Throughout my 20s, I had always stayed in relatively good shape. Although I never looked like a bodybuilder, I always maintained a certain level of leanness.
Unfortunately, my body composition began to degrade a bit after I turned 30 years old in 2016. For one thing, I was working hard on my business and didn’t dedicate as much time towards fitness as I used to (which was an excuse). Second, in an attempt to pack on more muscle on my frame, I had a couple of failed attempts going on a ‘bulk’, which did more harm than good.
Eventually I became unhappy with how I looked and my physique could be best described as skinny fat; a common term used in the fitness industry to describe someone who is a normal weight but carries too much body fat and not enough muscle.
Last year, I decided it was time to make a change. I hired Emil Goliath to strip away all the complexity and get me back on the right track. Over the course of the proceeding 5 months, I was able to transform myself from skinny fat to fit and get in the best shape of my life.
In this article, I’ll be sharing the entire transformation process. To start, I will cover a high level overview of my nutrition program and training regimen. After that, I will go into detail about my week to week progress and share some actual numbers.
As you might expect, proper nutrition is critical when it comes to body composition. In my case, it was clear that I had too much body fat. Therefore, my goal was to cut weight while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible.
In this section I will cover my calorie and macronutrient goals, what I was eating, and how I was tracking it.
Calories and Macronutrients
Anyone who tells you that calories don’t matter when it comes to fat loss is full of crap. That being said, calories aren’t the only thing that matters. It turns out that the key to building and maintaining lean muscle mass is eating the right amount of calories combined with adequate protein. In my experience, the remaining percentage of fat and carbs are of secondary importance.
Assuming that activity levels and protein consumption remains constant, you will gain or lose weight simply by eating above or below your maintenance calories. On average, eating 3,500 calories per week (500 calories per day) below/above maintenance will lead to 1lb of weight loss/gain.
With regards to protein, a general rule of thumb is to aim for 1g of protein per 1lb of target weight while on a cut. If your goal is to gain muscle and you’re eating at or above maintenance, you’ll probably be fine eating 0.8g of protein per 1lb of body weight.
Throughout my cut, I stuck to these guidelines and ate around 500 calories below maintenance and aimed for 1g of protein per target weight. Later in the article I will go through a week by week breakdown of my actual calories and macros.
In order to make sure I was hitting my calorie goals and making the right progress, I kept track of everything.
To keep track of my weight, I weighed myself first thing in the morning after going to the bathroom. This ensured that my weigh-ins were as consistent as possible. I used the Happy Scale app which is handy because it smooths out your weigh-ins and gives you a weekly moving average. The 7 day average is what I used to make decisions on whether or not I needed to adjust my calories.
To keep track of my calories and macros I used MyFitnessPal. This is a great app because it contains all the nutritional info for whole foods as well as popular products you’ll find in the grocery store. You can also create your own recipes too. Although it may seem tedious in the beginning, you’ll find that tracking your food becomes more efficient over time, especially if you’re eating a lot of the same foods.
Once you have your weight and calorie tracking in place, you can start calculating your maintenance calories. Essentially, if you eat a set number of calories and your weight doesn’t change, that’s a good approximation of your maintenance calories. Although there are online calculators that attempt to estimate this based on age, weight, and activity levels, they tend to be inaccurate.
During my first week of working with Emil, I simply ate what I normally would on a given day and kept track of everything over the course of the week. This gave us a baseline that we could work off of. From there, I slowly began adjusting calories downwards aiming to lose 0.5 – 1lb per week. You’ll find that as you start cutting more weight, you might need to readjust calories downward in order to keep losing the same amount per week.
Throughout my cut, my diet centered around animal-based protein (and still does today). Animal-based proteins are complete proteins and contain all the essential amino acids which are critical for building muscle. I also try to eat as natural as possible and avoid processed foods.
A typical meal for me would be meat, vegetables, and sometimes an additional fat/carb source. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of the typical foods I ate during my cut.
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, etc.)
- Beef (steak, roast, etc.)
- Pork (chops, tenderloin, bacon, etc.)
- Fish (salmon, trout, cod, tuna, etc.)
- Shellfish (shrimp, scallops, etc.)
- Dairy (milk, greek yogurt)
- Whey protein
- Nuts / peanut butter
- Butter, olive oil, coconut oil
- Sweet potatoes
Meal Structure and Timing
In my experience, eating a smaller number of proper meals is far superior than eating a larger number of small meals and snacks. During my cut, the only thing I had for breakfast was a scoop of protein and usually didn’t have my first meal until 11am-12pm.
Nowadays I pretty much do the standard intermittent fasting protocol with a 16 hour fast and 8 hour feeding window. However, I’ll sometimes have my first/last meal a little bit before/after the set feeding time. I find this eating pattern very convenient and I enjoy starting to work right away without worrying about breakfast.
On a typical day, here’s what my eating routine and sample diet looked like.
Meal #1 (11am-12pm)
- Smoked salmon omelette
- Protein Smoothie (coconut water, whey protein powder, spinach and fruit)
Meal #2 (6pm-7pm)
- Sweet potatoes
Evening snack (9pm)
- Greek yogurt
Most supplements are a waste of money so I only used supplements that are proven to work and are backed by science. It’s always better to get your vitamins and nutrients from your diet as opposed to supplementation. Unfortunately, this is not always possible hence the need for supplementation in certain cases.
Here is the small list of supplements I took during my cut and continue to take today.
Creatine: The primary benefit of creatine is improved strength during resistance training. Although it may only increase lean muscle mass modestly, it’s very cheap and thus probably worth taking. I take 5g of creatine monohydrate per day.
Vitamin D3: Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that benefits us in many ways. Since the sun is the major natural source of the nutrient, you’re likely to benefit from supplementation if you’re not getting adequate sunlight. Although I try to spend as much time outside as possible, I do work in front of a computer so I probably don’t get as much time in the sun as I should. As a result, I take 2,000 IU per day.
Whey Protein: If you’re getting enough quality protein through diet alone, whey protein is not necessary. But rather than making a third meal after my workout, I find it much more convenient to throw a scoop of whey into my smoothie.
Over the past decade of working out, I’ve definitely wasted a lot of time and effort due to improper training. You could say that I had a mild case of fuckarounditits. Although I never did bicep curls on a bosu ball, I was guilty of constantly changing up my routine and not focussing enough on progressing my key lifts.
Similar to nutrition, it turns out that there are really only a few key training variables that matter. If you focus on these core principles, you’ll get 90% of the way there.
Without a doubt, the most important concept when it comes to strength training is progressive overload. Put simply, progressive overload means that you’re making your muscles work harder each time you work out. This is commonly accomplished by increasing weight, reps, and/or sets. When muscles are overloaded, your body’s natural response is to repair them and build them back up stronger than before. Therefore, the goal of every training program should be to increase volume over time. This is also why it’s absolutely critical to keep track of your workouts.
The other important thing to note is that muscles generally take 24 – 72 hours to fully recover from a workout. Therefore, you could work out each muscle group two to three times per week and still fully recover from your workouts. While most of the old school bodybuilding advice was to hit one muscle group per week, the current advice has shifted to 2-3x per week.
While working with Emil, he naturally programmed my workouts around these core concepts. Each block of training had me in the gym 5x per week while hitting each muscle group 2-3x per week.
Here’s an example of one of my training splits that I did with Emil.
Day 1: Chest and Back
Day 2: Lower (Quad focus)
Day 3: Delts and arms
Day 4: Lower (Hamstring focus)
Day 5: Full upper body
Day 6: Rest
Day 7: Rest
Alternatively, you could set up your split as follows. This is what I’m currently following:
Day 1: Legs
Day 2: Upper body
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Legs
Day 5: Push
Day 6: Pull
Day 7: Rest
Each training block lasted 6 weeks and the goal was to add more weight and/or more reps from week to week. At the end of each 6 week training block, I would do a deload week where I would drop the weight by half. Deload weeks give your body a chance to recover from any excess fatigue you may be suffering from.
At the start of the next training block, I either picked up where I left off from the last block, or I would drop the weight a bit if I had plateaued on the previous block. I would then start working my way back up and continue adding weights/reps.
In some cases, Emil would substitute some of the exercises for different variations or modify the weight and rep schemes. In any case, the goal was always to progress from week to week and block to block.
The core of any good training program should be centered around compound movements and this was definitely the case during my cut.
The main exercises I focused my training around were:
- Bench press
- Overhead press
During the start of my cut, I was still trying to progress on each of my main lifts. However, as I continued to lose more weight during the later stages of the cut, it became increasingly harder to progress, so don’t expect to continue hitting personal records (PRs) while on an aggressive cut.
During the final training blocks, Emil also subbed out some of the heavy barbell exercise for dumbbell or machine alternatives. Once I finished the cut and was eating at maintenance calories again, I picked back up with the heavier barbell exercises.
In general, compound movements had lower reps (6-10) and accessory movements had higher reps (10-15).
I’m hesitant to even put a sample routine here because some people will just copy it and run with it without understanding the programming behind it. If you’re a beginner, I’d encourage you to start on a beginner program such as this one.
In any case, here’s what one of my training blocks looked like:
Chest and Back
Wide Grip Pull Ups: 3×10
Bench Press: 4×8
Single Arm Row: 3×10
Lat Pulldowns: 3×10
Cable Flies: 3×12
Straight Arm Pulldown: 3×12
Lower (Quad focus)
Reverse Lunges: 3×10
Leg Extensions: 4×12
Leg Curls: 4×12
Narrow Leg Press: 3×20
Delts and Arms
Military Press: 4×10
Arnold Press: 3×10
Lateral Raises: 3×12 (Superset with ⬇)
Dumbbell Curls: 3×12
Rear Delt Flies: 3×12 (Superset with ⬇)
Tricep Pushdown: 3×15
Dips: 3×15 (Superset with ⬇)
EZ Bar Curls: 3×15
Lower (Hamstring focus)
Romanian Deadlifts: 4×10
Sumo Deadlifts: 3×10
Split Squat: 2×10
Leg Extensions: 2×12
Calf Raises: 2×20
Wide Leg Press: 2×20
Full Upper Body
Incline Dumbbell Chest Press: 4×8
Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3×12
Seated Row: 3×10
Overhead Tricep Extension: 3×10 (Superset with ⬇)
Preacher Curls: 3×12
Dips: 3×15 (Superset with ⬇)
EZ Bar Curls: 3×15
Cardio was not a focus during my cut. I aimed to get at least 8,000 steps per day and sometimes I would walk/job on the treadmill for 10-15 minutes after weight training. Diet is much more effective for fat loss than cardio.
Now that I’ve covered my eating and training regimen at a high level, here is a more detailed look at how I was tracking along the cut. Keep in mind that I’m only 5’7 so if you’re a male reading this there’s a good chance you’ll be eating more calories than I was. Also keep in mind that I weighed myself first thing in the morning with nothing in my system.
At the end of my cut, here were my stats for the big three lifts:
Bench Press: 6×160 lb
Squat: 6×205 lb
Deadlift: 6×225 lb
What fascinated me the most about my transformation is that even though I lost 17 lbs over the course of 5 months, I looked ‘bigger’ at the end of it. In fact, when I first started working with Emil I told him that I didn’t want to drop below 140 lb in fear of looking too small. I’m happy that he pushed me to keep going knowing that once I dropped all the necessary body fat, I could transition my focus to building muscle and gaining weight properly.
It’s now been just over a year since I completed my transformation. The good news is that I’ve more or less maintained my physique. The bad news is that I haven’t made much additional progress since I spent a fair amount of time traveling and then Covid-19 hit so I didn’t have access to a gym for a while.
Now that I have access to proper gym equipment again, my goal is to continue building lean muscle mass and to get my weight back up to the 150 lb range while staying lean. I’d also like to increase my main lifts quite a bit from where they are today.
Unlike previous failed bulk attempts, my plan is to gain very slowly and eat around 100-200 calories a day above maintenance so that the majority of my weight gain comes from muscle as opposed to fat. In terms of training, I will continue working out 5x per week and following a L/U/L/P/P split focused on compound movements.
Hopefully I’ll be able to write another post in a year from now and share some more progress.