“The Gradually Awesome Approach to Getting Lean for Larger Athletes” by Paul Nobles

“The Gradually Awesome Approach to Getting Lean for Larger Athletes” by Paul Nobles

I’m going to have to get Chris Spealler on video at some point, because something he said changed the way I viewed fitness forever and I am relatively certain it will change yours as well.  I am paraphrasing, but in the Level 1 class I attended he said, “If you think we are programming for (elite) athletes, you are dead wrong; they are but a fraction of the people working out in our gyms.  What we do scales for the 70 year old grandmother as well as elite athletes.”

Wow.  I really hadn’t thought of it like that.  Before I heard him say that, I viewed the gym as a place where already fit people went to become more fit.  After all, that was how my journey went.  When I first walked into the gym to join 2 years ago, not only was everyone really welcoming, but they were also in really great shape.  Many were college athletes with years or decades of training; on the other hand, I had basically sat on my ass for 25 years until I reached an epiphany.

If you want the real truth, here it is:  I was tired of seeing pictures of myself with a double chin.  I was tired of not being able to perform as a man for my family; that includes everything from carrying my daughters up the stairs when they fall asleep in front of the television, as well as the connection that couples make to reinforce their bonds with each other.  I was sick and tired of being sick and tired; it finally occurred to me that being a functional human being mattered.

What About Our Obese Brothers and Sisters?

I wish there was a more delicate way to put this; I swear to you that I didn’t want to use the “O” word but “big” doesn’t quite describe the population I am writing this post for.  I don’t want to offend anybody, but I won’t dance around the issue because I’ve been there.  I had been on many deficit diets before I began my last round of weight loss and actually began studying nutrition.  Most of my attempts ended in failure and left me with cravings from being underfed all of the time.

One of the real advantages of being heavy is that your body actually has to add muscle to keep you alive, so some of our “biggest” brothers and sisters are also some of the strongest people in the gym.  They also get sick and injured more frequently; they end up leaving our gyms prematurely and I think I can tell you why.  There are huge pieces missing from the puzzle, like adequate nutrient intake and (to a certain extent) programming adjustments that account for their abilities.

While our sport has its fair share of detractors who just don’t “get it”, a lot of the negative criticism is self-inflicted.  People are under the impression that our coaches just put something on the board and bark at us while we attempt to do things we aren’t physically capable of doing.  Part of the reason they think this is because people are uploading a lot of shitty videos that seem to imply exactly this; there are some great examples of the sport on YouTube, but they get blurred over by all the videos of people hurting themselves or training with no regard for form.

The Gradually Awesome Approach

As most people know, I have absolutely zero beef with either Paleo or The Zone Diet that gets taught in the level 1 certification classes.  Both are tools that, if used in the correct manner, can greatly benefit people.  However, if these diet methodologies are applied incorrectly, they can really do some harm.  That’s a bit what this blog is all about; making the pivot to show people how to use all the information I’m putting out there, regardless of where they’re coming from or where they want to go.  I get a lot of questions from people who think that this stuff only applies to folks who’re already ripped up and on the road to six pack abs.  When someone asks, “But what if I have a lot of fat to lose?” I tell them that the gradually awesome approach applies to them as well, just differently.  Allow me to explain.

Extreme Deficit Dieting and High Intensity Exercise Will Leave you Broken and Hurt

This post started because I had someone reach out to me that said they weighed 430 lbs. and after training for a year, they could not drop below 390 lbs.  I get a lot of questions that really touch my heart that I don’t have the answer to.  I wish I did, but I don’t know everything.  However, this is a topic I know a good bit about and I would suggest that what I am about to tell you, you have never heard said quite this way.  When I weighed 215 pounds, I estimate that my body fat percentage was in the lower-to-mid 40’s.  By the time I’d worked up the courage to actually test, I had lost 30 pounds and was still 31.4% body fat.  After several years, I have been as low as 9% but I currently sit at about 12%.  I might not know everything, but I do know how to mobilize fat.  I am a “fatologist” if you will.

Basal Metabolic Information, Total Daily Energy Expenditure and What it Means for People with More Body Fat to Lose

What I keep hearing is, “Wow, that number just seems so big” and even though I’m presenting a really compelling argument for speeding up your metabolism, people don’t want to jump all-in.  I’m not exactly sure why that is really; I definitely understand the fear of getting fat and conventional wisdom surrounding nutrition makes it seem like the “eat more” strategy won’t work out all too well.  Here is the part I had wrong the whole time that I had to figure out for myself:  I didn’t have a nutrient density problem.  I had a nutrient deficiency problem.  All of the foods I was eating before I got healthy left my body wanting more food, even though I was eating a ton.  The reason was simple; I was overly-reliant on foods deficient in macronutrients (like processed carbohydrates) and I was underfeeding on things like fats and proteins.  I was also severely deficient in micronutrients (aka vitamins).  Obesity is, in effect, merely a symptom of malnourishment.

For most people, once they start to add nutrient dense foods, they often complain of feeling full and that they can’t eat anymore.  It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that people should force-feed themselves, but in fact that is exactly what I am going to suggest (just probably not the way you’d think).

In the email I mentioned earlier, the gentleman ran the calculator and came up with a number of 5,000 calories a day.  I am, in fact, suggesting that this person COULD be eating 5,000 calories a day to perform better, but since I know that will be received with some apprehension I’ll go ahead and take off (10 to 20%) for the sake of presenting an example.  The point being that an extreme deficit isn’t exactly necessary because the actual energy deficit happens naturally as work capacity increases.  You simply adjust as you lose weight and the numbers from the calculator start to change.  Now, there are a lot of factors that go into this; I am not a doctor, nor am I a nutritionist.  This is not medical advice.  If you are curious as to whether or not what I am talking about is based in science, I can assure you that no concept related to human nutrition has been studied more thoroughly.  It is very well known that extreme hypocaloric diets cause more problems than they solve.  For your body to function at its best, regardless of where you’re at right now, it requires food.  If you deprive your body of food to try and repent for past misgivings, you aren’t helping yourself.  You are making your problems worse, inside and out.

Here are two examples of a nutrition plan for our friend.  Neither will be deficient in any macronutrient, but we will try to achieve some type of balance.  The first is a relatively high fat/low carb day:

  • • He’s a pretty big dude; weighs in at 390 lbs. and stands at 6’3″, so his frame supports his weight quite well.
  • • We’ll set his protein at 300g, or 1200 calories (each gram of protein equals 4 calories).  This is based on keeping his lean body mass, which I am estimating at 55% of body weight.  The more specific we can get, the more effective the plan will be, so I urge you to have a BOD POD or DXA Scan performed.
  • • Carbs will be set at 300g, or 1200 calories (each gram of carbohydrate equals 4 calories).
  • • Fats will round everything out at 150g, or 1350 calories (each gram of fat equals 9 calories).  I would like to see most of these fats come from meats.  For more info on why check out this article.

To sum things up:

  • • Protein:  300g/1200 calories
  • • Carbs 300g/1200 calories
  • • Fats 150g calories

Total:  3750 calories

Now let’s take a look at a higher carb macro plan to get the metabolism rolling and help our example crush a workout day:

  • • Protein we will keep at 300g/1200 calories.  This is closer to his lean body mass, which I am estimating at 55% (same as above).  Remember, the more information you have, the more precise you can be; knowing your BF% is extremely beneficial at any stage and provides for better calculations.
  • • Carbs will increase to 400g/1600 calories.  Yeah, I said it:  400 grams of carbohydrates!  The added carbs will give a nice bump to metabolism and he is a pretty big guy.
  • • Fats will drop to 150g on these days to make room for the extra carbs.

So we’ve got:

  • • Protein:  300g/1200 calories
  • • Carbs:  400g/1600 calories
  • • Fats:  150g/1350 calories

Total:  4150 calories

Remember, this is a guide.  You can (and want to) play with the numbers for more balance.  It certainly seems like a big number, but you have to keep in mind that a lean 6’3″ person would also require a lot of food.

These protein recommendations are probably going to require some level of supplements.  We recommend mostly whole foods with something like whey protein making up the difference.

How to Apply This In Real Life

Basically, you just cycle the fat and carbs days around your workout days.  Our example tries to workout 5-6 times a week, and I have some thoughts to share regarding his training that I talk about in the “Coaching Adjustments” section later in this post.  Frankly, I like athletes to do what feels right; if the scale is higher, if you are feeling more watery/bloated, or if your performance is suffering, it’s possible that the carbs are getting away from you a bit.  While this macro plan isn’t an excuse to go back to the old habits you’ve put to rest, you are absolutely going to need some energy density in your food choices to fuel your activity levels.  Take it slow and make gradual changes to the way you eat.  What that looks like for each person is highly individual, but I can tell you that lean meats and veggies ain’t gonna get you there; eating like half the man (or woman) you are will stall your progress.  There’s no way around it; you have to Eat to Perform!

One thing I do like about starting at TDEE -10 to 20% is that for obese populations, there are a lot of medical and metabolic issues related to chronic overfeeding and inflammation.  Whereas most people do well eating at TDEE (and may in fact benefit from slight overfeeding), when you’re starting from this perspective the minus percentage actually acts as a bit of a hedge.  As these conditions start to recover, you can start to eat closer to TDEE.  Every month, just check in with the calculator and adjust your numbers to your new reality.  Things might be slow in the beginning, but more energy should equal greater output.  The biggest part is going to be figuring out how (and at which times) to eat wholesome foods that are good for you but also full of energy.

Coaching Adjustments

I think it should be obvious that these are special circumstances, so they require a bit more thought.  The box I go to has two locations:  one is strength focused and the other takes a slightly more cardio-centric approach.  This is a good starting point for this discussion because most people with a good amount of fat to lose want to soul-crush themselves with cardio.  Now, I could make a really strong argument for no cardio at all (ZERO), but I won’t.  However, if these athletes are finishing WOD’s in 35 minutes when the rest of the class is finishing them in 20 minutes; we are letting these folks down as coaches.  Being obese is extremely stressful on the endocrine system and adding to that stress with excessive cardio only makes the problem worse.  Combined with underfeeding (which is a big part of the problem), it’s no wonder so many of these athletes are holding onto fat.  Think about it; there’s no energy coming in but there’s plenty going out and the nervous system interprets this as an all-out assault on the organism.  The control center of the brain starts running the organism more efficiently by slowing down the metabolism and holding onto fat so that the energy doesn’t run out as quickly.  A great strategy is to have them on a time cap.  If you feel destroyed after 35 minutes, it might be appropriate to call it a day after 20, but this is up to the individual and their coaches.  Have the conversation and utilize the support that your gym offers to help utilize this technique.

Not only will a time cap help keep stress levels at bay, but it will also spare muscle  Overweight bodies carry a lot of muscle, so let’s try and keep it rather than tearing it down with a ton of cardio that does little to build muscle and pushes the stress response even harder.  This is where being big really comes in handy.  All that weight can translate into quick, brutal strength development, so another great strategy would be to modify workouts to focus more on putting up weight rather than conditioning.  As their eating patterns start to synchronize with their performance patterns, they will become more “right sized” and the cardio adjustments will come more naturally; as inflammation decreases, the heart, arteries and lungs will catch up.  At that point, you can begin focusing more on conditioning and really pound your cardiovascular system if it appears to benefit you.

Lastly (and maybe more importantly), a lot of obese people try to use exercise to quickly burn off the extra adipose tissue they added by spending years making bad nutritional decisions.  For most people, it just won’t work.  This is the opposing philosophy of what I refer to as the “earn your Snickers approach to fitness.”  Basically, these folks are wearing themselves thin and attempting to pay a debt related to previous bad choices; they look at their current body composition as a punishment that they must repent for.  This doesn’t just apply exclusively to exercise of course.  A lot of the time, they try to make amends by eating less.  The “Gradually Awesome” approach is the antidote to the “Gradually Awful” approach they were formerly utilizing.  Nobody became obese overnight; it usually takes years of mindless eating and sedentary living to add on hundreds of pounds and no amount of self-abuse through excessive exercise will change that.  In fact, it will make you sick and set you back.  Take my advice and chill the heck out!  Enjoy the fitness you’re developing; go hiking, have more sex, do anything if you feel like it but stop running yourself into the ground, it isn’t helping.

“What’s Your Four Minute Fran Weight?”

If you absolutely positively have to go to the gym, I have a great plan for those days.  This is taking constantly varied to a new level.  It’s a fun adjustment to make and you can use it as a finisher on strength training days.  Consider this:  “Fran” ends in 4 minutes.  What modifications can the athlete make to get there?  You could also do this with “Grace.”  “What’s your 3 minute Grace weight?”  Don’t stop there; what about Isabel or any of the “Gals” or “Hero” WOD’s?  For Fran, it might mean you’ll have to lower the weight on thrusters or do assisted pull-ups with a band, even if you don’t normally use one.  For “Diane” it might mean using 2 or 3 pads instead of trying to do hand stand push-ups as prescribed.  Trust me; people will love these days (even the WOD killers).

Obesity is linked to many of the leading causes of death in the Western world.  It can be extremely hard to recover from, especially when the standard prescription is to exercise more and eat less.  As we’ve covered in this post, depriving yourself of food is rarely the answer.  When you ask more of your body, your body asks more of you; when you become active at any body weight or composition, your nutritional requirements go up.  Eating to fit your lifestyle becomes more (not less) important.  Although an intelligent deficit strategy (like -10) can be an extremely useful tool in the fight to regain your health, extreme underfeeding in an attempt to render dramatic weight loss is going to be about as effective as extreme overfeeding to render dramatic weight gain; it’s just not going to work out how you’d imagine it would.  Once you’re exercising and eating to support your activity, your body will begin to heal itself, but this is a life-long journey.  It takes years of effort and commitment; there is no magic pill, but a gradual approach to nutritional modification and a sustainable plan that you can adhere to long-term will eventually take you where you need to go.

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