The following are programs, theories, and notions about training and nutrition that aren’t necessarily bad or wrong. They just aren’t as important as they’ve been hyped to be, or, in some cases, flat out don’t make any significant difference to your long-term progress (should you choose to follow or not follow them). Read up on these concepts with an open mind if you’re curious, live by them if you like, but don’t think they’re the best or only options to accomplish what you want.
The idea that you can fast for much of the day and allow a small window in which to eat all your food is ancient (and certainly born out of necessity rather than experimentation). In recent years, the Warrior Diet, Lean Gains, Carb Back-loading and many other approaches have used some variation on intermittent fasting (IF) for both fat loss and muscle, and some evidence suggests it’s superior to eating regularly.
A 2011 study found that subjects who consumed most of their food at night stayed leaner than those who ate throughout the day, but there’s no magic to this approach. The longer you go without food, the more fat you can burn, but considerably more research shows that simply staying in a caloric deficit over time is the most important aspect for losing weight. Research in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that meal frequency didn’t matter as long as subjects ate the appropriate amount of calories.
More so than most of the other items on this list, I like IF, especially for fat loss. But it doesn’t make or break your diet. If you’re the type of person who enjoys breakfast or simply likes grazing throughout the day, go ahead and do so. (Understand, however, that eating more frequently doesn’t give you a metabolic advantage, either.)
The biggest potential pitfall associated with IF comes when trying to gain muscle. There is research that shows that growth hormone spikes during periods of fasting, but muscle gain still requires extra calories, and it can be very hard to get a caloric surplus when your window to eat is only a few hours. I’ve tried reserving my carbs for the end of the day alone and found that, as hungry as I was by that time, I couldn’t jam down several cups of rice or potatoes and still make it to bed at a decent hour. Also, most of us like to do more when we get home after a long day than just eat and count macros. Chaining yourself to the kitchen table isn’t my idea of a nice evening.
If it works for you, eating most of your food at night after approximately 16 hours of fasting is fine. But if you find you can’t gain weight like this, you should eat earlier in the day (this includes carbs) and spread your food out more.
The truth is: Calories in vs. calories out and food choices matter most for fat loss and muscle gain. Not timing.
I used to love the low-carbs approach because it seemed like a quick fix. Cut out carbs and your body switches to stored fat for fuel. You start to lean out in just a few days and think you’ve found the Holy Grail of weight loss.
But for most of us, this doesn’t work long-term. First, there’s the lethargy and loss of IQ points (not literally, but it feels that way) that come from your body switching over to ketones for fuel. Then you find that your energy for workouts is down. As Men’s Fitness nutrition adviser Nate Miyaki likes to point out, you may also find that you experience erectile dysfunction and other sexual side effects as a result of a low-carb lifestyle.
The biggest problem with cutting carbs low or cutting them out completely is that you have to compensate by eating more fat. Initially, everybody loves this because—they argue—they can now eat more bacon, cheese, and other fatty treats. It’s a great-tasting diet, no doubt, but as I mentioned in the Intermittent Fasting point, weight loss is still about CALORIES.
Even in the absence of carbs, you can’t go hog wild on hog (or beef, or cream, or whatever fatty foods you like) because the calories are too dense. One gram of fat equals nine calories, more than twice what a gram of carbs or protein has. And this is what ultimately turned me off to low-carb diets.
I cut carbs to the bone, but eating cheese and bacon kept me out of a caloric deficit. After a few weeks, my fat loss stagnated. Furthermore, I felt lousy. Although my body did seem to adapt better than many other people’s, I could tell I wasn’t thinking clearly and my energy in the gym wasn’t the same. I also couldn’t kid myself anymore that all the fat wasn’t unhealthy.
While I don’t believe saturated fat intake impacts blood cholesterol (and a 2010 meta-analysis from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition agrees with me), I understand now that bombing your body with fat throws off your ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6s are more prominent than omega-3s, even in the healthiest diet, and eating high-fat foods can’t help but make them overpower the omega-3s. This leads to inflammation that can damage the heart and cause weight gain.
To be fair, you can go low-carb and eat cleaner sources of fat than cheese and bacon, but the overconsumption of fat remains an unavoidable problem. (And if you don’t eat ENOUGH fat when going low-carb, you’ll quickly starve.)
The truth is: You don’t need to go to extremes to lose fat, nor should you deny your body essential nutrients. A calorie deficit will always be the biggest factor in weight loss, and you can achieve it—quite easily—eating loads of carbs and a good amount of fat too.
Here’s a brief history of fitness: Professional bodybuilders performed high-volume body-part splits. Magazines printed their workouts. Regular people read these workouts and thought that’s how they should train. Some people got good results. Many didn’t. And now that’s how everybody seems to think they should train to build muscle.
But you don’t have to do high-volume training to build muscle—most of the time—and for most of us, it’s far from being the best approach anyway. The frequency and intensity of your training has more impact on your ability to build muscle and strength than how much of it you do in a day. Consider this popular chest workout:
Incline dumbbell press
Most guys will do 3 to 5 sets on these exercises for about 8–12 reps. That’s a lot of work for the chest and will require several days to recover. This is why most body-part splits have you training a muscle group just once per week. The reason many bodybuilders can grow well from that low a frequency and you can’t is because they’re better than you.
Well, genetically, anyway—in terms of their natural ability to grow muscle. Plus, for many of them, there are many LESS than natural ways that afford them recovery from that kind of training.
Great genes and steroids aside, you need to work a muscle more regularly to convince it to grow. Twice or even three times a week will keep the muscles stimulated and adapting, but the only way you can get away with training more often is to cut back on the workload.
So instead of 15–20 sets on one day, maybe you’ll do 5–7 on Monday, and another 6 or so on Thursday. That’s twice you’ll be telling your chest to grow, while still accomplishing roughly the same amount of work.
You should also train heavier. It’s true that sets of 8–12 are great for stimulating gains of pure muscle size, but you can’t stay in that range forever. Heavier sets of 5 and fewer recruit more muscle—bigger and denser fibers, too—and also promote the testosterone and growth hormone release that’s associated with big gains.
The truth is: You don’t need to crush a body part in a single session to make it grow. Hitting it more frequently and with varying intensities builds muscle and—very importantly—strength, which ultimately leads to more muscle anyway.
For more trends you can ignore, and for ones you should follow, pick up Sean Hyson’s ebook, The Truth About Strength Training, at truthaboutstrengthtraining.com