Getting shredded, or at least very lean, is a goal that most of us have. While some value brute size or strength more, I find that looking good naked is the most popular training goal there is. Even if many of us will not admit it!
If you decide that now is the time to go all-in, see how good your body can look and start the dreaded “cutting phase” here are a few tips to help you get there with the least amount of pain and damage as possible.
#1. Keep Your Training Athletic
Look at most explosive and well-conditioned athletes: they are all lean and defined and most of them are not restrictive with their diet (I’ve seen some baaaaad habits!).
When you train your body to perform it will tend to shift toward a body composition that makes it easier to perform at a high level. Explosive/speed work, as well as conditioning, have a positive impact on looking lean and hard.
Sprinting and jumping will improve muscle insulin sensitivity, increase muscle tone (by improving neurological efficiency) and increase fast-twitch fiber recruitment.
Stuff like loaded carries will even increase muscle mass while shredding body fat and improving insulin sensitivity.
Not only that, but you will also maintain and even improve your athleticism while getting lean. Compare that to dieting bodybuilders or figure athletes who often move and feel like zombies at some points in their prep.
#2. Focus On Intensiveness Not Volume In Your Training
The more restrictive your diet is (greater caloric deficit, lower carbs) the less volume you should use in your lifting plan. Most people do the opposite because they either want to use their lifting workout to burn more fat or are so afraid of losing muscle that they do endless sets to try to hold on to their gainz.
In reality it is the excessive volume that is most likely to cause muscle loss when dieting down. When you are reducing calories and carbs several anabolic/muscle-building substances go down (IGF-1, insulin, mTOR) while catabolic/muscle-breakdown ones go up (cortisol, adrenaline, myostatin). Your immune system will also down-regulate: it’s the immune system that drives muscle repair and growth.
Simply put, you can’t recover from as much lifting volume.
A better approach is to train harder but less. Push your sets harder, use more demanding methods, but keep the volume low and the workouts short.
#3. Vary Your Training Stimulus
The more efficient you are at something, the less energy you burn doing it (and the more you need to do to maximize fat loss). That’s why I like to use many different types of work when trying to get shredded.
I will use stuff like:
*Long sandbag carries (30-45 minutes)
*Rucking (45-60 minutes)
*Long sled drags (20-30 minutes)
*Long farmer walks (20-30 minutes)
*Shorter and heavier versions of the above
*Heavy bag (boxing) work
And I don’t do all of them every week, I actually don’t want them to be too structured. When you want to maximize performance, you want to become as efficient as possible in a few activities. But for body composition, staying inefficient (while still having good mechanics) can be very helpful.
#4. Keep Sodium High
Feeling like your muscles are flat and having a harder time getting a pump is disheartening when trying to get lean.
We think that it’s because of the lowered carbs decreasing muscle glycogen, which does play a big role.
But another reason behind flat muscles is a sodium intake that is too low. When we diet down, we automatically cut out a lot of high-sodium foods and it’s not unusual to decrease our sodium intake by 50% or more. Heck, some even do it on purpose to try to hold less water (hint: the body adapts after a few days and it loses its effect).
Sodium plays a big role in perceived muscle fullness, vascularity and the strength of your muscle contractions. In fact the “secret” element in most “pre-workout” pump formulas is sodium, and tons of it. Nothing gives you a bigger pump than plenty of sodium.
By keeping it high when dieting, you will dramatically decrease that small and flat muscles feeling that can wreak havoc on your motivation. It will also help you maintain your strength.
#5. Keep Carbs After Your Lifting Workouts
The lifting sessions when dieting down should almost be seen as belonging to a different universe.
While what you do for most of the day should be geared toward fat loss, what you do around your training session should be geared towards muscle growth.
Tons of dieters will cut out carbs from their post-workout period to maximize fat loss. This is a big mistake as it will both keep the cortisol elevation from your workout last longer (making it harder to build muscle and more likely that you will lose some) and reduce anabolic substances/signaling, impairing muscle growth. Not to mention that if you keep carbs in after your workout, you are much less likely to get that disgusting deflated muscle feeling by replenishing muscle glycogen.
I personally have 50-75g of carbs after my lifting sessions. I can even bump it up to 100-125g if I’m feeling more flat than usual.
#6. Workout Earlier In The Day
When you are dieting down, there is a good chance that your sleep could start to be affected after a few weeks. This is because calorie restriction leads to a higher cortisol level throughout the day (especially if carbs are low) because one of cortisol’s functions is to mobilize stored energy when you need it and to elevate blood sugar level when it’s too low.
Cortisol elevation leads to an increase in adrenaline (cortisol increases the conversion of nor-adrenaline into adrenaline) and adrenaline amps the brain up. If your brain is amped up at night, it’s harder to shut it down and fall (and stay) asleep.
Training will further elevate cortisol and adrenaline. If you train in the evening, you will make it even harder to shut your brain down and fall asleep.
While this might not always be a problem when you are “well fed” (especially if you have carbs in the evening), when dieting down it can become problematic to your sleep. Which will obviously have a cascade of negative effects on your attempt to get lean as well as your quality of life.
#7. Magnesium And Glycine Can Help You
These are two of my favorite (and dirt cheap) supplements, especially when dieting down or if you are in a high-stress period.
Magnesium can “dislodge” the adrenaline molecule from the beta-adrenergic receptors. This can help you calm down and relax. While there are tons of different magnesium products, magnesium is magnesium. The main difference is the molecule they attach to the magnesium (e.g. magnesium taurate is magnesium + taurine, magnesium aspartate is magnesium + aspartic acid, etc.) and these molecules themselves can have physiological effects.
To relax I like magnesium taurate or magnesium theronate. Magnesium glycinate is also good, but since I recommend using glycine by itself I prefer a different type of magnesium.
Glycine is a cool amino acid with many interesting properties. First, it is a strong mTOR activator. Activating mTOR increases protein synthesis which can help with muscle building.
It is also a neurological inhibitor. Essentially it does the opposite of adrenaline, it calms the brain down and helps you relax.
It can also increase serotonin which tends to go down when dieting (especially with low carbs).
I recommend using magnesium and glycine when you need to calm your brain down: after your workout and in the evening.
I like to use 500mg of magnesium and 3-10g of glycine.
#8. Include Deloads
You know, when dieting down the same rules that apply to training normally still apply. The value of a deload week (lowering volume or intensity) every 4-6 weeks is effective at preventing training burnout and maximising performance.
We get it when training to get big and strong. But most throw that out the window when dieting down for fear of “losing a week of fat loss”.
Dude, you need a deload even more when dieting down!
Your capacity to recover is lower.
You are more likely to get injured due to less passive joint stability.
You produce more cortisol, leading to more adrenaline, making it more likely that you will suffer from a training burnout (downregulation of the beta-adrenergic receptors due to too much adrenaline).
Your sleep is negatively affected.
A deload week, by lowering cortisol and allowing you to keep training harder for longer, is actually more likely to help you lose more fat rather than limit your progress.
#9. Do Not Lower Protein Intake
As long as you are training hard (and not excessively) and eating plenty of protein, you are not likely to lose any muscle until you reach a true sub-10% body fat.
But it is also true that as your plan progresses you will have to lower your calorie intake to keep progressing.
If you do that simply by “eating less food” you are likely going to lower protein intake too. This is a recipe for disaster. If anything, protein intake should increase slightly as you reduce overall caloric intake. But at the very least it should be maintained. Lowering it will facilitate muscle loss.
When you need to lower your caloric intake, make sure that it comes from fats or carbs, not protein.
#10. Trust The Process
Nothing like finishing a list of tricks with an underwhelming generalization and overused mantra!
But it’s true nonetheless.
The absolute worst thing to do when dieting down is making emotional decisions based on how you feel or look on a single day, or because you are not ripped yet after 2 weeks!
Listen, body weight can fluctuate by a few pounds daily depending on water retention, food content in your stomach or for a bunch of other reasons. Don’t panic if your weight goes up by a couple of pounds. Panicking will make you cut calories way too much or do too much activity and it will backfire.
Or, on the other end of the spectrum, you could feel super small and deflated one day. If you freak out about losing muscle and binge eat to fill out, you could make things a lot harder for yourself.
Put your head down and the blinders on and just do your job. Good things will happen.