How I Went From A 210 Pound 3% Body Fat Bodybuilder To A 175 Pound Ironman Triathlete – And How YOU Can Lose Weight For Triathlon Or Endurance Sports.

Affiliate Disclosure

Articles, Fat Loss

It seems that just about every day somebody, usually a guy, asks me how to “lose muscle for endurance sports” or “how to lose muscle for triathlon”. While I certainly don’t recommend self-cannibalization of lean muscle as a lofty health goal, it is certainly true that muscle takes a lot of energy to carry and cool. And if your goal is to run a  marathon or do a triathlon, too much extra muscle can be pretty uncomfortable.

I would know, since I transitioned from the world of bodybuilding into triathlon.

Originally, I got into bodybuilding on a dare from a fellow personal trainer at the gym. At the time, I had been playing collegiate tennis, and then transitioned into a short middle for the men’s volleyball team and hole set on the intercollegiate water polo team.

So I really didn’t have to think much about the cardio component – just the heavy weightlifting and the diet.

Since I am  naturally lean and a slightly “ectomorphic” (skinny) body type, my bodybuilding routine primarily consisted of a 3-day-a-week full body weight training routine, with some extra core and extra “vanity exercises” (e.g. biceps, triceps and calves) on the non-weightlifting days. I also did lots of high intensity cardio intervals.

I wrote down most of what I did when I was bodybuilding, and you can get a taste for it with this “9 Month Men’s Muscle Building Program” that I designed for skinny guys like me who need to put on muscle. This program is designed for the average guy who has trouble putting on muscle and it is written with a combination of cardiovascular intervals and full body lifting routines to rapidly add lean muscle mass while simultaneously toning and achieving a “ripped” look.

The only thing not included in that program is the 10-30 minutes of posing in front of the mirror to practice my flex routine. This added “isometric” style exercise is actually pretty tough, and a real stimulus for adding muscle tone.

Get The Low Carb Athlete - 100% Free!Eliminate fatigue and unlock the secrets of low-carb success. Sign up now for instant access to the book!

In this article you’re reading right now, you’ll also learn a bit about how my diet evolved from my relatively unhealthy bodybuilding nutrition days to what it is now.

For example, a sample day of bodybuilding diet for me was:

Breakfast: 40-60g protein powder + 2 tablespoons peanut butter + 1 piece fruit + fat-free milk or yogurt + ice

Mid-Morning Snack: engineered protein drink (basically a mix of artificial sweeteners, whey protein and milk powder)

Lunch: 2 cans of salmon or tuna on salad

Mid-Afternoon Snack: energy drink + leftovers from dinner the day before

Dinner: 10-12 ounces steak, chicken or fish with roasted vegetables and small side of rice or noodles

Before bed: Another can of tuna, mixed with fat-free yogurt and relish or lemon juice

This diet is not necessarily healthy, nor does it provide all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals I probably really needed – which could be why I had very little sex drive during this time and also got sick a lot. If I was bodybuilding now, I would do just as much protein, but far more veggies, some type of greens supplements, and more healthy fats.

Here is a picture of me during a bodybuilding competition back in 2005 (just 3 months after this photo was taken, I participated in an Olympic distance triathlon – and I’m about to tell you how I progressed to that).

So after that bodybuilding show, I decided I wanted to get into triathlon (my girlfriend was an endurance athlete and so I needed to impress her), and decided that the best way to do that would be to stop lifting so many heavy weights, stop eating so much food, cut a little bit of weight, and progress to more of a “body weight only” style workout routine.

I distinctly remember my very first workout after which I decided to “screw the gym” (which I was burnt out on by that point) and switch to minimal equipment, more combat style workouts. Utilizing a combination of combat moves, gymnastics routines, plyometrics, and free weights, I progressed to only work out in the park across the street from my house for 3 months.

Using this approach, I did two-a-day workouts, with my resistance training workouts in the park in the morning and high intensity interval training in the afternoon, which would sometimes involve running outside, or at other times would involve doing a spin class or going to a water polo workout.

As I pieced together this combination of high-intensity interval training and free weight/body weight style resistance training, I began to record my workouts and turn them into a program that eventually became the “Advanced” section of my Shape21 Lean Body Manual, which is a 3 week diet and fitness program designed for maximum fat loss with minimal equipment.

For example, here are the Day 14 Workouts from my original Shape21 notes:

Workout 1:

21 Somersault Push-up Jumps

21 Handstand Push-ups

21 Lawnmowers

21 One Arm One Leg Dips

Workout 2:

7 Minute Run, Full Recovery

7 Minute Bike, Full Recovery

7 Minute Row, Swim or Elliptical, Full Recovery

And the diet on Day 14 was like this:

So after I finished 3 months of Shape21 style workouts, or about 3 times through the advanced section of the book, I went from the “bodybuilding” look to looking like this (and I’m not trying to be vain by showing you pictures of me with my shirt off, I just want to give you an idea of my workout, diet progression, and subsequent body morph from bodybuilding to triathlon):

That first triathlon really hurt.

A drop in total calorie intake and protein percentage had caused me to shed some muscle, but I was still at about 200 pounds, and the joints, back and muscles were incredibly sore about halfway through the run.

For example, if you look at me from the back, in transition (the picture on the right), you can see that I was carrying a lot of extra muscle still…and also really not into wearing things like jerseys or aero helmets.

After that first triathlon, I was hooked on multi-sport and endurance sports.

At this point, I really started to change things up even more to try to get rid of some extra muscle. I began doing more distance and more hours, and especially working in longer bike and run sessions that were minimally fueled.

For example, I would wake up in the morning, head out for a 2-3 hour bike ride, but only bring 2-3 gels with me, or about 100 calories per hour (when in reality, during an actual race, I consume closer to 400 calories per hour on the bike). By doing lots of mostly unfed sessions, I was slowly able to chip away at all that extra muscle over the course of about three years, and lean down to around 180 pounds.

This was my approximate weight when I did my first Ironman.

Since then, I’ve discovered that I can get similar weight loss and muscle loss results with less discomfort than a super long unfed session by simply doing 3-4 shorter, unfed cardio sessions in the morning when I wake up.

For example, my favorite such session is simply hopping on my bicycle for 45-60 minutes and spinning in an easy, aerobic zone prior to eating breakfast in the morning. But more on my “current” routine at the end of this post…

My strength and resistance training routine changed up a bit during this time as well. While I still did lots of high intensity interval training and “quality over quantity” style workouts, such as the type I teach in the “Triathlon Dominator” program (a 36 week plan for Half Ironman and Ironman triathlon), I experimented a lot with different styles of resistance training that addressed triathlon-specific weaknesses and notorious weak links in a triathlete’s body.

Originally in my experiments with different styles of weight training for triathlon, I began by trying Crossfit style training, in which I would use a combination of Crossfit’s website and triathlon style training (this was before Crossfit Endurance – which was designed by Brian Mckenzie, who I am interviewing for a podcast in a couple weeks).

Here is the type of stuff I was doing, and here’s a link to a more recent post I did on how to combine Crossfit and triathlon training without messing up your body.

5-10 minute elliptical or bicycle warm-up before each workout:

Day 1: – (Saturday for me):

-Rotator Cuff Detailing 1 (4×25 reps elastic band or cable internal rotation, external rotation, standing rows)
-Cross Fit (whatever appears at CrossFit.com for that day*)
-5K run OR 45-60 minutes sport of your choice

Day 2: – (Sunday for me):

-Gluteus Medius Detailing 1 (4×25 reps hip hikes, fire hydrants, elastic band or cable external rotation)
-Cross Fit (whatever appears at CrossFit.com for that day)
-Swim or Bike Workout of Choice

Day 3: – (Monday for me):

-Core Detailing 1 (4×20 reps side plank rotations, front plank reaches, bridges)
-Cross Fit (whatever appears at CrossFit.com for that day)
-5K run OR 45-60 minutes sport of your choice

Day 4: – (Tuesday for me):

-Rotator Cuff Detailing 2 (4×15 reps dumbbell front raises, side raises, empty cans, upper-cuts)
-Cross Fit (whatever appears at CrossFit.com for that day)
-Swim or Bike Workout of Choice

Day 5: – (Wednesday for me):

-Gluteus Medius Detailing 2 (4×25 reps elastic band front walks, side walks, backward walks)
-Cross Fit (whatever appears at CrossFit.com for that day)
-5K run OR 45-60 minutes sport of your choice

Day 6: – (Thursday for me):

-Core Detailing 2 (4×20 reps cable torso twists, bicycle crunches, low back extensions)
-Cross Fit (whatever appears at CrossFit.com for that day)
-Swim or Bike Workout of Choice

Day 7 – (Friday for me):

-Workout Make-Up Day, Off Day, or Play

*If no workout appears at CrossFit.com on any of these days, then you get to do 1 hour of aerobic, fat-burning cardio in it’s place.

But after doing Crossfit stuff like this for awhile, I realized that there were lots of little details that I wasn’t getting to by using the Crossfit style programming, so I wrote my own triathlon training workouts and put them into a little manual called “Top 12 Resistance Training Routines For Triathletes”.

Here’s a sample video from the “Nifty 50” workout in that book, which you may see is a bit inspired by Crossfit, but combined with other workouts in the book that work other energy systems and muscles:

Since I did the Top 12 book, my research and understanding of weight training for triathlon has come a long way, so I’ve recently finished a new book called “Ultimate Guide To Weight Training For Triathlon”, and although the book is completely finished, it probably won’t be out for a year still. I am tempted to just print the whole thing on this blog post, but my publisher would probably sue me, so you can click here to check out the book cover on Amazon at least.

The basic idea behind this new book is that it still uses routines similar to “Top 12 Resistance Training Routines For Triathletes” but adds in more short, explosive, heavy weightlifting to increase muscle recruitment, power and speed.

Anyways, I am now at 175 pounds, and now that I’ve shed that extra muscle through a combination of the long, unfed cardio sessions and the shorter, morning fasted sessions, I can now get away with primarily doing short, explosive intervals, one fasted workout session per week, and cross-training. I pretty much look like this (this photo is so funky because it’s at the Ironman Hawaii underwear run in Kona):

So to keep up this new body type and still maintain kick-butt triathlon fitness, here’s exactly what I am doing right now in my triathlon training routine:

Monday: 1 hour easy fasted morning bike ride + 30-40 minutes afternoon strength training (upper body) + 90 minutes evening tennis practice

Tuesday: 1 hour swimming (drills workout)

Wednesday: morning hills or 2-4 minute intervals on bike (1 hour) and afternoon hills or 1-2 minute intervals on run (40-50 minutes). Sometimes will combine both into a bike-run brick workout.

Thursday: 1 hour swimming (speed and tempo workout) + 90 minutes evening tennis practice

Friday: 1 hour short, choppy bike intervals (commuting and running errands on bike, sprinting between stoplights, etc.) + 30-40 minutes strength training (lower body)

Saturday: long bike (2-3 hours) OR long run (90 minutes)

Sunday: long swim (3000-4000 meters continuous) + tennis match OR the long bike or long run I didn’t do Saturday

As for my current diet, it’s pretty basic. I’ll try to sum it up here.

I have the same thing for breakfast almost every morning: oatmeal or quinoa with some protein powder, almond butter, and fruit. I rarely snack until lunch, which is typically some type of sprouted wrap with a ton of vegetables, olives and avocado. In the afternoon, I usually snack on seeds and nuts, or have some LivingFuel. Post-workout is most often a piece of fruit and some Recoverease. I also take a few extra supplements (fish oil, vitamin D, magnesium, etc.), and you can listen to more about that at theaudio at the top of the page here.

And my current dinners?

Here’s a sample dinner meal plan. I grabbed this from one of the monthly bonus items in the BenGreenfieldFitness Inner Circle – a private membership club where my wife and I teach healthy cooking and lifestyle tips through videos, live seminars, and handouts like this: 

Chicken Skewers with almond sauce

Cut 2 chicken breasts in 1/2 thickness strips.  Marinate in Braggs Amino Acids (google it) or in a soy sauce for about 2 hours.  BBQ chicken on skewer  or bake at 350 until cooked through.  Plate on a big bed of spinach.

Almond Sauce

1/4 creamy Almond Butter

2 tsp honey

2 tsp Braggs Amino

1 Tbl brown rice vinegar

2 tsp grated ginger

1 tap. hot pepper oil

1/2 cup coconut milk

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan over medium heat.  Cook until thickens this take about 5 min.

Serve with Nori Quinoa Salad (one of my wife’s all time favorites)

Nori Salad

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 Tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar

4 Tablespoons soy sauce

1 t fresh ginger, grated

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1 cup flaked roasted nori

1 cup quinoa cooled

¼ cup sesame seeds (reserve some for garnish)

1 large red bell pepper, diced

1 large carrot, peeled and shredded

1 bunch green onion, sliced

Combine all ingredients and toss.

Note: Try to soak your quinoa overnight if you can. It will rinse the slightly gut irritating “saponins” off. Also, Nori is one of those sea vegetables that is super high in, among other things, iodine.

This type of eating is what I consider to be a “lifetime” eating pattern that I can easily achieve, although I initially had to be a caloric deficit and engage in many fasted or minimally fed workouts for nearly 3 years in order to go from being a 210 pound 3% body fat bodybuilder to a 175 pound triathlete.

My diet and fitness routine now is something I could easily do for the rest of my life, and I’m enjoying my workouts and eating more than I ever have in my life.

I hope this post will help you in your nutrition and fitness planning, and help show you who have been asking how to lose muscle for triathlon a bit more about how I did it.

And I’m sure you certainly have questions, so feel free to leave questions or comments below, and I’ll be glad to help!

Ask Ben a Podcast Question


35 thoughts on “How I Went From A 210 Pound 3% Body Fat Bodybuilder To A 175 Pound Ironman Triathlete – And How YOU Can Lose Weight For Triathlon Or Endurance Sports.

  1. Paul says:

    Hi Ben, i have over developed pecs compared to my back muscles. I am unhappy with how big my pecs are is there anyway to lose some muscle from my pecs?

    1. Paul says:

      I basically want to have a flat chest again is that possible to do, or once you build muscle it stays there.

    2. Simple one I do: for every PUSHING motion you do in gym, do twice as many PULLING motions! Also, I'd be happy to help you via a personal one-on-one consult to setup your training. Just go to https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/coaching and then choose a 20 or 60 minute consult, whichever you'd prefer. I can schedule ASAP after you get that.

      1. Paul says:

        I’ve got bad winging of my shoulder blades due to over developed chest was wondering if you can lose muscle from your chest to help with the winging as well as strengthen the scapula stabilisers

      2. Paul says:

        Is there anyway to lose muscle in the upper pecs? I want to lose muscle in that area.

  2. Greg says:

    hi ben, i have been playing football for a long time and thus have gotten big muscular thighs. I want to reduce the size of them as i have stopped playing football. Is fasting cardio training the best way to get rid of my extra muscle in a short amount of time?

    If so what intensity should i work at?

    Thanks

  3. anis says:

    hi Ben. I want to lose muscle in my thigh and glue areas and get back to slimmer legs for boxing. I know from experience long distance running gets job done but if I used eliptical for long distance cardio on low resisrance for long time would it have same effect a’s running will injure my joints. thanks

    1. Yes. Elliptical is going to have a much lower impact on your joints.

  4. Shane says:

    Whoa, I never even considered that this could be a goal. But after reading about it, great job, man.

    Surprisingly, taking our lifelong enjoyment of life into consideration in this way is something I hadn’t really thought of. Thank you!

  5. Justin says:

    Thanks man! I am a Personal Trainer and carry a bodybuilding style frame over 220 lbs. However, now that I am over 40, the wear and tear on my body is killing me and I struggle to maintain the calorie intake.

    I am starting to move toward a lot of what you outlined in this article. I was curious if anyone has done the same. Is it strange going through the body transformation? Just curious. Thanks again!

    1. yeah, all of it is a little strange to see how the body looks feels and performs as muscle sheds. but it's not like you get sick or anything.

  6. Ibrahim says:

    Great Article Ben! I stumbled across it while trying to do some research on how to lose muscle in my legs and Gluteus Medius (upper butt muscle). I saw that “Gluteus Medius Detailing” was part of your routine when you were trying to lose muscle. What did you mean by detailing? By “detailing”, are you referring to toning and shrinking? Also were those movements effective for you in bringing down the size of your upper glutes?

    1. I am referring to exercises like clamshells, hiphikes, external hip rotation, elastic band external hip abduction, etc. I did NOT try to decrease size of my glutes, however. This was to STRENGTHEN those areas.

  7. Monkeykong says:

    Impressive.

  8. Andrew Breen says:

    Ben, how much protein per-pound of body-weight were you consuming when you were trying to shed the muscle?

    1. About 0.55g/lb, so at the very low end of recommendations for athletes.

  9. Stave123 says:

    So I really didn’t have to think much about the cardio component – just the heavy weightlifting and the diet.

  10. Joy says:

    What about those of us with the opposite problem? I am 20 years old, female and do not want to lose the muscle I have! I am already at low body fat, but I am working on my cycling base and high swim volume at the moment. How much carbs should I eat before/during training? or should I fast in order to train the body to burn fat?

    I follow a similar diet to yours.

    1. 150-200g/day is what I would recommend in your case Joy, along with around 0.8g/lb protein!

  11. amaury says:

    hi im a begginer in running i used to be a boxer in 143 punds and started power lifting and got big. now im 172 pounds. how much cardio ill need to do daily to slim dow to 160 pounds.

    1. Healthy rate of muscle catabolism would be no more than 2 pounds per week MAX if that's all muscle that you're losing…

  12. Tyler says:

    Is there any actual advice here? This article reads like richard simmons pounded 8 cups of coffee and stream-of-conciousness shat through his keyboard.

    Try putting actual content up instead of hawking 10 variations of the same lame product in between random daily food logs and gay shirtless pics.

  13. Paul Chirico says:

    I call a large amount of BullSHIT on 3% Bodyfat. 3% is not possible without being dead. I could see 4% after a week of starving yourself for a competition. But then going right back. The name of this article should be

    How I Went From A 210 Pound Bullshitter To A 175 Pound Ironman Bullshitter – And How YOU Can Lose Weight For Triathlon Or Endurance Sports, by just losing your fat ass.

    If there is one thing that pisses me off its someone trying to make money off of anothers ignorance of exercise.

    1. Kenneth M. Wright says:

      You’re a dick!

  14. Adrian says:

    I used to be a swimmer and now I have moved to triathlon, so I want to lose the muscle in my back and shoulders and it's really hard for me even though I have been without swimming for 10 months, and always try to eat very little. I have lost 10 pounds but not on my back.

  15. ShannonBatsThird says:

    Great post. Care to write one now called "How to go from a 175 pound Ironman triathlete to a 210 pound 3% body fat bodybuilder"? Or just "How to get to 3% body fat" would be super!

    1. It's coming. I have a program entitled "Tri-Ripped" that will be released at the end of this summer.

  16. Jeff Hoening says:

    and please clue us in on why you're the only one in the top pic without a wetsuit.

    1. I didn't wear it because I wanted to mess with the minds of my opponents. Unfortunately, it didn't work. The guy on my left won, the guy on the right got 2nd, and I was 3rd.

  17. Jeff Hoening says:

    Great detailed post, Ben. Thanks. I've also enjoyed a tablespoon of Udo's oil I heard about on your show drizzled on salad, on veggies and in hummus.

  18. Ron says:

    A short story before I comment: A few years ago, before he died I meet the godfather of fitness, Jack LaLanne. When I asked, " why he thought so many housewife & individuals following him on TV (34years)…he reply, I made it simple for everyone to follow a plan and showed them how to do the work the exercises into their daily lives."

    You always give us a lot of good information, Ben. Lots of times I find it a challenge to understand how I can work that information into my everyday routine and how I might benefit.

    However, this time I think you nailed it with how you shared the information! You bought it all together for us to see and show us how it can be achieved and even modified for our own daily lifestyles and goals. Good article! Reflection of "Jack's" success as a fitness expert and being embraced by so many for a healthy lifestyle and successful training! Keep it up and all you will need is a stretchy jumpsuite and a dog named, "Happy" :)

    1. I do not tow boats with my teeth, but I could do the spandex thing if lives were at stake.

  19. Susan says:

    Yes, thank you for sharing the details! I'm actually interested in doing the opposite – going from Ironman triathlete to bodybuilder. I tried training for both at the same time but quickly found out that doesn't work so well — build up the muscle, then tear it back down!

    I continue to find your posts/podcasts incredibly informative. Thank you!

  20. feerlessfood says:

    Cool post Ben. I'd like to see more about your daily training and diet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *