You hate dieting. To you, the word “diet” usually means:
- Strength and muscle loss.
- Low of sex drive.
- Constant cravings.
Luckily, you can limit, or even completely avoid most of these problems if you train and eat intelligently for fat loss.
In this podcast, bodybuilder, researcher, and fat loss expert Eric Helms teaches you how to create a diet and exercise program that will help you lose unwanted body fat without going insane. You’ll also learn how to create a sustainable lifestyle that allows you to stay lean without obsessing over food, losing strength and muscle, and constantly fighting food cravings. Here’s what you’ll learn:
Click the Player to Listen:
“The Full Diet Break” by Lyle McDonald
If It Fits Your Macros (A good description from DoYouEven.com)
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Click here to download the mp3 | 48.8 MB | 53:15
People on the Show
> Did you enjoy this podcast? Click here to check out my book on Flexible Dieting.
**Armi Legge:** What words come to your mind when I say the word “diet?” If you’re like most people, that usually means hunger, strength and muscle loss, low sex drive, lethargy, and constant cravings. Luckily, you can limit or even completely avoid most of these problems if you train and eat intelligently for fat loss.
Before you get too excited, though, you also know most of the time dieting is going to take some effort, but you’re willing to accept that. However, what you’re really tired of is losing weight only to see all of your hard-earned progress disappear because you can’t maintain your weight loss. It feels like it’s a constant struggle to keep that scale from sliding upwards. This podcast will help you change that.
My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Impruvism Radio. In this podcast, Eric Helms teaches you how to create a diet and exercise program that will help you lose your unwanted body fat without going insane. You will also learn how to create a more sustainable lifestyle that allows you stay lean without obsessing about food, losing strength and muscle, and constantly fighting food cravings.
Eric has years of experience helping everyone from professional bodybuilders to average Joes lose fat and gain muscle. He’s also an academic researcher on fat loss and performance. There is a ton of information in this podcast, so you may want to take notes. I certainly did. This interview is a little longer than normal, but you will want to stick around until the end, where Eric shares some of his best tips.
If you enjoy this interview and you want more like it, go to impruvism.com, enter your email address in the box on the right side of the page and click the button below. Again, that’s impruvism.com. After you enter your email address, you will get free updates from the blog, including articles, interviews, and some exclusive bonus content that is only available flipper subscribers like you. Now let’s hear from Eric Helms on how to train and eat for fat loss the smart way.
Eric, thank you so much for coming on the show today. Would you explain to our listeners in about 60 seconds or less who you are and what you do?
**Eric Helms:** I can do that. First off, big thank you to have me on. It’s quite the honor. I am the not technically savvy but rather invested in the science of exercise and nutrition guy named Eric Helms from the company 3dmusclejourney.com. I’ve been competing in bodybuilding since about 2007, competing in powerlifting since about 2006, and being a personal trainer and coaching for those sports for just about a decade now.
I have a couple of degrees in the field. I’m working on my second masters degree. Essentially, what I do is I try to bring natural competitors into top stage condition. I try to help powerlifters get into the best condition they can while still optimizing their strength and performance. I help regular Joes with just regular kind of goals get to their goals. That could be anything from getting stronger, getting leaner, or what have you.
I’m also a researcher. I’m doing my masters degree in protein intake in lean athletes and I’m going to be going onto my PhD pretty soon, starting at the end of the year. Yeah. I enjoy the science of the stuff just as much as I enjoy the training. That’s pretty much me.
**Armi Legge:** Before we get into the specifics, let’s define what we mean when we say “lean.” What is considered a normal or healthy body fat percentage for men and women?
**Eric Helms:** OK. So this is based on epidemiological data, where we have taken large amounts of people, compared BMI, and healthy biomarkers to body fat percentages. Based on age and ethnicity and gender, you have a range that’s pretty broad. A healthy body fat percentage for a woman is going to be anywhere between 21% and 36%. An 18 year old Asian is going to be a little bit different from a 75 year old black woman on that scale, but nevertheless that’s the range. For men, it’s between 8% to 25%.
As far as what lean is, I would say that’s going to be on the low end of that scale or below it. In a more functional sense, it’s going to be the point at which someone is willing to stop dieting because they like the way they look finally. It can be lower than that sometimes.
I would say as soon as you get close to 10% for a man or 20% for a woman, you’ll be looking pretty damn good.
**Armi Legge:** Good. On a macro level, what are the fundamental things that need to occur for someone to lose body fat or to get to what you just mentioned, around 10% for men or 20% for women?
**Eric Helms:** OK. Typically, on the macro level, talking big picture here to make sure we’re all on the same page, it’s going to be a period of energy restriction. That could be from eating less calories or it could be burning more calories in the form of activity. But in the end, there’s going to have to be an energy deficit so that we’re actually losing body mass. With that mass is going to come the fat.
There is going to be issues with the rate of fat loss slowing the leaner you get. The leaner you get, the more muscle loss will become a greater part of that. There are various ways to mitigate that. I’m sure we’ll talk about it. In the end, it comes down to putting yourself through a calorie deficit through either activity or a diet for a long period of time and probably doing something to make sure you don’t lose muscle.
**Armi Legge:** We will definitely talk about those ideas and tricks in a second, but before we do that, let’s talk about the difference between getting leaner and just getting thinner. That’s also related, I think.
**Eric Helms:** Mhm.
**Armi Legge:** What is that difference? What allows some bodybuilder to maintain their muscle mass versus somebody who just ends up losing everything? They lose weight, but they don’t look great afterward.
**Eric Helms:** Exactly. We’re talking about what the change in body composition is while someone loses weight. If you’re trying to lose body fat, then you’re trying to get leaner. If you’re trying to just lose weight, I guess you could say you’re just trying to get thinner. The difference would be one person doesn’t care what they’re losing. They just trying to make the scale drop and they’re getting smaller in general without regard to what tissue is being lost.
I would say probably the typical diet you would see on the cover of a magazine about J-Lo or something like that would be the “get thinner” approach. Only grapefruit and flax seed and do cardio 10 hours a day or something like that. It’s all the nonsense you might see while an approach that includes progressive resistance training coupled with a sound diet and possibly the addition of cardio that has you losing at a reasonable rate is basically be the approach you would take to try to get leaner without necessarily losing a large proportion of muscle mass.
Just to clarify, those bodybuilders you talk about, if they’re natural competitors, they’re going to be losing weight as well, but they’re going to be doing everything within their power to try to maintain muscle mass.
**Armi Legge:** Excellent. Well let’s help our listeners try to do the same.
**Eric Helms:** For sure.
**Armi Legge:** Before we do that, let’s define what problems actually occur when people start dieting down to low levels of body fat. What problems will people face as they tend to get leaner and leaner?
**Eric Helms:** Sure. The big one is you get hungrier. You get more food focused and you have a tougher time staying on the diet. A large part of that is biological. If we could just accidentally not eat all the time and wake up one day starved to death, we would not have made it through the ice age.
A big part of that can also be influenced by the approach to the diet. It’s very much also behavioral. Big picture, you see some things like drops in testosterone levels in men and women. That’s related not only to the body fat level you reach but also the magnitude of caloric restriction. You’ll see losses in performance and lean body mass, depending also on how lean you get and how fast you’re trying to diet.
It’s also not uncommon to see depression, apathy, loss of libido, even sleep disturbances, or on the extreme end, the development of eating disorders that maybe weren’t even present before you dieted.
I’m kind of giving a comprehensive list and obviously this severity and the all inclusiveness of these issues would only be there if you were really dieting hard, very long, and in a very probably suboptimal approach, a non-healthy approach, you could get all these things and if you got as lean as you possibly could.
So there is going to be a big difference between an overweight person who wanted to gradually get a bit leaner compared to bodybuilder in the final stages of preparing, getting down to nill levels of subcutaneous fat. That person A who is the overweight person might experience 10% of those issues at a mild severity while person B might get a little bit of all of them and some of them quite harshly.
All of this pretty much comes down to our body adopting to try to prevent us from getting so lean that it sees this as a survival threat.
**Armi Legge:** Let’s tackle that first issue right off the bat. It seems like it’s probably the number one reason there are so many fat people in the world still. It’s hunger. We get hungry when we eat less. What are the top three ways that you help your bodybuilders and other athletes and clients manage their hunger levels, either through behavioral techniques or diet changes, whatever? What are the top three things you do to help them not get so hungry when they’re in a caloric deficit?
**Eric Helms:** Good question. I’ll give you some concrete examples, too, but you just have to approach it with a flexible dieting kind of construct. The mentality of people who tend to be overweight, and in our society– especially in the States and in Western developed nations– is we kind of go all or nothing, one direction, and when we decide to fix it, we go all or nothing and in another direction.
I would say the really, really obsessive and controlling approach to dieting ends up being on and off to diet is just the same side of the coin of someone who you might describe as a food addict, who just can’t help but be obese because of behavior and kind of their environment and things like that. Of course, the approach has to be somewhere in the middle.
Flexible dieting is a huge tool in the arsenal of anyone who wants to approach getting very lean because being very lean can’t just be a one off kind of shot. If you want to be very lean, that’s something you have to get yourself to gradually and then find a different approach mentally and in your lifestyle so it’s not a repeating yo-yo diet.
I like to focus not on rigid meal plans but calorie and macronutrient values. It requires a little bit of education for the person but I think it’s extremely useful once that’s done. You give a person two to three weeks of understanding how to track their food, weigh it, and look at the back of the food label instead of just the name of what the food is, and that can really give someone some tools to kind of eat fish for a lifetime vs. giving them fish for a day as a coach.
While still insuring adequate intake of fruits, vegetables, and fiber, I normally give people ranges for their carbohydrates, fat, and protein, which is where our calories come from. You can even set up a kind of structure to include the occasional alcohol in there if you know the calorie content. You can bring down the other macronutrients. I do a lot of things, at least for my bodybuilders, of kind of removing some of the more old school rules about needing to eat only a specific, short list of foods, or having to eat every 2 to 3 hours.
This a concrete example. I think a big one is taking off the restriction of needing to eat really frequently. If you have to eat every 2 to 3 hours like a magazine might tell you, that means not only will you need to eat very small meals because you’re on restricted calories, but you’ll have to constantly think about food. It’s a constant satiety blue balls. You never get to actually be satisfied by a meal so think about the next one that’s in two hours and it totally restricts your ability to be social, to sit down anywhere for more than two hours. That’s the type of thing.
Allowing someone to have a meal that fits their schedule is extremely freeing. It can allow travel, events, all kinds of occasions to occur that normally would be either the person insulting themselves from or having to bring a bag full of Tupperware or things like that.
It’s not only flexible timing, but also flexible plans. Once you get more and more comfortable with the idea of targeting the calories and the nutrients of the foods vs. the foods themselves, it allows you to, if you’re traveling, go to a grocery store and basically fit your nutrient goals.
I think the strict plans encourage social isolation. That can really just compound the depression or apathy I mentioned earlier. Normally, it creates more problems than you want to deal with as a bodybuilder. A meal plan also encourages that black and white behavior. If you have a strict meal plan, you’re either on it or off it. Versus if you’re aware of your meal intake, you can be like, “whoops, I ate an extra 100 calories” and you can decide what you want to do about that.
But typically won’t happen is, unlike a meal plan– if you go off a meal plan, it’s like “screw it, I blew my plan. I might as well just eat a whole pizza.” And you may have only ate an extra 200 ounces of chicken breast but the whole pizza was the problem, not the chicken breast, but in your mind, it’s just on or off. Versus if you ate an extra 15g of carbohydrates and 2g of fat, “oops.” You know? You can see it quantifies the degree of the mistake. It’s not just a light switch.
I think it prevents binging. It prevents going off the deep end a lot of times. I think tracking nutrients and taking the restrictions off of meal timing is huge and taking the restrictions off what I’m eating versus focusing on the nutrients themselves– those are all some great tools you can use.
**Armi Legge:** One of the common arguments people have against that technique of “If It Fits Your Macronutrients” is they basically assume someone is eating Pop-tarts and cereal all day. What do you do to make sure bacillary they’re not doing that? Obviously, common sense comes into play, too.
**Eric Helms:** Great question. If you notice, I carefully tried to avoid “If It Fits Your Macros” when I described that. Even though I’m probably a pa”rt of why that approach is getting more popular, I do think it’s a little misleading. I think if that’s your guideline, “If It Fits Your Macros, when you are a very, very lean bodybuilder with lots of food cravings, it can turn into some pretty whacky meal times.
So I do a few other things. I also give a fiber range for my clients, which would be counted in the process of getting to your carbohydrates and I give a serving of vegetables and fruit based on their total calorie intake. And then I also make some supplementation recommendations. I do a lot of coaching with my clients about once you get this hungry, once you’re really, really lean, it’s not a hunger you can satisfy, so stop trying. Focus on foods that are more normal, single ingredient foods. Get a little more mechanical with your eating.
I think there is a time and place for what someone might look at and call “eating clean,” but that’s for someone deep into a long, restricted calorie diet and it’s more for the mental side of it versus the health or the body recomposition side of it. I think if you ensure fiber intake, fruits and vegetables, water, and have taken a multivitamin, you pretty much have all your bases covered.
For people worried about minerals and all the things that do come from our food, you can just do– and I’ll just steal this from Alan Aragon– an 80%/20% rule, where 80% of your food is rather basic food items, basic ingredients, “clean,” and then 20% is your extra calories however you want to fit it in.
I think if you have someone who is very, very food focused, the “If It Fits Your Macros” can turn into some pretty silly things and will maybe typically influence them to be hungrier than they were. So that’s the downside of it. But I think if you just put on some basic, non-macro nutritional rules like fruits, vegetables, and fiber, you’re going to cover pretty much any of the health issues that might come up from that kind of eating.
**Armi Legge:** So to summarize, your techniques for minimizing hunger on a diet would probably be first to keep your plan flexible so you don’t feel like you have all these restrictions that force you to do things like eat every few hours, that might make you more hungry or at least not help you. Two, set up your plan so you know almost exactly what you’re supposed to eat between different nutrients and macronutrients. And three, to put in place basic guidelines like getting enough fruits and vegetables and that sort of thing to minimize hunger and help establish that caloric deficit over time.
**Eric Helms:** Exactly right. There are a few other things I do. I avoid the extreme ends. We can get into them now. That’s a good summary.
**Armi Legge:** Let’s get into some more of the specific things. If the client says, “I’m really just struggling. I can’t control my hunger. It’s a constant problem. What exactly do I do to stop feeling like I have to eat?” I know sometimes, that’s just a part of the deal. If you’re 5% body fat, you kinda have to suck it up sometimes. But for most everybody else, what would you tell them?
**Eric Helms:** I think there are two really big things I like to include. First, I just go through the checklist. “How many meals are you eating?” They’ll tell me something like 1, 2, 6, or 7. I normally get them more toward the middle of the range. Some people do great on high or low meal frequencies but most people do well with your 3 – 5 range. Then I check to see what they’re eating. I have them show me their foods.
If there are a lot of sweet and salty things, sometimes I’ll suggest they move toward slightly blander foods. This is a hunger versus a craving. That’s normally when they start to really kinda have trouble with their eating. Eating a lot of sweet and salty foods influence you to be more hungry. That can cause a problem.
If I’ve done that and they’re still having a really tough time following the diet, I typically implement a diet break. Instead of this constant grind of them feeling guilty and going off and just having a really bad psychological setup, we go, “OK, the goal of this right now is to eat closer to maintenance.”
I think it’s a great way to prevent the yo-yo, by having a controlled plan of when I’m going to take a break from dieting and then come back into it. This is something that Lyle McDonald talked about extensively back in the day and it’s something I use very frequently. It can help to bring back some of those maladaptations or to reverse those things we were talking about with all the effects of dieting and get your head above water so you can take a big deep breath before we dive back in. That’s one that I normally suggest if the person absolutely can’t hack it.
Another one is accepting a slower rate of weight loss. If someone is losing at a pretty quick rate and they’re having a tough time following a diet, cut it down. I have no problem with someone losing slower if it means they can keep losing.
**Armi Legge:** Right. Looking at a long-term perspective instead of exactly what your rate is at the moment. That sounds very smart. Let’s say we are able to manage our hunger. We’ve established a caloric deficit, but we also want to maintain strength and size. What are the ways you prevent muscle loss when somebody goes on a diet so they can stay big?
**Eric Helms:** Obviously a big one is they have to be lifting weights, right? There’s a lot to be said for lifting weights as the primary method of getting leaner. Not just as a method but maintaining the muscle so that what you’re losing is body fat.
Typically, this is going to be a well set up, progressive resistance training program that is targeted mainly for hypertrophy. It needs to be something that is sound. We can talk about a program for hypertrophy. I don’t know how much you want to get into that. Essentially, the idea is if you’re training each of those muscle groups, it has a reason not to use that for fuel. The body is getting a tension stimulus going on, it goes “I need that.” it’s not going to be as viable fuel source, at least as much as if you were just doing cardio, or slow cardio that wasn’t really taxing your muscle. That’s huge. That’s pretty much mandatory. That’s the big one.
Another very large influence of what you’re losing is how fast you lose. I think people try to lose fat way too fast most of the time. This is true even in bodybuilding circles. The typical diet and anywhere between 8 to 16 weeks. I would say the typical diet I have with my clients is twice that– 16 to 32. There is a good amount of research backing this and there is a ton of anecdotal evidence of experiencing this with my clients and how lean they need to get.
It takes awhile to get very lean. You can push it faster but it means that it will come at a greater loss of lean body mass and also a great amount of all those side effects we want to try to minimize from before. So I like losing closer to 0.5% – 1.0% of their body weight per week. When they have more body fat stores, I’ll go closer to 1.0%, and as they go down to being really lean, I’m aiming for 0.5%.
Sometimes I’m on a deadline and that’s not the case. I’ll communicate with the client and if I think they understand the risks associated with it and the goal is to get on stage in extremely lean condition, we’ll push faster than that and accept the downsides, but as a general rule, that is probably the range I like to see versus typically what is a lot faster than that.
**Armi Legge:** That sounds really smart, to set your weight loss goals on a percentage rather than a specific amount, because one of the recommendations you often hear, “you shouldn’t lose over x amount over this time period.” Somehow, that’s supposed to apply to both bodybuilders and people who are 400 pounds overweight. With your approach, it sounds like it’s more adjusted to the individual, so that if somebody is severely overweight, they can get that positive feedback of losing a lot of weight in the short term so they can keep it up over the long term. Great.
**Eric Helms:** Definitely.
**Armi Legge:** Let’s dive into a little more of the specifics on the exact training you have your athletes do to get leaner. You mentioned progressive resistance training. Really quick, what do you mean by “progressive” just in case no one understands that?
**Eric Helms:** Good question. The goal is to try to do more reps or more weight over time while you’re lifting weights. In a very pragmatic sense, if you were doing 100 pounds on bench press for three sets of 10 last week, maybe this week we’re either trying to either increase it to 105 or we’re trying to do more than 10 reps or some kind of combination. There are a lot of ways to get there. That’s what progressive resistance training is.
Where do you want to go from there?
**Armi Legge:** That’s perfect. What kind of strength training do you use for your athletes for the most part? Obviously, we’re not expecting you to create a program everybody listening this is supposed to follow, but if you could give some general rep range guidelines, rest period guidelines, and maybe a few exercise selections that you frequently use, I’m sure our listeners would love it.
**Eric Helms:** Perfectly. I can definitely do that. First, I like to kinda categorize people into beginners, intermediates, and more experienced people, and the programming should look a little different.
If you’re a total beginner, I probably recommend more of a full-body approach, say three times a week. That’s a good place to start. You’re not going to need a whole lot of volume per section– volume being the total number of sets and exercises you’re doing. A little bit of stimulus goes a long way is a good way of looking at it as a beginning because everything is new.
I like to focus on the compound movements. If we’re trying to hit all the different muscle groups to maintain muscle mass, probably the most efficient way to do that is to do large, multi-joint movements like a press, a row, a squat or a leg press type of movement, and a deadlift type of movement, those types of things.
The only thing about compound movements is if they’re going to be done with a barbell especially, make sure they’re doing it properly. Before you go out there and try to go do a full range of motion squat or deadlift and get relatively heavy, you definitely want to make sure you’ve got someone who knows what they’re doing looking at your form.
I like the big barbell compound movements and if the person is proficient, four or five of those to hit the full body every other day or three times a week is great for a beginning. The rep ranges I think should be primarily in the strength/hypertrophy. We’re talking anywhere between 3 to 15.
For the intermediate, they might need a little more volume per session. They might need a little more recovery time. They might do an upper/lower split, so they’re training four times a week.
The advanced is pretty much the exclusive category of adapting to their needs. It might look very similar to the intermediate except certain body parts are trained more frequently, or they have a higher volume or total number of sets, but the approach is always going to be the same. Trying to get the progressive overload on those tissues, training in that rep range, having a plan for how you’re going to progress becomes increasingly more important the more experienced you get. You just can’t expect to add five pounds a week to everything when you’re more advanced or intermediate.
There are many ways to do it, but I would say for the majority of your viewers, if you’re newer to the game of weightlifting, three times a week, full body, focusing on squats, presses, and rows and a few accessory exercises to get biceps, calves, and things like that. Or if you’ve been in the weight room 6 – 8 months or longer, maybe doing an upper/lower split, or a push/pull/legs– those are all great ways to hit those body parts a couple times a week and in those ranges I talked about. You’re getting pretty close to muscular fatigue. You’re maybe 1 to 2 reps shy in most of your sets.
That will get you there. Then have a plan to get stronger over time, or at least attempt to be.
**Armi Legge:** Perfect. So we’ve covered the training that it takes to get very lean. Let’s talk about diet. As you just mentioned, you’re working on your masters on protein intake in lean athletes. Let’s talk about that first. How important is eating protein to get lean?
**Eric Helms:** Good question. This is an interesting topic because if you were to read I’d say 99% of studies on protein intake, they would tell you for athletes, which is what I consider anybody doing cardio and resistance training on a regular basis and pretty seriously with certain goals, you need to take in somewhere between 1.2 to 2 grams per kilogram of protein. For the non-metric system folks out there, we’re talking basically 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound. Somewhere in there.
If you read most bodybuilding magazines or lay publications, they are going to tell you basically twice that. We want to get a gram per pound of protein or higher. I’ve always interested in why there is a big disconnect here. I think a large part of it is because the information for nutrition has come down from bodybuilders who have found that when the body makes the biggest changes during in a calorie deficit, their dieting, and they found that when they eat more protein, they’re able to make these changes more efficiently.
It’s important to point out that most of the research on protein has been examining what’s called “nitrogen balance,” which is basically the amount of nitrogen in our body that’s leaving vs. coming in and it doesn’t actually tell us what is the optimal intake. It’s more about telling us a minimal intake of protein that will prevent losses of nitrogen.
I’m not going to get too far into that but essentially, I would say these guidelines are more of a minimum intake vs. an optimal intake of protein. We don’t really know an optimal intake of protein. What we have seen when you start to look at athletes in a calorie deficit, and there’s so little research on this, which is why I’m doing more, is they require significantly more protein.
I would say a good amount of protein to eat while you’re trying to lose weight would probably be closer to what is recommended by most bodybuilders. I would say 1.0 to 1.4 grams per pound is not a bad range. And in that range, I would say the leaner you are, the faster you’re trying to diet, and if you’re doing cardio and weight training, the higher you should be on that scale.
So a bodybuilder who’s 4 weeks out, 6% body fat doing 5 days of cardio and 5 days of weight training probably wants to be closer to 1.4. However, if you’re a slightly overweight guy new to the weights and not doing much cardio yet, maybe more like 1g per pound. That’s probably more than you need but it’s also good because protein is a very satiating macronutrient and there’s no danger of being at a relatively high intake as long as you have a good kidney health. I would say somewhere in that range is probably appropriate.
If you aren’t dieting too fast, it should allow you to have adequate carbohydrate and fat.
**Armi Legge:** Perfect Let’s talk about how much carbohydrate and fat someone should eat on a diet. After you set their protein intake, how do you go about telling them what their ranges should be for carbohydrates and fats?
**Eric Helms:** Good question. Before I get my hands on anybody’s diet, they’ve got a week or two weeks or longer for giving me prior data of tracking so I know with a reasonable guess what their calorie intake is and if they’re losing weight or gaining weight, I can get a rough working maintenance calorie intake for the person. Anyone who comes to me is going to have tracking logs that they did beforehand in a range of time before I get them started.
I think that’s a very viable thing you can do on your own. It’s as simple as weighing and tracking your food for a week, weighing yourself every day and kinda seeing how your body weight shifted around. If you know that roughly a 500 calorie deficit should be roughly dropping about a pound and a roughly 500 calorie surplus should be adding a pound, and it’s never exact, you can get an idea of what my maintenance calorie intake is.
And then you can break down where those calories come from as far as protein, carbs, and fat. We’ve got x number of calories to deal with, we’ve set our protein at 1g per pound. Just as you said, we need to figure out what percentage comes from fats and what percentage comes from carbohydrates.
I like percentages for someone dieting on carbohydrates and fat. I like to give exact macros, but if you’re going to figure them out initially, I like percentages for carbohydrates and fat because they’re used primarily for energy and I like 1g per pound of lean body mass for protein since it’s primarily a structural macronutrient. It’s related to how much body structure we have.
A good place to start as someone who’s doing resistance training and possibly some high-intensity cardio, which is a very carb dominant fuel sourced activity, would be maybe between 40% – 70% of carbohydrate. However, that recommendation typically isn’t realistic in a calorie deficit so I actually set fat first. We want to make sure there’s enough fat to provide satiety and to not have it so low that we have a very bland diet that stimulates more hunger. I like to set fat to between 20% to 25% of calories. Protein is right around the gram per pound mark I gave. Then fill in the rest from carbs.
This is a very general recommendation. Some people do a lot better with higher fat, lower carbohydrate or vice versa, but it’s probably a good starting place for most people. You can play around with it, but that’s a good place to start.
**Armi Legge:** Perfect. It sounds like there’s a little more flexibility in terms of where carbs or fat come from based on personal preferences and what kind of training they’re doing.
**Eric Helms:** Definitely. I’ve even got some people who have a protein goal that we can get within a certain range and a calorie goal. They kind of fill in with carbs and fat. That’s more for someone who is not a competitive bodybuilder, but someone who is trying to get leaner and doesn’t need such an attention to those micro details.
**Armi Legge:** Perfect. What is your condition on cardio for getting really lean? We just talked about how sometimes bodybuilders will do up to five times a week of running or cycling and these other activities. What effect does that have both in terms of fat loss and muscle loss and how do we minimize the latter?
**Eric Helms:** Right. There’s a little bit of concern, more so in the more elite bodybuilder camp than just your casual exercisers, that doing your own kind of endurance training, which creates an endurance adaptation, is kind of counter to the adaptation of hypertrophy, strength, or power.
When you have a strength or power athlete or a bodybuilder who’s trying to maintain maximum muscle mass, you might not want more oxidative shifts in your body. You might want to have more of those glycolytic tissues that are larger and made to move things quickly and fast and built to move weights and look like you move weights vs. moving a bicycle for a triathlon or something like that.
The concern is that we don’t want to do this endurance training, so there’s been a push toward high-intensity cardio among bodybuilders and strength athletes and people who are trying to get leaner. There is a big craze around high-intensity interval training. I think that’s good but we have to realize high-intensity interval training is high intensity and it is very similar to the rest to work ratios that we see in resistance training.
If it’s high intensity, similar rest to work ratio, you’re accelerating your body very quickly, which generates a lot of force, especially if it is impact and you’re pushing off the ground. It’s going to be a lot like weight training. You have to balance the number of high intensity cardio sessions you do with your resistance training.
With my bodybuilders, I will typically avoid running or sprinting activities. I’ll take out impact. I’ll get them away from movements or activities that really create a lot of localized muscle soreness and maybe use, at most, one to three sessions of high intensity training.
But then the rest of it, if they need to do more cardio, is going to be low intensity. They’ll be going slow and below the threshold that will create an endurance adaptation. And I really just look at it as an activity, calories burned. It might be a slow incline or walk or cycling at a slow pace and that kind of thing that is below their current cardiovascular threshold for getting in better shape.
In a broader sense, I like to start with a very small amount of cardio and only add it in as needed. It’s one of those things where you want to do as little as possible while still getting results. That might mean your overweight casual exerciser who’s trying to get a little leaner might be doing two sessions a week while that competitive bodybuilder might be doing five or six.
**Armi Legge:** Great. So let’s say somebody has followed your advice and they are just totally cut. I mean 4% – 5% body fat for a guy. They’re jacked. Maybe 9% – 12% for a woman. They still look great. Is that a sustainable way to live? Is that something they can maintain for a long period of time without running into some health, behavioral, or psychological problems?
**Eric Helms:** This is a question of degrees. Typically, no. It’s not sustainable to be really lean. I guess people don’t know this because all the representations of bodybuilders in the media are of them in contest condition, but 95% of bodybuilders don’t walk around looking like that all the time.
This all comes down to what’s called “setpoint theory.” We basically operate like a thermostat and the body will do what it can to try to hang out in the range it likes, say 7% – 15% body fat for men, depending on the person, and 19% – 20% for women.
That said, I think there are be a lot of men who would kill to walk around with 7% – 8% of body fat or 19% – 20% for women. Certainly there is some wiggle room here.
Essentially, all those downsides I said earlier are those survival strategies of the body. As you get leaner and leaner, it’s going to try to influence you to eat more and get back high in body fat. It will slow down metabolic rate, influence you to eat more, make you more food focused. There is a lot of interesting research on that, but the reason people go off diets is so that we maintain that thermostat kind of range. If we weren’t more food focused and didn’t burn less calories, again, we wouldn’t be here today talking.
Essentially, you can maintain a leaner body. Can you maintain the leanest body? Not in a healthy way. You probably can’t. There’s nothing to prevent you on paper but I certainly don’t think it’s sustainable from a health standpoint– mostly mentally.
But you can maintain on the low end of your setpoint because it’s not a hard line. I think that’s a good way to look at it. This is something I try to figure out for each individual. What is the leanest they can maintain while still being happy, sane, functioning while in the gym, making progress, and all for all that. That can be, like I said, anywhere between 7% to 15% for men and 19% to 20% for women.
**Armi Legge:** Once you find that range where they can sustainably maintain a certain amount of leanness, what are some strategies that you put in place to make sure they don’t relapse back into their old habits? Both on the fundamental level and the practical “do this, don’t do this” level that people can take away to make being lean sustainable?
**Eric Helms:** Right. There’s a lot of talk. Maybe you guys haven’t heard of it. It’s reverse dieting.
The whole concept of reverse dieting is just as important as the diet itself. With every person I have who goes through an extended fat loss period, there is a taper. This is gradually tapering your calories back up and your cardio back down to sustainable levels. This might look like:
You’ve dieted for six months, you’ve dropped 30 pounds. Currently you’re doing 6 cardio sessions a week and you’re eating 2,000 calories and one day we have a high day where you’re eating maybe 3,000 calories and we go up small amounts on your low days and we drop off like 3 cardio sessions. We jump up to 2,200 calories and we go down to 3 cardio seasons. We track your weight and your body comp and we see how it’s responding to these new levels.
Essentially your maintenance calorie intake is a moving target. Since we can speed up or slow down this whole thermostat thing, it means we need to give it time to catch up and make those adaptations towards getting us back towards the thermostat being happier. We don’t want to outpace it. If you were to go directly from 2,000, where you were losing weight at the end, right up to what you’re maintaining when you weren’t dieting, you would probably see some fat gain you could have avoided had you gone up more gradually in that taper.
I’m typically increasing 60 – 100 calories per week to those lower days if they’ve got some high days in there and decreasing cardio incrementally over half the time they were dieting. If a person was dieting for 6 months and they can be patient for 3 and just give me some semblance of control– and we can get a little looser. We don’t have chase down the grain of rice that fell off the scale anymore like if they’re a contest preparation bodybuilder. Approaching it in a more reasoned way is really good, too.
Typically, as you go through a diet, you’ll become increasingly more OCD, for lack of a better word, about the way you diet. Not that I encourage it, it just sort of happens. Each time you’ve reached a plateau and you’re a little more nervous about why you can’t break it, you tighten the reins on things. You start weighing out your fruit or you start weighing out your bread because you’re worried about the end pieces being smaller than the middle. Things like that. I think some of that is good to have a semblance of precision, but once you get into a reverse diet, we start slowly removing those kind of habits instead of just going full blown back to your traditional approach.
It needs to be both a behavioral and a nutritional gradual increase back towards normalcy. I have seen some pretty cool results from that. It does probably take more willpower than the diet itself to be honest. The goal is kinda gone. You have the goal of being this lean on this date or to get on stage. Now the goal is “don’t get fat.” It’s a less motivating.
Once those handcuffs are taken off, it’s more difficult to follow a more measured kind of graduated approach like I’m talking about, but as you go through each of these gradations, there is typically only a slight increase in body fat and weight.
I’ve seen contest bodybuilders get only 6 to 10 pounds over stage weight– which is still very lean, that’s what fitness models look like– while getting their calories all the way back up to off season levels. That can allow them to then go into a calorie surplus for a 6 to 8 month period before worrying about getting too high in body fat, which just extends the amount of time they can spend building.
**Armi Legge:** That’s amazing. I’ve actually never heard of that approach before, at least that terminology. I pretty much always assumed bodybuilders just went crazy after getting super lean. That’s very interesting. Are there any studies specifically examining that in that kind of graduated approach to rebuilding calories?
**Eric Helms:** I think there are probably no studies on it. It would be very interesting to see them, though.
What there are studies on are just metabolic responses to overfeeding and underfeeding. Some of these ideas have come from more acute mechanistic data vs. “we’ve actually tried this.” It’s probably one of those things that’s pretty much relegated specifically to circles of contest prep coaches. It’s a pretty niche approach.
And you’re right. 95% of bodybuilders do just lose their mind after a show and gain 15 pounds in the first month. I think the first season I competed, I put 50 pounds on in two months. It was a terrible experience and that was part of the reason why I wanted to find a different way. That was seeing basically 6 months of hard work disappear in 2 months and then getting fatter than I’d ever been in my life. It’s a great example of what that kind of “all or nothing” yo-yo approach can do to a body and to a mind.
Like I said, it’s not easy. Reverse dieting is actually harder than the contest prep diet itself, but any time you go through a long period of caloric restriction, you want to gradually bring them back up and then see the output. See if your weight is changing and at what rate. And see how high you can get your calories before you start gaining weight. Then you find your new maintenance. Hopefully it is something that’s livable. That’s the real question because I could reverse a diet only as far as they could go while still being in contest condition, but he would still feel terrible.
I’ve had some guys who I’ve doubled their carb intake. They’ve gone from 150g to 300g and their fat intake is up to 60g. They’re eating reasonable amounts of food and their cardio is down to twice a week and they’re still contest lean and they’re starving. It very much has to do with how lean they are in addition to the amount of food they’re eating.
It certainly isn’t magic but you have to figure out what is sustainable for each person.
**Armi Legge:** Perfect. Eric, you have shared a ton of knowledge today, some stuff that hasn’t really been talked about anywhere that I’ve seen online. This is great.
But I have one question for you. What is one tip you can leave our listeners for improving their body composition that you’ve found has helped your clients or yourself achieve success? One tip that you think is either a summary of what you’ve talked about or just more important than anything else.
**Eric Helms:** That’s a good one. On the broad scale, I think patience is huge. Don’t try to get really lean in a short period of time because you might get there but you won’t sustain it. It will be very fleeting if you do it. Of course you can get lean in a short period of time, it’s just that it will only be there for a short period of time.
Like I said before, try to lose that 0.5% – 1.0% of your body fat per week. Have a concrete goal. And in the process of losing that weight, make sure you’re lifting weights. I think those are all the key things. Then have a plan for after the diet. I think those would be my final words as a measured approach to weight loss.
Have some patience.
Have a goal. Put it on your fridge.
Have the steps to get there.
Then have an exit strategy.
I think those are the most important things.
**Armi Legge:** Outstanding. Eric, where can people learn more about your work and where can they contact you if they want a more personalized approach to training and fat loss?
**Eric Helms:** For sure. Check out our static website at 3dmusclejourney.com. Also, we do a lot of videos on these kinds of things on a regular basis on our youtube channel, which is team3dmj, so youtube.com/team3dmj. On our website, if you click on the coaching tab, you can find out ways to contact us.
**Armi Legge:** Perfect. Thank you so much, man. You took a ton of time and I know we went over the time limit. I’m sorry about that, but you’re just too smart. I couldn’t help it. I’m sorry.
**Eric Helms:** [Eric laughs] No, no worries. I love talking about this stuff. It’s all good.
**Armi Legge:** Great. Maybe we’ll have to do another podcast, too, on how to set up that exit strategy and how to make it and some of the other tricks and techniques that you use with more advanced bodybuilders.
**Eric Helms:** For sure. I’d love to talk about that.
**Armi Legge:** Cool.
That interview was probably one of my favorites yet, if not my absolute, all-time favorite. Eric is one of those people who you don’t hear about and I almost think of him as my secret weapon. He doesn’t have a blog or a book, he is just in the trenches, working with top level athletes and average people, doing his best to help them transform their bodies into something they are proud of. We will definitely have him on the show again in the future.
If you enjoyed this episode even half as much as I did, please leave a review or ranking on iTunes. It’s the best way to keep these episodes coming and it also helps me get more amazing guests for you on the podcast because I can tell them the show has x number of positive reviews.
Really knowledgeable people are often very busy, so they’re more likely to appear on a podcast with lots of positive reviews than one that doesn’t. Basically, it helps them prioritize. There are some really amazing guests I would love to have for you on the show. So if you can take one minute out of your day to leave a positive review on iTunes, it means a lot.
Before we finish today, I’m going to ask you to do one more thing. You just heard an extremely informative interview. Frankly, Eric covered about 90% of what you need to know to lose fat. If you’re trying to lose weight, start today. Do exactly what he said and stick to the plan. I know you can do it and so do you. You just have to do be patient. You have to take your time.
You know you are awesome. You are awesome and you will have the body you want if you follow Eric’s advice. If you ever need any help or have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment on the show notes to this podcast, where Eric can also answer your questions.
Even if you don’t have a question, both Eric and I would love to hear your success stories and to hear how you’re progressing. Thanks for listening and I will see you next week.