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Bodyrecomposition Mailbag 3

So another dig into the mailbag to save myself having to think of another feature article to write.  The three questions today have to do with fat loss and muscle sparing, phosphatidylserine, cortisol and water retention.   Finally is a look at causes of a plateau in weight gain.

Dietary Deficit and Fat Loss when Muscle Sparing is the Same

Hi Lyle. A nerd question: Since the only two things in human body which can: 1. store energy 2. be able to gain and loss in a huge range all year long (compare to glycogen which could only be gained and lost in a small range), are fat and muscle (is that ture?). So is that true all diet would result in exactly the same amount of fat loss, if 1. the deficit is the same and 2. the muscle loss or protection is the same? Ignoring all other factors like insulin level?


Short answer: yes-ish and I say that as I’m going to actually address a question that you didn’t actually ask.

Sort of by definition if the total actual tissue loss is the same and lean body mass (LBM) sparing is identical, actual fat loss will be the same.  It has to be.  If 10 total pounds of tissue is lost and both diets only allow 1 pound of LBM loss, the other 9 lbs has to be fat (ok, something truly screwy could go on such as loss of bone or organ mass but it’s usually pretty small).

Now, if you want to be pedantic and look at weight loss, this isn’t necessarily true.  This is why I was using the odd term tissue loss.  Because part of total weight loss is not actual tissue loss but things like glycogen, water, food in the gastrointestinal tract and such.  Those will vary depending on diet, a low-carbohydrate diet will cause glycogen to become depleted, water and minerals to be lost and since carbohydrates are the primary source of the food residue that comes out the other end, that will also be decreased. Ketogenic diets may cause a loss of water weight of 1-15 lbs in the first several days for example.

But this is purely short-term, in the first few days to a week of a diet.  It’s why weight loss between the diets is often different even if true fat loss is not.

But in terms of true fat loss, if the total tissue lost is the same and LBM sparing is identical, fat loss will be identical.

Phosphatidyl Serine and Cortisol

Hi Lyle, I have a question regarding PS as a cortisol blocker/reducer. I know from reading a lot of your work, a large deficit raises cortisol, and a lot of activity raises cortisol, and nut jobs like me seem to do both even though the facts tell us not to. At any rate, do you believe Phosphatidylserine could reduce cortisol enough to keep water retention from masking fat loss? And if so, what would be a needed dose of PS, and how and when would you take it? I am aware it is a very pricey supplement, but so are a lot of other things.

Phosphatidyl serine (PS) is an odd supplement.  It got super popular early on and then just kind of disappeared.  I’m not sure why though.   I had actually put a short section in the women’s book about it and then took it out; it’s too obscure.    PS is a phospholipid that may actually change the membrane structure in the brain that was found early on to reduce the cortisol response to certain kinds of stresses, including exercise.  I don’t know off hand if it has been examined relative to dietary restriction I kind of doubt it would impact that as much (it seems to be impacting on more, active stresses, for lack of a better phrase).    It might also reduce resting cortisol levels.

Is it strong enough to impact on the potential water retention from hard dieting and exercise?  Maybe.    To be honest, I’d rather see people not combine big deficits and lots of activity in the first place but there are situations where that just can’t be avoided (and some people start out with more mental stress than others which raises cortisol to begin with; rigidly restrained dieters are an example).

So far as dose PS is a fairly bland, tasteless powder that mixes fairly easily; it’s primary drawback is being somewhat expensive. It’s been thought that PS may provide faster results if it is loaded first at 800 mg/day for two weeks before moving to a maintenance dose of 100-300 mg/day. Alternately, a dose of 300 mg/day can be taken daily. Over time, both will have the same impact.

Plateau in Weight Gain

Dear Mr. McDonald I’ve successfully used your advice in my journey with weightlifting and nutrition. Since of December 2015, I gained about 10 kg in weight (from 58 to 68) with almost no change in body fat while using your routine Generic Bulking Routine. Since the end of November, I stumbled upon what you might call a plateau.


While eating a decent amount above of my TDEE (2213 calories, eating at 2761 calories), I struggle to gain weight, breaking the 68 kg limit. I’m 95% sure (100% would be ridiculous) that my food intake measurements are correct and that my daily average is 2761, with a standard deviation of about 50 calories.

In addition, I changed my TDEE every time I gained weight to make sure that that number was correct. I’ve read your article Not Losing Fat at 20% Deficit, What Should I do? – Q&A where you state the following: I have known people who have to go to 8 cal/lb (often with an hour of activity daily) to lose fat at any reasonable rate, etc. Is it possible that the reverse effect can happen with people who are trying to gain weight? Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Absolutely this is possible.  Because just as the body adapts metabolic rate downwards with diet, it can adapt it upwards (to at least some degree) with increased food intake.  As a quick review, total daily energy expenditure (TDEE, the number of calories burned in a 24 hour span) is made up of 4 factors: RMR, TEF, TEA and NEAT.   And all four can go up for several potential reasons when calories are increased or weight is gained.

RMR is resting metabolic rate and represents the number of calories burned by the body at rest and may make up 60-75% of TDEE.  It is primarily impacted by the amount of lean body mass although other factors such as hormones play a role here.  RMR will go up as total bodyweight and muscle mass go up although the resting calorie burn of muscle is actually quite low (about 6 cal/lb).

So gain 10 lbs of muscle and you might burn 60 calories more at rest.  Hooray.  More contentions is whether there is an increase in RMR above what would be predicted for bodyweight and for the most part, it either doesn’t occur, is fairly insignificant or is very short-term (in one study, it went up by about 100 calories in the first 2 weeks of 8 total of big time overfeeding).

TEF is the thermic effect of food, the number of calories burned in processing of food. This is typically taken as 10% of total calorie intake (this might go to 15% if protein intake is particularly high) and increased food intake will mean a higher TEF.  Thing is, it’s pretty insignificant.  At 1000 calories above maintenance, TEF goes up by maybe 100 calories.  But it does contribute to all of this.

TEA is the thermic effect of activity, the calories burned during formal exercise.   TEA can vary enormously from zero calories per day (no formal exercise), up to hundreds or thousands of calories per day (endurance athletes may burn 1000+ calories in a long workout).  This too goes up with weight gain.  A heavier body will burn more calories during exercise so that will also go up.

Since TEA is a conscious thing, whether or not the total amount of exercise goes up depends on the person.  There may also be changes in muscular efficiency here which would impact on the number of calories burned.   Frequently people both train more and more intensely when they are eating more and this would mean a higher calorie burn.

Finally is NEAT which is non-exercise activity thermogenesis.  Originally this referred to unconcious movements that burned calories but now includes any activities which aren’t formal exercise (I.e. gardening, walking from the car to the store).  NEAT is the most variable of all the components and two people can have NEAT that varies 2000 calories per day from highest to lowest.  This tends to be dependent on lifestyle and environment.

In Western environments, NEAT tends to be much lower than in less modernized environments and people who work manual labor jobs burn more calories than someone who sits in a cubicle all day.  But this tends to be where major changes occur with weight gain and some people upregulate NEAT enormously as they eat more and gain weight.  And this can offset weight and fat gain pretty significantly (in one study, overfeeding by 1000 cal/day increased calorie expenditure via NEAT by as much as 700 calories in some people).

In most cases, it’s changes in NEAT that are having the biggest impact during both weight loss and weight gain.  People move around less when they are dieting (often to the tune of several hundred calories) and may move around more (depending on luck of the draw) when they are eating more.  In my experience and opinion, the typical ‘hardgainer’ is often the guy who just won’t sit still.  They are the guy bouncing their leg and fidgeting all the time and this can burn an enormous number of calories.

And the consequence of all of this is that TDEE has to be considered a moving target rather than some static number.  And yes, for some people, this can result in enormously high calorie intakes to gain weight.

As a final note, in general there is a linkage between changes in TDEE and appetite/food intake.  The person who tends to show the highest increase in TDEE with overfeeding often has their hunger shut off.  And frequently, they aren’t eating as much as they think they are.   Because just as dieters often under-report their food intake, the typical person who can’t gain weight is often overreporting what they are eating.   And since their appetite tends to shut off, food either has to be force fed.

Or use the McCallum Get Big Drink.  Which is only half a joke as calorie dense liquids are much easier to get down (and don’t blunt hunger) as much as whole food.  For people with enormous calorie requirements, it’s often the only way to get enough calories.

Nut Consumption and Bodyweight

Question: I have a follow-up to the article you posted on Monday regarding 10 Tips to Deal with Holiday Weight Gain. A lot of parties I attend during the holidays have various sorts of nuts as snacks and my question is how they impact on body weight. I have read that they are healthy but they also seem to contain a lot of calories, what’s the deal with them? Thank you.

Answer: Nuts are sort of strange nutritionally. On the one hand they are generally very nutritious, they provide a decent amount of quality protein and, although sometimes high in fat, the fats they contain are generally of the healthy kind, nuts are generally high in fiber as well. Nuts are also a good source of magnesium, Vitamin E and research indicates that they may contain important phyto-chemical compounds beneficial to human health; diets containing nuts have also been shown to improve blood lipid profiles.

On the other hand, they can be extremely nutritionally dense (that is, providing a lot of calories in a very low volume). This gives them the potential to negatively affect body weight.

However, a fairly large body of research indicates that nuts don’t seem to impact body weight negatively, at all. That is, various research studies have provided some amount of nuts in addition to the normal diet to see what happens to body weight. In general, the addition of nuts has had limited or no impact on body weight. Phrased differently, despite the addition of calories from nuts, weight doesn’t change/isn’t affected. What’s going on?

Research has identified three possible mechanisms to account for the observed results.

Satiety: Nuts appear to increase fullness and calories from nuts seem to be compensated later in the day. That is, it’s suggested that the calories from nut intake results in a spontaneous decrease in food intake later in the day such that total energy balance is unchanged.

One type of study, called a preload study has examined this, providing a fixed number of calories from nuts and then seeing what happens to spontaneous food intake at a buffet type meal later on. Invariably, nut intake (one study tested almonds, chestnuts, and peanuts) causes people to eat less at the buffet meal

However, despite the impact of nuts on fullness, this still isn’t sufficient to account for the lack of an impact on body weight from nut consumption and other mechanisms must be at work.

Increased Energy Expenditure: Some work has identified an increase in energy expenditure due to nut intake; some research has found an increase in resting energy expenditure with chronic nut intake as well. This could be due to the protein content (protein has the largest effect on TEF for example), the fatty acid profile, or both.

Increased Fecal Energy Loss: With nut consumption, there is increased energy loss in your poop, that is, some proportion (one study found a 7% increase) of ingested calories are excreted without absorption. This is likely due to the fiber content of the nuts or some other compound that limits digestive/absorption capacity for nuts.

The three factors above have been shown to account for 95% of the total energy value of the nuts so there is still a small amount unaccounted for. In any case, nuts, despite their high energy content, simply don’t seem to have the negative impact on body weight that one might expect. Which, mind you, doesn’t mean that you can eat them with no attention to portions or intake of other food, recall that a big part of the above effect is due to caloric compensation. If you’re adding a ton of calories from nuts and don’t end up reducing your intake from other sources, the potential for fat/weight gain certainly is there.

Which is basically a long way of saying to eat them, just not without paying some attention to overall intake.

Ketosis and Ammonia Smell

Question: My question relates to the pungent smell of ammonia in my sweat during a hard work out, seems to start about 45 minutes in and gets stronger from then. This started very soon after the diet. I have recently started a high protein slow carb diet,am drinking between 3 and 4 litres of water a day (currently 180lbs with 21% body fat)have plenty of energy and feel alert and well.  From your work I gather this could be the result of ketosis and burning protein and fat for energy?

Two questions please:
1. Is this OK?
2. Is there anyway to eliminate the smell?

Answer: This is a fairly common report on very low-carbohydrate/ketogenic diet (defined, once again, as any diet containing less than 100 grams of carbohydrate per day), a report of a fairly strong ammonia smell in the sweat during exercise.  As I discuss in detail in my first book The Ketogenic Diet this ammonia is produced due to the ultimate breakdown of ATP to ADP to AMP and ammonia.

This appears to occur more readily when muscle glycogen is depleted (as occurs with the combination of of a very low-carbohydrate intake along with training) and may be part of the increased protein requirements that have been known to occur with endurance training (this is discussed in detail in The Protein Book).  I would mention that it appears that this ‘protein breakdown’ is not actually coming from the breakdown of skeletal muscle itself; rather it’s from the breakdown of BCAA (branched-chain amino acids) within the free amino acid pool.

So is this ok?  So long as dietary protein intake is sufficient, I don’t see this as being any real problem.  The effect is slight in terms of the absolute amount of protein being broken down (in terms of grams) and so long as protein intake is sufficient, there shouldn’t be any detrimental effect other than the smell.

And how do you get rid of the smell?  Well, either wear strong deodorant or raise your carbohydrate intake above the ~100 g/day cutoff point so that you’re not in ketosis.  That’s really all I’ve got solution wise since it’s just one of those biochemical processes that is going to occur during long-duration workouts on a ketogenic diet.  All the best!

Maximal Strength Training for Bodybuilders

Question: It’s hard for one to get bigger when their strength is the limiting factor. Eric Cressey once used an analogy of a cup with water in it. The water inside is your size, speed, endurance etc. but eventually the cup gets full and the only thing you can do to really progress is to increase the size of the glass – maximal strength.

However, I don’t think it would be a good idea (would it?) for a bodybuilder to start doing a powerlifter’s routine which focuses on just moving a weight from point A to point B.

So, my question is, how do you recommend a bodybuilder get stronger?

Answer: Yes and no.  How’s that for a useless answer?  Ok, let me make it less useless.

First off, I want to make the point that the primary stimulus for muscle growth is progressive tension overload; that is, you must subject a muscle to progressive overload (primarily in the form) of lifting more weight over time.   This is discussed in more detail in Reps Per Set for Optimal Growth.

Other factors such as volume/fatigue/work (and frequency) are clearly important but, simply, if you’re not getting stronger (and here I’m assuming that you’re not changing your form to handle more weight) over time, along with providing sufficient calories and building blocks, you’re not growing.

Quick note: this doesn’t mean you have to add weight at every workout which is the HIT fallacy.  Depending on your level of development, you might add weight every workout, you might stay at a given weight for 2-3 workouts or it might be 2-3 weeks before you can add weight in good form.  But, if over some reasonable time frame, your training weights aren’t increasing, you won’t be growing.  We’ve all seen guys handling the same weight for 6-12 months in the gym; that doesn’t get it done.

In this vein, it’s sort of interesting that you mention powerlifters.  I have often found it somewhat ironic (and amusing to boot) that the bodybuilders are the ones who are focusing all of their efforts on muscle growth; yet it’s the powerlifters who are the ones who are getting muscularly bigger (and yes, a little fatter).

A lot of this has to do with where a lot of bodybuilders put their focus which is too frequently on the wrong stuff.  Bodybuilders often get fixated on irrelevant stuff, the pump, how exhausted they are after their 20 sets for biceps, feel, etc.  They focus on everything but what matters: getting stronger and subjecting a muscle to progressive tension overload.

In contrast, the basis of powerlifting is adding more weight to the bar over time, it’s built in to the sport and is the explicit goal of the training.  So whereas you might see a bodybuilder handling the same weights (but focusing on that feel, getting that pump and walking out of the gym destroyed) for a year, any powerlifter doing that will change his training program so that he’s getting stronger and adding weight to the bar.

Quick tangential note: a lot of the reason that natural bodybuilders are so misled is that massive drug use among pro bodybuilders makes the training less important.  All of the feel, pump, squeeze bs came out of drug fueled bodybuilding.  I’ve seen enormous male bodybuilders handling weights that were lower than my female trainees were using, the drugs make up for it.  A specific case that jumps to mind was a 150 lb. female trainee of mine who was handling 120X8-10 for strict reps on the rear lateral machine.  The 280 lb. behemoth bodybuilder in the gym only used 70 lbs on it.  As you might imagine, his shoulders were a bit bigger.

Now, another aspect of the bodybuilding vs. powerlifting issue is food intake; bodybuilders are often so obsessed with staying super lean year round that they simply won’t eat enough.  And they don’t grow.  As I described in General Philosophies of Muscle Gain, I think natural bodybuilders will generally grow best by allowing a slight fat gain and interspersing that with short dieting cycles to strip the fat off while keeping the muscle.

So that’s the basis for my comments: to grow, bodybuilders have to get stronger (and 99% of big natural bodybuilders will be damn strong).  Does that mean that they should train like a power lifter?  Not necessarily although there are some stories of powerlifters who dieted down to contest levels of leanness and could have blown bodybuilders out of the water.

Of course, some of this depends on how you define ‘training like a powerlifter’.   There are a couple of concerns here that I want to examine which are rep range and style of lifting.

Depending on philosophy, powerlifters often work in pretty low rep ranges and I’m not saying bodybuilders should shift their training to nothing but singles, doubles and triples.  But there is enormous variety here.

I’d probably argue that many (if not most) powerlifters don’t just use lots of low reps; the competition lifts (squats, bench, deadlift) may be worked in this fashion but usually higher rep (8-15 reps per set) supplemental work (for lagging muscle groups) is done afterwards.  While we might quibble over whether a bunch of singles and doubles in the bench builds much pec mass (they can if you do a ton of them), the supplemental work done afterwards certainly does.

Bodybuilders, in general will be better suited by working a more medium rep range.  5-12 reps is a common repetition range and there can be reasons to go even higher from time to time.  I discuss this in more detail in my guide to periodization for bodybuilders.

I’d note in this context that there is an old school idea of ‘Power Bodybuilding’ that combines some of the best of both worlds.  Typically the primary lift (squat, bench deadlift, etc.) is worked for heavy sets of 5 and that is followed by pump work for sets of 10-15 reps or what have you.  I think this is an excellent way to train.

Even there, I firmly believe that the average intermediate or advanced bodybuilder could benefit from the occasional foray into more power style training.  Again, this doesn’t have to be singles and doubles (although I have done that with people) but even working heavy triples nearer the 85-90% of max range can help to improve some of the oft-ignored neural aspects of strength.

By bumping up maximal strength through neural means, the bodybuilder will generally be able to handle heavier weights when they return to a more medium repetition range.  More weight equals more tension on the muscle.  Add that to a higher repetition range and a little more volume, add food and you get growth.

How often? That’s always the debate.  A bodybuilder might do a short (3 weeks) maximal strength phase to round out a longer hypertrophy cycle.  So every 3-4 full hypertrophy cycles (which might be 6-8 weeks apiece), hit a 3 week strength phase. Then take an easy week and start over. I can’t see making it much longer than that or doing it more often.

I’d also have the bodybuilder follow the heavy work with at least some higher rep work.  Some early research on this suggested some muscle loss if volume dropped too much.  So after you hit your 3X3 back squat go get some high rep leg (1-2 X6-10 reps) press or leg extension/leg curl to make sure you maintain your size.

But used every once in a while, I think it’s a great way to enhance bodybuilding results.

As far as exercise performance, one of your concerns above seems to be related to the idea that powerlifters simply focus on ‘moving the weight’ whereas bodybuilders are often obsessed with squeezing, feeling and working the muscle.  And, as long as they do that within the context of getting stronger, that’s fine.

Powerlifters often use techniques in the competition lifts that are focused at taking the stress off of the muscles so that more weight can be moved which is I think where part of your question is going.   For bodybuilders, I wouldn’t generally recommend this, if you’re a high bar squatter, stick with that instead of a powerlifting style.  Keep your deadlifts clean style, and your benches more towards the generic power style described in Bench Pressing Variations.

Basically, bodybuilders still need to ensure that the target muscles (e.g. pecs in bench) are being hit when they lift.  That doesn’t prevent them from doing short maximal strength cycles or using some powerlifting type ideas to improve their training.

And I hope that answers the question.


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