that they don’t mess up the calculation initially and need to adjust for that sooner) and they will almost definitely need to make adjustments within the first six.

I asked Alan about this omission today, guessing that he’d be quick to respond and polite as ever,

Alan Aragon Comment

Fair enough. I know well the pain of having to simplify content and often I’d just prefer leave parts out, than do it half arsed.

My last niggle would the lack of a counterpart to the missing adjustments guide – a guide for people on how to track their progress so that you know when and if you have in fact stalled and need to make adjustments. Obviously, you can’t really have the one without the other though, and if space was the reason for the limitations then I can’t argue.

However, I would probably have cut out two of the pages on core training and put a link to some articles or videos there to make space for an abbreviated guide. Something like the following:

 Take body measurements, and average your scale weight each morning (post toilet visit), and note it at the end of each week.

• Make an incremental adjustment of 150-250kCal [I recommend a 5-8% change usually] upwards or downwards in daily calorie intake if scale weight isn’t going in the right direction on average over the last few weeks. Make the change primarily by altering carb intake, secondarily fat. 

• Add a measurement guide:

A measurement guide I give to clients.

A measurement guide I give to clients.

• Then provide some quick bullet points on what to look for when interpreting your data.

I asked Lou about the lack of a tracking guide and he said that he personally is pretty obsessive about it, and, though he would never advise anyone to go to the level of detail that he does, he said that it’s something they should have mentioned.

This honest and open attitude pretty much typifies Alan and Lou and sets them apart in this industry: they’re encouraging to newcomers, and despite their fame, they haven’t let themselves get an ego like so many others do.

I would love to pick Alan’s brain further on specifically how he tracks client progress and the rules he has developed on making adjustments. If that’s something you’d like, write “yes” in the comments and I’ll see if I can pressure him to open up time in his busy schedule to do an interview. 😉

Update: Alan has released an FAQ in a blog post here covering:

  • This is a Men’s Health book, but does it apply to women too?
  • Does the book talk about breaking through plateaus?
  • I hate math, is there any way to simplify the calculations?

Concluding Thoughts

The prime question then is whether the lack of a tracking and adjustment guide spoils the book, to which I have to answer an emphatic “no”.

The book is excellent.

Given that coaching people on their nutrition for physique goals is my profession and I’m very familiar with the work of both authors, you might think I’d find the book, which is aimed at the average gym rat, a little boring. However, Lou’s years of honing his craft shines through in the quality of the writing, the humor kept me entertained throughout, and frankly, the refresher on some parts of nutrition basics by Alan was welcomed. Also, the way that they both manage to put the nutrition fundamentals and more complex issues into your head without you even realizing it, showed me that I need to raise my game in my own writing.

My Aunt Mary once said something to me when driving when I was a child, “Treat everyone on the road like an idiot, and you don’t go far wrong.” That still sticks with to me to this day, and I regularly drive with one foot over the brake when in the city or residential areas, and one finger on the brake when I’m riding at all times.

With so much cherry-picked science and nonsense pervading the diet book genre today, I’d like to borrow her immortal phrasing: “Burn every diet book on your shelves, buy this one, and you won’t go far wrong.”

The book I had was an advanced copy, it will be available on general release tomorrow (on the 23rd) and you can grab your copy on Amazon (not an affiliate link).

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of 'The Muscle and Strength Pyramid' textbooks and founder of RippedBody.com. This site is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation. (You can read more about Andy here.)

39 Comments

  1. Alexis says:

    Hey Andy thanks a lot for your detailed review. The only thing i did not understand in the book is how to know that you can go from Phase 1 to Phase 2 (and 3) ?

    Alan says that if you’re still improving from week to week we should stay in phase 1.

    The problem is that with objectives like (Squat 4 sets of 6 reps) and assuming that we progress each week we can stay a loooong time increasing the weights / doing 1 more rep etc…

    I did not catch the rules to move forward to phase 2 🙁

    Many thanks for your time !

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Sorry Alexis, it’s been a while since I read it and I cannot remember. Perhaps the training guides on my site will be helpful.

  2. Omri says:

    Hey,

    You should put an affiliate link, no shame in that. You worked hard for this review and gave an honest one! Edit it and I will get the book from you.☺

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Omri. Appreciate the sentiment, I will not do that though. Here are my thoughts, taken from an e-mail exchange with Greg Nuckols.

      Background: I asked him how much he wanted as payment for his latest guest article on the site. He told me it was my decision. Here is my response, the stuff in square brackets is my addition for context.

      *****

      You said industry standard is $150-200, but top level is $300. You are top level. So I suggest I pay you $300. For unique pieces written specifically for the site I am happy to pay more however.
      What do you think?

      I have no intention of collecting any affiliate money – [use of the affiliate link with my initials] was purely so that I could track clicks. Turns out, I’m glad that we did use that affiliate link because we learned a good lesson that may be very important for Japan.

      Your article will remain a key article on my site and it should stay popular for years. Assuming you stand by that book* (and preferably update it over time, offering free update downloads to people) then it will stay useful forever and keep selling.

      (*I think a mistake people make is putting out more and more books, with ever diminishing profits, as well as erosion of credibility.)

      I have no problem with affiliate marketing, I think everything in Tony Gentilcore’s recent article is right, and I understand people need to make a living in that way. However, credibility does take a hit when we recommend things in a big way, I’d say on an exponential curve (as the number of products we recommend increase, credibility/trustability is eroded more and more). And as my business is exceptionally dependent on (and sensitive to) a high degree of trust, I have to try and stay out of it, as the money lost will probably outweigh anything gained.

  3. The Lean Muscle Diet Understanding Why Diets Work - The Palaestra Post says:

    […] Those wanting to read a much more detailed, and even more well-informed, review of The Lean Muscle Diet should check out Andy Morgan’s review on his Website RippedBody.jp. The review can be found by clicking here. […]

  4. Dany says:

    Hello,

    The book recommends a protein intake of 1g/lb of TARGET body weight.
    Most of the time I hear about calculating protein only for the LEAN body mass. Is the difference that important or is it just for simplicity reasons?

    Can it, by “accident” cause the body to be heavier that we wanted?

    Thank you.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Dany. Targeting by lean body mass is a more accurate way to do it, but that is a purposeful simplification they have made in the book to stop people fussing over a minor detail.

      “Can it, by “accident” cause the body to be heavier that we wanted?”
      No, because calorie balance has already been set. However this will affect the remaining calorie budget and this how high you can set your carb and fat intake. Which I would like to emphasise, is going to be a minor point in the grand scheme of things for most people.

  5. Dan says:

    Andy, what’s up? Noticing that all the good coaches nowadays are recomending 3 lifts per week, on non consecutive days. My issue is based on my shift schedule at work, I can not comply with that schedule. I could however lift 4 times a week, 2 on 1 off 2 on 2 off. But wouldn’t know where to start. For instance, how could I make it work with the LMD training program? Any help would be great, thsnks.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Dan. Programs are usually written with the 7 day week person in mind. But if yours is longer or shorter then you can of course adjust for that – the training principles do not change. Train, recover (eat rest sleep) and adapt (grow), repeat.
      If by “the LMD program” you are referring to Lyle McDonald’s Generic Bulking Routine, there is an excellent FAQ compiled by JCDeen that you’ll find top of google if you search for it. I would imagine that your specific question is covered there, but if not then I am certain it will be covered in his forum.

  6. Steve says:

    I got the book and the biggest problem I have with it is the part where you work out your target body weight. Step 3 (page 87) talks about the target rate of decreased body fat percentage, but then on the next page in Step 4 we adjust the target body weight again to allow for, in this example case, six additional pounds of lean mass. To quote: ‘you’re trying to gain a pound of muscle per month with a net weight loss of less than a pound a week’. That suggests simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss. A road I don’t want to go down after managing a pathetic 0.2kg of muscle gain and 3kg of fat loss in 12 months (Sept 13 – 14) on a similar plan! As soon as I switched to a proper cut, I actually saw some decent changes (am dropping 1% fat per month now and still retaining my strength in the gym on a reduced volume linear routine). Been training consistently for two years and am the ripe old age of 46! I can see me using the formulae in the book once I’m down to 12% body fat to switch to what I guess will be a lean bulk, but def not for any sort of recomp.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Steve, this can be remedied by simply adjusting your calorie intake downwards to place more emphasis on fat loss. Do that primarily through reducing your carb intake, secondarily through fat. Leave the protein setting as it is.

      “A road I don’t want to go down after managing a pathetic 0.2kg of muscle gain and 3kg of fat loss in 12 months (Sept 13 – 14) on a similar plan!”
      It’s more likely that the body fat (body composition) measurement tool you were using just came up with inconsistent values. This is typical, and is why I strongly suggest people don’t use them. Start taking body measurements.

      These guides should help:

      Is It Better To Forget About Body Fat Percentage?
      How To Track Your Progress When Dieting

      1. Steve says:

        Thanks for the comments Andy. Yeah, in the end it pretty much recommends the same as the IIFYM calculator (an excellent tool IMHO) on a cut. Regarding the body fat measurements, they were from a Bod Pod, so fairly reliable I would have thought?? Never mind, I’m on the right track now at least!

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          “…they were from a Bod Pod, so fairly reliable I would have thought??”
          You would think so, but unfortunately no, not really.

  7. marcelomattar says:

    Hey Andy,

    What are your thoughts on how the LMD workout plan compares with your strength-based and more minimalistic workouts? Do you have any thoughts on which one is more appropriate in different circumstances?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Marcelo. Good, just a different way of going about things. It doesn’t matter which you choose as long as you stick to it. Lyle’s actually covered your question in detail here.

  8. nick says:

    Thanks for such a detailed reply and I can see what your saying about your answer to number 2, it was merely my own curiout to see more what the longer term results were of your practice of what you teach combined with a simple strength program for motivation purposes. The 12 week client transformations are inspirational as they stand but wondered what someone’s results looked like to sustained your system over a longer period of time.

    I respect your reasoning for not doing so and think i speak for most when I say thank you for providing such a detailed site with so much time, love and attention put into each section.

    Thanks for all your efforts in re-educating people about nutrition on and traing I know I have thoroughly enjoyed reading everything you have posted.

    Kind regards.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Check the progress pictures in the first two articles on physique goal setting. You’ll find longer-term examples there, myself included. Just finishing up the third and final part of that with more.

  9. nick says:

    Hi andy, thanks for the in depth review I am halfway through the book and like how the maths needed in each step is broken down into manageable chunks making it easy to follow. Also, kudos to you as well for such a detailed and infornative site! Just two quick questions for you if I may?
    1) I have been tracking my calories and macros for the last few weeks but notice that nothing I ever seem to do gets rid of that last bit of belly and pecs fat could this be a sign to lower my carbs and up my fats possibly?
    2) more of a request really but I am sure I’m not the only one who would be interested but could you do an article showing in pictures your own physique progression over time for some reader inspirinspiration and maybe an idea of what training program you yourself currently follow?

    Hope you had an awesome Christmas and wish you all the success for 2015 you’re work for the masses is greatly appreciated,

    Nick

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Nick, thanks. Glad you’re finding the site so useful. If you have areas of suggested improvement, I’m always open to ideas.

      1. Sure, but my rule is to wait four weeks before assessing that, based on the tracking data. Those two guides, “How to Track Progress” and “How and When to Adjust Your Macros” linked at the bottom of the review are the key things to read for you now. Plenty of information there. Also, if you go to the sidebar menu and click on “Coaching Lessons Series” from the “popular” tab you’ll find some articles that I have written talking about specific lessons I learned through working with people. – Exceptions to the rule, that kind of thing.

      2. In the site refresh a couple of months ago I left out my own initial before/after when re-doing the results page. I wasn’t really sure where to put it and haven’t bothered adding it back in since. I’ve thought about this and I don’t have any current plans on publishing further progress selfies or stories, further to what is already on the site and comes out naturally when I write. I think there is plenty of “me” here already.

      A lot of people get popular in this industry posting pictures of their physique. I get it, it’s proof that they practice what they preach and people find it motivating, sure. But in doing so they create a business that is all centred around them and how they look, and that’s not what I want this site to be about.

      My site, our site, will always be about the content and the people that use it to be successful. – You guys. I want people to come for the information, the camaraderie, to get inspired and to be successful. I want students to surpass the teacher in every way.

      That’s why I put clients front and centre and me in the background. That way people hire me for what I can do to help them, rather than what I have done to myself. – It’s one thing to be able to get yourself in shape and post selfies over the internet. But it’s quite another to be able to consistently deliver on promises to get others in shape.

      The guys that have a business based on how they look don’t have a business if something happens to them. – Illness, accident, or having to take an extended time off to look after someone. You can call me naive if you like, but I’m willing to sacrifice short-term popularity for long-term stability.

      If I get hit by a bus tomorrow and I’m lying in a hospital bed all smashed up and dying, I think I’d allow myself a self-indulgant moment to feel proud of what we* managed to achieve in such a short time frame, pissed about how much more could have been done, but happy knowing that the sites will remain here as a resource for people.

      *I’m thinking about our Japanese site here too (the story to that), which has been very much a team effort.

  10. Frank says:

    Hey Andy, got a question for you that’s a little off topic from this post lol. I’m currently in a lean bulk phase and I’m going to be out of town with family for about 2 weeks. My family lives in an area where there aren’t any gyms for miles lol. So, since I’m not going to be in the gym, I’m guessing I need to eat at maintenance to not gain any unwanted fat. My macros right now are 550Carbs/100 fat/200 protein. How much should I reduce them by since I won’t be in the gym?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Frank. Short answer: take a break from counting for those two weeks.

      • The human body works hard too maintain the status quo – homeostasis. This is true when in a calorie deficit as it is bulking – gaining or losing weight isn’t what our bodies want to do. When bulking we have to consciously eat beyond what hunger signals would usually dictate that we eat.

      • 1lb of fat ~= 3200kCal of stored energy. If your maintenance calorie intake is 2500kCal, even if we assume that any excess over regular calorie maintenance is stored perfectly as body fat, then that’s more than 5700kCal you’d have to consume on a single day to gain alb of body fat. Doable, yes, but not likely if you are consciously trying to eat sensibly.

      So my advice would be to take a break from conscious counting for those two weeks and this will naturally bring your intake down to maintenance or slightly above, and there won’t be any significant fat gain.

      1. Frank says:

        The only problem with that for me is that If I don’t track I tend to undereat and end up eating in a deficit and that is the last thing I want to do because then I will risk muscle loss especially since I will not be in the gym. I am fine with tracking doesn’t make it an inconvenience for me since I have my scales with me.

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Risks are minimal from such a short time period. Muscle is not gained, or lost quickly. So while I understand well why you feel the way you do (the loss of the pump from not training is part of it), I think you should just take a break.
          Still, it’s your decision, this is just my advice.

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