Part 1 – Basic Principles
Do you want to know a secret? The way you train on lockdown doesn’t make that much difference to the shape you end up in. Yes, usually if you go on half-marathons for fun on a Wednesday evening as opposed to squatting your 3-rep max you will end up with a different body-type, but neither of those is possible for most on lockdown. Yes, if you train for 5 minutes as opposed to 50 each day you won’t build as much muscle. We’re making that statement under the assumption that you’ve been sensible and followed our Ultimate Guide to Building your own Home Training Program.
When you look at physique competitors (or “bodybuilders”), the people in the world looking to build their ultimate form, their training changes very little depending on whether they’re trying to bulk or cut. When they are in a muscle-building phase, they will do whatever training program that research and experience (plus a pinch of personal preference) has shown them will elicit the largest muscle gain response. When they are trying to lose body fat, they will do pretty much the same training programming, just with lower expectations on the strength & hypertrophy gains they will manage to acquire.
So, what changes? You should have guessed it by now; their food. When they are trying to build muscle, they eat in a calorie surplus. The fact that their body is consuming more energy than it requires just to operate allows them to make “gains”. If they weren’t causing incremental stimulus to their muscles that resulted in a repair & grow response (see our article How Personal Trainers Build Muscle), the extra energy would be stored as fat. However, because their muscles need to adapt to the stress they’re being put under, the energy is used for growth.
When they are trying to cut fat, they then move into a caloric deficit. At this point, the goal is to lose fat whilst maintaining as much of the gained muscle as possible. If the deficit is gradual, and they keep providing enough stimulus to the muscle to ensure the body doesn’t think it can afford to start breaking down muscle tissue for energy, the body will look towards fat tissue to compensate for the missing calories in its daily needs.
In general, their daily protein intake will remain the same, and when in a deficit they will cut their carbs and fats, the ratio of which is completely person-dependent, as everyone operates best on different energy sources. When they are in a surplus they will push both of these energy sources up to increase their total energy intake. Where on the calorie surplus or deficit scale you need to be is very dependent upon your goals, but if you feel like you’ve never been able to achieve that muscle-gain or fat-loss that you aspire to, maybe it’s time you did a bit of tracking. If you read our blog post “Consistent Weight Loss: Explained”, you’ll find our guide to using online calculators to find your baseline calorie requirement, and then how to tailor your calorie intake for weight loss accordingly over time. The muscle building formula just requires you to swap the recommended percentage deficit into a surplus.
If weight loss is your goal, one of the main problems you’ll be having at the moment is that one of your three key calorie burners is missing: NEAT, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This is a fancy way of saying “everything you do that involves getting out of bed or off the sofa, not including your work-out”. Usually, this includes the hustle and bustle of your commute, walking to meetings in or around your office, going for lunch, etc. All of that is now gone and your commute involves walking from your bed to your living room.
The most common way to measure your NEAT is by using a step-counter and it’s a pretty effective way of doing so. With the world’s THIRD LOWEST average daily step-count, it’s no wonder Malaysia has such obesity rates. Anyone who has a wearable will have seen theirs plummet recently and maintaining this number is the key to ensuring you can keep eating your usual 3 meals a day whilst if you’re trying to build as much muscle as possible, you needn’t worry as much about NEAT, depending on whether you’re also concerned about staying lean. Moving less makes creating a significant surplus much easier, but overdo it and you could end up also putting on more fat than you’re comfortable with. It’s a personal thing that you need to figure out according to your goals, and we’ll discuss this in Part II.
What everyone seems to want though is literal recommendations of meals and snacks they should be making at home. Again, this hugely depends on whether the goal is fat loss or muscle gain, whether you’re busy or killing time. One issue you need to be aware of is that you’ll often no longer be snacking because you’re hungry, you’ll be doing so because you’re bored or restless and the fridge is a few steps away. Whereas we’d usually recommend someone had a small portion of nuts & seeds as a snack because it would be satiating and stave off returning hunger, if they did this 4 times between lunch and dinner it would result in a huge total calorie count.
Sticks of carrots, cucumber, celery and a responsibly portioned homemade hummus dip (not scoop!) are great, low-calorie density, nutritious snacks for the stay at home fat loss goals. You can have 200g of vegetable sticks with 50g of hummus and it would only constitute 150 calories, whereas them equivalent calories of roasted mixed nuts would only get you a 25g serving!
Bags full of calorie-dense nuts or cheese and avocado on crackers are excellent for those trying to stuff the calories into their nibbles. Equally, a little bit of both could work nicely for someone trying to maintain their current weight who finds just eating carrot sticks leaves them hungry too soon afterwards. Another excellent option is to go for veggie sticks followed by a half-scoop protein shake. It would keep you fuller and work towards your protein goal, whilst not contributing excessively to calories. It’s really about a bit of trial and error to establish what works best for you.
Calories & Protein
If you’re looking for food recipes here, it’s an odd place to do so. The internet has hundreds of thousands of them, and if they don’t state calories or protein content on them, it’s pretty easy to plug the ingredients into MyFitnessPal and figure it out. If you’ve found the international chaos has ramped your work up dramatically and you still have very little time on your hands, prepare meals that can be stored and reheated on another day easily – an extremely useful skill. Chillis, curries & stews are all good examples, as are soups or stir fries if you find yourself with an eclectic mix of vegetables left in the fridge. The key with a stir-fry is finding a good recipe for making the base sauce yourself that doesn't involve too many calories. Again, look it up and see what flavours take your fancy.
If you’ve got a bit more time on your hands and the kitchen is a therapeutic place to spend it, make your meals individually and use this time to experiment with some recipes you’ve always wanted to try your hand at. Our advice is to stick to using this time for cooking instead of baking. Whilst home-baked foods can be more nutritious and easier on the sugar content than buying cakes, you need to bear in mind that you also end up with a whole cake in your house! When you have temptation lying on the kitchen counter, it's much more likely to be consumed.
The key to everything is that your total meal & snack numbers match your calorie-balance goals, and you’re eating at least 1g of protein for every kg of bodyweight you currently have. If you’ve got significant fat loss or muscle gaining goals this needs to be more like 1.5g. Protein goals are usually harder to hit in weight loss than in muscle gain, purely because you’ve got fewer calories to work with. Stick to the training guide you’ll have hopefully built for yourself by now, and use an app like MyFitnessPal to calculate how many calories and how much protein is in your favourite meals. This will allow you to then eat them in the future knowing how much they contribute to your “allowance” and target.
If all you did was come out of lockdown with a better understanding of what you’re putting in your body, it will have been productive to your long-term health and fitness.
Enjoyed this but still not quite sure how to apply it all to your current situation? Click here for Part 2.