In this interview with Eric Helms, we chat all about the concept of staying too lean. That is, we discuss body fat percentage from the standpoint of health and performance.
Many people set their crosshairs on getting a six-pack when they first get into fitness. “I’ll be happy once I have abs!” they fantasize.
And that’s all well and good from an aesthetics point of view. Most of us like how we look when we’re really lean, but when it comes to general health or strength training, is having ripped abs actually beneficial?
The truth is staying super lean year-round can have an impact on other areas of your life beyond how you look, including your training, sleep, mood, and hunger.
In other words, staying too lean for too long can impede your progress if you have other goals beyond looking shredded, and that’s what Eric is here to talk about.
In case you’re not familiar with Eric, he’s not only an accomplished bodybuilder, powerlifter, coach, author, scientist, and member of Legion’s Scientific Advisory Board, but he’s also one of the guys behind the Monthly Applications in Strength Sport (MASS), which is one of the best research reviews out there.
In this episode, we talk about . . .
- How body fat relates to health and athletic performance
- Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) and energy availability
- Energy compensation and how extreme amounts of activity affect energy expenditure depending on energy availability
- The easiest way to tell if you’re too lean
- Reasons for getting (and staying) lean
- And more . . .
So, if you want to learn how staying too lean for too long could be hurting your progress in the gym, or just want a little motivation as to why you should lean bulk, this podcast is for you!
Lastly, if you want to support the show, please drop a quick review of it over on iTunes. It really helps!
6:12 – How do you know if you’re trying to stay too lean?
12:09 – What is the sweet spot in terms of body fat percentage and weight?
16:35 – What is RED-S?
31:12 – What are symptoms of RED-S for women?
35:37 – What’s the best and easiest way to know if you’re too lean?
40:10 – What is the optimal calorie range for you?
51:41 – What if you notice negative effects at the level of leanness you want aesthetically?
Mentioned on the Show:
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Mike: Hey Eric.
Eric: What’s up Mike? How you doing? Pretty good, man. Pretty good. Just as I was telling you, getting ready to move and staying busy with work and kids and life stuff, Absolutely. The real life stuff. Yeah. Not this whole fitness nonsense that we always talk about. That’s still part of it.
Mike: It’s gotta be in there. But, I can only dedicate so much to the gains, like sleep, for example. I used to sleep, I used to be invincible. I used to like, just that blackout, that teenager sleep, blackout, unconscious. Open your eyes and it’s morning and you feel great every day.
Eric: Now after a couple of kids, it’s not terrible, but it’s just not the same. I slept six hours straight last night and that’s rare. I was like, Oh, wow, this is gonna be a good day. I fell back asleep for a little bit more, but it’s not the same anymore. No, it does not. And as much as I’ve dedicated my whole life to fitness, I’m definitely.
Not in my twenties, let’s put it that way. So I relate to segue to what I wanted to get you on the show today to talk about, which is body fat percentage, and this is something that I’ve spoken a little bit about and I’ve written a little bit about, and I have my own experience as a share. But basically the question that triggered this for me is how do you know if you’re trying to stay too lean?
And this is gonna be in the context. Of health and performance, like aesthetics aside, right? You’re never lean enough if you’re only looking at what in the mirror. I don’t have to tell you, I’ve never been as lean as you’ve gotten, but I’m sure you’ve experienced the mind fuck of it a little bit.
I know I have, even where I’ve gotten pretty lean for a photo shoot and then anything fatter than that is just feels fat, right? And so I think we’ve spoken a little bit about that when you were sharing your experience in your last contest prep. So again, looking at maintenance from the perspective.
Physical health, emotional health, workout, performance, making progress. I thought that you’d be the perfect guy to bring on the show and explain to people and help them understand. Again, how do you know when you’re just trying to be too neurotic about it? You’re trying to be too Instagram,
Mike: Too Instagram. That’s perfect. Yeah. I think, to be honest, if we keep this out of the realm of aesthetics, then it’s a much easier question to answer because hell, I’ve actually. So lean that I thought, I look like the way it was like four pounds ago where you start to look sickly in the face and things like that cuz you’re just cheekbones and a beard.
Eric: See I have fat cheeks. So for me it just makes me look a little bit more of a jaw line.
Mike: Yeah, man. It’s like there, there is that point where you just look a little bit younger, more, more pronounced jaw. And then if you keep going, and you lose pockets of fat on your face that you didn’t even realize were pockets of fat before.
And you’re like, Oh my God, I missed skull. So I literally kept my beard during prep after I did a photo shoot and I hadn’t planned on keeping it, and I just decided I liked it because it disguised some of the skull, like skeletal face that I had going on. But anyway, I think if we keep this to the question of health and performance, it’s a much easier question to answer.
And I do think, The time’s changing and people getting with the data and our more holistic understanding of health, people still do associate leaner with healthier. And if you actually look at the data on this, even if we go to the far other end of it, when you start to look at reliable health associations where you see negative effects on health, you actually have to get into the, like higher than a 30 BMI category to see consistent data that’s actually consistently and reliably related to being less.
Eric: And for people are wondering how that correlates with a body fat level. A lot. I know a lot of people listening, they’re probably thinking more in terms of body fat percentage,
Mike: I will get there. I absolutely, yes, I apologize so No worries. How dare you interrupt me. No, I’m just . Yeah. Yeah. For the standard classifications that, that would be like class one obesity is over 30 vmi, and, overweight is 25 to 29, quote unquote.
Now. I have a 25 BMI when I’m in stage condition because I have more muscle mass. So to give people an idea of what that is in terms of body fat percentage, if you are someone who lifts weights, we’re probably talking about for males in the mid twenties. 20% body fat and you are probably just as healthy as you would be in the teens.
And it’s not until you get into the high twenties or even thirties where we could say, yeah, there’s probably a good chance that is having at least associated consistently with negative health consequences. So I think. That’s a useful way of framing it to just understand that the ceiling is a lot higher than the, Hey, I need to be, insert like a random number that’s almost always 15% or 12% or 10% body fat to be healthy.
Then from a performance perspective, man, that totally depends on what type of performance we’re talking about. If we’re thinking of. You’re standard folks who are probably listening to us. That’s, I want to be strong. I want to be reasonably fit, but mostly it’s resistance training performance.
There is some other interesting data we can look at. Greg Knuckles did a little in-house analysis of the open power lifting.org database and found the strongest explanatory variable for someone increasing their total. If you just look at the demographics available is gaining. And that can explain like 30% of the variants of gaining strength and that’s why it’s a weight class for, That’s why Ribit always says, I’m just a skinny loser and I need to gain 30 pounds and then I’d actually be strong.
Eric: Exactly. Yeah. You just need to get to the point where you’re squatting 500 pounds, but it’s only 1.5 times body weight. So easy enough. The thing is like if you wanna be super, super strong, it is difficult to do that while controlling body weight, which requires controlling calories which may require doing cardio. And there also may be some independent effective actually being quote unquote too lean, which we can get into where performance is just capped.
It’s not that you can’t be. Good for you performance, but it might be good for you performance at a given body fat percentage and , Anecdotally, something I’ve noticed is that when bodybuilders or strength athletes try to hover around too, lean of a body fat, for them, it is difficult to progress over timeframes, which they would normally be able to see progress if they were maybe a little bit less controlled.
What has that been like for you? I fit this mold quite well. I would say the only downside is I don’t seem to gain strength as reliably going above a certain body weight. Like I have pushed my body weight up to 220 pounds and I’m six foot. So you like, on paper that should mean. Very reasonable body weight for me.
But I also have relatively small frame, so that’s hefty for me and it’s hard to do to get up there, and it doesn’t seem to make me much stronger than being like, say two 10 or two 15, unfortunately. So for me though, I notice if I’m trying to hang around under 200 pounds, then I can perform. Okay.
But I don’t seem to progress as. The sweet spot for me is, pushing from say, 200 to two 15 and, maybe a little higher than that for an extended off season before I, then do like a mini cut and prepare for the next competition. But I’m hanging in the low to mid Two hundreds, two teens kind of thing is where I can progress, shave off some fat to make it a little more runway room And then rinse and repeat.
Eric: And then what is that like in terms of body fat percentage for you?
Mike: Yeah, if I had to guess, I would say considering my stage weight is right around 180 and that’s maybe we’ll say 6% body fat, assuming some muscle loss, and having looked at pictures of myself throughout contest prep, I think around 200 pounds for me is probably like 12% body fat.
Eric: So that gives some anchors to those numbers. Yeah, it sounds like we have similar, just similar bodies in that regard. So I’m a little bit taller. I’m six two ish. I don’t know, maybe a little bit shorter than that. I have small bones.
Mike: Do you know what your risk circumference is, out of curiosity? I used to, cause I did the whole Casey butt calculation thing, but yeah.
But I can overlap.
Eric: Yeah I’m with you on that. Like I have small bones for sure. I was not made to be a big and strong guy. I previously I hit my best numbers, Nothing impressive, but my one rms were close to the 3, 4, 5 benchmark. I got to about three on the bench. About four. So I was like 365 for a few on the squat, so that’s probably close.
I’d have to pull up the calculator and maybe mid fours in the deadlift. And I was making progress, but I hurt. It wasn’t a terrible injury, but I pissed off my SI joint and then I had to back down and that was the end of that lean gaining phase. So similar to you. So I waited a little bit less.
Just be, my weight has always been strangely low, right? Random anecdote. I was at like Universal Studios one time. I was pretty lean and you know the booths where they guess your weight and if they’re off by like more than 10 pounds or five or something like that, you win something. And she was off by 25 pounds
I was 1 78 or something and she guessed like 2 0 5 or something. And so anyway, so my weight is always strangely low, but at that time, I wanna say 2 0 5 to 2 0 8 and probably 13, 14, 15, just in that range. Looked pretty good, but not shredded by any means, right? And so I, I just remember those workouts and I had a lot of energy and I was able to continually progress.
And so now I’m working back toward those one rms, but I’m at a lower weight. I’m like 1 93, and I’m surprised at how much more difficult it is and my training. Is better now. Like my programming is better. I know more thanks to people like you than I knew. Then my train, my programming was okay at the time, but it’s certainly better now and I’m working harder now.
Mike: I’m doing more volume and it’s just interesting to, I’ve had a similar experience to yours, just in terms of the exact numbers. Yeah, man, it definitely seems like there seems to be some quote unquote thresholds. And the funny thing is if I was to tow the scientific consensus line right now, when we look at, let’s say, Body fat percentage, like what’s too low in sport and athletes, it’s technically considered like a side effect of the energy availability.
So there’s something called red. Which is an acronym, Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. And it basically describes all of the effects of not consuming sufficient energy for the demands of your sport and your physiology. And you can actually mathematically calculate this based on your exercise activity, your lean body mass, and then your energy intake.
So basically after exercise activity, what’s your calorie intake? Per unit of lean body mass. And when you get below numbers, say, In kilograms, like kcals per kilogram of lean body mass after exercise activity, that’s when you start to see symptoms of reds relative energy deficiency in. So this is a often parallel but independent construct from whether you’re in an energy surplus or deficit.
Cuz if we were to talk about what is quote unquote metabolic adaptation, that is the process by which you burn less calories. Per unit of lean body mass. So for someone to get down to, let’s say, stage condition, let’s say I, when I do what’s necessary to get to that 6% body fat, I also start to have much lower levels of thyroid output.
Lower levels of cata means you could measure me and I’d have a slightly lower resting metabolic rate, but other components of total daily energy expenditure probably adapt more like neat. But my skeletal muscle efficiency at certain intensities would probably be. And we would see things like my testosterone levels being maybe a third or a quarter of what they were, if we expect me to respond similar to other body building case studies.
But all in all these changes are essentially what we think of as quote unquote metabolic adaptation. We’re forgetting that those are all the changes that we see where, basal body temperature goes down, there’s less fidgeting. We are actually. Trying to be more efficient in terms of the energy output for our body mass so that we can be at maintenance, but be at too low of a calorie intake for the demands of our sport and the demands of our body.
If it had all those normal physiological function, so you can maintain a lean body comp while having quote unquote half the lights off in the building, if you will, just running at like budgetary cuts level for that building. And that’s probably, it’s not necessarily. Unhealthy Cause it is an adaptation.
It’s not like a mal adaptation, like it’s sometime described, but it’s not a great place for performance. And it can be unhealthy depending on how far it’s taken for how long you maintain it. So for example, in women there is a much more obvious physiological consequence of this. They have, they get ahea.
So their menstrual cycle will become a regular and then eventually stop if they’re consistently consuming less energy than they need for their physiology and their sport. And you’ll see this very commonly, it’s part of the female athlete triad, which sits within all the symptoms of reds. This is someone who is trying to stay lean.
Maybe they think it’s enhancing their power to weight ratio. They’re perhaps even performing better, but they’re redlining it. When you really look at it, it increases the likelihood of injury in athletes being at too low of an energy availability. It increases the occurrence of upper respiratory tract infections and it is associated with actually horror performance as well.
So it’s almost like sacrificing short term or long term performance for short term performance, trying to be too lean for too long. And if you were to look, for example, in the gymnastics community, there’s a big shift here now where doing the things that would. Make people stay smaller, longer, during their formative years is now frowned upon, and it’s changing.
And we’re actually starting to see some gymnasts who are performing well at an older age than they used to. So anyway, the point being is that from the kind of party line of what is the evidence based consensus here, it’s not about body fat, it’s just about consuming sufficient energy. To maintain a low body fat would require you to not maintain a sufficient energy intake, and I’m mostly on board with that.
But there are some physiological realities that make me think body fat is probably a moderator as well, not just the observable consequence. So for example, there is data on the relationship between body fat percentage and lept. So for your listeners who don’t know what leptin is considered the quote unquote master controller of your metabolic status, if you will, in terms of energy availability.
And it is not just. Something that responds to exogenous food. It is eat food, your leptin signal and will go up. It’s also secreted by adipose tissue fat. So there is like a 0.87 correlation, if I can remember correctly, between body fat percentage and leptin levels. So it’s very difficult for me to imagine that someone walking around at say, 6% body fat, even if they were somehow able to eat sufficient calories, wouldn’t be having some negative signaling and effects that would at least moderate some of those reds signals or symptoms, I should say.
Eric: So that’s a long monologue to basically say. Technically it seems to be about calories, but if you get too lean, there’s probably an independent negative effect as well. And this may be a dumb question, but I’m gonna ask it anyway.
Okay. These are athletes. They are active, they’re burning a lot of energy, but you can only do so much of that where my point being like, okay, let’s say you have this lean athlete and they need to eat a certain amount of calories per pound of lean mass after.
And is the point there that after exercise means that this is now we’re talking about over their expenditure? Or could they not just move more to make up for that, to balance that out and, get by on 6,000 calories a day because they’re a super free squirrel bouncing off the walls all the time.
Mike: That’s actually an interesting question that interacts with a whole nother line of research that’s on the constrained model of energy expenditure which has been observed in humans and is somewhat affected by this whole. Red’s thing, and that is basically that if you expend a whole lot of energy in terms of physical activity, it doesn’t increase your energy expenditure quite as much as it would predict cuz there’s compensation in other places.
I’m actually reviewing an article for Mass right now that looked at this in the e mechanic study and. Studies love these days to have these ridiculously long acronyms. I can’t even remember off the top of my head what E mechanic stands for, but it’s basically a study that’s investigating how energy and weight loss compensation occur.
And the original study that was, they conducted it between 2010 and 2015, and they published some of the data in 2019, was specifically looking at, okay, so why do people not lose as much weight as you’d expect when they start an exercise protocol? And their conclusion was because they start eating more.
While that is true, it’s not the only reason, and this 2021 paper that just came out is a sub-analysis of that, where they took those same, or a cohort of those same participants and they put them in a metabolic chamber for 24 hours and they found that their energy expenditure there was actually about 4% less possibly, is a consequence of the fact that they had increased their.
Expenditure cuz one group was doing about 800 to a thousand calories per week of cardio and the other one was doing 2020 500. So there’s this compensatory effect where other elements of tde, total daily energy expenditure are coming down because they’re burning so many calories.
Eric: Neat. Maybe. That’s
Mike: an obvious, Yeah, and it was actually something that was, they didn’t pick it up with accelerometry because that was what they used in the bigger study.
They only picked it up when they put ’em in that 24 hour metabolic chamber, and they weren’t able to really nail down what the specific cause was, But, When you put ’em in a metabolic chamber, which is sensitive enough to pick up those changes, it was shown. So it’s neat. Probably is part of it, but it may
Eric: not be all of it.
Yeah. They’re probably not doing too much fidgeting when they’re in the chamber. , I
Mike: dunno how much. Yeah, it’s basically the size of an office with a bed
Eric: in it. You’re not gonna just lie in the bed all day, but you’re not gonna be,
Mike: Yeah. For example, if you really want to get crazy, a limitation that they cited in that study was that they didn’t do biopsies to actually look at skeletal muscle efficiency.
And I was like damn. I guess there’s always a limitation if you’re gonna go that hardcore, that’s on another whole nother planet of funding for the type of stuff I do, . But nonetheless, the point is that you probably can burn more calories and just simply eat more, but not as maybe as much as you’d think.
And it is impacted by. Like your energy intake relative to your energy output. For sure. Those are interdependent things. So for example, there, and I always mispronounce the name of this tribe, so forgive me. I think it’s the Hoda. It’s either the Hoda or the Hoda. And I always say it wrong. Isn’t
Eric: it weird how there are certain words that just refuse to stick?
Yeah, I can I’ll have that sometimes with pronunciations or even with definitions, right? So like I, I have a whole little system where I go through flashcards over I, in some words, I don’t know. My brain refuses to accept . What again? Pronunciation. It doesn’t happen often, it’s just a weird with flashcards, I just brute force it until eventually I win.
But sometimes I just can’t explain. I have an example, so I go through these flashcards every day. A tough slash hard slash long row to ho it’s a saying, it means a difficult situation, a tough row to ho, right? I’ve gone over this card, I’m using s. Probably six days in a row where I have different words that, So that word could be Meer, it could be Mars, it could be stickler, it could be different ones, but it’s that one.
So when I’m answering these to myself, I’m going, Okay, so it’s a difficult situation and I go through the ones that I know that I think are in there, and it’s seven times in a row now. I’ll get ’em all. But that one I’m like, I don’t even understand what is
Mike: going on. Yeah. It’s the same for me with that word.
And I think it’s, cuz my brain never sees D’s and Z’s next to each other, so it just switches ’em every time. Whatever. I don’t know, probably either laziness or mild dyslexia that I’m not aware that I have. But regardless, it’s one of the few hunter gatherer tribes left in the world and they have an enormously higher physical activity than people in the western.
But a similar total daily energy expenditure, meaning that there’s a substantial amount of compensation. However, when you look at Quakers who are post agricultural but pre-industrial, they have a very high physical activity as well. Cuz, being a farmer, it’s maybe not as much physical activity as being a hunter gatherer, but certainly it’s a lot more.
Being an online coach like me and going to the countdown to buy my grocery store, that, that’s where it is in New Zealand. That’s that’s, I’m not farming is my point. They have a very high physical activity, but they also have a higher energy expenditure than us, and they’re lean, if you look at the men who are, culturally more active, So they’re walking around at eight to 12% body fat and they’re eating close to 5,000 calories, and they also have a very high energy expenditure.
The question is then what’s the difference between the Hoda and Quakers? I feel a marketing phenomenon. Yeah. I’m about to sell you an ebook. That’s right. Model there. I’m selling you the Quaker diet, the Quaker Way. It’s actually why, the whole reason you should eat Quaker Oats. The difference probably is that the ha.
Are not getting enough nutrition cuz they’re hunter gatherers. So they’re the example of someone who’s experiencing reds, right? They have an okay energy intake, but they’re doing a whole lot of physical activity and that energy intake is not enough to support both the physical activity and the physiology.
So what is a shorter stature. Probably lower testosterone levels, essentially hypo natal male kind of, and they can function. The society’s still going on. It’s been around for a very long time. It’s not probably optimal for health and performance. It’s sufficient for survival. And it’s not until we start to see, if we think about anthropologically, that we started to see the post agricultural societies where height increased and we started to see people who were larger.
That’s the difference. And that was a really roundabout way of answering your question, that you can simply. Move more to eat more, but in some ways you have to eat more for that moving more to result in a higher energy expenditure, which is the catch 22.
Eric: And just to make sure I heard you right, cause that’s interesting.
So there seemed to be fundamental physiological. Down regulations, so to speak, like things that cost energy. And it’s basically we’re moving a lot and we don’t have a high energy availability, so we’re just gonna be doing less of these things that would result in taller body or a bigger, stronger body
Mike: and so forth.
Exactly. And those serve both you could argue, obviously it. I’m not saying the why of evolution cause it is just what was selected for, but there is the acute reduction in energy expenditure from not producing these signals or metabolic processes, but they are also limiting body size, which lowers energy expenditure, which is probably has serves an adaptive more long term purpose as.
Eric: How does this look for women? Cause we’ve really been talking just about men, and so for men health can be, you do not need to be at an arbitrary, low double digit, or certainly not a single digit number to be healthy. And assuming you would say that. If you’re really into the single digits, that’s probably not gonna be healthy for most people.
And as far as performance goes in men, did I hear correctly in that the sweet spot is for most guys, would you say that it would be somewhere in the teens, it could be lower or higher. I don’t know if you had specifically commented
Mike: on that. Yeah, I think for performance there’s the anecdotal stuff I’ve got, essentially it’s, you need to be eating enough for the performance you’re trying to achieve.
But anecdotal, And I’m pretty confident in this with the number of people I’ve seen it occur. Yeah, like on average somewhere in the range of like 12 to 25% body fat for guys. And like you said, for women, we could just basically tack about 8% on top of these numbers and you get about the
And as far as health goes, are there any other considerations for women just because of some of the unique, you’d mentioned ‘EM in area. Any other issues that
Mike: women should be aware of? Yes, there are. Yeah, so for women, there seems to be some limited emerging data that would suggest that. I talked about that calculation of energy availability based on need mass.
After correcting for exercise activity, men seem to be able to go it at a slightly lower calorie intake before they start to get a lot of the red symptoms. Women, they start to see changes in what’s called LH pulsivity, so izing hormone Pulsivity, which is a kind. Quote unquote, early warning signal for disruptive menstrual cycles and eventually Meno at a higher energy intake.
And then again, if I’m to put my anthropology hat back on, which is again, not my expertise, but my best understanding and connecting of dots, given that hunter gatherers largely have the males acting in this capacity where they’re expanding all this energy to gather food. That may be why there is less selection pressure among women to.
Have these higher levels of activity and still function physiologically really well. Plus it wouldn’t even be ideal to even test those waters because you not only have to provide food for yourself and your family, but also the growth of life and to see yourself through pregnancy in a healthy birth and to actually, keep the lineage going.
So that’s why women have, higher levels of essential body fat. And that’s probably also why they. Probably should be a little more on the side of airing on eating more versus less and not pushing the boundaries of low energy availability. There was a speculative paper on natural body building where they said, Hey, you know when men go below a 25 value of kcals per kilogram of lean body mass after correcting for exercise activity, it seems to be associated with higher levels of lean body mass loss when dieting and natural body case studies.
But in other research, they suggest women. To go below 30, cuz that’s when you start to see menstrual cycle disruption. So there’s a argument for ensuring that you maybe died a little slower and try to maintain a higher calorie and taking women because it’s more likely to threaten some of the reproductive health specifically, which probably corresponds to other
Eric: things as well.
And as far as energy intake goes. So I just wanna look at this from both sides. So if we look at, okay, body composition in men. 12 to maybe as high as 25. And it sounds like there’s just gonna be individual variation. You had mentioned that you don’t seem to get as much of a benefit from the higher levels as other people.
And I guess I haven’t gone too high and I’m not sure, but I would suspect, based on my training experience, I’m probably similar cuz I mean it’s hard. I remember that previous lean gain. By the end of it. I’m sure you’ve experienced this many times. Anybody listening has I, I was eating 4,000 plus calories a day and I was force feeding myself.
I did not enjoy any of the meals anymore. I felt just gross, basically. And full and just, yeah, all the time. So we have that in terms of body comp is the point really. And you may have made this point, but I wanna make sure that I heard it correctly, that’s gonna be driven mostly by. The energy availability that some people just need more calories to really be able to fully tap into.
Mike: so to speak. I would say that’s a good interpretation in a summary for sure. And I like that you mentioned feeling gross when you’re eating a lot, because what I don’t want people to take away from the discussion thus far is, okay, I need to measure LH pulsatility, or I need to calculate my energy availability, or I need to get my testosterone levels checked, or something like that.
Because there’s a very easy way to know if you are too lean, and that is you’re focused on food, all the. You are hungry, and I don’t mean like hungry before meals like you normally get. Your thoughts for the two hours before the meal are, Oh, what should I get this time? And it’s a large focus
Eric: of the day.
And you start to salivate when you, you start to picture what you’re going to eat. .
Mike: Yes. When you are living meal to meal, that’s not a good sign. And again, even won’t get into the aesthetic side cuz then the question becomes but I want to, cause I like the way it looks and I’m willing to sacrifice that.
And then whatever that may be true now may not be in the future. And. Some people like to hold onto things that aren’t realistic because they really want it and they have to walk that road. I
Eric: thought this would be a good discussion and I think it’s been a good discussion to counterbalance that, cuz that you actually, I remember you were talking about it, giving your own personal experience from your.
Last prep, but anybody who’s been in the body comp game long enough has experienced that. If they’ve gotten relatively lean, anybody listening immediately knows Yeah, okay. That’s just where our orientation tends to swing. And so that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to get your thoughts on the health and performance in particular, and.
And some of the benefits really of not being so fixated on just the aesthetics. And I know you had mentioned this last time, but your body image does change as well. And you can get away from that fixation on, I just want maximum, I want ab veins or, I just, I don’t know
Mike: why I’m here. Why do I exist if I don’t look great?
Yes. Like Zoolander says, maybe there’s something to. More than being really good, Extremely good looking or whatever the specific quote
Eric: is. But we’ll leave that to the philosophers
Mike: though, yes, that’s too difficult a question to answer on this podcast, but I will say that the reason you’re hungry is due to physiological changes.
I think that’s a good thing for people to remember is that the fact that you are focusing on that meal three hours out probably means that gorilla is higher, that leptin is lower, that maybe you even have slightly lower than a normal testosterone. You may be experiencing some other symptoms of reds, like for example, for me, a good sensor that I can use is disrupted sleep when I’m trying to maintain too low of calories.
Slash and or too low of body fat, I start to notice that I pop awake at 4:00 AM and that’s not everyone, but some people do experience that. Women actually have it quite good if they’re not taking, oral contraceptives or don’t have any or any hormonal birth control. If they start to experience a irregular menstrual cycle for them, then.
That could be an indication as well. But there are signs and symptoms, but I think the most obvious one is that food focus. Likewise, on the other end of it, if you’re going you know what? This is a cool podcast and I never really pushed my body weight that high, and I’d like to see if I can get my strength numbers up when you’re getting to the point where you do feel like you’re force feeding.
Even when you’re eating more palatable foods and you’re, chewing less and you’re doing all the tricks of the rain to get as much calories in as you can and you’re just do not want to eat, that’s probably a symbol or a signal I should say, of that’s about as high as your body really wants you to get.
And this is a different story for everybody. Obviously we’ve seen the obesity epidemic in the last few decades. There are some people who can get around that based on their physiology environment and a various other factors. But for the folks who are listening to this, like you said, people in the quote unquote body comp game, who.
Maybe didn’t come from a background where they were high in body fat to start, but if they were more quote unquote normal or even skinny to start, that’s a signal you can use on the upside, but on the downside, pretty much ubiquitously for everyone it is that. Drive to eat food focus and kind of obsession with meal planning.
If you’re watching food porn, you’re too lean probably, or you’ve been diet, or both.
Eric: And I’m curious, what is the optimal calorie range for you, For
Mike: your performance? Yeah, for me, I think for context, remembering that I’m a desk jockey and that I actually make myself go on walks. I’m probably eating around 3000 to 30.
Hundred calories per day at a body weight of a little over I’m at like 2 10, 2 15. So that’s not a lot, but I’m also just not that active.
Eric: Yeah. Or similar in that regard. I’m probably like 2,800 or so, but I weigh a bit less and I’m lifting five hours a week, and then I do 30 minutes of just moderate intensity.
I have a, an upright bike, and so I do 30 minutes a day on that. So otherwise though, I sit here and I move my fingers, so And so then for people listening I guess that’s a good simple heuristic to use, is how you feel. And just again to recap is you’re gonna find, and this is, this has probably been your experience.
You can correct me if this is not generally, but in having spoken with a lot of people. Certainly for me, I’m thinking back to my lean bulk. At first it was fun not eating a lot of food. That was nice, having great workouts. But in time as I gained more body fat, I’m guessing that’s what is driving. Just based on, even based on hunger hormones and metabolic things, that as I gain more body fat, that’s when food just became less and less palatable and seemed.
Like inversely related, basically, I guess my fat level went up, My interest in eating went down until eventually I was like, Ugh I’m done. I’ve had enough. It’s been like 6, 4, 5, 6 months, something like that. And I think it’s time to call it quits. And is that generally the experience in your experience in yourself and working with people that, And some people, they can just go a lot further before they’re.
Mike: Done. Yeah. It basically, in someone who is a, I’m gonna say a normally regulated metabolically, and in terms of. Food behavior, that’s what’s gonna happen. And going back to the whole obesity epidemic thing, I think what we see is a large portion of the population is no longer normally regulated.
So then the question is, what the hell do you mean normally regulated, Eric? There are some things. We’re much better at protecting against losing weight and getting too lean than we are protecting against getting higher in body fat. And this again probably comes back to selection pressures. And for example, in mice, they’re far better at protecting against gaining weight and losing weight.
And this makes sense cuz they’re prey. And if you get too high in body fat and you get slower, You’re likely to be you get got hate it, . Yeah, exactly. You don’t get got, So yeah, they’re facing threat of predation. While humans have traditionally faced threat of famine and malnourishment, there are a large portion of the population that is ancestrally hasn’t had this selection pressure of getting too heavy being something to correct against.
So some of the things in modern society have made it far easier to gain weight and have it to go to that point where. You’re still hungry, despite the fact that your body fat levels are very high. That’s hyper palatable food changing some of our reward signaling being more sedentary, there is actually good data to suggest that there is a baseline requirement of activity to ly regulate.
Hunger and satiety signals, and this has been shown in multiple studies. It’s called the J shaped curve of appetite, satiety and body weight regulation. Classic study in Bengali mill workers showing that the office workers were eating the same amount of calories as the floor workers, the sedentary office workers versus the people actually working on the floor and were maintaining a.
Higher body weight compared to the floor workers in various jobs. Scaling from moderate to very high activity who are all roughly the same body weight on average, and just regulating their energy intake to match their activity versus the office workers were sedentary, heavier in eating, like they’re far more active than they were.
So activity, being a desk jockey will can disregulate your satiety and hunger. So you have to actively think about, all right, how do I get myself more active? This threshold cut off when we look at. Convergence of different lines of evidence is probably getting like at least 7,000 steps per day is a decent guideline that I often use.
And then also eating foods that are a little more kind of normal , I guess you could say. Not hyper palatable, primarily single ingredient food items. So whole foods, if you will, processed foods. We’ve seen from metabolic ward studies done by Kevin Hall’s lab that people tend to overeat them and not realize they’re over.
They’ll be in a 500 calorie surplus, just doing their thing versus maybe even being in a deficit from baseline if they start eating all Whole Foods diet. So this kind of goes back to the data on Quakers. You got these males walking around 10% body fat on average. They’re highly active, so they got that sorted and they’re literally making their own food.
So it’s a whole food diet with a high level of activity. So those are the main things. You might need
Eric: to I their own version of resistance training. Absolutely. They have to move
Mike: around heavy they stuff, Cause there’s very few post industrial tools that they use it to farm. So yeah, the manual labor is no joke.
So yeah, essentially if you want the experience that Mike and I are describing of you get lean and then you get hungry and also as you get higher and body fat, you stop being hungry. And if you don’t currently experience that and you find that you’re always fighting against weight gain, those are some things you can change is to try to go on a couple of walks per day, You.
First thing in the morning that I do, my wife and I would get up and we go for a walk, and that’s just part of our daily ritual. Go on a 30 minute walk, you’re probably gonna clock 2000 steps right there. If I don’t go on walks or if I don’t exercise, I’ll be at like 3000 steps per day. So to get up to that seven mark, I work out five days a week and I go on a daily walk, and on average I’m hitting that 7,000 mark.
So it’s something that. With the way modern society is, requires conscious effort and change of your daily rituals, and then also just changing to the degree you can. The food environment inside your home, cuz you’re not gonna be able to change it in broader society. So if you do those two things, those are the big heavy hitters.
Some other things you can do is to try to actually slow down when you’re eating, have a regular meal schedule, eat within your waking hours and not right before you go into bed and things like that. Try to get sufficient sleep, which we talked about is a challenge.
Eric: Maybe stay off screens while you’re eating.
Mike: some water while you’re eating. Absolutely. Things that make the meal something you’re consciously aware of. Some of the weight neutral approaches like mindful eating and some elements of intuitive eating can’t even be helpful if you need to be, get better regulation cuz they’re not intending to induce a deficit, but they often halt weight gain and it’s basical.
Actively paying attention to your hunger levels, actively paying attention to your satiety, being present while eating, like you said, and slowing down that process so those signals can actually have a, an opportunity to manifest. And, collectively doing all those things should give you a much better chance of being someone who is normally regulated so that you can pay more attention to what is too high in body fed or what is too low based on some of those physiological signals that
Eric: you’ll be getting.
One of the thing I that people. Shared with me over the years is becoming comfortable with being a little bit hungry or at least just not being full and not feeling like they have to feel full all of the time and. That’s something that just has just stuck in my mind that was never a thing for me.
So I, I can’t say that I have firsthand experience with that, but I can imagine that if even a little bit of hunger or your stomach just starts to feel empty, if that triggers the desire to eat, that can be a
Mike: problem too. Yeah, it’s an interesting one. So that’s something that my parents relate to and I, in their generation my mom is turning 71, they were taught to eat everything on their.
And probably cuz their parents went through the Great Depression. Again, arm share, anthropology, and now sociologists here, I could be full of shit. But it does seem like some of the behavioral and environmental learned behaviors that come in, different people can affect that. Another thing, like if you look at some of the, unfortunately some of the predictors for obesity and later life or even eating disorders and body image concerns is a lot of dieting.
So a lot of people can get basical. Traumatic experiences from trying to repeatedly diet over and over again, and the experience of dieting is being hungry. So trying to, leave that behind you and just never wanting to feel like that again, can be a response to dieting. So I definitely see in people that have.
Tried to deal with the hardships of dieting by increasing food volume, eating more fruits and vegetables, and trying to manipulate mechanical satiety by having, it’s the whole lots of fruits and vegetables, the huge salads, high protein diets, all stuff that I recommend, don’t get me wrong, but doing that for years.
And trying to combat that hunger as a way to stay lean or leaner or in this perpetual dieting state can lead that to becoming a learned behavior, which can cause problems on the track like you hinted
Eric: at Mike. Interesting. So for people listening, I think a key takeaway here is if somebody hasn’t consistently.
Really, if they haven’t really committed to a lean gaining phase and really taken it to its, I would say, logical conclusion, , then it’s worth due Feeling gross. Yeah. Feeling gross. That’s it. Until you, if you not feel gross, keep going. And I guess a person can then find their own goldilock zone, so to speak, in terms of where and that’s where of.
Aesthetics come into play, but that’s up to the person. At least now they can have the firsthand experience of having great workouts and just generally having a lot of energy. Probably better sleep, better recovery, and then weigh that against abs. Does that
Mike: make sense? Absolutely. Yeah. And the only thing I would recommend, if we want to briefly touch on the aesthetic side of it, is, If the physiology doesn’t line up with what you aesthetically like, just do some thinking a as to whether that’s worth it and whether that really makes sense and maybe why.
Because I think for me, being a fiercely independent person, when I realized that I was basically chasing a societal standard that was heavily influencing me based on social media, that I was trying to be lean, not cuz of my own values, but because of what I thought the values I should have, should been I railed against an immediately and I was like, Alright, look like I got into this.
I get lean for body building. I’m comfortable with how I look. I didn’t think I, I had an issue before I started lifting weights, and I’m not gonna let that take over my self image now. But I think that’s the case for a lot of people is that they have this view of what they wanna look like.
And again, like you said, it’s for them, it’s their choice. But I would just question whether it is really your choice. To look that way. Are you actually choosing to look that way? Are you being heavily influenced by Instagram, like you said earlier in this
Eric: conversation? Yeah, it’s an interesting point. I’m reflecting on it myself.
certainly now I’m not super lean. I’m maybe nine or 10% and I like the look, and maybe I’m even being generous there, but anybody who looks at my Instagram, I’m pretty lean, I look pretty good. I’m not ready to step on stage, but leaner than maybe your average. Fitness person bouncing around in the gym and I’m happy with this.
Look, I do understand that I’m sacrificing some performance, like if I were just to what you were mentioning earlier in the podcast, if I were just to straight gain, now I’d have to do it intelligently, but just work to gain 15, 20 pounds. There’s no doubt that I would do better in my workouts, but. I still enjoy my training.
I get enough performance out of it. I look forward to my workouts, and so I’m not like dragging myself through my training sessions. And I also this would be a different discussion, but genetically speaking, I’m at the end of my rope as far as size goes. And I don’t even really want, I wouldn’t want more size, honestly.
Again, I’m pretty happy with how things look, so I’m just in a general maintenance mindset where I’m also enjoying my workouts, and so I’m like, Yeah, fuck it if I. I feel like I get to have my cake eat too, right? I get to look a way that I do and I don’t really feel like I’m sacrificing much, but maybe that’s because I haven’t really committed to a lean gaining phase in a long time.
Mike: I don’t even remember what I’m missing. You’re in the promise land. Like I think that’s a hundred percent all good. I think the people I wanna speak to are those who are in that perpetual, Should I cut, Should I bulk? Like I wanna be bigger, but I wanna be more lean. Or the people who.
Or trying to be lean and they’re expecting to be happier because of it, or for it to fundamentally change their life. And I would just ask them to question that. So like for me, I’m still trying to compete in body building, so I have a very strong why as to why I’m trying to get bigger, even though I’m also in the end of my rope and Scrambling for a pound over a year or something
Eric: like that.
You’re measuring now in grams,
Mike: your . Exactly. It’s the same measuring tool I use to weigh out my oats that I weigh out my gains and my bicep. Exactly. So yeah, I’m still trying to increase my power lifting total. I’m still trying to increase my lean body mass. I think if I was someone who had a different goals, I would probably be looking similar to.
If you wisely, if
Eric: you were less ambitious like
Mike: me, then you would if I was a just, someone without goals or direction my life, yeah. . But but I think the point is though, in all seriousness, is I have strong whys for why I do what I do. And so do you, And they make sense. If you don’t want to be bigger and the idea of squatting a little more or benching a little more, if you’re like, Hey, I’m really strong.
I have a good amount of lean body mass. I’m healthy, I’m happy, I’m performing well. I enjoy the way I look. Then you know, if it ain’t broke, shit, don’t fix it.
Eric: Leave well enough alone. That’s right. And this was fun as always. I really appreciate you taking the time. Again, I’m sure people enjoyed all of the, all the great information that you always have to share.
Let’s wrap up. Telling people where they can find you in your work. Let’s definitely plug mass as always, which is again, like I’ve said, it’s my favorite research review. I really respect and admire what you guys do with that. I know there’s a lot of work that goes into that and I’ve found it very helpful
So thank you, Mike. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me on. Always at. It’s an honor and yeah, you can find [email protected]. That is the number three, the letter D. From there you can find links to mass. You can find links to my books, The Muscle and Strength Pyramids. And for those who don’t know, like Mike said, Mass is something we put out monthly, unsurprisingly monthly applications in strength sport.
And that’s myself and my colleagues, Greg Knuckles and Dr. Mike Ordos and Dr. Eric Drexler. And we write about all the research that’s come out or is coming. On a regular basis related to body composition change, strength, nutrition, and resistance training. So yeah, if you wanna check that out. Be our guest.
We’d love to have you. And yeah, that’s pretty much me.
Eric: One thing that’s cool, I’ll just add about research reviews, and this applies to mass, but any good research review is by the time research makes its way into books, for example, especially mainstream books, like books are gonna buy at a bookstore.
And this would apply to, I would say any field that I’ve read any research in. It’s old by your standards, right? We’re talking about, okay, research is new, and then let’s say somebody grabbed it and. They spent six to 12 months maybe writing a manuscript. And if this is a traditionally published book, then the publisher wants another year at least to release it.
So what’s neat about research reviews is if they’re done well, in the case of mass, it is done well. You get a front row seat basically. As to where research is going and what questions are being explored and what answers are coming out of what has been explored previously. And so when people will ask me often for book recommendations, in particular with health and fitness, I’ve recommended your stuff.
Many times I’ve recommended Lial stuff, I’ve recommended the Mark Rippetoe stuff. Just classics that I think everybody should read. Here are your, this will give you your foundational knowledge. But beyond that, I’ve told people, honestly, I don’t even really pay too much attention to.
The books now that come out, especially body comp stuff. And I personally just go to research reviews like yours and a couple of others because I just find that the most productive use of the
Mike: time honor to hear that. Man, I echo that. I think that books are great, like you said, and I think the ones I’m attracted to more these days are ones that discuss systems and principles of integrating research in.
May stand somewhat independent of where the research direction is going. But yeah, if you want to get the most up to date view of what’s going on, if you wanna keep your finger on the pulse of sports science research, then books are probably not the best
Eric: place for that. For sure. And something that’s, Just to add one more thing, and I know you’ve done this with your books, is, and I’m going through another round of updates to my.
Flagship books, so to speak, for men and women, bigger, leaner, stronger, and thinni, leaner, stronger those are meant for people who are newer to this. And guys who have yet to gain maybe their first 25 pounds or so of muscle. And it’s a lot of work. It’s not particularly fun. I’m sure you’ve done your, you have to do another addition and it’s a bit of a slog, but I feel like it is the quote unquote right thing.
I just, I want to do it because I now know more than I knew on the last round. And I realize. That I could have explained certain things better or I could tweet, so as a self-published author, although the next book that I have coming out is gonna be a Simon Schuster, but I can do that.
So I, I do that. But if I were to have published those books with a traditional publisher, I wouldn’t even have the option. Even if I wanted to do that, they would’ve said, Nah, no thanks. We’re not gonna. Not that it even, all it would, they really would have to do is take the new manuscript, give it to the book designer to put it in, in design.
It’s not like I, I could even offer to pay for it. Like I’ll pay for them to, and it’d be like, nah. And I understand it’s cuz of all the systems and it’s just not worth anyone’s time. That’s how a traditional publisher would view it, unless they’re going to officially come out with the next edition and that doesn’t, you have.
Put up some pretty big numbers to make a publisher interested in that. So that’s something, else that is, it’s just a challenge with books. They become antiquated often, fairly quickly. Said. Anyway, thanks again Eric for doing this and everybody go check out Mask, go check out Eric on Instagram and I’ll I’ll look forward to the next one.
Thanks, Rodney, Man.