Female physiology is incredibly complex. In fact, it is so complex that many reputable male trainers avoid working with ladies. The intricacies associated with changes in female body composition has been a perplexing phenomenon since the age of time, even dumbfounding much of the scientific world.
This post will aim to outline the biological mechanisms behind the enigmatic female body, while providing rationale for the best approach to training for improvements in body composition.
Why Are Females’ Bodies Seemingly So Complex?
This is probably a preconceived notion for the ladies reading this but men really do have it much easier from a body composition perspective. Almost every research paper shows smaller effect sizes in both weight loss and fat for women, when compared to their male counterparts.
Ultimately, it boils down to the capacity to procreate and the concomitant menstrual cycle. A few key changes that should be considered in a eumenorrheic (i.e. normal menstruation) female:
Women have a greater amount of estradiol and testosterone during the follicular phase compared to the luteal phase, and thus can handle higher training loads during this period
Women are also more insulin sensitive and less prone to water retention during the follicular phase, so carbohydrates are generally better tolerated
Irrespective of the menstrual cycle, females are far more resistant to changes in homeostasis than males. By this I mean that the female body will fight back harder in response to stressors such as exercise and changes in diet. Again, this is due to the complex biological mechanisms underpinning female physiology (wired to facilitate survival of the human race); the menstrual cycle only compounds these compensations that aim to maintain homeostasis.
Moreover, the extent to which women experience ‘period’ symptoms varies tremendously; some females cannot differentiate between the stages that they may be in at any given time, whereas others will experience significant alterations in mood, water retention (which will mask fat loss efforts), appetite, energy and so on.
Females’ Training & Diet Should Be Periodised (Pun Not Intended :P)
In light of the above, most females will respond best to periodising their training and eating in accordance with what stage they are in. Without delving to deep into the finer details of specific programming, here are a few principles that I would advise implementing to feel, look and perform better:
Training during the follicular phase should be relatively higher volume, higher intensity; conversely, lower the volume and intensity during your luteal phase, perhaps even incorporating more steady state cardiovascular exercise (like brisk walking). Strive to hit PBs during the follicular phase, and see the luteal period as more of a ‘maintenance’ phase to avoid being disheartened with potentially poor performances. This study very much supports the idea of training periodisation for females, showing greater gains made in strength and muscle.
Since metabolism and insulin sensitivity plunges during the luteal phase, and we are reducing our overall training volume, calories need to be cut. The reduction in calories should come almost exclusively from carbohydrates. For example, a 60kg female’s rest day may differ by 300-500 calories (75-125g of carbohydrates) between the follicular and luteal phases. *This is an example, only – take it for what its worth.
Much research also suggests that females preferentially utilise intra-muscular fatty acids during exercise, when compared to men. In other words, women are better at what we call ‘carbohydrate-sparing’. As such, fat should comprise a higher proportion of a female’s diet, and I generally programme for my female clients in this manner.
Since females possess a fraction of the testosterone that males do, they usually lack the absolute intensity males are able to train with. This is a major reason, besides their propensity for fat substrate utilisation, why females tend to respond better to higher volume schemes when training with weights. Ladies generally require greater total reps/sets in order to achieve the same relative work output as men, at any given perceived exertion. I am not advocating muscular endurance rep targets (i.e. 15+), but a 4-8 rep goal I will often prescribe for a male in the gym would usually translate into 6-12 for the ladies. This is obviously dependent on the exercise and other variables, but just another example to illustrate my point.
While I am by no means a Crossfit aficionado, I do believe certain principles derived from this sport are favourable for women’s physiques. The elite female crossfitters train compound barbell movements with high intensity, relatively high volumes in short time-frames, capitalising on fat oxidation while building lean muscle. You don’t have to join a crossfit box, but take some of these principles and incorporate them in to your own training. The major downfall with crossfit is that it doesn’t really consider long-term programming; the workouts are random and thus don’t allow the individual to progressively overload exercises in a meaningful way. It is exercise, as opposed to training.
The majority of females gravitate to exercise modalities like yoga because, naturally, they are good it. Females have much more lax joints than males, so it is relatively easy. I think yoga is fantastic, both for the mind and one’s mobility, but adding a few ‘heavy’ strength training days a week on top of this will render profound improvements; for health, improved body composition, confidence to name but a handful of associated benefits.
I understand stepping in the gym is right outside the comfort zone of most women, and this is exactly why you should commence a proper weight training regime. The research to support strength training for women is simply irrefutable.
It is safe to say that females are as delusional about what comprises an ‘ideal’ physique, as men are when it comes to thinking more muscle mass is better. Both of these misconceptions have persisted for decades now, but this post will aim to elucidate the erroneous mindset many women have towards training and their desired body composition. Specifically, I will explain why strength & power-based training will make women healthier… Not bulkier, as the pervasive myth would suggest.
What Fuels Women’s Aversion to Strength Training?
1. Perceived Norms Mistake Healthy For Hulk-Like
Quite contrary to the commonly strived for stick-thin model look, the consensus amongst males is that strong women are healthy, and healthy is desirable. And this is not purely coming from my own strength-biased mouth; a study involving 842 college students explored both the same-sex and inter-sex perceptions of attractiveness related to physique.
There was a significant discrepancy from both the females’ and males’ perspective of what the opposite gender considered most attractive, with women shooting for skinny and men aspiring toward the bodybuilder end of the spectrum. So while there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these looks, the conventional motivation for achieving them is often unfounded; that being to attract the opposite sex.
Not only do men find more wholesome-looking women attractive, but a fixation with weight loss (as encouraged by social media) lends itself to all sorts of damaging health consequences for; extreme diets, use of laxatives, chronic endurance exercise, eating disorders, and so on and so forth.
The majority of men don’t care whether your abs are visible, ladies. Nor do most men give a sh*t if you have a ‘box gap’ – one of the most cringeworthy trends of the 21st century. Just like 99.9% of women couldn’t care less what a man can bench press. Sorry bro’s, but 100kg is the same as 140kg in her books. We are such delusional creatures.
As inconceivable as this may be for many of you, female (and many male) runway models epitomise perhaps the most unhealthy body type classification there is: ‘skinny fat’. No muscle mass on their frames, and a relatively great proportion of fat (albeit not evident). Skinny fat people tend to carry the most dangerous fat our bodies can store; visceral fat (VF). The kind of fat that accumulates in and around our vital organs.
The best way to avoid this toxic fat from engulfing you is primarily through focusing on quality foods and exercising regularly. Quality, whole foods and caloric restriction is the best mode of preventing VF storage, but simply minimising processed food intake (as opposed to restricting quantity) if you are already lean is your best bet. Exercise-wise, both cardiovascular and strength training demonstrate a similar reduction in VF, but this outcome is augmented when both are incorporated in a programme.
I am sure we can all attest to having that one friend who can put away substantial quantities of fast food every day, yet never seems to change superficially. And I am also certain that many of us feel envy over this ‘unfair’ ability. This envy is unreasonable though, since most skinny fat people become complacent with the fact that they don’t have much subcutaneous fat (the less lethal adipose tissue, and what we typically consider body fat).
And the above discussion revolving around body composition is exactly why I resent the body mass index (BMI); it is such a redundant parameter of health that really has no place in public health, let alone athletic individuals. Lots of laypeople using this calculator, who don’t know better, can yield normal (‘healthy’) BMIs despite potentially having alarming levels of visceral fat.
Anyhow, women usually avoid strength training in light of their effort to attain an ‘ideal’ level of thinness; because they associate weights with bulky muscles (and thus deem it antithetical to their dream body).
This last point concerning training-induced bulkiness is a whole other fallacy in itself, which I will briefly talk about next.
2. Strength Training is Associated With Masculinity & Bodybuilder Stereotypes
Now this is arguably a more potent deterrent than point #1, since people immediately link moving iron with a classic bodybuilder look. It is ludicrous to believe that modest strain in the gym will cause you to wake up looking at The Hulk in the bedroom mirror.
It takes tremendous time, effort, and food to look like a bodybuilder; and that is just from a bloke’s point of view. It is an unrealistic expectation for females.
So, the unfortunate weight-lifting stereotype brought to mind is the product of steroid abuse. Steroids have devastating consequences for females, both socially and aesthetically. Obviously, anabolic steroids are none of our business, but we just needed to flesh that one out.
3. Cardiovascular/Aerobic Exercise Will ‘Give You Long & Toned Muscles’
Just as we appear to rapidly lose a few kilograms on a low-carb/keto diet, when it is ultimately just water weight (*roughly 3 grams of water is bound to every gram of glycogen), there is an instant weight loss gratification derived from cardio exercise. This is quite misleading since most people assume the reduction in bodyweight directly corresponds to fat loss. Yeah, a small proportion of this will be body fat, but it is predominantly depletion of muscle glycogen.
Let me be clear about what I mean when I mention by cardio: sub-maximal, prolonged periods of exercise whereby the intensity is relatively constant (~60-80% HRmax). Of course, if you actually enjoy this type of exercise or even find it psychologically therapeutic, continue to do it; I just want to inform the people that enslave themselves to cardio for want of a more aesthetic physique. To these folk, I would advise brisk walking often and an occasional sprint session.
Sorry to tell you, but beyond immediate weight loss, cardio won’t do much for body composition. Here are a few points why aerobic exercise is inferior to resistance training (RT) when it comes to our physiques:
Aerobic activity does facilitate greater energy expenditure than weight training during the exercise bout, but this difference is inconsequential for 2 main reasons; excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) and long-term energy expenditure. It is difficult to quantify EPOC because it depends on a few variables, but it is usually significant enough to result in equal to or greater energy cost over a 24-hour period after RT, when compared to cardio. Secondly, our basal metabolic rate (BMR; amount of energy required to survive) rises as a result of improving our muscle:fat ratio with RT. Muscle is much more energy-inefficient (N.B. this is a good thing) than fat, in that it is very demanding to maintain. In short, having a greater proportion of muscle (not necessarily more bodyweight) will increase the threshold of food you can eat before gaining fat. Cardio breaks down muscle and fat which isn’t helpful.
It is very easy to overestimate the amount of energy we burn doing cardio. This is attributable to: inaccurate calculators on commercial gym equipment like ellipticals and treadmills; sweat and body heat deceiving us; and, of course, the effort required to perform the same thing for 20+mins…Monotony makes things appear harder (well, that’s the conclusion I came to during my steady-state ‘recovery’ runs a few years back!). Although cardio and RT both acutely reduce the appetite hormone ghrelin, I feel that many people overcompensate later in the day with the belief that their cardio session justifies more food. To illustrate my point, a 55kg woman might burn (approximately) 285 calories during a 30 minute run @6min/km pace. This equivalent to ~2 medium bananas. You are better off simply exercising some willpower to reduce your food intake rather than going through the motions jogging, if the goal is weight loss.
*If you truly love cardio or need to perform it as preparation for certain endurance races, do it!
Just understand that it is misdirected effort if you are running, spin-biking, etc. with the purpose of fat loss or improved body composition. This is undoubtedly best achieved by lifting heavy a few times a week, and lots of walking.
In part 2, I will outline:
-How females should go about starting strength training; or, for those who have some experience with it, train more optimally
-The few positives of Crossfit
-How females should eat to support their training & goals
Having launched the ‘Physio Phyt’ blog 18 months ago without adequately explaining its purpose, I thought elaborating on my vision was overdue and necessary.
When I first conceived the idea of my own blog 2 years ago, I wanted to synthesise tidbits from the array of health resources that exist; it was originally going to be an ‘Eclectic Health Digest’ of sorts.
I had the intention of creating a blog that would appreciate the various perspectives on health, a sphere that is ever-changing.
However, this idea was too general and unoriginal to succeed, so I have undergone lengthy deliberation in the last year: what value can I offer my followers? Why should people listen to what I have to say? What distinguishes the Physio Phyt movement from other online fitness coaching models?
A Few Thoughts On The Current Physiotherapy Model
3 years in to my Master of Physiotherapy degree, I have encountered a significant discordance between the coursework I am expected to learn, and my own vision for Physio Phyt.
While I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to study such a reputable course, and the lifelong friendships that has come with it, I have experienced frustrations throughout.
Foremost, the physiotherapy curriculum as it stands does not equip its students to adequately prescribe exercises, and this should be a concern for future graduates. In light of this shortcoming, I feel that physios in Australia are being left behind the likes of other disciplines such as osteopathy, exercise physiology, and exercise science. Yes, rehabilitation is inherently ‘reactive’, and physiotherapists have forged a reputation for being the best at assessing and rehabilitating injuries; but for what is such a difficult degree to get into, the coursework should be fundamentally revamped to address a simple yet powerful concept: progressive overload. I am sure my colleagues would agree with me.
Ultimately, I feel that the physiotherapy coursework could be more holistic to instil a broader knowledge base in its students.
I understand that every field has its respective scope of practice, yet it seems the previously mentioned disciplines are becoming more and more proficient at injury assessment and management; what is and has been the crux of physiotherapy. At the same time, there are few newly graduated physiotherapists with an extensive knowledge of strength and conditioning, or exercise prescription more generally.
The undeniably reactive physiotherapy model does not excite me, in that the patient usually assumes a passive role in the therapist-consumer relationship. This is seen in the majority of physio interventions, such as massage therapy, dry needling, shockwave therapy and so on. None of these treatment modalities are convincingly vindicated by science, although they may offer transient improvements in symptoms, anecdotally. Temporary relief administered solely by the therapist; passive and unsustainable. They have their place, but should not be at the forefront of physio practice.
Sure, the current approach is substantially more profitable for physios with consumer retention, but I would find it much more fulfilling eradicating the cause of the patients’ injuries by means of empowering them. Not just empowering the patient with cut-of-the-mill theraband exercises to do at home in between ongoing physio sessions; but a comprehensive, long-term, strengthening programme that incorporates both barbell and bodyweight movements. In doing so, the likelihood of preventing future injuries is improved, by virtue of eliminating the common culprit: weakness.
And I’m sorry, but sets of 8-12 reps for a rotator cuff tear with an elastic band (for example) is not strength training, no matter what Uni tells us. It might be rehab, but it is definitely not strength training. Incorporate the whole unit with compound movements, and the unaffected muscles will work in synergy to offset excessive load through the affected body structure, as its tolerance grows.
Remember: stimulus, stress, adaptation. The patients should expect to feel uncomfortable, but this is the very stress needed to elicit an adaptation.
Physios need to stop isolating sh*t with muscular endurance work, and go global as early as possible with strength work.
*I realise it is an unfair generalisation to blanket all physiotherapists as inept with exercise prescription, but it seems that a large percentage are. This is why so many physios are pursuing their post-grad Masters in S&C. It is not our fault, but rather the traditional Physiotherapy model in Australia (that is taught at Uni). I feel that the role of physiotherapy (in athletic populations, anyway) is fast becoming redundant with the burgeoning, related professions. New-grad physio jobs are no longer as certain as they once were.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention the handful of physios who I look up to, and are pioneering the strong breed of physio; Daniel Vadnal of FitnessFAQs is the exemplar, in my opinion.
The Physio Phyt Vision
As mentioned above, my primary aim is to empower my followers. I want to make the process of achieving any human performance, health or physique-related goal as easy and seamless as possible for you.
Physio Phyt bridges the gap between scientific and anecdotal evidence, and will constantly review such as to provide you with the most up-to-date, practicable information.
I will decipher what the latest research is saying, interpreting the implications for you so that your informed decisions become stepping stones toward your goals.
I believe everyone has the potential to become strong, and the programmes I offer people ultimately blend powerlifting (barbell movements) with calisthenics (bodyweight training); I am immensely passionate about my ‘Powerthenics’ project, and can verify that these 2 training modalities complement each other in such a way that they:
Create a robust, injury-proof physique, with ideal proportions
Have tremendous carryover benefit in to sports and other physical pursuits (such as endurance running)
Enhance all other domains of your life
Instil unwavering self-belief and confidence
Why are they such a potent combination?
Well, calisthenics alone is terrific for relative strength, not to mention resource-efficient, but it is very unlikely to build much leg muscle with bodyweight alone. This is why you will often see popular calisthenics figures concealing their legs with pants when training (or that’s what I believe :P); their upper body strength and skill is admirable, but it’s not nearly as impressive as seeing a powerlifter (with well-developed legs) manipulating their bodyweight in space.
By a similar token, a large proportion of powerlifters lose accountability of their body fat levels, and so despite having impressive absolute strength, their relative strength is average; and sadly, the ‘fat powerlifter’ stereotype is often a deterrent for laypeople to commence this sport.
Handstands would be out of the question for a lot of heavier powerlifters. Implementing bodyweight training, in tandem with powerlifting, will ensure that body fat is kept in check.
A Powerthenics programme, paired with a nutrition plan that supports one’s training demands, will yield insanely good results.
While my perspective is n=1, this approach has enabled me over 3 years to go from a weak 58kg to a strong 83kg; from a 60kg deadlift to 240kg; from struggling to do a proper push-up to handstand push-ups against a wall; from a few chin-ups to 5 with 45kg attached to me.
I am not the best or strongest in this game, but I pride myself on progress, and eagerly anticipate what my body can achieve in years to come.
I want to help facilitate people in becoming the strongest version of themselves, without fitness consuming their lifestyle.
Men & women alike, if you are excited by my vision, and want to work with me towards your goals, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I offer personalised nutrition & training programmes to meet your needs. Join the Powerthenics Project.
Also, I would really appreciate any ideas for future blog posts; topics that you would like clarified or that pique your interest.
Christmas is just around the corner, which inevitably means banquets of delightful foods. It is a season to be enjoyed but, for the health-conscious individual, represents a formidable threat to one’s discipline and concomitant fat loss efforts.
While the suggestions I will outline in this article are by no means revelatory, they deserve consideration if you want to exercise your innate hedonism this social season, without derailing your fat loss progress. Let’s go into the New Year in a position that is propitious to attaining our fitness ‘resolutions’.
1. Sparkling Water Is Your Friend
Not only is carbonated water more palatable and satiating than still water, its use as a mixer can dramatically reduce our total caloric intake for the day.
Unless you have ever inspected the nutritional panel of foods and beverages you commonly consume, it is likely that you underestimate the calories within them. Similarly, for those with a basic understanding of nutritional composition, high-calorie drinks lend themselves to excessive energy intake and weight gain. I believe what and how much we drink at this time of the year is more culpable than our food indulgences, from a fat gain perspective.
Add some lemon juice to a glass of soda water before a meal. Dilute your favourite juice or spirits with it. Keep a bottle of San Pellegrino on hand wherever you go. Use it in your salad dressing recipe. Wot?
2. ‘Hara Hachi Bu’, and Eating Mindfully
It is widely accepted that the Okinawan people of Japan perpetually claim the world’s greatest longevity, per capita; but few people are aware of the key custom that underlies their supreme leanness.
In today’s obese climate, however, most people find eating intuitively a piece of cake (to their heart’s content, without any accountability), but the mindful component of ‘Hara Hachi Bu’ undoubtedly evades most of us. Particularly with our smartphones and various gadgets at hands reach, 24/7. It is only when both intuition and mindfulness are employed concurrently that this strategy works; they depend upon each other.
What I like most about this concept is that it embodies a way in which we can consume a calorie deficit, and thus lose fat, without counting calories or being neurotic. Rather, we can listen to internal cues of hunger.
So, I understand this concept is easier said than done (as with most behavioural interventions), but there are a few sub-strategies we can use to successfully implement it:
Quarantine your phone, and turn off the T.V, at meal times
Chew your food. You might find this suggestion comical, but the amount of people that inhale their food like my dog Slater, is very real
Have a cup of tea after a your first serve (or plateful). Anecdotally, I find a cup of green tea after or with my meal allows my internal hunger cues to ease, and digestion improves
Yes, many of the papers examining the effect of meal frequency on body composition almost invariably favour the higher frequency group (albeit marginally), but these findings are correlational and causation shouldn’t be assumed. What I mean by this is that, generally, the type of person that usually eats irregularly, is the same person that skips breakfast and subsequently proceeds to eating donuts (or similar junk) at work; and then binges at night after a sedentary work-day. Generally.
Rarely does the morning call for social gatherings during this time of year, so I suggest strategically fasting for the first 2-6 hours of the day. Wake up, have some coffee, and use this time to be productive. Run errands, smash an early gym session before the day gets too busy. Don’t brood over food.
Fasting during the first half of the day will give you a nice energy buffer, and allow you to get away with feasting at night, when we are most social. I am not currently fasting every day, purely because I am gaining weight and find breakfast more conducive to this goal; but I understand the general population usually desires weight loss, and this is where strategic fasting is very handy (not to mention the whole host of other benefits associated with it).
I believe it is advantageous, and much more enjoyable, to consume 3 large meals a day as opposed to grazing constantly. Who actually enjoys teasing themselves with tiny servings, and thinking about food all day?
That’s it, guys and gals. Feel free to message me with questions, or if you are interested in my coaching services.
Cavanagh, K., Vartanian, L. R., Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (2014). The effect of portion size on food intake is robust to brief education and mindfulness exercises. J Health Psychol, 19(6), 730-739. doi: 10.1177/1359105313478645
Fukkoshi, Y., Akamatsu, R., & Shimpo, M. (2015). The relationship of eating until 80% full with types and energy values of food consumed. Eating behaviors, 17, 153-156.
Katterman, S. N., Kleinman, B. M., Hood, M. M., Nackers, L. M., & Corsica, J. A. (2014). Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: A systematic review. Eating behaviors, 15(2), 197-204.
Munsters, M. J., & Saris, W. H. (2012). Effects of meal frequency on metabolic profiles and substrate partitioning in lean healthy males. PLoS One, 7(6), e38632.
Schoenfeld, B. J., Aragon, A. A., Wilborn, C. D., Krieger, J. W., & Sonmez, G. T. (2014). Body composition changes associated with fasted versus non-fasted aerobic exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 1.
Tate, D. F., Turner-McGrievy, G., Lyons, E., Stevens, J., Erickson, K., Polzien, K., . . . Popkin, B. (2012). Replacing caloric beverages with water or diet beverages for weight loss in adults: main results of the Choose Healthy Options Consciously Everyday (CHOICE)
Zhu, Y., & Hollis, J. H. (2015). Relationship between chewing behavior and body weight status in fully dentate healthy adults. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 66(2), 135-139.
Hear the word testosterone, and 99% of people will automatically link it to aggression, violence, and a whole host of other undesirable traits. This is understandable given that social media is saturated with stupendously big, vascular, aggressive bodybuilders; but these guys are usually pumping themselves with supraphysiological amounts of artificial testosterone, to gorilla status.
Testosterone is the major male sex hormone, but found in both men and women. It is mainly synthesised in male testes and female ovaries, but a small amount is also produced in the pancreas. In healthy populations, males should have 7-10 times more T than females, but this ratio is declining by the day with an unprecedented prevalence in obesity and other concomitant lifestyle habits.
Later, this article will be outlining practical ways in which we can naturally optimise our endogenous testosterone levels, and how doing so could change your life.
Although it is the predominant male sex hormone, associated with masculinity, testosterone positively affects the quality of life (QOL) in both males and females.
Yes, this post is mostly directed at the lads reading this. However, before the lady audience abandons the rest of the article, I want to allay any preconceived ideas you may have; and allow you to perhaps glean a few things you can share with your male friends 🙂
An imbalance between testosterone/cortisol may well manifest itself as low libido, stubborn body fat, unexplained lethargy, and general apathy with everyday activities.
If you can identify with these symptoms, it would be prudent to get a blood test done to confirm any imbalance, as I feel hormones are often the underlying reason why people are not reaching their fitness goals.
Put simply, testosterone is an elixir of well-being!
Why am I so passionate about hormone optimisation, and particularly testosterone? And why should readers deem my word as tenable on this topic?
MY STORY (in brief)… How I Bounced Back From Rock-Bottom
Those who know me well are aware that I place a great deal of importance on hormonal health, but few know the story behind my disposition.
Through primary school and high school, up until late 2011, I had excelled at various sports requiring power and strength; while physically developing at an expected (or slightly faster than expected) rate for my age. In 2010, I won my football club’s BnF; my tennis club championships; and inter-school triple & long jumps. Puberty was running its natural course during this time, and I was gradually getting bigger, stronger and faster.
Coming in to the twilight years of high school, I decided to channel most of my energy and time in to study, so ultimately dropped all sport but running. At this point in time I was 70kg, and had just won $100 in a 5km fun run. I ultimately settled on running due to its inherent time-efficiency, simplicity, and the fact it was a nice psychological release from studies.
After winning this race, and the yearning to win more races that ensued, I started running every day while developing a somewhat unhealthy preoccupation with eating only ‘clean’/unprocessed foods. In the space of a year, my weekly mileage had increased and I was consistently training at sunrise before school; often back-ending the day with a ‘strength training’ session (naively performing countless exercises for 15+ repetitions).
By the end of 2012, I had faded in to a 58kg little boy. Naturally, my family and friends were concerned for me but knew I was sensitive and vehemently in denial about my deleterious habits.
I eventually conceded to my family’s genuine worry, and arranged a check up with the GP. A blood test was conducted, and the results I received 3 days later were exceptional. My serum testosterone count had registered 14ng/dl.
To give you some perspective, the ‘normal’ range for males is 300-1000; and 15-70ng/dl for women. I essentially had zero testosterone running through my veins.
I was absolutely horrified by my results, and even the doctor was befuddled by these unprecedented results. Never, had I been so shattered in my life. Here I was, an 18 year-old male who had no strength, minimal confidence, no assertiveness or decisiveness; and ultimately no passion for the things I previously loved.
It took me a number of weeks to come to terms with the fact I was responsible for plummeting my T to a negligible level, at an age where testosterone should naturally be sky-high. In hindsight, almost every aspect of my lifestyle at the time contributed to my disastrous bloodwork:
-Minimal rest & recovery with either endurance training or studying around the clock
-Boycotting many social events in order to ‘maximise my year 12 VCE results’
-Chronic calorie deficit (energy intake being far less than the energy my body required to maintain weight)
-Inanely minimising healthy fat sources & starchy carbohydrates, instead opting mostly for fibrous vegetables and protein… (endurance training + high protein (ala Atkins-style) diet lends itself to losing both fat and muscle; far from ideal)
I was quickly referred to an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) who did not hesitate in offering me testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). He showed no hope for my capacity to naturally restore my T, so instead prescribed the potent, smelly goo known as ‘androgel’. It perplexed me how a ‘specialist’ like this could just dismiss the need to explore the root cause of my deficiency.
I tried the gel for a few days, because I didn’t know better, but I could not bear the thought of being reliant for the rest of my life on artificial hormones, when I was only a kid. I threw the prescription out ambivalently, but with an immense drive to naturally correct my problem.
This was the turning point…The monumental wake-up call I needed to re-evaluate my lifestyle at the time. It was thus, I set about devouring as much research as I could on natural testosterone optimisation, and developed an unwavering passion for endocrine health.
Fast-forward to today, and my testosterone is on the high-end of the normal range; I weigh 85kg at 9% body fat; stronger than I’ve ever been with ample energy. I can safely say that I am very proud of my turn-around over the last few years, I am extremely glad I could do so of my own accord, naturally.
It wasn’t easy, and didn’t change overnight, but my accumulated knowledge of hormone optimisation facilitated this gradual transformation. It would also be remiss of me not to mention an awesome dude called Christopher Walker (from the USA), who had been in my shoes at a similar age and provided timely hope of naturally restoring my health.
I even deferred my Physiotherapy studies for a year to pursue Medicine, and ultimately specialise in endocrinology (although I ended up continuing Physio, doing my own research regarding hormone optimisation).
Anyhow, TRT is at its highest rate of prescription in the developed world, currently, and I believe most of these prescriptions are handed out prematurely…Before the root causes (lifestyle factors) have been adequately addressed. The thing about TRT is that if one decides to go on it, their endogenous hormone production will shut down. The physiology of our endocrine system is beyond the scope of this article, but essentially our pituitary gland (chief hormone regulator) realises we are receiving an external source of the hormone, and goes to sleep. Even after weaning off TRT, the pituitary gland may never fully function as it did prior to the therapy, so it is a decision that should not be taken lightly.
Basically, my focus over the years has been on optimising my hormones, rather than directly trying to improve my body composition . Correcting hormonal deficiencies will translate in to attaining a strong, robust physique, so this is crucial to note.
Now, there are many, many tips I could provide you to raise your own testosterone, but I will give you 5 significant ones so that this article doesn’t get too big!
Perform Power-Based Exercises
This was the game-changer for me. Up until 2013, I had been running 7 days a week for prolonged bouts of sub-maximal intensity efforts. I thought I was addressing strength with 3X weekly gym sessions but, not only was I working in the wrong rep/set ranges, my nervous system was fried from all the endurance work I was doing and thus made strength gain impossible.
This kind of training usually requires at least 36 hours of recovery time between bouts, so in order to preserve the quality/explosivity of your training, I would suggest training in this manner every other day (3-4Xweekly). Enjoy a brisk walk as active recovery on rest days.
-> Prioritise heavy compound lifts that recruit a greater number of muscle fibres (i.e deadlifts, squats, chin-ups, standing press, bench press); and free weights over machines
-> Perform the movements as quickly/explosively as you can with weights that allow you to perform 4-10 repetitions. Stop as soon as you feel your form compromising and/or the risk of missing the next repetition.
->If you enjoy running, you can substitute 1-2 of the strength training sessions for a series of windsprints (~50metres), with ample recovery (walking) between each effort. Aim to work up to 10-15 quality reps at 95% effort.
2. Appreciate The Power Of Consistently Deep Sleep
If someone asked me what I believe the most important supplement available to improve health is, I would unequivocally say sleep. Chronic sleep deficiency is linked to a plethora of diseases, yet it isn’t addressed anywhere near as much as other modifiable lifestyle factors like smoking or fast food consumption.
Sadly, the great majority of us are sabotaging quality sleep with our social media addictions. The modern bedroom has become inundated with blue light-emitting technology, impeding our production of ‘the sleep hormone’ melatonin. This hormone, emitted by the pineal gland in our brain, essentially reduces the time it takes for us to fall asleep and enhances the quality of our sleep. Also, the darker your room while sleeping, the stronger your melatonin production.
To maximise my quality of sleep, I:
Wear orange glasses that filter out blue light, ideally as soon as the sun goes down
Switch off my phone while sleeping
Don’t have a led-light clock in my bedroom
Try to maintain a sleep routine of ~11pm-7am
Installed f.lux on my laptop and phone (an app that reduces blue light emissions)
Reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex, only, and watch your T levels (and health) rise.
3. Supplement Wisely
While good sleep trumps all other nutraceutical supplements on the market, there are a handful of these that I would recommend to boost T & QOL. There aren’t many scientifically proven supplements available, but the following have consistently demonstrated efficacy in human studies:
I came across this herb in 2014, and was amazed by its immediate stress-relieving effects. A herb dating back to ancient Ayurvedic practices in India, it is an ‘adaptogen’ (a term denoting an aid that helps the body maintain homeostasis during imposed stresses).
The main mechanism by which ashwagandha improves testosterone is given by its cortisol-lowering property. Cortisol & testosterone are opposing forces in the body, just like the yin & yang concept; cortisol breaks down tissue, whereas testosterone builds new tissue.
This study shows a 40% increase in testosterone with 5g (or 500mg extract) of ashwagandha taken daily.
Barlowe’s Elixirs make an impressive extract here.
4. Practice Some Form Of Mindfulness
It was only after I implemented mindfulness practice in 2014 that I experienced significantly greater calmness in everyday life. Combining mindfulness with ashwagandha may reap potent dividends for your psychological well-being.
I try to listen to Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Practising The Power of Now’ while walking in nature, daily.
5. Revise Your Diet (Do Not Eschew Fat Or Carbohydrates)
All macronutrients play unique roles in our body composition and health, but I feel people go wrong when they vilify one of these in lieu of another.
Yes, it is important to maintain a high intake of protein (~1g/lb of body weight) for muscle protein synthesis and satiety. However, fat and carbohydrates are the most important macronutrients when it comes to optimising testosterone.
Ultimately, I would advise consuming as much protein as you can without lowering your intakes of fat and CHO to <30% of your daily intake. Whole food sources where possible as they will ensure greater satiety, micronutrients, and better health in the long-run.
Thank you for reading my story, and getting this far. I hope it was insightful for you all, and I wanted to illustrate that my journey has by no means been without its hardships. The hardships have made my improvements much more fulfilling, though.
P.S. Get a blood test done if you are not entirely satisfied with your mood, energy, and general health – both the ladies & gents. Get your hormones right, and everything else will fall in place with much less effort.
I am happy to work with you one-on-one if you would like some guidance.
The warmer months are upon us, which means less clothing and more skin-bearing! It is a time where people undoubtedly want to look their best, yet may be ruminating regretfully over the undisciplined Winter of comfort eating. Well, if you fall into this majority of people that accumulates a bit of extra baggage over the Winter months and are seeking to lean up a bit coming into ‘Beach Season’, this article should be of interest to you!
Rather than just regurgitate run-of-the-mill, bland health foods that circulate the fitness discussion forums, I will outline 10 foods/supplements that I personally consume on a regular basis AND believe will greatly assist you in improving your body composition. These are items that, I believe, fly under the radar given their health & fat loss-inducing potential.
For the last year or so, cinnamon powder has been a staple of mine not only because it tastes amazing but because of its inherent blood-glucose stabilising ability. In other words, cinnamon improves our insulin sensitivity to the extent that it significantly aids our body in metabolising glucose. This property has been exhibited in both pre-diabetic and type-2 diabetic populations, and is associated with a decreased likelihood of acquiring type 2 diabetes. Quite impressively, insulin has also shown to offset the harmful effects of a high fat/high fructose diet by virtue of increased brain insulin signalling and a neuroprotective function. Other recent studies have demonstrated liver fat reduction and total body weight loss.
This unassumingly healthy brown powder is a MUST for fat loss goals, and it is prudent to pair it with any carbohydrate-rich meal. I buy this cinnamon powder, in bulk from iHerb.
2.Beetroot (NOT tinned beetroot*)
When a food exudes such a rich colour, and houses a juice so strong that it stains everything, your intuition tells you it is powerful. Beetroot, in reference to the root vegetable, has consistently proven to lower blood pressure by 3-10mm/hg over an extended time period. This is due to the large amount of nitrates contained within it; this compound elevates nitric oxide (NO) in humans, which acts as a dilator of blood vessels. Thus, beetroot helps with peripheral blood circulation, and can attenuate endothelial impairment after a high-fat meal.
For the runners reading this, you will be excited to know that increasing evidence is indicative of beetroot being a performance-enhancer. Once again, this is due to its nitrates, and they elicited a 5% improvement in 5km running times while decreasing perceived exertion…How cool is that? I personally consumed 500ml of beetroot juice prior to a 5km race earlier this year, and performed better than I anticipated!
Beetroots also have a lot of water-soluble fibre, and so have a gentle laxative-effect. If you have tried cooked whole beetroot before, you will identify with this 😉
While technically not a food, creatine is one supplement that EVERYONE can benefit from. Creatine is an organic acid that the human body stores in small amounts, and it regenerates the energy molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP) after creating phosphocreatine (PC).
Yes, creatine is associated with bodybuilding (lean mass gains) and strength training, but this inexpensive white substance is also a cognitive enhancer! This is of particular importance to vegetarians, as red meat is the primary dietary source from which we can obtain creatine. This study demonstrated superior cognitive function in vegetarians who supplemented with creatine, when compared to the control group.
All in all, this is ‘The Boss’ of supplements that ticks all criteria. I buy this creatine monohydrate – consume 1 teaspoon daily.
It saddens me to periodically see articles that demonise the humble white potato. Yes, a boiled white potato contains a glycaemic index (GI) of ~100, which is considerably high and indicates that it may spike blood glucose if consumed alone. This one fact that nutritionists use to denigrate the potato, however, is made redundant, when we consider what we eat alongside it – who doesn’t eat their potatoes with a meat or healthy fat source? Exactly. The GI of a food is significantly lowered when we simultaneously consume protein and/or fat. While I personally prefer the taste of sweet potato, I consume a tonne of white potatoes because I view them as equivalent overall in terms of health and the latter is generally cheaper. If you were wanting to know the macronutrient differences; the white potato contains less calories, higher protein, and less carbohydrates per 100g.
Now, when boiled in its jacket, the white potato has topped an extensive list of foods to claim the highest satiety ranking. Satiety of foods is perhaps the most important consideration when formulating a diet aimed to lose fat/weight. We become full with less food, so are more likely to be in an energy deficit by the end of the day, and subsequently lose fat.
If you want to make your potato even more healthy, cooling it after it has been cooked materialises a few grams of resistant starch. This is an indigestible starch which is converted into short-chain fatty acids in the intestinal bacteria and promotes healthy gut flora. Resistant starch has gathered tremendous momentum in the nutrition research realm in recent years, and is now deemed unequivocally beneficial.
We hear endlessly how great almonds and walnuts are for us, but neither of these foods contain adequate amounts of a nutrient many of us are unknowingly deficient in: selenium. Just 2-3 Brazil nuts boasts 400% of our daily quota for selenium, and alleviates deficiency of this vital mineral.
Why is selenium so important? It is required to produce the thyroid hormone T4 which, once converted to its bioactive T3 form, regulates our metabolism. If we are low in selenium, a sluggish metabolism is inevitable and so fat accumulation is heightened. Moreover, one big dose (obtained from brazil nuts) significantly reduced inflammatory markers. This is mostly due to selenium’s function in synthesising glutathione, the most potent antioxidant in the human body. We want to mitigate chronic inflammation because it is a pre-cursor to many diseases.
Most people claim that they “do not enjoy the taste of organ meats”, but it is undeniably the thought of consuming such parts of animals that is aversive. I initially had this mentality towards lamb’s fry until I discovered that it is literally nature’s multivitamin, so convinced myself to trial it. Because the liver’s function is that of detoxification, it hosts a plethora of important nutrients (vitamins A, K, C, B12) that aid in fulfilling this function. Most notably, however, is that 100g of lamb liver contains a whopping 1500% of our daily vitamin B12 requirement. The B12 vitamin is crucial for our nerve cell health, and blood formation.
Macronutrient-wise, liver is akin to beef rump steak which is also 10 times more expensive and less nutrient-dense. If you are looking to be healthy or gain muscle on a budget, this is top of the tree.
I still find it hard to believe that I can purchase ~1.2kg of grass-fed lamb liver for $2 at my local butcher. I tend to fry it with garlic, onion and coconut oil, and believe me when I say it tastes incredible! One needs to dissociate the ‘organ meat’ label though to truly enjoy this acquired taste.
All in all, lamb liver is unbelievably cheap; unparalleled in nutrient-density; and highly-satisfying when cooking it as described above. Get adventurous and explore the wonderful world of organ meats!
7.Hot Chilli Sauce
Just to spice things up (heh), I thought I would throw in a condiment that can easily transform a meal and melt fat for several hours thereafter. Although it is not for everyone, and we each tolerate spice to different extents, I want you to at least understand how effective a bit of chilli can be in fat loss.
Yes, another supplement, but WPC is as convenient as it is effective in fat loss & muscle protein synthesis.
I would first like to allay people’s fear of ‘consuming too much protein’, as to impair kidney function. A series of recent peer-reviewed studies, emerging from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN), concluded that protein consumption up to even 3.4grams/kg of bodyweight had null effect on the kidneys in both men and women. Compounding this positive outcome was the statistically significant improvement in body composition in the high-protein group, when compared to a normal-protein group. Excessive protein intake only poses a threat to individuals with pre-existing kidney conditions, so be liberal with your protein intake folks! Protein is the most satiating macronutrient of all, far-surpassing fat and carbohydrate in this regard.
Now, in an ideal world we would consume all of our protein through whole foods, but I am an advocate for protein supplementation via powder as it is:
-Convenient in today’s fast-paced society
-Tasty, especially in a smoothie (which I enjoy most mornings)
-Easily portable, if on the road
-Good value, when buying in bulk
I have also selected WPC rather than Whey Protein Isolate (WPI), even though people tend to esteem WPI higher for its more rapid assimilation. I don’t believe this is important though, as Aragon & Schoenfeld (2013) recently published a systematic review that is suggestive of extending the ‘post-workout anabolic window’ to ~5-6 hours. WPC is considerably cheaper than WPI, and is slightly less processed.
As such, I purchase this WPC from NZ grass-fed cows. I choose ‘Professional Whey’ because they endorse stevia, a natural sweetener which has healthy properties, as opposed to the more prevalent sucralose which has been linked to neuro-toxic effects in rats.
9.Low-fat Cheddar Cheese
I am a big advocate for cheese because it is inherently tasty, contains dairy fat, and large doses of calcium. However, if you eat large quantities of cheese like I do, it is wise to choose the light cheddar so that fat intake is not disproportionately high. I opt for Bega’s 50%-reduced fat cheese (which contains 4g fat & 8.6g protein per 20g serving). 8.6 grams of protein derived from a small 20g serving is impressive, and we should all now be cognisant of the fat loss elixir that is protein.
I believe much of Australia’s obesity endemic is due to sugary drinks which are nutrient-void and promote further consumption. Drinking empty calories, as such, is a toxic habit that has observably become ingrained in Australian families.
Soda water is a very cheap drink that is versatile and highly-satiating. This 0-calorie beverage is fantastic to simultaneously suppress hunger and hydrate you. It should be a fixture in your fridge, and if weight loss is your goal this should be your first choice of drink. Add some ice, and squeeze a lemon slice in there, and you have a darn refreshing, absolutely healthy filler. Soda water is a must when mixing with liquors too; you don’t want to be combining sugar-laden juices with straight liquor…that is a recipe for fat gain. I find a few glasses of soda/lemon water in the morning goes down beautifully, and I find standard water somewhat unpalatable upon waking.
Stock up on carbonated water!
Well, what was initially meant to be a very brief post turned into a 2100-word article – if you read it all, I commend you, and hope you learnt something new. I hope that these foods can assist you with attaining your physique goals this Summer!
Ironically, I write this piece just prior to my travels in freezing-cold Japan, where I will definitely not be bearing much skin! 😀