At a fitness conference last spring, I joined some friends for breakfast. It was a normal breakfast up until the moment Dr Spencer Nadolsky, pulled a scale out of his gym bag to weigh a banana.
I knew Nadolsky was preparing for a bodybuilding contest. I knew drug-free bodybuilders get obsessive about their nutrition. They have no choice. When you’re already leaner than 99.9 per cent of the population, it takes extraordinary discipline to get even leaner. But even within that demographic I’ve never heard of someone weighing each piece of fruit.
Physique competition is a deeply, weirdly fascinating pursuit. It’s hard to even call it a sport, considering that the goal is to show up with the most muscle, the least fat, the most aesthetically pleasing proportions, and the best posing routine. So while many bodybuilders were accomplished athletes (Nadolsky wrestled as a heavyweight at university, and won a lot more than he lost) and most are strong, those things don’t matter on stage.
It’s safe to assume that no one knows more about getting ripped than natural bodybuilders. And thanks to a 2014 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, we have all the known research on their pre-contest eating strategies in one handy place.
Three key lessons from the study:
1. Slow-jam the weight loss
Everything we want these days, we want as fast as we can have it. You’d never have clicked on this article if the headline was “Get shredded in 4-6 months by training your arse off and eating a lot less”. But that’s the most reliable way to reach single-digit body fat while retaining most of your muscle mass.
When you lose it faster, you lose more muscle, and you run a greater risk of slowing down your metabolic rate as your body compensates for the sudden reduction in kilojoules.
A reasonable goal, the study suggests, is to lose 0.5 to one per cent of your body weight each week.
How to lose the weight? You can start by cutting 2100kJ a day from your current diet, which works out to a loss of 0.5 kilograms of fat a week . . . for a while. Then the maths gets screwy as your metabolism shifts to compensate.
But there is a way to reduce that risk.
2. Pump up the protein
You know all about the benefits of protein. You know it speeds up your metabolism and helps you preserve muscle tissue when you’re eating below maintenance. But you probably don’t know just how much of it bodybuilders eat when they’re preparing for a contest.
The recommended range is 2.3-3.1 grams per kilogram of lean body mass. If you start with 77kg of lean tissue, and hope to have 75kg by the time you reach single-digit body fat, your minimum protein target is 170-ish grams a day. At the high end you would eat 230g.
No matter how much you like eggs, poultry or fish, that’s an absolutely massive amount of protein. Even if you figure 40g a day will come from a protein shake, you still need to choke down the equivalent of 4-6 chicken breasts.
3. Keep the carbs, cut the fat
The conventional wisdom of the Eighties and Nineties was that fat made you fat. The less fat you ate, the better. Today, it’s a given that the fewer carbs you consume, the leaner you’ll get. So it may come as a shock to see that bodybuilders typically use a low-fat diet: 15-30 per cent of their total kilojoules.
That doesn’t mean their diet is high in carbohydrates. Not exactly. It just means that a bodybuilder who’s cutting kilojoules while also training longer and harder needs the carbs for energy to fuel his workouts. Some fat is necessary for health, and to keep testosterone levels up. But out of the three macronutrients, fat runs a distant third in importance when your goal is to get as lean as humanly possible.
Ready for some maths?
We’ll say you’re currently eating about 12,500 total kilojoules on an average day. Since you want to subtract 2000, your new target is 10,500 a day. (This is based on nothing other than my need for nice, even numbers. The actual amount you would need for super-low body fat might be more or less.)
For protein, we’ll split the difference in the previous example, and say your goal is to eat 200g a day. That’s 3400kJ, or about a third of your total.
We’ll also split the difference for fat, and say it’ll provide 22 per cent of your total kilojoules. That’s 2300kJ, or just over 60g a day. It’s the equivalent of four tablespoons of olive oil, plus one egg yolk.
That leaves us with 4800kJ for carbohydrates, or about 287g a day. It works out to about 45 per cent of your diet. On paper it looks like a lot, but in the context of an aggressive fat-loss program, when you’re training an hour a day and eating less than you’re used to, it probably won’t seem like much at all.
The closer you get to your deadline, the more crucial it is to hit your kilojoule target on the nose. Maybe you can overshoot your protein goal without putting entire project in jeopardy. (Protein, as you may know, helps to limit your appetite.) But if you regularly exceed your allotments for fat or carbs, you can probably forget about reaching single digits.
Which brings us back to Dr Nadolsky and his scale. When I asked him about it for this article, he agreed that “weighing bananas sounds ridiculous”. But while a medium banana has just over 400kJ, including 25-26g of carbs, the actual banana you have with breakfast might be bigger or smaller. “I’ve had bananas that differ by 100 per cent,” he said.
The lesson here is an important one: if you’re careless about one thing in your diet, chances are you’ll be careless about others. By the end of the day you might be off by a thousand or so kilojoules. No big deal for most of us, most of the time. But when you’re shooting for a level of leanness you’ve never achieved, one the average guy can never hope to reach, you can’t afford to be careless.