A Photo Finish

I recently undertook the challenge of giving myself 12 weeks to prepare for a professional photo shoot.  My motivation?  I turn 30 in September and wanted to disprove age as an excuse.  Ever since I’ve been training, I’ve always heard, “oh, wait until you get (insert number here)… it’s way harder now.”  I also wanted to show that you can make a big transformation even when life is not perfect, and still keep with a hard deadline.  In fact, I told the photographer when I scheduled the shoot, “do not let me reschedule this.  If I try to change the time, charge me twice.”

The results were pretty sound, especially for my first time going to this length to prepare for something.  I can honestly say that there is very little that I could have done differently based on the knowledge I had of my body going into prep.  I did learn a few things in the process, though, which I will point out as I walk you through the 12-week process.

Before we get started, here are the big stats:

Diet start: 4/21/13
Starting BW: 165.5lbs
Starting BF: 12.6%

Photo shoot date: 7/13/13
Ending BW: 152.2lbs
Ending BF: 4.9%

On the left, taken one day after starting prep. On the right, taken 3 days before the shoot.
On the left, taken one day after starting prep. On the right, taken 3 days before the shoot.

Training Guidelines

One thing I knew going in is that I didn’t want to write my own training program, because with a newborn baby creating sleepless nights, two other boys who didn’t want to play second fiddle to a baby, a wife who needed my help at home to keep from going insane, and a growing business with over 80 clients to watch over, I didn’t want to be mentally responsible for one more person, even if that person was me.

So I looked at who I know in the fitness industry that has a solid reputation for rapid body transformations, and settled on Ultimate Performance owner Nick Mitchell.  Nick had just put out a book through Men’s Health called The 12-Week Body Plan that details the program he actually used with somebody to prepare them for a photo shoot, so obviously this seemed like a good match.  Knowing that I wouldn’t have access to some of the equipment he used in the program, I had to take some creative license with a few movements, but as anybody with a background in training knows, as long is the program was written with some thought, it’s going to produce results as long as you put your work in outside of the gym.

The Meat (and Nuts) of the Diet

As much as I don’t typically throw this word around, I did, in fact, diet for this photo shoot.  This wasn’t a lifestyle change, this wasn’t a “eat clean 80% of the time” plan; it was a balls-to-the-wall, 100% compliance, DIET.

While I had an idea of how things would go, there was no pre-designed “12 week template” to follow – I had to monitor my progress closely, and make changes based on the outcome of each prior change.  Throughout the entire 12 weeks, nothing really stayed exactly the same for more than two weeks at a time.

A note to keep in mind as you read this: this is not intended to be something that you copy-paste and follow to the letter.  I respond to certain things differently than somebody else, and it has a lot to do with genetics, starting condition, training history, and ability to be compliant.

Ab shot

Weeks 1-2: Keep It Simple, Stupid

I started the intention to go the first several weeks on a low-carb, stripped down diet to accelerate change.  The guidelines were pretty straightforward – I was aiming for 5-7 meals per day, with half the plate being animal protein, and the other half being green vegetables.  That’s about it.  My protein portions averaged 8oz each from bison, beef, chicken, turkey, and various seafood, and vegetable servings averaged about 1.5-2 cups coming from spinach, asparagus, kale, cucumbers, and snow peas.

I also followed the following guidelines for higher-fat protein sources:

  • Red meat was consumed twice per day using leaner cuts
  • Pork (typically uncured bacon) was consumed 2-3 times per week
  • I ate a max of about a dozen cage-free eggs per week

I would usually add a handful of either nuts or pecans to my breakfast, but other than that, everything stayed the same for the first 10 days.  Some people might need to go longer depending on how much you have to lose and how long you’ve been feeding your body refined and processed carbohydrates on a regular basis.

Weeks 3-4: Carb Additions

By the time Week 3 had begun, I  had reintroduced some carbs in the form of Quadricarb, a carbohydrate powder mixed with my post-workout shake.  On days I wasn’t training, I kept things at the baseline from the first 2 weeks.

Since I was still dropping bodyfat and felt good, at the start of Week 4, I added 1 cup of gluten-free oatmeal with a packet of stevia for sweetener, and ate it right before bed.  I used water, not milk or cream, and would also usually add some cinnamon and nutmeg to give it a little better flavor.

By this point, I was also still not doing any extra conditioning, and was only training 4 days a week for about 45-50 minutes each time.

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Weeks 5-6: Kicking In High Gear

Two things happened at this time: first, I began to add additional cardio to my strength training program; second, I began carb cycling to speed up fat loss.

I started using a 5-day carb cycling strategy that fell in line with my training schedule, which looked like this:

Day 1: Back & Shoulders, medium carb day

Day 2: off, low carb day

Day 3: Legs, high carb day

Day 4: off, low carb day

Day 5: Chest & Arms, medium carb day

Things would then start over with Day 6.  Here is how each type of day would look:

Low Carb Day – basically the same as the way I was eating during Weeks 1-2.  To offset the lack of carbs, I would eat red meat, eggs, or pork twice on those days.

Medium Carb Day – 50 grams of post-workout carbs from Quadricarb, and 75 grams from gluten free oatmeal or sweet potatoes before bed

High Carb Day – 75 grams of post-workout carbs from Quadricarb, and 150 grams of carbs from oatmeal or sweet potatoes, spread over 3 meals after training

On medium and high carb days, to account for the increase in caloric intake, I would keep protein sources to white meat and fish after using a lean red meat such as bison for breakfast.

Weeks 7-8

Nothing changed during Week 7 or Week 8; since it wasn’t broke, I didn’t try to fix it.

Weeks 9-10

As I was getting leaner, I started making slight reductions in protein portions, from 8oz down to about 6oz per meal.  As I was getting leaner I required less and less in terms of sheer food volume, and reducing my protein sizes gradually cut down my daily protein and fat consumption.  Veggie intake stayed high throughout.  I also cut extra carbs about halfway through Week 10 (although if I had to do it again, I probably would have left in post-workout carbs, as well as maybe another 50-60g on leg training days).

Weeks 11-12

I continued low-carbing through Week 11 up through the Tuesday of Week 12.  I also added some more HIIT training (more on that later).  On Wednesday, I started adding carbs, about 100 extra grams on Wednesday, 200 on Thursday, and a little over 300g on Friday.  Because I had been depleted for so long, and because I was using clean sources (sweet potatoes and oats) and not garbage foods, my muscles just soaked it right up and it was at this point that my abdominal skinfold was at its lowest, and actually dropped almost in half from Friday morning to Friday night, from 6.8 to 3.9mm.

The Sunday before the shoot, I also ramped up my water intake from 4-5 liters per day to 10-12 liters per day.  On Wednesday, that number dropped to 6 liters, then 3 liters Thursday, and finally 1 liter on Friday.  Since my body was used to a very high water intake, it kept flushing water out even as I was reducing my consumption, giving that dry, vascular look that is usually desired in photo shoots.

*Note: if you are just doing this program to drop fat and do not have a shoot or competition, DO NOT mess with your water intake.  It doesn’t do anything for fat loss and the results will only hold for less than 24 hours.

Cardio and Conditioning

For the first 4 weeks of the program, I did nothing but strength train 4 days per week.  I wanted to see how my body would react to the early dietary manipulations and didn’t want to skew the data with too many variables.  If I were to do it again, I would probably personally add in some HIIT after Week 2, but unless you know your body very well, I would keep it out for the first month.

At Week 5, all I did was add one High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout per week, using sprints for my intervals, either indoors on a treadmill, or outside on a track.  Here is one of my preferred HIIT treadmill workouts:

Sample HIIT Workout
5 minutes @4mph with 5 degree incline
10 rounds of 30 seconds @11mph/45 seconds @4.5mph, no incline
10 minutes @4mph with 7 degree incline
4 rounds of 60 seconds @8mph/90 seconds @4mph, no incline
5 minutes @3.5mph with 5 degree incline

I had a few different workouts I would work through, but that one was my favorite.

At Week 8, I added in 1-2 fasted morning cardio sessions to help drop additional fat.  These were typically done at 5am on an empty stomach, only having black coffee and 20 capsules of branched chain amino acids to help stimulate fat loss and prevent muscle breakdown.  Then I would just do 20-30 minutes of inclined walking at 4-4.5mph on a treadmill.  Boring.

One important note: if your sleep and recovery isn’t tip top, fasted cardio will only make you fatter and more run down.  If you need to cut anything when pressed for time or feeling run down, this is where to start.

Hanging leg raise

Big Finish

The last 2 weeks, I added more HIIT and cut out the fasted morning cardio so I was doing 3-4 30 minute HIIT sessions, either in the morning or evening depending on what my work schedule looked like for the day.

5 minutes @4mph with 5-7 degree incline
8 rounds of 20 seconds @13.5mph/10 seconds of complete rest standing on treadmill rails
21 minutes @3.5mph with 8 degree incline

All training and cardio was cut the Tuesday before the shoot, and from there all I did was rest, foam roll lots, and begin adding carbs back in.

Supplement for Success

I kept supplement use pretty moderate, but there are a few key products that I would definitely suggest if you can afford it.  If not, don’t worry about it – supplements are no replacement for hard training and consistent diet.

Fish oil – 1 gram taken with each meal, totaling 5-7 grams per day, acts as an anti-inflammatory and improves usage of bodyfat for fuel

Holy basil – 2 capsules taken with breakfast and dinner, increases morning energy and accelerates fat loss from the abdomen

BCAA capsules – 3 taken during each rest period of my training sessions, as well as prior to fasted cardio, prevents muscle breakdown and improves recovery

Carb powder – varies with post-workout shake depending on carb cycling schedule

Topical magnesium – 1 pump applied over my carotid artery a half hour before bed to knock me out and improve rest

That’s it.  Nothing crazy, and pretty affordable for a short run.

There you have it – a 12-week guide to big fat loss, and in all likelihood, several pounds of muscle gain as well.  You may have noticed that I didn’t list any cheat meals over the 12 weeks – that’s because they didn’t happen.  When you’re working against a deadline, you don’t always get the luxury of taking your time and worrying about lifestyle compatibility – certain things do get put on the back burner.  But if you work hard and stick with it, it’ll all pay off in the end.

I’d love to hear about anybody who decides to take this challenge on, please leave your thoughts and comments below!

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The Insulin/Cortisol Seesaw: Control It to Lose Bellyfat

*A note to all of you science-minded types reading this – yes, I am purposely omitting some of the more complicated information to make it more accessible to those who need it the most. But if you already know that, this isn’t for you anyway.

Roughly 95% of the clients that we see at All Strength Training come in with primarily aesthetic-minded goals – everything from “flatter abs” to “drop 50 pounds” to “can you get rid of this?” Oh, on that last one it’s important to visualize the client grabbing whatever the afflicted area is and trying to shake it in our face for several seconds, sometimes without breaking eye contact. Weird visuals aside, the point is that we see a lot of people whose main goals are something to the effect of “I want to look better both in and out of clothing”. And out of those 95%, every single one of them is not satisfied with the current condition of their midsection.

The good news? The cause for most of your bodyfat storage in that area is pretty straightforward for the average person – poor blood sugar management combined with too much stress. The bad news? People have a hell of a time figuring out how to fix it on their own, partly because there is a surplus of really, REALLY bad information circulating out there that makes even the most well-intentioned effort to lose some of that trunk fat doomed from the start.

The Culprits: Get to Know Your Hormones

For most people, the way it works is this – poor insulin management tends to create an excess of bodyfat in the sides of the trunk.  Insulin is the hormone produced by the pancreas to help regulate blood sugar after food has been consumed.  Some foods create a larger spike in insulin than others – fat, for example, has basically no impact on blood sugar whatsoever, whereas simple starches such as white flour and cane sugar create an extreme spike in blood sugar, and therefore insulin.  This is not all that unfamilar even to the most uneducated dieter, but there is a little bit more to it than that, which we will touch on later.

Along with insulin, the other major hormone that influences bellyfat, specifically through abdomen, is cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress.  Cortisol is sort of a low grade adrenaline, designed to be released in situations of “fight or flight,” but is also released during any stressful event, from a simple weight training session to a fight with your girlfriend to your 30th late-night viewing of Predator on TBS.

Insulin and cortisol are what are known as “seesaw hormones” – when one spikes in the short term, the other drops, also in the short term.  Allow me to demonstrate a scenario to make this easy to relate.

Is This You?

Our example subject, let’s call him Bob, is an upper-management type who works long hours and doesn’t sleep well.  Bob wakes up after having hit the snooze button one too many times (stress), as is often the case, and runs out the door without eating breakfast (stress).  He will, on the way to work, grab a large caramel frappachino with extra foam (big spike in blood sugar).  He’ll get to the office just in time to lecture a few of his employees for having missed critical deadlines (stress) before diving into a meeting that will last all morning (big drop in blood sugar coupled with more stress).  The meeting will run long so he won’t have time to go out for lunch, so he’ll grab a sandwich out of the vending machine and two leftover donuts from this morning’s meeting (big spike in blood sugar).  Around 3pm he’ll sneak out to grab another big foamy coffee/milkshake combo from the Starbucks across the street to keep him going for the rest of the day because he can’t keep his eyes open anymore (drop in blood sugar followed by spike in blood sugar).  Then he’ll work two hours of overtime trying to get caught up on paperwork (more stress) before going home.  On the way he’ll grab some fast food (big spike in blood sugar) before hitting the sack and tossing and turning for a few hours (more stress).

Look familiar?  Some of you will read that paragraph and laugh, but a large percentage of you read that and thought to yourself “how long has he been following me?”  This is, in fact, a pretty typical day for most modern-day office workers.

In our scenario above, Bob has, in a matter of less than two years, seen his waist size balloon up from a 34 to a 42, and his doctor is now lecturing him on the possibility of needing to go on Metformin to improve his blood sugar.  How did that happen?

For most modern Americans, the day starts off in one of two ways – either A) they skip breakfast, going about their daily stresses with no food to support their bodily functions, stressing the body out more because blood sugar is now low, resulting in hypoglycemia; or B) they eat foods such as lowfat yogurt with blueberries  and a bowl of granola cereal, leading to a substantial spike in blood sugar because all of those foods are low fat, low protein, high carbohydrate foods.

In either of the above situations, you start your day off with low nutrition, unsteady blood sugar levels and lots of stress.  By mid-morning you’re after stimulants such as coffee or Red Bull, either because you haven’t eaten in 14 hours or because what you had for breakfast was so starchy and sugary that blood sugar plummeted after less than 2 hours.  Cortisol shoots up, which makes you crave more sugar, then stress shoots up again from lack of adequate nutrition and the next drop in blood sugar.  Up.  Down.  Up. Down.  Starting to make sense yet?

What You Can Do

The good news is that the changes you need to make to control that seesaw effect are, for most people, straightforward.  Not always easy to implement because you might be breaking habits you’ve held for months, years, maybe even decades, but they are straightforward.

#1 – Improve meal composition.  Most meals you eat should contain moderate amounts of protein (6-8oz for males, 3-5oz for females on average), 1-2 cups of fibrous vegetables, and either good fats (coconut oil, various nuts, avocados, etc.)  or complex carbohydrates (brown rice, sweet potato, quinoa, etc.).  You don’t have to be terrified of eating carbs, but there has to be balance to the rest of the meal, as things like protein, fiber, and fat digest more slowly and will help regulate blood sugar more effectively than eating carbs alone.

#2 – Eat more frequently.  Not for the reason most people think, however – the idea that eating every 2 hours “stokes the metabolism” has been scientifically disproven.  What eating planned meals more often will do is keep you from getting so hungry that you will eventually tear the glass door off of a vending machine to get to a Mars Bar.  If you’re never letting yourself get that famished, you make better choices when you do eat.  Simple.

#3 – Eliminate unnecessary stressors.  Especially if you have a history of eating the way I described above, you have to take additional steps to reduce extra stress that you can control.  Late nights out?  Stress.  Not giving yourself enough time to get to work?  Stress.  Overdoing your training with things like two-hour weight training sessions or long-distance runs?  Stress.  All of these things will be working against you and your new nutritional habits.

For 90% of people, this is exactly where I would start them out of the gate.  It might not be glamorous, but it’s the stuff that produces results right away, and is also going to act as your support structure for when you want to get fancy with blood testing, supplement protocols, and training programs.  If you don’t have that foundation first, your body will crumble.