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July Q&A

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The Meal Prep Manual · July Wrap Up – Q&A

How often should you adjust your macronutrient values and calories if you have been losing weight weekly?

Quick answer: It’s up to you.  You could decrease intake weekly, bi weekly, or every time you hit a plateau. 

Something that people unfamiliar with the physiology of body changes may overlook is that as you lose weight and live in a smaller body, you will require less calories to fuel your daily living.  Your metabolism can shift as a result of many different factors, your bodyweight, your calorie intake, and your activity levels to name a few.  

Adjusting your calorie intake and macros is something that you will need to inevitably do if you are looking to continue to lose weight.  You can’t just determine an intake level at the beginning and continue to eat that amount in perpetuity unless of course, the weight you end up at is your goal weight.  This is one reason why plateaus occur, people are unaware that their body’s energy requirements are changing as they lose weight.  The amount of calories your daily energy requirement decreases while you maintain a calorie deficit is difficult to estimate.  It will be dependent on how much weight you lost, your calorie intake, and your activity levels.

The answer to this question would be case dependent in my opinion.  One of the major benefits of educating yourself in these areas is so that you can solve your own problems in a way that is specific to your needs.  It’s difficult to put a blanket answer over this question as there is so much individual variability in nutrition.  Theoretically if you are consistently losing weight week after week then you should gradually decrease your calorie intake if you want to maintain the same rate of weight loss.  This can be both psychologically and physically difficult though.  Dieting is not easy.  I am always an advocate for dieting on the most food and calories as possible while still meeting your goals.  While decreasing your intake week over week is a surefire way toward success, it is also more difficult.  

If you weren’t constrained by any time bound goals then I think you could make a case for dieting until you plateau, taking a short diet break, recalculating maintenance calories at your new weight, and then initiating another dieting phase.  There is some evidence showing that people who take diet breaks are more likely to keep the weight off and experience less adaptive thermogenesis (the slowing of your metabolism).  Taking a diet break every time you plateau may result in weight loss that is too slow for many of you to stay interested so doing a diet phase until you plateau, then recalculate and diet until you plateau again, THEN do a diet break is another way it could be done.  

Do you need to track macros to lose weight?

Quick answer: No of course not. 

Macronutrients are simply the calorie containing subunits of our food.  Counting macros is just a more granular way to count calories.  Weight loss comes from being in a caloric deficit over a period of time.  To be in a calorie deficit means that the calories (energy) you consume in your diet is less than the amount of calories (energy) your body requires to fuel your daily living.  Weight loss doesn’t occur via any other mechanism aside from amputating a body part.  

You don’t even have to count calories to lose weight if you don’t want to.  It can be as simple as saying “I’m going to choose lean meats and vegetables for the majority of my meals.”  Many people would lose weight by setting a couple of easy food rules and not have to worry about counting calories or macros.  Counting calories is tedious and counting macros is even more difficult.  Taking the easiest path toward success would almost always be my preferred route.  If you can meet your goals without counting, why not?  Everyone is different though and not everyone could do this.  I am exhibit A, I need to see the numbers to know where I’m at. 

If you find yourself not making any progress or maybe you’re a numbers person and like to have the data, then counting can be implemented.  Diligently counting calories and adhering to a deficit is a surefire way to see weight loss success.  I am a huge fan of calorie counting and keeping an eye on protein intake for people who need it.  I am not a fan of counting individual macros for the vast majority of people.  It is only added stress and restriction that isn’t necessary for people who don’t have specific body composition goals.  What percentage of your calories comes from fat or carbs doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. If you’re not an athlete and just looking to lose a bit of fat, I don’t think it’s worth it. 

What should you do if you’re in a calorie deficit and not losing weight?

This is precisely the time I would recommend an individual begins counting calories if they are not already.  As mentioned in the previous answer, no weight loss occurs outside of a calorie deficit so if you are not losing weight, you are by definition not in a caloric deficit.  There are many reasons why you may not be in a calorie deficit.  

The most likely culprit is that you are underestimating how much you are actually eating.  Research shows that pretty much everyone does this, even dietitians.  Some people can underreport how much they eat by 100%.  Imagine thinking you were eating in a deficit but eating double what you thought you were.  That’s going to put you on the fast track to failure.  If you are going to count calories you should buy a food scale.  Not only will it help make your tracking more accurate, it will also make your cooking and baking much easier.  Mass measurements are the way to go.  It’s time for us all to convert to metric.  Use an app like MyFitnessPal and you can track to the nearest gram.  It’s an annoyance but quite easy to do.

Another reason why you may not be in a calorie deficit is because you have miscalculated/plateaued with your maintenance calories.  You may think you are in a deficit based on a value you estimated to be your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) but actually not in a deficit because the value isn’t accurate.   Your TDEE isn’t a perfect number for every single day of your life.  It is a range.  If you are less active on some days it will fall.  If you experience some metabolic adaptation over your dieting phase it may be less.  

There are a couple of steps you can take.  You could cut some calories from your diet and consistently eat at the new value for a couple of weeks and see if you make progress.  If you lose weight as a result of this you know that the original value you were using for your deficit was not accurate.  You could also re-baseline your maintenance calories with a little experiment and move forward with this new value.  Check this story highlight from instagram to show how I would do this experiment.  

Is it possible to gain strength without gaining muscle?

Short answer: Yes, low repetitions with heavy weights leads to strength gains without much hypertrophy. 

This question is commonly asked by females who want to get stronger but are afraid of getting bulky.  While it may be a valid concern for a small percentage of those people, the vast majority of females don’t need to worry about it.  Getting bulky is not easy to do.  This question is also relevant to athletes who compete in sports with weight limitations such as powerlifting, weightlifting, and wrestling.  

Many different factors can influence strength including the cross sectional area of your muscle, tendon stiffness, motor learning, coordination, and the length of the moment arm to name a few.  Strength is one’s ability to produce force and our ability to produce force is dependent on the examples listed in the previous sentence.  It is different from muscle size in that strength is something that is the result of performance and muscle size is just something you have.  Think of all of the times you’ve gone to the gym to squat and your warm up has felt like your max.  Then on other days the weight flies up easily.  Because there are so many things that impact strength, it is specific to the movement performed.

While increases in muscle mass generally leads to strength gains as well, it is not the only method.  One of the easiest ways to gain strength is to simply practice the movement.  A novice that begins a squat program can see huge strength gains in the first few months not because they are growing tons of muscle but because they are achieving great neurological adaptations.  Their bodies are learning how to perform the movement and produce force in that movement pattern.  

To minimize hypertrophy (muscle growth) we can use what we know about optimal muscle growth to play to our strength, no pun intended.  Muscle growth is optimized using rep ranges between 5 and 30 reps when the set is taken close to failure.  Muscle growth also follows a dose-response relationship where more volume tends to lead to more growth.  If strength gains without hypertrophy is the goal, we can augment our training with these two considerations in mind.  Keeping the reps per set and amount of total volume low will help to promote strength over growth.  Luckily, it is hard to do lots of volume when you are using heavy weights as it is taxing to your central nervous system. 

What is optimal for muscle growth? High reps and low weight or low reps and heavy weights?

Quick answer: Anything between 5-30 reps as long as the set is taken close to failure. 

The idea that muscle growth only occurs at certain rep ranges isn’t supported by the current body of literature.  The Bro Theory that states anything less than 8 reps is for muscle strength and anything above 15 is for endurance and anything in between is best for muscle growth.  The data show that muscle growth can occur over a wide range of reps as long as the set was taken close to failure.  Rep ranges between 5-30 reps lead to similar amounts of muscle growth as long as the sets were difficult.  You can still grow muscle outside of these rep ranges however they have been shown to be less optimal to a statistically significant level in the research.  

What really matters for growing muscle is to make sure that the set was difficult.  Muscle growth occurs as a result of individual muscle fibers increasing in volume after being exposed to a loading stimulus and mechanical tension.  The stimuli are the forces that are exerted by the individual muscle fibers.  Most growth occurs via hypertrophy of the muscle fibers of high threshold motor units which are only recruited after a certain recruitment threshold is met.  These high threshold motor units govern thousands of fibers and take up a large portion of the total muscle.  If you read last month’s article on Time Under Tension Training there was a summary on how motor units play into muscle growth.  Doing a set of 10 air squats for most people isn’t going to grow any muscle because it is not difficult to do, the high threshold motor units never get turned on.  Doing a set of 10 squats at 80% of 1 rep max would likely be a stimulative set as it would be difficult to perform and the high threshold motor units would be activated.  

While activating the high threshold motor units of muscle is crucial to growing muscle, it is also important to take into consideration the force velocity relationship.  The force velocity relationship shows that when a fiber contracts slowly during the concentric portion of the movement, it can produce higher levels of force.  If a fiber were to contract quickly, it wouldn’t be able to produce as much force.  This is mainly due to how the contractile proteins in muscle fibers work.  Slow contraction speeds allow for more cross bridges between these proteins to form and the mechanical tension in the fiber is higher.

Can too large of a caloric deficit hinder progress when it comes to weight loss?

Quick answer: Yes and no.  

Losing weight too quickly greatly increases the chances that you regain the weight after the diet has completed.  Think about it logically.  The more similar you can make your dieting phase to your regular life, the more likely you are to succeed.  A huge calorie deficit increases the chances you will binge.  Restricting calories to a large degree also means you are more likely to experience metabolic adaptation.  Your metabolism is regulated by a number of different factors, calorie intake being one of them.

If you drastically reduce your intake of calories it can lead to a drop in your metabolic rate and this decrease can persist even after the diet has finished.  That is obviously a very bad thing.  After your diet is over you want to be able to go back to a normal value for your maintenance level.  Having to decrease that amount because you experienced adaptive thermogenesis as a result of too much restriction is sad. In a study by Almundarij et al in 2017 showed that a 50% reduction in calories over a 3 week dieting phase reduced daily energy expenditure greater than what would be expected by the weight lost.  Total energy expenditure dropped 42% in that time.  This is why big deficits are tough to handle.   

Is the hype about target heart rate for losing fat true? Is there actually a fat burning zone for cardio exercise?

Quick answer: Nope.

If you aren’t aware, some people in the fitness world believe that if you exercise within a certain heart rate zone, you will burn more fat.  They call this the “Fat Burning Zone”. You may have seen a chart depicting this on certain cardio machines.  I’ve seen it lots.  Thinking about this critically for 4.5 seconds will expose how much of a joke it is.  Think about what you know about weight loss.  Hopefully your first thought was “to lose weight you must be in a calorie deficit.” because that would make you correct.  Now think about what you know about exercise and what kind of exercise burns more calories.  Hopefully you thought “high intensity exercise burns more calories than lower intensity exercise because the energy demand is higher.” because you would be right again. 

Fat loss comes from being in a calorie deficit.  Creating a larger caloric deficit leads to more fat loss.  At lower intensities of exercise it is possible that you will oxidize a larger percentage of energy from fat but you also use less total energy.  The amount of fat you oxidize to use for fuel during a workout doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things if you don’t get the energy balance portion of the equation correct.  If you oxidize more fat during a workout you will oxidize more carbohydrates later in the day and vice versa.  It will even out and always come down to your relation with energy balance.  

What exercises are best for toning? 

Quick answer: Any kind of resistance training that follows best practices for muscle growth. 

Being toned and being lean are essentially synonymous. You can’t tone muscle.  Muscle either grows or it shrinks, it doesn’t tone.  Being toned is a function of having large enough muscles and being lean enough to show striations in those muscles.  Calling an exercise a toning exercise is like calling an exercise a shredded exercise.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  It is similar to the question before about strength where strength is something you exhibit and muscle size is something that you have. Toned is how you look, not how the muscle grows.  

Influencers and deceitful companies target women with these exercise programs/products that promise to make you toned with long lean muscles.  Very dumb.  First of all anything that claims it will give you long lean muscles is an absolute joke.  Muscle is lean already, it’s muscle.  Muscle also has origin and insertion points on your skeleton.  Your muscles aren’t getting longer, they are fixed in place.  If you ever want to put one of these doofuses in a pretzel ask them exactly how their product/program makes your muscles long.  

If you want to appear toned you need to have large enough muscles to show through your skin.  This can be done by making them bigger, decreasing the amount of fat around them, or even better, a combination of both.  The best exercises for toning are the ones that lead to muscle growth.  That means exercises that create adequate tension in the target muscles in order to stimulate the high threshold motor units of those muscles.  Perform sets that are hard and with rep ranges between 5-30 reps.  Hit the target muscle at least 2 times per week.  If you are not toned and not rail thin already then it means that you likely have some body fat to lose as well.  

How does glute activation work? Does it really make a difference for your main lifts?

Quick answer: Glute activation is just a fancy word for a warm up that was invented so fitspos can sell glute band.  It doesn’t make a difference in terms of muscle growth. 

Glute activation is just a warm up.  As far as I’m concerned it has never been shown to do anything for muscle growth of the glutes like people say it does.  The fitspos that sell glute bands love to talk about how important it is for muscle growth to do your glute activation before you squat or hip thrusts.  Horse hockey.  If glute activation was necessary for optimal muscle growth in the glute muscles, why hasn’t the trend travelled to every other muscle in the body? Why is there no band for pec activation or lat activation?  The answer is because it’s a made up term to sell a product for a problem that you don’t have.  

Unfortunately I have come to resent glute bands because of how bastardized their use has become.  I’d be surprised if 10% of glute banders use them in the correct way.  I hate glute bands.  They have merit in a training program but only if you use them in the correct way, which not many people do.  They should be used for warm ups and/or accessory lifts.  You will not get a big butt from a glute band.  Plain and simple.  

A glute band can be used for a warm up but know that using it before your main lifts does nothing for making the glutes more prone to growth.  Warming up before you do any lifts is a good idea.  You should be increasing your core temperature and the temperature of the muscles that you are going to be using in your workout. The enzymes that you use for generating energy have a temperature at which they work best, which is just higher than normal body temperature.  Increasing temperature also helps improve the viscoelastic properties of the muscle.  Your warm up should consist of the movement you are performing in that workout.  It is not something that needs to be overthought.  You don’t need to go through some insane glute band protocol before you squat.  Warm up with the bar, do some reps, add a bit of weight and do some more reps, and keep working up until you find your first set.  If you like to do some band work as part of your warm up that is perfectly fine, just don’t overdo it. 

What are ways to increase your metabolism?

  Quick answer: Eat more.  Move more.  Gain muscle.  

Increasing your metabolism is something that many of us wish we could do.  Don’t we all want to be able to eat more? Unfortunately it’s not something that is practical for us to do.  Unless you have a medical issue that impacts your metabolism then you have a metabolism that suits your energy intake and energy output.  Your metabolism, in basic terms, is how much energy your body requires to maintain function.  You don’t just happen to have a “slow” metabolism and that is why you can’t lose weight (again, outside of medical issues). You have a metabolism that fits your lifestyle and if you want it to change, you need to change how you live. 

Eating more is one way to increase your metabolism.  Similar to a previous question where we talked about metabolic adaptation as a result of eating too few calories, the reverse can exist as well.  It costs energy to break down your food so eating more is going to require more energy.  Keep in mind that doesn’t discount the importance of energy balance in making weight changes.  

Moving more requires more energy for obvious reasons.  That doesn’t mean that you have to do dedicated exercise.  All movement counts.  Move more means that you may take a 20 minute walk at the beginning and end of the day.  Maybe you wash your dishes by hand instead of putting them in the dishwasher.  Maybe you vacuum the carpet twice a week instead of once.  Gaining muscle is another way to increase your metabolism.  Muscle is more metabolically active than fat.  Having more muscle means that you will require more energy. 

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