Facebook just showed me this photo. It was from five years ago. I remember thinking at the time, “Getting a bit tubby there. You really need to lose weight.” Apparently I didn’t take that advice for a long time. Now, as I come to the end of the first phase of my body changing journey, I’d like to reflect back on some lessons that I’ve learned along the way and let you know my plans for the future. Hopefully you can learn something from my experiences that will make your own journey even easier.
Progress so far
I started this journey around 212 pounds and am, as of this morning, 167.4 pounds (45 pounds for those of you bad at math). It has taken exactly 7 months and 4 days to get to this point. Most of my progress was made on the a fairly aggressive caloric deficit. I have very strictly monitored my caloric intake and tracked my protein, fat, and carbohydrate intake. I’ve worked out three times a week (45 minute weight workouts) and walked on the off days. I haven’t done any running or high intensity cardio workout except for recreational (riding a bike with the kids) or situational (sprinting to get out of the rain).
As for the 45 pounds, I’ve actually lost more than 45 pounds of fat, because I’ve added some muscle along the way. For example, today I did 6 chin ups with 50 pounds attached. When I started I could barely do four bodyweight chin ups. For the purposes of this post, I’ll guesstimate five pounds of muscle for a total of 50 pounds of fat gone.
It’s Wednesday night as I type this, and on Friday, my relationship with cutting will end. I am officially going to lean bulk. This means that I am going to eat in a controlled caloric surplus for the express purpose of gaining muscle. And that’s where the topic of superstitions comes in. I don’t mean fear of black cats or bad luck for breaking a mirror. I’m referring to the psychological term superstition. It refers to the belief that if success is accompanied by a random event, the person (or animal) will associate the event with success. (Also works for bad things too.)
This is the product of our own brains working against us. Our brains are designed to recognize patterns. We are hard wired to learn from our experiences and continue what has worked in the past. This is known as heuristics. Unfortunately, our brains can also recognize patterns even where none exists, and this is especially true when it comes to losing weight. Losing weight is a very long, intentional process. Even though it all comes down to a caloric deficit, there are a large number of variables to account for, and the research is often controversial with multiple credible researchers lining up on opposite sides of a given issue.
So when a person successfully loses a lot of weight, they become highly attached to any behavior or action that occurred during the process, even if the action had no or minimal effect on their weight loss. When I first started flexible dieting, the recommendation in the program is walk 45 – 60 minutes on the days you don’t lift weights. It just so happens that 3 laps around my neighborhood takes about 55 minutes, so that’s what I did four times a week for several months. Then, midsummer, I participated in a steps competition at work (team with the most steps after eight weeks wins a Fitbit…most inefficient way in the world to win something if you ask me). Toward the end of the competition, I was doing 5 laps around the neighborhood. Even though it was miserable, took too long, and my feet hurt and got blisters, once the competition had ended I was actually afraid to go back to only 3 laps. “What if my weightloss stalls? What if the only reason I was losing weight was the extra calories of the extra two laps?” You get the idea.
What about this bulking thing?
Most people who begin this fitness journey by cutting a lot of weight don’t plan to simply get thin. Once they’ve lost weight, the goal is usually then to gain muscle mass. The problem is that after months of working hard to lose weight, they become afraid to eat more. When you’ve deprived yourself for seven, eight, even 24 months to get thin, the last thing in the world you want to do is get fat again.
The problem of, course, is that it’s impossible to build a significant amount of muscle while maintaining a deficit. Heck, it’s practically impossible to build muscle while eating maintenance calories. To grow muscle, you really need a surplus. So the one thing that a person needs to do in order to build muscle is the one thing that person is afraid of—even when they know better. I’ve seen it dozens of times on Facebook fitness groups. I’ve even experienced it myself even though my plan was always to bulk after losing the weight, and even though I’ve been far more successful losing weight than I ever thought I could be. After all, my weight trend has been up for the last 15 years.
Casting out fear
So let’s run some numbers and see just how silly it is to be afraid of bulking. The general recommendation for a lean bulk is about 1900 extra calories per week. There is a current controversy over whether beginners and intermediates should follow that recommendation or do a slightly larger bulk of 3500 calorie weekly surplus (500 extra calories per day). Now if you remember your fat math, one pound of fat is 3500 calories. So if every single calorie of surplus went into fat, I’d gain one pound of fat per week. It would take me 50 weeks (an entire year) to gain all that fat back.
Let’s say, just half of the surplus calories get funneled into fat, then in one year, I’d gain 25 pounds of fat. And if just a quarter of the calories go into fat, then I’d only gain 12.5 pounds of fat in a year’s time. Now I’m only planning on bulking through March (7 months), so in that time, assuming 25% of the surplus going into fat, I could expect approximately 7.5 pounds of fat. From my experience with AFL, It should only take about 2 months to lose those 7.5 pounds of extra fat.
So don’t fear the bulk. Embrace the bulk. Seven months of eating 3000 calories instead of 1925 calories. You get to eat that way all through Thanksgiving, Halloween, and New Year! You even get to eat that way for Valentine’s Day. If you really want to go to town, save 200 calories each day, and have an extra 1200 calories for an epic 4200 calorie day (a solid Thanksgiving plan).
Don’t cut too long
The decision to stop cutting and start bulking is complicated. The general recommendation is cut until you’re about 10% body fat, and then bulk until you’re about 15% bodyfat, and then lean down again. I’m only about 13-14% body fat, and I haven’t quite hit my leanness goals (as defined by waist measurement and having a six pack). So why am I bulking? Three reasons.
The longer you cut, the harder it becomes. I’ve been cutting for 7 months now. At first my daily calories were 2000, and I lost almost 2 pounds a week. Now my daily calories are 1815, and I lose less than half a pound a week. As you lose weight, your body doesn’t need as many calories. That makes it progressively harder to keep losing weight.
Cutting is stressful—quite literally. Your body thinks you’re going to starve to death and tries to mitigate things by losing excess muscle. So you have to do heavy strength training to convince your body to hold on to muscle and lose fat instead. This causes your body to be stressed. Eventually, your body will adjust hormonally to reduce your metabolic rate. This was the subject of the Biggest Loser Study that I discuss here.
Cutting is also stressful mentally.
Bulking gives you a mental break and resets your hormones. Most importantly it allows you to gain muscle. At my current weight, I probably would have to lose 7-8 pounds of fat to achieve a 10% bodyfat. I would look ridiculously skinny at 160 pounds, and it would probably take 3-4 more months. By lean bulking I’ll add hopefully 10-15 pounds of muscle in the next seven months with only a small amount of fat. Then when it comes time to lose the fat, I can do so at a higher (more enjoyable) daily calorie intake, and it won’t take as long to lose, so it won’t be as stressful. So that’s the plan.
Why do you keep emphasizing lean bulk?
A lean bulk is a controlled bulk. In my case, 500 calories over maintenance, or about 3000 calories per day, while maintaining an appropriate macronutrient balance. The traditional way of bulking is just eat a lot, which is of course how I got into this problem in the first place. So don’t just bulk. Lean bulk!
Here is one of my go to recipes for a high protein, low calorie meal. One of the most challenging things that a lot of people just starting on higher protein diets face, is that’s actually quite difficult to eat enough protein. A lot of people end up relying on protein shakes to get enough protein. Others find themselves choking down dry, tasteless chicken breast. When I first started flexible dieting, I was supposed to eat 160g of protein and often found it hard to get enough protein in while enjoying it, until I came up with this solution.
Here’s a recipe that makes a large amount of chicken breast taste amazing and features a large amount of vegetables in an equally satisfying format. For a little while I was eating this every single day. The main reason I stopped is that it takes a while to prep, and personally, I like it fresh—not left over. I still eat this once or twice a week, but I’ve switched to Taco Shredded Chicken for my daily protein intake due to its easier prep.
Chicken breast (variable amounts; depending on what else I’m eating that day, it’s usually 300 – 450 g raw)
Coconut oil (1 tsp)
Garlic powder to taste
Assorted Vegetables (some common choice for me
Bell peppers of various colors
Sauces of choice (some fun choices
Soy Sauce (with or without honey)
Lime juice and lemongrass
Chop the vegetables and weigh each one (for logging in myfitnesspal).
Cut the chicken into small pieces or strips and season with a small amount of salt
Heat a 1/2 teaspoon of coconut oil over medium heat and saute the chicken with as much garlic as you like.
Just before the chicken is completely done, hit it with some sauce.
Put the chicken in a bowl and set aside
Add another 1/2 teaspoon of coconut oil to the pan and saute the vegetables.
When the vegetables are still al dente but almost ready, hit them with some sauce.
Return the chicken to the pan and stir.
Plate and eat.
That’s pretty much it. You can eat it as is or serve it over rice if you want to up your carb/calorie count. I usually use about 3/4 cups (cooked) of jasmine rice. If you want to kick the flavor up a notch, add the rice to veggies.
Chicken Stir Fry for the Whole Family
Macronutrients for this meal.
A typical meal of say 400g of chicken, 150g of zucchini, and 100g of carrots (with the coconut oil) is:
The same meal with 3/4 cups of cooked jasmine rice is
That meal will satisfy you for several hours and set you up very nicely to have a whatever you want for dinner and have 300 caloaries left for dessert. (Well, that’s what it does for me anyway.)
What if I need to cook for my whole family?
No problem. You do everything the same except that you need to do some 7th grade math (ratios and proportions). Say that you’re going to cook 800g of chicken for the whole family, and you need to eat 300g of chicken. That gives you a ratio of 300:800 or 3:8. You just apply that ratio to each ingredient to log it in myfitnesspal. To figure out your total serving, when the whole dish is done, weigh the entire amount of food, and apply the same ratio to the total weight.
If that explanation was too difficult, I’ve created a spreadsheet that you can just fill out. Fill in the total weight for each ingredient, the total weight, and your desired serving of chicken (raw), and it will automagically calculate everything for you.
For your protection, the photos are blurred. If you really want to see them, you’ll have to click on them. I must warn you that the photos below show middle aged man torso and abdomen. Now it’s quite possible that those photos aren’t me at all, and are just some guy I found on a Facebook Fitness Group. But before we get to the photos, let’s have some stats.
6 months later
bodyweight x 4
40 lbs x 6
10 lbs x 8
70 lbs x 7
100 lbs x 5
135 lbs x 5
155 lbs x 5
175 lbs x 5
Bulgarian Split Squats
80 lbs x 6
150 lbs x 5
6 month Progress Photos
Okay, and without further ado, here are the photos. The “before” photos are at 197 pounds after losing 15 pounds, so they’re not as dramatic as they might be otherwise.
Click on the image to view it unblurred. You have been WARNED!!!
Click on the image to view it unblurred. You have been WARNED!!!
Click on the image to view it unblurred. You have been WARNED!!!
Okay, so there you have it. Half naked, middle aged man flesh. I’m currently lighter than I’ve been since 1997, and my waist hasn’t been 33 inches since before then. So you you might be asking, “what’s next?” The answer is, I’m going to try and lose another 5 pounds or so until I have a bona fide 6 pack. Then I’ll transition to a lean bulk program to gain 10-15 pounds of muscle over the next two years.
If you listen to any Hollywood “body transformation” stories, one common theme you’ll hear is people being tired of eating “boiled chicken breast”. The thing about chicken breast is that it’s very low fat and has no carbs in it, so it’s almost all protein. The problem is that it doesn’t have much flavor has a tendency to dry out easily. Even if you’re on a relatively “low” protein diet for a fitness person (0.82 – 1g per pound of bodyweight, at 175 pounds, you’re still eating between 150 to 165 grams of protein daily.
That’s a lot of protein, and chicken breast is one of the easiest ways to get that protein, even if it’s not the most fun. This particular recipe makes boiled chicken delicious, moist, and easy to eat. I first learned about it in this particular form Jack Spirko of The Survival Podcast, although the basic concept is quite common. Basically you’re making crockpot chicken breast, and then shredding it.
2 – 4 pounds chicken breast (if you use more, you’ll probably need more of the other ingredients)
One jar of salsa (I usually use Trader Joes green tomatillo salsa, but feel free to experiment)
Juice of 1-2 limes (if you want to up the ante, add the zest one of them)
1-8 garlic cloves
Chili powder to taste (I usually do 2 tablespoons; Jack’s original recipe uses “taco seasoning”) (see instructions below for an easier method than making your own chili powder)
Salt and Pepper to taste (I usually don’t use salt here, and add it to whatever I use the chicken with)
Chili powder the easy way
I used to make my own chili powder Altona Brown style. Now I just toss the component’s into the crockpot
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon of smoked paprika.
As a bonus toss in some dried chile’s like Ancho and guajillo. (I do 2 of each)
Optional: cayenne pepper or Chipotle
Turn the crockpot on high.
Dump the jar of salsa, lime juice, garlic cloves, and chili powder into a large crockpot. Stir together.
Optional: Wait about 5-10 minutes until the mixture is hot
Place your chicken breasts in the crockpot, and make sure they are coated with the mixture. One easy way to do this is to put them in upside down, and then flip them over.
Cover with lid (very important; crockpots don’t work right if you forget this step)
Wait 4 hours. Remove Lid.
Remove the chicken from the crockpot and shred with two forks.
Dump the rest of the liquid mixture on top of the chicken and mix until even.
Done. Use as is or refrigerate for future use.
So what are the macros on this thing?
95% of the calories come from the chicken breast, so I completely ignore the calories from the salsa. A jar of Trader Joe’s Salsa Verde has about 110 calories in it, and you’re spreading it out over 3-4 pounds of chicken, but if you really want to track every calorie, knock yourself out. To figure out the calories
Weigh the raw chicken. Let’s say it’s 1560 grams.
Once the chicken is cooked, and you’ve added the liquid back in, weigh it again. Let’s says it’s 1740 grams.
Divide the raw weight by the cooked weight, and you’ll get a decimal. In our case 1560/1740 = .8965 or round it to .9.
WRITE DOWN THAT NUMBER!
Now let’s say you want to use 400 grams of chicken breast for a recipe, just divide 400 by the number in step 3. 400/.9 = 444 grams. That’s how much of our final prepared product you should weight out to get 400 grams.
Log 400 grams of raw chicken breast in MyFitnessPal (or whatever you use.)
So how do I use this stuff?
Use it like chicken. Eat it. But in case you’re imagination deprived, here’s a couple quick meals:
Shredded Chicken Bowl
This kind of mimics the main ingredients of a Chipotle Burrito bowl (minus the sour cream and corn). It has a huge amount of protein in it, and when you see this in the bowl, you’re going to think, “there’s no way I’m going to finish all that.” It’s a great first meal, because it’s high in protein with moderate carbs, and relatively low fat. It’ll provide a large proportion of your daily protein intake while leaving you tons of calories for the rest of your day. To reduce the carbs and calories you can leave out either the rice or the tortillas. If you want to up the fat a bit, use tortilla chips instead of tortillas.
Calories and Macros:
Protein: 114 grams
Carbohydrates 82 grams
Fat 15 grams
400 grams of chicken breast (raw weight using the calculation technique above)
3/4 cup of cooked rice
1/2 cup of canned black beans
One ounce of sharp cheddar cheese
3 small corn tortillas
Mix the first four ingredients together. Salt and pepper to taste. Eat along with the tortillas.
Shredded Chicken Omelet
This doesn’t really look like an omelet or taste like one, but it has egg in it, so…whatever. This is kind of the opposite of the recipe above. It’s got a relatively small amount of protein, almost no carb, and a decent amount of fat. You could reduce the fat by leaving the butter out, but why would you want to. It’s a great “small meal”. You could also leave out the butter and egg and use the mixture to make chicken and cheese quesadillas.
Calories and Macros:
Protein: 49 grams
Carbohydrates 2 grams
Fat 28 grams
100 grams of chicken breast (raw weight using the calculation technique above)
10 grams of butter (I prefer Kerry Gold)
2 slices of reduced fat cheese (44 grams; I use Finlandia variety pack from Costco.)
Melt the butter in a pan over medium and cook the chicken until it begins to dry out a bit. (Personally I hit the chicken with some extra chili powder for extra flavor.) Place the 2 slices of cheese on top and wait until it melts. Use a spatula to mix the melted cheese through the chicken. Scramble two eggs in a glass along with some salt to taste. Pour the eggs over the chicken and immediately begin stirring the egg throughout the chicken so that’s it’s evenly dispersed. Turn the heat to low, and once the egg is mostly congealed, form a flat chicken/egg patty and allow to cook for about 30 seconds. Flip and allow the other side to cook to desired doneness. Serve.
In the last few posts, I’ve talked quite a bit about how I’ve lost weight (31 pounds as of today). I’ve gone into some detail about the diet, but I haven’t really talked about the workouts much. There’s a couple reasons, but the main two reasons are 1) workouts are complicated, and 2) 95% of your results will come from your diet. There’s a reason fitness models say, “abs are created in the kitchen.”
I do plan on writing more about the workout in the future, but for today, I just wanted to give you some tips on how to do more chin ups (or pull ups if you desire). When I started this journey 14 weeks ago, I could barely do 4 chin ups or 3 pull ups. This Monday I did 5 chin ups with 40 lbs attached followed by a set of 6 chin ups with 25 pounds attached. Today (Thursday, I did a set of 13 bodyweight chin ups).
Now I know for some people that may not sound very impressive, but I haven’t been able to do more than 8 pull ups or chin ups since I was 19. And I certainly wasn’t as explosive as I am today. So here’s how I did it. You can use this method with either pull ups (palms away) or chin ups (palms toward you). Personally I prefer neutral grip chin ups (palms facing each other). For the rest of this article, I’ll just call them pull ups out of habit.
Some people will tell newbies that they need to be able to do 8 pull ups or 12 pull ups or even 20 pull ups before they start adding weight. But I prefer to start adding weight as soon as you can do 4-6 pull ups. I’ve never been good at doing lots of pull ups, and if I had waited until I could do 12 pull ups before adding weight, I’d probably still be doing 5 pounds. Below is how I did it, and you can too…if you like.
Step 0: Be able to do at least 4 pull ups
If you can’t do at least four pull ups, then that’s your first step. If you can’t do any pull ups, then follow this below video for a nice progression. If you can do at least one pull up, then do several sets of as many as you can do with good form at least three days a week.
Step 1: Add 5 lbs
Once you can do a at least 4 good pull ups, it’s time to add some weight. Get a dip belt. Attach 5 pounds and do a set. Wait at least 3 minutes, then do a second set bodyweight pull ups. On your other two workout days just do one set of bodyweight pull ups. So to recap: one set of weighted pull ups and 3 sets of bodyweight pull ups per week.
Note: I was doing this while on a fairly aggressive cut of 700-1000 calorie deficit per day. If you’re eating at maintenance or bulking, you can do three sets on your weighted day or even to two days of weighted pull ups (I’d recommend at least 3 days recovery between weighted sets.)
Step 2: Adding reps
Keep doing the weight you added in Step 1 plus two sets of bodyweight pull ups on other days until you can do 6 weighted pull ups. Here are some tips:
Focus on trying to make your upward movement as explosive as possible.
Try to keep your shoulder blades retracted (pull down and toward each other)
Don’t reach your neck for the bar.
Don’t struggle with half reps. When you can’t complete the rep with good form, don’t do it at all. If you really want to do another rep, jump up to the top and do a long negative (slow descent) or get an elastic band and do assisted pull ups.
Step 3: Add 5 more pounds
When you can complete six good, explosive pull ups, it’s time to add 5 more pounds.
If you can do 5 or more reps with the higher weight, then add 5 pounds again next week.
If you can only four reps with the higher weight, stay at that weight until you can get 6 reps and then add another 5 pounds.
If you can’t get four reps with the higher weight, drop the weight by 2.5 pounds the next week.
Keep doing your bodyweight pull ups for the second set and on your other two days.
Step 4: Add weight to your second set
When you get to the point where you’re doing pull ups with 10% of your bodyweight added, you can start adding weight to your second set. So if you’re 180 pounds, when you get to 20 pounds, add 5 pounds to your 2nd set. Generally speaking you should be able to get at least one more rep out of your 2nd set with lighter weight than your first heavy set.
Whenever your second set gets 2 good reps higher than your first set, add five more pounds to it. Follow the same rules as step 3 (but with a higher rep count).
Step 5: Take videos of yourself doing weighted pull ups.
That’s pretty much it. The video below is my second set of weighted pull ups this week with 25 pounds added. You can see my weight progression in the table below. Notice that even though my weight is going down, the total weight I’m lifting is going up. (So my absolute strength and relative strength are both increasing.)
Frequently asked questions:
Man! I could NEVER do weighted pull ups!
It’s not really a questions, but that is exactly what I thought until I started doing it. I’ve never been good at pull ups. When I was in the Air Force Academy, the max I ever did was 13, and I assure you the last five were not nearly as explosive as the last five in my video at the top. When you see someone doing pull ups with 70 pounds attached, you think, “there’s no way I can do that,” and you’re right. You can’t do it…now. But if you start with adding 5 pounds, increase your reps to 6, add five more pounds, rinse and repeat, you’ll be doing 45 pounds before you know it.
So what’s this simple secret you mentioned in the title?
Too subtle, eh? The secret is adding 5 pounds. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to do more pull ups with just bodyweight.
Does this work for weighted dips too?
Absolutely. It actually works even better for weighted dips. In the time it took me to go from 0 to 45 pounds for pull ups, I went from 10 pounds to 77.5 pounds for 6 reps for dips. The only thing holding you back is not using a dip belt. Some gyms even have one you can borrow. But if not, buy one on amazon.