Category Archives: Nutrition

Hallelujah! Thank you Menno Henselmans and Eric Helms

Former bodybuilder and Mr. Olympia champ Ronnie Coleman once said, “Erbody wanna be a bodybuilder, but nobody wanna lift no heavy ass weight.” I’m going to alter his comment to apply to my field: Everybody wants to be an S&C expert, but nobody wants to read and/or conduct research.


If you’ve been a regular follower of mine for some time now, then you’ve probably witnessed me express my disdain for modern experts in strength & conditioning and sports nutrition. I’m not talking about the younger up-and-comers – they get a pass since they’re green. I’m talking about the established folks who have been writing, speaking, and consulting for many years and whose sole livelihoods comes from the fitness industry. You’d think that at some point these folks would gravitate toward science to answer burning questions that naturally arise within them over the course of their careers.

We have an entire field of experts who speculate and offer advice, and yet they don’t possess the necessary skills to be effective or correct. Many times there’s research to support or refute what the experts are saying but the experts are unaware of it. Usually the answer to a particular hot topic/controversy in S&C could be easily determined by conducting a simple RCT, but the experts don’t know how to conduct a study, write up a study, or submit a study for peer-review. I’m definitely not saying that an expert can’t offer valuable insight without having a PhD. What I am saying is that experts would be far more effective if they better understood the scientific method, basic statistics, and evidence-based decision making. This applies mostly to the outspoken experts who veer outside their scope of expertise and seem to have an opinion on everything rather than the humble experts who stick to what they know and defer to other experts in matters not pertaining to their knowledge-base.

Lately I’ve been disenchanted with the field. I’ve personally challenged numerous experts to debates, several of which happened privately behind the scenes and therefore my readers are unaware of, and to date none of these individuals have accepted my challenges. Experts these days seem more interested in appearing right than actually being right. They’ll resort to all sorts of logical fallacies just to try to win an argument rather than considering the possibility that they’re wrong.

Alas, now there is hope, as evidenced by the fascinating, professional, highly-intellectual, and well-informed banter between my colleagues Menno Henselmans and Eric Helms.


Cliff notes: Menno believes that the research clearly shows no value in going over 1.8 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight per day, whereas Eric believes that research supports that there is indeed value in going higher depending on the circumstance and tends to recommend 1.8-2.8 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight per day. I’ve always recommended 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day and I tend to go higher for myself, but I would love it if Menno’s advice accurately pertained to me since I find carbs and fat to be much tastier than protein in general. I appreciate how Eric pointed out individual differences in his retort, and I’m overwhelmingly impressed with Menno’s command of the research and statistical skills.

From left to right: Bret Contreras, Menno Henselmans, Alan Aragon, Eric Helms

From left to right: Bret Contreras, Menno Henselmans, Alan Aragon, Eric Helms

However, this article represents much more than optimal protein intakes. This article is what true S&C and sports nutrition is all about. It single-handedly restored some of my faith in our field, and I hope it sets a trend for how professionals go about improving understanding and conducting themselves in the future. Menno and Eric are the good guys, and I want my people to follow them. Bravo to you Menno and Eric, bravo!

To Follow Menno, click on these links:

Menno Website

Menno Facebook

Menno Personal Facebook

Menno Twitter

To follow Eric (and his 3DMJ team), click on these links:

Eric Website

Eric Facebook

Eric Personal Facebook

Eric Twitter

5 Tips for Leaning Out

If you’re the type of person who can formulate a plan and stick with it to a T for months on end no problemmo, then you won’t find this article as useful as others who struggle with adherence. Furthermore, if you’re the type that just needs to recomp (add muscle while decreasing fat and staying relatively at the same weight), then this article won’t be as much help to you. The vast majority of individuals will indeed benefit from this article since most people are markedly overweight. However, I wrote this article for the folks like me who have been training for many years and have put on a significant amount of muscle mass but never reached the level of leanness they desire. This applies to the majority of advanced lifters as well, since most never truly get into competition shape (I never have, for the record).

For me, adherence is the most difficult thing in the world. Every few hours, it takes everything in me to not enter the kitchen and devour everything in site. Since I was 16 years old, I’ve always been a terrible sleeper, and if I’m hungry, I can’t sleep. In fact, most nights I wake up in the middle of the night starving and the hunger pangs are hard to bear. I have to drink a protein drink or eat a Greek yogurt then go back to sleep. For these reasons, although I’m highly skilled at creating macro plans, I’m not the best at sticking to them.



I’ll elaborate to make a point. Last year, my intern Andrew Vigotsky would come over and we’d work on various research projects from around 8:00 pm to 2:00 am in the morning. During these 6 hours, he wouldn’t eat anything, he wouldn’t drink anything, and he wouldn’t go to the bathroom once to take a leak. In this same amount of time, I’d predictably eat 3 different times, drink 1.5 Liters of fluids, and take a leak at least 3 times. He doesn’t get hungry often and has to force himself to eat enough, whereas I’m hungry around the clock and have to try my hardest every day to not go berserk and consume 10,000 calories/day. I’m certain that if we took blood samples throughout the day and analyzed our physiology, we’d see  completely different hunger hormone profiles. It’s like my bodyweight set point is for some reason at 300 lbs and I’m trying to be 215 lbs. At any rate, I finally buckled down and made some progress, and I’m excited to share with you the tips that worked for me. 

As I mentioned in a blogpost HERE a couple of weeks ago, I recently lost 22 lbs (from 246 lbs to 224 lbs) and leaned out considerably. Many of my readers were curious as to how I went about it. As a matter of fact, I posted a picture of my current physique on Facebook and it received 4,690 likes – by far the most I’ve ever received!

This was pleasantly surprising to me because I don’t feel like my physique is very impressive. The dude in the picture below – now that’s an impressive physique! Nevertheless, having leaned out myself and having helped numerous clients lean out over the years, I believe that I have some good insight to share.

This guy is shredded!

This guy is lean! Not me.

I Figured Out What Worked for Me, You Have to Figure Out What Works for You!

Throughout this article, please realize that these are the approaches that worked well for me; they won’t necessarily work for you. However, you can learn from my strategization and experimentation in order to help you figure out the methods and systems that best suit your individuality.

After much deliberation, I decided to narrow things down to five main tips that should help you on your way to leanness, should that be your goal.

1. Do what you need to do to continue achieving excellent workouts

It’s much easier to train hard when you’re eating like a horse. When you’re dieting down, your workouts will eventually suffer, and this effect gets more pronounced the longer you’ve been dieting.


It is mandatory that you have plenty of energy to train hard to maintain strength (or even better – to build strength) over time. If you feel weak and shaky when you lift, your performance is obviously going to suffer massively, therefore you won’t be sending the same growth signals to the muscles, and your muscles will atrophy. The goal is to keep as much muscle as possible while you lose weight so that the weight you do lose is mostly fat. Most people mistakenly focus on losing weight instead of losing fat. Muscle gives you shape and keeps your metabolism more revved (*side note: many fitness experts overestimate this though; a pound of muscle burns approximately 5.9 calories/day whereas a pound of fat burns approximately 2.0 calories/day, at least according to literature referenced HERE), so it’s imperative that you prioritize strength training. You don’t want to just be a smaller version of your current self; you want to keep your muscle and lose mostly fat so you will appear more ripped and possess lower bodyfat levels.

So how do you ensure that you have sufficient energy to train hard when dieting down? Everyone is unique in this regard – I cannot give you a precise formula. You’re going to have to experiment and be scientific in order to figure out what works best for you. In particular, you need to figure out:

  1. The ideal time of day you should train in order to put forth your best effort
  2. The ideal number of meals you should consume prior to your training session
  3. The ideal combination of foods you should consume prior to your training session
  4. The types of supplements, if any, that help you train harder
  5. The amount, type, and timing of cardio, if any, that helps you lose fat without interfering with strength
  6. The optimal amount of calorie reduction and macro proportions that allows you to steadily drop weight (fat) while keeping your strength (muscle)

I know of some lifters who like to train first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. This strategy alone would cause me to lose significant strength and most likely muscle as well as I don’t perform optimally in the mornings – especially with squats, deadlifts, and other “big rock” movements. I do best when I train in the afternoon or evenings.

I know of some lifters who don’t feel right if they don’t have a couple of moderate carb meals prior to their workouts or at least a high carb meal 1-2 hours before their workout. I know of some lifters who consume all of their daily carbs during the 3 hours surrounding a workout (before, during, and after). I don’t require moderate or high carb meals before I train; this doesn’t seem to affect my performance. However, I like to have several meals in me by the time I train, especially a protein shake around 40 minutes prior to my workout.

I know of some lifters who love their HIIT and can’t stand steady state cardio. I don’t like doing HIIT or running as I feel that it interferes with my strength since I train with high frequency (*side note: THIS review shows that concurrent training does interfere with strength, power, and hypertrophy, and THIS review discusses some of the factors involved in the interference effect). I walk for 40 minutes 4-5 days per week – always after my strength workouts.

I know of some lifters who thrive off of coffee and/or caffeine pills prior to training. I rarely drink coffee, and I don’t take pre-workout supplements, but I always drink a diet energy drink on my way to the gym.

Initially, I was able to reduce my calories substantially while still maintaining my strength. This could be explained by a drop in carbohydrates (I was consuming tons of carbs every day) leading to improved insulin sensitivity/enhanced physiology, along with a significant portion of the first 10 lbs of weight loss coming from water losses. I lost 16 lbs during the first 3 weeks of dieting, and the remaining 8 lbs took 9 weeks, but my physique looked better every week. I know I was a little overaggressive out of the gates, but it all worked out in the end.


I had to be more meticulous as time went on in terms of calorie reductions in order to prevent strength and muscle losses. As I lost weight, I fought vigorously to maintain my strength. I’m going to reiterate that to make a point: I CARED ABOUT MY STRENGTH AND MADE IT A PRIORITY. You need to do this too if you want to hold onto your muscle while you lose weight.

Throughout the 24 lb weight loss, my high rep deadlift strength, weighted chin up strength, max rep chin ups, and lat pulldown strength soared, my max rep deadlift strength, hip thrust strength, reverse lunge strength, rowing strength, and incline press strength remained fairly steady, and my squat strength, front squat strength, bench press strength, and military press strength diminished by around 10% – similar to my bodyweight reduction. So I gained in some lifts, maintained in some lifts, and lost in other lifts. However, I set weekly goals, I planned, tracked, and analyzed my workouts, and I tried my absolute best to still set PRs when possible. I believe that this caused me to retain more muscle and lose more fat throughout the dieting process. This are the strategies that worked best for me; you’ll need to figure out what works best for you. 

2. Eat less and prepare to suffer more

When I was at The Fitness Summit a couple of months ago, some of my colleagues noticed that I looked leaner and asked me what I was doing in order to lean out. I thought about it for a few seconds and replied with this:

“Um, I’m eating less overall calories and staying hungry more often.”

We all laughed because they expected some fancy formula, but all I gave them was something any moron could tell them. However, this advice is very important. I suppose I could have been more technical and informed them that I created a caloric deficit by progressively cutting my carbs and fat down while keeping my protein the same (around 1 gram/lb of bodyweight per day). However, one of the main things I had to do was get used to being more comfortable with being hungry.

I realize now that I was a spoiled little b#$%* when I weighed 250 lbs. Whenever I experienced the slightest bit of hunger, off to the kitchen I went. In fact, sometimes I’d even hit up Valeros at 2 a.m. before I went to sleep. Valeros is a local Mexican food take out restaurant near my house – I’d order a chorizo and egg burrito with beans and rice. Who in the f*#$ did I think I was LOL? This was just one of the 8 meals I ‘d consume per day. Back then I was eating around 6K calories per day at 250 lbs, but in order to get down to 224 lbs I had to eventually get to around 3,000 calories per day. This was fine when I was in my early 20’s, but I’m 38 yrs old now and can’t handle all those calories while staying lean.


When I was at 250 lbs, I would guess that I experienced general hunger for around 20 minutes per day. But at 224 lbs, I would guess that I was experiencing general hunger for around 3 hours per day. I had to accept this and learn to deal with the suffering. Getting lean isn’t all fun and games for most people.

3. Prioritize diet, but every little bit can help

It’s important to be mathematical with regards to the fat loss puzzle. How many calories does exercise in general burn? Of course, it depends on various factors such as the nature and intensity of the exercise and the person’s bodyweight, but let’s just go with 5-10 calories per minute for sustained exercise.

Common sense tells us that extreme methods don’t pan out in the long run. So let’s assume that you’re going to be realistic and lift weights 4 times per week for an hour. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say you train very hard – full body – and that each training session has you burning 300 more calories more than you would at rest. This equates to 1,200 extra calories per week. Say you add in four 30 minute steady state cardio sessions which burn an additional 200 calories per session above what you’d normally burn. This equates to 800 extra calories per week. Now you’re burning an additional 2,000 calories per week through exercise, or 286 calories/day.

Not very impressive, right? Let’s say you currently eat a bagel with cream cheese each day as a snack, or say you have a few alcoholic drinks after work each night. Simply cutting these out of your diet will create the same caloric deficit as all of that exercising above (6-8 hours of total activity). Obviously strength training with the extra calories would be the best choice for your physique over the long haul since it causes the body to transform by building more muscle and shedding fat (assuming weight stays fairly constant), but the take home point is that the primary focus with fat loss should be on diet, not exercise, since it’s easier for most people to eat less as opposed to exercising more.

That said, every little bit can help. For example, when you’re dieting down and you crave a sugary snack, you might very well be willing to add in 40 minutes of brisk walking as a trade for allowing yourself to gobble down some tasty treat (for example, a snickers bar, not a giant bowl of icecream or half a dozen donuts). It just depends on your cravings and mindset. Some people aren’t tempted and can stick to their macros like a boss. Others struggle more in this regard.

Inclined treadmill walking is one of my favorite forms of cardio - doesn't interfere with strength and hits the glutes pretty well.

Inclined treadmill walking is one of my favorite forms of cardio – doesn’t interfere with strength and hits the glutes pretty well.

On days when I train clients for 4 hours or so, I find that I’m able to consume around an extra 600 calories compared to days when I don’t train any clients, and I won’t lie, the extra calories are very nice. But truth be told, if I wasn’t making money from the personal training, I’d prefer to just omit the extra hours of work/activity and just consume less calories. For those who don’t have tremendous cravings, you can just lift weights and adjust your diet appropriately; you don’t have to employ additional cardio to get lean. I realize that this is contrary to popular opinion, but many of my clients have pulled it off just fine – they stepped on stage looking incredibly lean having never done on ounce of cardio. Some cardio is indeed important for health purposes, but many people greatly overestimate how much cardio is ideal for health related goals (*side note: specifically with running and vigorous exercise, there’s a sweet spot, or a u-shaped curve, that maximizes health benefits, according to THIS paper, and it’s capped at 30-40 minutes per day).

4. Figure out clever ways to stave off hunger

Calculating macros is easy, but sticking to them is not always very easy, especially as you get leaner. Now, if you’re the type that isn’t prone to experiencing hunger pangs, then you’re a lucky individual and you can ignore this tip. However, if you’re like most people, you’re going to reach a point when dieting down where you find yourself getting extremely hungry. The body has inherent set points for bodyweight and bodyfat, so when you drop down, your body responds by sending out hunger signals. You will need to find a way to stave off hunger.

This is another thing that is highly individual. Some people consume a lot of fibrous veggies. My body doesn’t seem to be fooled by this – 30 minutes later my stomach is growling like crazy. Others chew gum, drink tea, drink a bunch of water, or even brush their teeth. What works best for me is exercise, caffeine, and carbonation. Each of these stave off my hunger temporarily. Sometimes I’ll be starving and I drink a diet energy drink and then go for a walk, and my hunger will have vanished. Three hours later I’m finally hungry again, and I successfully “stalled” my hunger for a few hours which helps enable me to stick to my macros. You will need to figure out similar strategies that work for you.

5. The 1-2X/week whey protein macro-fitting strategy for long-term adherence

Adherence is the name of the game over the long run. If you can set up, stick to, and intelligently adjust your macros for months on end and consistently set PRs in the gym, you’re going to look incredible. Many people don’t understand what “macros” means. Macros are protein, carbs, and fat, and the amount you consume of each determines your caloric intake. If this is new to you and you desire a basic guide to teach you about flexible dieting and calculating macros, click HERE to check out Sohee Lee’s “The Beginner’s Guide to Macros.” It’s an affordable guide and it’s very well written – I vouch for it. I also included a bonus guide in my 2 x 4: Maximum Strength product.

Before I divulge my “whey protein macro-fitting strategy,” I’m going to first rant about anti-flexible dieting comments I’ve seen over the past year.

Rant start

I’ve been seeing some people dissing “flexible dieting” lately as if it doesn’t have merit. This would then mean that they’re all for “inflexible dieting” or “rigid dieting.” Having trained numerous competitors who ate the same meals everyday for a couple of months during their preps (egg white omelets, broccoli, chicken, tilapia, sweet potato, oats), I can tell you with much confidence that this doesn’t pan out in the long run. As soon as the competition is over, most of these ladies put on 15 lbs the following week, then they’re miserable. This is why I’m a strong believer in moderation and why I don’t like excessive cardio or dieting. Variety is ideal for adherence.

On a continuum of “dieting flexibility,” on one end you’d have the most rigid dieters who would just eat a few different things each day, whereas on the other end you’d have the most flexible dieters who would switch things up and eat new things daily. I’m pretty sure nobody would recommend just eating one food, such as milk. Or beef. Or eggs. Or whatever. You’d be very unhealthy and would develop serious health complications pretty quickly. So rigid, inflexible dieting is out, and at the very least, it would be prudent to regularly consume at least 10 different foods. Most people are flexible dieters whether they realize it or not.

The difference between the flexible dieters and “anti flexible dieters” is that flexible dieters often purposefully work in some junk food such as pop tarts, or ice cream, or whatever, but it’s in small amounts. The rigid dieters think this is unhealthy, but something that they’re missing is that you can still adhere to flexible dieting and abstain from junk food. You can “eat clean” (misleading term but we all kind of know what it means) while still being flexible and incorporating a lot of variety. For the record, adding in some junk is not unhealthy in the grand scheme of things as long as around 80% of your foods come from whole, minimally processed foods, and I’m unaware of a single marker of overall health that would be negatively impacted such as insulin sensitivity, cholesterol, triglycerides, etc. Many “clean eaters” have a cheat day where they go crazy for an entire day and end up eating just as much junk throughout the week as the flexible dieters anyway.

Nevertheless, variety is better for overall health since you get more of a variety of micronutrients, phytochemicals, etc. But being lean is very healthy in and of itself. Many of you will recall “The Twinkie Diet” rage years ago where professor Mark Haub lost 27 lbs in 10 weeks by eating 800 less calories/day. He consumed a protein shake and a can of veggies each day, but everything else was junk – twinkies, oreos, little debbie snacks, hostess products, doritos, and sugary cereals. Even though he ate a bunch of crap, since he leaned out, his overall health improved – his LDL levels dropped by 20%, his HDL levels increased by 20%, and his triglycerides improved by 39%. Overweight people who add fruits/veggies to their diets without losing weight don’t tend to improve their cardiovascular health (see HERE).

This is why adherence is the name of the game! So we all need to figure out strategies that allow us to “adhere” for the long-term. This allows us to be at the right weight and bodyfat that we want to be at and stay there for the long-term. This leads right into my next point.

Rant over

When you’re dieting down, you tend to crave predictable foods. Sugary foods, fried foods, foods that have lots of carbs and fats, etc. For example, pizza, burgers, fries, ice cream, peanut butter, bacon, cereal, pancakes, macaroni and cheese, cookies, brownies, pie, candy, and chocolate. I started utilizing an interesting flexible approach that 1) allowed me to get in the foods I craved, and 2) was quick and didn’t require a lot of prep time. Win win!

My Whey Protein-Fitting Macro Plan

Now, you don’t have to follow this same approach, but you could easily tweak it to suit your individuality. What I did was simply jot down foods I really wished I could eat. For example, I love my giant bowls of cereal, I love my cheeseburgers, and I love my pancakes with tons of butter and syrup. Guess what? I realized that I could have cereal in the morning along with a whey protein shake, a double cheeseburger for lunch, pancakes for dinner along with a whey protein shake, and a whey protein and peanut butter shake (actually more like pudding) before I went to sleep. How’s that for a day’s meals? The things I craved were loaded with fat and carbs, but I “filled in the gaps” with whey protein in order to ensure that I hit my macros and didn’t go overboard on calories. Think of the foods you crave (when you’re dieting down, sometimes the things you crave are different than when you’re not dieting down), work them into your diet in reasonable amounts, then balance everything out with protein. Here’s what one of the days looked like for me:


Giant bowl of Grape Nuts: 500 calories, 12 grams protein, 94 grams carbs, 2 grams fat
Skim milk: 135 calories, 12 grams protein, 18 grams carbs, 0 grams fat
2 scoops in whey protein in water: 220 calories, 42 grams protein, 8 grams carbs, 2 grams fat
Total: 855 calories, 66 grams protein, 120 grams carbs, 4 grams fat

grape nuts


Double cheeseburger (Wendy’s): 700 calories, 48 grams protein, 38 grams carbs, 39 grams fat
Total: 700 calories, 48 grams protein, 38 grams carbs, 39 grams fat

double cheeseburger


3 pancakes: 471 calories, 12 grams protein, 69 grams carbs, 15 grams fat
2 tablespoons butter: 204 calories, 0 grams protein, 0 grams carbs, 24 grams fat
6 tablespoons syrup: 312 calories, 0 grams protein, 78 grams carbs, 0 grams fat
2 scoops in whey protein in water: 220 calories, 42 grams protein, 8 grams carbs, 2 grams fat
Total: 1208 calories, 54 grams protein, 155 grams carbs, 41 grams fat



2 scoops in whey protein: 220 calories, 42 grams protein, 8 grams carbs, 2 grams fat
Skim milk: 90 calories, 9 grams protein, 12 grams carbs, 0 grams fat
3 tablespoons peanut butter: 300 calories, 10 grams protein, 9 grams carbs, 24 grams fat
Total: 610 calories, 64 grams protein, 29 grams carbs, 26 grams fat


* I’d make the protein shake so that it was really thick and then I’d refrigerate it so it came out like pudding

Grand Total:

3373 calories, 232 grams protein, 326 grams carbs, 110 grams fat

You’ll note that this day of food intake totaled 3373 calories. Toward the end of the 10 weeks of dieting, I was down to around 3000 calories/day, so if I went over on calories like this, I’d walk for 30-60 min (depending on the overage on calories) at night at a brisk pace in order to make up the difference.

I would do this once per week at first and then twice per week after I’d been dieting for six weeks. These days would feel like cheat days, but they’re not cheat days – you don’t gain any weight and you don’t feel like complete crap the next day because you keep your calories in check. You’ll find that the rest of the week, you feel extra motivated to eat “cleaner” and get more fiber in, etc. I don’t experience digestive issues with these days but I would expect some people to, so those folks could take a fiber supplement on those days I suppose.

The other 5-6 days per week, I’d stick mostly to whey protein shakes, skim milk, eggs, tuna, chicken, lean beef, Greek yogurt, orange juice, fruit, dried fruit, mixed veggies, cheese, mixed nuts, sunflower seeds, peanut butter, pickles, and fish oil caps. So this way, the vast majority (over 80%) of my food throughout the week is still considered whole and minimally processed, with plenty of fiber and diversity. Of utmost importance, the flexibility allows me to stay lean, stay healthy, and stay aboard the plan.

Again, you don’t have to use this same approach. Many people don’t like protein shakes (I love them), but the whey is almost pure protein so it works very well for this purpose. You will obviously crave unique foods that are different from mine. But make no mistake about it – adherence is the name of the game in the long run, so you have to figure out ways to help you stick to the formula.


I hope that these 5 tips are helpful in your endeavors to get leaner. I’d like to state that many of my clients lean out considerably without ever dieting down. They simply keep their calories consistent, improve their macro proportions to contain more protein, and get way stronger. Over the course of several months, their physiques transform markedly despite the scale not changing. So the advice provided in this article is more so for the person who is too heavy and needs to lose weight to achieve their preferred level of body composition.

As I’ve repeated consistently throughout this article, these are the strategies that worked well for me, but you’ll need to get crafty and figure out ways to help you adhere to your diet so that you keep your calories in check, stick to your macros, and maintain or gain strength in the gym. You want fat loss and muscle maintenance, not weight loss, so strategize accordingly and defend your strength levels like a boss as you diet down.

2015-06-12 00.00.00

Me at 224 lbs after losing 22 lbs over 10 weeks

The Top 3 Diet and Lifestyle Changes to Make for Better Training Results

By Eirik Garnas

As every gym goer can attest to, there are both “good” and “bad” days in the gym. Some days, everything feels like a chore and the weight you lifted for 2 reps the last workout will barely move an inch, while other days, everything just seems to flow effortlessly and you set new PRs across the board. These differences can largely be traced back to what you did the 23 hours you spent outside of the weight room. Although it’s clearly impossible to have awesome, PR-setting workouts every day, it is possible to bring all of your training sessions up to a higher level – and largely eliminate the really crappy workout days – by properly addressing lifestyle factors such as sleep, microbial exposure, diet, and sun exposure.


A healthy, anti-inflammatory lifestyle lays the basis for optimal performance in the gym

To understand how to optimize our diet and lifestyle, we have to look back at the long evolutionary journey that shaped the human body. Perhaps needless to say, modern environments are very different from those our primal ancestors evolved in for millions of years. There has been inadequate time and selection pressure for natural selection to sculpt the human body into one that is well-adapted for the modern, industrialized milieu. This mismatch between our ancient genetic blueprint and modern way of life is a key to understanding why so many chronic diseases and health problems are on the rise (1, 2).

Several elements of modern, Western lifestyles (e.g., chronic sleep loss, high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, inadequate microbial exposure) are novel and proinflammatory, and it’s safe to say that most people in the western world suffer from some degree of chronic low-grade inflammation, a condition characterized by elevated levels of several proinflammatory mediators in systemic circulation (3, 4). This is concerning because low-level systemic inflammation is a common denominator of most, if not all, chronic diseases of civilization (3). Also, of particular interest to those involved in strength & conditioning, chronic low-grade inflammation can wreak havoc on your hormone levels, adrenals glands, energy levels, and workout results (I’ve been there). Chances are, even if you feel “pretty good”, your health condition is still poor when compared to one of your preagricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors, and you probably have some degree of low-level inflammation going on.

Besides physical activity, I strongly believe that the quality of your diet and sleep and the health of your microbiome are the most important determinants of your health. Also, since all of these things impact your energy levels, immune function, hormone levels, and ability to recuperate after workouts, you’ll not only become a healthier you by focusing on these three aspects of your lifestyle and health, but you’ll also achieve better results with your training.

Below are 3 diet & lifestyle changes that get your health condition closer to the evolutionary norm and help improve your physical performance and workout results. Some of the strategies mentioned are probably already known to you, but hopefully you can extract something new and useful as well.

1. Set yourself up for better sleep


Everyone involved in health and fitness knows that sleep is important. But what exactly is a good night’s sleep? Is it enough to get in bed at roughly the same time every day and focusing on the number of hours you spend sleeping? Not really. To manufacture a truly good night’s sleep, a more holistic approach is needed.

The use of blue-light emitting devices at night, consumption of various stimulants, chronic stress, lack of sun exposure, artificial lighting, and poor diet choices are just some of the many elements in the modern 21st century lifestyle that wreak havoc on our internal biological clock and sleep.

63% of Americans report that their sleep needs are not being met during the week, which is not surprising as recent research shows that a typical American sleeps for only 6.1 hours each night, 1 hour less than the national average in 1970, and between 2 and 3 hours less than ~100 years ago (1). Similar trends are seen in other parts of the world where artificial lighting and electronic devices have become a natural part of daily life, and it’s no doubt that insufficient and disordered sleep are among the biggest health problems in contemporary societies.

This is in stark contract to the how things were like in the preindustrial days – and even more so the Paleolithic period (2.6 million years ago – 10.000 years ago), where sleep happened in concordance with the natural fluctuations in light and dark, a campfire was the only source of light after sundown, and buzzing mobile phones and tablets were nowhere to be found.

Getting a good night’s sleep is particularly important for those who are training hard, because when we sleep, several systems in our body are in a heightened anabolic state, a state that facilitates the repair and growth of the nervous, immune, and skeletal systems. Insufficient sleep leads to increased production of cortisol and has been linked with a myriad of adverse physiologic effects, such as impairment of glucose control, increased inflammation, and fat gain (partly by causing leptin levels to fall) (5, 6). In other words, as every strength trainee can attest to, training goes so much better when you’ve slept well.

While completely disconnecting from the interwebs when the sun goes down and avoiding all of the previously mentioned modern sleep-disruptors is not a viable option for most people, making some small adjustments can really go a long way towards optimizing sleep. Personally, I’ve never had an actual sleep disorder, and for most of my life I was under the belief that the quality of my sleep was very good. However, when I started to dig into the research on the topic and make some adjustments to my sleeping environment and schedule, I realised that what I had considered to be a good night’s sleep was actually a pretty mediocre night’s sleep.

Some tips that can help you manufacture a good nights sleep:

  • Keep to a routine.
  • Sleep in a completely dark room.
  • Reduce or eliminate the use of light-emitting electronics and artificial lighting after sundown, and especially the last couple of hours before bed.
  • Install f.lux or another similar program on your computer. This program makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.
  • Expose yourself to a lot of bright light in the morning and during the day.
  • Avoid checking your phone, e-mail, etc. right before bed.
  • Take a very cold shower about 1-3 hours before going to sleep. (This is something I’ve found to be very effective).

2. Take better care of your microbiome


Microbiome is the current buzzword in the health & medical community – and for good reason. If you’ve been paying attention to the research in this area or read any of the hundreds of news stories about the critters living in and on us, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that the number of microbial cells in our body vastly outnumber our human cells (the number cited is often 90% microbe vs. 10% human), and that these microbes influence everything from our metabolism and digestion to brain function, mood, and behaviour. But why should the typical gym junkie looking to gain muscle and strength care? Well, because most of the human immune system is located in and around the gastrointestinal tract, and the gut microbiota – the collection of microorganisms found in the gut – plays a crucial role in maintaining and regulating this system (7). Gut dysbiosis and increased intestinal permeability (AKA leaky gut) set the stage for translocation of bacterial endotoxins from the gut and chronic low-grade inflammation and have been linked to a plethora of chronic health problems (7, 8).

If that’s not enough to get you excited about taking better care of the trillions of microbial travellers that inhabit your body, consider the fact that gut bacteria play a role in controlling the production of anabolic hormones that are essential for muscle growth and recovery between workouts. In a recent animal study, researchers found that “male mice routinely consuming purified lactic acid bacteria originally isolated from human milk had larger testicles and increased serum testosterone levels compared to their age-matched controls.” (9). And it wasn’t just a small difference, mice eating the probiotic bacterium Lactobacillus reuteri had significantly higher levels of circulating testosterone regardless of the type of diet they consumed. Going forward it will be very interesting to keep an eye on the human research in this area.

So, what kind of diet and lifestyle modifications should you make to improve the health of your microbiota? Will going down to the health food store to buy an expensive probiotic supplement do the trick? No, not really. Most probiotic supplements on the market today have several drawbacks that limit their usefulness. That doesn’t mean all probiotics are a waste of money, and in the future, advanced probiotic supplements and microbiome modulators will probably play an essential role in the treatment of a wide range of health conditions. However, it’s safe to say that for most people, diet and lifestyle are the key things to consider.

In my opinion, looking back at the long co-evolution of man and microbe is the key to understanding how we can improve the state of our microbiome. For most of human evolution, antibiotics, highly processed foods, infant formulas, and hand sanitizers were nowhere to be found, all births were performed the way evolution intended, high levels of fermentable fiber were consumed every day, and all activities occurred in a microbe-rich, natural environment. It was primarily under these conditions human-microbe relations were shaped, and hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the scientific research on the human microbiome consistently show that we can learn a lot about how to achieve a healthy microbiota by looking to our evolutionary past. While we clearly can’t go back to the preagricultural days, we can adjust our modern lifestyle so it more closely resembles that of our ancient forebears.

Pretty much everything you do has an impact on your microbiome in some way. To keep this article from getting too long, I’ll just mention four action items that are particularly important:

  • Eat more fermentable fibers. Fiber intake in the modern, industrialized world is miniscule when compared to the levels that are/were consumed among hunter-gatherers and non-westernized, traditional people, something that has profound implications for human health.
  • Eat traditionally fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, and kefir. These types of foods contain a wide range of beneficial microorganisms, some of which may colonize the gut and/or contribute genetic material to bacteria living in gut biofilms through horizontal gene transfer.
  • Enjoy contact with healthy people and pets. Microbes are continually shared between individuals through kissing, touching, etc.
  • Eat fresh, raw, and minimally washed/cleaned vegetables and fruits from a trusted source (e.g., from the farmer’s market or backyard garden). We often hear about the dangers of food poisoning from eating raw produce, but less attention is given to the fact that ingesting food-borne microorganisms can help add biodiversity to the gut microbiota.

3. Adjust your diet so it is better matched with your ancient genetic make-up


When it comes to nutrition, a lot of lifters, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts tend to put most of the focus on macronutrient distribution, micronutrient intake, pre- and post-workout meals, and calories consumed. For some, the whole diet thing is simply boiled down to eating according to the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) strategy, which is fairly popular within the fitness and bodybuilding community. However, as anyone who’s read more than a couple of blog articles and abstracts on nutrition will tell you, while eating primarily “whole foods”, putting some emphasis on meal timing, and making sure you’re getting an adequate supply of protein, fat, and carbs is certainly a good starting point, only focusing on these things is way too simplistic when the goal is to eat a truly healthy diet.
To really be able to design a healthy diet we have to take into account where our food comes from, how it’s produced, how it’s digested, absorbed, and metabolised, and ultimately, how it affects our hormone levels, gut microbiota, and gene expression.

When researching the connection between nutrition and health, many would say that the first step is to go for the randomized controlled-trials, meta-analyses, and systematic reviews on the subject you’re interested in. After all, these types of studies are considered the gold standard of nutritional science. However, although RCTs and comprehensive reviews are absolutely invaluable when digging into nutrition and health topics, the problem with initiating the search for answers this way is it can often lead us astray.

One of the primary reasons there’s so much confusion and debate about nutrition is that there are a thousand different ways to look at the science/literature. Someone who’s drawn to the vegetarian movement will quickly focus on the studies that seem to support his cause, while those who favor a very low carb diet will point out the dozens of trials that seemingly support their ideas.

Even someone with no apparent preconceived notions can quickly be led astray and come to the wrong conclusions by looking at the research. Let’s take a subject like saturated fat for example. On the one side, there are plenty of seemingly good studies showing that a diet high in saturated fat can trigger translocation of bacterial endotoxins from the gut and low-grade chronic inflammation, while on the flip side there are also several reports indicating that saturated fat consumption is not linked with higher risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, and all the other conditions butter and lard have been blamed for (10). The reason for these conflicting results often boil down to differences in study design and methods, and it can often be difficult to separate what is good and bad research. Without a guiding framework to help us make sense of things, we’re grasping in the dark.

So, what is this guide we need to make sense of nutritional science? Evolution, of course!

By looking at how we’ve eaten for millions of years, how our brains and guts have evolved, and how nutrition transitions have impacted human health, we establish the foundation we need to design a healthy diet in the 21st century. It’s not always easy to decipher our evolutionary history in such a way that we can draw concrete conclusions, but even by just getting a fraction of the answers we are looking for, we can begin to make sense of why things are like they are. With this evolutionary perspective in mind, we suddenly have a base to build our ideas upon.

Darwin didn’t focus much on nutrition and exercise, but he unknowingly gave us many of the tools we need to be healthy and fit in his book “On the Origins of Species”. By combining his ideas on evolution and natural selection with the science on epigenetics and microbiomes, it’s usually possible to predict what nutrition studies will show even before they have been done. That doesn’t mean doing and reading research is a waste of time – of course not, it just means that it’s important to remember that the evolutionary template is the foundation that supports everything else.

Over the last 10.000 years, human diets have become progressively more divergent from that of our ancient ancestors. These rapid changes started with the incorporation of grains and dairy as staple foods with the Agricultural Revolution and gained speed and power with the introduction of refined vegetable oils, fatty domesticated meats, large quantities of refined sugars, “fast food”, and certain other evolutionarily novel food items over the last couple of centuries. In comparison, the human genome has remained relatively unchanged during this time period, something that is concerning as our nutritional needs are determined by our genetic make-up (11, 12). Over millions of years of life as foragers, natural selection shaped the genome that we to a large extent still carry with us today (1, 11). Certain genetic adaptations (e.g., lactase persistence) and alterations of the gut microbiome have allowed us to tolerate various novel foods, but we’re clearly not well-adapted to the typical Western diet a lot of people consume today.

The Paleo Diet has received its fair share of criticism lately, as is to be expected for anything that goes against mainstream thinking and becomes so popular in a very short time. However, the facts remain; the typical diet of our preagricultural ancestors has all of the qualities that science tells us make you fit and healthy. It’s very nutrient-dense, low in antinutrients, high in protein and fiber, and devoid of trans fatty acids and refined sugars (11, 13). Also, all of the foods allowed on a hunter-gatherer type diet have a low-moderate reward value, maximum carbohydrate concentration of approximately 23%, low-moderate energy density (honey and very fatty cuts of meat being the exception), and high satiety index (they fill you up) (14, 15).

So, what does this mean? Should you eat a strict Paleo diet? That’s certainly an option – and no doubt a great one if you get it work for you. However, many see the Paleo Diet as unrealistic and unnecessarily restrictive and find that the dietary pattern of our preagricultural ancestors serves best as a starting point for designing a healthy diet in the 21st century, not a strict set of rules.

If you’re someone who’s skeptical about ancestral diets and/or like your morning cereal too much to even consider changing it for scrambled eggs and vegetables, you’ve probably already stopped reading or started peppering the comment section with your opposing views. However, if you do see the value – which is to me obvious – of looking to traditional societies and our hunter-gatherer past (which comprises 99,5% of the evolutionary history of our genus, Homo) for tips on how to eat, here are a couple of action items for you:

  • Reduce or eliminate your consumption of the most obvious offenders (e.g., foods high in refined sugar, refined grains, most breakfast cereals).
  • Eat more fiber. Estimates suggest that fiber intake among most hunter-gatherers was >70 grams/day (16), and some have been known to consume vastly more than that.
  • Eat more high-quality foods rich in protein. Protein has a potent effect on thermogenesis and satiety and “high” protein diets are particularly great for those looking to lose weight.
  • Emphasise food quality. Buy organic, grass-fed, and/or wild foods when possible.
  • Reduce or eliminate your intake of cereal grains. Contrary to what the conventional food pyramid suggests, whole grains aren’t the ultimate health food.
  • Don’t be afraid of coconuts, grass-fed red meats, eggs, and other whole foods that are relatively high in saturated fat and/or cholesterol.
  • Don’t put too much emphasis on meal timing and meal frequency. Focus on food choices, and eat when you’re hungry.

I hope this gave you some tips on how you can adjust your diet and lifestyle to achieve better results with your training. Visit my website if you want to learn more about how you can take better care of your health.

About the author

eirik-beachName: Eirik Garnas
Besides studying for a degree in Public Nutrition, I’ve spent the last couple of years coaching people on their way to a healthier body and better physique. I’m a personal trainer from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, with additional courses in sales/coaching, kettlebells, body analysis, and functional rehabilitation. Subscribe to my website if you want to read more of my articles on fitness, nutrition, and health.

Flexible Dieting and Foods that are Truly High in Protein

Seventeen years ago, I had an undergrad professor who constantly extolled the virtues of adequate protein intake for “brain-based learning” – a popular educational paradigm at that time. In order to help her students get their protein requirements in, she would pass out Keebler cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers to each of her students every single class to support brain function, learning, and retention.

I can recall sitting there being like, “WTF?!” I would glance around the room at all of the students, waiting for one…just one of them to read the nutritional label and discover that these snacks weren’t in fact packed with protein. But it never happened; everyone just naively accepted that they were helping their brains function better due to delicious protein filled treats.

keebler crackers nutrition

For twenty years as a personal trainer, this phenomenon has been bothering me. I can’t tell you how many times I overhear my clients saying something like, “Quinoa is a great source of protein.” Or, “I had some peanut butter because I needed to get some protein in me.” Or, “Almonds are packed with protein.” Or, “I made sure to have a Yoplait yogurt for breakfast since it’s important to have protein in the morning.” If you’re a personal trainer, I’m sure you can relate. And in case you’re wondering why it’s bothersome, it’s because none of these food sources are in fact high in protein.

Check out the nutritional info pertaining to the cheese and peanut butter crackers. You’ll notice that they contain 250 calories, 13 grams of fat, 30 grams of carbs, and 6 grams of protein. Less than 10% of the calories come from protein (46% is fat and 46% is carb). The mere fact that the food has the words “cheese” and “peanuts” in the title fools ignorant people who are unskilled in the art of reading nutritional labels into thinking that the snacks are high in protein when in actuality they are not.

Hypothetical Scenarios

I’m a big fan of flexible dieting (I created a flexible diet guideline for my 2 x 4: Maximum Strength product) – with this system you can work whatever foods you want into your nutrition as long as it fits your macros. You want some Keebler cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers? Have at it, just make sure you nail your numbers for the day. You have taste buds that don’t enjoy sweets? I hate you, you lucky son of a bitch, but in this case you wouldn’t use up any of your macros with sweets, you simply work the foods that you prefer into your day.

One problem is, many individuals don’t have as much wiggle room as they think they do with their diets. They realize this as soon as they start tracking and stop guessing with regards to their food intake. After finally downloading an app and actually tracking their macros, many of my clients realize that they’re taking in way more calories than they think or they have a few days per week where they go way over what they claim, which sabotages their progress.


Ideally we could all have sky high metabolisms, all men could wolf down 5,000+ calories per day and all women could scarf down 3,000+ calories per day and not gain any weight. But the reality is that many of us are pretty sedentary and only exercise when we hit the gym several days per week for around an hour, and we can’t handle that many calories (maybe we could when we were younger, but not anymore). This is especially true when people get down to the weight they prefer, they find that they can’t eat as much as their brain would like. Bottom line, we all have to exhibit some discipline and monitor our eating habits.

Let’s say you’re a 200 pound male who maintains an ideal physique by consuming 3,000 calories and 200 grams of protein per day. And let’s go back to the example of the Keebler cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers. If you ate 12 of these crackers, you’d get 3,000 calories – your entire daily allotment, but only 72 grams of protein, thereby falling fall short of your protein goals. You’d also get 360 grams of carbs and 117 grams of fat per day, which is too much for a 3,000 calorie diet that contains optimal levels of protein. Obviously you can see that this snack isn’t really high in protein, and you’re going to need foods that are truly high in protein in order to hit your targets.

I have a 5’4″ female client right now that maintains her ideal current weight of 120 lbs by consuming 1,500 calories per day. She doesn’t do cardio and sticks to weights 3 times per week. I have her aiming for 120 grams of protein per day, 155 grams of carbs per day, and 45 grams of fat per day. She prefers to eat 4 meals per day, therefore she needs to average 30 grams of protein per meal. Getting this 30 grams of protein 4 times per day isn’t easy for many women, at least at first.

In my experience, many women will assume that they’re getting sufficient protein intake because they eat two eggs in the morning (12 grams of protein) and a piece of chicken at night (30 grams of protein). Assuming they get 12 more grams of protein from a can of Greek yogurt and 20 more grams from veggies and other things, this comes to 74 grams of protein per day.

Many men do the same thing, so it’s not just women. In fact, many of my guy friends who don’t lift take in tons of protein but they do so through such fatty meats that they go way over on calories, and their physiques suffer greatly as a result.

Check out the chart I made below.


You will clearly see which common foods are indeed high in protein, which foods are moderate in protein, and which foods are low in protein.

Sure, having things like lentils, refried beans, tofu, and even various veggies not included in the chart such as spinach are useful in helping people hit their protein requirements. However, an entire can of spinach only yields 14 grams of protein, so you’re not going to meet your protein requirements for the day with spinach and other veggies alone. The increased popularity of Greek yogurt over the past decade is great since it is in fact a high protein snack. But at the end of the day, you’re going to need to eat some meat or guzzle down a protein shake here and there. Yes, I realize that there are plenty of vegans out there who have incredible physiques, and many even figure out ways to get adequate protein intake. But the majority of people are not vegan, so for those who are trying to improve their physique, most meals should be centered around a portion of meat (or a shake, which I’ll explain below).

I don’t usually track my macros. Most of the time I just make sure I get my protein each day, and get on the scale in the morning and at night. I then modify my diet accordingly so I stay roughly the same weight. However, I have tracked my macros before and it worked beautifully, plus I have my clients track their macros.

Here’s a strategy I employed when I did track macros (keep in mind that this isn’t necessary – you can fit your macros any way you prefer) that helped keep me on track. Last year, I was consuming around 230 grams of protein, 230 grams of carbs, and 120 grams of fat each day, for around 2,900 calories. I was leaning out at the time and dropping weight. I have an affinity for fatty foods, hence the lower carbs and higher fats. I have most of my clients stick to higher percentages of carbs and lesser percentages of fat. Anyway, I liked to eat 6 times per day. If I divided my daily macros by 6, I needed around 40 grams of protein per meal, 40 grams of carbs per meal, and 20 grams of fat per meal. Getting 35-40 grams of protein per meal 6 times per day isn’t easy for me. It is for people that love to cook and prepare their meals ahead of time, but that’s not me.

meal prep

This is why I’m such a fan of whey protein shakes. I put two scoops in milk and it yields over 50 grams of protein. If I did this twice per day, this equated to over 100 grams of protein, which went a long way in helping me get to the 230 grams I desired. If you don’t like the taste of shakes, then you definitely don’t need to drink them. But in my situation, whey protein shakes helped me fit my macros.

This is especially important considering that I, like most people, tend to crave fatty and sugary foods. I could enjoy daily servings of my macadamia nuts, my almonds, my cashews, my sunflower seeds, my yogurts, my orange juice, my dried cherries, my Craisins, and my dark chocolate (I wish I liked my veggies but I don’t), because two of my meals per day were mostly protein (2 scoops of whey in skim milk).


Now let’s incorporate this into my averaging scheme. With 2 of my 6 daily meals consisting of the shakes, this left 4 meals per day and took off 110 grams of protein from my total (and also 20 grams of carbs). Now my macros were at 120 grams of protein, 210 grams of carbs, and 120 grams of fat for the rest of the day, which is much more enticing. I should mention that I had a few fish oil caps per day so this took off around 6 grams of fat from the total. Focusing on protein, if I ate 4 cans of Greek yogurt, this took off 40 grams from the total, which left me with 70 grams. If I consumed 2 pieces of meat, or 2 cans of tuna, or 1 piece of meat and 6 eggs, I met my target protein goal for the day (I just needed to make sure I hit the carb and fat targets).

You definitely don’t need to copy my system, the point of flexible dieting is to figure out your own that suits you best. Work the foods you enjoy into the mix, consume the ideal number of meals you prefer, but just make sure you hit your macros consistently. You’ll likely find that the protein target is the hardest to achieve, as carbs and fats are more fun to eat. This practice leads to an incredible physique over time as long as you know how to train properly and manipulate your macros according to your goals.


To conclude this article, please focus on the larger picture. Absorb what’s useful to you and disregard what isn’t – no need to nitpick my info to death, unless you feel I’m highly off base of course. We can all dig up different articles showing different numbers for protein requirements. We can all dig up nutritional labels of brands that differ from the data I showed in my chart. We can argue about clean eating versus IIFYM to death. This article isn’t written for vegans, so if you’re vegan please don’t take it personal. My goals in writing this article was to show people how much protein they’re actually getting from various foods and to provide people with some example scenarios, which is beneficial from a knowledge standpoint. Scientia potentia est (knowledge is power) my friends!