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Bodyrecomposition Mailbag 12

Another mailbag.

High-Protein or High-Fat Ketogenic Diet

Question: I’m familiar with the “true” ketogenic diet of 90% fat which historically is a medical diet used to assist in controlling seizure prone individuals, but it has the added advantage of being a fantastic way to shed weight while keeping the brain fed. In your RAPID FAT LOSS diet, you say it’s basically a ketogenic diet but without the dietary fat – why? If I were to choose between the 2 ketogenic diets, why choose 90-95% PROTEIN over 90-95% FAT????

Answer: The issue, as always, comes down to a matter of context.  The original epilepsy ketogenic diet was developed, as you note to control seizures.  And for whatever reason, at least one aspect of that was developing very, very deep degrees of ketosis.  For this reason, a very high dietary fat content and lowish protein intake is necessary.

This is related to something called the ketogenic ratio which is critical for the treatment of epilepsy.  Protein has about a half anti-ketogenic effect and too much dietary protein can inhibit ketosis.  Which makes the epilepsy diet not work.  So in that context, the diet had to be set up with very high fat and low protein.

And while such a diet may make people lose WEIGHT quickly, simply losing WEIGHT is not necessarily the goal.  Rather, the goal is (or should be) to lose FAT while maintaining MUSCLE mass to improve body composition.  I discussed this difference in some detail in the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook itself.

That is, people who want to change body composition aren’t just interested in weight loss per se, they want to maximize fat loss while (generally speaking) minimizing the loss of lean body mass.  And the simple fact is that a 90% fat ketogenic diet, due to the low protein content won’t do that.  Rather, dietary protein has to be set at a certain level to avoid lean body mass losses.

And since the explicit goal of the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook diet is to maximize fat loss (again while minimizing lean body mass loss) that also means cutting calories to the bone.  That means reducing dietary fat to minimal levels (only essential fatty acids).  And, mind you, such a diet would be wholly inappropriate (it wouldn’t work) for epilepsy treatment.

And that’s your answer.  If the goal were epilepsy treatment, the high-fat ketogenic diet would be the appropriate choice (I’d point anyone interested in this topic to The Ketogenic Diet: A Treatment for Epilepsy, 3rd Edition (Paperback) by Freeman, Freeman and Kelly).  But assuming the goal is maximal fat loss with no muscle loss (e.g. the goal of most who read my site), a higher protein intake is required and the very high-fat version of the ketogenic diet would be wholly inappropriate.

And, in the context of Rapid Fat Loss Handbook, given the explicit goals of that diet, that means keeping fat intake very low (limited only to essential fatty acids and the tagalongs that are unavoidable with whole foods).   Of course, more moderate ketogenic diets with sufficient dietary protein and higher dietary fat intakes can also be set up as described in my first book The Ketogenic Diet.  The rate of fat loss will simply be slower on such a diet due to the higher caloric intake and more moderate deficit.

Gaining Muscle While Losing Fat

Question: Is it possible to stay at the same weight and replace fat weight with LBM, by making decent strength gains over time? (i.e by not actually leaning out and then mass packing etc). Can the body use the extra calories that are needed for new muscle gain from existing fat stores on the body?  I’m assuming this is the case for beginners, but how about intermediates/advanced trainees?  If so, roughly what sort of time frame would be needed to say drop 10lbs fat and replace with the same amount in muscle? Thanks.

Answer: I’m willing to argue that if there is a single question (or related set of questions) that comes up perennially in the field of training and nutrition, it’s something akin to the above.  The idea of ‘gaining muscle while losing fat’ in general or, better yet ‘replacing every pound of fat lost with muscle’ is sort of the holy grail of training and nutrition and a great deal of approaches that are supposed to generate that very thing have been thrown out over the years.

In essence, this is the basis of bodyrecomposition, you train and eat in such a way as to end up with more muscle and less fat than you had before.  People on forums either want to know how to accomplish the above or make statements such as “I want to gain muscle without gaining weight.” implying that they are replacing every pound of lost fat with the exact same pound of muscle.   Others will hide it in the math of the situation, wanting to move from one weight/body fat percentage to another without recognizing what that implies for the numerical changes that they are seeking.

Now, when I was younger and only thought I knew what I was talking about, I would often say that the above was impossible to accomplish.  In hindsight, impossible was a bit too strong of a term.  Clearly it’s not impossible as it does happen.  But it can sure be difficult depending on the situation.

There are a handful of situations where the combination of muscle gain and fat loss occur relatively readily.  The first of those is in overfat beginners.  I want to really stress the term overfat in the above sentence.  This phenomenon doesn’t happen in lean beginners for reasons I’m going to explain in a second.

A second situation where this phenomenon occurs readily is folks returning from a layoff.  Folks who are previously lean and muscular but who get out of shape (whether deliberately or not) often find that they get back into shape much faster than they did initially: they seem to magically replace fat with muscle.

In fact, with the advent of before/after transformation pictures for supplements, this has become a growth industry: people who are already in great shape will deliberately get out of great shape so that they can quickly reattain their previous shape in a short period.  Apparently there is huge money in selling such before/after pictures to help move supplements.

But that’s not really what the question was asking which had more to do with this idea: can the body use calories stored in fat cells to support muscle growth, essentially shunting calories from fat to muscle and achieving the holy grail: fat loss with concomitant muscle gain.

As a generality, this is difficult due for various reasons related to calorie partitioning, a topic discussed at length in my Ultimate Diet 2.0.

And this brings me back to my comment about overfat beginners as I think this explains some of the physiology involved.   Please note that I’ve never really seen this topic studied directly and much of what I’m going to write is based on either observation or other known aspects of physiology that I feel tie into the issue.

So consider an individual who is carrying quite a bit of fat and not very much muscle.  Your typical overfat beginner trainee.  Let’s look a bit at what’s going on physiologically for this person.

One consequence of the excess body fat is a systemic insulin resistance and this is especially true for fat cells.  Basically, when fat cells start to get full, they become more resistant to further caloric storage.  That is to say: insulin resistance actually develops as an adaptation to obesity and this is one reason that obesity is often associated with things like hyperglycemia, hypertriglyercidemia and hypercholesterolemia.

The fat cells get so full that they stop accepting more calories.  So instead of being stored, glucose, triglycerides and cholesterol sit in the bloodstream.  In that vein, and quite contrary to popular belief, insulin resistance actually predicts weight loss and insulin sensitivity weight gain but that’s another topic for another day.

So we have a situation in overfat folks where fat cells are sort of trying to “push calories away” from the fat cells.  That’s point #1.  The second thing to consider is the untrained state and the fact that when people start training, they always make gains in both strength and muscle mass faster.  That is, beginners have the potential to gain muscle at a much faster rate (and more easily in terms of the stimulus needed) than someone trained.

As well, keep in mind that regular training (both resistance training and cardio) improve muscular insulin sensitivity and nutrient uptake in that one specific tissue (training is probably the most powerful tool in our arsenal to improve nutrient uptake in that specific a fashion).  That’s point #2.

So consider the combination: we have a situation with overfat beginners where fat cells are very insulin resistant and essentially trying to push calories away.  Now we throw training on that, not only sending a muscle building stimulus via training but increasing nutrient uptake into skeletal muscle through effects on skeletal muscle nutrient uptake/insulin sensitivity.

And what happens under those circumstances is exactly what you’d expect: the body appears to take calories out of fat cells and use them to build muscle.  And this is effectively what is happening due to the combination of the above two factors. But the combination of the two is required.   A lean beginner won’t see the above because they don’t have the fat to lose/fat energy to shunt to the muscle.  And as they get more advanced, the rate of muscle gain slows way down.  Again, it’s the combination of overfat and beginner status that comes together here to let some magic occur.

And even there you’re not going to see the body replacing one pound of fat with one pound of muscle for very long.  The rates of the different processes are simply too different.  What you might see is an initial shift where muscle ‘replaces’ fat due to the calorie shunting effect but invariably it slows down and either muscle gain or (more frequently) fat loss becomes dominant.

Leaner Trained Individuals

Now, having looked at the specific situation of an overfat beginner, let’s look at what happens as one of two things (or both happen): the person becomes leaner and/or achieves a higher training status.

A known adaptation to fat loss is an improvement in insulin sensitivity especially in fat cells.  This is part of why fat loss becomes more difficult as folks get leaner as well as why the risk of weight/fat gain is higher at the end of the diet (you’re MORE insulin sensitive).  This means that the fat cells not only have less stored fat to give up but it becomes more difficult to get it out of there.

I discussed reasons for this in The Stubborn Fat Solution along with protocols to sidestep the problem. But the point is made: as folks get leaner, getting fat out of fat cells becomes more difficult.    Furthermore, as folks become better trained, it becomes more difficult to gain muscle under any condition.  The training stimulus is higher and the impact of training is lessened.

So the situation that was in place for the overfat beginner has reversed itself in someone who is leaner and/or better trained.  Fat cells are no longer insulin resistant and “pushing fat calories” away.  Quite in fact they are ready to take up excess calories at any time. And since training has a lesser impact on muscle growth, the odds of getting the calorie shunting effect becomes lower and lower approaching nil.  Again, that’s on top of all of the hormonal stuff discussed in the above articles (e.g. fat loss and muscle gain requires different hormonal situations).

Which is why a lot of the approaches advocated for “gaining muscle while losing fat” aren’t very effective.  In fact, I’d tend to argue that most people’s attempts to achieve the above results in them simply spinning their wheels, making no progress towards either goal.  Because invariably they set up a situation where neither training nor diet is optimized for either fat loss or muscle gain.  Calories are too high for fat loss and too low to support muscle gains and outside of that one overfat beginner situation, the physiology simply isn’t going to readily allow what they want to happen to happen.

But more specific approaches can be effective in achieving this goal.  Generally these involve some type of calorie cycling.

Muscle Gain Never Equals Fat Loss

But none of those approaches generate a muscle gain to equal the fat loss, at best they generate a small muscle gain in the face of a much larger fat loss (e.g. someone might lose a lot of fat while gaining a pound or two of muscle or what have you).  But for the non-beginner/non-returning from a layoff trainee that’s about the best you’re going to get.

Potential rates of muscle gain are never going to approach the potential rate of fat loss once folks are past the beginner stage.  Even in the beginner stage, it’s generally always easier to lose fat much faster than you can gain muscle.

So the idea of replacing every pound of lost fat with exactly one pound of muscle will be essentially impossible for the intermediate/advanced trainee.  There’s simply not enough fat/the fat cells dont want to ‘give up their calories’ and the ability to stimulate rapid muscle gains isn’t there any more.

A followup question might be what about fatter but more advanced trainees.  Certainly in that situation, fat cell insulin sensitivity/etc. can approach what is occurring with the overfat beginner but there is still the issue of rate of muscle gain being drastically slowed.

It’s probably possible briefly at the start of the diet to get some caloric shunting but it’s never going to approach a 1:1 gain in muscle with fat loss; the potential rate of fat loss (1-2 lbs/week) to rates of muscle gain (0.5 lbs/week if you’re lucky) simply doesn’t exist.

As a final comment, I can say without hesitation that someone will post in the comments that they managed to achieve the above results in some form or fashion.  And while there are always going to be exceptions to any generality, that doesn’t tend to disprove the generality.  And generally speaking, the above is what happens in the real world.

Growth Hormone (GH) Release and Fat Loss

Question: A common recommendation bandied about by trainers is to place any LISS cardio after “lactate training” or whatever they choose to call higher intensity work, and they say that if fat loss is the aim, this will milk every last bit of effectiveness out of the low intensity work (versus keeping it a separate session entirely). And they usually say that increased lactate leads to increased GH, leads to increased lipolysis, so that when the low intensity work comes after the much higher intensity work, you oxidize more of the fat they claim gets mobilized.

So does this pairing of LISS cardio after high(er)-intensity work still make it at least somewhat more effective (from a fat-loss standpoint) than when performed separately? And if so, is it more due to other things you mentioned (glycogen depletion, effect of the catecholamines, etc.), so that the intended effect is the same, it was just the purported reason for the effect that most of these trainers had wrong (namely implicating a GH-induced increase in lipolysis as the reason)?

Answer: There’s no doubt that growth hormone (GH) is involved in lipolysis although, compared to hormones such as insulin and the catecholamines (epinephrine/norepinephrine aka adrenaline/noradrenaline) it plays a distinctly secondary role.  There are other hormones of course, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, Interleukin-6 and a new player called atrial-natriurietic peptide (ANP) all play a role as well.  Here I’m only going to talk about GH.

First let me define a single term which is lipolysis.  This refers to the breakdown of stored fat (technically: triglycerides) in fat cells for release into the bloodstream.  While there are more steps involved in losing fat (and the specific pathways are all discussed in some detail in The Stubborn Fat Solution), clearly if you can’t get the fat out of the cell in the first place, little else matters.  Lipolysis simply refers to that process, whereby fatty acids stored within fat cells are broken down to be released into the bloodstream, hopefully to be burned elsewhere in the body (generally skeletal muscle or liver).

For example, while studies of injectable GH have generally crapped out in terms of muscle growth (there is an increase in lean body mass but it’s primarily water and connective tissue, not actual muscle mass), it has shown impact on fat loss.  As well, the nighttime GH pulse has been shown to be important for lipolysis the next day.  Finally, during periods of fasting or even low-carbohydrate diets, studies clearly show that blocking the normal GH response not only limits lipolysis, but this ends up increasing muscle loss (because the body doesn’t have fatty acids to burn).

So far so good right?

Add to that a host of studies done primarily during in the 80’s by William Kraemer and his group showing that certain training protocols (notably higher reps and short rest periods; 3X10 with 1′ rest was typically used) elevate GH and you can see where folks got the idea that training in this fashion would be good for fat loss.

I think the first place I saw this idea floated was Charles Poliquin’s original German Body Composition Training.  Claimed to be based on German research into the hormonal response to training, it was based around multiple sets of high reps with short-rest, the premise of which being to raise GH (and lactate production during training seemed to be involved somehow) to increase fat loss.

More specifically to today’s question, many trainers will use what I term metabolic training followed by low-intensity cardio. The idea being that the GH response will promote lipolysis and the low-intensity cardio will then “burn off the fatty acids”.

And here’s we run into the problem with the idea:   the time course.  Because while GH is certainly involved in lipolysis, it’s effects are pretty slow to occur.  Cutting to the chase, after a big GH pulse, you don’t really see a big increase in lipolysis or blood fatty acids until about the 2 hours later.  Which means that a protocol based around the idea of elevating GH during the intense portion so that cardio done a few minutes after will burn off the fatty acids mobilized by the GH pulse is fundamentally incorrect from a physiological point of view.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.  Quite in fact, the premise is still fairly sound, this is just a place where I’m being picky about the mechanism.   Metabolic training still have acute effects that can be conducive to fat loss.  They simply aren’t related to GH release per se.

Rather, increases in epinephrine/norepinhrine will have a much stronger acute effect on fat mobilization, and the glycogen depletion due to this type of training tends to enhance fat oxidation in skeletal muscle.    Quite in fact, the two advanced protocols in my Stubborn Fat Solution are at least superficially similar to this type of training, high-intensity work followed by low-intensity work.  But GH isn’t the mechanism behind it.

So basically, what the person asking the question wrote in the second-half of his question.  The combination of high-intensity  followed by low-intensity work can still be effective for fat loss, it’s simply not for the mechanism stated.  The impact of GH on fat loss is simply too slow to be involved.  Rather, other mechanisms related to hormonal response, glycogen depletion, etc. are what are involved and responsible.  GH simply isn’t relevant to the process in that short of a term.

2 on/2 off Training for Hypertrophy

Question: What do you think of a 2 on 2 off upper/lower split so you train everything evenly at every 4th day.

So Monday: upper, Tuesday: lower, Wed/Thurs: off, Fri: upper, Sat: lower, Sun/Mon: off.

It requires more freedom in scheduling, but just curious if you thought this type of consistency was somehow advantageous as opposed to the every 3rd/4th day inconsistent recovery…

Answer: The above question actually came up in the comments section of my article on training frequency for mass gains.

Before getting to the question, I want to mention one potential problem with scheduling in this type of split routine.  Depending on what movements are being done, especially on the lower day, doing upper body the day before lower can be very problematic.  If someone is going to squat or deadlift on lower body day, fatigue in the back and shoulder girdle from the upper body day can cause real problems on the lower body day (clearly if other movements are being done on the lower day, this is far less of an issue).

There are two solutions to this.  The first is to switch the days and put lower body first in the sequence and upper body second (this raises a second issue which is that fatigue from heavy lower body work often makes upper body go poorly but training is nothing if not a series of compromises).  The second is to use a slightly different split.  Doing chest/shoulders/triceps on Monday and legs/back/biceps on Tuesday and keeping that sequence avoids some of the problems although day 1 ends up being a lot easier (and usually shorter) than day 2 (which can be murderous).

Ignoring that, let me get back to the original question about training 2 on/2 off across an 8 day training cycle and the relative optimality (or not) of that type of training.   And the short-answer to the above question is that…it depends.  Yeah, not very useful so let’s look at some of the things that it depends on and give the long answer.

Perhaps the biggest thing that the above depends on is life.  Most people’s real-life schedules are constrained by a rather standard 7 day work week.  We have Monday through Friday which are the typical work days followed by the weekend.  And this tends to have massive implications for how training weeks can be set up. Note that “can” and “should” are not synonymous here.

In fact, it’s a big part of why I tend to default to cycles that run across a standard work week, it simply reflects the reality of the majority of trainees in my experience.  Anyone who has read or done the Ultimate Diet 2.0 knows that I went to lengths to fit the cycle into a standard 7 day work week.  An 8 day cycle actually would have been better in a lot of ways but the reality is that most people can’t make the schedule work because their life situation is set by the standard 7 day week.

But the reality for a majority of trainees is that the above schedule tends to be a huge determinant of not only when they can train but what kinds of schedules that they can follow.   Typically, and this is even more the case if they have family obligations they won’t have a lot of time during the week to train while they will generally have more time available on the weekends.

That is to say, if they get off work at 5:30pm, get to the gym at 6:30 and have some expectation of spending time with their family in the evening, a long training session during the week may simply not be realistic, even weekends may be limited due to this either because they need to spend time with the family or have chores around the house.

I addressed this in a slightly different context when I addressed the idea of lifting six days per week.  There I gave the option of more frequent (but shorter) sessions during the work week with longer sessions on weekends.  This lets folks get in and out of the gym quickly during the week (to ensure that they continue to have a family to go home to) while training longer on the weekends.

Even with high-level athletes, who often train full time without a “real” job, training schedules still typically revolve around the 7-day work week with Sunday a day off.  Why?  Is it just tradition, some left-over from early religious practices (where Sunday is typically a day of rest) or work scheduling.  Or is it simply because competitions typically are done on Saturday and Sunday in most sports and training needs to sequence with that to some degree.  Probably a combination of those.

An additional factor that often plays a role is facility availability.  Some gyms aren’t even open on Sundays (my weight room isn’t for example).  That constrains training to certain days of the week which makes rotating schedules unrealistic.  It’s no good to have a workout fall on a Sunday if you can’t train on that day in the first place.

The upshot of this is that training usually ends up being modified to fit the week rather than physiological needs dictating when training occurs.  That is, since the work week is constraining things, coaches simply modify loading (volume and intensity) to make recovery fit into the 7 day cycle.

So, if I know you have to train upper body on Monday and Thursday, I’ll modify the loading of both days so that training progresses the way I want.  With only two days rest between Monday and Thursday, I might cut things back a bit; with three days between Thursday and the following Monday, I might push it harder so that recovery takes a touch longer.   Or whatever.

But all of the above has more to do with practical issues, and less physiological ones which I suspect was the genesis of the original question. The body and the adaptations that occur with training don’t care that it’s Sunday and your gym is closed, or that religion dictates that it’s a day of rest.  What ‘must’ be done due to the realities of the real-world have little to do with what ‘should’ be done from a physiological standpoint.  It’s simply that you can’t consider the one without dealing with the other.  Setting up training schedules is always an exercise in compromises and this is one of the big ones.

But let’s assume that someone has the life flexibility (and it’s worth noting that bodybuilders have rarely been constrained by the ‘standard’ approaches of other training systems) to train any day they want for as long as needed, the gyms are open, and nothing is limiting them from doing what the person asking the question proposed.

That is to train 2 days in a row and then take 2 days completely off before hitting the cycle again so that there are exactly 4 days training between every workout (with the workout days rotating through the week since we’re on an 8 week cycle) rather than having 2 days of rest and then 3 days of rest or what have you.  Is that better, worse, or no different?

And the answer is still…it depends.

But now it depends more on the individual trainee since we’ve eliminated the real-world type obstacles that so often get in the way.  Some trainees have no problem going hard and heavy on back to back training days.  For whatever reason, fatigue from a hard Monday workout doesn’t limit them in any fashion on Tuesday.  They will have no problems with the proposed sequencing.  They can train hard Monday, train hard Tuesday, take Wednesday and Thursday off, train hard Friday/Saturday, take Sunday/Monday off, repeat until huge or whatever.

But that’s simply not true for everyone.  For some trainees, a hard Monday workout leaves them flat and fatigued on Tuesday and they can’t get jack squat done in the gym.  They need a full day off between each workout and working out every other day (even across an 8 day cycle) is a better choice.  Of course, that type of trainee has real problems with training 4 days per week on a 7 day schedule because at least one set of workouts has to come back to back (e.g. Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday or whatever).

The type of training being performed also impacts on this.  Very heavy low rep training is often more fatiguing (generally neurally more than muscularly) and the second type of athlete will often be ‘blown’ from a heavy workout (legs moreso than upper body) and need a full day off before they can go really heavy again.   Trying to squat heavy on Monday and bench heavy on Tuesday just goes nowhere.

Of course, there are ways around that too.  Alternating heavy and lighter workout can still allow two training days in a row before complete days off are taken.  The lighter second day might be speed work of some sort or even higher repetition ‘bodybuilding’ type training (this often helps the second type of athlete recover from the heavier day).   Even for pure ‘strength’ athletes, lower intensities (e.g. 70-75% of max rather than 80-85% of max) is often doable on the second day even with fatigue.

I’d note that more moderate intensity bodybuilding training doesn’t tend to be quite the problem in this regards even for the second type of trainee.  Unless they really grind themselves to failure and beyond with the Monday workout, they can usually come back and hit more bodybuilding type training on a Tuesday.  But the intensities have to be moderate, volumes kept in check and failure pretty much steadfastly avoided.

So the answer to the original question is simply it depends.  Certainly it can work for certain athletes under certain situations.  In my experience, most don’t have the life flexibility to make it work and individual physiology will also impact on whether or not it’s workable.

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