If you’ve been a reader of my site for awhile, you may recall endurance athlete and coach Graeme Turner, who I first interviewed in the podcast “Why Running Drills are Bad for You”, which is a still quite popular article, audio and video mash-up post.
Back in the day, Graeme and I used to go on crazy multi-week adventures in Thailand, where we would lead travel and training adventures for groups of triathletes, race the world famous Laguna Phuket triathlon (which I still consider to be a bucket list item for any multi-sport athlete), and stuff our faces with Pad Thai, soft shell crabs, fried prawns after laborious bike rides and runs in the stifling heat.
Anyways, it turns out that (as seems to be the case for many a skinny, hormonally-imbalanced endurance athlete) Graeme, like me, eventually realized that chronic cardio can definitely take its toll on the body, especially when combined with caloric depletion (to stay lean) and lack of strength training (to avoid putting on too much “bulk”).
When I saw the photo above of what Graeme looks like now, just four months after he made a decision to drastically alter his training and eating, I was impressed enough to ask him if he wanted to let me and you know exactly what he’s been up to.
He obliged and – voila! Below you can read exactly how Graeme went from a skinny Ironman triathlete and marathoner to, as he would say in his thick Australian accent, “totally jack’d”. Enjoy, leave your questions or comments below the post, and Graeme or I will reply!
The End Of An Era
December 2016 marked the end of an era for me.
After fifteen years in the sport I decided to “retire” from triathlon and distance running. My drive simply wasn’t there to continue. After competing around the world and racing the Ironman and Ironman 70.3 World Championships multiple times, my motivation to get out of bed on a cold Melbourne morning and hit the pool just wasn’t there. I was also frustrated by my skinny “triathlete body” (pictured below four months ago before I started the program you're going to read about next).
Even though I was aerobically very fit and had good power on the bike I didn’t exactly fill out a t-shirt or jeans in the places I wanted to. And being newly single, this became all the more important.
I was also, at that point, just four months away from my 50th birthday and was constantly reading and being told by people how difficult (or according to some sources “impossible”) it would be to put on muscle at that age.
Let’s face it: I raced Ironman triathlons and marathons or years, so I like a challenge and like even more being told I can’t do something. This is the whole reason I took up triathlon and running marathons after having all the cartilage removed from my knees in the mid-nineties and being told by the surgeon to never run again or I would need full knee replacements within ten years. Twenty-one years later (with both knees intact), I still smile at that comment.
I've known Ben Greenfield for years. We have hung out for many memorable (and some I wish I could remember) nights after epic triathlon races in Thailand and Vegas. I also subscribe to Ben’s focus on the significant hormonal impact of both exercise and food and knew this was what I needed to focus on. Being a strength and conditioning coach and sports nutritionist myself made arranging this process easier, but managing hormones still proved to be my biggest challenge.
Drop the Cardio
Dropping the long, chronic cardio sessions was an obvious first step for me, but not for the commonly thought reason of “calories in/calories out” balance. Sure, it was important to direct my calories into building muscle rather than just burning them in the pool, on the bike or running.
But many studies have also shown that cardio also decreases testosterone levels and suppresses the immune system which slows the body’s ability to heal and increases the risk of getting sick. You can read plenty more about this in this fascinating article about how Ryan Hall, a former professional marathoner, underwent shocking changes to his body after quitting marathoning due to hypogonadism and extremely low testosterone levels.
But I still wanted to burn fat, so incorporated cardio in the form of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) session. As Ben outlines in his article on “How To Look Good Naked & Live A Long Time”, HIIT sessions have been shown to not only boost the metabolism due to Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) but also increase the hormones testosterone and adiponectin for building muscle and burning fat.
For example, I have a notorious HIIT set I give to my personal training clients called a “Bucket Set”. It's named after what we usually need next to the treadmill for when people finish (or try to finish) the set. Basically, the Bucket Set involves increasing pace on a treadmill every minute for five minutes, with the last minute being absolutely flat out, then reducing the speed back to the original base speed, and repeating this build four additional times. This type of relatively brief cardio workout is brutal, but potent for a hormonal fat burning response to HIIT. I only did this type of workout twice a week – mostly to not burn too many calories, but also because of the period of “burn” afterwards and because it is brutal and takes a few days to recover mentally and to convince yourself you actually want to do the Bucket Set again.
Keep Things Simple
I love walking into a gym and seeing all the different machines. And I travel a lot, so I’m often visiting different facilities and seeing the amazing variety of equipment. But once I’ve checked out the distractions, I typically just head straight over to the squat rack.
Yep – basically, all I use is the squat rack, a bench, a chin-up/hanging bar and barbell/dumbbells – no fancy machines required. I focus on compound movements, which are movements that move multiple joints and therefore work multiple muscles. I also focus on the big muscles: the glutes, the quads, the back, etc.
So no leg extension or leg curl machines were harmed in the completing of this program.
I keep things simple. Very, very simple. Each muscle group – my chest, arms, back, shoulders and legs – gets worked just once a week, with 2-3 exercises per body part, using three sets of 12/10/8 reps per exercise. Simple.
I tend to get through a gym session like this in under an hour. If you do the math, that is four gym sessions a week (plus two Bucket Set HIIT sessions) and that basically means I am done in six hours a week (leaving the other 162 hours a week to do all the other stuff that people often use as excuses not to train).
The following may seem like it’s getting into the one percenters (if you want to build lean muscle with minimum investment this type of approach is what is often needed) but I also got a DNA profile done so I knew my mix of fast and slow twitch fibers so I could work out what was the best rep range for me. Sure, you could spend months going nowhere just because you are using a rep range you read in a magazine that worked for someone who is predominantly fast twitch whilst you're a slow twitch type, or you can get your DNA tested and discover exactly what works for you. Ben highlights exactly how this works in his podcast with obstacle racer Hunter McIntyre entitled “The Genetics Of A Beast Freak Of Nature.”
Being a triathlete, I of course thought I was mostly slow twitch and was surprised after having my DNA tested when I found out I am an even mix of both slow and fast twitch muscle fibers. If I'd trained based on what I “thought” or what worked for someone else, I would have wasted a lot of time.
Don’t Hold Back
But here’s the key.
During any of the sessions highlighted above, I simply don’t hold back. Period.
My good old Queen playlist gets queued, my headphones go on so people don’t talk to me, I avoid eye contact with other folks, and I focus on pure technique and tempo rather than the amount of weight on the end of the barbell. Mitochondrial damage is primarily achieved on the eccentric (lowering or “negative” part of the lift). So you achieve most anabolic and metabolic benefits when the muscle is lengthening as, for example, when you are lowering the barbell during a bench press or squat. To get the hormonal response, I'll then explosively “drive” the barbell back up almost CrossFit style (goal is to hear the plates rattle at the top of a press or squat like this). So think slow for the muscles and mitochondria, and powerful and fast for the hormones.
This style of training, plus the Bucket Set, is tough. I’ve read articles on how HIIT training doesn’t work for some people, and in my opinion it’s because those people don’t go hard enough. Any exercise or activity that you can do for greater than two minutes isn’t anaerobic, so if you are going at a pace that you can hold for 2+ minutes it simply ain’t hard enough.
We have an expression in Australia called “Balls to the Wall”. No, I don’t know the origin of the phrase and really don’t want to be typing that into Google and being forced to see any of the resultant images – but even though my volume of training is very low the intensity level is exactly that – balls to the wall!
Fuel The Goal
For fueling and nutrition, my plan once again was to keep things simple. Too many people get hung up on protein/fat/carb ratios, but I prefer to think of things simply as “build and fuel”.
For example, I wanted to get up to 75kg body weight, so I used 1.5(g) x goal body weight (kg) to determine my protein requirements. Given that the body struggles to absorb more than 30g of protein in one serving, I then broke my total protein needs up across a day. As a side note, I used a serving of casein protein mixed with magnesium citrate as my bedtime snack and found this combination did a great job at reducing muscle soreness.
Based on my metabolic rate (you can calculate yours with the free online calculator here) I knew I wanted to eat 2500 calories a day to build muscle without storing fat. The protein took 500 calories of this, so I knew I needed 2000 calories of additional fuel. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Ben has been the idea of hormone precursors derived from foods you eat, particularly in the form of whole-food based fats. It's ironic how many bodybuilder diets exclude these fats, which is fine if you're a twenty-year-old with raging hormones, but not so much for someone like me approaching fifty years old. Good fats and minerals such as zinc were important for me to include, so lots of eggs, butter, and grass fed red meat now make up my diet.
At some point during the day or for breakfast, I used a “protein shake” with coconut milk, whey protein, Brazil nuts, pomegranate and cherries for some easy calories and hormonal precursors. I would also use good carbs like sweet potato and steel cut oats but included or excluded foods like this based on A) impact on blood sugar (read Robb Wolf’s excellent new book “Wired To Eat” to learn the nitty-gritty on the best way to do this) and b) bang for buck in terms of nutrient density. I also avoided foods high in phytoestrogens, particularly soy and commercial chicken.
OK, now let’s get to the woo-woo stuff.
Sure, a lot of people talk about the mind-body connection. But even more people roll their eyes and go on to read about the next great supplement they can be spending their hard-earned cash on.
To me the mind-body connection is part of the chemistry equation. Stress causes cortisol production, which raises blood sugar and can cause storage of adipose tissue and slow recovery. Being distracted in the gym causes you to not give every session your all, and not being able to sleep also impacts recovery, and also messes with another couple of important hormones – leptin and ghrelin (Ben talks about these concepts in detail in his interview with Vince Del Monte, which you can listen to here)
Anyways, 2016 turned out to be an incredibly stressful year for me, with the loss of a parent, the loss of a relationship, moving to the city of Melbourne, Australia, and even experiencing a strong loss of identity as a triathlete. It would be easy to get overwhelmed by all this, but I am a strong proponent of mindfulness, which I define as being aware of your thoughts or situations but not attaching an emotional response to them, and accountability, which I define as looking at your role in any situation and evaluating what you need to change.
Neither are an easy thing to do, especially when so much is going on, but are crucial to both mental and physical health. If I can put on lean muscle, rarely get stressed and sleep like a baby whilst going through the loss of a parent, partner, home, job and identity all at the same time then…tell me your excuse again?
So basically, over the past three months I trained less and ate more, which is, of course, the opposite of what nearly every “celebrity” training program instructs. But the focus was holistic across the entire program, right down to rep timing, real foods and how to think both during and apart from workouts.
What was the net result of all this?
Overall, my weight went up by 5kg (11lbs) and my body fat went down by 5% (and is now hovering just above single figures). I now have four weeks till my 50th birthday and I'm sure I can break through that single figure fat percentage threshold.
And of course, the t-shirt definitely fits better.
Do you have questions, thoughts or feedback for Graeme or me? Leave your comments below and one of us will reply! Finally, if you decide you still want to do triathlons or marathons, but also get ripped at the same time, you may want to check out the program “Tri-Ripped”, which I specifically designed to get a skinny triathlete a nice, ripped body while still maintaining huge amounts of speed for Sprint, Olympic, Half-Ironman and Ironman triathlon.