Ranger Up Fitness: Going from Big Guy to Lean Guy
17 February 2007
Transition: Hard Core Football Player to Hard Core Infantryman
“I have a question, but first let me give you some background:
I am currently a senior at West Point, about to be a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army. I came here playing football for “ARMY” as a defensive lineman weighing between 260-270 at the time (I’m approximately 6’2″-6’3″ tall). I lost a shit-ton of weight in our 6-week basic training from doing Army PT and football workouts without all the food and beer I had in high school to keep the weight on, ending the summer at a low of 198lbs. They cut me from the football team (assholes) and I ended up going back up to 240 at one point, mainly because I was used to eating my face off and going for “weight gain” as an effective workout measure during football. Clearly I don’t need that type of body now, I need lean…I need hard. I’m going to be an infantry officer and I’ve struggled to get back into the low 200’s where I’d like to be (210-215ish).
Question: What are the best workouts for burning fat and becoming more lean? I’m over the “bigger is better” thing – I just want to take a God-given awesome frame and harden it up. “
West Point, NY
Good question, man. A tough one, too. The advice for getting bigger tends to be easy…and the recommendations for cutting weight are even easier.
But I’m pretty sure that looking good for the beach isn’t the point. You want to get lean but stay strong, if not get stronger. This does mean you have to mix things up a bit. It doesn’t mean get on the treadmill for hours, it doesn’t mean stick to salads and chicken breasts, and it definitely doesn’t mean starve yourself and spend three hours a day in the gym…I mean, I guess technically you could. There are entire groups of people who do this. They’re called sorority girls. But then you’d have to do other shit like pinch your fat and say things like “I hate myself”. Not cool.
So I’ll break this down into two parts…theory and practice. Since theory’s all talk, and practice isn’t, I’ll start with practice. Anything that gets explained in the theory section will have a little asterisk next to it. I could have done numbered footnotes, but I’m too lazy. Besides, nobody pays attention to that crap anyway.
Main thing you have to do here is keep lifting – hard. When you’re trying to lean out, lifting’s more important than the cardio. Second thing is to obviously cut your calories a bit. And the third thing is to ramp up your general activity level. These are all pretty damn obvious, but there are specific things to keep in mind when doing each one.
First of all: the food. Eat what you want, but keep your protein up and keep your sugars down. A calorie is a calorie, true, but if you’re taking in fewer calories than you need day to day (the only way to lose weight), you want to make sure they’re quality. Simple rule before you put something in your mouth: Is this gonna help me or hurt me? Steak, chicken, sweet potatoes? Probably help you. Donuts? Probably won’t. But don’t go too crazy with this; you don’t need to carb cycle, or refeed, or do any of that other muscle magazine crap to cut weight.* You’re still young (relatively speaking), and your metabolism’s on your side. Don’t eat too little either – you’ll start dropping muscle and your metabolism will crash. Take what you’re eating now, and leave about a quarter of it on your plate. That’s it. This pretty much works for everyone. I can always talk about more specific diet recommendations, but honestly dieting fucking sucks, I hate it, and I can’t stick to one anyway.
Lifting. You’re going to be eating less. Your body’s going to recover slower. So you have to lift smarter, as well as harder. Lift FIRST during your workout. Don’t do any kind of cardio first. And stick to the basics. You’re not going to build much muscle when you’re cutting weight*, so isolations (i.e. curls and pushdowns) are a REAL waste of time, here more than ever.
Best kind of routine for anyone on a cut: Mix up your higher-rep and lower-rep work. But realize that higher rep work won’t help you get lean, just like lower rep work isn’t just for “bulking up”*. The lower rep work should be your first exercises in your workout – the idea here is to keep your strength levels high, so you’re working up to heavy doubles and triples. The higher rep work should go later in your workouts, mostly for form purposes, but also to push you to fatigue.
So the way it would look if I were to use four basic lifts as the mainstay:
Lift every other day.
Sample Workout 1:
-Low-rep dead lift work. Start with a light warm-up weight, progress up to a weight where you struggle to get two or three reps out. Keep the total number of sets low, maybe around 5-6, 2 or 3 of which are max effort sets.
-Higher rep back work. Multiple sets of pull-ups. If you can do more than ten, add some weight. If you don’t have weight, do a few sets here then do some heavy pull-downs. Rep range here shouldn’t go higher than 8-10. 3-4 work sets total.
-Higher rep shoulder work. Standing military presses, seated dumbbell presses, or any sort of overhead press will do. 8-10 reps. 3-4 work sets total.
-Core work. Do some weighted sit-ups, hanging leg raises, whatever.
Then go home. Don’t spend more than 45 minutes at the gym.
The next days (same basic weight progression in each):
2) Low rep bench press
Higher rep dips
Higher rep dumbbell rows
3) Low rep squats
Higher rep squats
Higher rep lunges
Higher rep good mornings/stiff legged dead lifts/hyperextensions
Simple concept: push it hard early on in the workout with something that uses the majority of your body, then burn out with accessory lifts. Keep the workouts short and intense. Remember, you’re not taking in as many calories as your body needs to maintain weight, so you’re going to be breaking down muscle faster as you lift. Much past an hour and you’re getting diminishing returns. Once you’ve hit the muscles hard enough to trigger a growth stimulus, you’re done. Anything else you do is just tearing yourself down.
And for cardio: do sprints – specifically interval training. Straight out endurance cardio is still a good idea, as you’ll need it, but high intensity anaerobic work is the best thing for burning fat off while maintaining strength.* Get on a track and sprint the straights and jog the curves. Do this until you fall on your ass. 10-15 minutes when you’re starting out, 20-30 later on. Don’t do this for hours, as you’ll kill your recovery.
So in summary, if you lift on this kind of framework three times a week, do sprints twice a week, regular cardio once or twice a week, take at least one day off, and eat a little less, you will get leaner. Period.
And if you care, keep reading.
As far as diet goes…carb cycling does have its place, and refeeds are a relatively solid concept when correctly implemented. Problem is, not only are these things very difficult to dial in for different individuals, they only really help if you’ve got either shitloads of weight to cut, or you’re looking for a slight edge in competition. Basic calorie restriction is always 90% of the puzzle. Yes, a scientifically structured diet will help, but it’ll be much more trouble than its worth. If you’ve got real problems with cravings or energy levels, sometimes it pays to adjust what you’re eating just a little more than it pays to switch your entire diet.
And if you want to build muscle while you’re dieting…this is tough. Your body doesn’t want to hold on to muscle when it’s not getting enough food. Muscle burns energy, even at rest. 30-40 calories a day of pure fat burned per pound of muscle is the generally accepted rule. If you ask me to cite this I will hit you in the face. If you doubt me, go look it up. Then kill yourself. Bottom line is, unless you’re really new to lifting, you’re not going to add any additional skeletal muscle while dieting, but you can hold on to almost everything you’ve got if you do it right.
Higher reps for cutting = magazine bullshit. Higher reps won’t tone you up or cut you up. Muscle can do two things: Grow or shrink. Higher reps will make them grow, but once you get into the 15-20 rep range you’re not putting enough stress on the muscles to force any adaptation whatsoever. You may as well spend that time jerking off, because at least there’s some payoff involved. 8-10 reps are best for building muscle, and therefore are also the best at maintaining it. Lower rep/max work is actually better for neural adaptation; it makes your body better at using the muscle it has. High-stress work is needed when dieting, because it will essentially convince your body that it NEEDS all that muscle to support the demands on it. Max or near max work also prevents weight stagnation, it’ll keep your lifting poundages up. I could get into microtrauma, prostaglandins, IGF/MGF release, but Nick would probably discontinue the column. And then make fun of me.
So bottom line: do both.
And anaerobic work…when you boil it down, activity burns muscle. Cardio burns muscle. Cardio burns SHITLOADS of muscle when you’re dieting. You’re telling your body you’re not going to feed it enough, then you’re telling it to go out and run for an hour. Your body doesn’t want to feed the muscle since it’s hungry, then you give it the extra slap of forcing it to carry around the excess weight while you’re moving. Sprints will force you to build muscle as much as they will force you to burn it; the act of sprinting itself is short duration high resistance, kind of like squatting. Intervals also do more to raise your metabolism for an extended period of time than regular running, and their recovery is more calorie-intensive.
Last thing: Once you’ve hardened up a bit and lost some weight, it’s time to rebuild and turn yourself into less of a football player and more of an all-around athlete. Don’t get me wrong, football players tend to be some of the finest athletes on the planet. But they’re very, very specialized. You want to be strong, and fast, and agile, and have endurance. Most routines won’t give you that. So next column, I’m going to get into crossfit/GPP, which some of you guys might be familiar with.