Dieting to Single-Digit Body Fat

TAGS: IBFA, silver city classic, michael ferguson, shopping list, food composition, photoshoot, bodybuilding show, shredded, novice bodybuilder, bodybuiilding, single digit body fat, fad diets, calories, nutrient timing, healthy eating, fats, carbs, macronutrients, competition, protein, weight loss, supplements, diet, powerlifting, training, Nutrition

I recently competed in my first ever bodybuilding show, The IBFA ‘Silver City Classic’ 2014 held in Aberdeen, Scotland where I placed 2nd in the First Timers Category.

As a Powerlifter who loves his food (don’t we all?) and someone who sniggered at the goal of aesthetics in the past, I really do still find this humorous. Nevertheless..it happened.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Some shots post-show where I won 2nd Place in the First Timers (that’s me on the left in the photos).

I’m well aware my transformation is nothing staggering or earth shattering (seen in the Figures below). I’d like to first apologise that you don’t see a generic eye-catching title similar to something like..“Powerlifter loses whopping 7 stone in record time, remarkably ripped for first bodybuilding show”. Or that you don’t see a mass monster in the photos. I weighed in at 62.3kg the morning of my show. However, where I lack in offering the inspirational story of the year, I feel like I can offer you something even more valuable than that: How your average person (natural recreational trainee, natural Powerlifter, natural weightlifter) can get in good enough shape to compete in a bodybuilding show or be in the best shape of their life.

Coming from a Powerlifting background where I had zero knowledge of nutrition, diet and bodybuilding itself I really knew nothing to start with just like you may not either. But through this experience from June to November 2014, I have picked up a significant amount of knowledge, tips and tricks “from the trenches”, where I had to work hard to figure out the most optimal approach to losing body fat.

Read this article and avoid the usual ‘paralysis by analysis’ that you get when seeking answers on how to lose fat – particularly on the internet, or what you hear from work colleagues or friends. Too many people think they are experts and that their views are always the correct ones, particularly in the fitness industry. I am no expert on nutrition, but I feel my physique was testament to how your average natural trainee can get into single digit body fat percentages.

Figure 2

Figure 2: ‘MyFitnessPal’ App Progress Screenshot.

In this article I am going to discuss the pertinent lessons learned, written out simply but effectively in the quest to lose body fat for aesthetics or for a bodybuilding show. I will not outline you a diet and training program. However, I will give you the means of how to make an effective diet and training plan for the goals found below. You just need to apply it yourself.

This article is then applicable to both the lay person and established trainee alike. If you are an advanced bodybuilder or similar, all information would still be relevant but of course there would have to be some tweaks to specific details. You want to read this article if you:

  • Want to get in the best shape of your life – single digit body fat.
  • Would like to get shredded.
  • Would like to compete in a bodybuilding show.
  • Have a photo shoot coming up.
  • Have an ‘aesthetic holiday’ in the near future etc etc etc..

Before we begin, I’d like to point out that it’s simple to do – pretty much anyone can diet to single digit body fat for aesthetics or competition. Simple of course does not mean painless – it demands a synergy of will, determination, persistence, fidelity and some knowledge.

Dieting Priorities

There are laughable amounts of diet ‘types’ (including your notorious fad diets) out there. Although some are based on sound fundamental principles, what they really seek is money and reputation enhancement. They pull the wool over your eyes because they could not sell something that in reality/theory is relatively simple. It’s not complex. I will stress this constantly throughout.

It annoyed me more than anything when trying to construct a plan that so much information I came across felt the need to try and reinvent the wheel with diet and nutrition. If you want to implement a dieting approach such as Intermittent Fasting (IF), Carb Nite, Carb Backloading, etc. that’s fine. I can’t stop you. But just remember what’s important: calories and macronutrients.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Inputs for diet success (The Renaissance Diet – Michael Israetel 2014)

Figure 1 above outlines the inputs for dieting success. Let’s briefly summarise them in order of importance:

CALORIES IN VERSUS CALORIES OUT

Also known as calorie balance. This has the greatest effect on any diet and is the most important variable in dieting success. It basically implies that fat loss is mostly a matter of eating less food/calories and is a physical inevitability.

Calorie balance is the ratio between calories taken in and calories expended in any one individual (mostly measured over the course of a week to cancel out fluctuations, but logged each day).

This short video is a great (and amusing) watch on just how important calorie balance is.  This exposes two main inferences: that it is simply any calories. Ideally you would want specific macronutrients in your diet (see input 2 below). However, if you are in a negative calorie balance it is virtually impossible not to lose weight regardless of your ratio of carbs/protein/fats you are consuming.

Moreover, it also unmasks the second inference: the diet/food industry promote the myth that you need to eat whatever food is seen as the contemporary health food(s) to lose weight. Untrue! Take a look at this example from my friends Yusef Smith and Jonathan Watson in Figure 2 below:

Figure 4

Figure 4: The ‘Healthy Food’ myth (courtesy Instagram)

Of course, Figure 3 is just one example. It doesn’t suggest you should eat bag after bag of crisps or that hummus is bad for you but what it does imply is that you can eat crisps and lose weight, if it does fit your calories and your macronutrients. The same can be said for fruit, there are large amounts of sugar in fruit but because it is perpetuated as ‘healthy’, many try to eat copious amounts of it while on a diet. Stick to your vegetables instead.

Any time you lose faith, feel discouraged and get caught up in all the claptrap out there, remember that it’s any calories. The basics and the fundamentals is what you want, not overcomplicated drivel.

MACRONUTRIENTS

This is the second most important input and refers to the make-up of your diet – protein, carbohydrates and fats. There are many ratios of these you can apply in a diet and still lose weight if your calories are in line. Personally, I kept my protein as the highest macro throughout the duration of the diet from July- November 2014. It is suggested by many that you should keep protein as your highest macro, as protein is the most important for muscle retention in a diet. Around 1-1.5g protein per pound of bodyweight is recommended. Carbs come second in importance, are needed for fuelling training and everyday activities and can vary in amount depending on the intensity of activities on an individual day. Finally, fats come last; healthy fats should be consumed in small amounts for hormonal function and general health.

NUTRIENT TIMING

This refers to meal frequency and meal timing in relation to activity. Generally, nutrient timing has a much smaller effect on body composition than the first two inputs and is not hugely pivotal in fat loss. In my opinion, it should not be closely considered unless you are a high level bodybuilder or similar. Focus on the first two inputs for dieting success but be sensible with when you eat your meals too. For example, don’t eat a big meal 10 minutes before a workout.

FOOD COMPOSITION

Food composition is the quality of your food, i.e. how high quality your sources of macronutrients are. This is often argued as the “if it fits your macros, it doesn’t matter” argument e.g. Haribo’s versus sweet potatoes for your carb sources (if it still fits your macros and calories). More on this later.

SUPPLEMENTS

Although supplements come last in terms of importance in the graph, it is particularly difficult to measure their specific effect. In the context of my diet, I don’t believe they were the determining factor. However, I really found them invaluable because a good Whey or Casein powder is generally low calorie and therefore won’t dent overall daily calories too much. They allow the dieter to meet macro targets much more easily because of their profile. Additionally, for many years there has been great evidence complementing the effects of caffeine in a fat loss protocol. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend caffeine tablets for keeping energy in check during low calorie periods.

I hope you have now established that the two most critical inputs are of course calories in versus calories out and your macronutrients ratios. Unless you are a high-level bodybuilder, nothing else matters. Read that sentence again. Good. Now we can move on.

Dieting Approach

Regardless of your dieting approach, you are often going to be hungry. You need to accept this. However, you can make things easier for yourself. Personally, I followed a flexible dieting or If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) approach. As the name suggests, this allows you to eat what you want as long as it fits your pre-set calories and macronutrients. This does not mean I didn’t eat clean, but it does mean that I allowed myself some leeway to enjoy treats I may have been craving at the time. As long as it fit my macros and calories, it was fair game. Simple.  Of course, this approach still allows the dieter to attain great results.

Figure 5 - left

Figure 5: Myself at a chunky 75kg in April 2014

Won’t take my word for it? All you need to do is search for all the IIFYM transformations on the social media platforms. Again, unless you are a top level bodybuilder I would highly recommend you use this approach. Many high-level natural bodybuilders utilise IIFYM, too – Alberto Nunez, Layne Norton, and others. This approach is excellent for the following reasons:

  • Encourages dieting compliance – it’s easier than constant rigid clean eating to adhere to. Failure rate is greatly decreased.
  • It allows you to have treats you may have been craving and to socialise.
  • It prioritises the two overarching inputs of dieting success: calories in vs. calories out and macronutrient breakdown.
  • You will see results while still enjoying your food.

Just don’t take the piss with it and be sensible. Also remember not to overcomplicate the process; often clean eating can be simpler because it’s so clear-cut what you can eat. Additionally, for long term health just be cautious how much crap you are eating and for how long you have been doing so. In the last month of my diet I had no choice but to really hone in my food choices to eat predominantly clean because I reached such a low calorie level. For example, at four weeks out my calories were down to around 1,200 a day, with 135g protein, 105g carbs, and 27g fat per day. I don’t recommend reaching these low levels but I had to play catch-up. My bodyweight was quite low, making cutting the weight even harder.

What is really invaluable to any dieting approach, including the IIFYM one outlined above, is to track your calories. We are so lucky in this day and age that there are apps to you let you do this easily at the click of a button.  No one has time to spend their day weighing out food portions. The free app ‘MyFitnessPal’ from the app store was critical for me (and so many others) to track calories and macronutrients. It has thousands and thousands of different foods from loads of brands/supermarkets etc. It even has alcohol on it too! So when you eat a food simply search for it and log it (once you have set your goals/calories/macronutrients on the app). You can do this yourself if you’d like, but the app made it much easier for me.

Dieter’s Shopping List

The best thing to do when creating a shopping list is to use this list below (or your own similar personalised list) and buy only these foods. Moreover, it is critical that you keep things simple with your list. I avoided all foods that weren’t on it.

General:

  • Zero drinks - Coke, Fanta, 7up, Monster, Coffee, Green Tea etc.
  • Hot sauce – Tabasco, Frank’s Red Hot Wing’s Sauce or equivalent
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Hartley’s 10 calorie jelly (great for cravings/hunger)
  • White Wine Vinegar or Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1 Calorie Cooking Spray or Olive Oil
  • Lemons
  • Chilli Flakes
  • Leafy Salads

Dominant Protein:

  • Lean protein sources - chicken (ideally without skin), fish (particularly white fish – cod, sea bass etc), Turkey, Eggs (particularly egg whites), lean beef.
  • Whey or Casein Powder
  • Quest Protein Bars (invaluable for anyone with sweet tooth/cravings)
  • Quark (similar to cottage cheese but better)

Dominant Carbs:

  • Sweet and Red potatoes
  • Rice
  • Frozen vegetable packs
  • Instant Porridge
  • Fresh vegetables – onions, broccoli, carrots etc
  • Canned tomatoes

Dominant Fats:

I personally got most of my fats from other foods, as my fats were set rather low anyway. Here are the best choices for you though -

  • Avocado
  • All-Natural Peanut Butter
  • Fish Oil Capsules
  • Almonds and Cashews

The Zero drinks or foods generally have fewer than 20 calories per serving.  These are often used to stunt cravings while dieting. When I was fasting in the mornings (16 hour fast, 8 hour feed) I would have 1-2 zero drinks, usually one Monster Zero Energy Drink and one Coke Zero. Moreover, there are also some great zero calorie foods that you can consume such as Bare Naked noodles (good for increasing the volume of your meals), Walden’s Farm Sauces, Hartley’s 10 Calorie Jelly (great for cravings) and Hot Sauces (for taste). Many vegetables are also nearly zero calorie, including leafy salads.

A lot of people like to spice up their dieting with lots of good recipes. There are so many resources out there for good high protein recipes. Personally, I didn’t make anything you’re going to swoon at. I kept it very simple and bare bones, but still enjoyed my food.

Figure 5 - right

Figure 6: 63kg the week of the show – November 2014 (right)

I found when I was dieting that I welcomed any type of food no matter how subtle or strong the taste. One thing I did do though was purchase a slow cooker/crock pot which allowed me to cook up a weeks’ worth of meals at once. I personally didn’t prepare all meals at all times, but I often would. Ideally, you should prep your meals for the week every Sunday. Include all three macronutrients in each meal, divide them evenly between meals and put them in Tupperware for the fridge or freezer.

Training

Although your diet is king, you should obviously still be training in the gym. Pick a program that is suitable and sustainable for your goals/stage of training. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 is a sound example of simple and effective. Ideally, you would want to train in the gym consistently 3-5 times per week. During my dieting, I still trained with a powerlifting high intensity but with low to moderate volume approach due to energy levels being low.

You are not going to gain muscle on a calorie deficit if you are a natural athlete but you could lose some if you don’t train! Keep things simple, do not overdo the volume and be sensible. Still try and keep the program as a progressive overload system.

Play all your cards at the right times. Don’t add in everything to help you lose weight at first. An example of this is if you are losing weight week to week just through altering your diet and progress hasn’t stalled you shouldn’t throw cardio in there too. Wait till these things become truly necessary. Identify when they do and add in as required. When adding in cardio I’d recommend just adding in low intensity one-hour walking sessions 2-3 times per week (including maybe some fasted walking in the mornings). From here, you can adjust as necessary to add in more low intensity or some high intensity sessions if you feel the diet and training has stalled and you need to burn off more calories. The higher body fat you are the more, cardio you can tolerate without it harming your strength performance.

There you have it: this is my Powerlifter’s Simple Guide for Dieting Success. I knew nothing and had to work hard to find the optimal approach for dieting success. If someone told you to simply eat less and move more, it would generally suffice. Sometimes you have to get a little more complex than that to reach single-digit bodyfat.

Don’t fret the small stuff; the main importance is a calorie deficit and a progressive overload training program. It really doesn’t matter how much exercise you think you’re doing, how healthy or how little you think you are eating or how much weight you think you should be losing if you don’t even track your calories. The diet is King. What it really boils down to in the end is how bad you REALLY want it. Too many people speak about wanting to lose weight, but that’s where it ends. No action or process - they just kinda want it. Do you want to be the majority or the successful minority? It doesn’t have to consume your life (especially on an IIFYM approach) and if you just see it out correctly you have no choice but to reap the fruits of your labour.

Figure 8

Figure 8: 2nd Place in the First Timers Category (left)

Good luck and take heart that if you decide to shoot for a bodybuilding show it won’t be hard to be bigger than me…


Michael Ferguson is a National and International Powerlifter and multiple national record holder in the 74kg class, competing for Scotland and Great Britain in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF). He competed at the IPF World Classic 2014, achieving 8th place while nursing a bad hip injury. He is currently working towards his Masters Degree in Sport and Exercise Science at Glasgow University, Scotland, is on the road to recovery with his hip injury and cannot wait to get back on the World stage again soon!

Michael can be contacted at michael.ferguson.09@aberdeen.ac.uk or you can subscribe to his YouTube channel.

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