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The hammer is banging but the nail will not move – Homeostasis

Nutrition Hammer

Dramatic changes often work against you and that is a big theme in the “Science Lab” seminars.  For more information about how to become a Science Lab member Click the link and it will give you more details.

In my last article, I wrote about why it’s important to pay attention to how you’re performing, looking and feeling to dynamically alter the composition, timing and quantity of what you eat throughout the day.  In short, I believe that diet protocols based around arbitrary macronutrient cycling neglect too many important factors to be truly useful for your average person who has a job, a family and a life outside their training.  I’m not making excuses for you; I’m asking you to be realistic and to understand that no methodology can accommodate for every situation and that it pays to be flexible.  You can apply these techniques across hours, days, weeks, months, even years to strike an optimal balance between anabolic and catabolic states that will allow you to perform and look your best.

The Irrationality of Modern Dieting

I’m going to assume you’re familiar with concepts like “bulking” and “cutting” as they relate to nutrition.  These practices owe their roots to natural cycles that we observe in other species; bears get fat and hibernate, insects undergo metamorphosis, trees flower and then go dormant.  It stands to reason that human beings might benefit from the same treatment; why not spend your winter growing bigger and stronger?  You can then dedicate the summer months to stripping off the fat you’ve added and do it all over again.  The problem is that the hormone fluctuation occurring in these organisms is a response to environmental changes that are reinforced over the course of several weeks or months; there is no conscious decision to become a butterfly or to produce fruit.  Everything happens, like clockwork, to the rhythm of light, temperature, and energy availability.

Although it may be hard to admit, you and I are living in an artificially created reality.  We’re at the top of the food chain and we no longer struggle with energy availability; we can eat as much as we can afford to, and we don’t have to kill anybody or anything for it.  Some of us work night shifts and most of us probably stay up late watching television or surfing the Facebook; we don’t rely upon light and dark to tell us when to sleep or eat.  We can control the temperature of our dwellings with the flick of a switch and there is never any need to pack on extra weight so that we don’t starve to death through the winter.  I’m sorry to say, but the concept of seasonal bulking and cutting makes absolutely no sense in context to the way most of us live.  It isn’t supported by biology and aside from a few specific situations it isn’t an optimal way to approach nutrition.

Building It Up to Break It Back Down

I keep telling you to “listen to your body” to determine whether or not the plan correlates with the reality of your nutritional requirements, or if it needs to be revised/thrown out entirely.  I’ve explained to you what that means as far as a typical day goes, but the same principles can be applied over the course of many weeks to gradually direct homeostasis and build muscle/lose fat.  “Wait!” you cry, “Didn’t you just say that bulking and cutting is a bunch of horse manure!?”  I certainly did, but I’m not talking about spending six months systematically overfeeding yourself so that you can systematically starve yourself for the rest of the year.  I’m talking about alternating periods of strategic, intuitive overfeeding with periods of maintenance eating to elicit positive feedback (muscle gain without much fat); we’re not going to do it by some arbitrary suggestion and we aren’t going to lose sight of the most important part of being an athlete; performance.  In practice, performance will be a primary indicator of what exactly we’ll do with our nutrition.  We’ll live by our observations of the unbeatable trifecta of autoregulation:  look, feel, and performance.

General Adaptation Syndrome:  Shock and Resistance

When you take a look in the mirror, reflect upon your lifts and ask yourself how things are going (“How’s life?”) and decide to embark upon a diet to either lose fat or build muscle, you’ve got to stick to your guns.  The length of time required to shift your metabolism in one direction will be individual and based on hundreds of intrinsic/extrinsic factors.  For the sake of hypothesis, we’ll work in a 4 week window.  Initially, your body will enter a state of shock; it will do weird things and it will let you know that something’s different about the stimulus it’s receiving from the environment.  While it’s necessary to create some kind of disturbance to elicit adaptation, you don’t want to overwhelm your ability to handle the stress.   Start off small and work your way up/down; you can try to hurry the process by jumping the gun, but it is unnecessary and harmful in the long run.

After the initial stages of shock subside and a few weeks pass, your body will begin to react by attempting to cope with the stress of your dietary manipulation.  This is the resistance stage of adaptation, where you’ll finally start to see something happening.  What transpires may not exactly correlate with what you’d expected, but if you’re lucky, the feedback you receive from your body should be positive.  If you’ve been overfeeding for the past few weeks, you should feel like a beast and notice some increases in muscular size and strength; if you’ve been underfeeding, you should be leaning out, your performance may stagnate or decrease, and you may be at least a little bit tired of it all.  There’s also the possibility that after three weeks, you haven’t observed any changes at all.  Either way, this is where things get interesting.

Homeostasis:  Recovery or Exhaustion

When we’re talking about building muscle or losing fat, it’s easy to misunderstand that while they are opposite effects, they are both the result of the body’s stress response mechanism.  In its own way, the process of growing is just as stressful as shrinking is.  It’s the difference compared to “the norm” that counts.  After the body has adapted to deal with or eliminate the stress stimulus, you have three choices; you can either begin to recover towards baseline, exhaust the system’s ability to cope and burn it all down, or you can introduce a new stimulus.

Now, it’s important to note that in the event your attempts to evoke an adaptation made no observable impact, you may have already been at the third stage when you began; it’s possible that you have already developed resistance adaptations to this particular stressor.  Like it or not, reducing your caloric intake may not have done anything for you because you were already underfeeding to begin with!  In contrast, there’s a chance that you didn’t gain any weight by overfeeding because you were (surprise) already overfeeding.

Let us, for the sake of our hypothesis, say that a month has passed and you’ve either adapted to the stimulus you provided by manipulating your nutrition, or you’re sitting there scratching your head as to why it didn’t work.  You built some muscle and gained some strength in the big lifts, but it wasn’t anything to write home about.  Perhaps your quads are starting to pop and you’ve got veins in your forearms…But you’re not exactly the spitting image of Rich Froning.  What do you do next?

Putting It All Together and Moving On

You’ve got a few options, but it’s up to you to decide what’s best.  You could very easily choose to keep eating how you’ve been eating for the next couple weeks and allow your body to recover and reach homeostasis.  If things held steady, you could then consider the macros you’ve been eating over the past several weeks your new “maintenance” nutrition plan.  From here, you could attempt to start all over again and create another shock by overfeeding/underfeeding to a greater extent.  That could work, but there’s a catch; while you may adapt to a more extreme stimulus, it’s also probable that you’ve already exhausted your body’s stress response mechanisms.

Recklessly plunging deeper into a caloric deficit (especially as an athlete) or piling on the energy when you witnessed no cumulative effect over the course of four weeks could end in disaster.  You could develop a metabolic disorder and waste a lot of time, money and emotional energy trying to force open a door that just won’t budge.  “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result”.  The most productive thing you can do if this happens is to take it for what it’s worth and return to your old plan.  Take a look at your performance; when was the last time you hit a PR?  Was it really a good idea to try to lose more body fat when your deadlift hasn’t budged for six months?  What about your physique?  Could you stand to put on some muscle, or are you a little on the soft side?  It may be time to reassess your entire strategy and let your metabolism heal.

What I would ultimately recommend is that you objectively analyze the progress you’ve made after 4 weeks of gradually manipulating your macros towards your goal and then establishing a new baseline.  Don’t aimlessly bounce from one extreme to the next.  Take a week or two to reflect and go through your checklist:  determine if you look better, if your performance has rebounded or continued to improve, and if you feel like you were successful in accomplishing what you set out to do.  After everything’s settled down, the next place to go is (ironically) backwards.  Provided you’re ready, you’ll spend a few weeks underfeeding, mobilizing fat, improving your insulin sensitivity, leaning out and reducing inflammation only to rebound and achieve a super-compensatory anabolic state.  The overfeeding period that follows will add lean mass, increase your basal metabolic rate and accelerate fat burning for the next underfeeding period.

Throughout all of this, I cannot stress enough the fact that you have to look at what’s going on in the gym, in the workplace, in your bedroom, in your head and in the mirror to plot your next course of action.  It could take you far longer than 4 weeks to start seeing results from your efforts, but it could take less.  You may find that longer periods of overfeeding work better for you; maybe you’re extremely active and you get wicked lean on 2 week underfeeds.  The most important take away from all of this is that while human metabolism is extremely flexible, it’s still a homeostatic system influenced by dozens of factors you may not normally consider.  It doesn’t always do what you want it to do; it’s not black and white, but through trial and error you can learn to hit the switch and accomplish your goals without adhering to arbitrary programming.

Stay out of your own way – Autoregulation and Homeostasis


This is a blog from James Barnum, he normally does the editing for a good majority of my stuff because there aren’t a lot of people that get what I am talking about quite the way James does.  Editing isn’t just about grammer anymore.  This is a big topic we cover in the Science Lab that confuses a lot of people.  Click the link below for most information on that.

Events on earth tend to operate in a cyclical fashion.  Human beings observe these state changes in their extremes; hot and cold, day and night, toil and cessation.  The eternal wheel spins on, but we only really pay attention to when it stops (and starts again).  For every action, there is a reaction, and that concept has (for good reason) been applied to human nutrition for many decades.  The dinosaur notion of bulking and cutting has been put to rest; by cycling everything from macronutrient ratios to meal frequency, we’re able to coax different responses from our bodies and shape our physical realities like never before.  Would you like to add muscle to your frame and lose fat?  We can do that.  How about gaining strength while remaining light?  No problem.  If you’re willing to go the distance, there is a plan that will work for you…Or so it would seem.

You’ve read about my experiences with ketogenic dieting (low carb paleo, Carb Nite, CKD, Atkins etc.) on this blog; it didn’t bring me where I wanted to go and I got wrecked in the process.  I love my carbs and it’s a huge burden psychologically (and metabolically) to avoid them for weeks at a time.  Attempting to intermittent fast and cycle macronutrients/calories based upon whether or not I was working out that day (Leangains, Warrior Diet etc.) also failed me.  No matter how hard I tried, I always hit a wall and I would end up splayed out on the floor stuffing myself when I was supposed to be under eating; other nights I’d finish training only to find that I had no appetite at all.  Hell on earth is sitting down with friends at a Chinese buffet on cheat day to gorge, and being full after one plate.

Natural Systems vs. Unnatural Cycles              

As it turns out, when I began following a diet based around diurnal rhythms (the natural cycle of rest and activity) and put more emphasis on figuring things out for myself, I made somewhat dramatic gains in strength and muscle mass.  The problem wasn’t cycling calories or carbs; the issue laid in adhering to a strict interval based on one qualifier:  training.  I wasn’t allowing any room for life; I was following the system, which thought that all I did was sleep, eat and lift weights, and it was letting me down hard.  It didn’t take into account the stress of work, relationships, and the cumulative effective of being who I am.  Sometimes, you need to eat more carbs even though you haven’t gone to the gym that day; after all, it can take up to 48 hours to replenish glycogen stores and you may be on the road to under-recovering.  Your body will tell you this, but you’ll ignore it because you’re on a diet and today is a low carb day; you don’t want to break the rules and get fat.  This is what we mean when we talk about “getting in your own way”.  This is why auto-regulation is important; these protocols are built around a theory, based upon studies, and you’re living in the real world.

Although you’re “only human,” you are the byproduct of a lifetime of individual experience.  The genes you were endowed with are only part of the recipe; you are probably not the baseline person that the protocol was designed for.  How does the diet know that you should eat less today than you did yesterday simply because today is a “rest day”?  Isn’t rest about recovery?  Doesn’t eating help you recover?  What if you’re going rock climbing this afternoon?  Do you still eat low carb?  In the real world, your energy expenditure and metabolic needs fluctuate from hour-to-hour, day-to-day.  Your body is constantly shifting towards homeostasis, trying to pump out the right amount of hundreds of different hormones to keep your heart going, digest your food, repair your muscles and put you to sleep at the end of the day.  Where all of these other protocols fail, Carb Back-Loading and biorhythm diets succeed.  These diets show you how to make educated guesses about how to eat based upon what you did today, what you’re doing tomorrow, how you look, how you perform, but mostly how you feel.

 Applying Auto-Regulatory Principles to Your Nutrition

 First of all, you need to understand that auto-regulation does not mean that you’ll be eating randomly; quite to the contrary, you will be eating with more intention and purpose than ever before.  Beginning with a sound nutritional strategy like CBL, you’ll perform checks throughout the day and engage in a lot of introspection while still doing what you know you need to do.  You’ll still hit your macros, you’ll still pay attention to the quality of your food, but you’ll throw the plan out the window if it doesn’t correlate with what your body is telling you.

Breakfast and Pre-Workout

If you’ve read CBL, you understand that a big part of why the diet works is shifting from fat-burning in the morning to carb-burning in the evening.  You also know that delaying breakfast after awakening isn’t going to kill you; it’s actually favorable as far as fat mobilization and overall recovery are concerned.  Let’s say you’re up and atom now; you take a peek in the fridge and remark that you’re not hungry.  You might delay breakfast a little longer while you get some work done, or you might make a coffee with a scoop of protein powder to stimulate myosynthesis.  Contrast this with a morning where you awaken after an all-nighter; you’re not feeling tip-top.  You consider the golden, delicious flavor of bacon and eggs cooked in grassfed butter; your mouth waters and your stomach rumbles, “Hey.  FEED ME.”  You would be wise to listen and get some high-quality protein and saturated fat into your belly, even if you just woke up.

Breakfast should be about stimulating protein synthesis and keeping stress hormones from getting out of hand so you can mobilize fat and build muscle.  You should get a large portion of your daily fat and protein intake from this meal, especially if you don’t eat lunch.  So what do you do when you know, deep down inside, that you need some carbs with your breakfast?  Go for fibrous vegetables, nuts and fruits that will fill you up without eliciting too great an insulin spike.  If fruit and vegetables aren’t cutting it, you could try some gluten-free waffles or a glass of milk.  The idea is to take what you know is optimal and let your personal preferences dictate the application; if you feel better and train harder with some fried potatoes or pancakes in you, then you are completely free to incorporate them into your plan.

Dinner and Post-Workout    

As the day progresses, dinner time arrives.  Let’s say you had a very productive squat session last night, and you hit some new PRs.  You had a big steak and a few sweet potatoes after your post-workout shake, and you slept well…You feel good today, you’re out with your friends and a nice fat Philly cheese steak sounds like it’d hit the spot.  You stop and you say to yourself, “I looked lean as hell this morning!” It might not kill you to go for it and have the Philly tonight, but your desire to eat is motivated more by delicious cheesiness than nutritional necessity and you aren’t training tomorrow.  It may be time to exercise some willpower.  Perhaps you can double the steak and cheese and forego the bread this time; maybe this will be a low carb day after all.  However, if you woke up looking (and feeling) flat, and you’re hungry as hell tonight, you may not have eaten enough the previous evening.  Maybe you also feel a little bit on the glum side and a cheese steak would be the perfect pick-me-up.  You would be foolish to ignore the signs, and it may be in your best interest to order some fries to go with your sandwich.

Completely the opposite of breakfast, dinner is the best time to eat carbs and get some extra food in if you feel like you haven’t been eating enough.  If you stayed relatively low carb throughout the day, the surge of insulin brought on by ingesting carbohydrates will signal your brain that it’s okay to burn fat tomorrow morning.  Growth hormone secretion will spike, and you’ll have more recuperative sleep.  It’s a win-win-situation.  Whether or not you’ve trained, it’s important to use this time to make sure you’ve eaten enough protein and that you’ve taken in enough overall energy.  If you have to choose between either going to bed hungry or having a cinnamon roll five minutes before you hit the hay, you should probably pick the latter.  The only situation where I would suggest going easy on the carbs is if you’re really not hungry, or if you plan on being a lay-about the next day and won’t do much of anything as far as movement goes.

Thinking for Yourself

Remember that rest days are not nearly as restful if you under eat.  Listen to your body, and make decisions about how much and what you’re eating based upon how you feel, how you look, and how you’re performing during your training.  You’re an adult, and in the end you’ve got to look out for yourself because nobody else will (unless you pay them to do so!).  Neither I nor Kiefer know how many carbohydrates you need after a workout.  Martin Berkhan and Robb Wolf can only guess at how many calories you need to eat every day to perform optimally.  Any and all suggestions are ultimately rubbish if they’re letting you down.  When something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan.  If you don’t know, find out.

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