Fish Oil – The Supplement That’s Off the Hook

As most performance athletes, power lifters and crossfitters know, diet is one of the most important aspects when it comes to reaching your goals. Because we don’t always have time to prepare foods that adequately fuel our bodies, supplementing with protein, amino acids, and other nutrients has more or less become the standard.

One essential fatty acid supplement that has been gaining popularity and notoriety over the past few years is Fish Oil. In this article we’ll take a deep dive into why utilizing Fish Oil is a great supplement to hook up on.

Fish Oil, sometimes referred to as Omega-3s in the fitness world, typically comes in capsule form and contains two fatty acids: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Although there are 11 known Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA, DHA and another called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) are the most widely researched. We’ll focus mainly on EPA and DHA, as ALA comes from plant sources and is partly converted to EPA in the body.

Omega-3 fatty acids are known as Essential Fatty Acids because although the body needs them to operate, they can not be produced internally. Because of this, you must consume Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. In order to reap the benefits of Omega-3s (outlined below), you should look to consume anywhere between 2-4 grams per day.

So where can you get Omega-3s naturally? EPA and DHA are known for being in fatty, oily fish such as salmon, herring and tuna. According to, there are approximately 1500 mg of Omega-3s in a 3oz serving of salmon, so getting your daily intake strictly from fish is not always realistic. With that said, supplementing with Omega-3 capsules is a great alternative from both a time and financial standpoint.

Training Benefits
The training benefits that come from supplementing with 2-4 grams of Omega-3s per day are without question. EPA and DHA decrease the rate at which muscle tissue is broken down, and increase the rate at which muscle protein synthesis occurs. Couple this MPS increase with a leucine/BCAA supplement to open the mTOR pathway and you could be setting yourself up for some serious gains!

To build on this, EPA and DHA have anti-inflammatory properties which can aid in the recovery process after lifting or exercise. Lastly, Omega-3s are known to aid in fat loss – the increased sensitivity to insulin experienced from Omega-3s actually helps your body burn fat!

Overall Health Benefits
In addition to some amazing training benefits, Fish Oils can provide a myriad of overall health advantages. For starters, Omega-3s have been linked to improving heart health by decreasing blood pressure, reducing plaque in arteries, and also preventing blood platelets from clumping and causing blockages. Furthermore, EPA and DHA are linked to bone and joint strength.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids are one of the most well rounded supplements you can add to your daily supplement regimen. Whether you are a serious athlete or just looking to improve your overall health, Fish Oil can be a real game changer.

So, what are you waiting for? If you are looking for a high quality Omega-3 supplement, be sure to check out OMEGA, our premium fish oil product that contains 180mg of EPA and 120mg of DHA per capsule.

See you in the gym!

The Concurrent Training Effect Blog #4

The Concurrent Training Effect Blog #4

The first three blogs of this series provided a basic understanding of the molecular underpinnings of the concurrent training effect (the blunting/elimination of the hypertrophy and strength response when both strength and endurance training are performed concurrently).  This edition is going to take that knowledge and use it to recommend specific training protocols focused on mitigating, and potentially even eliminating it.

The primary training factor which seems to drive the concurrent training effect is the intensity of the endurance exercise being performed.  Closely following intensity is frequency, and when high intensity is combined with high frequency the effect is maximized.

Recommendation 1:

As noted in blog #3 both AMPK and SIRT1 are activated by high intensity endurance exercise.  As both can inhibit mTORC1 one clearly does not want them activated when strength training is performed.  What has not yet been noted is that both will return to baseline levels roughly three hours after activation from intense endurance exercise.  The simple conclusion is that there should be at least three hours between an intense endurance session and a strength training session.  CrossFitters take note, if you are going to do an intense endurance session, and can only train once that day, skip the strength training afterwards (or prior to).  If you can do more than one session, intense endurance in the morning followed by strength training in the evening would be ideal.

This couple needs to wait at least 4 hours before any endurance work...
This couple needs to wait at least 3 hours before any endurance work…

Recommendation 2:

As noted above, frequency of high intensity endurance training is a factor in the concurrent training effect.  The molecular reason for this effect is unknown, but empirical evidence and personal experience indicate that no more than three sessions at greater than 70% of VO2max are best for mitigation of the concurrent training effect.

Recommendation 3:

Blog #2 focused on the molecular machinations relative to the hypertrophy response to strength training.  It was noted that mTORC1 is the driver of hypertrophy.  It was also noted that the mechanical stimulation of strength training was not the only manner in which mTORC1 is potently activated post workout.  A huge skeletal muscular spike in the uptake of the BCAA leucine occurs immediately after strength training.  Leucine itself is a potent stimulator of mTORC1.  The recommendation is thus to make sure plenty of blood-borne leucine is available.  Below are some specific recommendations using ALN products:

1) Take one serving of ALN Finish immediately after strength training.  Within 30 minutes, and preferably as soon as possible, take one serving of Recover as well.
2) If fat loss is the primary goal replace Recover above with Nitrean, or take two servings of Finish and skip either Recover or Nitrean to minimize total caloric intake.

ALN's Finish
ALN’s Finish

Recommendation 4:

Strength training immediately after an endurance session of low to moderate intensity (no more than 69%) is fine.  In fact, strength training immediately following a low intensity endurance session positively influences the endurance adaptation while simultaneously not impairing the hypertrophy and strength adaptations.

We aren’t done yet.  I am going to do more research and we are going to learn even more about the concurrent training effect and how to control it.  

Chris Mason
AtLarge Nutrition, LLC

The Concurrent Training Effect Blog #3

To read the first two installments please see the ALN blog page here:

The Concurrent Training Effect Blog #3

As noted in our first installment, the concurrent training effect is a mitigation or cessation of the hypertrophy response to strength training when both strength and endurance training are performed concurrently.  Now that we understand mTORC1 (from blog #2) is almost exclusively the driver of strength training induced hypertrophy we know that looking into how endurance training can influence it is the key to insight into how to mitigate the concurrent training effect and thus to creating a superior CrossFitter or hybrid athlete.


In this blog we are going to seek a better understanding of how endurance training can effect mTORC1.  The molecular effects of endurance training on hypertrophy are much more equivocal than the molecular effects of strength training.  There is no single molecular source for the manner in which endurance training can or does effect hypertrophy.  This blog will focus on those sources most generally accepted to have the greatest impact.

We will begin with AMPK (adenosine monophosphate activated protein kinase).  Endurance training of sufficient intensity results in metabolic and molecular responses that activate AMPK.  AMPK has been shown in animal studies to be able to inhibit mTORC1.  In humans its effects on mTORC1 are less certain, but overall the scientific consensus is that it (a specific form of it) likely contributes to the concurrent training effect.

Our next focus is on the sirtuin family of NAD+ dependent deacetylases with SIRT1 being of primary interest.  In the previous paragraph it was noted that the intensity of endurance exercise is a controlling factor in AMPK activation.  The same is true for SIRT1.  The presence of SIRT1 has been clearly demonstrated to inhibit mTORC1, thus the effects on mTORC1 of relatively frequent intense endurance training may due fully, or in part, to SIRT1.

The final possible metabolic cause of the effect of endurance training on mTORC1 to be covered in this blog are unfolded proteins.  Intense and frequent endurance training and high fat diets are both triggers for unfolded proteins.  The body’s response to increased unfolded proteins includes the blocking of protein synthesis via a decrease in mTORC1 activity.

Hopefully you have already noted the fact that the intensity and frequency of endurance training are catalysts in each of the above possible metabolic pathways in which endurance training can effect mTORC1.  This fact will be the focus of our next blog when we take the information from the first three blogs and use it to propose specific training protocols which can mitigate, and even nearly eliminate, the concurrent training effect.

The Concurrent Training Effect Blog #2

This 2nd edition of The Concurrent Training Effect blog is going to focus on the molecular underpinnings of skeletal muscular hypertrophy.  Understanding the driving force behind the molecular response to strength training can provide us insight into why concurrent strength and endurance training can negatively affect muscular hypertrophy and strength.  In addition, a better understanding can lead to ways to mitigate the effect and optimize progress.  If you are a CrossFitter, or any other form of hybrid athlete this blog is for you.  Keep reading…

Mike Mentzer - knew a thing or two about muscular hypertrophy.
Mike Mentzer – knew a thing or two about muscular hypertrophy.

A Very Cursory Overview of the Science:

The currently agreed upon molecular key to skeletal muscular hypertrophy is the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR).  mTOR exists in two complexes with mTORC1 as the type associated with muscular hypertrophy.  mTOR is most commonly activated via growth factors, but with strength training its activation is executed in an entirely different fashion.  An unknown kinase gets activated causing a chemical cascade resulting in the potent stimulation of mTORC1.

Mechanical kinase activation is the not the only manner in which strength training stimulates mTOR.  We have all heard of the post-workout anabolic window for nutrient consumption.  The following molecular explanation is THE reason the post-workout window has been so widely touted (and misrepresented equally as often) in the fitness world.

After an intense training session (and for several hours) the skeletal muscles pull a significantly greater amount of the amino acids leucine and glutamine from the blood.  The leucine individually is a potent activator mTORC1 and augments the previously mentioned kinase based mTORC1 activation.  The increased glutamine yet again enhances this synergistic effect as the resultant transport of glutamine out of the muscle further up-regulates leucine intake.

Start and Finish provide both leucine and glutamine (as well as other great stuff).
Start and Finish provide both leucine and glutamine (as well as other great stuff).

The Bottom Line

Bottom line, and there is a lot more to it than described here, the end game for strength training induced muscular hypertrophy is it is almost totally dependent on mTORC1.  One can thus reasonably deduct that endurance training can somehow blunt mTORC1 activation, and or its ability once activated to execute its normal spike in protein synthesis and the resultant muscular hypertrophy.

The next installment of The Concurrent Training Effect blog will focus on the manner(s) with which endurance training may effect mTORC1.

Sequence Your Training for Optimal Results

Sequence Your Training for Optimal Results

by Chris Mason

With the recent massive increase in the popularity of training multiple fitness components simultaneously (CrossFit being the driving force of this movement) the topic of exercise sequencing for optimal results has become particularly poignant.

CF gals

Physical fitness and performance are comprised of many different specific attributes. For example, strength has many forms all of which contribute to the body’s ability to move through space. Strength can be viewed as a spectrum ranging from starting strength (the ability to produce maximal force in the first 30 milliseconds of movement), to explosive strength (the ability to very quickly, albeit not quite as quickly as starting strength, generate a high degree of force), to maximal strength (the ability to volitionally produce the highest force possible). Muscular endurance, the ability to produce relatively low levels of force for prolonged periods, also has a strata with things like speed endurance and strength endurance.


Each attribute above and more must be trained in order to excel physically across a broad spectrum of performance markers. In short, you must get good at a lot of stuff to be a well-rounded athlete. The decathlete has historically best exemplified the all-around athlete, but the best of the best CrossFitters now equally well personify one.
As training time is limited for most athletes those that seek to be all-around machines must organize their training to permit optimized adaptation to all physical traits which are being worked. If all, or multiple attributes are to be trained in a single session the order should be as follows:

1) Technique or skill work
2) Speed work
3) Strength work
3) Endurance work of all forms with speed endurance work being done first to be followed by lower intensity prolonged exercise

Following the order prescribed above will allow for maximized results within the confines of training multiple attributes in a single session. A similar order should be followed when training will target multiple attributes via individual sessions over the course of several days. Care must be taken in those situations to permit recovery of the nervous system after endurance work prior to the next skill, speed, and or strength session. Either a day or two of rest or active rest are recommended.

A Special Note about the Nervous System and Performance

Technique or skill work for athletics are generally understood to be essentially wholly a function of the nervous system. What is perhaps less generally well known is that strength and speed work are also almost exclusively the domain of the nervous system. They may be less known in the scientific sense, but we can all empirically appreciate it as each of us have tried, at one point or another, to perform a high intensity activity when already fatigued from a lower intensity effort and know the sense of a lack of coordination and explosiveness which are manifest at such times.

The Why

In a simplified nutshell, lower intensity prolonged activities exert a negative effect on the nervous system in the short and mid-term. They reduce coordination, increase reaction time, and increase the chance of injury when higher intensity activities succeed them prior to complete recovery.
There is a paucity of scientific explanation for the specific causes of this central nervous system fatigue (central fatigue). One generally agreed upon factor is an increase of serotonin (5-HT) in the brain. This is thought to occur due to an increase in brain levels of free tryptophan (f-TRP) which is an amino acid precursor for 5-HT production.

During prolonged exercise f-TRP transport across the blood brain barrier increases due to two main causes. One has to do with tryptophan and albumin. Tryptophan (TRP) binds to albumin in the blood. During endurance exercise, blood borne fatty acid levels increase. Fatty acids displace TRP from binding to albumin thus increasing f-TRP.
The other main cause relates to branched chain amino acids (BCAA). F-TRP (i.e. unbound TRP) competes with the BCAA for transport to the brain thus a decrease in circulating BCAA will result is more f-TRP being able to pass to the brain. Prolonged exercise decreases circulating BCAA as the skeletal muscles take them up and oxidize them for energy.

A Wrap

While the science as to the specific physiologic cause(s) of central fatigue is scant, there is no lack of scientific and empirical evidence verifying the existence of central fatigue as a result of prolonged endurance exercise. There is also no lack of scientific and empirical data verifying the proper sequencing of exercise for specific adaptations. Take care to properly sequence your training and you will permit the best results possible.

Chris Mason

Chris Mason is the owner of AtLarge Nutrition, LLC and an accomplished author in the fitness genre. He has written for numerous websites and magazines to include The CrossFit Journal and Iron Man Magazine.

Nitrean Natural Has Launched!


Our new Nitrean Natural
Our new Nitrean Natural
For years our customers have been asking if we planned to offer an artificial sweetener free version of our wildly popular Nitrean series. The answer has always been no, but that answer just changed!

As many of you know we have recently begun manufacturing our own products for the first time in our 12 years history. Our new plant has given us the freedom to delve into new, and previously unexplored facets of the supplement business. The first example of this freedom is our release of the Nitrean Natural series.

We are incredibly excited about the release of Nitrean Natural. We have always felt that we offer the finest protein supplements available, but this product line truly sets the industry standard. Here are just a few of the highlights:

– A new and improved version of our proprietary protein matrix consisting of three forms of grass fed, rBGH free, drug free whey (concentrate, isolate, and hydrolyzed), micellar casein, and whole egg proteins.
Artificial sweetener free, all natural stevia based flavoring systems.
– Amazing new flavors and the same easy mixing you have come to expect from AtLarge Nutrition.

Bottom line, if you want a protein supplement that is simultaneously clean, environmentally friendly, and supremely effective, you want Nitrean Natural. Order now, and get on the road to optimize your body!

What supplements should I be taking?

“What supplements should I be taking?” That is a fair question, and one that we receive via our customer support page almost daily. It’s also a difficult question to answer without falling back on the dreaded “It depends…” The truth is that so much does depend on the individual asking the question — his or her current physical state, experience level, and choices made in the kitchen and grocery store.

Those of us with a few grey hairs can remember a time when this was a more simple question. Twenty years ago, supplements were limited to a few sawdust-flavored protein powders, ass-expanding weight gainers, and a variety of questionable “anabolic megapacks” that we all knew were snake oil despite cool packaging that featured the reigning Mr. Olympia’s glowing endorsement.

Today, the supplement scene is much different. Walk into your local supplement shop and you’ll be bombarded by row upon row of protein powders, fat burners, pre- and post-workout mixes, weight gainers, lean-weight gainers (huh?), and countless other products. An eager salesperson will offer extra-high praise for a chosen few items but most likely has one eye on the commissions list and the other eye on your wallet.

Yes, she’s a powerlifter, and yes, she uses AtLarge’s supplements.

So what can we do to demystify this situation? In sports, many coaches preach about mastering the fundamentals before trying anything fancy. For example, in football, blocking and tackling take priority over running the flea-flicker or perfecting touchdown celebration dances. This logic is simple yet sound — if you can’t handle the basics, all the razzle-dazzle in the world won’t help you win a game.

A similar paradigm can be used for choosing the right supplements, whether your goal is to build muscle, get stronger, lose fat, or just be healthier. For example, let’s say your goal is to build muscle, and you’re wondering whether the newest nitric oxide product will help. Before you whip out your wallet, first take a look at your diet. Are you getting sufficient calories? What about protein (at least a gram to a one and a half grams per pound of bodyweight per day)? Are you consuming enough polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fats? Are you getting a decent serving of carbs post workout?

These building blocks are mass building fundamentals, and MUST be set correctly to achieve maximum strength and mass gains. As for that six-scoop serving of Mega-Pump 8000? Despite what the guy-in-the-labcoat ad is selling you, that product about as important to your gains as the color of Mr. Olympia’s banana hammock. Sadly, the onslaught of advertising and information confuses many rookie lifters. With little to no clue as to what is really required to accomplish their goals, they spend much time and money fussing with the supplementation equivalent of the trick play when they don’t even have enough players lined up on the field.

The right supplements can enhance your CrossFit performance. Jaime Gold at the 2102 CrossFit Games.

Before you part with your hard-earned cash for a supplement, do an honest assessment of your situation. What is your goal? Is it to build muscle, lose fat, or perform better? Where does this supplement rank in the big picture? Does it fill a gap left by your diet or lifestyle, or is it redundant or just not necessary at this time?

For example, if you’re trying to lose fat and are already eating a high-protein calorie-reduced diet, then a fat burner like Axcel might be a great addition. However, if you eat haphazardly, have no idea how much protein you take in, are scared of dietary fat, and won’t perform any cardio because you’re afraid of “losing muscle”, then even Axcel can’t help you. You simply need more protein (like Nitrean+), some fish oil, and a serious reevaluation of your exercise plan. On the other hand, if your goal is to build mass and you’re already eating pounds of lean red meat, poultry, and eggs multiple times a day, a quality protein supplement like Nitrean might not be priority number one. But if you have a busy schedule or find cooking and eating to be a chore, then maybe a protein supplement is a good assist.

You get the idea by now…first, determine your goal, and then figure out what you need to do to need to get there. Examine your diet, training, and lifestyle and pinpoint where your gaps might be. What are you missing? This analysis will determine what supplements should be on your own priority list. Figure it out and you’ll get the most out of your supplement dollar while greatly accelerating your progress.

So if the goal is building muscle, what are the absolutely most effective supplements to take?


Nitrean+ is an enhanced version of our award-winning Nitrean protein. You need protein to build muscle. This fact has been validated both by science and by thousands of bodybuilders throughout the history of bodybuilding. To get bigger and stronger muscles, you need to stimulate them in order to drive adaptation (training) while also providing the necessary material for growth and repair. That material is protein. The building blocks of protein are amino acids, and like a fingerprint, each protein has its own unique amino acid profile. This is why experts encourage trainees to eat a variety of proteins and not just subsist on whey or chicken or, God forbid, soy.
To address this need, Nitrean+ uses a protein matrix that combines three different fractions of whey (isolate, concentrate, and hydrolyzed), casein, and egg proteins. This matrix promotes superior net retention on a gram-for-gram basis, which means that your body retains and uses more Nitrean+ for every gram you ingest as compared to a simple whey-only supplement.
The Nitrean+ blend also supports a more anabolic state by addressing both sides of the anabolism/catabolism equation. The high-quality whey fractions in Nitrean+ are rapidly absorbed “fast proteins” that promote protein synthesis, especially when consumed in the post-workout period, while the “slower” casein effectively blunts catabolism, or muscle breakdown. A protein supplement that addresses both anabolism and catabolism with one formula is the equivalent to a boxer with a devastating set of hands and a rock-hard chin…it’s tough to beat. Throw in some egg albumin (the old-school staple with the extremely high biological value that single-handedly built many of bodybuilding’s greatest physiques) and you have the most anabolic protein supplement on the market!
But what takes Nitrean+ over the top is the addition of branched-chain leucine. As one of the coveted branched-chain amino acids, leucine has been demonstrated to stimulate protein synthesis to a degree equivalent to whole proteins. In other words, the additional leucine in Nitrean+ acts as an anabolic supercharger that aids in optimizing the body’s response to intense training.

Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine monohydrate is the most rigorously studied and scientifically proven lean tissue and strength-building supplement on the market. Scores of unbiased studies have shown that creatine monohydrate increases both lean muscle size and strength while maintaining an exemplary safety profile, and AtLarge’s creatine monohydrate is made of the purest, finest quality creatine monohydrate available.
Creatine was reportedly used by Olympic athletes as far back as 1982, and has been tested extensively both in the lab and in the gym over the past 30 years. The truth is that it’s safe and it works. Creatine is a naturally occurring substance found predominantly in meats. If you follow a Fred Flintstone-like meat diet you might consume amounts of creatine sufficient to achieve an ergogenic effect, but it’s very unlikely. To do this, the average man would need to consume three pounds of beef, three pounds of salmon, or three pounds of tuna every day! That’s enough meat for Fred, Barney, Wilma, and Betty put together.

Another reason that creatine is so effective is that it isn’t merely an athletic supplement. Recent studies have indicated that it may also be a potent antioxidant, which protect the body’s cells from damage by free radicals. Creatine has also been shown to improve the functioning of patients suffering from various neuromuscular disorders. It truly is a wonder supplement!
Creatine’s proven ability to increase strength and lean muscle mass also makes it an effective body fat-reduction supplement. Lean muscle mass is a physiologically “expensive” tissue, requiring considerable calories to maintain. Those aiming to decrease their body fat levels would be well advised to increase their lean muscle mass because more muscle equates to a greater metabolic rate. In other words, you burn more calories, even at rest. Burn fat while you sleep? Sign me up!

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s)

BCAAs are something that every lifter should be taking, if not daily, then at least during training cycles when maximum muscle mass is the goal. If you spend enough time in this business, you start to notice a few patterns. Training programs with squats and deadlifts tend to build more muscle than workouts featuring endless sets of arm curls and pressdowns. Diets heavier in protein and lighter in carbs tend to yield leaner athletes, and supplement protocols with ample amounts of BCAAs usually lead to better gains.

The branched chain amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. What sets these three apart from the other essential and nonessential aminos acids is that they have some very specific, very special properties. BCAA’s promote protein synthesis in muscle, and, when consumed during training, have been shown to increase both growth hormone and insulin (thus increasing anabolism and anti-catabolism) while increasing post-workout testosterone levels. That’s a lot of heavy hormonal support from just three little amino acids!

On the subject of results Joe Sixpack can actually feel, regular BCAA users usually report remarkably decreased soreness, even after grueling high-volume workouts. This means that the muscles are recuperating faster, which, when added up over weeks and months, can mean bigger and stronger muscles.

AtLarge Nutrition’s BCAA+ also contains the amino acid glutamine, which on its own has a myriad of performance and recovery supporting effects. During inflammatory states (such as those that might be occur due to a heavy training cycle), intramuscular stores of glutamine are reduced, leading to increased rates of protein breakdown. This negative effect can be significantly mitigated through oral glutamine supplementation.

Of even more importance, however, is glutamine’s other role. Glutamine also helps bolster the immune system by serving as a ‘fuel’ for many immune cells, and thus helps to protect the body from the extreme stress of intense training. Much of the immune suppression that occurs during overtraining is due to glutamine use outstripping the body’s production. Supplementing with glutamine may help prevent this by providing support during especially heavy training periods. So while BCAA’s help repair the muscles from killer workouts, glutamine helps prevent all that hard training from leaving you sick in bed with the flu, sucking on chicken soup, and watching endless hours of reality TV.

Wrap Up

When the rubber hits the road, supplements are just that: additional assists in your efforts to build a leaner, stronger body. They aren’t intended to replace a nutritious diet, but rather to plug whatever holes your diet might have left behind. Some may even taste great and make your life a lot easier, but that’s just the icing on the proverbial cake.

However, take heed – any time the angry bodybuilder in the 26-page ad report makes it seem like supplements are responsible for their accomplishments, run. Run fast. Define your own goals and what you need to do to get there. Then, fill in the gaps with supplements that can assist you in your endeavors, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Contest Prep

There are many people out there who call themselves bodybuilders, but in my opinion, unless you have attempted to take the stage at least once in your life, you are just a weightlifter. There is a big difference between having a physique with some visible abs that looks good on the beach and the body that you see in competition, with striated glutes, paper-thin skin, and veins like you’d see in an anatomy chart. Many have attempted to step on stage, and many have failed. In my mind, that’s what separates a wannabe bodybuilder from the real deal.

Bodybuilding isn’t for everyone, and for some it just isn’t in the cards due to body structure and genetics. You don’t necessarily need to have superior genetics like Jay Cutler to compete, but contest prep does require discipline, hard work, consistency, and the drive to do what it takes to get results. At the end of the day, genetics (and the judges) may determine the on-stage winner; however, the fact that you may not receive a trophy doesn’t mean you are not a personal winner as long as you did everything possible to be your best on that day. As I tell my clients, if you enjoy the process and the challenge, then you have already won.

IFBB Pro Evan Centopani Weeks Out From the 2012 Arnold Classic

Where do you start? One general recommendation I make is to hire qualified help. Even with the information in this article, which is written in a general format, there are too many individual differences among potential competitors that must be addressed. An expert will be able to hone in on your particular body and how it works, and then will be able to apply tried-and-true principles to achieve specific results while avoiding the traps and pitfalls that can occur during contest prep. Also, a professional will provide an objective viewpoint and will be able to help you keep your mind on the right path; as the diet progresses, it becomes as much a mental challenge for some as a physical one.

The Diet:
A lot of bodybuilders believe there is only one single process to follow to get ready for a show. Most pick a certain number of weeks before the show to start dieting, usually 12-16 at minimum, and then just gradually drop their calories as the show gets closer. How early you should start your diet depends on your current condition and how much fat you are carrying. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself one week for every percentage point of body fat. Therefore, if you have roughly 12% body fat, start at 12 weeks out; if you are over 16% body fat, start at 20 weeks out.

There are also many bodybuilders who still follow outdated and useless practices during prep such as carb depleting and then reloading the week before the show; all that does is risk damage to the physique. I like to use methods that are based more on science and in-the-trenches experience and not merely on tradition. Always plan extra time for contest prep to ensure optimum fat loss and retention of muscle mass. Specifically, you want to maintain a relative calorie deficit rather than an absolute calorie deficit (an important point I learned from Scott Abel). The reason for this is that in an absolute calorie deficit, an athlete can and almost always will lose muscle mass, which we would prefer to avoid at all costs. In an absolute caloric deficit, the body will be more stubborn about giving up fat because it is in starvation mode, which is roughly 750-1000 calories below an individuals BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). In this state, the metabolism will protect fat storage at the expense of muscle in order to maintain energy expenditure.

For any diet, and especially for contest diets, a better approach is to use a relative caloric deficit in which an individual begins the diet at or near his normal BMR, which is the rate at which the body burns calories while at rest. Once the BMR has been established, the diet begins. There are various methods that can be used to prepare for a contest…the particular approach all depends on a person’s current needs state, how they have been eating up to that point, and their current condition. Some of these methods are: 1) staggering calories (one of my favorite methods), 2) carb cycling, or just a 3) a steady-state approach at or near the BMR, while introducing fat burning activities (such as a structured training program and cardio) to create a fat-burning machine rather than a fat-storing machine.

Dennis Wolf Also Weeks Out From the 2012 Arnold Classic – Looking HUGE!

So how do we figure out a person’s BMR? There are some good equations out there, but to keep things simple, just take your bodyweight times 12 or 14 if you are in decent shape (below 14% body fat) or your body weight times 10 if you are on the fatter side (above 15%). Next, subtract 300-500 calories from that number, depending on how much fat you have to lose. There are several factors that influence the BMR, including gender, hormonal levels, age, height, and background. Therefore, it would be useful to have a record of a few days worth of eating in order to poinpoint an individual’s current caloric intake and how closely it matches their calculated BMR. Once calorie consumption is assessed, then we proceed to choosing an appropriate diet strategy. I recommend breaking the calories up into five, six, or even seven evenly spaced meals throughout the day. In this way, the body is more easily able to process smaller amounts of food efficiently and to keep insulin levels steady.

Once the general eating strategy is set, it is then necessary to structure the diet in terms of fat, carb, and protein percentages. One point I want to get across immediately is that in a calorie deficit (as in a pre-contest diet), there will be no predisposition for your body to store fat from ANY energy source (carbs, fat, or protein). Therefore, when dieting, don’t be concerned that a certain energy source may make you fat (the usual targeted source is carbs); instead, focus your sights on determining the best strategy to optimize fat loss while insuring retention of your hard earned muscle. Carbs and fats are the protein-sparing energy sources– enough of these must be present in a diet so that protein can be used to build and rebuild tissue. If not, the body will use protein for the production of energy at the expense of rebuilding tissue.

A word on carbs: Carbs are not the enemy, but too much insulin may be a problem when trying to get ripped on a diet. The problem is that too much insulin and too little insulin can both result in feelings of hunger. Therefore, to control insulin levels, we should monitor physiological feedback after meals. If there is too much insulin, the body feels tired and the mind sluggish. If insulin is low, the body feels hungry, but focus and concentration remain clear. Finding a balance between these two situations then becomes a matter of tweaking the meals during a diet. Someone who feels tired and lethargic after a meal may be consuming too many calories at that particular meal. If he feels hungry, but is still focused and alert, then his body is in a fat burning mode. As time goes on most bodybuilders get used to the hunger…it’s just part of a typical contest prep!

Getting back to macronutrients, how do we decide the ratios of proteins, carbs, and fats? As an example, let’s take a 200-lb client. Protein needs would be roughly 275 grams, as I like to keep protein around 45-50% of total calorie intake during contest diets. Because his BMR would be around 2400 calories, according to our calculations, I would recommend that 50% of that should consist of 300 grams of protein (just take 2400, multiply by .50, then divide by 4). Now there are 1200 calories left to divide between carbs and fat. Using a carb-based diet as an example, I would keep carbs at 35-40% and fat at 10-15%. I have gotten many competitors into ripped contest condition using this model. In terms of fat loss, you should monitor bodyweight and the image in the mirror each week (the mirror will always overrule the scale weight) as well as your body’s feedback on hunger, focus, energy levels, etc.. Remember, this is one of many possible ways to diet for a contest, and it always comes down to an individual’s physiology. This is one of the best parts of what I do–manipulate and coax the body to come in shredded and watch it all unfold in front of me.

Also keep in mind that if the body is in a fat burning mode, water intake needs to be increased as well. During diet periods, more body fluids will be lost and replenishment becomes crucial. Proper fluid replenishment and electrolyte balance is important at this stage to maintain cell integrity and intracellular water levels. Therefore, sodium ingestion should also be kept quite high through the whole prep by using sea salt and certain condiments.

After you have taken all of these variables into consideration and have set a plan into action, you can then and only then look for other factors that may influence performance. Finding the right training protocol and minimizing stress levels are factors outside of the diet that can contribute positively or negatively to performance. The others, of course, are supplements and drugs. Too many readers already rely too heavily on pharmacological influences so I will not go into that subject. However, supplements can be put to use in pre-contest dieting. Products are called “supplements” for a reason–they supplement diet and training, but they do not take the place of them. Supplements exist to aid the process of fat loss and muscle retention but they will not replace bad training, coaching, or dieting, and will not fix what is wrong with your overall protocol.

When it comes to cardio, the more fat you have to lose, the more cardio you may need to do. Keep your cardio sessions at 25-45 minutes; longer sessions will cost you hard earned muscle. If you have a lot of fat to lose, the key is to start cardio at the same time as you start dieting. The problem most competitors have is that they tend to throw the kitchen sink at themselves from the start, whether it be cardio or diet. If you start out at six 1-hour sessions per day and plateau at eight weeks left, where do you go from there? Yes, you would initially lose a lot of weight, but once you hit that plateau, you have no option but to go to extremes. Two sessions per day on top of workouts? You want bodybuilding to add something positive to your life, not consume your life. Furthermore, if you go to these extremes, the after-effects once the contest is over could be dangerous, and this is something you want to avoid as much as possible. So you want to get the most out of the least when it comes to cardio—add it only when needed. I would not recommend you start with more than three sessions a week at 30 min each unless you are completely out of shape.

OG IFBB Pro Renel Janvier Knew How to Get Into SHAPE!

Keep your cardio at an easy-to-maintain pace. The rule of thumb is that you should be able to maintain a conversation but still build up a sweat. You are a bodybuilder, not a runner; save the high intensity stuff for your workouts and keep cardio at a comfortable level. Now I know some individuals like HITT, but for the most part, once you are a month or so into contest prep, you will more than likely end up burning off muscle with this approach. If you want to do it for the first few weeks, that’s good, just be cautious. The time of day at which you do your cardio depends on your lifestyle and other factors. Forget this idea that “first thing in the morning on empty stomach” is absolutely necessary. That may be the absolute best-case scenario, but if you don’t have a good bike or treadmill at home, and you need to drive to the gym or you do your cardio after training, it’ll be fine. Don’t sweat the small details, just maintain consistency with your diet and training program.

First of all, I want to point out that if you didn’t put in the hard work and a good plan to get ripped ahead of time, then no amount of water manipulation, fat loading, or carb loading is going to work in the end. I often hear competitors say that they were just holding water—no, you were just not lean enough, period! If you are shredded, then proper loading can help you to look fuller and dryer in order to present the best package possible on stage.

What you do with your water intake depends on how you will be peaking. If you carb load, water manipulation will have to be different than if you fat load. For carb loading, you need to know that carbs require roughly three grams of water for one gram of carbs in order to load into the muscle cell. For simplicity, let’s say you are loading 400 grams of carbs, which would require 1200 grams of water to load into the muscle. To help with drying out, instead of taking in 1200 g of water, you take in 700 g of water. The body will take the rest of the water needed from its subcutaneous stores. Unless a client needs to make weight, we would typically start loading on Wednesday (Saturday being the contest day) and taper on Thursday; that way, we have some wiggle room for adjustments come Friday and Saturday, depending on how the client is looking. Therefore, you should decrease water as you decrease carb intake, but you should never completely cut water if you are just carb loading. Also, when you carb load you should use carb sources such as potatoes, rice, oatmeal, and rice cakes and not simple sugars. All those will do is cause bloating and water retention.

Another method, and one I use more often, is fat loading. Carb loading can work and work well for an individual with a higher metabolism, but for those more sensitive to carbs, it may be much harder to peak and keep water under control. Instead, fat loading can be done by increasing calories on Wednesday and Thursday (using good fats such as natural peanut butter, whole eggs, olive oil, and red meat) with minimal carbs at a couple of meals as well as keeping water intake low on the day of the show.

Alternatively, this can also be accomplished by taking in simple sugars along with very high fat foods using the correct timing. I learned this method when working with Scott Abel. You must cut out water completely for this approach to work, usually around 12 hours or so before the contest, in order to get rid of the little interstitial water you may have and to make room for fat loading. But first, before you cut your water, you need to take in as much water as you can starting on Tuesday and leading up to Friday. This will send the message to your body to turn off ADH (anti-diuretic hormone), which will ensure that you will continue to lose water even after you stop taking in fluids. Tapering off your fluid intake with this method is a huge mistake because that is what turns on ADH; as less water comes into your body, it responds by trying to hold and store its own water. The result is unwanted water retention. A good rule is that if you are on point conditioning-wise, you shouldn’t need to dehydrate for more than about 20 hours max. You should use foods such as prime rib, fries, cheesecake, nuts, pancakes, and even candy bars along with regular diet foods. If you are plenty dehydrated, after prejudging is over, then a diet soda or two will help fill out the muscles. Just make sure you have them between meals and not WITH your meals, and only have them if you look like you are getting flat. Remember, timing is everything.

Now if you are a novice and you are ripped and ready to go but are unsure about the peaking methods, don’t change a thing…if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it!. Don’t take a chance (as so many bodybuilders do at the last minute) if you truly don’t know what you are doing. To take months to prepare for a contest and then risk it all by trying methods you have no experience with is just not worth it. Fat loading and carb loading both work and work well, but they are not foolproof. This is where expert advice comes into play.

So, to sum it all up, here are the take-home points:

• Determine your timeline (err on the side of longer).
• Select your diet approach.
• Listen to your body and be objective (which is harder than you may think).
• Add in cardio only when needed.
• Be ready at least 1- 2 weeks prior to the contest.
• Don’t use ANY peaking method if you don’t know what you are doing.
• Don’t go to extremes. No contest is worth screwing up your body.
• Work hard and be consistent!

The best advice I can give is to hire a coach to guide you on this journey. It takes all the stress out of the process, and you will also learn things along the way. No two contest preps are ever the same, and prep even shifts from contest to contest as your body changes. A good coach will assess how your body works and will know when to make changes based on your feedback. Good luck and get yourself up on that stage!

What You Should Know About Intermittent Fasting

In fitness circles, the concept of intermittent fasting (IF) is catching like wildfire, and it’s no surprise as to why. There is some intriguing new published research showing that IF may offer a host of health and body composition benefits. Additionally, a small but growing group of IF experimenters are swearing by these relatively new fat-loss techniques, techniques that include skipping meals and sometimes going entire days without eating!

I know, I know…the idea of fasting for a few extra hours every day seems to fly in the face of conventional nutrition wisdom, and many of you probably think that going entire days without eating is sheer lunacy–I get it. As a long-time proponent of grazing (eating smaller meals more frequently), I was a little skeptical of the concept too. Would I get moody? Experience blood sugar drop? Have muscle proteins dissolve and burned for energy? It’s enough to make any weightlifter run screaming from the room.

But here’s the funny thing. If you do intermittent fasting right, none of that actually happens.

How do I know? Well, first, there’s the research. In fasting-related studies, muscle isn’t lost like you’d expect, unless there’s a huge energy deficit and there’s no weight training involved. However, I’ll be honest…I don’t always believe the research. Even though I spent eleven years in higher education and earned a research-based PhD, I know how poorly research can be conducted. Furthermore, how many actual bodybuilders end up in research studies? Very few.

My Experiments with Intermittent Fasting

I do have some additional evidence, however: I myself have spent the last eight months experimenting with intermittent fasting. Indeed, I turned myself into a human guinea pig and tested dozens of different fasting-related protocols. Throughout the process, I meticulously recorded everything from body composition to blood values to lifestyle factors, all in an attempt to figure out whether intermittent fasting is a new and potentially valuable paradigm shift in the nutrition world or just another fad diet.

(For those who are interested, I published my findings in a free E-book called “Experiments with Intermittent Fasting,” which you can download here.)

In the end, some of the experiments were a huge success, leading to improvements in my body composition, health, and performance. Others were disastrous, causing me to drop muscle mass and develop food obsessions. Yet at the end of the day, I was able to accomplish most of my goals. I lost about 20 pounds of fat while preserving most of my lean mass, strength, and power. According to my Intelametrix device (a validated ultrasound-based form of body composition testing), I went from a fairly lean 10% body fat to a very lean 4%.

Here are some progress photos:



Of course, not everyone is interested in getting leaner. So what about muscle gain?

Well, another one of my clients (a guy with different goals than me) gained 20 pounds of quality weight in the last few months while also experimenting with intermittent fasting. He also improved his aerobic and anaerobic exercise performance at the same time. His protocols were obviously different than mine, but his results also show that intermittent fasting can assist with either fat loss or muscle gain as long the protocols are a good fit are and are followed correctly.

Different Fasting Styles
For those of you who don’t even know what I’m talking about here, quite simply, intermittent fasting is not eating for a short while, and although I know that some of you bodybuilders are afraid of that very thing, the truth is that you already do intermittent fasting.

That’s right; every night, from the time you eat your dinner to the time you eat your breakfast, you’re fasting, and believe it or not, that fasting brings some unique benefits. So before you freak out and summarily dismiss the concept, understand that you’re naturally already doing some form of IF.

Of course, the type of intermittent fasting I’m talking about here extends out a little longer than overnight. The most extreme version is one in which you simply eat every other day, fasting on the days in between. It’s called alternate day fasting, and this one’s probably not for people who train regularly and want to be strong, muscular, and lean.

There are other versions, of course. The most flexible option simply recommends a single day of fasting as little as once per month or as often as once per week. This is the type of fasting the client I referred to above followed. He cycled his calories during the week, eating high calories and carbs on strength training days and moderate calories and carbs on conditioning days. Then, every Sunday, he followed one of my full-day fasting protocols. These include avoiding food for 24 hours but drinking lots of water and green tea and supplementing with 5g BCAA, 3g fish oil, and ½ serving of a green food product like greens+ every few hours.

Another interesting version doesn’t involve whole days of fasting. Rather, it extends the daily fast from the typical 10-12 hours to a longer 16-20 hours. You would also train at the end of this fast using 10-15g of BCAA during your workout, and then you’d eat all your calories during a 4-8 hour post-workout window. I extensively tested this form of fasting personally and found that it can be very physique- and performance-friendly. However, you have to do it right; if you don’t, then trouble awaits.

The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Many of you are probably wondering why I did these fasting experiments in the first place.
Well, a lot of it is curiosity…I’m what you’d call a ‘professional dieter’. In other words, I’ve tried nearly every diet or nutritional protocol that’s around in order to test its efficacy.

In addition, I’ve been pursuing a new goal: track and field. When you’re running competitively, every pound has got to earn its rent, so I wanted to test drive this new way to drop fat and get extremely lean while staying strong and powerful. Finally, the proposed benefits of IF are quite interesting and extensive. They include:

• blood lipids (including decreased triglycerides and LDL cholesterol)
• blood pressure (perhaps through changes in sympathetic/parasympathetic activity)
• markers of inflammation (including CRP, IL-6, TNF, BDNF, and more)
• oxidative stress (using markers of protein, lipid, and DNA damage)
• risk of cancer (through a host of proposed mechanisms; we’ll save them for another review)

• cellular turnover and repair (called autophagocytosis)
• fat burning (increase in fatty acid oxidation later in the fast)
• growth hormone release later in the fast (hormonally mediated)
• metabolic rate later in the fast (stimulated by epinephrine and norepinephrine release)

• appetite control (perhaps through changes in PPY and ghrelin)
• blood sugar control (by lowering blood glucose and increasing insulin sensitivity)
• cardiovascular function (by offering protection against ischemic injury to the heart)
• effectiveness of chemotherapy (by allowing for higher doses more frequently)
• neurogenesis and neuronal plasticity (by offering protection against neurotoxins)

To be frank, most of the research to date has been done in animal models with pretty limited data collection in humans. While the human studies that have been done show some promise, we’re probably a good 5-7 years away from knowing exactly what IF does in humans and why, and 10-12 years from knowing which IF protocols are “best.” That’s another reason why I’ve been putting IF to the test.

Frequent Meals and Intermittent Fasting
Of course, people have been getting in shape for a very long time without using the intermittent fasting ideas I outline above. In fact, the dominant nutrition paradigm suggests that we should be eating smaller meals every few hours…so doesn’t intermittent fasting just fly in the face of everything we’ve been told to do?

Not really. The rules of good nutrition haven’t changed. You still need to eat good foods. Calorie balance still applies. Peri-workout nutrition is still important. The only real difference between more traditional bodybuilding-style eating and intermittent-fasting style eating is how you distribute your calories between days or meals.

This means that for most people, as long as we eat the right foods in the right amounts, meal frequency is a matter of personal preference. You can eat lots of small meals (every few hours) or you can eat a few big meals (with bigger time gaps between them). You can even go an entire day without eating, once in a while.

But what about speeding up the metabolism, controlling appetite, and controlling blood sugar?
New data have been published showing that eating more frequently doesn’t necessarily speed up the metabolism, and although grazing is supposed to enable better appetite and blood sugar control, that effect isn’t reliable. For some people, eating more frequently does help to control both. For other people, the opposite is true; eating less frequently gives them an appetite and blood sugar advantage. This means that your decision to eat small meals more frequently or larger meals less frequently should be based on what works best for your schedule, your mood, your appetite, and how you prefer to spend your time, and that flexibility is pretty cool.

In the end, we shouldn’t totally abandon the grazing concept. Instead, we should recognize that we don’t have to graze. It’s not a must; rather, in most cases, it’s a choice.

A growing number of experts claim that short fasts can accelerate fat loss and make you healthier. As a result, I spent the last eight months testing the most popular Intermittent Fasting (IF) protocols for myself. During this time, I dropped twenty pounds of weight (from 190 pounds to 170 pounds) and reduced my body fat from 10% to 4% while maintaining most of my lean muscle mass. I also helped others lose fat and gain muscle using a host of different intermittent fasting strategies.

Of course, the full details of my experiments are beyond the scope of this article. However, if you’d like to learn more, you can check out my free e-book called “Experiments with Intermittent Fasting.” In the book I cover everything I did, including details of my training programs and my exact eating plans for all of the IF protocols I tried. There’s also measurement data (including blood work) and a host of other cool features you won’t want to miss. The best part? It’s 100% hosted online so anyone interested in more can pop over to the site and read the entire thing right now, for free, without having to enter an email address or anything.

As a result of my experiments, I learned that IF is a helpful tool and one I’ll continue to use periodically, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of nutrition or fitness. People have been getting in awesome shape (and staying in awesome shape) for decades without the use of intermittent fasting. Simply put, when people control their calories, eat good quality food and train regularly, they get in shape. The rest is a matter of personal preference, lifestyle, and individual difference.

About The Author

John Berardi received his PhD in Exercise Physiology and Nutrient Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. He’s currently an Adjunct Professor at Eastern Michigan University and the University of Texas.

As an elite nutrition coach and exercise physiologist, Dr. Berardi has coached hundreds of elite amateur and professional athletes. In fact, in the last two Winter Olympics alone, his athletes collected over 25 medals, 12 of them gold. He’s also a high performance consultant with Nike.

Further, for the last four years, Dr. Berardi has acted as the director of the world’s largest body transformation project. This one-of-a-kind fat-loss coaching program has produced more total weight loss than all eleven seasons of The Biggest Loser combined.

The Dirt on Clean Eating


by Alan Aragon

Everyone knows the difference between dirty and clean foods, so I don’t have to explain the obvious…or do I? My favorite response to questions about how to eat clean is, “Wash your food.” The biggest problem with discussing foods in these terms is that there’s no clear definition of clean or dirty. The difference might seem obvious, but a closer look shows that it’s far from clear-cut. The confusion is compounded when clean eating is preached as the best way to optimal health and body composition. In this article, I’ll use research and field experience to shed some light on these muddy issues.

The Fickle Nature of Clean

To illustrate the inconsistency of clean through decades, I’ll begin with the 1980’s, widely regarded as the start of the fitness revolution. Through much of the decade, fat (regardless of type) was portrayed by both the academic and lay press as the bad guy. Eating clean in the 80’s was largely characterized by avoiding fat, whether through the plethora of fat-free products, or the vigilant avoidance of all forms of added and naturally occurring fats within foods. Toward the end of the decade, whole grain products were regarded as the foundation of optimal health.

The 1990’s was a decade that dichotomized unsaturated fats as good, and saturated fats as bad. Red meat, egg yolks, and pretty much all sources of dietary cholesterol were to be avoided. Abundant grain consumption was still encouraged, and even more so if the grain product had a low glycemic index (GI). High insulin elevations were considered harmful to health and body composition. Therefore, multiple small meals around the clock was recommended not only to control insulin levels, but also to supposedly raise metabolism.

Moderation is the key. Gorging on fast foods is most certainly not the way…

Clean in the 2000’s was characterized by the beginnings of amnesty toward saturated fat and cholesterol. They no longer were considered as dirty as previously thought; now hydrogenated vegetable oil was the poison. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and flaxseed were placed on a heavenly pedestal, receiving the more-is-better stamp. Carbohydrate was now seen as a potentially greater threat to dieters than fat. Sugar was particularly unclean, as evidenced by the boom of artificially sweetened, low-carb products.

The present decade has just begun, and eating clean has taken some interesting directions. One is an appeal to imagination about Paleolithic eating habits, which eliminates the consumption of grains, legumes, dairy, added salt, sugar, alcohol, and even certain vegetables. This definition of clean is perhaps the most logically inconsistent one. It emphasizes a prehistoric model, yet many of its proponents take an array of cutting-edge nutritional supplements, and use satellite technology to navigate their drive to the closest parking spot at the gym. Fruits and vegetables have always been a mainstay of clean eating, but pesticide-free produce is now somehow cleaner, pests and all. Another twist in the carbohydrate saga has snowballed as well. Insulin spikes from high-GI carbs were the bane of the 90’s. But now, fructose, a low-GI carbohydrate with minimal effects on insulin response, is now one of the top public enemies.

As you can see, the definition of clean is an elusive target. Are there any common threads among the decades with respect to eating clean? Is there any way to objectively label foods as clean or dirty? Before I get to that, let’s take a look at the concept as it’s been traditionally applied to bodybuilding.

Bodybuilding Clean

Clean eating in the bodybuilding sense deserves its own discussion. Much of its ‘rules’ are adaptations of dogma from the 80’s and 90’s with a healthy dose of contradiction. Many bodybuilders who consider themselves hardcore will avoid (among other things) dairy and fruit, regardless of training season. Why? Nobody really knows, but I’d speculate that fruit & dairy phobia among bodybuilders originated from the pre-contest leaning-out process, which typically involves the reduction of carbohydrate. Milk and fruit are both carb-dominant foods, and are thus prime candidates for reduction or elimination.

But still, my example above is speculative. This dogma could just as easily have come about by someone cutting milk and/or fruit out of the diet and experiencing further fat loss from the re-creation of an energy deficit, and declaring those foods barriers to fat loss. Nevertheless, in some pre-contest cases, carbohydrate restriction to extreme degrees is called for, and this nullifies the possibility of including milk & fruit (or any carb source, for that matter), at least cyclically. So, milk and fruit got blamed as bad for all occasions, when their omission only potentially applies to certain aggressively carb-restricted dieting phases. Bodybuilders often pride themselves on having nutrient-rich diets, yet many of them opt for a significant portion of their day’s carbohydrate allotment as dextrose (or some other empty-calorie carb source) instead of fruit.


Fruits should not be avoided


Attempts at Objectively Defining Clean

Scientific investigations of the nutritional status of bodybuilders have shown some interesting results, and here are some of the highlights. Kleiner and colleagues examined the pre-contest dietary habits of male & female junior national & national-level competitors,15-40% of whom admitted to using various drugs [1]. Despite consuming adequate total calories, women were “remarkably deficient” in calcium intake, which is not surprising given the widespread milk-phobia among bodybuilders. In subsequent work led by Kleiner on female & male competitors at the first drug-tested USA Championship, men consumed only 46% of the RDA for vitamin D. Women consumed 0% of the RDA for vitamin D, and 52% of the RDA for calcium [2]. Zinc, copper, and chromium were also underconsumed by the women. Despite dietary magnesium intakes above the RDA, serum magnesium levels in females were low. Serum zinc levels were high in men and women. It’s notable that not all research on bodybuilders has found nutrient deficiencies. Intakes in significant excess of the RDA in both offseason and pre-contest conditions have also been seen [3,4]. Still, the potential for nutrient deficiencies in this population is strong due to the elimination of food groups combined with a high training volume and lowered caloric intake overall.

The two most commonly cited characteristics of foods considered clean are a lack of processing and a high nutrient density. Let’s look at processing first. Foods in their whole, naturally occurring state are often deemed clean. In contrast, foods that are altered or removed from their original state are stripped of the clean stamp. Is this demerit warranted? As we’ll see, this is not a reliable method of judgment for all foods. By this definition, most supplements are dirty, since they often undergo extensive processing and are far-removed from their original source.

To use a common example, whey is doubly processed in the sense that it’s not only a powdered form of milk protein, but it’s a separated fraction of milk protein. Yet, when combining the results of standard ranking methods (biological value, protein efficiency ratio, net protein utilization, and protein digestibility corrected amino acid score), whey has a higher total than all other proteins tested, including beef, egg, milk, and soy [5]. Furthermore, research has shown not only its benefits for training applications [6], but whey has a surprisingly wide range of potential for clinical applications as well [7-10]. Therefore, despite whey being a refined/processed food, it has multiple benefits and minimal downsides.

The next commonly proposed qualifier for a food to be considered clean is its nutrient density. A little-known fact is that there is no scientific consensus on what nutrient density actually means. To quote Miller and colleagues [11],

“There is currently no science-based definition for either nutrient density or nutrient-dense foods. Without a definition that has been developed using an objective, scientific approach, the concept of what is a “nutritious” food is subjective and, therefore, inconsistent.”

The existence of multiple methods of measuring diet quality illustrates the point expressed in the quote above. Nutrient profiling systems include the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), Diet Quality Index, and Alternative HEI. The most recent profiling method is the Nutrient Rich Foods Index (NRFI). The NRFI attempts to consolidate principles from previous methods to establish a more comprehensive definition of nutrient density. It judges individual foods based on the presence of selected important nutrients and absence of problematic ones [12]. Still, the NRFI has its bugs and biases, particularly against saturated fat (& fat in general).

nitrean_frvanilla copy

Nitrean Natural’s combination of 3 whey fractions, casein, and egg proteins affords multiple proven benefits despite being a highly processed foodstuff product.


Attempts at Objectively Defining Clean

A simplistic learning tool called the “Go, Slow, and Whoa” (GSW) food classification system was designed to help children and families make better food choices [13]. GSW was recently compared with the more sophisticated NRFI, and despite some differences, both methods closely corresponded with each other in terms of distinguishing energy-dense and nutrient-rich foods [14]. Although the two methods aligned fairly well, they also share similar out-dated ideologies. For example, sports drinks have a “Slow” designation, and whole milk is nailed as a “Whoa” food – brilliant, huh? Tuna canned in water is in the most favorable “Go” column, while fatty fish like salmon is not even listed. A final example is the listing of egg whites in the “Go” column, and whole eggs in the “Slow” column. Unsurprisingly, the government-issued guidelines are still stuck in the fat-phobic era.

Perils of Judging the Parts & Not the Whole

In the process of classifying foods based on nutrient density, the context of the foods within the diet as a whole is often lost. Attempts at defining nutrient density of foods on an individual basis, for the most part, have failed. Much of the classifications are out-dated at best, and counterproductive at worst. It would seem to be a simple matter of labeling foods with a high ratio of micronutrients to calories as nutrient-dense, and foods with a high ratio of calories to micronutrients as energy-dense. However, this simply is not the case. An energy-dense food can still contain more essential macronutrition and/or bioavailable micronutrition than a nutrient-dense, energy-sparse food. Another thing that tends to get ignored is that athletes with high endurance demands or high overall training volume would compromise their performance if energy density was neglected. Ultimately, it’s impossible to judge a food in isolation from the rest of the diet. Furthermore, it’s impossible to judge a diet without considering the training protocol, goals, preferences, and tolerances of the individual.

Dirty Fat Loss

Clean diets are commonly touted to produce more favorable body composition changes than unclean diets. In fact, some even claim that dirty dieting will not allow fat loss to occur. For weight or fat loss, concerns of a dirty diet used to be centered on fat intake. That’s no longer the case; carbohydrate has been receiving the brunt of the contempt lately. In light of the current sugar-phobic climate with an emphasis on fructose, the following studies deserve special attention.

First up, Surwit and colleagues compared the 6-week effects of 2 hypocaloric diets – one with 43% of the total calories as sucrose (table sugar), and one with 4% of the total calories as sucrose [15]. No significant differences were seen in the loss of bodyweight or bodyfat between the high and low-sucrose groups. Strengthening these results was the use of dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) to measure body composition. Furthermore, no differences in blood lipids or metabolism were seen between the groups. It looks like a more sugary intake still cannot override a calorie deficit.

Janeil hands on hips

Janeil knows a thing or two about eating right.


Next up is a recent study by Madero and colleagues, comparing the 6-week effects of a low-fructose diet (less than 20 g/day) or a moderate-fructose diet (50-70 g/day) mostly from whole fruit [16]. The moderate-fructose group lost significantly more weight than the low-fructose group (4.19 kg versus 2.83 kg, respectively). Notably, the moderate-fructose group lost slightly more fat, but not to a statistically significant degree. Unfortunately, body composition was measured with bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) instead of something more reliable like DXA. Nevertheless, bodybuilders afraid of fruit would have to admit that the dirtier diet prevailed in this case.

Trans fatty acids (TFA) have earned a lot of bad press for their adverse effects on biomarkers of cardiovascular health [17,18]. However, some research indicates that not all TFA are harmful. A distinction should be made between industrially produced TFA via hydrogenation of vegetable oils, and naturally occurring TFA in dairy and meat [19]. Vaccenic acid, the main form of TFA in ruminant fats, might actually lower the risk for coronary heart disease [20]. Currently, there’s no controlled human research specifically comparing the effects of TFA with other types of fats on body composition. In any case, the fitness-conscious population has nothing to worry about unless they start indiscriminately gorging on fast food, cooking with vegetable shortening, and pounding loads of processed/packaged pastries and desserts.

All-or-Nothing Dieting & Eating Disorder Risk

In 1997, a general physician named Steven Bratman coined the term orthorexia nervosa [21], which he defines as, “an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food.” It reminds me of the counterproductive dietary perfectionism I’ve seen among many athletes, trainers, and coaches. One of the fundamental pitfalls of dichotomizing foods as good or bad, or clean or dirty, is that it can form a destructive relationship with food. This isn’t just an empty claim; it’s been seen in research. Smith and colleagues found that flexible dieting was associated with the absence of overeating, lower bodyweight, and the absence of depression and anxiety [22]. They also found that a strict all-or-nothing approach to dieting was associated with overeating and increased bodyweight. Similarly, Stewart and colleagues found that rigid dieting was associated with symptoms of an eating disorder, mood disturbances, and anxiety [23]. Flexible dieting was not highly correlated with these qualities. Although these are observational study designs with self-reported data, anyone who spends enough time among fitness buffs knows that these findings are not off the mark.

Applying Moderation: The 10-20% Guideline

For those hoping that I’ll tell you to have fun eating whatever you want, you’re in luck. But, like everything in life, you’ll have to moderate your indulgence, and the 10-20% guideline is the best way I’ve found to do this. There currently is no compelling evidence suggesting that a diet whose calories are 80-90% from whole & minimally processed foods is not prudent enough for maximizing health, longevity, body composition, or training performance. As a matter of fact, research I just discussed points to the possibility that it’s more psychologically sound to allow a certain amount of flexibility for indulgences rather than none at all. And just to reiterate, processed does not always mean devoid of nutritional value. Whey and whey/casein blends are prime examples of nutritional powerhouses that happen to be removed from their original food matrix.

The 10-20% guideline isn’t only something I’ve used successfully with clients; it’s also within the bounds of research. Aside from field observations, there are three lines of evidence that happen to concur with this guideline. I’ll start with the most liberal one and work my way down. The current Dietary Reference Intakes report by Food & Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine lists the upper limit of added sugars as 25% of total calories [24]. Similarly, an exhaustive literature review by Gibson and colleagues found that 20% of total calories from added sugars is roughly the maximum amount that won’t adversely dilute the diet’s concentration of essential micronutrition [25]. Keep in mind that both of these figures are in reference to refined, extrinsic sugars, not naturally occurring sugars within whole foods like fruit or milk. Finally, the USDA has attempted to teach moderation with their concept of the discretionary calorie allotment, defined as follows [26]:

“…the difference between total energy requirements and the energy consumed to meet recommended nutrient intakes.”

Basically, discretionary calories comprise the margin of leftover calories that can be used flexibly once essential nutrient needs are met. Coincidentally, the USDA’s discretionary calorie allotment averages at approximately 10-20% of total calories [27]. Take note that discretionary calories are not just confined to added sugars. Any food or beverage is fair game. The USDA’s system is still far from perfect, since it includes naturally-occurring fats in certain foods as part of the discretionary calorie allotment. This is an obvious holdover from the fat-phobic era that the USDA clings to, despite substantial evidence to the contrary [28].

It’s important to keep in mind that protein and fat intake should not be compromised for the sake of fitting discretionary foods into the diet. In other words, make sure discretionary intake doesn’t consistently displace essential micro- & macronutrient needs, and this includes minimum daily protein and fat targets, which vary individually. This may be tough to accept, but alcohol is not an essential nutrient. Its risks can swiftly trump its benefits if it’s consumed in excess, so it falls into the discretionary category.

10% Versus 20%

Another legitimate question is why I’ve listed the discretionary range as 10-20% rather than just listing it as a maximum of 20%. This is because energy balance matters. In bulking scenarios, maintaining a 20% limit could potentially pose health risks that are already elevated by the process of weight gain, which in some cases involves a certain amount of fat gain. Conversely, weight loss tends to be an inherently cardioprotective process, independent of diet composition [29]. So, the 20% limit is more appropriate for those either losing or maintaining weight. Those who are gaining weight but want to play it safe should hover towards the lower & middle of the range (10-15%). Another factor that can influence the upper safe threshold is physical activity level. I’ll quote Johnson & Murray in a recent review [30]:

“Obesity and metabolic syndrome are rare among athletes, even though dietary fructose intake is often high, underscoring the robust protective role of regular exercise.”


In the above quote, you can substitute any controversial food or nutrient in place of the word fructose, and the same principle would apply. A greater range of dietary flexibility is one of the luxuries of regular training. Sedentary individuals do not have the same level of safeguarding from the potentially adverse effects of a higher proportion of indulgence foods. And just in case it wasn’t made clear enough, 10-20% indicates the maximum, not minimum discretionary allotment. If someone strives to consume 0% of calories from any food that’s been processed or refined from its original state, then that’s perfectly fine – as long as this is the person’s genuine preference, and not a painful battle of will. I’d also like to make it clear that there is still plenty of grey area in the study of dietary effects on health. As such, the nature and extent of the miscellaneous or rule-free food allotment is a delicate judgment call. In this case, it’s wise to keep scientific research at the head of the judging panel, but don’t ignore personal experience & individual feedback.

Final Note: Linear Versus Nonlinear Distribution

A legitimate question is, what’s the best way to distribute discretionary calories? Should they be confined to a daily limit, or can it be a weekly limit? The best answer is to let personal preference decide. If we use a 2000 kcal diet as an example, a flat/linear approach would mean that 200-400 kcal per day can come from whatever you want, while meeting essential needs otherwise in the diet. Weekly, this translates to 1400-2800 kcal, depending on the factors I previously discussed. One nonlinear option would be to break the weekly allotment in half, where 2 days per week you indulge in 700-1400 kcal of whatever you want, keeping the remaining 5 days relatively Spartan. Again, there is no universally superior method of distributing the discretionary allotment. The same principle applies to the choice of foods to fulfill it. Honoring personal preference is one of the most powerful yet underrated tactics for achieving optimal health and body composition. And that’s the nitty-gritty as I see it.

About the Author:

Alan Aragon has over 20 years of success in the fitness field, and is recognized as one of the most influential figures in the modern movement towards evidence-based information. He is a continuing education provider for the Commission on Dietetic Registration, National Academy of Sports Medicine, and National Strength & Conditioning Association. Alan lectures at universities and scientific conferences around the world, and writes a monthly research review focused on providing cutting-edge theoretical and practical information to health and fitness professionals. His research has been published in the popular media as well as the peer-reviewed scientific literature, including the number-one most viewed article in the history of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Alan maintains a private practice designing programs for recreational, Olympic, and professional athletes. His mission is to raise the standards of the fitness industry through a combination of scientific investigation and relentless pursuit of teaching excellence.


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