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Is Thib Getting Small…? And The Three Main Reasons Why People Fail At Getting Lean

Articles / 08 August, 2017 /

By Christian Thibaudeau

Thib

After my most recent Thib army videos, some people were asking if I’m getting smaller.

Short answer: YES!

“Does Thib have cancer?” “Have his kidneys failed?” “I knew he was on tons of steroids and now that he stopped he is shrinking!”

Seriously though, I’m getting smaller because I’m dieting down for a photoshoot. The truth is that I’m in the best shape of my life. At the moment, I’m just as lean as when I competed in bodybuilding (leaner than at some competitions in fact). I’m a bit lighter, yes. But I’m still 198lbs. Might not seem huge, but on 5’8” and around 6% body fat that is actually quite a bit of muscle.

I do look small in my videos because truthfully, I am! I’ve never been a “big guy”. I’m an illusion guy. I have a small head, narrow clavicle, small joints, round muscle belies and short limbs. So, when you see pics of me in a tank top, and pumped up I literally look twice as big as when I’m wearing clothes. Especially if those clothes are the same baggy shorts and hoodie that I wore when I was 30lbs heavier!

But I am not writing this article to justify my size. I’m here to teach you about the main reasons why guys fail on their quest to become super lean (girls fail for different reasons, normally). And me looking smaller in clothes is the perfect illustration of many of these reasons.

REASON FOR FAILING TO GET SUPER LEAN NO.1 – UNDERESTIMATING HOW MUCH WEIGHT YOU NEED TO LOSE

“Yeah, I have about 15lbs to lose to be near-contest shape”

No, you don’t.

See, most people grossly underestimate how much fat they need to lose to get in truly excellent shape.  There are several reasons for this

1-  They guesstimate their body fat level. This is what pretty much everybody does. “I’m 200lbs and about 15-16% body fat”. Well unless you have had yourself measured several times you can’t really know what 15, 10, 20 or 5% looks like on you. And let’s face it, most of us don’t have an objective view of ourselves anyway. Well let me tell you this: In my 20 years of working as a coach, I’ve rarely seen someone be close to his real bodyfat percentage when they “guesstimate” it. Most are AT LEAST 5% higher than what they think they are.

Heck, few people know what a real 10% looks like (at a true 10% most people will have good abdominal definition for example), so how can they know if they are 12, 15 or 20%? They can’t.

Underestimating how much bodyfat you carry by 5%+ could make a difference of 10-20lbs (I’ll explain why in a moment) in how much weight you really need to lose to get in great shape.

2-  They only think in terms of fat mass to lose. Let’s say that they do get their bodyfat accurately measured. I’m talking DEXA, not calipers. Most caliper tests also severely underestimate bodyfat percentage (I was once measured at 4.1% and had at least 10-15lbs to lose to be in awesome shape). They will calculate how much fat mass they need to lose to get to their desired degree of leanness.

Let’s say that someone is 200lbs at 13% bodyfat. And their goal is to get down to 8%. Simple math would tell them that they need to lose 5% bodyfat, or 10lbs. So, in their mind if they get down to 190 they will be 8% and ripped.

When they get down to 190 they find that they don’t look great at all. Why? Because when you lose weight you lose more than just the fat beneath your skin (the one that is measured). You do lose glycogen and a lot of water (water from fat stores, water from inside the muscles, water held subcutaneously) as well as intramuscular triglyceride (fat marbling your muscles). It is my experience from working with hundreds of people that for each pound of fat you lose, you will lose 0.5lbs of water. And that is not counting the initial 2-3lbs initial drop in weight from the lowered glycogen stores that happens when you start a fat loss diet.

In reality, our 200lbs guy would likely need to lose closer to 18 or even 20lbs to get down to 8%, maybe more.

Now can you imagine if someone does both mistakes? He underestimates his bodyfat percentage by 5% and does not consider the initial glycogen/water drop and the water loss that goes along with the fat loss? Our guy might think that he needs to lose 10lbs to get in great shape whereas he will really need to lose 25 or even 30lbs!

Sounds excessive? Let me give you four examples:

First example: About 12 years ago, a young guy came to me wanting to do his first bodybuilding competition. The guy was around 220lbs and solid, but not lean. The kind of thick physique you see a lot in gyms, a combination of fat and muscle. He told me that he wanted to compete as a heavyweight or at the top of the light heavyweight class (so around 195-205lbs). I looked at him and told him “to be in true contest shape you will need to drop down to around 176lbs”. Of course, he didn’t believe me. Well, a few months later at his contest he was … 177lbs and he won the overall at the show, beating bigger men. The guy looked okay when he started, you wouldn’t have called him fat. But he still had to lose around 40lbs to look great. In all fairness, had he lost only 25-30lbs he would have had a very good “beach body” (not competition body), and that’s still a lot more than he thought he needed to lose.

Second example: An IFBB pro I worked with is 235-240 in the off-season. At that weight, he has solid abdominals, so he is not out of shape by any means. He last competed at a bodyweight of 205lbs. So even with abs and some vascularity, he still needed to lose 30-35lbs to be ripped, and that 30-35lbs has always been his dieting mark. When he competed in lighter weight classes, he had about the same amount of weight to lose before a contest, despite being in good “gym shape”. When he competed at 187 he would go up to 220-222lbs, when he competed at 176 he would go up to 210-215lbs.

Third example: When I started my current diet for my photoshoot I was 221lbs. And that wasn’t a sloppy 221. I had decent abdominals, a bit blurry but you could see all of them. I also had good arm vascularity. At the moment I’m writing this article, I’m 196-198lbs and I estimate that I will be 192 for the shoot and it will be my best condition ever. That will represent a weight loss of close to 30lbs to be in great shape. At my last photoshoot (the black and white pics from my website) I was 202lbs. I’m much leaner this time around and have a better upper body.

Fourth example: My friend Stephane Aube, a great coach himself, is also doing the photoshoot with me. Stephane started his diet at 254lbs (he is 6’2”) and while it wasn’t his leanest ever he still had arm vascularity and visible abs. Well two weeks out of the shoot he is 229lbs and likely will be 225lbs at the photoshoot. Again, we are talking about a 30lbs weight loss… starting from a decent condition.

In these four examples if we started out thinking “I need to lose 10-15lbs to be in great shape” there is no way we would have gotten to the degree of leanness we needed to be.

I understand that not everybody wants to be in contest/photoshoot shape. But going from “not in great shape” to “well defined” likely requires the same loss as for us going from “well defined” to “ripped”.

The moral of the story is that you will have to lose a lot more weight than you think to get to the kind of leanness you are shooting for. Starting with a preconceived weight to reach will likely prevent you from reaching your goal, unless you are a seasoned competitive bodybuilder and know your body.

What happens is that most guys play the numbers game. They can “accept” going from 205 “bulky” to 190 “lean”. But when they reach 190 and they aren’t lean and realise that they will need to drop down to 175-180 to be remotely close to being lean they freak out. They don’t want to be “small”.

More on that in the next reason for failure.

REASON FOR FAILING TO GET SUPER LEAN NO.2 – FEAR OF LOSING MUSCLE MASS

This second reason is somewhat connected to the first one. When you diet down to low body fat levels you will feel (and look) smaller. Your clothes fit looser, for a while it’s harder to get a pump and your muscles feel deflated, people might even ask you if you stopped training!

And if you are starting from a fairly high bodyfat level (which is often the case since most people underestimate their bodyfat percentage) there will be a “zone” where you feel smaller and deflated without looking leaner and more muscular. I call this the “body composition dead zone”.

See, from about 13 to 19% you look pretty much the same when it comes to definition. You are not lean enough to look defined but not fat enough to look out of shape. If you are starting your diet at around 20% (which is where most people who think they are 14-15% really are) you can diet down for 6-8 weeks without looking better in the muscularity/definition department.

Not surprisingly this is where most guys stop dieting and go back on trying to build muscle.

What happens is that they might lose 8-12lbs, they feel and look small, strength is down a bit on the compound movements (normally not on isolation exercises) and they don’t yet look good.

What goes on their mind at that point? “I’m losing muscle!!!”.

And what do they do when they think they are losing muscle? “Screw this diet thing, I’m gonna bulk to build some mass”

Let me be clear: unless you are being totally stupid with your diet (cutting calories too much too fast), training (doing too much volume, stopping trying to get stronger) and cardio (doing too much of it too soon) the risk of losing muscle is low until you get below a TRUE 10% bodyfat.

If you keep training hard, trying to get stronger or at least maintain your strength, that your protein intake is high enough and that you aren’t overdoing it volume-wise, you will not lose muscle.

Can you feel flat and small? Sure! But it’s because your intramuscular glycogen stores and intramuscular triglyceride levels are lower and you are retaining less water inside your muscles (hint increase sodium and water intake, it will help significantly), it’s not muscle loss.

Can you look smaller? Of course! You are losing bodyfat, glycogen, water and intramuscular triglycerides. All of which “take space”. If you lower them then you obviously “take up less space” and you look smaller. And until you are lean enough to see muscle definition it is easy to think that you are losing muscle. Once you get lean enough to have good definition you start to look bigger.

“Yeah but my strength on the big lifts is down, doesn’t that mean that I’m losing muscle?”

Not necessarily! This often happens and you will notice that normally your strength on isolation exercises do not go down. You will also find that the upper body pressing exercises (bench press, incline press, shoulder press) are the most affected, squats are second and pulling movements normally are not affected.

The reason for the strength loss is simply the drop in water retention and lowered glycogen storage. Water retention makes you stronger. That’s why a lot of powerlifters “bloat up” for a competition. The water cushions the joints, the body feels more “protected” and allows you to use a greater percentage of your muscle strength. On the other hand, if water retention decreases the opposite happen: the joints are less stable and the body protects itself by not allowing you to produce maximum force. Since isolation exercises are not a great injury risk, strength is not affected as much.

And intramuscular pressure due to an increase in glycogen, water and triglyceride improves your leverage, making a muscle capable of lifting greater loads without having more tissue. So, if these elements go down (they do when you are dieting down), your capacity to display strength will go down but that doesn’t mean that you are losing muscle.

Now, there is a risk of losing muscle. But that risk is low until you reach a real 10%. Prior to that the body has enough reserves to feel safe. Of course, if you train like a pussy (or don’t lift at all), cut calories way too much and do way too much cardio there is a risk. But you will have noticeable “side effects” way before there is actual muscle loss. What kind of side effect exactly? You will be lethargic, have problems focusing, will feel cold all the time and start to have BAD cravings. These will appear a week or two before you can start to lose muscle.

That fear of muscle loss is one of the main reason why people don’t reach their goal: they give up before they get to the stage where they are lean enough to see results.

And it goes hand in hand with the first reason. If you believe that you only have 15lbs to lose to be ripped, and after losing 15lbs you don’t look much better and feel smaller it is easy to believe that a lot of that 15lbs lost was muscle, where it’s just that you grossly underestimated how much weight you needed to lose.

I’ll just finish up by mentioning a personal story. From the age of 18 up to around 23 I was the typical “bulky” lifter that you see in most gyms. I was a mix of some acceptable muscle mass and a moderate bodyfat level.

I tried many times to get lean but every time I approached the 5-6 weeks mark I would feel small, my big lifts would go down a bit and I wouldn’t look any better. I thought I was losing muscle and went back to an hypercaloric diet. As a result, I believed that I didn’t have the genetics to be lean.

It’s only when I decided to try to qualify for the University World Championships in weightlifting that I could go all the way with my diet.

What happened is that I was around 220lbs, so competing in the 105kg class. In that class, I was not strong enough to qualify. Even in the next lowest class (94kg) it would have been hard since two other guys where stronger than I was. My only (slim) hope was going down to the 85kg class (187lbs) while getting just a little bit stronger.  If I didn’t drop down to 85kg I had no shot whatsoever.

So, I went on a low carbs diet and pulled a sled daily. Yes, at one point I felt small and my lifts went down a little bit. But I kept powering through because I had no choice but to drop down to 85kg.

In the end, I weighed in at 182lbs…. down 38lbs and I had abs for the first time in my life. As for the competition, my snatch went okay, equalling my previous best in competition but I blacked out in the clean & jerk (I assume from low blood pressure due to the weight drop and having the bar directly on my windpipe), so I couldn’t qualify.

But the point of the story is that I had a goal strong enough to bypass the perception of muscle and strength loss. And when everything was said and done all my big lifts remained pretty much the same so I didn’t lose much, if any muscle, mostly because I kept trying to stay strong.

REASON FOR FAILING TO GET SUPER LEAN NO.3 – INAPPROPRIATE REFEEDS AND CHEATS 

“Refeeds” and “cheats” are popular among those who want to get leaner. But here’s the thing: most people use them WAY before they really need them and when you do that you WILL slow down your fat loss efforts.

NOBODY needs a refeed or cheat the first or second week they go on a fat loss diet. EXTREMELY FEW need a refeed after only three weeks of dieting. The only ones who do are those who start their diet already lean (10-11%) to get into shredded condition.

Most “average” lifters (15-20% bodyfat) should not need a refeed before 4-5 weeks of serious dieting. And “fatter” individuals should likely wait for longer than that.

Here’s what I believe to be true:

There is no physiological reason to get a weekly refeed (increasing calories through clean carbs) before you are down to at least a TRUE 11-12% bodyfat AND have been dieting for at least 3-4 weeks (both conditions must be met). You might need one meal with higher carbs per week if you are using a low carbs diet, but not a true refeed.

There is no acceptable reason to get a “cheat” (increasing calories through crappy/pleasure foods) until you are below a TRUE 10% bodyfat, have been dieting for at least 5-6 weeks and are depleted. All three conditions must be met.

Can you refeed or cheat before that? Sure, but it will only make things more difficult and longer. There is no need for a refeed (much less a cheat) until there is a physiological reason to do so, which is to prevent leptin from going down.

Getting a refeed or a cheat to “reward yourself” of your weekly efforts is not acceptable and will only reinforce bad habits and a bad psychological relationship with food.

Getting a refeed or cheat to have a relief from dieting is also not acceptable… it can mean that you either are not in the right mindset for the long-term effort required for success or that you cut calories too much to start with.

A lot of people will argue against what I just wrote. And they can probably come up with some science to back up their point. It’s just that people want a good reason to have cheats. There aren’t any except for when you are at a low body fat and depleted. If we needed a weekly cheat or refeed to function the human race would not have survived past the paleo era.

“I need my weekly cheat if I’m going to stick to the diet!”.

No, you don’t. And if you do it’s likely that you are not in the right mindset at the moment. Your desire to get lean or ripped is lower than your desire for pleasure food. And it doesn’t make you a bad person! I myself am not in that mindset year-round. But not being in the right mindset to start with is one of the main reason, if not THE main reason for failure to reach your body composition goal.

Listen: dieting down to low body fat levels should not be comfortable or fun. Once you are in the zone it gets easier because you are 100% focused on your goal, but you will be hungry, you will get cravings, you will fee flat… you will have 1 000 000 reasons to convince yourself that you “need” a cheat. Trust me, few really do. At one point, you need to accept that getting really lean is hard! If it weren’t you would see tons of guys in the gym being ripped, but you don’t. While pretty much everybody can become lean (of course if you are 200lbs overweight it can be the work of a lifetime) VERY FEW have what it takes mentally to get there. And the deeper you are in the process, the more easily you will justify going of course. Those who succeed accept the suffering and privation and understand that it’s part of the process.

As Coach Poliquin would say: “You must earn your carbs/cheat”. If you must include them from the start I’m darn sure that you will not reach your goal.

— CT

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 15 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…