Fool Proof Program Design

Editors Note: This article was written with the beginner in mind. It is for someone who has not grasped the fundamental concepts of exercise and how to apply them. If you truly want to learn how to create a better body you must start by understanding what the basic exercise variables are in a strength program and how they can be changed to suit the needs of your body. I encourage you to read the article over and then print it off.

There is hean old saying that states, “A house is only as strong as its foundation”. This statement can be reworded to read, “Training is only as effective as the design of the program”.

The quest for endless achievements in training is directly related to efficient program design. Without a correctly structured program we’d have no direction. Our training would be relegated to walking in the gym and doing whatever number of sets and reps that we’d like. Our exercise selection would come to, “What do I feel like doing?” and “What will make me look better tonight?” There is a need for a better understanding of the acute variables that make up a training program.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The first step in the program design process is to establish a desired outcome. Ultimately this is broken into two categories, performance enhancement and body composition. Before we get any deeper let me ask – are they any different? Aren’t we seeking to enhance our performance in the gym even if we are training to look good for the opposite sex? Our first goal must be to raise our conditioning. Conditioning can be thought of as our ability to improve upon our current state. There is no difference if that state is a decreased 40-yard dash time or adding five pounds of lean muscle mass.

The performance enhancement camp is made up of athletes, weekend warriors and individuals attempting to move and feel better. It can include the high school or college athlete all the way down to your 60-year-old who wants to move better. The body composition group consists of competitive bodybuilders and individuals that seek to decrease body fat and increase lean muscle mass, their goal is purely physical. Before we can determine the outcome we have to answer another question. Is body building the same as building our body? Emphatically the answer is no, so our training needs to change.

Once the outcome is determined, we now begin to think about our training splits. These splits are body part, upper, lower and full body splits. Body part splits are the most popular and are focused on two muscle groups per session (chest/back, arms, and shoulders/legs). Upper and lower splits alternate between upper body days and lower body days, while full body splits are just that, a full body workout each session.

Which is better? That depends on what our goal is. It is pretty much common knowledge that if you are training for athletic achievement or function, you should be using upper/lower and full body splits. The problem begins when our goal is body composition. Just because we’re trying to look better doesn’t mean we need to blindly follow what has been done for the past 20 years.

I understand the argument that you need to fully stimulate a muscle in order for it to grow. But is there really a difference between four chest exercises on one day and one chest exercise on four days? Yes, there actually is. In one day you’re maximally fatiguing it and hoping it will grow. Hitting it once four days during the week you’re ensuring that it’s fresh and offering the better chance to grow.

Repeated exposure is necessary for maximal motor unit recruitment. When you really break it down, the ability to recruit motor units (muscle fibers) is the core of weight training.

I never really understood the concept of hitting a muscle once every seven days and I hated the endless challenge of trying to hit my chest from all different angles and being overly sore for three days. It just never was fun to me, plus I wasn’t growing as fast as I wanted. If the best program is the one that you’re not on, then why waste time hitting the same muscle the same way for four weeks? Why not hit it slightly different throughout the week and keep giving it the wake-up call to get big?

While it may seem that I am just another anti-bodybuilding performance coach, in reality nothing could be farther from the truth. It is my job to use every tool in the box to get my clients the best results. So while I seem anti-body part split, I recommend them at times. Depending on the situation they can be just what the doctor ordered. It is my contention that for the majority of people for the majority of time, upper/lower or full body splits will work the best.

This all ties into the first decision you have to make in program design. We have established that those who are training for performance or health need not worry about body part splits, but what about the body composition crowd? Raise your hand if you’re a competitive bodybuilder or fitness competitor. Now raise your hand if you’re someone who wants to look his or her best. That’s a big difference. Competitive bodybuilders need to focus on specifics like distal muscle size and peaks. The majority of people trying to look their best need concurrent increases in muscle mass and decrease in fat. So then why wouldn’t they want to have a more metabolically demanding workout every session that hits every muscle?

The Set and Rep Manifesto

The majority of training programs have no rhyme or reason whatsoever when it comes to prescribing sets and reps. In 1970 research came out that said three sets of ten repetitions was the best for increases in muscle mass. Great, our training has sucked for thirty-six years. I understand that with the recent trend in the industry to alternate set and rep ranges, use less reps, more sets and some other methods making rounds, the industry has become more educated. The problem we still face is that individuals are just following ideas. Even if you are not in the fitness industry and just work out, understanding the “Why” and not just the “How” will lead to much more success.

The following pyramid displays the rep ranges and their qualities improved. 

Pyramid for rep gains

Our issue is that way too many people are stuck between eight and twelve range and think that is the only way they will get the desired body composition improvements. Combine this with your typically three to four sets and we have a problem. The same goes for individuals training for purely neural improvement with one to four reps – they typically stay with three to four sets as well.

There is one other critical factor that needs to be considered when determining what rep ranges to use – Time Under Tension (TUT). Understanding the concept of tempo is very much a key to enhancing gains. Each rep is nothing more than the time that the working muscle is under tension. It is well established that to induce metabolically adaptations, one should strive for sets that last between 20-50 seconds. To achieve this time range, sets are broken up with a lifting tempo. If I were performing a set of dumbbell chest presses for eight reps, I would use a tempo of 301. Adding three plus one equals four seconds multiplied by eight reps and my set lasts thirty-two seconds. Set tempos are applicable for every training goal, although I’d be careful to recommend it for power work. Tempo does also give more variability to training. For example using a 211 tempo, I can achieve the same TUT of my set with different stimulus since I decreased my eccentric phase and increased my isometric phase.

This chart details the relationship between reps and TUT.

The one problem with TUT is actually counting the eccentric. Unless your iPod is made up of one-second beeps you’re going to need to count to yourself. It’s very simple to count the eccentric and once the concentric is complete simply count the reps. If you can walk and chew gum at the same time, you can use TUT.

While repetitions do determine our training effect, sets are equally important. We cannot do multiple sets of higher repetitions; it will just lead us to fatigue and it delays recovery. At the same time doing too few sets with lower reps will only increase strength for so long. To better illustrate this relationship we see that there is an inverse relationship between sets and reps, one goes up the other must go down.

Set/Rep Relationship

The critical factor related to set selection is the training age of the individual. The repetitions that are needed to achieve desired results decreases with experience. This is one of the reasons that you see individuals in the gym with stalled progress. They continually perform the higher repetitions, never increasing intensity or sets. A relative newcomer can do fine with higher repetition schemes, but once they become experienced (two plus years) they will need to alternate the intensity, decrease the reps, and increase the sets.

Relationship between number of sets and reps

 Sets/Rep ranges are likened to cramming for a test. Do you do better studying everything the night before (two to three sets of twelve to fifteen reps) or do you do better with maximal exposure (multiple sets of lower-mid range reps)? In the majority of cases you probably will do better with the latter, although the former does have advantages as well. The key here is to alternate your sets and reps while entirely focusing on what is suppose to work.

With this understanding we see that manipulating sets and reps is very easy for our desired goals. If increased hypertrophy is your goal, then decreasing your reps and adding more sets will activate higher threshold muscle fibers and generate a higher hormonal response. If the goal is to perform more exercises per session, then fewer sets will be needed since there is a direct link between sets and the number of exercises performed. Repetition manipulation is just as easy. Decreasing reps by two every two weeks will bring about different adaptations while still staying in the same general range. Alternating high and low reps each set is another method used to increase both size and strength.

Compounding the Problem

Once we’ve decided on our goal and the sets and reps we are going to use to get there, our next task is deciding what exercise will get us there. We need to be as efficient as possible, get in and get out. When I began training, I was a college student so I had all the time in world. I stayed in the gym for hours using various exercises and experimenting. The problem for most of us is that we don’t have an infinite amount of time. We usually have between 30 minutes and an hour and this usually occurs before or after work.

It would be a waste of our time to go from single joint movement to single joint movement. Instead our focus should be movements that give us the biggest bang for our buck. Upper and lower days should feature alternating movements such as a chest press supersetted with a dumbbell row or front squats coupled with stiff legged deadlifts. This allows us to get more work done and causes a greater hormonal output. Full body routines should combine opposing movement patterns, vertical push with vertical pull, horizontal pull with horizontal push and hip push with hip pull.

What if I have more time than the average trainer, should I perform body part days? No. This is something that angers me when people remark that full body or upper/lower splits are too easy. What is easy about burning more calories and involving more muscle mass in one workout than most people do all week? It is only easy if you make it. Full body workouts are not an excuse to throw out intensity techniques like wave loading, isometric pauses, cluster training, etc.

Well how am I ever going to get big biceps without direct work? Let’s look at a sample four-day workout. On day one your exercise was heavy weighted chins, on day two you did underhand dumbbell rows with a long eccentric, day three had you performing multiple sets of four to six reps of neutral grip chins and day four comes and you’re fresh out of options, time to curl right? Wrong, have you ever thought about towel pull-ups? The options are endless if we get creative with hand placement and even object usage.

I hear it now, compound doesn’t hit muscle the same way. I need to use isolation movements to develop my mid-lat. Yes I get it; you still want to use isolation movements. Research doesn’t have all the answers

Your criteria for choosing exercises should answer one question. How many muscles am I involving? If it takes you more than one second to name all the muscles involved, then use the exercise and its variations as much as possible.

Principles of Rest, Recovery and Adaptation

I don’t understand why rest intervals aren’t talked about in the same breath as sets or reps. It can have as big of an impact, if not more. Many individuals don’t even pay attention to their rest. It pains me to watch people in the gym finish a set and relax until they feel they are ready to begin another set. Not only have they changed up the entire effect of that session, but they have also caused a decrease in body temperature, which has lasting impact on their subsequent reps. We must fully understand the relationship between rest and training goals.

The following outlines proper rest times for desired training goals.

  • Relative Strength – 300-180 seconds
  • Functional Hypertrophy – 180-120 seconds
  • Hypertrophy – 120-90 seconds
  • Eundurance – 90 seconds and less

Training goal and rest

It is clear to see that the length of our rest interval is dictated by our training goal. Relative strength gains require longer rest intervals than hypertrophy gains. In the case of hypertrophy and endurance, rest intervals have more possible variations. We can be very liberal by resting 90 seconds one set and 45 seconds on the next set.

We also must take into account that as we progress in a program and modify our sets and reps, we must also modify our rest intervals. For example, the body composition individuals may begin week one with a 45 second rest between sets and decrease it by five seconds every week to improve their hormonal output and change the intensity of their sessions. The advantage of pairing exercises is that shorter rest intervals are then needed, so we can achieve a higher volume during that session.

Recovery is another topic that needs to be addressed in program design. While the majority of our recovery will depend on daily stress, nutrition and lifestyle, we can do our part with our programs to speed this up. Utilizing a deload week where we have lower than normal volume can greatly enhance our gains and recovery. Deloading is not as complex as people make it out to be. Simply decreasing sets or reps during the third week of a four-week cycle will lead to greater recovery and the chance for increases in reps or weight used. A decrease in our volume will go a long way in keeping us healthy and achieving gains.

How long should you stay on a program? This is yet another variable that can be manipulated to bring new gains. Generally programs should change every four weeks to continually provide new growth stimulus. Anything after that and you begin to stagnate and underachieve. New exercises, grips, reps and sets should all be chosen during this new phase. Do not be afraid to challenge the four-week rule and alternate programs every two or three weeks. Changing up main exercises and keeping secondary exercises is another alternative to switching exercises every two weeks.

Putting it All Together

Now that we have all the principles of program design behind us we can see what an actual program looks like. One topic that I did not touch on is activation work. Everyone needs activation work; this could be a whole other article in of itself. Activation or Prehab work should be done before your first exercises begin; we want to turn on these chronically inhibited muscles so that they can perform some of their normal function during our session.

Examples of activation work include side steps, glute bridges, rotator cuff work and core stabilization.

The following example is a full body four-day training program. The sets, reps, tempo and rest periods have been left out as these exercise variables are dependant on the goal at hand. Using the charts above you can figure out based on your goal what your reps, sets, temp and rest periods should be.

Full body four-day weight training program.

Day One

Activation work for the core – Birddog

Activation work for the glute medius – Clams

Weighted Chin-ups

Dumbbell neutral grip shoulder press

Front Squat

Swiss ball leg curl

Pronated seated cable row

Decline barbell chest press

Day Two

Activation work for the glute max- One leg bridges

Activation work for the scapula – Seated cable retractions

Underhand dumbbell row

Dumbbell flat alternating chest press

1 leg stiff leg deadlift

1 leg split squat

Neutral grip pull-up

Seated side raises

Day Three

Activation work for the glute medius- Band push outs

Activation work for the glute max-

Standing Shear out

Bent Knee deadlift

Dumbbell sit to stand

“Pitcher” side raise

Towel chin-ups

Partial top half incline barbell press

Seated Face Pull

Day Four

Activation work for the rotator cuff-Incline retraction and external rotation

Activation work for the core – Reverse crunches

Incline dumbbell neutral grip row

Partial bottom half incline barbell press

Barbell Hack squat

Snatch grip dead lift

Hammer Grip dumbbell side raise

Isometric body weight chin-ups

Written by Jimmy Smith

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Fool Proof Program Design discussion thread.

One on One with Jimmy Smith

Passion, thirst for knowledge, determination, experienced are all words that come to mind when the name Jimmy Smith is mentioned. He is one of the latest strength coaches ready to make his mark in an industry that is saturated with training and dietary information. He’s here to set the record straight.

Wannabebig: Who is Jimmy Smith and what does he do?

Jimmy Smith:
I’m a performance enhancement coach who brings the results that his clients want and need. I work hard and am always increasing my knowledge. I’m not a bodybuilding coach, a powerlifter, an Olympic lifter and I’m not a strength coach who uses an athletic mind-set to train his physique clients. I use all the tools in my toolbox to produce body enhancement results.

So how many years have you been in the industry for?

Jimmy Smith: At the ancient age of 24, I’ve been in the industry for seven years. I’ve been fortunate to work with various types of clients, whom have all helped me to formulate my theories today. I’ve consulted and trained US national teams, collegiate and high school athletes, fitness competitors, the individual who just wants to look good naked, and in rehab settings with patients who have chronic pain and post-surgical therapy needs. I’ve worked at cancer fitness centers as well as sports medicine and human movement clinics.

Wannabebig: Pretty impressive for someone your age. What exactly got you started in this industry?

Jimmy Smith: Being an athlete who wanted to know the “why” instead of the “how.” I reached a high level of competition being a college basketball player and that competitive spirit kindled the fire for my career. I was looking to get the edge with my training every step of the way and that brought me to learn more and more about the physiology and function of the body. I didn’t like just reading or hearing “how” to get stronger or faster; I wanted to know the “why.” The more and more I learned and applied my knowledge to my teammates, and myself the more my passion for the industry grew. At the same time, I remember seeing people in college who just weren’t having fun or enjoying it because they hated their body image. I wanted to get into the industry to help those people. There’s so much misinformation out there it’s scary!

Wannabebig: Coming from an athletic background do you currently compete in any sports?

Jimmy Smith:
Aside from the foul-feast that is Men’s league basketball, no I do not. I consider my own training my competition; it’s my challenge on an everyday basis.

Who in this industry has influenced the way you go about training your clients/athletes?

Jimmy Smith: Talk about a loaded question! There are so many people within the industry that have influenced me in some way or another that I don’t want to not mention anyone. I swipe ideas from everyone then tweak it in my own way. Chad Waterbury really opens my eyes to thinking “outside the box”. Most of my “oh” moments come from Alwyn Cosgrove and Mike Boyle. I speak with Mike Robertson, Eric Cressey, Tony Gentilcore, Cassandra Forsythe, AJ Roberts, and Mike Roussell on an almost everyday basis. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Charles Poliquin and the impact he has had on the industry. It’s so hard to single people out since I spend a portion of my day everyday emailing colleagues and discussing concepts.

Wannabebig: Top 4 exercises everybody should have in their exercise line up and why?

Jimmy Smith:

1) Deadlift

It’s about as essential of an exercise as there is. We are recruiting a large number of muscles and burning a massive amount of calories. You will be hard pressed to find a better exercise in the gym period. The majority of readers here are training to improve their physique and nothing will hammer the calves, hamstrings, glutes and entire back as effective. When you alter rest periods, it will also serve as a fat igniter. Not to mention that it will be building many of the synergist muscles involved in some of the more popular anterior exercises like chest and shoulder presses.

It can also serve as a way to train the lower body in spite of low back pain. The deadlift has long been painted as a horrible exercise for your low back. It’s about how you do the exercise, not the exercise itself. There are many low back cases where the client shouldn’t load their spine with squat variations but can be perfectly fine when deadlifting. Plus, they look real cool when you do them in a commercial gym with anything over 300 pounds.

2) Chin ups

Just like the deadlift, chin-ups serve multi-purposes. They are great for building a bricklike back and are the best biceps builder hands down, which should please a lot of people. Again, by building the upper back we will see an immediate increase in our mirror muscle size and strength. Chin-ups can be rehabilitative as well. Providing that performing them does not cause pain, they can be great for depressing an elevated scapula.

Why don’t we see more of them in the gym? They are hard, that’s it. People gravitate towards the easiest exercises possible. That’s not to say that squats or deadlifts are easy, it’s just that people prefer to do them because they are easier than a chin-up. People don’t have any type of training history with vertical pulling unless it is from pull downs, which are a completely different exercise so don’t even get me started. The minute they decide to try a chin-up, they are either incredibly sore the next day and back off or they just can’t perform one and feel dumb. Walk around the gym next time and watch the guy who does them. He’ll come down about two inches, that’s the gyms version of chin-ups.

3) Single leg squats

Call them Bulgarian, Split or Elevated but whatever you do, just do them. Most people only get unilateral leg work from lunges so they develop a single-side strength deficit. This will usually present itself as the tighter one the two legs takes more of the workload in squatting exercises. By performing single leg squats we can decrease this deficit since we will be able to handle relatively the same weight on one leg.

Single-leg squats act as way to increase frontal plane stability. People are going to be tight in their Quadratus Lumborum (QL) and Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL), which will shut off their Glutes Medius. The Glute Med is an essential muscle for balance, low back and ankle health. By performing one-leg stationary exercises like single-leg squats we force that Glute Med to fire in order for us to stabilize.

4) Glute Bridging

I can hear the groans and moans from here. “He’s another one of those rehab functional guys”. I am anything but; my goal is to deliver the fastest results in the shortest possible times for my clients. One of the “tricks” is by enhancing glute firing patterns. Not only can the Glute Max produce more force than any muscle in your body but also has numerous health and movement applications as well. We’re only going to focus on the physique producing effects. What’s the one complaint that most women (and some men) have when it comes to their rear end? Most complain that it is too saggy or not firm enough.

What do they do? Hammer out more lunges and squats. The glute still isn’t firing! By performing glute isolation movements we decrease the gluteal fold (that line on your butt) and increase our force during lower body movements.

Wannabebig: For anyone who wants to become bigger/stronger/faster/leaner, what’re your top 5 sources you recommend people should go out and purchase?

Jimmy Smith:

Precision Nutrition by Dr. John Berardi – You can’t out train bad nutrition and by following the advice here you won’t go wrong. It’s the first step.

Magnificent Mobility DVD by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson – People just aren’t warming up properly and are wrecking their efforts because of it!

Poliquin Principles by Charles Poliquin – It will serve as a great resource of people who just want to train themselves better.

The Super-Strength DVD by Joe Defranco – While I haven’t seen this yet, Joe’s results speak for themselves.

Anything by Jimmy Smith 🙂 I’ll be releasing my first book in the upcoming months. This one specifically details what’s wrong with baseball performance and conditioning and what should be done. This will really open some eyes. Watch out for it!

Wannabebig: Best piece of advice that has been given to you so far.

Jimmy Smith: I’ll stay with advice about the industry. It comes from Mike Robertson. Mike’s a good friend and has helped me out a lot especially when it comes to my desire to be recognized. I love the good aspects of the industry so I’m patiently waiting to “blow” and have my information everywhere. Mike hasn’t hit me with any quotes but he does a great job of telling me to wait and take my time.

Wannabebig: What don’t you like about this industry?

Jimmy Smith: I hate the lack of education and the desire to learn. They go hand in hand but what came first? The chicken or the egg? Trainers are quick to be labeled “dumb” by most of the people in the gym (where are these peoples results by the way?) and for the most part they deserve it. There are a lot of uneducated people in the gym and for the most part they are that way by design. Certifications are easy to come by today and people view training as something to do to make more money or an easy job. As someone who works hard in school and outside of school to advance myself, this pisses me off. What’s worse – when you see one of these people actual becoming financially successful.

It really is the desire to learn that annoys me more. I know plenty of good quality trainers who became certified and enjoy training people for a living. Why are they good? They take the time, whatever amount it is, to learn. Some don’t have the time to attend seminars or just don’t want to but they learn by asking questions from other trainers or reading with a critical eye. They are displaying the desire to learn to better themselves and their clients. That’s why I find it hard to believe that people who can’t train themselves effectively are actually good trainers. Now we have exceptions, I’m not saying that being ripped is all you need to be good. There are some great trainers regardless of body composition. I’ve found that the majority of good trainers I know effectively train themselves and look the part. I mean come on, if you’re a trainer and keeping wondering aloud as to why you can’t grow your arms on the same program that you have been on for four months then you shouldn’t be training people.

Another problem deals with the whole image of the industry. The general public treats trainers like they are their only client. Trainers don’t get the same respect as other health-care professional, regardless of their knowledge. Trainers have to give free assessments or free training sessions just to get in front of clients and people expect it. Ok sure, let me call a doctor and ask for a free assessment. I know that doctors and physical therapists need to meet degrees requirements but I know more than few trainers who are SMARTER than physical therapists or doctors. Like any other industry, there are good ones and bad ones. It’s frustrating to see how the public treats trainers. Is this because it isn’t a regulated industry? Probably. It’s something that won’t change unless the trainer is good and gets results. Then they are in the driver’s seat.

Fill in the blanks.

Unilateral exercises are

… something people need to do more. You correct bilateral deficits and also help increase joint awareness. You incorporate more core function and raise the workload to the muscles being trained. More and more research is coming out that shows that unilateral exercises actually result in more muscle recruitment and strength gains than bilateral exercises. Food for thought.

Jimmy Smith is a

… go-getter. A driven trainer who wants to learn everything he can every day to increase his training knowledge.

Don’t forget to

… take your omega-3 fish oils. They do everything, get use to it and love them.

Training different parts of a muscle (i.e. the chest)

… is not worth it unless you’re stepping on stage. There is research out there that shows it is possible. Different contractions (isometric, concentric, eccentric) will work different portions of the muscle. The problem is, unless you are stepping on stage why waste your time? The guy or girl who is trying to look good on the beach or the model that is trying to look good for a shoot doesn’t need to worry about how the distal part of the long head of their triceps looks. If I have limited time to train like most people or just need to add mass everywhere like most people then it’s a waste.

Wannabebig: Where can readers find out more about you or contact you?

Jimmy Smith: They can go to my website –

Written by Maki Riddington

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – One on One with Jimmy Smith discussion thread.

Mmmmm Fat!

Okay, so I wanted to call this “the Skinny on Fats” – but it’s SOooooo cheesy! (Okay, and it’s been done. A lot.)

Undaunted, I tossed around some other possibilities:

‘Grease – The Untold Story,” Rejected. Too “Olivia Newton-John.”

Continuing, I tried “Hey Fatty” – but it somehow just didn’t convey my usual academic style.

So I’ll settle on “Mmmmm fat!”

Really, it’s my favourite macronutrient. There’s just something so … sensuous about this unctuous wonder. And we’re hard-wired to love it. Unlike proteins and carbohydrates, which contain roughly 4 kcal/g of energy, fat has more than double this – 9 kcal/g. No wonder part of our survival mechanism tells us to love this stuff – it’s a very rich fuel!

(As always, skip to the very end for the “I don’t care, just tell me what to take” section.)

What is it?

Of the three macro nutrients – protein, carbohydrate, and fat – only two (1) are considered “essential”: protein and fat. Mr. Gentilcore did an excellent job on the first two – Protein Power and The Carbohydrate Conundrum. I’ll see if I can avoid butchering the third. What we commonly refer to as “dietary fat” is a category of lipid known as triglyceride. This is glycerol (glycerin) that has been esterified with three fatty acids.

I know….

Doesn’t mean that much to me either, but I had to say it – it was in Wikipedia. I’ll give a stab at describing what I’m talking about: think “Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree” – a skinny pathetic thing with room for three ornaments.

Below would be glycerol – a three-carbon molecule, each with 1 OH group. (2)

Glycerol – a three-carbon molecule

The three “ornaments” we’re going to hang on it to make a triglyceride are the fatty acids – basically carbon atoms chained together and populated to varying degrees with hydrogen atoms. (3) There’s something called an “acid group” at one end of this chain, and at the other end, an extra hydrogen, forming a methyl group. Variations in this simple structure (see below) will be discussed below.

Fatty Acids – Variations

Moving right along, these fatty acids attach to the OH groups via something called “dehydration synthesis” (the hydrogen on the fatty acid “acid group”-end joins up with the OH group on the glycerol to form H2O) to yield an “ester” bond. (4) Voilà – a triglyceride is born!

When you eat them, fats (triglycerides) are split back into glycerol (the Christmas tree) and fatty acids (the ornaments) through the process of digestion, and are re-assembled in our blood stream into lipoproteins – structures which (among other functions) shuttle fatty acids to and from fat cells. (5)

When the body needs fatty acids for energy, glucagon (a hormone) signals the breakdown of triglycerides to release them. The brain can’t use fatty acids directly as a fuel source, but glycerol can be converted to glucose for brain fuel. Fat cells can also be broken down for this purpose. (6)

So, although the body can use dietary fat or body fat for this purpose, for simplicity, this article will focus on dietary fat.


Fats serve many purposes in the body. Aside from being yummy and satisfying, we need them for good health. The various dietary fats are an important source of calories in our diets.

Fat is used in the production of hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids that help regulate blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessel constriction, blood clotting and the nervous system. Fat keeps your skin and coat nice and shiny (good dog!), pads your organs, and insulates your body. (7)

Fats are important for testosterone production (8) (which helps you gain muscle mass), partitioning (which helps you lose fat) (9) , the control of inflammation (10), and for the metabolism of fat-soluble micro nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E and K. (11) Fats can help or interfere with the metabolism of other fats (12) (13), , and eating fats with your veggies helps you get more nutrition out of them than if they were eaten without fat. (14) Clearly, you cannot do without this stuff, although its unfortunate caloric price tag makes cutting dietary fat seem like an easy fix when looking to lose weight.

The technical crap (skip unless you’re white and nerdy like me)

The designation “fat” or “oil” depends upon its melting point: at room temperature, fat is solid, where oil is liquid. I will use these terms interchangeably because everybody else does, and I’ve learned to pick my battles (remind me to talk about wide-grip chins sometime…)

Fatty-acid carbon chains (the ornaments mentioned above) are populated to varying degrees with hydrogen – the more hydrogen, the higher the level of saturation. Each carbon in the chain has room for two hydrogen’s.

Sometimes, every carbon in the chain has two hydrogen’s, because all the carbons in the chain are attached with single bonds. (16) (see below)

Saturation – every carbon in the chain has two hydrogen’s

..but when the bond between two carbons is double, the affected carbons only have enough room left for a single hydrogen. In the jargon of the fatty world, this is referred to as unsaturation. (see below)

Unsaturation – affected carbons only have enough room left for a single hydrogen

Hang in there – almost done with the icky stuff.

In the example here (and above), the hydrogen’s attached to each of the double-bonded carbons are on the same side of the chain. We call this the “cis” formation. (see below)

“cis” formation – each of the double-bonded carbons are on the same side of the chain

When the hydrogen’s are on opposite sides of the double-bonded carbons, we have what is called the “trans” formation. Note that both of these are types of unsaturation. (see below)

“trans” formation – the hydrogen’s are on opposite sides of the double-bonded carbons

What it means

Saturation raises the melting point of a fat – lard is solid; olive oil (monounsaturated) is cloudy in the fridge but liquid at room temperature. Sunflower oil (polyunsaturated) is liquid even when refrigerated.

The more double-bonds, the more unsaturated the fat, making it not only more liquid at room temperature, but also increasingly prone to rancidity because of the readily-oxidized double-bonds. Oxidation of unsaturated fatty acids is behind rancidity. This wrecks the taste and decreases the nutrition of the oil, and may even render it toxic. Even at room temperature, oxygen molecules can react with the double bonds (auto-oxidation due to free radicals). Heat increases this effect, so unsaturated fats are a poor choice for high-temperature frying. (17)

Saturation improves the shelf life of fats. It also improves food qualities such as mouth feel and “shortness” – saturated fats in baking prevent long gluten strands from forming, so baked foods remain tender. That’s why commercial baked goods use shortening – it makes the food taste good and last forever.


As the name implies, polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) have many unoccupied spaces for hydrogen. Examples would be corn oil or sunflower oil.

The essential fatty acids (EFAs) Omega-3 and Omega-6 are also PUFAs. The “3” and the “6” refer to the position of the double bond – on either the 3rd or the 6th carbon in from the methyl-group end (i.e. not counting the methyl group at the tail of the “ornament”). Undamaged Omega-6 is likely abundant in any athlete’s diet, but Omega-3 may not be.

It is very hard to find optimizing guidelines for a healthy ratio of Omega-3:Omega-6 we need, but it is certainly higher than the 1:20 ratio often seen in typical North American diets. Some guidelines suggest anything from 1:1 to 1:10 as being optimal, and this may vary from person to person according to the health problems they are trying to correct. (18)

“The North American diet is typically high in linoleic acid (n-6) (LA), which has been promoted for its cholesterol-lowering effect. It is now recognized however, that dietary LA favours oxidative modification of LDL cholesterol, increases platelet response to aggregation, and suppresses the immune system. In contrast, alpha linolenic acid (n-3) (ALA) has been found in several studies to exert positive effects in reducing CHD mortality risk. The major effect of n-3 PUFA appears to be anti-arrhythmic rather than anti-atherothrombotic. The emphasis is on the dietary ratio of LA to ALA, rather than the absolute amounts of ALA, that is critical for disease prevention, due to the competition between these two essential PUFAs for their entry into the elongation and desaturation pathways leading to the synthesis of their respective eicosanoids.” – Khor, Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. August 2004 (19)

For reference, eicosanoids are a type of signal-transmitter: “…eicosanoids influence a multitude of processes in the body. Some examples: They participate in the regulation of blood pressure, blood clotting and the action of the heart, they influence the contraction of the bronchial tubes, they protect the mucous membranes of stomach and intestine against the acids in the digestive juices, they regulate inflammatory and immune reactions, and they also play a role in reproduction.”– Schering Stiftung, September 2000 (20)

So, um, EFAs are kind of important. And stuff.

These oils are delicate and are easily damaged by heat – although rumours of them converting to trans fats when cooking at high heats are unfounded. Foods like walnuts and pumpkin seeds (21) are rich sources of these EFAs, particularly Omega-3.

Eat ‘em cold; eat ‘em raw.


When there is only one double-bond, we say a fat is monounsaturated. Examples of foods containing monounsaturated fat include natural peanut butter, avocados and olive oil. Monounsaturated fat is one of the “healthy fats” we are encouraged to eat – it is associated with heart health. (22) Monos are more stable when heated than PUFAs – while not suitable for high-heat cooking – they are fine at lower temperatures. Even better on your salad – the addition of avocado enhances the absorption lycopene and beta-carotene in foods containing these micronutrients, such as salsa. (23)


When all the available slots on the carbon chain are populated with hydrogen, we say the fat is saturated. Saturated fats are stable at higher heats – fry your steak in butter or even coconut oil. While implicated in increasing both good and bad cholesterol, saturated fat is important in the production of steroid hormones, such as testosterone. (24)Unfortunately, saturated fat also increases insulin resistance. So you do need SOME saturated fat in your diet. Just not an all-bacon diet, okay?

A note about dietary cholesterol: While not technically a fat (although it is a lipid) (25), dietary cholesterol is worth mentioning here. Recent studies suggest that there is at best only a weak relationship between the consumption of dietary cholesterol and blood lipids. (26) “Harvard researchers actually found that increasing cholesterol intake by 200 mg for every 1000 calories in the diet (about an egg a day) did not appreciably increase the risk for heart disease.” . (27) (One large egg contains about 190mg of cholesterol.) (28) Bottom line – there are other far more important factors to consider than dietary cholesterol when looking to improve your lipid profiles.


Although usually lumped in with saturated fats, I prefer not to. Natural saturated fats have a place in a healthy diet. Hydrogenated fats do not.

Hydrogenation was developed by Procter & Gamble in 1907 to create a solid fat (from cheap liquid cottonseed oil) that could be used as an inexpensive substitute for tallow in candle and soap making. When electricity became commercially available, candle sales dropped, so P&G started looking for new ways to market this crystallized cottonseed oil. It was dubbed “Crisco” and sold as a substitute for lard. (29)

Natural vs. artificial saturated fat

Saturated fat gets a bit of a bad rap. There is a difference between natural and artificial (partially) saturated fats. The part that makes the artificially saturated fats bad is due to the shape of the molecule – namely the “cis” and “trans” stuff I spoke of earlier – the orientation of the hydrogens attached to the double-bonded, unsaturated carbons (partially saturated fats have some unsaturated slots). In natural fats, hydrogens attached to the double-bonded unsaturated carbons tend to occur on the same side of the chain (cis), making the molecule all kinked-up and bendy. With (partial) hydrogenation, some of the unsaturated fatty acids become trans-fatty acids – the hydrogens are repositioned to opposite sides of the chain (trans) and the molecule is straight. Apparently, the body doesn’t like these ones, and doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Well-known cardiovascular and other problems ensue. In fact, trans fats actually interfere with the body’s ability to metabolize essential fatty acids. (30) I’ll leave further discussion as an exercise for the reader and move on to the stuff you SHOULD be eating.

Note: there are SOME naturally occurring trans-fats that are healthy. For example, conjugated linoleic acid (found in milk and beef) may have anti-cancer properties. (31) This is NOT the same stuff, okay? When you hear that “even natural fat has some trans fat”, it’s not an excuse to eat Krispy Kremes™ and call them health food!

Different types of Dietary Fats

How much fat do I need?

The figure 30% gets tossed around quite a bit in many dietetic circles. In the bodybuilding world, most of us are learning to abandon the ratio approach to dieting, preferring to think in terms of lean body mass (LBM)-dependent “dosing.” The figure I generally rely upon is 0.5g/lb LBM. (32) But let’s see where this 30% figure fits in.

For a “normal” person (ever met one?) with a functioning endocrine system (i.e. no thyroid or other unpleasant metabolic problems), the Harrison-Benedict formula for basal metabolic rate probably works relatively well for estimating caloric requirements.

Once again, it’s all about me. Let’s pretend I’m normal (work with me, people), and only moderately active.

I plugged my numbers into an online BMR calculator. (33)

5’7” tall, 131 lbs, 43 years old, female

BMR = 1337.65

If I were “lightly active,” the multiplier would be 1.375, giving me maintenance calories of about 1840. 30% of this number works out to about 550 calories, which translates to just over 60g of fat.

For my roughly 114 lbs of LBM, half a gram of fat per pound LBM works out to just under 60g of fat. So 30% is sufficient, right?

But what happens when I diet? At 30% of total calories, if I drop my calories to 1400, my fats drop to 47g – under half a gram per pound LBM, and this at a time when my body is under the most stress AND when I’m at my hungriest. It hardly seems prudent to reduce the amount of an essential macronutrient just because I want to fit into smaller jeans. (By analogy, the same argument fits protein requirements – on a cut, keep protein up by targeting it to LBM). In practice, on a cut, I take most (but not all) of the calories I cut from carbohydrate, the macronutrient I need the least. What little carbohydrate remains, I target around my activities.

How much of each type?

As difficult as it is to nail down an amount of fat to eat, it’s harder still to determine how much of each type.

Polyunsaturated fats are often called the “good” fats and saturates the “bad” fats, but this isn’t entirely true. All the natural fats have a place in a healthy diet – it’s just a question of balance. Some PUFA is required because the essential fatty acids Omega-3 and Omega-6 are PUFAs. But too much Omega-6 can put the balance out of whack and lead to inflammation, among other problems. Saturated animal and vegetable fats increase good AND bad cholesterol, but are important for testosterone production. Monounsaturated fats are heart-healthy, but still have calories. And unlike PUFAs, there are no essential saturated or monounsaturated fats – although swapping saturates for monounsaturates may mean you should watch the amount of PUFA you get or good cholesterol levels may suffer. (34)

Many guidelines suggest no more than 10% of your calories coming from saturated fat . (35) These same guidelines usually suggest 30% of your calories should come from dietary fat, so it might seem prudent to suggest getting in about a third of your total dietary fat from saturates. Berardi would agree – he suggests splitting your fats equally amongst polyunsaturates, saturates, and monounsaturates. He further suggests half your PUFAs are Omega-3, and half are Omega-6. (36)

Turning all this into guidelines, for someone with 150 lbs of lean mass, 75g of fat divided amongst saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat would probably be a reasonable rough target, although I would argue limiting PUFAs and taking up the slack with monounsaturates to be on the safe side.

Summarizing, for our mythical 150-lb lean mass individual, based on the above guidelines:

75g total dietary fat daily

  • 25g saturated fat
  • 25g polyunsaturated fat MAX, half from Omega-6, half from Omega-3
  • 2-3g of this from the combined EPA/DHA contained in 6-10g of fish oil (37)
  • The rest coming from monounsaturated fat

If 10g of your fat comes from fish oil, you’ll ensure that at least 3g of your PUFAs come from Omega-3, which will do much to improve your ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6, particularly if you keep the rest of your PUFA consumption down to a dull roar.

Now stop reading and go eat your peanut butter.

Written by MariAnne Anderson, BSc, MSc (B) – Copyright 2006

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Mmmmm Fat discussion thread.