How to Get Lean | Body Composition for Performance or Vanity?
Guest Article by Martin MacDonald
This is an article I wrote many years ago for the Powerbase Newsletter (Loughborough University's performance gym). It's a basic, easy to read article giving tips on how to get lean that is a good starting point for most.
The most frequent question asked by athletes and non-athletes alike, other than “How much can you bench?”, has got to be “How can I get lean?” So, here is a brief article that will outline a few things that can help and hopefully dispel a few myths on the subject.
First and foremost, the easiest thing for me to say would be “Drink less and train more…” However, to put it more constructively, rule number one of getting lean…
Lower Alcohol intake – Alcohol intake has a plethora of effects on the body that make it difficult to improve one's body composition. Even without the negative effects that alcohol has on muscle building and fat storing hormones in the body, it is loaded with empty calories. Alcohol is also used as a preferential energy source which in laymen’s terms means, that kebab you have on the way home isn’t being burned off, its being stored in your overfed fat cells until all the alcohol has been ‘used up’. This also links to drinking calorie laden drinks, the only exception to this is fruit juices, other than these, stick to water and low kcal drinks.
Eat Breakfast – If you don’t eat breakfast, ponder on the following. Studies show that people who eat breakfast on a consistent basis tend to be significantly leaner than those who don't. Fact. In addition to this, breakfast is a great way to reduce circulating levels of cortisol, a hormone that will hamper recovery. Not having time to eat breakfast is NOT an excuse, get up earlier, or find a breakfast you can eat on the go. If you don’t feel hungry in the morning then start small and build it up.
This being said… it is also possible to be lean without eating breakfast… but this needs to be a conscious decision and in my opinion only works for those who are actively following an intermittent fasting (IF) program…. of which I am a fan of. However, if you are not a fitness enthusiast and not paying attention to what you eat, I would always suggest having breakfast. Eating on the run is very difficult in both the UK and US.
Food Preparation is Key – Food preparation should be your number one priority. One of the hardest things about eating well consistently is the time and discipline it takes to prepare the foods you need to be eating. It is very hard to eat the right foods ‘conveniently’; cooking and preparing meals ahead of time ensures you’re getting what you need.
Eat Every 2-3 Hours – Again, this is for those not following an organised IF program. In my experience, those not consciously doing intermittent fasting, who skip breakfast, don't end up making the right choices later in the day. I’m sure you’ve heard this time and time again… but yet you don’t listen. Essentially you should be eating to prevent hunger, not because you're hungry. Even if you are not hungry after three hours you should still eat something. Even if it is a handful of nuts you’re better off than having nothing. Another common misconception is that you can ‘skip a meal to save calories.’ This is a big mistake as in doing so you're more likely to overeat later in the day as well as the fact you’re missing out positive effect on your metabolism. If you go to bed at 11pm and you last ate at 6:30pm, by following this rule you should eat another meal before bed. Don’t listen to the ‘don’t eat close to bedtime’ crew. Think of the last person who told you this…. do you want to look like them? However, you can’t just eat anything; what you eat is where you can really make a difference. Stay away from peanut butter on toast, biscuits and alike.
Eat Protein at Every Meal – Out of all the nutrients in our food, protein has the greatest effect on metabolism and translates to more calories being burned during digestion. Simply put, the body will burn more calories assimilating and digesting protein than carbs and fats put together. Protein is also vital to provide amino acids, the building blocks of muscle. Finally, studies have shown that protein gives a greater feeling of satiety and will serve to prevent hunger pangs. Now before any protein haters jump on this article and say high protein diets are detrimental for health, let's clear something up. Excessive alcohol consumption is dangerous, listening to the spice girls is dangerous … Eating more protein is NOT. I’m not advocating consuming vast amounts of protein (even though there is little to no evidence that shows any detriment to health), I’m simply saying in a lot of cases eating slightly more, and some at every meal can help with body composition goals.
Eat vegetables with every meal – Without a doubt one of the most useful but underrated, underused nutritional strategies to get lean is consuming lots of vegetables. I’m not talking about putting an extra leaf of lettuce in your sandwich I’m talking eating a whole serving of vegetables with every meal, even breakfast if you can handle it. If you are a calorie counter, these are your best friend. Anything green and leafy is ‘free’ so load up on your broccoli, asparagus and lettuce. It will aid in the digestion of your protein, positively affect acid/alkali balance in the body, stimulate metabolism and keep you feeling full. You know Popeye’s secret right?
No crash diets! – They don’t work. If you were once eating 4000kcals, don’t suddenly drop this to 2000kcals, this will cause your progress to stagnate and leave you nowhere to go. Drop a maximum of 500kcals from your diet initially, and then consider the addition of extra exercise bouts instead of a further energy reduction.
Run less, lift more – Many people make the mistake of overdoing cardiovascular exercise in pursuit of a lean men’s health model physique. This does not mean all cardio is evil, however, a lean muscular physique is built in the weights room. Also, considering substituting some of that long slow cardio for sprints, ever seen a fat 100m sprinter?
Do the basics and do them quickly – A fat loss programme should be based around the core, multi-joint lifts such as the squat, bench press and deadlift, these will burn the most amount of energy in the shortest time. Similarly, do not wait forever between sets, fast paced weight-training sessions with moderate to heavy weights and short rest periods increase heart rate and lactic acid production; this in turn will lead to greater output of growth hormone, a powerful natural fat burner.
Take Omega 3 fish oils – Little point in writing about this last ‘tip’ because you’re already taking them right? No? So you want to die from a heart attack? You enjoy joint pain? Maybe you’re quite fond of your love handles? Yes, I am saying Omega 3 fish oils can go some way to preventing all of those things. There have even been studies that showed improvements in body composition in the absence of dieting or exercise simply through omega 3 fish oil supplementation. Particularly it is the EPA and DHA that are key so if you can find a supplement with a high potency of these you are on to a winner.
So there you have it. Some very easy tips to employ into your eating regime that are guaranteed to benefit you. Couple this eating plan with a decent weights routine and you’ll be hitting your lean vanity…… I mean ‘performance’ goals in no time.