Part of my excitement around competing this year stemmed from the ability to track my transformation more scientifically. Using our commercial-grade Tanita scale in studio, I knew I would be able to demonstrate analytically what I had experienced countless times before:
Transformation looks and feels different than conventional weight loss.
While the what’s and when’s of the diet, the type and intensity of the cardio, and the specific exercises, rep ranges, and resistance of the strength workouts all influence the transformation result, the backbone of transformation never changes.
Put differently, there is no magic food, pill, system, sport, or protocol that can evade the core principles of body transformation and trick the human body to transform without some consequence. This is not a bad thing either; it is for our own good.
Our bodies are impeccably designed to adapt and survive. Many diet protocols trigger the survival mechanisms in our bodies, which result in sluggish metabolism and a firing up of stress hormones. This explains plateaus, stubborn fat, and rebounds that are most commonly experienced long after the diet is over.
Rather than lamenting this or feeling betrayed by our bodies, we ought to revere these self-regulating mechanisms as saving us from behavior that is too harsh or harmful.
When we take into account the cumulative effect of muscle building and fat loss, we get a better representation of transformation. Body weight only reveals net muscle gain and fat loss, which can distort the reading of your true results anywhere from “slightly” to “falsely”.
For example, let’s say, you’ve lost five pounds of body fat and gained five pounds of muscle over a three-month period. Your reading on the scale would be identical to when you started and yet, you’ve done serious work! Your clothes are fitting differently, people are noticing the change in you, but when asked, “Have you lost weight?”, your answer is no…at least, by conventional standards. By transformation standards, the answer is a resounding YES! Ten-transformation-pounds-YES!
Both muscle gain and body fat loss require considerable effort and dedication, and, more pointedly, both contribute to transformation and the specific goal to lose body fat. This is why we should get into the habit of rewarding both equally and measuring transformation more accurately:
Transformation weight counts both muscle gain and body fat loss equally.
Measuring transformation weight helps psychologically, too. It will deliver encouraging news when you are moving one or both of these levers in the right direction and it will issue a warning signal if you veer off course and start gaining body fat and/or losing muscle mass. In particular, when losing body weight comes at the expense of losing muscle mass, nothing good happens! Beyond the adverse effects to your metabolism, physique, skin tone, and bone density, a yo-yo rebound plus scenario is practically guaranteed. With transformation done well, the pounds will come off slower, but they will stay off easier, too.
Let’s turn to my three months (to date) of transformation:
In the above chart, we see a steady (and sustained) gain of muscle tissue and loss of pounds of body fat. The blue line aggregates these results. At the end of three months, I have put on 5.4 lbs of muscle and lost 9.6 lbs of body fat, for a total of 15 transformation lbs.
Next, looking at each month in isolation, the classic bodybuilding approach, Build up, then lean out, emerges.
Women, in particular, will think they just want to skip to the leaning out stage. But, spending the time on “building” will make losing body fat easier, and, when done correctly, there is no need to worry about getting “fatter”. The emphasis with muscle-building shouldn’t necessarily be on gaining muscle indiscriminately, you should be focused on sculpting a desired physique when you lift and target the muscle groups that will give your overall body the shape, symmetry, and balance you seek. Even if the number on the scale goes up (as mine did in May), you will never appear (or be) “fatter” as long as you are gaining muscle and losing (or not gaining) body fat.
Building done correctly does not lead to “bulk”.
Although body fat is lost throughout the period, more emphasis will come to losing body fat as the process shifts to leaning out.
For simplicity, assume a body weight of 100 lbs with 30 lbs of fat and 40 lbs of muscle. If you gained 5 lbs of muscle and had no changes to body fat, both measures would improve:
Body Weight: 100 +5 = 105
% Body Fat: 30/100 = 30% ⇒ 30/105 = 29%
% Muscle: 40/100 = 40% ⇒ 45/105 = 43%
The converse is true with loss of body fat, assuming no change in muscle mass. So, when both muscle and fat shift in the right directions, there will be an amplified effect on both of these metrics.
If you are looking to lower your body fat percentage, lift…and eat you must!
A common misstep in dieting is to drop carbs aggressively to lean out. Carbohydrates aren’t the evil they are played out to be…particularly, when we’re referring to high-quality carbs like sweet potatoes, oats, quinoa, brown rice, modest fruits, and ample veggies. For transformation, carbohydrate levels must remain high enough to energize workouts, replenish glycogen stores, prevent sluggish metabolism, and avoid situations of hormonal imbalances or adrenal fatigue.
Another important facet is the total caloric intake and the role of muscle in raising your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Many will make the mistake of taking an estimate of their BMR (the total number of calories that your body needs to perform basic, life-sustaining functions) and think they need to immediately drop calories to this point (or below). For example, 1,200 calories is a popular caloric target for many women, and lower levels can be sought out in the name of a cleanse, fast, or detox. These tactics will ultimately backfire as metabolic rates slow down (to survive!) and muscle loss occurs. Let’s face it – there is only so far you can cut below 1200!
If you’re looking at the above chart and wondering why my caloric intake did not decrease in June, the answer lies in the following chart…
Diet and strength training carry more of a cumulative and compounding effect, and plateaus can be overcome with substitutions and progressive resistance, respectively. With cardio, plateaus can only be overcome with higher intensity or duration (or both). Since intensity should be maintained at a sufficiently high level throughout the process and in response to athletic and cardiovascular improvement, it is duration that is more commonly ramped up. One does not start out with hours (plural) of cardio per day because, beyond certain death(!), there will be no room to expand as needed.
Whether you are an aspiring competitor or simply trying to shed stubborn pounds, a firm understanding of the backbone of transformation can guide you to make better decisions, more accurate assessments as you go, and align your expectations with the reality of how true transformation works. Approaching transformation with confidence and certainty will eliminate the stress, worries, and temptations to try this or spend money on nonsensical that. You deserve better. Your body deserves better. Dream big. Desire more.