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September 2nd Q&A: peak week, off-season planning

What kind of protocols do you advocate for peak week?

Peak week is a funny thing.  Everyone thinks of the week before the show as being the difference maker and the thing that’s finally going to get them looking stage-ready.  Hint:  if you’re expecting a miracle, it ain’t happenin’.  Peak week protocols have a larger impact – and are potentially more dangerous – the leaner you get.  For bodybuilding, you can see significant changes hour by hour if you manipulate variables correctly.  For bikini (and this is no slight to the division), there’s a lot less value just because no one up there is rocking 4% body fat – you’re not holding water, you’re holding FAT and that is ok because some of that is expected and, yes, even helpful for that division.

I hear so many stores of coaches putting clients through absolutely ridiculous protocols.  Sitting in a sauna for an hour a day 3 weeks out from a show because, you know, water weight.  Nevermind that whatever is lost via sweat in the sauna is almost immediately replenished as soon as you start drinking again.  The absolutely mind-numbingly stupid Preparation-H/saran wrap protocol.  Limiting water intake to 16 oz per day the final week of the show.  All of these are recipes to A) feel terrible, and B) WORSEN your condition, not help it.

For some of my clients, peak week is no different than any other week.  For some, we do manage a moderate-to-aggressive carb-up, depending on the individual and their division.  Water intake is controlled and closely monitored, but not stupidly low as it just doesn’t help.

I do not recommend diuretics.  Over-the-counter ones are not terribly effective and prescription varieties are potentially very dangerous to be playing around with.

Do you offer planning and programming for off-season growth?

I do, and I treat it no differently from being in prep – plan pricing for what I offer is not altered from one phase to the next.  Most people fail to realize it, but off-season is the most difficult phase for nearly all of us.  Exhibit A:  the OVERWHELMING majority of competitors who look the same from 1 show to the next.  It’s prep prep prep SHOW <post-show depression, skipping workouts, feeling unmotivated, God I need to pick a new show and get back on it> prep prep prep SHOW – looking exactly the same, if you’re lucky.

I am a huge advocate of treating the off-seasons with the same aggressive, highly-motivated mindset that you approach contest prep with.  There should be goals, deadlines, focus, consistency, precision on the diet, and a few more indiscretions that you might normally get away with during prep.  Helping people maintain their focus, prioritize their training, and continue pushing and growing through an off-season is one of my favorite things to do.  Being on point and actually growing/improving through the off-season ensures a higher level of metabolic function as well, making the next prep easier and making it more likely you’ll be able to keep calories higher and for longer while still leaning out.  For the serious competitor, it really is a year-round commitment.

Introducing the Q&A series!

So here we go!  This is the start of what I anticipate being a recurring series of posts, addressing the topics that clients, prospective clients, and random people ask that I feel are worth sharing with a general audience.  Without further ado, let’s dive in:

Can I have an occasional drink and still lean out?

Probably (maybe?), but the question is “why?”  If you’re serious about leaning out – whether for a show or just to get lean, be serious about that goal and abstain from the things that will set you back.  Like alcohol.  As a macronutrient (7 calories/gram), alcohol contributes to your total caloric intake and effectively takes over your metabolism while still present in the bloodstream (converts to acetate, which the body prefers over glucose – your standard metabolic fuel).  I equate this to the car that runs you over, then sticks it in reverse and backs over you again for good measure.  When leaning out many people can get away with an occasional drink, but every occasion is just another chance to sell your long-term results short.  So again, why?  (and the answer, for many, is because Blue Moon is freaking tasty.  Oh wait that’s just my answer).

Do you favor a ketogenic (low/no carb) dieting approach?

Universally, no.  Some people certainly respond well/better to it, but ultimately I do what’s best for each individual body rather than adopting blanket strategies and try to apply them to all people evenly.  I know that if you can diet with carbs, you should – performance on your lifts will be better, mood will be better, LIFE will be better.  Carb cycling and refeeds come into the equation as well so even those who do follow a keto-based plan will find some carbs in their life at some point.

Do you think IIFYM (flexible dieting, macro-based dieting) is a good idea for me?

Maybe (my favorite, stock answer).  In principle it’s a decent strategy, but if you distill someone’s diet into 3 columns/numbers (protein, carb, fat) with no additional guidelines, you’re doing a disservice.  I support flexible dieting for those clients that it works for – like other things, following a macro-based plan is a skill and you have to be comfortable/dilligent with logging foods, knowing where your macros are coming from, and being able to accurately hit the targets on a daily basis.  I also provide additional guidelines regarding timing, fiber/sugar intake, and other things so when I do incorporate it, it has evolved beyond the standard “pizza and pop tarts” plan that it is much maligned for in some circles.

I’m interested in training but not sure I want to compete.  Can you still help?

This is the question I get the most.  The answer is yes, absolutely.  I work with anyone who is willing to put in a serious effort/commitment to learn and change their body, whether they end up on the stage or not.

If you’re at all on the fence about competing, DON’T.  I am the last guy that’s going to talk anyone into that.  If it is calling you:  great, do it.  If you’re not sure, skip it and find another way to motivate yourself and guide your training phases throughout the year.  Competing is something you have to WANT to do in a big way, you can’t half-ass it or give it 80% of your best effort – it just doesn’t work that way.

Woops!

Unbeknownst to me, sometime (last week maybe?) the website decided that every page except the home page was going to go missing and ended up with a dead link regardless of what you clicked on.  I am not a design professional, but even I realized this was a Bad Thing ™.  A five-minute fix and we’re back in action.  My apologies for any confusion to anyone who was trying (unsuccessfully) to poke around!

In other news – things have been BUSY.  A couple natural pro cards earned earlier this year (congrats Liz and Christine!), plenty more shows for clients still on the calendar in the coming weeks and months as well, and LOTS of reading and researching going on as usual to keep my schedule full.

I have a few new projects in the hopper as well and am excited to start working on those in the near future, and will also be starting a weekly Q&A post on the website – stay tuned for that!

Weight tracking and expectations

Up-front disclaimer:  I don’t expect daily weigh-ins from all of my clients, and certainly not regardless of the phase of their training.  It takes a certain level of emotional detachment from the scale number (a skill worth learning) to make this worth the effort, but the insight you can gain from this process is extremely useful.

That being said, the value of daily weigh-ins is a double-edged sword.  On a day-to-day basis, you are essentially just tracking your body’s adjustments and fluctuations in water retention.  So an “OMG I lost 4 pounds in 2 days!” is like to be followed by a “WTF I gained 3 pounds the next 2 days??”  But hey, if that happens, you’re at a net loss of 1 so you’re still winning.

What causes water retention to fluctuate?

Basically, a lot.  In a perfect world of the experiment that is your body, we would have water retention as a constant, measure/track the variables (caloric intake and expenditure) and check the output (weight).  What we would expect to see is a slow, even trend in the direction we’re aiming for, whether up or down.

Unfortunately water retention is anything but constant.  It fluctuates seemingly according to the phases of the moon at times, though with less predictability.  Here are some factors that can be considered, though this is by no means a comprehensive list:

  • Hormones – I put this first because this is the thing that seems most mysterious and magical, and it should not be dismissed because of that.  Changes in your hormonal makeup (short-term and long-term) will effect how your body holds on to water.
  • Macronutrient intake – it is the job of carbohydrates to retain water and help seat it into muscle tissue, so higher carb intake means greater water retention.  That cheat meal at the Italian restaurant?  Yeah, you know what to expect the next day.
  • Sodium intake – it’s well known that sodium causes water retention, but more appropriately spikes or drops  in sodium intake will do this.  So again, that cheat meal at the Italian restaurant with the salty tomato sauce?  Uh huh.
  • Water intake – again, it’s more about fluctuations in water intake.  If you’re rock solid and then have a day where your intake is about half (or double) what it normally is, expect that to show up on the scale.
  • Sweat output – this one is fairly obvious, but it has more to do with output in relation to intake.  Double the cardio (and therefore sweat) while holding water intake steady?  Expect to see changes.

What else can cause fluctuations in weigh-in numbers?

The biggest thing here that I encounter is inconsistency.  If every day was the same, you would still weigh less in the AM and more in the PM (typically).  If you don’t weigh yourself at consistent times, you will not see numbers that bear any relation to one another.  In addition, every day is not the same, so your evening weight one day and your evening weight the next day are not easily compared.  When requesting daily weigh-ins from clients, the only numbers I care about and want to see are those taken very first thing in the morning, immediately after waking.  At this time we can expect the body to be in a relatively consistent state day-to-day and can begin to make sense of the data.

What’s the big picture?

To be frank, the big picture IS the big picture.  Zoom out, and take everything into account.  Focus on larger time intervals.

Confucius say, “she who weighs for a week measures water, she who measures for a month measures changes in lean body mass ratio”

Now I may have messed up the source or the specifics of that quote, but you get the idea.  Over time, you may see a graphed result that looks something like this from one of my clients:

weight loss graph

So, focus on that big picture – ALWAYS.  Included in that chart is a week that looked like this:

139.0, 138.0, 137.0, 144.5, 141.5

You can basically see the decision that led to that spike and it’s aftermath – but also notice that things start to correct themselves right away.

Taking daily weigh-ins is helpful, but only if you can do so with an analytical mind – and understand that most of what happens in terms of large daily fluctuations can easily be explained and accounted for, if you just stop to clear your head and think about it.  As humans we have a natural tendency to derive emotional satisfaction (or frustration) from a moving (or non-moving) scale.  I like instead to focus on enjoying the process – the easy stuff, the hard stuff, the feeling after a great workout, etc – and know that the results will come with consistency and time.  Daily weigh-ins can be helpful to gauge progress, but they are simply another tool in the arsenal.

 

The path to advanced lifting

Most of us remember what it was like the first time we started ‘attempting’ to workout.  I look back on my early trips to the gym and I just laugh.  Absolutely no clue what I was doing, but yet thinking I was doing productive stuff anyway (hint:  I wasn’t).  Lots of bad form, lots of skipped leg days, lots of bicep work, and plenty of “cardio” with heart rates in the double digits.  I was a beast.

The point of this post is this:  you can be well beyond that stage and still be a beginner in the gym.  With a lot of work, practice, and research you can progress to something more in the ‘intermediate’ range.  Being ‘advanced’ in my mind means that you have an absolute mastery of every common move and many uncommon moves.

Mastery in this sense means that you have absolute control over your body, can feel the muscles working easily, and fix it mid-set if they aren’t doing what they should.  If you ever find yourself mentally checking out during a set or – worst of all – doing an exercise without feeling and engaging mentally with the muscles that are being worked, those are the Tier-1 problems that need to be addressed immediately.  Anyone call execute a lat pulldown, but the real question is this:  can you manually engage your lats well enough to fatigue them on that exercise using a very light weight?

An advanced lifter also has an innate sense of the ‘right’ weight for a given set.  In our business, heavier isn’t always better – finding the sweet spot where you body feels the exercise to a maximal degree is what we’re after.  You might be able to curl 50’s, but sometimes when you switch out to 35’s, while also slowing down and squeezing harder on each rep – you can get more out of it, induce real muscular fatigue earlier in the set, and make the muscle work harder.

That sweet spot is also something that can change regularly, which is a good next point – advanced lifters don’t fall into ruts or patterns, at least not commonly.  The dance is a careful combination of OCD note-taking and lifting intuitively, and going by what is best for your body that day.

An advanced lifter also knows one key thing – the thing that makes a workout difficult comes primarily from within.  It’s your ability to focus, select the right weights, make the muscles work, and push past the point of failure that makes a workout effective and challenging.  Workout design is something I have a great passion for, but ultimately what I’m doing there is trying to optimize things – good transitions from one move to the next, a good flow, getting a good pump and making it easy to sustain.

If you find yourself struggling, here’s a good path to right the ship and get your workouts moving in a more productive direction:

  • Make your workouts less complicated – attempt to do more (more fatigue, more mind/muscle connection, more reps past failure, better form) with less.
  • Reduce your workouts to a handful of core exercises that you feel comfortable with, and move beyond comfort and closer to mastery.  Slowly incorporate additional exercises only when you’re supremely comfortable with the existing lineup.
  • If you struggle with getting certain movements to register and can’t seem to engage the proper muscle groups, enlist the services of a quality coach or trainer to help you out.  A good one isn’t just going to yell at you, count your reps, or write a plan for you – they should be aiming to teach you every step of the way as well.
  • Practice posing!  Even if you’re not competing, posing practice has incredible benefits when it comes to conditioning and – yes – BODY AWARENESS.  Being able to accurately manipulate your body and isometrically work muscle groups is key to developing a better connection with what those muscle groups are doing when you’re training them.  I wrote about this previously here.

In closing, you need to do more of what most people assume bodybuilders do very little of:  think.  Engage your brain when you’re in the gym and continue to learn with every single rep.

The biggest mistakes to kill your gains

I wouldn’t say I’m a trendsetter, but I do hate to just do what everyone else is doing for the sake of fitting in.  Therefore, I refuse to make this a “Top 5…” or “Top 10…” style post, because a) I assume I’m not the only person on the planet spending less time on Facebook because every damn post seems to be one of those lists, and b) I don’t know how many items would make this list anyway.  This is going to be relatively stream-of-consciousness, and I don’t intend to edit.  WATCH OUT, HIDE THE CHILDREN.

With that being said, let’s talk about the most common things I see that stall progress.

Assuming that rest is for other people

You (yes, you.  I mean it.  Really.  You) need rest in order to grow, and through intense cuts you need rest to maintain.  This does not, necessarily, mean taking days off.  If you train a body part split you can often train 7 days a week and be just fine.  People worry about overtraining, but even on a strenuous day (legs), half your body is still effectively getting a rest.  Total body metabolic lifts might be a different story, but for a “bodybuilding” split, I challenge you to overtrain yourself.  If you succeed, it means you’re doing something right.

No, I mean sleep.  Often time we wake up early to get to the gym or do some cardio before starting the day, then at night we’re too busy catching up to knock off at a reasonable hour.  If you find yourself routinely getting 5-6 hours of sleep, move heaven and earth to try and change that to 6-7 hours.  If you feel you function ok on little sleep, you might be right – but we’re not shooting for ‘ok’, we’re aiming for ‘optimal’.

Being unable to switch off your OCD counting obsession

Everyone counts their reps when they lift.  Your workout plan says 10 reps of a move, you do 10.  That’s the wrong approach.  To build muscle, we’re trying to overload it – that means asking it to do more than it’s willing (or able) to do.  If your workout plan calls for 10 reps of something, your approach should be to let that number guide your weight selection, then hit as many reps as you possible can without altering your form.  DO NOT leave reps on the table.  If you think you pick an appropriate weight for 10 reps and then manage to grind out 14, congratulations.  That’s the point.  Next time, bump the weight up a tiny increment and see if you get closer to 10.  Don’t treat those numerical targets as absolutes, they are nothing more than guides.

Ego lifting

It’s simple:  when it comes to aesthetics, it’s not about strength.  It’s about the appearance of strength.  Lifting for hypertrophy and lifting for strength are very different things.  If you try to do both at the same time, the most common outcome is injury.  Hypertrophy lifting means going slow (as opposed to explosive) and focusing on the greatest possible connection between brain and target muscle.  Squeeze hard and make every rep an EVENT that has a potential to leave a mark on your body.

Not treating your diet as the foundation of your body

This is the one item that everyone knows, and yet invariably the one thing that holds more people back than anyone.  It doesn’t have to be rocket science, though it certainly can almost get to that level for some people.  Make good choices, avoid stuff that makes you feel like ass, get enough protein, fiber, and fats, skip the alcohol, and watch your body change.

Not having a way to measure your success

Most people don’t stick with a diet or training program long enough to let it work due to exercise-related ADD.  I’m often guilty of this myself when it comes to my own training, so I get it.  When you are using your own eyes and the mirror to track your progress, you are relying on 2 things that lie to you or at least that are difficult to trust.  Having an objective visual impression of yourself is a skill that needs to be developed, it’s not an inherent trait.  As a coach, this is one of my more useful functions – being able to point out areas in which someone has progressed that they can’t see for themselves without help.

And please, we need to stop with body fat percentages.  A nice idea, but not accurate enough to use when assessing progress.  The next time I see someone say that they are 8.43% when they are closer to 15% visually, I’m going to sit down and write a blog post about the statistical difference between accuracy and precision, and also share how those numbers are derived (hint:  it’s not very helpful).  I’m sure everyone is super excited to see a blog post with a bunch of algebraic expressions!

There you go!  Something tells me there may certainly be a “part 2” of this article in the future!

What I’m eating and why

Typically, I don’t see a huge value in meal plans that are posted online.  They are either celebrity plans (Mr. Olympia or Celebrity ‘X’), or generic starter plans that are tremendously boring.  Plans that follow the “this is what I eat, so you should too” mentality are discounting human variability.  What works for one doesn’t work for another.  That being said, someone looking for a place to start can do worse than one of those plans.

It’s with that sentiment that I offer up what I’m currently eating, and why.  I always joke with my clients that if they were all perfect, diet-following robots my job would be amazingly easy.  But they’re not – they’re people.  People with strengths, weaknesses, faults, preferences, aversions, and sensitivities.  This is the stuff I take into account when writing plans, including my own.  Which looks something like this:

Note:  due to my work schedule, my days vary tremendously.  Sometimes I lift early morning, mid-morning, noon, afternoon, whatever – so the plan shown here represents a “most common configuration” of sorts.

IMG_2481

Yum!

Meal 1 5 whole eggs – I get the Private Selection Omega-3 eggs from Kroger, which have 600mg Omega-3 fatty acids per egg (I think that number is probably a bit inflated, but I run with it).  Since Omega-3 FA’s are hard to come by, I take them wherever I can get them to keep the O-3’s and O-6 in balance at a better ratio.  2 slices Ezekiel bread – I don’t particularly care for the taste of Ezekiel, but it’s 80 calories per slice (on the low side) and has enough protein to make a dent in the daily requirement.  1 TBSP Kerrygold grass-fed butter – makes Ezekiel bread taste delicious – quite a feat!

Meal 2 (pre-workout)2 scoops whey protein, 1 TBSP peanut butter, 1 banana, churned into a smoothie – fast and easy with minimal prep.  When in a more aggressive cut, this would be a whole food option because liquids just don’t keep me filled the same way.

Meal 2.5 (Intra-workout)35g or so of maltodextrin, or a designer starch – depends on what I have on hand.  For added fuel while lifting, and to accelerate reglycogenation (that word failed spell-check, unsurprisingly).  Skip this on non-lifting days, of course.

Meal 3 (post-workout) – 2 scoops whey protein.  Again, fast and convenient.  My workout time is usually selected when I have extra time afterwards to run whatever daily errands are needed, so being able to slam some calories down quickly to keep me moving is essential.  My go-to protein options are Dymatize Elite Whey (taste and texture are great), or the generic brand that Vitamin Shoppe sells (buy 1 get 1 50% off is hard to beat!).

IMG_2483

Not pictured: veggies (still in steamer)

Meal 46 oz chicken breast, 1 oz cashews, 1 cup veggies.  I have definitely turned into more of a lover of fats as I get older and I feel my body responds well.  Carbs also take longer to eat, and I spend so much of my day on the phone that I usually have to scarf something down quickly (this is where I think that being in the military when younger would have been a smart move).  The chicken is mass-prepped in a slow cooker – I prep it in there plain, and add whatever seasoning/sauce I feel like when dishing it up (pictured left:  Frank’s Red Hot Sauce).  The veggies I typically pull out frozen and steam for each meal.

Awwww yeah!

Awwww yeah!

Meal 51 rice cake, 2 TBSP Nutella, 1/2 oz chocolate chips.  Yeah, that’s right.  Not surprisingly this is the best part of my day.  In a maintenance phase, I can handle this shift in macros.  When it comes time to cut, this will have to go as the protein intake goes up and I put a higher emphasis on food quality.  Having this worked into my plan keep the rest of my (significant) sweet tooth cravings at bay.

Meal 66 oz grass fed beef, 1 cup veggies.  This can take on many forms – whether a steak on the grill, ground beef in a taco salad, a simple veggie stir-fry kind of creation, or something else creative that my fiancee dreams up.  Due to the indulgence in meal 5 and the fat content in the beef (typically around 15%), the meal is fairly low volume.  I’ve had plenty of experience eating chicken 3 times a day and by this time, I prefer to mix up the proteins a bit more!

Total macros:  229g protein, 168g carbs (133g on non-lifting days), 113g fat, 21g fiber, 2523 calories

Due to the lower fiber intake, I typically supplement to get closer to 30g, which is where my body is very comfortable.

I love flexible dieting as much as the next guy, but let’s be real:  the most realistic application of flexible dieting is to develop a plan that is doable for you, and then you follow that plan until you get sick of it, change it, and repeat the cycle.  I know of very few people with the patience and dedication to log everything and track macros diligently on a daily basis without driving themselves insane after a month or so of that.

I do often have times for that in the evening though, and so frequently I’ll turn those last 2 meals into a flex block that looks like this:

35g protein, 46g carbs, 40g fat, 670 calories

This gives me plenty of freedom to take something that my better half has schemed up for dinner, indulge a bit, and round out the macros with something else to complete the day.

 

Stress – AAARRRGGGGHHHH!!!!

It’s fairly well-known and accepted, and knowable by anyone who does a basic search, that stress and it’s associated hormone in the body – cortisol – are not super productive things when it comes to building muscle and losing weight.  At a very basic level, that’s true.  As always though, if you want to really understand something you have to dig past the superficial layer and accept that there are grey areas – that things aren’t always cut and dry.

The first thing to accept is that there are different kinds of stress.  How you categorize and divide them doesn’t really matter – you could look at where they come from in your life, whether it’s short-term or long-term, or whether it’s energizing or crippling.  Essentially, some of it productive and some of it is not.

Anyone who has worked with me knows how much I love using a good analogy to drive a point home (or a bad analogy…I don’t really discriminate).  So let’s try an easy one here.

Take a balloon.  It’s untied, empty, and lifeless on the ground.  Doing nothing.  You add a little helium to it and pinch the bottom, and you can see the shape of the balloon start to form.  You add a little more helium, and the balloon starts to rise – it’s going somewhere now!  This is what the balloon is supposed to do.

But if some is good, more is better right?  So you add more helium, until – sadly – you are now balloon-less, as it has popped.

Fido is losing his gainz...

Fido is losing his gainz…

In this example, you are the balloon and your total stress is the helium.

Stress comes in numerous forms, just like helium has several different isotopes (aaaaaaand that was the point where I lost most everybody, I think.  Note to self:  leave the chemistry in the ‘drafts’ folder next time).  Some of the stress, you need – think of the acute, physical stress of an intense workout.  Without that, your body is given no stimulus, no reason to grow, adapt, or change in any meaningful way.  This is the stress you can easily control, by working out more/less or with lower/greater intensity.  We want this, and need it for our goals.

The other stress, though, is what often causes our balloon to pop.  Rather than literally bursting (ewww), our body simply shuts down and stops cooperating.  In some cases, acute stress from working out can pop your balloon all by itself (though this is not common enough to be a concern and, frankly, is really hard to do with conventional training methods).  More commonly, the long-term stresses are the ones that cause your balloon to pop.  This long-term stress can show up in many different ways:

  • Job-related stress
  • Emotional stress (relationships, family issues, etc)
  • Financial stress
  • Diet-induced stress
  • Physical stress
  • Success stress

That last one is a biggie.  You are so consumed with succeeding that if change doesn’t occur at the rate you expect it to, you compound the issue by getting mad at your body for not living up to your expectations.  Stress goes up, balloon approaches ‘pop’ status a little faster.

So what can we do about this stuff?  Obviously you need to go get a cortisol-blocker, available from my online store if you just….ok ok, kidding.  I don’t have a store.  Those products exist, and they are band-aids at best.  To solve long-term problems, you need a long-term solution – in this case, that means changing habits, thinking patterns, expectations – whatever is generating the stress that’s overloading your system.

A lot of this is internal brain processing – it helps to sit down and really think about what is causing stress in your life.  Here’s a tactic that can help:

Make a thorough and complete “to do” list.  Everything that you need to get done that’s more than a 3 minute task goes on this list.  Add things to it, cross them off when you complete them, and after 1-3 days (depending on how much stuff you end up adding to this list), look at two main things-

  • What category most of the items fall into
  • What types of things don’t get completed

I did this some time back when I could tell I was getting stressed out but couldn’t easily explain why in conversation.  I noticed that 80% of my own to-do list was related to work – things for clients, organizing files, book keeping, writing, etc.  It was getting done, but obviously there were things I could do to streamline a lot of my processes.

Interestingly enough, the majority of the remaining items on my list were hobby-related – woodworking and home renovation stuff, two things I really enjoy doing.  I felt so overwhelmed by the amount of projects I had started that I couldn’t keep everything straight in my head, and it felt like I had more to do than I really did.  I ended up creating a separate project board so I could visualize every ongoing project, what stage it was in, and what came next – easy to wrap my head around, and I could feel the stress that comes from being “behind” start to fade away.

These are examples, but the point is that you can attack stress in an intelligent way if you are first able to identify what’s causing it.

It seems weird from a bodybuilding coach, but I have a lot of conversations with clients that are along these lines.  Being able to manage your stress – the good and the bad – is a big part of continuing to make the kind of progress you’re working so hard for.

6 Traits of a Successful Online Client

Today I’d like to address a question I am never asked, but one that I wish I was.

What does it take to be successful with your program?

Wow, excellent question!  With all the various ways I could answer that, I think it’s most valuable to distill it down to the traits of someone who not only wants results but is willing and capable of working with someone in an online capacity to get them.  It absolutely is not for everyone, but if you fit these criteria it’s likely for you.

  1. You are prepared.  This applies to your plan (meal prepping, scheduling workouts in tight windows if necessary, etc) and to our weekly call as well.  Some clients spoil me with bullet-point questions sent via email before our call so I can see them early and get some time to think about them, some have questions written down in front of them and refer to those during our call, others can give me a definitive “I have no questions this week” – all of those are great.
  2. You communicate well.  This means responding to emails that have questions in them, letting me know in advance if you need to reschedule a call, and getting your thoughts out clearly via email as well as over the phone, among other things.  Since we likely won’t be meeting face-to-face, your ability to communicate effectively via email, text, and phone is absolutely critical.
  3. You are precise.  This means tracking things well and using the word “about” as little as possible.  If you tend to eyeball your portions, count 8oz glasses of water throughout the day while losing track of how many you’ve had by mid-afternoon, or like to do cardio sessions based on the number of songs you listen to at a time – expect those things to change when we start working together.  Precision is efficiency, which means spending less time and effort to achieve the same result.  Stop swimming upstream!
  4. You are honest.  I can’t do my job correctly if I am being led to believe the plan I have created is being followed when it is not.  I’m not here to get angry, be judgmental, or make you feel bad for doing something “wrong” – I just want to identify “why” and then help better prepare for the next time a similar situation comes up.  Without honesty I can’t do that.  You also need to be honest with yourself – if you’re following a flexible plan and fail to log something because, well, you didn’t mean to eat it – I’m sorry to say that it still counts!
  5. You are open to feedback.  Because I will give it – whether it’s on your form, on your progress photos, or posing work – without feedback you can’t improve.  I am a terrible “in your face and yelling at you” trainer, it’s just not my personality.  My approach to feedback is the same way.  You’re a human being and I understand that.  Also, we’re usually talking about your body, and this is something that, understandably, people are sensitive to.  I take that under careful consideration when providing my thoughts.
  6. You are willing to do what must be done.  By this I’m referring to the stuff that may be less fun, perhaps even tedious.  Progress photos, form check videos, posing videos, weigh-ins when appropriate, completed workout logs and weekly macro logs when requested, etc.  Not only that you get it done, but get it done on time.  I understand that this stuff takes time, but I wouldn’t ask for these things if they didn’t have a purpose.

Even if you don’t feel that all of these traits are innate things you possess, I’ve found that they can be learned over time if it’s in pursuit of a goal you think is important enough.

Beyond these 6 items, everything else can be taught easily.  Yes – even being clueless in the gym.  We can work through that.

Clean eating vs. flexible dieting: not so different after all?

There’s a lot of debate going on in the fitness/health industry about dieting styles.  I figured it’s worth a couple minutes to cut through the garbage and propaganda and have a reasonably intelligent conversation about the options.  At the extreme ends of the spectrum, there are two distinct camps:

  • Clean eating.  This means whole, unprocessed, natural foods from sources that are familiar.  Lean meats, grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils, etc.
  • Flexible dieting.  This does away with the concept of “good foods” and “bad foods” and says that anything is ok, provided your daily macronutrient numbers (protein, carbs, fat, fiber, and total calories) add up correctly at the end of the day.

Each camp fights this battle as if there is actually something to win or lose.  Clean eaters refer to the “opposition” as lazy people who just want a “diet” that allows them to eat McDonald’s and Pop Tarts every day.  The flexible dieting group says that all clean eaters are miserable, jealous of the awesome stuff that they eat, and are all one cheat meal away from an eating disorder.

Flexible dieters are often asked “how can you put that garbage in your body if you claim to be worried about your health?”  Clean eaters are told that, in 2014, there’s no such thing as “clean, unprocessed” food.

Both groups are full of completely insufferable fanatics that are impossible to take seriously.  As always – in dieting, in politics, whatever – the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  But the middle ground doesn’t sell a lot of books or get asked to do interviews, so no one stands there.

Both concepts are fundamentally sound and work well for weight loss, gaining muscle, and competition prep.  Let’s state that clearly right now and get it out of the way.

Finding which one is right for you is more of a challenge.  I find that most people who hire me are looking for a plan.  Someone telling them what to eat to provide structure.  I think this is fine.  I encourage everyone who follows a plan like this to tell me if they’re feeling like they are restricting their choices excessively.  There’s a certain amount of flexibility and substitution freedom inherent in the plans I create, so I think they are better than a lot of available options.

Often times, these people choose that option out of fear:  fear that too many options will mean failure, or that if they can have literally anything they want, they will binge on it and kill their macros.  Those are very real concerns and ones worth addressing.  Forcing someone into a flexible plan that isn’t ready for it is just as bad as forcing someone to eat broccoli 87 times a week.

As with any decision, you should look at the pros and cons of both options.  Again, these are pros and cons of extreme, rigid versions of each option.

Clean Eating

  • Pros:  fairly easy to ensure appropriate micronutrient intake by mixing up fruit and vegetables; typically low in added or artificial sugar which keeps people sensitive to those things feeling optimal; plans typically involve eating the same foods every day which makes prep easy
  • Cons:  plans typically involve eating the same foods every day which makes life tedious; typically restricts foods that many people crave which leads to binging patterns, makes social eating and functions difficult

Flexible Dieting

  • Pros:  eat anything you like as long as you make it for your numerical targets, makes eating out an option so long as you can get a reasonable estimate on your calories; typically keeps cravings to a minimum as you can satisfy them responsibly and routinely
  • Cons:  requires excellent self-control to not go overboard on certain foods, logging your food daily is a tedious chore

Again, these are pros and cons of the extreme versions of both plans – which, by and large, is what people are adopting.  People often ask me what kind of plan I follow, and it’s really a hybrid of the two.  I follow a plan that would typically be defined as “clean” most of the time – I eat 3-4 clean meals daily, and they are usually the same thing day in and day out.  I leave a generous block of my daily macronutrients for dinner open, and then feel free to experiment with different ways to fill it.  I like to leave a large enough block that I can enjoy a nice meal at the end of the day without worrying to much about going over my numbers.  I tally up dinner, see what’s left, and put together a small snack in the evening.

Realistically, I think this is what “flexible dieting” was intended to be.  With a plan like this, you get the benefit of flexibility when you need it (dinner with the family, social options as well) without over-burdening yourself with logging your meals all day, every day.

And just like both of the extremes – this plan works, too.

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