Most people understand the big picture physique transformation process we recommend on a theoretical level:
1. Use primarily diet to create the calorie deficit necessary to drop body fat
2. Dedicate your formal exercise sessions (2-3 per week) to strength training in order to build lean muscle and shape, tighten, and tone the body;
3. Don’t overdo cardio activity, but walk more as part of your normal day to offset the seated computer posture, for general cardiovascular health, for stress and anxiety relief/mental health, and to increase NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). That’s basically a time efficient and low stress way (both on the joints, and systemically) of slightly increasing caloric expenditure and supporting the fat loss process.
People get excited about this approach from an application and execution standpoint as well. They see it as a process that can be practical and sustainable despite the many challenges, stress points, and time constraints of modern life.
Where people lose all rationality and sanity is when it comes to the emotional aspects of the physique transformation game. They lose patience and perspective, think short-term/quick fix, and will do all kinds of crazy stuff to try to speed up physiological processes that ultimately and unfortunately take some time, consistency, and discipline in order to play out.
This is why you see a lot of beginners start chasing magic pills, quick fixes, biohacks, and emotionally following marketing material and overly optimistic theory vs. objectively applying real evidence and experience. Most of the time this just leads to misplaced energy and effort.
This is also where you see intermediate and even advanced athletes start gravitating towards extreme approaches – cardio twice a day and other forms of overtraining; juice detoxes, no carbs, and other extreme dietary approaches.
It seems that when irrational emotion takes over, the physique transformation approach becomes a much different three-part process then the one we recommend:
1. See just how much I can over-train, beat the shit out of myself, and suffer.
2. See just how much I can starve myself and suffer. And when you combine those two together…
3. See just how bad I can screw up my natural metabolic, hormonal, psychological, and joint health profile.
What they can’t see, especially if they are getting initial results (and are reading a lot of “hardcore” fitness magazines/Instagram profiles along the way), is that this approach is completely unsustainable for most, is damaging to the body, and is setting itself up for huge weight rebounds, where people end up fatter than when they started the process in the first place.
The problem is that I’ve been in this game long enough to know that when irrational emotion takes over someone’s physique transformation perspective, it is like that movie Inception. Once an idea is set in place, no matter how crazy it is, it is almost impossible to extract. It grows like a virus and sets up all kinds of defense mechanisms surrounding it.
I don’t say any of this with a judgmental or condescending tone. I say it with more of a, “what the hell was I thinking” sentiment, because I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve been lost in that obsessed state where you start to believe that the laws of physics (and in our case physiology) can be broken.
Advanced athletes are not immune to the deceptive nature of emotions. In fact, I’d say they are more susceptible to it because they are so focused and passionate about their goals. If some is good, then more is either better or works faster. And although that mindset works in many fields, it can be downright dangerous in the physique game.
You see, it usually only takes the beginner a few weeks to see approaches on the extreme end of the diet and training spectrum are not going to work as a long-term lifestyle plan. They can step back, take a break, and start to think more rationally, analytically, and strategically.
But many advanced athletes lose good judgment, and will keep pushing through despite the many warning signs and side effects, often times indefinitely. And again, it’s because they are acting emotionally, not analytically and strategically.
The only way to have any shot at breaking through those barriers, bringing you back to physique transformation reality, and helping you find and apply a more efficient plan, is to keep diving down deeper into the technical layers of both the processes we DO and DO NOT recommend. What is illusion and what is reality? The only way to find out is to keep going further (in your educational process).
We need to go from the “big picture layer” down into some of the more technical aspects. Please bear with me. This can be boring for some. But only by starting to understand how the body’s physiology responds to different exercise and dieting approaches, is there any shot that something might click, and you might see both the error of past misguided approaches, and perhaps the validity of a more efficient way.
That’s what happened for me.
And here’s a second truth from personal experience. You might not get it today. You might not get it tomorrow. Sometimes when emotions are running high, the eyes and the mind can’t truly see anything. The illusions and projections are too strong to overcome. You can get lost in Limbo for a while (alright, I’ll stop with the Inception references now).
But that’s the beauty of written content. You can return back to it when the time is right. Perhaps there comes a point where a current protocol has run its course, or you are frustrated with a lack of progress and results, and you are open and ready to learn and try something different. Instead of having to fight through your defense mechanisms with machine guns, they just naturally start fading away.
I’d rather take the easiest route to results possible.
The 4 Main Fitness Approaches
Let’s start at the big picture layer for a brief second before digging down deeper.
There are only four ways you can change your current state of fitness, and in our specific case, your body composition and the cosmetic appearance of your physique.
I’m sure many experts have spoken about these processes in a multitude of ways, but my personal, proper acknowledgment needs to go to Jade Teta. He is the first person that I heard formally classify these four approaches, and discuss the potential benefits and drawbacks of each:
1. Eat More, Exercise Less
2. Eat Less, Exercise More
3. Eat Less, Exercise Less
4. Eat More, Exercise More
The overall approach that we recommend – diet for fat loss, strength train to build lean muscle, increase informal activity BUT don’t overdo traditional cardio — would fall under category #3, at least in relation to what you normally see in the physique-focused fitness industry.
It actually could be classified as an Eat Less, Exercise Less, but Move More (as part of your everyday habits) approach. To me, this is the most practical, time efficient, and sustainable way to approach the physique transformation process.
But we’re going to talk about all four approaches in this article to give you a better idea of why I believe #3 is the superior and most sustainable path to a physique transformation victory for most, especially busy working professionals. That’s who I’m talking to, and as I’ve said many times before, I’m NOT talking to the dude living in a van down by the gym jerking off to fitness social media posts.
1. The Modern Norm = Eat More, Exercise Less
This is the average person’s lifestyle in today’s modern environment of unlimited access to hyperpalatable, processed foods combined with Information Age, computer-based desk jobs.
We just eat more and exercise less then generations past. Whether you look at it from a qualitative or quantitative perspective (with average calorie intake and exercise stats), that’s just the cold, hard, belly fattening facts.
This combination is the root cause of many of our modern health problems, which have been referred to as diseases of the developed nations, or afflictions of the affluent = obesity, diabetes, chronic inflammation, man boobs & muffin tops, etc.
2A. General Public Health Advice = Eat Less, Exercise More
So, on the surface level, for most sedentary and overweight beginner demographics, the advice to Eat Less and Exercise More for fat loss is spot on.
Starting any sort of a regular exercise program covers the “exercise more” part of that equation. At this stage, personal preferences should dictate decisions. Why? Adherence is more important than precision at this point.
So traditional gym training, recreational sports, group workouts, exercise classes, cardio-centric sessions, yoga, hiking and other outdoor activities, hell even going Balls of Fury on a ping pong table, etc., the possibilities are endless. I say do whatever works, whatever you somewhat enjoy, and whatever you’ll actually stick to.
I still have to mention my bias from personal experience, and why I think our overall approach is a good starting point for most, including beginners. I’ve found that a high percentage of people (even those coming from non-athletic backgrounds) enjoy traditional strength training/physique-style training combined with outdoor walking a hell of a lot more than getting their ass kicked in a boot camp or cross-training class.
Improvements in food quality (various food template approaches = Paleo, Mediterranean Diet and other cultural diets, whole foods emphasis, etc.) and/or food quantity (various numbers-based approaches = calorie counting, points systems/portion control, macronutrient tracking, etc.) can cover the “eat less” part of that equation.
If you are a newbie and need help with kickstarting some of those processes, you can check out my free video course here: The Fundamentals of Fat Loss & Physique Transformation
With some degree of consistency with the Eat Less, Exercise More approach, dramatic improvements in health and body composition can be made.
2B. The Fitness Freaks = Eat Less, Exercise More to the Extremes
Intermediate and advanced athletes often take a more regimented, structured, quantitative, and intense approach to eating less and exercising more in order to reach higher-level physique goals.
When they hit a plateau, the natural response is to just eat less (cut calories and carbs) and/or exercise more (add days and hours of formal exercise).
Now this can work well in the short-term. And some do reach their ultimate goal and get into tremendous shape with this linear and pure mathematical approach to the physique transformation process.
The truth, however, is that outside of a few outliers, there comes a point of diminishing returns with everything.
Excessive exercise plus aggressive calorie deficits is not a practical, sustainable, long-term lifestyle plan for most. When the mind breaks and you binge, or the body breaks and you are forced to back off from the exercise, your body composition can dramatically rebound in the wrong direction.
Many end up in a yo-yo cycle where they lose fat when they’re on, and put it back on when they’re off. And that’s the best-case scenario.
The longer and deeper you dive into this combination, the more your body’s physiological, metabolic, and hormonal systems can negatively react to the extreme dieting and overtraining process.
Your goal may be single digit body fat and a 6-pack, but evolution and biology’s goal is survival. The net result of that epic clash is evolution always wins, and you end up frustrated that despite your extreme efforts and approach, you fail to reach your elite physique goal.
Metabolism slows down, water retention and/or stubborn fat abounds, energy hits the ground, your frustrated mind goes round and round. You end up softer then you expect, and are potentially breaking your mind and body along the way.
Not only will it compensate with changes in hunger, cravings and other sensations but it will slow it’s metabolic rate down. Again this metabolic decline varies from person to person and we are still working out how the decline happens, but it happens none-the-less.
This slowed metabolic output aspect of compensation is known in exercise research as “adaptive thermogenesis.” In short, this means through various mechanisms not fully understood, the metabolism will reduce its rate of calorie burn significantly. Some research suggests up to a 25% decline in daily energy expenditure.
These changes seem to be coming from a combination of loss of muscle mass, changes in leptin/thyroid output and a spontaneous decreases in non-exercise associated movement (known in exercise research as NEAT). – Jade Teta
Reductions in BMR Due to Dieting
In response to weight loss, the body’s daily caloric expenditure can decrease due to several physiological factors. Some of this is perfectly natural and should be expected.
Other compensations, especially as we progress down the chain of severity, should be avoided, or at least only flirted with from time to time with extreme caution (photo shoot or physique event).
1. Thermic Effect of Food
These are the calories burned off or “wasted” in the digestion, absorption, and assimilation processes.
If you cut calories and eat less food, you burn off less. But this number is not huge, and has a relatively minor effect on your overall metabolic rate.
The thermic effect of food is estimated at 10%. So if you cut calories by 500, then you are burning off roughly 50 calories a day less due to the thermic effect of food.
And it is actually even less if you follow our diet recommendations = always keep protein at optimal levels for gaining/maintaining lean muscle mass. Adjust calories up and down via the energy nutrients = carbohydrates and fats.
This is because the thermic effect of food is actually different for each macronutrient, protein having the most dramatic impact:
Fats = 2-3%
So if you keep protein at optimal levels to maintain muscle, and reduce calories via fats and carbs, the thermic effect of food reductions are only 2-6%. So that 50 calorie a day reduction from cutting 500 calories now becomes only 10-30 calories.
2. Thermic Effect of Exercise
It takes less calories to move around a lighter body. But if you are keeping your exercise program the same throughout the process, these reductions are not large enough to make a meaningful impact on your daily energy expenditure.
And regardless, with our overall approach, when we are working out, the goal is never to burn calories. It is always to use our formal exercise sessions to build lean muscle and shape the body (via strength training). We then want to burn more calories/fat during the other 23 hours of the day.
The only way to counter these first two reductions in BMR would be to NOT reduce calories, and to NOT lose weight. This is obviously not an option because that is the whole point of what we are trying to accomplish in the first place. The body fat has got to go bro.
NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
Levine, et al. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2002 Dec;16(4):679-702.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting. Even trivial physical activities increase metabolic rate substantially and it is the cumulative impact of a multitude of exothermic actions that culminate in an individual’s daily NEAT. It is, therefore, not surprising that NEAT explains a vast majority of an individual’s non-resting energy needs. Epidemiological studies highlight the importance of culture in promoting and quashing NEAT. Agricultural and manual workers have high NEAT, whereas wealth and industrialization appear to decrease NEAT. Physiological studies demonstrate, intriguingly, that NEAT is modulated with changes in energy balance; NEAT increases with overfeeding and decreases with underfeeding. Thus, NEAT could be a critical component in how we maintain our body weight and/or develop obesity or lose weight.
Many experts believe that a reduction in NEAT is the primary component that reduces our BMR/daily energy expenditure in response to a structured fat loss program. In essence, the body can make subconscious adjustments in our non-formal activity levels in order to compensate for our increases in formal exercise, thus maintaining the body’s preferred state of homeostasis.
In less technical terms, when we increase our exercise, sometimes the body compensates by just moving around less throughout the rest of the day. In some cases, this reduction in informal activity can completely offset the calories burned during the added exercise sessions.
The only way to offset these reductions in NEAT is to make a conscious effort to move more throughout the day.
That doesn’t mean to add a bunch of formal exercise sessions with the goal of burning “more calories”. You’ll see in the next section that that can have negative physiological, metabolic, and hormonal drawbacks.
It simply means to informally move more just as part of your everyday habits.
That’s why I recommend walking more during targeted fat loss phases as the final piece of the process.
Step trackers/counters can help move this recommendation to a more conscious and controlled level.
4. Metabolic Compensation
But there is also evidence for what is called an adaptive component of metabolic rate reduction. Let me explain. Let’s say that someone loses twenty pounds and based on all of the math you’d expect a drop in metabolic rate of 10%. But when you measure it you actually see a reduction in 15%.
That is, the drop in metabolic rate is greater than what you’d predict based on the drop in bodyweight. That extra 5% is the adaptive component of metabolic rate reduction. And it’s hormonally driven, the drop in leptin, the drop in thyroid levels (conversion of T4 to T3 is impaired on a diet), there is a drop in sympathetic nervous system activity (part of why the ephedrine/caffeine stack helps, it offsets this drop), you get the idea.
The thing is that not every study has found this. Some do some don’t. A lot of it depends on starting body fat, the length of the diet, genetic individuality and all that stuff. But in dieting bodybuilders or fitness people, it is going to have an impact. But the preponderance of studies say that it does exist; I’d certainly expect it to occur in lean hard dieting physique athletes who is who we are concerned with (typically when it doesn’t show up is in studies of extremely overfat individuals whose hormones don’t really get mucked up until they have lost a lot of weight). – Lyle McDonald
Here’s where it gets a little tricky, and the advanced physique dieter needs to be more strategic.
There can be BMR reductions beyond what would normally be expected from weight loss due to reductions in bodyweight, TEF, TEE, and NEAT. This is what is called metabolic compensation or the adaptive component of metabolic rate reduction. What causes it?
First, understand that your body is a living, biological organism, not a machine. Again, its goal is to survive, not single digit body fat and a 6-pack for cosmetic reasons. It protects itself from the stupidity of our pea brains, or the irrationality of our emotions.
The net physiological effect is that the longer and more consistently you diet, the harder it becomes to continue getting consistent results, and the more likely it is that you will hit a plateau.
This is partially related to a hormone called leptin, which down-regulates during caloric restriction. Reduced leptin levels increase hunger and cravings while slowing the metabolic rate and reducing energy expenditure–not a good combo for slashing that last layer of stubborn body fat.
In addition, leptin is a master control hormone, meaning its levels can impact other hormones. During prolonged calorie deficits, the following can occur: testosterone, growth hormone, IGF-1, and thyroid levels can all drop.
Dubuc et al. Changes of serum leptin and endocrine and metabolic parameters after 7 days of energy restriction in men and women. Metabolism. 1998 Apr;47(4):429-34.
We conclude that there are significant differences between men and women in the responses of leptin (36% drop for men, 61% drop for women) and insulin to 7 days of energy restriction.
More and more data are emerging that leptin is not only important in the regulation of food intake and energy balance, but that it also has a function as a metabolic and neuroendocrine hormone…Leptin itself exerts effects on different endocrine axes, mainly on the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis and on insulin metabolism, but also on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, thyroid and GH axes. Leptin may thus be considered a new endocrine mediator, besides its obvious role in body weight regulation. — European Journal of Endocrinology
So falling leptin causes a host of things to occur: metabolic rate slows, hunger increases, you get lethargic, thyroid goes down, testosterone drops, and a whole bunch of other shit goes wrong. Pretty much everything bad that happens with dieting is controlled, to at least some degree by leptin levels especially at the level of the brain. – Lyle McDonald
As a consequence of metabolic compensation, many people will begin to push on the metabolism harder. They start doing even more cardio and cutting back on calories even more. In other words, they double down on the eat less, exercise more model of weight reduction.
This may work for a short time, but then the body quickly catches on and begins to protect itself further by slowing things down more. At this point the body is essentially putting on the emergency breaks. It does this as a natural protective mechanism against stress. It wants to regain its fat and muscle stores so it sets into motion hunger and cravings. It wants you to rest and recover so it saps your motivation, lowers your energy and makes you anxious and/or depressed.
This metabolic resistance can occur for people at any weight undergoing extreme exercise and diet, but it normally kicks in when body fat begins to fall under 20% for women and 10% for men. And the truth is most people will never even reach this state. For most the metabolism handles things just fine. – Jade Teta
The advice to Eat Less, Exercise More is good for a large percentage of our population.
However, for intermediate and advanced people with aggressive fat loss and elite physique goals, this advice may not be the greatest for you, especially as you progress deeper into the fat loss and physique transformation process.
Despite what the fitness magazines preach, there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to hardcore dieting and exercising. And at the extreme ends (which a lot of bodybuilders, physique enthusiasts, biohackers, and just general Type A personalitites gravitate to), it can actually become counterproductive.
A relative calorie deficit is the key to fat loss. No doubt or debate about that. However, the more advanced athlete, with aggressive fat loss goals, and consistently hitting the training and dieting hard needs to be aware of a couple of things:
1. The more fat you need to lose, the more aggressive you can be in the beginning. There is less potential for muscle loss and metabolic compensation. It might not be politically correct to say, but other than a few medical conditions, most normal bodies don’t want to be in an obese state. It is an extreme and unhealthy state. As a beginner starts the exercising and eating less process, the fat should come off without much disruption as the body seeks to settle into a healthier body weight.
2. To be fair, flipping to the other end of the Belle Curve, most bodies don’t want to be extremely ripped at 4% body fat either. This would have been disastrous for survival during harsher times in our evolutionary past. As we’ve already discussed, there are physiological, hormonal, and metabolic defense mechanisms set in place to prevent reaching elite physique goals for vanity’s insanity.
3. So the higher-level your physique goals get, the more precise, strategic, and customized you need to get. And the further you go into the physique transformation process, and the leaner you get (<15-20% women, <10-15% men), the more careful you need to be with the Eat Less, Exercise More approach.
At this point you need to strategically continue creating an average calorie deficit WITHOUT disrupting your natural hormonal and metabolic profile. There’s obviously a lot of science to this. But there is an art to it as well, as each person responds differently to the advanced physique dieting/training processes.
Many meatheads subscribe to the saying, “there is no such thing as overtraining, only undereating”. I guess that’s sort of true, and many gym rats will take an Eat More, Exercise More approach. It sounds unstructured and glutinous on the surface, but actually this demographic needs to be just as strategic and precise with their process if they want to properly fuel their training without getting too fat.
But there is overtraining in relation to undereating = not properly fueling and recovering from frequent and intense exercise sessions, pushing the calorie deficit too far for too long. That’s what we’re talking about here with pushing towards the extreme versions of Eat Less, Exercise More.
Overtraining is an established and defined physiological state. According to the NSCA overtraining syndrome is “Excessive FREQUENCY, volume, or intensity of training that results in extreme fatigue, illness, or injury which is often due to a lack of sufficient rest, recovery, and perhaps nutrient intake.”
Now whether you call it overtraining, or undereating, or taking the Eat Less, Exercise More approach too far to the extremes, the side effects and symptoms are real. What are some of the effects of this overtraining syndrome to look out for?
1. Psychological, emotional, and mood disturbances including increased irritability, anxiety, and even depression-like symptoms.
2. Sleep disturbances and insomnia.
3. Altered immune system functioning including increased rates and duration of illnesses and infections.
4. Reduced strength, anaerobic training performance, and work capacity.
5. Decreased desire to train/decreased joy from training — that is if you even like training to begin with.
6. Chronic fatigue, or at least energy dips and sluggishness even just during normal daily activities.
7. Intense hunger and cravings, making it much harder to stick to your diet program.
8. Drops in testosterone causing a reduction in libido, vigor, and well-being.
9. As we discussed in the last section, the beginning of metabolic compensation = lowered metabolic rate and altered hormonal patterns including a reduction in leptin and the anabolic, muscle building/fat burning hormones (testosterone, growth hormone, IGF-1, thyroid levels)
10. Abnormally high and/or chronically elevated cortisol levels.
Cortisol is a bit complicated, and it’s not all as bad as the wellness hippies would have you believe. Short-term rises in cortisol actually are a good thing for the athlete. It increases energy and focus, helps us burn body fat, and fuel our workouts.
Its chronically elevated cortisol levels that can be disastrous for the body. From a cosmetic perspective, chronically elevated cortisol (combined with the lowered testosterone and IGF-1 mentioned above) can cause muscle loss, and the appearance of a “softer” physique despite high levels of training and dieting.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels can also cause mild-to-severe water retention, which can actually mask the fat loss/improvements in body composition that are occurring during an aggressive diet and training phase, from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective.
From a quantitative perspective, you could be losing body fat, but water retention is keeping your scale weight the same. From a qualitative perspective, this water retention can blur definition.
Keep in mind we are talking about more advanced trainees with this phenomenon. Many beginning dieters with a lot of fat to lose will blame cortisol for their lack of progress, when in reality it is just a lack of consistency with their exercise or eating program (lack of an average calorie deficit).
But this chronically elevated cortisol predicament can happen with advanced physique peeps, especially as they get deeper into the physique transformation process.
At this point, many first-timers panic. They start cutting calories and adding cardio which further increases cortisol, making the situation worse.
Legendary researcher, writer, and physique educator Lyle McDonald does a phenomenal job of explaining what can occur:
As noted above, chronic elevations in cortisol can cause a lot of bad things to happen. One of them is simply water retention and I’ve mentioned in previous articles that water retention can mask fat loss, sometimes for extremely extended periods. I talked about this in some detail in The LTDFLE and suspect that some of the ‘fat loss’ is actually just water loss when calories are raised and cortisol mediated water retention dissipates. Reducing total training (volume, frequency, intensity or some combination) does the same thing. – Lyle McDonald
I mean, hell, a woman can easily shift 10 pounds of water weight across her menstrual cycle. That’s not uncommon in this kind of stress condition. Now add to that the fact that a typical female dieter if she’s lucky, might be getting 1 pound of true fat loss per week. If her stress (due to mental, diet and physical factors) is causing her to retain 10 pounds of water it will appear that her diet is not working for 10 full weeks. During which time she will lose her absolute shit.
What always works in these types of dieters is chilling the fuck out (weed would help too). Raising calories, lowering cardio, a good lay. There’s no metabolic magic, cortisol finally drops when you get them stop being crazy for a couple of days and they experience the magical whoosh (or the LTDFLE, check my site for details). Boom, weight drops by 5+ pounds overnight.
All water. Well mostly. But clearly they didn’t have a 5 pound deficit in one day. They just finally dropped the water they’d been holding….
So, for the most part I think that’s a lot of what’s going on the fat loss is just being masked by severe water retention. I say this simply because getting folks to rest a couple of days, raise calories (especially from carbs, the increase in insulin lowers cortisol levels) and “refeed” invariably causes that big weight drop/whoosh effect. It has to be water. – Lyle McDonald
Past Plateau I
How do you remedy this situation if you happen to fall into it?
Well, Lyle mentioned it above. You reduce training volume and intensity by de-loading or taking a few days off, and you eat more with something like a re-feed, calorie spike day, a few free meals, or a structured carbohydrate load.
This can be tough psychologically for the advanced athlete. On the one hand, it is completely counterintuitive = eat more and exercise less to continue losing body fat and moving closer towards your elite physique goal. Isn’t this Eat More, Exercise Less approach how most people gain weight and end up obese and diabetic?
Yes. But the advanced athlete who has just gone through a period of intense training and aggressive dieting is in a totally different physiological, metabolic, and hormonal state than the average, already overweight office worker.
And so if taking the Eat Less, Exercise More approach too far to the extreme is causing an over-trained state, metabolic compensation, and a plateau in your physique transformation progress, it makes perfect logical sense to flip the script and Eat More, Exercise Less (at least for a short period of time) to fix it.
The unfortunate truth is that as you progress deeper into the fat loss and physique transformation process and move closer to the lower body fat percentages and your genetic potential for leanness, you will always sort of be flirting with metabolic compensation. It is your body’s way of protecting itself.
That’s why with aggressive calorie deficits, especially the leaner you get:
1. The more I caution against overtraining/doing too much cardio (exercise less, but when you do, primarily focus on strength training in order to build lean muscle).
2. The more I recommend regularly scheduled re-feeds, free meals, calorie spike days, or structure carbohydrate loads (eat less on average for the week to facilitate the fat loss process, but occasionally eat more to re-stock glycogen reserves and for metabolic/hormonal benefits).
Periodic overfeeding–or a couple of days of calorie surpluses sprinkled in amongst days of calorie deficits–can offset some of the negative effects of chronic caloric restriction.
A day or two of re-feeding can boost leptin, testosterone, thyroid, and growth hormone to normal, pre-diet levels. It can re-sensitize the body to the fat loss process and help you break through a plateau.
Due to restocked glycogen stores, it can also ramp up lagging anaerobic performance, training intensity, and just general energy levels and enthusiasm that can slowly set in during prolonged calorie deficits.
Weigle, et al. Effect of fasting, refeeding, and dietary fat restriction on plasma leptin levels. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1997 Feb;82(2):561-5.
Despite a weight loss of only 2.6 +/- 0.8%, mean plasma leptin levels fell by 61.9 +/- 25.2% (8.5 +/- 4.5 to 2.4 +/- 0.5 ng/mL, P < 0.01) in 7 nonobese females subjected to 3 days of fasting. Leptin levels in fasted subjects returned to baseline within 12 h of refeeding.
CHO OF (carbohydrate overfeeding) increased plasma leptin concentrations by 28%, and 24 h EE by 7%. FAT OF (fat overfeeding) did not significantly change plasma leptin concentrations or energy expenditure. — International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders
That said, I’ve mentioned in previous articles that one oddity that I’ve seen (and personally experienced) over the years is one where the combination of very large caloric deficits and very large amounts of activity (especially higher-intensity activity) can cause problems for people either stalling or slowing fat loss…
acute pulses of cortisol tend to do good things and be adaptive and chronic elevations in cortisol tend to be bad and be maladaptive. For example, the morning cortisol pulse helps to promote fat mobilization. In contrast, a chronic elevation of cortisol (especially in the face of high insulin levels) tend to promote visceral fat accumulation…
In any case, dieting in general is a stress. And of course training is a stress. And the more extreme you do of each, the more of a stress occurs. And I suspect that a lot of what is going on when folks try to combine excessive caloric deficits with massive amounts of activity is that cortisol just goes through the roof (there’s another issue I’ll come back to at the end that relates to this). Simply, you get these massive chronic elevations in cortisol levels. Tangentially, this is also one reason I suspect that various types of cyclical dieting help with some of this issue. For at least brief periods, when calories are raised to maintenance or above, you break the diet/training induced elevations in cortisol…. – Lyle McDonald
In other words, when an over-trained state or metabolic compensation hits, the smart physique athlete will adjust strategically. They will use things like re-feeds, diet breaks, and training de-loads to combat metabolic compensation, and allow things to normalize. Taking a step back allows them to regroup, run through the wall, and take multiple steps forward to the next fat loss level.
Of course, the hardest part is to get OCD athletes and Type A people to actually do that. The more is better mentality has benefits in certain fields, but also psychological and emotional roadblocks in others.
And so the emotional dieter will often do the exact opposite of what will benefit them. They will beat their head up against a brick wall, double down, and go to even more extremes while already in a compensating and compromised state.
What happens to those who keep pushing forward regardless of mild symptoms?
All of those mild physiological, psychological, metabolic, and hormonal side effects can become much more severe.
1. Leptin levels fall further = uncontrollable cravings, even higher metabolic compensation/drops in metabolic rate. Thyroid drops = total sluggishness, severe drops in energy and met rate, hyper-sensitivity to cold temperatures. Testosterone drops = lowered libido to complete loss of it.
Over time, the hormonal and metabolic situation mentioned above can lead to a significant amount of lean muscle loss. This can lead to a softer appearance despite a reduced weight (skinny fat syndrome).
In addition, chronic cortisol elevation can cause a redistribution of body fat. So you might be burning it off in certain places (for example the limbs), and re-storing it in different places (around the midsection).
2. Psychological disturbances = severe anxiety, OCD, ADD, depression, and even suicidal tendencies. I’m not a mental health professional, but I will say you see a lot of severe anxiety and depression in the competitive fitness and biohacker fields. There’s probably at least some cases that are due to their extreme diets, not necessarily their natural disposition.
3. Due to disruptions in serotonin release = total insomnia and sleep disturbances.
4. Chronically elevated catecholamines and adrenal fatigue
The trick is to get the fat-burning, metabolism-boosting, hunger-regulating effects of the catecholamines, but do so in a way that doesn’t allow the body to adjust to a chronic, steady-state of elevated catecholamines. That’s the biggest mistake that people make in dieting, with low-carb dieting in particular.
Low-carb diets, for example, raise catecholamines really well, suppress your appetite, burn fat like crazy with no lean losses, and can make you feel tremendously amazing with great mental focus and energy. But people often get seduced by these great feelings, and with the panacea attributed to low-carb diets that’s given by low-carb and now Paleo authors and health educators, people do low-carb diets until they hit the plateau of all plateaus and feel like absolute crap – often with health problems like food allergies, horrendous athletic performance, insomnia, and digestive problems – not to mention an uncanny ability to gain weight at the end of that rainbow. This could all be called “negative metabolic adaptation” to anything that keeps catecholamines constantly elevated, which includes low-calorie diets with no reprieve or “re-feed,” low-carb diets without “carb cycling” (eating a big, high-carbohydrate meal once every 2-3 days), overexercising (particularly long-duration cardio without enough rest days), and so forth… – Matt Stone
Adrenaline is a neurotransmitter that is released during times of stress. It helps us cope with physical and emotional pain. Just like with insulin and leptin, our cells can become resistant to adrenaline. This is really bad if fat loss is your goal because adrenaline is responsible for releasing our stored fat into the bloodstream to be used as energy. Insulin, leptin, and adrenaline are key players to energy homeostasis. If there is resistance in one there is resistance in all three. This sets the stage to be very good at storing fat and very poor at releasing that stored fat. This is one way in which we can continue to cut calories and continue to gain weight…Exercise can both help and hurt us here. The right amount of physical activity can increase sensitivity to insulin in both the muscles and the liver. However, too much exercise can just piggyback on the same issues with leptin, insulin, and adrenaline. – Kevin Cann
Hopefully you are now getting a bit more clear on metabolic damage; what it is and what it is not. A good way to think about this argument is to analyze the history of two other terms, over-training and adrenal fatigue. These terms too were, and still are, in some circles controversial. Many people denied the existence of over-training for a long time. Many still take issue with the term adrenal fatigue.
If you were paying attention, you probably now could care less what it is called. Call it “functional disturbance X, Y, Z” for all I care. The point is that when the metabolism is stressed to the extreme, whether through athletic training (overtraining), physical stress/illness (adrenal fatigue), or chronic dieting and extreme exercising (metabolic compensation/resistance/damage), there are consequences to the body and physical signs and symptoms will manifest.
These dysfunctions may ultimately end up resulting in a diagnosed condition, but regardless if they do or not, the functional disturbances are present none the less. Denying them or pretending they don’t exist is silly and pointless, especially if our goal is to help people achieve optimal health, fitness, and weight loss. – Jade Teta
The real question is a 6-Pack really worth all of that?
This might not be something you want to hear but I’m going to lay it out with the best of intentions. If you can’t get into elite shape following moderate approaches with some consistency and discipline, then maybe being ripped just isn’t in the cards for you.
Or, if you have to follow some extreme approach that leads to a ton of physiological and psychological side effects that negatively impact your health, sanity, and happiness, is an elite physique really worth all of that? I can’t answer that question for you. Only you can.
Honestly, this is one of the main reasons why I stopped training competitive bodybuilders and physique athletes. For the most part, I’ve stopped training other trainers as well. I love training and I love being in shape, but I’ve always believed there are other things more important in life. Perhaps you might just want to focus on an informed and intelligent process, and then let the results play out as they may.
5. The Aftershock = A final side effect I should mention is that in this compensated and compromised state, you are setting the stage up for huge weight rebounds when you return back to even a moderate amount of exercise and dieting.
Even if you do reach your goal with an extreme approach to Eat Less, Exercise More, you often see massive rebounds due to huge calorie swings with lowered testosterone, thyroid, and met rate. Plus, fat storing enzymes and cellular factors are in overdrive after aggressive dieting/training phases.
Past Plateau II
What’s the solution to this situation? A starting point is something similar to Plateau I – re-feeds, diet breaks, and de-loads, often times more frequently and/or for longer periods. But unfortunately, it is not always that simple. It can take months to years to fix.
And sometimes medical intervention from endocrine and mental health specialists is necessary, which is well beyond the scope of my practice and areas of expertise, as well as the focus of this article.
So my suggestion is to find a better way right from the beginning so you don’t burn out or break yourself (fool). It can be really hard – both physically and mentally — to come back from that.
The Overall Stress Effect
A good way to re-cap what we’ve been talking about so far from a less technical perspective is to look at a stressful situation…
Acute stress is good for the body. It has hormetic effects and forces the body to adapt and get stronger/more resilient so it can better be prepared for future, and even greater challenges.
It is chronic stress, or too many stressors at once, that can break the mind and the body. So, as someone who wants to take a strategic, intelligent, and sustainable approach to the fat loss and physique transformation process, you have to be aware of how many outside stressors you are placing onto your body.
Dieting and calorie deficits are a stress. High-intensity strength training is a stress. Cardio, especially long and frequent sessions, is a stress. Low carbohydrates, especially when combined with anaerobic training, is a stress. Intermittent fasting and/or long periods without food is a stress. Stimulants (fat burners, caffeine) are a stress.
No singular stressor is inherently bad, and in fact in the right amounts, can be quite beneficial. But the dose can sometimes make the poison as they say, and when overdone in combinations can be disastrous. After all, certain drug combinations can cause death.
For example, low calorie and low carbohydrate diets can be great for sedentary and overweight populations. It’s a stressor they need (too much indulgence and not enough stress has led to a weak, unhealthy, poorly functioning body).
But as we’ve talked about in this post, when that approach is combined with large amounts of exercise, it can have physiological, psychological, metabolic, and hormonal side effects and drawbacks.
Is high frequency anaerobic training overtraining? It depends on what you are doing with your diet.
And that is just the training and diet program on paper, in a vacuum. You still have to factor in career, family, social, and other lifestyle stressors.
If you are just a dude living in a van down by the gym, that’s one thing.
But a busy professional with many different demands is a whole different ball game. That’s primarily who I’m writing to. And its why I recommend a more moderate approach that falls under the category of Eat Less, Exercise Less – efficiency, practicality, sustainability, and an awareness and reasonable control of how many outside stressors you are adding to an already stressful life.
Stress pushes the see-saw in the direction of the sympathetic nervous system. But when that stress becomes extreme, repeated, or chronic, the see-saw can get stuck in the one position. Extreme low calorie diets and heavy continuous daily cardio are the most insidious extreme diet stresses. These are classic examples of pushing so hard and so fast on both sides of the see-saw, that the see-saw eventually break. – Jade Teta
Drug Enhanced Asterick
But what about all of those athletes you see in hardcore fitness magazines and Instagram profiles that work out 7 days a week for hours at a time, all while promoting low-carbohydrate diets? Surely I must be missing something that the elites can reveal?
Or perhaps it is what they are NOT revealing about their plans…
Many athletes and physique peeps use drugs to compensate for the potential metabolic and hormonal adaptations that can come from extreme diet/training protocols – steroids and TRT, thyroid meds, growth hormone, insulin, even cocaine and uppers.
I’d say a decent percentage of dudes recommending extreme approaches in the strength training, mma, Paleo, biohacker, and other fitness communities are on TRT, if not more in-depth and comprehensive drug protocols. This is often just swept under the rug while heavy marketing material is elevated to the surface for a type of slight-of-hand action.
I say this is not from a position of condescending judgment. I’ve worked with a few clients on PE’s. Hell, I can promise you I’ll be on TRT when I’m 69 still trying to 69. I mention it simply for educational purposes when it comes to customizing dietary choices.
I remember back in the day there was a trend in both the mma and cross-fit communities to follow ultra-low carb diets (and there is a current resurgence of that with keto approaches). I was baffled by why anyone would combine such a low carb intake with such a high frequency, volume, duration, and intensity of training (the extreme version of Eat Less, Exercise More I’ve been mentioning).
Was I misunderstanding the principles of human and exercise physiology?
1. When it comes to the application of out-of-the-box strategies, we always hear about the successful outliers. We rarely here about the majority that miserably fail and burn themselves out with fringe approaches that fly in the face of established physiological principles.
2. Look at what has happened since stricter drug-testing policies have gone into place.
(a) A bunch of athletes have, and are continuing to get popped and suspended for drug use.
(b) You’ve seen a dramatic increase in injury rates, and a dramatic drop off in both performance and physique appearance, with the athletes trying to follow the same diet and training plans they were using while enhanced as they are while natural.
(c) You’ve seen a shift towards the inclusion of more calories and carbs in most athletes’ plans (an Eat More while Exercising More approach, which makes much better sense).
And what about in the physique realm?
In my time in the game, I’ve seen a lot of overweight people drop a decent amount of fat with low carb diets. But I’ve actually only ever really seen two people get into phenomenal shape following full-blown keto approaches (extreme, very low carb).
Both were on testosterone, thyroid medication, and a few other physique-enhancing drugs.
Here’s the thing. Above, you saw some of the potential metabolic and hormonal drawbacks of combining ultra-low calorie and low carb diets with a frequent, high-intensity exercise protocol.
Physique-enhancing drugs can combat or compensate for the potential loss in lean body mass; drops in leptin, T3 thyroid, natural testosterone production, free testosterone: cortisol ratio, metabolic rate, energy levels, and mood.
The natural physique transformation process involves a delicate balance, and ebbs and flows, of anabolic and catabolic processes. These are regulated by hormones and cellular factors, which in turn are impacted by your training and diet program.
Push things too far to the extremes (without drugs to compensate), and you are bound to hit plateaus, burn outs, and rebounds in the wrong direction.
In other words, athletes using physique-enhancing drugs can train on mismatched diet/training protocols (or actually they are perfectly matched while they are on the drugs) and achieve outstanding results. They can take the Eat Less, Exercise More approach to the extreme and achieve outstanding results without some of the short-term drawbacks that a natural athlete would come across. But that doesn’t hold true for long-term health and physique consequences.
On a side note, competition is competition, and vanity is vanity, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that route. The one girl I knew won several figure shows. But when she came off the drugs and extreme diet/training protocols, she rapidly rebounded in weight. She started the whole crazy competition diet process already in good shape. She is now borderline obese.
The dude I knew won several bodybuilding shows including a world championship title in a questionable “natural” federation. He’s also now in his mid-40’s with full-blown kidney disease. Yet he is so tied to his elite physique, and so dependent on the drugs to maintain it, that he can’t bring himself to change to a more sane, healthy, and sustainable method.
Those case studies are beyond the scope of this post. My main point for YOU is that if you are doing it without physique enhancing drugs, you can admire the physiques of enhanced athletes, but you shouldn’t necessarily try to follow their protocols, which are often of the Eat Less, Exercise More approach taken to the extremes.
I made that mistake multiple times myself. There were times where I wanted to speed the process or push the envelope in terms of maximal leanness, and emotionally (not rationally) applied the combination of high volume/intensity training with ultra-low calories and carbs.
Each time I ended up losing muscle, losing weight but actually looking much softer (skinny fat); suffering from the above mentioned metabolic/hormonal drawbacks, and ending up with the dreaded non-functioning wiener.
You can dismiss this as just personal experience, but I’ve seen the same situation play out with multiple friends, clients, and colleagues.
3. Our Recommended Physique Approach Re-Visited = Eat Less, Exercise Less
Instead, I recommend you take a much more moderate approach to the physique transformation process.
It may take a little longer to reach your ultimate physique goal, but you will be doing so with much less potential for negative health consequences, including severe metabolic compensation and hormonal disruption.
And as a result, it’s a much more sustainable approach that can help you maintain your great physique shape, and live lean year-round.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, our approach would fall under the Eat Less, Exercise Less category.
We push the diet a little harder, but then are very careful about exercising too much/overtraining.
1. Use primarily diet to create the calorie deficit necessary to drop body fat
2. Dedicate your formal exercise sessions to strength training in order to build lean muscle and shape, tighten, and tone the body
3. Don’t overdo cardio activity, but informally walk/move more to offset the seated computer posture and support the fat loss and physique transformation process.
This combination creates a moderate calorie deficit to facilitate the fat loss process without being so extreme that it leads to muscle loss, metabolic compensation, and hormonal compensation.
When we do exercise, we focus on strength training in order to build/preserve lean muscle. This training, if not overdone, can also support anabolic hormone production and the metabolic rate, not be detrimental to it.
If anything, at the highest levels (when you are nearing close to your genetic potential in terms of body fat percentage), you might experience some mild side effects as described in Plateau I.
But now you can be smart and strategic about that, and can integrate some re-feeds, de-loads, and/or diet breaks to offset that. And you know the dangers of reacting emotionally, and stubbornly pushing things towards the extremes.
Basically, there is a subset of folks who are already high-level stress cases. They tend to be drawn to harder is better in the first place, tend to be resistant to change (like my client from my early 20’s) and their already high level of cortisol production is simply amplified by the combination of too much activity and too few calories. And suggestions to raise calories and/or reduce activity are invariably met by resistance (again, like my client from ages ago). What they really need is to just chill the hell out.
But invariably the approach that they are intuitively drawn to is the wrong one for them: moderate deficits and moderate activity always work better in those folks. It’s getting them to do it that’s the hard part.
Tangentially, I suspect that the classic hardgainer is of a typical type but that’s another topic for another day. – Lyle McDonald
If you have made it this far, you are probably hoping to get some insight into what to do about it. Here is one thing I can tell you with certainty.
DO NOT START EATING MORE AND EXERCISING LESS!! You should run as far away as possible from any coach, doctor or health professional that tells you that.
For some reason people are being given this message, and it is the exact WRONG thing to be doing. If you want to gain weight faster than you ever thought humanly possible, then go ahead and follow that bad advice. If you want to heal the metabolism so that it once again functions correctly, do not take that approach.
The idea for treatment is to decrease the dietary stress and the exercise stress while honoring the fact that your current metabolic rate is likely moving at a snails pace. The solution is to stop eating less and exercising more, and do NOT start eating more and exercising less. The approach that works is to eat less and exercise less. This approach is the most gentle way to get things back in balance… – Jade Teta
If the eat less, exercise more approach induces so much metabolic compensation, is there another approach that might be more balancing to the metabolism and less likely to causes these metabolic changes?
We will need studies to tell us that for sure, but my brother Dr. Keoni Teta and I, have been using an approach in our clinic for years that we believe does just that. Actually, we have been using several approaches, but the one I will cover today is what we at Metabolic Effect call the ELEL approach (I.e. eat less and exercise less)…
To lose weight we need a calorie deficit and also hormonal, metabolic balance so that we mitigate metabolic compensation. Creating too large of a caloric deficit can be a major stress to the body, and it’s stress that triggers more metabolic compensations.
What if we created the calorie deficit in a more gentle way? That is what the eat less, exercise less approach is attempting to do. Eat less, exercise more pushes on the metabolism aggressively from two sides, both diet and exercise. Eat less, exercise less uses diet alone to create the calorie deficit…
Eat less, exercise less is really about creating a gentle calorie deficit using diet alone. It then seeks to add enough exercise, and the right type, to maintain muscle, along with plenty of movement to keep NEAT elevated and be more in line with humans living in natural settings.
If you want to get more specific, then technically this protocol is really eat less, exercise less and move more… – Jade Teta
Just as a reference point, a typical Eat Less, Exercise Less plan might average 2-3 strength training sessions a week combined with a slightly more aggressive diet set-up during fat loss phases.
Something like 10-13 calories/lbs, 0.8-1.3g protein/lbs, and 1 – 1.5g carbohydrate/lbs.
There would be no formal cardio sessions prescribed in this plan, but there would be the advice to take a walk a few times a week on your off days from strength training.
4. The Performance Sports’ Plan — Eat More Exercise More
Now what if you need or want to exercise more than that? What if you are an OCD athlete or a cardio junkie and wants to hit the gym 5-7 days a week? What if you are a performance/skill-based athlete and need to practice more often?
In that case you should adjust the diet accordingly in order to properly fuel and recover from your training sessions, and to ensure you don’t suffer some of the symptoms of the extreme versions of the Eat Less, Exercise More approach.
Here, an Eat More, Exercise More approach would be more appropriate in my opinion.
This is really where Sports Nutrition research and numbers become more relevant than typical physique nutrition/bodybuilding diet plans.
Protein would still be optimized at 0.8-1.0g/lbs. But typical recommendations for carbohydrates would be much higher, anywhere from 5-10g/kg (2-4g/lbs) depending on the physiological demands of the sport, and the frequency and intensity of training during each specific phase.
Training and nutrition advice needs to be context specific, and really can’t be separated from an individual’s training protocol, daily activity levels, lifestyle habits, and career/family/social demands.
To wrap up, I want to return to our simple big picture recommendation. If you are a busy professional whose primary reason for working out is related to fat loss, muscle gain, or some other type of physique-focused change, we recommend taking an Eat Less, Exercise Less approach to your fitness game.
If you’re a beginner, it’s the most time-efficient way of going about it. Even with a busy life, lack of time is no longer an excuse. It really only takes finding the time to hit 2 strength training workouts a week for 30-45 minutes or so, along with integrating some walking/moving more into your daily routine.
I know that sounds like an infomercial, but I absolutely believe it to be true. The thing is this – it’s simple, but it ain’t easy. In fact, I’d say changing your nutrition habits in the modern food environment is one of the hardest things to do.
That’s probably why there is a gym, boot camp, or yoga studio on every freaking corner in major cities. People try to out-exercise poor dietary habits. That can work somewhat, but it rarely works to reach elite physique goals.
If you’re an advanced trainee and have been pushing it hard, but have hit a plateau and/or are experiencing some of the overtraining symptoms we covered in this article, perhaps you might want to flip the script, do something completely counterintuitive, and back off a bit.
Maybe this article will alleviate the “guilt” many intermediate and advanced athletes have with exercising less, or give you strategic confidence that a more moderate, sane, and sustainable approach can actually work just as well, if not better, than extreme methods.
That’s the power of efficiency. By working smarter, not necessarily harder, you save yourself a lot of wasted energy and unnecessary side effects.
If you’d like to know more about the details of the training program (specific exercises, sets and reps, intensity levels, interest rests, etc.) and diet set-up (food choices, targeted macronutrient calculations, diet structure, restaurant guidelines, etc.) we recommend, we invite you to check out our premium physique courses:
Why Big Caloric Deficits and Lots of Activity Can Hurt Fat Losshttps://bodyrecomposition.com/fat-loss/why-big-caloric-deficits-and-lots-of-activity-can-hurt-fat-loss.html/
https://bodyrecomposition.com/fat-loss/another-look-at-metabolic-damage.html/Another Look at Metabolic Damage
https://www.t-nation.com/diet-fat-loss/truth-about-metabolic-damageThe Truth About Metabolic Damage
https://www.metaboliceffect.com/metabolic-weight-loss-the-5-laws-of-metabolism/Metabolic Weight Loss: The 5 Rules of Metabolism