There are many ways to get lean or show-ready, but the stereotypical bodybuilding or physique contest prep generally consists of severe and prolonged calorie deficits, eating 5-6 tiny meals a day out of tupperware, slaving away at 2+ hours of steady state cardio a day, and while it may get you lean fast, health usually declines just as fast as a result (along with muscle and sanity!). Due to decreased metabolism, and nutrient deprivation, post-competition or once the "goal" is reached, it is almost never SUSTAINED, and instead, a "rebound" is common where all the fat lost is regained within a short period of time... to me, that doesn't seem healthy for the body or the mind.
What if there way a healthy way to get super lean, while ENJOYING the process as much as possible, and to STAY lean and healthy (& sane :) long term (& continue to progress and improve!)? Well, that's what I'd like to find out for myself! ;P
So I thought I'd share this journey as a Primal Prep Series. Why Primal?
I don't like to put myself into boxes ("vegan", "paleo", "primal", etc), but my nutrition, movement and and way of looking at the prep (i.e health first :) - and way I already live and eat and move - have a lot of overlap and resonance with ancestral health principles. A lot of the elements are things that are often used in the "primal"/paleo community - like intermittent fasting, eating whole, natural foods, high-quality animal products and and higher fat, eating "nose-to-tail" (all parts of the animal, not just muscle meat!), eating grain-free, drinking copious amounts of bone broth, functional training and training natural movement patterns... the list goes on!
There are discrepancies, for sure - can anyone say (organic, fair-trade, 100%) chocolate!? - and I'm not interested in being "perfectly primal", but it's mostly to distinguish it from the traditional contest prep and highlight the more "natural", health-first approach I'd like to take :=)
Does lean = healthy?
SO, healthy and lean for a female - is it possible!?
I would say it is more the approach and WAY you get lean (the measures taken to get there), than the actual leanness itself (up to a point).
There are different ways to get lean, some damaging, and some not, that will determine health status while both arriving at the goal of "lean". When I say lean, I mean 15% body fat, which is very low for a woman. 13% body fat is considered "essential" in women (i.e the minimum amount of body fat required for basic physiological and physical health), although there are many female fitness competitors and athletes that go below that (usually temporarily). Here is good article with visuals of body fat for men and women is the following.
I could be aiming for the same goal of 15% body fat, but instead of doing it within a 6 month period, push my body to its limits and strive to go from 21% to 15% in 3 months or 6 weeks, or whatever the popular contest prep time is. In that timeframe, you HAVE to go to unhealthy measures to get that lean that fast!
Woman's bodies are particularly sensitive to energy deficits, and generally have a harder time getting lean than men do. I've experienced it myself many times in the past where my body responds negatively very fast to things like restricting calories in conjunction with large amounts of cardio, and completely rebels by storing ONTO fat, loosing muscle, and worse.
I also think the micronutrient intake matters even more with energy restriction, to ensure metabolic health.
So, yes, I will be lowering my calories, but gradually and not excessively, and the calories I DO eat will be far from the typical rice, broccoli and chicken diet! They will come from super nutrient-dense foods that I love to eat, like organ meat, pasture-raised whole eggs and raw egg yolk, grass-fed beef and lamb, greens, bone broth, seaweed, seafood, spirulina, wild fish, a rainbow of vegetables, starchy vegetables like sweet potato and parsnips, and, of course, some high quality cacao (yum, yum, yum) ;)
Current physique & stats
General approach: GRADUAL & periodised
Sustainable - no short-cuts or deprivation or too crazy stuff!
Enjoying and embracing the process - seeing it as an opportunity to build good habits, self-trust and efficacy by following through day by day, and character through resisting impulse responses. Patience and consistency, baby!
Aiming for progress, not perfection - as much as I set it up to be as smooth a process as possible, there will inevitably be days where something doesn't go to plan. That used to be a cue for negative self talk and letting the whole day screw up, but NOW it's not about perfection, it's about how quickly can I bounce back and just do the next best thing
Focusing on creating "masterpiece days" (term I got from Brian Johnson of PhilosophersNotes, one of my most favourite inspirations ever!), and on the HABITS that create the success, not being constantly obsessed by the outcome.
I am paying attention to quality AND quantity.
In the past, just focusing on quality does nothing for me, and I go around in circles trying to get lean, because MAN, I am a girl who can eat! "Just eat clean" - whether I was eating just raw fruits when I was raw vegan, or high fat ketogenic, if I didn't pay attention to quantity, I would always find it very easy to gain fat, despite training. I would often consume 3-4000+ calories a day, and as much as I DO believe that the hormonal response to food is as important as the calorie contribution, THAT MUCH, no matter where it came from, only hindered any efforts I made.
After much experimenting, I really do feel and look better with higher protein and lower fat than the ketogenic approach I was using before. Although it had and has it's benefits for me to helping restore my hormone, metabolic and nutritional profile, I prefer to think of it as a therapeutic tool, and to use periodically, as needed (like to heal from autoimmune hyperthyroidism!). Not to say I do low fat now - at ALL! I was still eating 8 whole eggs a day, and include salmon, fatty meat and fish, etc, but the difference is that I am 1) not doing any overt fats such as oils or butter (JUST doing this has eliminated countless tablespoons and fat calories of coconut oil ahahah!), and 2) being more mindful about how many fat sources in a day (so, for example, the days I do eat a lot of whole eggs, my other protein sources will be leaner, etc).
Higher protein, high fat, moderate carbohydrates is what my body generally feels better with.
Having said that, I also feel better including days of low protein - and days of higher carb! Sound contradictory!? :P This is why I am not setting macro goals, because I like the flexibility of adjusting to my body's needs on any given day. I find this helps me cultivate body awareness and improve the relationship I have with my body, instead of just ignoring it's signals (like I have in the past). It also cultivates the ability to distinguish the "conditioned" desires with true needs - which is totally a skill, as I still have days where I eat raw chocolate all day while saying "I'm just listening to my body!" ;)
I eat a TON of plant matter, in the form of vegetables and greens (& 100% chocolate...). By a ton, it probably literally nearly would be if I had enough time in the day to chew enough ;) However, I also feel the need to include low fibre, low volume days, where I eat almost NONE and literally eat nearly all high quality animal products, and some easy-to-digest greens like baby spinach. Too many vegetables causes bloating and digestive issues for me, and having a break really feels good for my digestion.
My general guidelines:
- Loose fat on the highest calories possible
- NUTRIENT-DENSE FOODS!
- Bio-individual approach: not following a set in stone diet and adjusting to work with the needs of my body
- Gradually decrease calories
- Refeed days - at first every 10 days, and more often as I get leaner
- No prolonged energy deficit: every 6-8 weeks taking a week or so at maintenance calories
- My muscle (& movement pattern) weaknesses. For me, these are:
- My hamstrings - I am majorly quad dominant!
- My glutes - again, my quads seem to take over, and my glutes switch off (also all that sitting, etc, as a student!)
- My rear and medial delts are underdeveloped compared to my front, probably becuase of all the pressing I do without balancing it with pulling exercises
- Implementing more pull exercises: aiming for a 2 to 3 radio of pull to push
- My weight-lifting strength goals:
- Bench 80kg (and then working towards benching 1.5x my bodyweight!) (current 1RM: 68kg)
- Deadlift 1.5x my bodyweight (current 1RM: 105kg)
- For functional & bodyweight movements, I am working on:
- Making 5 perfect-form, strict, full ROM, full bodyweight pull-ups EASY (already at 5 close grip) - want to focus on this, and then weighted pull-ups
- Handstand holds
Recovery & Rest
It's one of my weakest links (or used to be), but also one of my greatest priorities when it comes to feeling good - and for body composition!
Not only does lack of sleep screw up hormones and increase fat storage around the mid-section, it makes me bloody ravenous! And totally unmotivated to train. So sleep prioritising is a MUST!
My current way of doing this is focusing just on the time I want to be in bed. Last month was 10-10:30pm (as before that I was getting to sleep at midnight), and this month I am striving for consistently jumping into bed at 9-9:30pm. Focusing on JUST THIS, instead of hours of sleep and what time to wake up, etc, takes care of all the rest naturally! When I'm in bed at 9pm, I naturally wake up early. And when I do it consistently, it becomes the natural biorhythm for my body again, and so my sleep quality improves. Win-win!
As for recovery built into my training, I think outside of a 7-day training split, and when I get adequate sleep, I do best with a full day off any scheduled training every 10th day or so. Then within each week, one day will be fully dedicated to yoga and mobility.