Working to achieve the ultimately chiseled, tight physique is a full time job. A job that most of us have to squeeze into our spare time; a job for which we are not rewarded. Well, not financially rewarded, anyway. The number of athletes that actually get paid to train, diet and perhaps compete is very small. And even then, many of them must supplement that income with one or more additional jobs.
If you’re one of the less fortunate ones – the people who work as hard at play as they do at work, but still need to work and manage your family life – then your schedule might look something like this:
Heaven forbid someone throws a wrench in your plans... you don’t have time for that!
Living this way is one of the reasons that so many people are suffering from burnout. Fatigue, stress, achiness, depression, loss of sleep, decreased immunity... just a few of the symptoms that you might experience if you’re chasing the dream.
If you’re a competitor, there are often other confounding variables that can be thrown into the mix. Sadly, there are too many contest prep coaches out there that use archaic and downright dangerous methods to get their clients into what they consider ‘stage shape’. But, in all fairness, there are a lot of people who choose to employ these tactics on their own, in the hopes of attaining the ‘perfect’ physique.
Let’s explore those:
1. Extremely low calorie diets
Severely cutting food intake will absolutely get you to drop weight. Water weight. Muscle weight. And sure, yes, some fat weight too. But tearing down muscle means three things:
2. Excessive Cardio
There is no question that cardiovascular activity (when executed properly) is paramount to success in shedding fat. But over-exercising: specifically performing insane amounts of cardio (2+ hours daily over a period of 6 or more weeks) is NOT good for anyone. You’re setting yourself up for metabolic damage (see box 2 below). It’s stressful to the body. And when the body perceives stress, it secretes cortisol from the adrenal glands. Ongoing cortisol release not only contributes to fat storage (specifically abdominal fat), but it can eventually cause adrenal fatigue (see box 1 below) and even adrenal failure.
It’s not just overdoing cardio exercise that causes distress to the body. Taxing your musculature without providing it with the rest and fuel that it requires to recover is also highly detrimental. Not only do you not allow your muscles to repair and grow, but you’re creating an atmosphere of free-radical damage; it’s like a war zone inside your body.
4. Beating yourself up
Fit-minded people tend to be pretty self-critical. The ladies are never lean enough; the men, never big enough. No matter how hard you work, you think there’s room for more. We spend every spare moment picking ourselves apart, and it is stress-inducing... both mentally and physically. Negative self-talk is pretty tiring; never feeling good enough can weigh heavily, both on the mind and the body.
BOX 1: What is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue (AF) occurs when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level. It happens when your body’s adrenal glands are unable to adequately meet the demands of the stress (physical and psychological) upon which they are put. The syndrome is most often associated with long-term, intense stress. AF, like the name suggests, is marked by intense physical and psychological fatigue that does not seem to be rectified with sleep. Tiredness, lethargy, and a general feeling of being unwell are common in those suffering with AF. People experiencing the disorder often use caffeine and / or stimulants just to function ‘normally’ throughout the day.
In serious cases of AF, sufferers have difficulty getting out of bed for more than a few hours. And, as adrenal function decreases, every single organ in the body is more severely affected. As adrenal function declines, there is a decrease in your macronutrient metabolism (the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats and proteins), your body’s electrolyte balance, your cardiovascular system, and even your libido. So, you’re working super hard to burn the fat, retain the muscle and look fantastic to the opposite sex, but your excessive efforts are, in fact, working against you.
BOX 2: What is Metabolic Damage?
The combination of a high cardio volume and an ultra-low calorie diet, sustained over the long term, seems to be the biggest culprit in metabolic damage. We see this more in women than in men: the girls have been dieting hard and basically living on the Stairclimber and the fat loss has plateaued. The answer? More is better, right?! So they dial things up, cutting back some food and adding minutes to the cardio workout. But this only make things worse: much worse. Metabolic damage can take more than a year to repair, and it’s not an easy road. The driven and determined competitors out there are willing to do ‘whatever it takes’. Many under-educated coaches think that slashing calories and jacking up cardio time is exactly ‘what it takes’. So they willingly destroy the metabolism for ONE moment of glory on a stage.
Once your body senses that it’s losing fat, it will begin to decrease thyroid levels and nervous system output in order to stop the weight loss. So cardio goes up, food goes down and, while fat loss will kick-start once again, the body will further lower thyroid levels and nervous system output. It will also decrease levels of testosterone levels and increase levels of cortisol (see Adrenal Fatigue, above) which will soon lead to muscle wasting. Because muscle is metabolically active, the net result is yet another decrease in metabolism.
Why does the body do this to us? Why does it resist our efforts to change? One word: Survival.
If your body allowed you to continue to burn calories at a high rate despite the caloric intake decreasing, you’d end up dead: the fire can’t keep burning if there’s no kindling.
SIGNS OF METABOLIC DAMAGE
The sad truth to all of this is that, if we don’t make a conscious effort to break the cycle, we will just burn ourselves right into the ground.
The only way out is to make safer, healthier choices. Follow these tips to pull yourself back into a state of healthiness and happiness.
1. Give yourself Time
It took you more than a month to put it on; allow yourself the time needed to take it off. Losing more than two pounds of fat per week will be detrimental in the long term (yes, when you start dieting you can lose upwards of five pounds per week for the first few weeks; most of that is water weight). Keeping fat loss slow and steady will ensure that muscle loss is minimized.
2. One thing at a time
Very small changes to your diet can yield big changes. Just because the scale isn’t moving does not mean that you’re not changing for the better. If it’s been a couple weeks and nothing has changed, try to make one small change, rather than drastically cutting everything back. Your body will start to adapt to each small change, dropping fat as it does so. If you slash your calories and ramp up your cardio in the first few weeks, you’ll be out of tools when they’re really needed.
3. Cycle the carbs
Utilizing varying quantities of carbohydrates on different days in conjunction with your training will help to keep your metabolic rate elevated. Carbs increase the hydration of cells. When the cell volume is increased, the body believes that it is in a fed state: this will keep the metabolism boosted. Not only that, but as carbs are lowered, the body lowers leptin (fat burning hormone) levels as well. Spiking carb intake once or twice weekly will boost leptin levels, as leptin is very responsive to glucose (carbohydrate) metabolism. Higher carb days can also elicit higher levels of T3 (thyroid hormone) as well as keeping testosterone levels elevated. But if we keep carbs high for too long, the body will adapt quickly and start storing that which is not used. So throwing in some low carb days will prevent early adaptation, allowing for continued fat loss.
4. Chew the Fat
Cholesterol, which is converted to testosterone, relies on fatty acids for its creation. No fat means low cholesterol which means low testosterone. Without adequate test levels, greater muscle loss will occur, which will lead to a lowering of the metabolic rate. Another intelligent adaptive response that the human body has to chronically low fat intake is to hold on to existing body fat at all costs.
5. Work Backwards
When the show is over, play smart. It’s not binge time; it’s time to slowly re-integrate calories, and foods, into your diet.
6. Stay ‘on’ in the off-season
Remember that, come contest time, you’ll have to drop the excess weight that you accumulated in the offseason. Try to stay consistent with clean eating and exercise. Sure, scale it back a bit... give yourself a break... but keep the weight in check and you won’t have to go to drastic efforts when it comes time to step back on stage.
McArdle WD, et al. EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGY: ENERGY, NUTRITION AND HUMAN PERFORMANCE. 5th ed. Baltimore, Md.: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins; 2001:188.
METABOLIC SYNDROME. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/ms/ms_all.html.