Lyle McDonald is a physiologist and author who has spent over a decade obsessively finding ways to apply cutting-edge scientific research to sports nutrition, fat loss and muscle growth.
Q. Most of the questions I get are from people who want to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. Can you explain why it’s so difficult to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously, if there are any exceptions to the rule, and what you recommend instead?
A. Well, it’s actually quite easy to gain muscle while losing fat if you are either
a. a fat beginner
b. coming back from a layoff and regaining lost muscle
c. willing to take the right drugs
Unfortunately, if you’re not in that group it tends to be very difficult to do both to any significant degree at once, claims in the muscle magazines not withstanding. The fundamental issue is that the requirements for optimal muscle growth (in terms of hormones, nutrient intake, and cellular metabolism) are diametrically opposed to what’s optimal for fat loss.
Simplistically, muscle growth requires a caloric and nutrient surplus and a cellular metabolism oriented towards tissue building; fat loss requires at least a caloric deficit, a certain hormonal profile, and a cellular metabolism oriented towards breakdown. And, outside of one of the three situations mentioned above, you can’t do both.
So the typical suggestion is to either focus on one or the other and alternate cycles. In general, I think this is good advice. Spend 6-8 weeks in a slight caloric surplus while training your brains out and gain some amount of muscle and fat. Now diet for 6-8 weeks and take the fat off while keeping the muscle. Do this in an alternating fashion over a year or two and you end up bigger and leaner.
Of course, not everybody is happy with that, and nobody likes gaining fat. So what’s the solution? One of them is my Ultimate Diet 2.0. An update of the original Ultimate Diet by Dan Duchaine and Michael Zumpano over 20 years ago, it couples a short (3.5-4 day) diet phase with a short anabolic phase.
By doing a lot of interesting things with diet and training, it allows you to lose fat during the diet phase and put those calories back into muscle during the overfeeding phase. I’ve had people use it to consistently lose 1-1.5 pounds of fat with zero muscle loss as well as to ‘clean bulk,’ which means gaining muscle gradually with almost no fat gain. It’s not the easiest system in the world, mind you, but it does work.
Q. Your UD 2.0 book sounds very interesting. Can you give us a basic outline of what the program contains?
A. As I mentioned above, it couples a short diet phase, where the goal is maximal fat loss, with an anabolic phase, where the goal is muscle building.
So in the fat loss phase, you’re on low-calories and low-carbohydrate along with depletion workouts to deplete glycogen. This is all set up to maximize fat loss in terms of mobilization and burning.
Then, around day 4, you start to make the shift back into anabolism. A small carbohydrate-based meal precedes a tension workout (sets of 6-8 repetitions) which leads you into carbohydrate-loading. On Saturday, fully carbed up and anabolic, you do a power workout (sets of 3-5 repetitions) to impose a growth stimulus on your primed muscles. You recover Saturday and Sunday and repeat it.
Of course, there are many more details about what and how much to eat and the specifics of how to exercise than that but that’s an outline of it. Readers will also learn all about fat loss, muscle growth and calorie partitioning (what determines where the calories go or come from when you overeat or diet) even if they don’t actually use the system.
Q. Although you’re probably best known in the industry for your diet books, you also have a massive amount of knowledge and experience in other areas, particularly strength training. One subject I think readers might be interested in is the hormonal response to exercise. Many people are told to keep the length of their workouts down to 45 minutes or less on the basis that testosterone levels drop and cortisol levels rise after this point. Is this good advice or not?
A. This is going to be another one of those yes and no types of answers.
On the one hand, the idea that testosterone drops after 45 minutes is one of those ideas that falls into the “If you repeat something enough times, it will become accepted dogma.”
The idea supposedly came from Bulgarian Olympic lifting coach Ivan Abadjaev who claimed that androgen levels dropped after 30-40 minutes and who pioneered the idea of keeping his athletes in the gym all damn day by having them train for 30 minutes, rest 30 minutes, train again, etc.
As time has passed, it’s come out that the main impetus behind his training schedule had more to do with controlling his athletes, simply exhausting them every day to keep them from partying and staying up late.
Just keep them in the gym for 12 hours per day by breaking training up into lots of tiny segments (this probably also allowed them to train intensely at each session) and they go home and sleep when training is over. Bulgaria, under new coaching has moved to a much more traditional system of training with 2-hour workouts as the norm.
As well, what I’ve seen of American research has never supported the idea of a drop in testosterone, and you can find plenty of successful athletes who spend far more time than that in the gym. Powerlifters, who are often taking very long rests between sets and having to muck with gear are often training 2-3 hours at a stretch.
This isn’t to say that the idea of keeping your workouts high quality is a bad one. Certainly, I think that most bodybuilders spend too much unproductive time in the weight room doing too many sets of too many unnecessary exercises. For the natural athlete, quality should predominate over quantity for sure.
But I think setting some arbitrary time limit like 45 or 60 minutes is missing the point. Basically, I think the idea may be useful as sort of a check to keep people from wasting energy and time doing endless sets of useless exercises in the gym, but I don’t think it’s an absolute. When I train people, I’d say 60-90 minutes is about average. Much more than that and quality falls off too much.
Certainly, shorter workouts tend to be higher quality. By the end of a 2-hour workout, you’re unlikely to be putting much effort into things. There is also the issue of crashing blood glucose and a potential increase in cortisol because of it.
That can readily be ameliorated by sipping a carbohydrate or carbohydrate plus protein drink during training. That will keep insulin higher and keep cortisol down during extended training sessions. It may also help to improve intensity.
Q. What about supplements? Which ones do you think are the ‘essentials’ that most people should be using?
A. The single most essential supplement in my book would have to be preformed fish oils (EPA/DHA, the two key long-chain omega-3 fatty acids). It’s not an over-exaggeration to say that they do everything and are almost totally insufficient in our modern diet. Six 1-gram capsules per day (and I prefer this to flax oil) should be mandatory. Honestly, this should be considered a food anyhow.
After that, I’d probably say a good basic multi-vitamin/mineral. Doesn’t even have to be an expensive one, I use the supermarket generic and just take two per day, one morning and evening with food.
I don’t consider protein powder essential but it can be convenient when used around workouts.
Beyond that, I don’t think there is much that is essential. Women should probably worry about calcium and iron status, especially if they don’t eat dairy or red meat respectively. Most of the sports supplements are bogus in my opinion and you can get big or lean without any of them.
For dieting, although not essential, the ephedrine/caffeine stack is still probably the single best product out there. Two decades of data, it works, and it’s safe unless you take it like a moron.
Q. Are there any tricks you have for women who want to lose the last bit of ‘stubborn’ fat? Do they need to do things significantly differently to men?
A. Women’s hip and thigh fat has been a perennial problem as it tends to be the most stubborn of all bodyfat to lose. Men’s abdominal fat, although many men will disagree with me here, is relatively easy: men mainly need to be more patient and the abdominal fat will come off.
In contrast, hip and thigh fat is very difficult to mobilize and burn off. This is why you get women with absolutely ripped upper bodies who are still carrying significant fat in their lower bodies.
The reason is clearly evolutionary, women’s hip and thigh fat exists to support pregnancy and milk production. Quite in fact, during lactation, women’s hip and thigh fat becomes the easiest to mobilize but I haven’t figured out a good way to take advantage of this…yet.
There are a number of reasons for the stubbornness of women’s body fat, not the least of which is poor blood flow. If a woman feels her hip and thigh fat, she’ll tend to notice that it’s colder than other parts of her body; this is due to poor blood flow.
It turns out that aerobic activity can overcome this limitation; women tend to need more cardio than men to come in ripped (many men can get ripped on nothing but lifting and calorie restriction). But even regular cardio doesn’t solve the problem.
Other reasons include the type of fat that is stored there and the fact that stubborn body fat is more resistant to fat mobilizing stimuli.
Dan Duchaine was probably the first to come up with a solution and that was oral yohimbe. Falsely touted as a testosterone booster, yohimbe blocks the receptor on fat cells (called an alpha-adrenoreceptor) that makes fat mobilization so difficult. Regular use of oral yohimbe with caffeine prior to morning fasted cardio can have a noticeable effect on women’s fat loss.
As I discuss in the Ultimate Diet 2.0, it turns out that low-carbohydrate diets (20% or less calories from carbohydrate for 3-4 days) tends to automatically inhibit those same alpha-adrenoreceptors. The third and fourth day of the UD2 are good for mobilizing and burning off stubborn body fat.
Q. Thanks for the interview Lyle!
A. Thanks for having me Christian.
Books by Lyle McDonald
The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook
Maybe you need to drop weight fast for a special event, like a class reunion or a wedding. Perhaps you want to look good in a bathing suit and didn’t start your diet and exercise program early enough… or you might just want to get your diet over as quickly as possible. If so, the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook will reveal the fastest, most effective way to shed both weight and fat in the shortest time possible.
The Protein Book covers everything you need to know about protein and muscle growth, fat loss and athletic performance. Referencing over 500 scientific studies, the book is the ultimate reference on all aspects of optimal protein nutrition for anyone who’s serious about building a better body.
The Ultimate Diet 2.0 (UD2)
The UD2 is possibly the most comprehensive and complete guide to losing stubborn body fat ever written. Inside, you’ll discover the secrets of calorie partitioning, how to control where the calories go when you overeat, and where they come from when you diet… the hidden metabolic advantages that elite athletes have, and how to duplicate them to improve your results… why stubborn fat is so stubborn and how to get rid of it… how muscle grows and why so many different training systems can all be right… and much, much more!
A Guide to Flexible Dieting
A Guide to Flexible Dieting reveals how being less strict with your diet can actually make it work better. You’ll discover how deliberately breaking your diet (in a controlled fashion) can make it work better in the long run. Free meals, structured re-feeds and even a full diet break are all discussed and explained in detail.
The Ketogenic Diet
The Ketogenic Diet is the first and only book to examine in-depth the scientific evidence regarding low-carbohydrate and ketogenic diets. At 325 pages and containing over 600 scientific references, this will be your complete reference for ketogenic diets. It’s unlike any other book on low-carbohydrate diets that you have ever read or seen.