What’s the cost of a double cheeseburger, a slice of pepperoni pizza or an ice-cream sundae?

If you’re guessing $3.49 or thereabouts, you’re not thinking like a bodybuilder.

For us, the real cost has nothing to do with dollars and cents. It’s instead measured by the time you have to spend exercising it off.

Sure, you can splurge in the off-season, but if you’re pursuing a ripped, shredded physique with a visible six-pack for summer, the cost of indulgence is always more than what you pay at the register. Let’s hope you didn’t rack up too many of such expenses during your last bulking phase!

It goes without saying that to get shredded, you’ll be at a daily caloric deficit, typically about 300 to 700 calories under your maintenance-level daily calories. That means you’ll be in a catabolic environment, one in which the body is breaking down tissue, be it body fat or muscle. The trick, then, is to selectively incur greater losses of fat and minimize losses of muscle. The strategies below are aimed at selectively addressing either of those factors, or both.

Fitness model and online coach Abel Albonetti of Austin, Texas, one of MuscleTech®’s most popular athletes, helped devise the eight valuable tips that can help you tighten up during a shredding phase no matter how soft you became off-season. You’ll be more successful, ultimately, if you can combine as many on the list as possible.

1. Measure Your Losses

The caloric deficit noted above – which is a range based on your current bodyweight – is roughly 1 to 2 pounds per week, which is considered a safe amount to lose. It’s important to realize you can lose more and do it faster, but in doing so, it’s likely going to be coming increasingly from muscle tissue. For most people, stick with the recommended weight loss range.

More precisely, your goal should be to lose 0.5% to 1.0% of your bodyweight per week, which amounts to 1 to 2 pounds per week for someone who weighs 200 pounds. Obviously, it’s a lesser amount if you’re under 200 pounds.

While we want that weight loss to ideally come from body fat, that’s hard to measure, so use the scale as a measuring stick. It should be trending downward week by week, but of course there’s a margin of error, which is why it’s important not to let day-to-day fluctuations throw you off. Ideally, the 200-pound individual should be seeing a drop of 4 to 8 pounds every four weeks.

If your weight isn’t trending downward, you’re not in a deficit. That likely means you still need to cut back on added calories or do more work.

2. Bump Up Protein Intake

Protein is even more important when dieting than when you’re building mass. That’s because your body is naturally going to want to strip nitrogen atoms off protein structures and use what’s left for energy, treating it like a carbohydrate. So consuming added protein limits the degree to which this process can affect your muscle mass.

Consuming 1.0 to 1.25 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily has been shown to be optimal for minimizing muscle loss during a diet, particularly during a low-calorie or prolonged diet. Protein also slows digestion and triggers the release of appetite-suppressing hormones. Both mechanisms fight against hunger and cravings.

3. Make Multi-Joint Exercises the Foundation of Your Workout

Multi-joint (aka compound) movements that engage two or more sets of joints – like bench and shoulder presses, squats, deadlifts and rows – are superior to single-joint ones. That’s because you recruit a greater number of muscle groups when doing multi-joint exercises, which allows you to push more weight. And that has a stronger effect on boosting your metabolism. Plus, multi-joint exercises better trigger favorable anabolic hormones that can have a tremendous effect on both maintaining your muscle size and burning more calories during your workout.

“When I’m trying to lose body fat, I still do all my compound movements,”  says Albonetti, who diets not just for contests but for photo shoots too. “It’s the best way to maintain all of my hard-earned muscle. If I stop doing heavy, compound lifts when I’m in a calorie deficit, I’ll start to lose muscle.”

4. Keep Your Training Loads Fairly Heavy

What’s more, workouts that are high in intensity, meaning you’re handling fairly heavy weights on those multi-joint exercises relative to your 1-rep max, also create a more favorable anabolic environment. Heavier weights stimulate the fast-twitch muscle fibers better than using light weights for higher reps. Those fast-twitch fibers are mainly the ones responsible for growth in muscle size and strength. Going lighter takes your foot off the stimulus to build – or retain – muscle mass.

Training with a heavier weight (about 6 reps) has been shown to raise metabolism higher and for a longer duration than using lighter loads. The higher-intensity training elevates your metabolism for as long as 24 hours post-workout through a mechanism called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Essentially, your body has to work harder to get your metabolism back to equilibrium levels, and that process burns a very significant number of calories (as measured through additional oxygen intake). That’s on top of what you burned during your workout!

Clearly, when your energy levels are sagging during a prolonged calorie-restricted diet, training heavier is more challenging, but at the very least that’s what you should be striving for.

“I see too many people make the mistake of lifting lighter weight and doing more reps trying to lose weight,” adds Albonetti. “I lift heavy year round, no matter what stage I’m in. The only things I change when trying to cut down is my diet and extra cardio.”

5. Cycle Your Carbs

If you’re eating more protein, you obviously have to cut calories via dietary fats and carbohydrate intake, or both. The danger of cutting your carbs too low, however, is that it tends to depress your metabolism while robbing your workouts of valuable energy.

To maximize gym performance and recovery, for one, you should be eating the majority of your day’s worth of carbs in your pre- and post-workout meals. Another smart recommendation is to cycle your carbs, which means you’ll consume different amounts daily depending on your training schedule. Eat higher amounts on training days, especially with legs and back, which are typically very exhausting workouts, and far fewer on non-training days.

Here’s a Starting Point When Cycling Your Carbs. Adjust As Necessary:
Non-training days: 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight daily
Smaller muscle groups: 1.0 grams per pound of bodyweight daily
Larger muscle groups: 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight daily

The type of carbs is also important. Simple carbs are best before and after workouts for fast energy and restoring muscle glycogen. The remainder of your day, opt for complex carbs that are digested and absorbed more slowly. The slower emptying into the bloodstream means your energy will be more steady over the course of your day. That will also help keep your appetite in check.

“I’ve used carb cycling for years,” says Albonetti. “Not only is it great for keeping your metabolism high, but it’s also effective for keeping your energy up. I used to do a more traditional approach to dieting where I slowly took my calories and carbs down over a long period of time, but I found my energy just kept going down as well. Yes, it does happen with carb cycling too, but when you start to feel super-sluggish from your lower carb days, you can add a higher carb day to up your energy levels.”

6. Increase the Density of Your Workouts

When you’re on a calorie-restricted diet, you want to avoid very long workouts because the body can quickly slip into a catabolic state. Instead, do more work in less time, a concept known as density training.

To be sure, there’ll be no more sitting on your duff between sets.

Density training makes use of your between-sets rest time by having you do work, say push-ups, jumping jacks, jump ropes or bodyweight squats, so long as you just keep moving. If you’re benching, for example, after you finish a set, immediately go into 30 to 60 seconds of jumping rope, mountain climbers or bodyweight lunges; pick an aerobic-type movement that doesn’t involve any upper-body musculature. And flip the equation when you’re training lower body.

Initially, you’ll likely have some conditioning deficiencies, but that’s something you build up over time.

The extra work chews up additional calories, thereby attacking fat stores. After the calisthenic-type exercise, take a 30- to 60-second rest before going into your next working set. Cumulative fatigue may eventually slow you down, but adjust workout loads as necessary and challenge yourself to improve your conditioning over time. Soon enough you’ll be able to make it through the entire workout at a consistently elevated heart rate without having to take breaks.

7. Burn Extra Calories with HIIT Cardio Training

Nobody likes doing cardio, yours truly included. But if you’re not seeing the kind of losses you expect on the scale, it’s time to increase the gap between the calories you consume and the calories you burn daily – and that means the C-word.

High-intensity interval training, of course, is the smartest approach because it’s superior for not just burning more calories in less time, but it amplifies the aforementioned EPOC effect long after you’ve left the gym.

HIIT is an intense protocol that alternates short bouts of near-maximal cardio activity (30 to 60 seconds) with far less intense recovery intervals (30 to 60 seconds). A lot of research has been done on HIIT, and it shows you burn more fat and more calories, improve your heart health and conditioning, and the anaerobic nature of the all-out segments can increase leg size and strength, also favorable for boosting anabolic hormones. And all that can be done in less time than if you were to engage in steady-state cardio.

Indoors you can do HIIT on a treadmill, elliptical trainer, battling ropes or stair-stepper, but you can also do it outdoors running sprints and stairs. If you’re new to HIIT, after a 4- to 5-minute warm-up, start with a work-to-recovery ratio of about 1:3 and gradually increase the work time while decreasing the recovery time.

“HIIT cardio is my favorite type of cardio, not just because you can get it done faster than your normal steady-state cardio, but because it also helps keep that hard-earned muscle,” says Albonetti. “You’re taxing your muscles just as much as your cardiovascular system, which helps preserve muscle. When trying to reduce body fat, I do HIIT every other day.”

8. Consume Fewer Calories with Beverage Swaps

Americans on average get a whopping 37% of their total daily calories from sugar-sweetened drinks, including sodas and fruit juices, according to research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. What’s worse, liquids oftentimes don’t make you feel as full.

Those stealth calories don’t have to fly under the radar: Start substituting zero-calorie flavored water, like Crystal Light, when you crave a soda or juice, and watch everything you drink. And don’t believe the nonsense that diet sodas contribute to weight gain, which has been debunked.

By Bill Geiger, MA

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