A classic, popular fitness goal is achieving 10% body fat.
What if you’re already sitting at an impressive 8% body fat...with the goal of getting to 4% for a contest or photo shoot? What else could one possibly do to get leaner?
This is the level of fitness our guest this week, Menno Henselmans, has expertise in. With a Huffington Post #1 ranked fitness and nutrition website, Menno is a popular bodybuilder, coach, model, and researcher. Similar to our host Geoffrey Woo, Menno is data-driven and applies his background in advanced data analytics to human performance.
We use the latest research to inform our human performance guides for people across all fields. Subscribe and achieve the impossible.
Menno, thanks for coming on the H.V.M.N. Podcast.
So a little bit of a time zone shift here. We're hosting from San Francisco and you're in Portugal. I guess to not come off super stereotypical but how's the weather over there? In San Francisco, pretty sunny, pretty smooth, we're just going in the spring here.
Yeah, it's good. The climate in general is really good in Portugal, especially during the spring and autumn. I'm looking over the beach here actually, and it's Labor Day so it's super crowded, everyone's at the beach here.
Well thank you for staying inside and doing the podcast on a beach day. So you cover an interesting gamut of human performance, physical training, both training other people and as well as training yourself. Maybe the way to start the conversation here is I would say that the sophistication in terms of diet, nutrition, and exercise protocol has really gotten defined and specific in the last couple years. Let's zoom back in history, how did you first get into the space of training, the science, the physiology? What was your story here?
I've always been into sports. I've done every sport that was available in my region, which isn't that impressive as in the US but in the Netherlands I've done probably 10 sports or so, and at some point I started strength training, which I already started doing in my basement and with my father. I built sort of a homemade squat rack and bought some dumbbells and stuff when I was like 13. Soon after over a couple years I started training in an actual gym, mainly because at volleyball we were also doing strength training, and that sort of stuck but the team fell apart. So I kept doing strength training and I really like that, and everything I do I research. That's basically when I began researching exercise science and nutrition. I naturally have a very data-driven outlook on things, so I try to look for the facts and not just opinions because if you ask 100 different people you get possibly 100 different opinions, and you're no further to an answer than you were before.
I gradually basically as I also matured in development and at school I began researching more of the actual science, and now basically I only read scientific literature, and I don't read anything away from the primary source pretty much. That developed quite gradually. I think everyone goes through phases where the first time you Google something you're not looking for a scientific article because you want a big picture view. You first need some idea of what you're even getting into, what the priorities are, where you're started, and then you can start honing in on specific topics and looking at scientific research. I think I went through the same kind of journey there.
I didn't start off working in fitness but quite quickly realized as a business consultant, which I started working as that it wasn't for me. It was fine but more the career path that my parents wanted of me than what my true passion was. So I start working for myself, started writing about fitness, at first just getting the word out, and basically spreading the truth where I felt there were things that were in fitness, especially because evidence-based fitness wasn't very hot at the time. I felt that I could contribute there, especially with my background now in data analytics and scientific research.
I first just started off writing, and the people started asking me for coaching, and so I started doing online coaching, and then people started asking me for mentoring and how do you get these kind of client results, and I started mentoring people and set up a group where I taught other people how to become PTs and that's now my online personal trainer course, which is an official certification program. It's now expanded into several other languages, and that's still what I do as the two main things basically, the coaching and teaching other people how to be a good online PT or in-person PT as well.
Pretty interesting journey, a very organic journey just from a self interest in the people responding to the thoughts you were putting out there. In terms of experimenting and applying to yourself, obviously that's N equals one. Before you teach others you should probably see if you can actually do what you're teaching. Walk me through some of your personal accolades or achievements. Obviously from some of your photos and Instagram, obviously a very lean physique, very cut physique. I don't imagine that that's what you look like when you're a 16 year old a 17, as you're growing up. Talk us through that journey.
Yeah, I've been training since I was basically, like I said, when I was 13 or so or even earlier depending on what you constitute as training, and still am, train basically every day. I've been known for my high frequency training approach for those that really want to maximize muscle hypertrophy. So I'd say I walk the talk. I've done some fitness modeling, I've competed, I'm probably not going to do it in the immediate future because it puts a very heavy strain on what you can do business wise, and how much you can write and research because by the time you're at 4% body fat basically all of your interests narrow down to food, food, and more food. So it's probably not what I'm going to do any time soon but maybe in the future again. I do maintain a six pack year round so I think I'm at a happy, sustainable body fat level. I'm 6'1", a good 90 kilos with abs, so that's a good year round maintainable baseline.
That's around 198 pounds, just doing some quick mental calculation.
Yeah, about 200 pounds, so a good ... Yeah, yeah, I said 90 kilos? Yeah, 200 pounds.
Cool. And then, what were the trigger points? I mean, obviously you don't ... Obviously, was this a slow progression as you just slowly trained more, and more, and more, and then you wanted to go down to 4% body fat? Obviously at 4% body fat, I mean, that is extremely lean. You probably cannot sustain that kind of body fat for too long because one would probably die, but I'm curious to see your journey. You're interested in fitness to 4% body fat in competing. What were some of the key points that led you down that path?
It's a stepwise progression. So basically until age 22 or something, maybe basically college and the like I just lifted and I had some cut and bulk phases and at some point I started doing that, but I just was interested in more muscle growth, and fat loss, but nothing too crazy. I don't think I ever became leaner than 8% or so. I went on surfing holidays so I wanted to be pretty lean for that but that's maybe 8%, so very lean but not contest shape. I started taking things more seriously when I started working as a coach, and at some point I first did modeling because I personally prefer that, creating art if you will, and something you can take home, and of course also something you can use business wise. If you have good shots done then that really helps. So then I started doing some modeling, then also some people liked that so I got some invitations to low level modeling gigs.
As I graduated in my career as a PT and online coach, at some point I also decided that I should really actually compete because even though a photo shoot and a fitness competition are sort of the same physiologically speaking it's not 100% the same experience. So I felt that because I was coaching a lot of people that were competing I felt that I should actually compete as well. So then I competed in US actually, and yeah, that's basically still the level where I'm at. I think I'm honestly pretty much at my natural muscular potential and was before the competition. So, if I now got down to that same body fat level I'd probably look pretty much exactly the same.
There's always some things you can improve and have a little better muscle tension but probably I'd be at a similar level. All in all it's a combination of many, many years of lifting, and probably if you can do it all again and you can look back on everything, all the programs that I followed that didn't work, that's why I say stepwise progression because of all the years I've lifted probably four years of actual progression I'd say is in there, so four years of solid progress all in all and the rest is just finding out what works and where to get there.
So that begs the question then. I know that probably a lot of our listeners are very, very specific but perhaps a vast majority of them, maybe I'm over-counting the laziness of my listeners here but just speaking for myself, how about that? When I was going through college people generally know that when you work out that you just probably do some standard lifts, they should do some bench, dead lifts, squats, and maybe do a little bit of cardio, but that's very, very basics of just not becoming totally sedentary. What, in your experience, is the biggest misconceptions of just a very basic style workout versus what has really, really been impactful for you as you were really optimizing your physique?
I think especially in the US if you have those basics down, you train hard, you do the big compound lifts, you're already way ahead of average, especially in the Netherlands for example. I've lifted in over 50 countries by now, so I have some idea of how fitness looks like in various countries. The US is pretty up there. Probably Norway is number one I'd say in terms of general average level of both fitness and fitness knowledge, at least natural, and US is pretty high up there, especially San Francisco, California area.
I think if you have protein, calories, the big compound lifts, that you're actually training hard then you definitely have the basics down. That's pretty much every client I have knows those things, and that gets you through the newbie gates and into some intermediate level of fitness, and that's, for most people, the point where you have to start being more meticulous and taking things into nutrient timings, specifics of exercise selection, complimentary exercises, more niche topics, more advance topics, periodization to really take it to the advanced level and potentially compete, or do something like a photo shoot, or just look awesome in daily life.
Yeah, so how about that then? What did your protocol look like to get down to 4% to compete or do a photo shoot? I guess that might be a nice topic as people, especially transition into optimizing for their summer beach body. Okay, they're generally fit, eat generally pretty clean, but I want to optimize in four to eight weeks to really cut down and lean up. There's obviously some strategies on weight loss would be potentially considering a ketogenic diet, fasting, intermittent fasting. What were some of the things that you've seen work with your clients or for yourself, and maybe especially in a competition setting? Obviously I don't think most people are trying to cut down to 4% but curious as here, what it's like to cut down to 8% and then what it's like from eight to four.
Yeah, things definitely change at that point, and it really differs what your long-term goal is because I'm a big proponent if you just want to look good in general of only implementing sustainable methods, and the specific types of strategies you employ are highly individual, for example, intermittent fasting, ketogenic diets. I think those are very valuable tools but definitely not for everyone. So for example, intermittent fasting, there's good research indicating that they work well for certain individuals who are more prone to depressive eating, and also people that have a more active social life at night, especially people that go out a lot because it allows you to have a higher caloric intake of your day at that point of the day, and people that naturally don't have that much of an appetite in the morning, and interval nutrient timing. It also generally works better if you train somewhere in the afternoon or evening because fasted training in the morning and then only eating late at night is generally super optimal for muscle growth.
So those are important considerations for whether you do intermittent fasting. Another thing is activity level, and some research finds that, especially in free living conditions people with higher activity level, if they do intermittent fasting that can result in a lower energy expenditure. So if you have a very active job and by that I mean you are literally on your feet all day, you're just literally moving around, then that might also be a consideration to have an earlier meal, whereas if you're more sedentary you probably have no downsides of intermittent fasting.
Yeah, I want to add some color to that because I think those are probably some nuance points there where talking about intermittent fasting and if you have an active lifestyle you want to make sure you're not calorically restricted, right? So intermittent fasting is time restriction versus caloric calorie restriction, so absolutely agree with you that if you are very active, and you intermittent fast, and you are accidentally calorie restricting that is obviously not optimal for maintaining lean muscle mass.
I think in terms of the eating window at a protein sweet spot window after a workout, I think that ... We actually had Brad Schoenfeld, a researcher, looking at some of the studies here, and he was saying that ideally you have protein during and after that workout, but the window is actually pretty broad, but I would also agree with you that if it's morning and then you don't eat until 12 hours later that's probably missing the sweet spot in terms of muscle uptake but one might not necessarily say you need to eat right after working out but the closer is probably more optimal but don't be too stressed out if you have to do something for an hour before you can eat.
Would that sound reasonable given your experience?
Yeah, I'm very much in agreement with Brad Schoenfeld, who is a good friend of mine, and someone I highly respect in the exercise science and nutritional fitness. Basically, we both recommend ... not to put words in his mouth but I think we're pretty much in agreement that you probably want to sandwich your workout between about five to six-hour inter meal interval which means that you have workout, you have a meal before, and you have a meal after, and you don't want to let more than six hours or five if you're in more advanced training pass between that meal and that meal which sandwich your workout in the middle. So that's generally a good guideline, and then there's some more finesse in terms of how much protein you want in both of those meals and that depends a bit on if you have many meals before, generally at least .4 gram per kilogram body weight of protein, which is at least 20 grams of high quality protein for most people before and probably double that if not more afterwards, especially if you don't have many more meals afterwards.
Yep, cool. So it sounds like ... I didn't want to get too offtrack there but we're talking about cutting to 8%, what are some of the techniques there, and what it's like to get to 8% and then ... I've been approximately that cut but I've never been down to 4% cut. I imagine that it's exponentially harder to go from 20 to 10, and then 10 to eight, and then 8 to 4. Talk us through getting to eight and then getting to four.
Yeah, there are two big things that are different with contest prep than any other cut, and a big psychological factor is that it's not sustainable. So by definition you don't have to ... It's liberating in a sense that you know you don't have to sustain this and therefore you can also employ more aggressive dieting strategies, higher cardio and the like because you know that this is a short-time thing. In terms of actual physiologically what happens, what you need to do to lose fat, it's not different, which generally requires you have to create an energy deficit, and you have to gradually decrease energy intake often throughout contest preparation as your metabolism will decrease unless you put on a very substantial amount of muscle mass during the contest prep but that's generally not likely. So generally you're looking at tapering down your energy intake and you want to be very conservative. So basically the leaner you are the more conservative you have to be with the energy deficit.
There are two things that are extremely important if you want to optimize muscle growth and fat loss, that is your training volume and your energy balance, and the exact sweet spot there can make a very big difference in your results. If you diet too aggressively then if you don't diet aggressively enough you're just wasting time, it's not too bad, but if you diet too aggressively, especially in contest prep, you will just end up losing muscle mass, for example, one study by [inaudible] even found that once people transitioned in high-level athletes, I think they called them elite athletes even, once they went from about a 20% to a 30% deficit, or they compared two groups with those deficits, they actually lost less fat and just more muscle mass.
So in the 20% deficit group they built some muscle and they lost a very sizable amount of fat, so progress was really well. They basically had body recomposition, whereas in the 30% deficit group they lost muscle mass and because of that, probably, and a lower energy expenditure, and worse substrate partitioning, so the P ratio was worse, meaning they lost muscle instead of fat. They were burning off the muscle mass instead of the fat. They actually lost a bit less fat, too. So that actually illustrates how detrimental it can be to be at an excessive energy deficit, but that's at a certain body fat range, for individuals at a certain activity level. So some people can be more aggressive, some people have to be even more restrictive, and generally in contest prep 20% is hefty for most people. So you're looking generally-
This is 20% below your basal metabolic rate?
Below maintenance energy intake.
So maintenance energy intake at that point is very strongly correlated with basal metabolic rate but generally maintenance is a bit higher because you also have exercise induced energy expenditure, and a thermic effect of food on top of that, and just your overall daily activity energy expenditure. So generally in contest preparation you're looking at more, sometimes even a 2.5% energy deficit, somewhere in between that, .5 to 20%, and setting that to the individual is very important, and then things like ketogenic diets-
Which is not easy to calculate, right? I mean, even basal metabolic rate is kind of an estimation given your size and body. I mean, unless you're in a metabolic ward testing everything and everything's controlled it's going to be guesstimated. Curious to hear in your experience, are you in a metabolic ward with your clients or are you helping them estimate? It sounds like there has to be some estimation on their daily steps, their daily exercise, calculating all that together, I guess calculating some of their diet, as you mentioned a thermic effect. Certain foods burn off a little bit more ... take more calories to burn than other foods. How are you calculating this? Is it more the back of an envelope estimating or how specific are you getting here?
Very specific. I think the key difference or a key difference I think in my method compared to what many other coaches I'd say do is that I estimate every component of metabolic rate individually. So I estimate someone's thermic effect of food, their activity level, the energy deficit that I want them to be at, I estimate their basal metabolic separately, and the energy expenditure from their workout, from their given workout, and then all of that together to get the total.
So many formulas simplify it, for example, they just say 15 calories per kilogram of body weight, something like that, but then you lose out on a lot of accuracy for a large part of the population. That works well, that kind of formula, and you can see it in research that sometimes you can go with much simpler formula on average but at the individual level that will no longer suffice. So I think it's best to estimate every component individually and then aggregate the total.
That's also, I mean, theoretically what happens if you know what the actual causal drivers of someone's metabolic rate are, which I just enumerate it, thermic effect of food, energy expenditure from exercise and from daily life, basal metabolic rate, which is primarily driven by total [inaudible] mass, then if you have all the components you have a pretty good idea of the total as well. And then afterwards you adjust that based on someone's body composition measures, depending on what someone has available. I'm generally a pretty big component of skinfold calipers if used in and the right way, and weight, and sometimes you have things like dexa scans but usually you have to do with weight and skinfold calipers. Based on that you change things.
It's very important to look at someone's actual rate of progression because sometimes your estimation will still be off and adjust it based on that, based on someone's energy intake, because you have to track that, report that, make sure you're also doing that well, you're using the correct food levels, not like random MyFitness database or MyFitnessPal entries. Based on that you have someone's energy intake, you have a good idea of their energy expenditure, you know what their body composition change is, based on that you have a pretty good idea of what state off energy balance they're in, and then you adjust it to the desired level. I do it on a weekly basis with my clients generally.
Yeah, very cool. Definitely that makes sense in terms of getting as specific as you can without sticking these people into a metabolic ward, which is a whole beast in and of itself. Very cool, so in terms of getting from eight to four, it sounds like you're being very rigorous around calculating each component of metabolism, breaking it down, and targeting a window between a 2.5% to 20% deficit, which is pretty hefty if you're going to 20%. That's a pretty big deficit. And so I guess going from ambient training to competition state or photo shoot state, so you're holding a 2.5 to 20% deficit for how long, how long are you making this cut? What else are you doing on top of that?
A long time. My last contest prep, which was basically from good abs to contest shape, was seven months I think, yeah, about seven months, but that was slow because I was originally set to compete with the Brazilian IFBB but the Dutch IFBB wouldn't let me for some reason because they were just lazy with the administrative work actually, and that's why I competed in the US. So for most people six months is a reasonable guideline if you're at a healthy athletic level to begin with, because these days it is very different from before, say 10, 20 years ago when 12 weeks was generally considered contest prep.
They were pretty off season bulky and bodybuilders would be like, "Okay, now I'm going into contest prep," and they do it in 12 weeks. Now, of course pharmaceutical assistance helps a lot, and secondly, standards were just very low. If you look at photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger was generally a massive icon of bodybuilding and you just put any top five classic bodybuilder at a regional event in the US or like European level, Arnold was poor conditioning comparatively speaking. So, that's a major difference. Arnold was like, "Oh, you have some separation in the quads," and now they're like, "Oh, no glute striations, no Pro Cards for you."
Yeah, you can say that's definitely happened across almost every single sport in the last recent years versus 20 years ago. The sport has advanced I think a lot due to education and the science and the evidence that's come out on sport science. Absolutely agree with you. So your cut was over seven months. So it sounds like that more of a logistical issue rather than something that you planned ahead of time, but would you say that doing that cut over seven months helped you because you had such a long time to adapt or did it become so long that it just sort of backfired? Curious to hear that experience.
I think I get the same result now in four and a half months.
Okay, so you still recommend a longer cut process then?
Yeah, but that's for actual contest prep, right? I have glute striations, so that's a whole different ball game compared to even a photo shoot. A photo shoot now, I could be ready for a photo shoot in eight weeks probably, so like a general fitness photo shoot where you just need six pack and not like glute striations and quads. So it's good to put that into perspective.
Okay, and then in terms of ... Okay, so you have these fairly extended cuts. It sounds like one of the broad techniques is looking at getting a metabolic deficit. Are you changing your exercise? I want to talk about a little bit of your exercise protocols and then I want to talk about macronutrients and nutrition protocols. So does your training change? Does the volume change? Does the type of exercises change? For me recently I've been doing a lot more calisthenics and kettlebells versus sort of standard compound lifts. Curious to hear about the trade offs and your thoughts on different forms of exercise.
Not too much changes with my training programs for clients or myself in energy deficit compared to maintenance with one big exception and that's training volume. Generally recovery capacity will be impaired by energy deficit. We have one good study finding that people made better strength development when they cut the volume by I think it was 33%, so that's a suboptimal cut but it still provides a good indication that you want probably a bit of a lower volume. And then if you combine it with contest prep, and especially for me because I have very weak knees and elbows, and there's also big extra factors in terms of prehabilitation, so I need to ... And that's also I think for many bodybuilders why they recommend higher rep ranges before a contest. Some people rationalize that as greater energy expenditure but that will be pretty trivial. The difference in energy expenditure compared to doing sets of eight or 15 is not that large.
So I think the main reason it works for many people is because it's easier on the joints. Generally the lower the intensity the easier it is on the joints. So being injury free, of course, is absolutely paramount. If you get a massive shoulder injury you cannot train your upper body and that happens six weeks out and then you cannot train your upper body for three weeks then you are screwed. That's pretty much your placing down the drain. So it's very important, especially because your recovery capacity is very much impaired, especially as a natural trainee because your anabolic hormone levels will be very low, especially estradiol. Estrogen is often regarded as a hormone that's all bad, like evil. Testosterone is the good hormone and estrogen is bad but actually estrogen has many anti-catabolic functions. It's very good for connective tissue health, and you see that in many research, also in pharmaceuticals. If you cut someone's estrogen levels injury rates skyrocket. So that's something you really have to take into account when you go below the sustainable body fat range.
Yeah, that's interesting. That reminds me of research out of Keith Baar's lab who's a physiologist out in UC Davis. He saw some data showing that women in different cycles of their period would have different ACL knee injury rates, and I think it is basically going back to the point that you brought up that estrogen levels impact tissue connectivity strength, and higher and lower, and there's different variation on that strength which is interesting that there's also an application from a bodybuilding perspective on men, but I think in the common world it's too easy to just say testosterone, men, estrogen, women. These are all just physiological hormones that do different impacts on the body. The hormone itself is not classified itself as female or male, right? These are just impact our body in different ways.
So sounds like you've increased rep number to reduce load on joints, which makes a lot of sense. Are you still doing compound lifts? What kind of general exercise are you doing? Are you doing calisthenics? Are you doing squats, bench, dead lifts, free weights, machines? Kind of walk us through a little bit of details there.
Everything or at least I get the tools that I want in a certain program. I don't use that many machines generally because ... There are certain machines that are really good like a conversion chest press machine for example offers a big advantage over the barbell bench press in that barbell can never have a convergence movement path. So convergent means your abs go together. Isolateral is also sometimes also what it is called which makes no sense at all bio mechanically, but Hammer Strength, for example, uses that Iso-Lateral Hammer Strength Press. It adds range of motion and majorly improves the resistance curve so that you can get high tension on the pectoralis minor or the pecs throughout a larger range of motion. It's also easier on the elbows, for many people also on the shoulders because the barbell bench press is particularly hard on the bottom position, which is also the most injurious position. So adding things like bands and chains are good ways to improve that or use a convergent chest press machine.
Big compound lifts appear in many of my programs, especially the squat and chin ups, I'm a big fan of ring chin ups in particular, overhead press, also a big fan for those whose shoulders are built for it. Many squat variations, also single-leg squat variations, and ab machine work. I like leg extensions, leg curls, many leg curl variations, body weight variations, many cable exercises. I'm a big fan of cable exercise, many of which I name myself because I want very specific movement angles and resistance curves to overload muscles throughout a large range of motion, and also stimulate the muscles in different parts that are often neglected.
For example, with a biceps curl I use what I call a Bayesian curl which is a cable curl but unlike most people that do cable curls you face away from the machine so the cable station is behind you. The advantage of that is that you have a good stretch in the bottom position, so there's high tension on the biceps then but also high tension on the biceps in full contraction. You can also lean back in the stretch position to emphasize the stretch and lean forward to emphasize full contraction.
Compared to a dumbbell curl that achieves much better mechanical tension, which is the primary driver of muscle growth, over the entire range of motion, whereas a dumbbell is limited by gravity, by gravitational resistance only pulls straight down. So in the middle position of a dumbbell curl, when your arm's at a 90 degree angle compared to the floor there is maximum tension but in full contraction like this. So if you're here and the forearm is vertical there's actually no tension on the biceps, and in the bottom position, when the arm is hanging straight down, there's also no tension on the biceps because the bicep is only exerting force like that, in rotary fashion. So, with clever use of cables and some machines where applicable I like to sort of design my own exercises or get the exact variation I want in a certain program.
Yeah, that makes sense. I like how you are nuanced there because I think in a lot of common discussion a lot of people will critique machines as being, "Oh, you're just isolating muscles. You're not building up the supporting smaller muscle groups." But I think you bring up a very good point around the resistance of different zones of muscle, and I think a range of motion is fairly limited if you're just doing some very, very limited exercises and you're weak at the extremities of that motion. I think that's where injury pops up because you're in a very stretched out position. You have no power there because you never train that kind of a set of motion, and that's actually where injuries happen in sport because you're at the limit of your range. You have no power at that range. So incorporating things like cables to strengthen those weak spots essentially is a smart strategy, not even just for bodybuilding but also for injury prevention.
Yeah, definitely. I think for sports and athletes it generally makes a lot of sense to focus on cable and barbell, free weight exercises at least. So machines can actually fulfill that purpose. It's not about whether it's a machine or a cable. It's about the freedom of movement. So there are machines for example with rotary handles that can travel in every direction. That actually provides greater freedom of movement and a better, easier time for the elbows and the wrists for many people compared to say a chin up, which has the wrists fixed because the bar is in a fixed position and now the body is forced into a certain movement pattern that's dictated by that fixed bar position.
Yep, yeah. And then the last point I want to bring up is that a lot of people might think that you need to do one rep max to get the max hypertrophy, and it sounds like there's some emerging evidence suggesting that if you do the same amount of effort over more and more repetitions you can get the same amount of hypertrophy. What are your thoughts there? It sounds like there's a consideration also on training versus injury rates. Curious to hear your thoughts on the balance between just going for one rep maxes versus doing a lot of volume. And I guess, what does high volume mean for you? Some people might say eight reps is high volume. When we say high volume, are you meaning 20 reps, 50 reps? How much is high volume?
Yeah, so the question is basically the considerations for the optimal exercise intensity. Exercise intensity is generally defined as percentage of one RM in exercise science. So not to be confused with intensiveness, which is proximity to failure or effort. I would prefer the term relative load but people use intensity so I'll use it as well. Research has found generally, going back to 2002, demonstrating that high rep work actually results in equal hypertrophy as low rep work on sets per set basis if you are equating proximity to failure. So if both groups are training, doing as many reps as they can, then you get the same muscle outgrowth with high and low reps. Many research studies since then have verified that this holds true between the range of four to 30 reps generally.
So it's many other considerations that matter because in the end you sort of get the same mechanical tension on the muscle fibers, and with low reps you get them from the start but with high reps you first build up fatigue and that increases muscle unit recruitment based on the size principle, so the type II fibers or the high threshold multi units with more type II fibers they basically, they kick in later, but in the end you recruit them anyway as long as you're going close to failure.
So for muscle growth you seem to get the same result. There is some controversy of whether the growth is more myofibrillar and contractile with heavy weights whereas it's possibly more sarcoplasmic with light weights, but most research suggests that it's not a big difference. There is some research suggesting it differs for fiber type though, especially when you go all the way up to 30 RM compared to say 90% of one RM. With 90% of one RM you seem to get mostly type II fiber growth, so more fast-twitch muscle fibers, more for explosive sports, have poor endurance but can produce a lot of force and force quickly. The type I fibers are more endurance like, better for sustained combat, and you seem to target those a bit more if you go up to like 30% of one RM or 30 RM, which is roughly the same range depending on the individual.
And even within the fiber types there's even like type I-2, type Ia, type Ib, so there's a lot of nuance between the types of muscle fibers that's sort of emerging research as well.
So that's a rationale to include both in a training program.
Yeah, yeah, I think that's the right level of nuance. I mean, I think, again, it's going back to ... Human physiology's so complicated, and I think it's hard to have one playbook that fits all, right? I think that's why you need experts like yourself walking through, what are your goals, what is your baseline, how do we get you there? Cool. Let's move on to nutrition. I know we talked a little bit ... I think we had a good discussion on exercise protocols and considerations there. Nutrition, macros, bodybuilding has always been at the forefront of nutrition ideas. I think there's been schools of thought where this is like six meals a day, maybe even injecting extra insulin to build up bulk, right, for some of the more pharmaceutically assisted bodybuilders to now in more recent years discussion or thoughts around ketogenic diet, fasting, and all of that. Obviously, roles for different types of goals. What are your thoughts broadly on nutrition and diet? Maybe as an anchor point starting with the cut phase as an initial discussion point.
So compared to bodybuilding coach at least, I'm generally renowned to sort of a low protein, high fat, low carb proponent, but I'd say that's compared to the conventional dogma of very excessively high protein intakes, very high carbohydrate intakes, and almost negligible fat intakes. So actually I'd say my recommendations are quite in line with those of many official health authorities, and from that reference it's the bodybuilders that are fat phobic basically.
I have done a lot of research on protein intake. I think still the most popular article ... No, it's not the most popular article anymore on my site but probably still ranks number one on Google for optimal protein intake and it also participated in the latest meta analysis on protein intake and on a randomized control trial to assess the effects of different protein intakes on muscular recovery. It all points in the same direction, the same direction that's been pointing at since research by Lemon and Tarnopolsky in the '90s, which is 1.6 gram per kilogram per day total protein intake of total body weight suffices, which is .82 gram per pound of body weight, total body weight per day in protein. So for most people it's going to be-
Is that for full exercise, or does that change?
That's daily average.
So it's not taking into account nutrient timing. You probably want to space most of that in your anabolic window so the more post workout periods, but that's like the daily average that should suffice. That's actually the .82 is 1.8 gram per kilogram which is what I generally recommend so I have a bit of a safety margin. Research finds no benefits above 1.6 but I go up to 1.8 based on the same research by Lemon that I mentioned. He added the double sigma it's called, basically an error margin to make sure that even if you are an individual that falls more than two standard deviations away from the normal, what we measure in any research, you're still covered because protein is so important.
Bodybuilders basically take that as more is better and they go up to ludicrously high intakes, and even if you point them to 10 studies, and now I think we literally have over 50 studies supporting this, and they're like, "Yeah, but there's a potential benefit and no harm so go higher." It's true in a sense that there is no harm but there is always a sacrifice in terms of you are giving up another macro nutrient. So if you consider more protein that means you have to consume fewer fats or carbs, and that can itself be detrimental for performance, health, satiety, et cetera, not to mention it's a massive pain in the ass to consume 300 grams of protein every single day.
So I think for a lot of people if you just stick to about 1.8 gram per kilogram or .82 gram per pound as a daily minimum you're covered, and if you go over it it's generally fine as long as you don't dip too low in carbs or fats, but that's pretty much what you need to get, which isn't that hard, right, if you're used to ... Someone who just commented on my Facebook page like, "For standard Indonesian diet that is actually really hard to get that protein intake," but for an American diet where it's easy to add a lot of animal protein sources to the diet it's not that hard.
Yeah, sounds very sensible in the sense that the orientation that you have sounds like is the right amount of protein, the right amount of carbohydrate, and then fill the rest with fat, and don't be fat phobic. Does that sound about reasonable?
Yeah, so basically the ratio of carbs to fat, I tailor it to someone's carbohydrate tolerance, which sounds like broscience but there is actually good research showing people with different levels of insulin sensitivity or general carbohydrate tolerance. Insulin sensitivity is by far not the whole story but certain people, for whatever reasons, poor insulin sensitivity, high fasting insulin levels, general poor dysregulated glucose homeostasis-
Maybe have pre diabetes and don't even know it, right?
Exactly, yeah. So they respond better to low carbohydrate diets, and it's probably mostly just due to adherence. They have better satiety, they feel better, better moods. They also may be more lethargic if they have a very high carbohydrate intake, and therefore have a lower energy expenditure because they have lower NEAT as it's called, non-exercise activity thermogenesis. They're more lethargic. They don't move as much, even subconsciously. So that determines why some individuals do better on low carb diets, and it seems that based on at least one study there are also people that actually do better on high carb diets or at least highly glycemic diets, but those are, I'd say, very rare and it's within the realm of just being a fluke.
So based on that, if someone's obese it's very likely they are carbohydrate intolerant so then I go higher in fats, and if you want a ketogenic diet then you need to go high in fats and you need to restrict carbohydrates, then my approach is generally a targeted ketogenic diet. Depending on the type of exercise I think that can be perfectly fine for people interested in maximum muscle growth and especially fat loss because carbohydrate requirements really aren't that high, and for pure strength training as many bodybuilders or even exercise scientists will have you believe ... We have a review in process actually at the moment where we look at this and systematically review all the literature on the effects of carbohydrate intake on pure strength training performance, and there is a massive difference with strength training and say tennis because strength training is 20 seconds of exercise, long rest periods, a lot of muscle contractions but half of what you're doing is eccentric muscle action which doesn't have a high energy expenditure. The total volume of work that you do is also far lower.
So if you compare that with something that's mostly concentric, almost constant type activity, and almost all falls in the most glycolytic exercise range intensity, so that's most team sports basically, then you're looking at a completely different level of carbohydrate requirements. So for team sport tennis I would not recommend a ketogenic diet. You know, it can work but it's probably not going to optimize your performance.
Because you're doing a lot of anaerobic bursty type movements. You want to be really bursty and anaerobic.
Yeah, and you're going to do that for at least an hour generally. So that's a very high volume of work, which is all reliant on carbohydrates or glycogen and glucose in the body. Pure strength training does not nearly have the same requirements, and especially also the rest between muscle groups is generally much longer. Even if you train full body every time, every single day, which is what I actually do with many clients, which was declared absolute heresy up until a few years ago, you're still looking at 24 hours of recovery. There's a cool study where they looked at how the body can resynthesize glycogen in the complete absence of nutrients, not even just absence of carbohydrates but nutrients in general. They found that within about six hours 75% of glycogen was re-synthesized even while fasted. It's probably mostly because of the Cori cycle.
the Cori cycle, I was going to say, yeah. Let's unpack that.
Yeah, it's basically, it's sort of a recycling system whereby the lactate that is produced, not lactic acid but lactate, technical difference, that's produced during exercise is basically recycled back into glucose. That's what the Cori cycle does, and the energy for that can be derived from fatty acids, so mitochondrial respirations. So basically indirectly your body can use the energy you consume from fats to fuel the recycling of glucose to lactate back to glucose and then to lactate again to fuel high intensity anaerobic exercise performance.
If you combine that with the fact that there are still some carbohydrates in the diet, even a ketogenic diet you will still have 50 grams of carbs often. I'm not a proponent of literally trying to go zero carb but it can work for certain people, for certain health effects. So you still have some carbohydrate intake, and there's also the component of the glycerol backbone of triglycerides that you eat in your diet. So the triglycerides that you eat have a glycerol backbone and three fatty acids. The fatty acids can be used by mitochondrial respirations, so basically if there's oxygen the body can burn the fatty acids-
Fat oxidation, yep, fax oxidation, yep.
So with the glycerol backbone can actually be converted to glucose. It's normally thought that the contribution of that to total glucose production is very modest but we do not have research on people that have very high fatty acid or very high triglyceride intake and also a very high need to synthesize glucose. So if you combine those two things probably the contribution of that, which remains unexplored, I think can be very substantial, and enough with the Cori cycle and some carbohydrates in the diet that with quite a low carbohydrate intake, especially with a targeted ketogenic diet, with more carbs pre and post workout, five to 10 grams extra generally suffices, can be sufficient to sustain strength training performance at 100% of the level of high carb intake.
Absolutely. I think that's a good breakdown on all the processes that the body has in place where carbohydrate is not necessarily a requirement. It's not necessarily an essential nutrient and your body can generate through the Cori cycle, through gluconeogenesis through the glycerol backbone. You could also do some gluconeogenesis through amino acids, right? So you can convert your own carbohydrate. You would not be exogenously taking in enough, but I think there is a question around is that optimal for performance. I think that's where perhaps some keto advocates go a little bit too far. It's clearly possible to revive and be relatively healthy and happy with no carbohydrate but is it optimal for winning an Olympic medal in weight lifting? I think the jury's out for that or tennis as you mentioned as like a team burst anaerobic type sport. Is it optimal for a football player? Potentially not because why limit that extra substrate. I think it's easily overly easy a demonized carbohydrate as completely evil but it is still a very efficient fuel and you might want that for certain sporting applications.
So I think that again is that balance of okay, let's not go too far on either side in terms of understanding what the actual substrate does.
Yeah, and just because it's possible doesn't mean you have to do it. I think there are also a lot of keto haters. You know, there are some keto zealots, but there are, I think, especially in evidence-based science there are probably more keto haters that almost feel attacked when you say, "Keto can work," and they're like, "No, I don't want to do keto, this must be Satan's diet, this is evil, I don't want anything to do with this, this must be terrible." So, you know, it's a tool just like intermittent fasting. That's the way I see it. You can still do high carb. It doesn't change anything that we know about how that diet works. A ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting, they are tools you have in your toolbox just like if someone comes up with a new exercise, you're not like, "Oh, I hate that exercise because I don't want to do it." Well, you don't have to do it, it's extra.
Yeah, it's extra. It might be optimal for you but if you don't want to do it you don't need to do it. One thing that I saw you cover recently was exogenous ketones. That's a relatively new potential new macro nutrient that could be added to the mix. Obviously there is a lot of hype from certain people making claims. Maybe let's unpack that a little bit. Obviously at H.V.M.N. we are very deep in the space with our ketone ester drinks, so curious to get your thoughts on has exogenous ketones generally, or ketone esters, entered the bodybuilding world or the community that you work with.
They've certainly entered it but I can't say I'm a big fan of them. Depending on the application, most research has found that they're at least not better than just a high carb or a straight ketogenic diet.
Yeah, for appetite management. Appetite management is most promising. Mental performance, physical performance are definitely very underwhelming in terms of research. Health is mostly unexplored, health effects, and that's probably the main reasons why strength athletes take them at least. So in general for all those things research is at best, it's neutral, and some indications even say that it has detrimental effects on, for example, mental well being and performance.
So the desired idea is that you do a non-ketogenic diet, you don't have to bother with restricting your carbohydrate intake, and then you take the ketone drinks, and then you get all the benefits of being in ketosis without actually having to do the work for it. That's the marketing, but in reality it doesn't quite work that way because, well, probably the human body doesn't seem to be that metabolically flexible in that if you have the ketones and the glucose the body's not adapted to handle the ketones as well as you would be in a ketogenic diet. So that's a potential mechanism whereby it could hurt physical performance, and instead of getting the best of both worlds it's just like adding beer to your wine-
Right, you're hurting the glycolysis. Yeah, so I would unpack that a little bit in terms of unpacking apart the world of exogenous ketones. So there is a lot of work on ketone salts and then also ketone esters, and I know what you're referring to in terms of neutral on performance or negative on performance bothy physically and cognitively. Those have been focused on actually ketone salts which actually don't get your ketone levels very, very high, but the data that we have on ketone esters is actually pretty positive. So I think I agree with you in the sense that exogenous ketones, I think will have more and more nuance as people start understanding more of the different types of exogenous ketones, right? It's like a starch versus glucose versus maltodextrin versus fructose. They're all a carbohydrate but they have very different functions and roles with the body. I think the nuance between MCT oils, ketone salts, ketone esters will probably have some of that more nuance. So happy to send you some of the papers on the ketone esters specifically that have pretty interesting results for both physical and cognitive performance.
Love to get your thoughts on that, but I would agree with the broad point there which is that there is a lot of marketing out there with exogenous ketones melting fat off your body, which is not the case, right? Exogenous ketones are additional calorie sources. So if you're doing everything the same and then dumping extra ketone calories on top it's not some magical substance that breaks the second law of thermodynamics, it's like deletes energy from your system. But I think what you did mention was some of the ghrelin suppression effects from a ketone ester which was done by a research lead. It's interesting to see that there's definitely some interesting data around what drives the appetite suppression effects of a ketogenic diet. Is it the high fat itself or maybe the ketones themselves? So I think a very interesting area of research.
Yeah, I'm looking into potentially citing that. I have much on my plate, but 2020 maybe, study the appetite suppressive effects of exogenous ketones and basically see if it's worth the calories. So I think that is the most promising area of research, and like I say, we don't know the exact mechanisms yet but we do know that exogenous ketones and ketosis itself are very appetite suppressing for most people.
Yep, yeah, so if you guys are looking to do a ketone ester intervention we'd be happy to help contribute or be a part of that because I know there's different forms of that. So I think that's a very interesting area of research. Cool, so I think we covered a broad gamut of your history, your PT practice, and then a little bit of the best practices for physical training and nutrition. Where do our listeners follow along and keep track? Obviously you're a wealth of knowledge here.
Mennohenselmans.com, so my name .com has pretty much everything I publish. Most study reviews and the like I do on social media, so especially on Facebook and also Instagram. I'm somewhat active on Twitter but mainly just post article links. So if you're looking to following the latest exercise science and stuff then my social media are best and otherwise if you just want broad applications in the articles then I also have a free email course. It's probably best to get ... The get started basically is an idea of everything I've published.
Alright, thanks so much Menno.
Thank you, Geoff.
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© 2019 HVMN Inc. All Rights Reserved. H.V.M.N.®, Health Via Modern Nutrition™, Nootrobox®, Rise™, Sprint®, Yawn®, Kado™, and GO Cubes® are registered trademarks of HVMN Inc. ΔG® is a trademark of TΔS® and used under exclusive license by HVMN Inc.