by Mike Arnold
In attempting to define the bodybuilding physique there are two physical characteristics that stand out above all the rest. One of these is extreme muscular development. As the calling card for bodybuilders worldwide, an exaggerated level of muscle mass is usually the first thing people notice when viewing a bodybuilder for the first time. But this isn’t the only feature vying for attention. Bodybuilders also display an almost alarmingly low level of bodyfat, particularly when in contest shape. This is crucial for allowing them to display the unique appearance they are known for and is the primary differentiating factor between those who train for looks and those who train for function (i.e. powerlifters, strongmen, etc). In fact, one could even argue that in the absence of this distinctive trait, the individual is no longer a bodybuilder at all.
While not everyone can walk around in the off-season at 6% bodyfat (at least not without great difficulty), the point here is that one must exhibit an sufficiently low level of bodyfat in order to be considered a bodybuilder. This prerequisite all but ensures rigorous attention to diet, cardio, and the occasional use of fat-loss drugs/supplements, but regardless of whether we are getting ready for a show or just trying to maintain a respectable off-season appearance, no one wants to sacrifice muscle mass in order to achieve this. Although there may be certain instances in which this scenario is unavoidable (starting contest prep with too much bodyfat, for example), for the most part it is an unnecessary evil.
There are numerous different factors which influence our ability to retain lean mass, but only a few of them are completely within our control. One of these is the use of fat loss drugs (from this point forward I will refer to all OTC, prescription, and blackmarket products as “drugs”). Unfortunately, not all fat loss drugs are created equal when it comes to their effects on lean mass retention. Some of them have a positive effect on tissue growth/maintenance, while others have a neutral effect, and some others have a negative effect. These differences do not necessarily make one better than the other, but it does require us to be aware of their effects and utilize only those products which are ideally suited to our own particular needs.
Oddly, some of the most frequently used fat loss drugs are those which have a potentially detrimental effect on muscle mass. This includes nearly all stimulants and T3. Stimulant-based drugs are probably the single most popular category of fat-burner on the market…and for good reason. Not only are they effective, but they are cheap, usually legal, and provide an energizing high that many find helpful when trying to overcome the energy deficit that accompanies low-calorie dieting. To top things off, they even help reduce food intake/cravings via appetite suppression.
On the surface they seem like an almost perfect complement to one’s fat loss program…and in many ways they are. But, as with most drugs, they also cause their fair share of problems. When used responsibly this is a non-issue, but chronic/long-term use can induce a plethora of unwanted effects which includes, but is not limited to: cortisol elevation, vasoconstriction, adrenal fatigue, dietary insufficiency via appetite suppression, and sleep cycle dysregulation. All of these have a negative effect on lean mass retention/accumulation, but it doesn’t stop there.
While stimulants have been shown to increase the rate of lipolysis (the release of fatty acids from fat cells into the bloodstream), much of their fat-burning potency is attributable to an overall increase in calorie burning; an effect which is largely indiscriminate in nature. In other words, they are not very selective when it comes to their preferred source of calorie burning, making them more likely to draw calories from muscle tissue than many other types of fat loss drugs. This makes them a comparatively poor choice for almost anyone trying to build muscle tissue, or for those who struggle to hold onto lean mass while dieting. Keep in mind that I am talking about chronic use here. In general I see no problem with intermittent use during growth phases, but if you are someone who needs to take stimulants before every workout just to train hard, get up in the morning, or just to function during the day, then you have much bigger problems than fat loss to worry about.
T3 is similar to stimulants in that it also burns fat primarily by increasing metabolic rate, while retaining the same indiscriminate, calorie burning nature of stimulants. The only time I feel off-season T3 use is justifiable is when the individual has a below average metabolism and is using the drug to normalize T3 levels, not to push them into the supraphysiological range. As effective as T3 is for fat loss, it is one of the most surefire ways to kill your gains, especially when employing moderate to high doses. A great example would be a client I worked with late last year. In this particular case his prior coach had him using an absolutely atrocious dose of T3 (150-200 mcg/day if I remember correctly) during the off-season so that he could “stay lean” as he built muscle mass. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Rather than growing while he kept the fat off, he actually started to shrink without making any significant reductions to his bodyfat percentage. In his own words “I became a smaller version of myself”.
So, when he first approached me complaining of a lackluster rate of progress, diagnosing the problem was easy. To make a long story short, this individual put on about 40 pounds of lean tissue within just 2 months of working together, while maintaining the same low bodyfat percentage he had started with (probably around 8%). While he was overly impressed with his progress and extremely grateful for the guidance he received, the truth is that I did very little to earn such praise. The dramatic growth he experienced was attributable almost entirely to a single change—the removal of T3 from his program, rather than any profound advice provided on my part. For the first time in over a year his body was actually able to use the calories he was eating to synthesize new muscle tissue, rather than cannibalizing his muscle in order to support his self-induced, hyper-metabolic state.
Now, I don’t want to come across as sounding like I am anti-stimulant/T3 because I am not. I think both drugs have several effective applications and I often recommend them as part of a more comprehensive fat loss program. However, I just don’t think they are a wise choice (in most cases) for the off-season bodybuilder trying to maximize muscle growth. So, rather than discuss the potential applications that these drugs have to offer, I want to focus on an area of research that has garnered a lot of attention in recent years. More specifically, I want to talk about the appropriate use of fat loss drugs during growth phases. As most of you know, maintaining a ripped appearance while adding muscle new muscle tissue is an exceedingly difficult task; one usually only possible for those with the most gifted genetics. Fortunately, there are many things we can do in order to make this whole process significantly easier, but if you are expecting some type of new or revolutionary insight into the realm of fat loss, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The truth is that most of what I will cover here today has been known for decades, yet the majority tends to dismiss this information in favor of a more radical approach—often to their own detriment. For those of you who want to improve your ability to stay lean while building muscle mass, you may want to consider adopting the recommendations provided below.
In short, there are a number of products available today that provide both body fat reducing and growth promoting effects without any acute or long-term toxicity. Some of them even impart notable health benefits. Perhaps the most well known of these drugs is growth hormone. Although extremely complex in its actions, GH’s fat loss effect is mediated mainly through its ability to increase lipolysis, while its IGF-1 elevating effect is responsible for the bulk of its growth promoting effects. Regardless, GH has proven to be a valuable addition to just about any bodybuilding program…and it doesn’t take much to begin noticing its benefits. As little as 3 iu daily has been shown to be effective for eliciting noticeable improvements in body composition, while higher doses will provide the same benefits in a more rapid, exaggerated fashion.
Although exogenous growth hormone has long been considered the Gold Standard for elevating growth hormone/IGF-1 levels, it is not the only option available. GH peptides/secretagogues are also a viable alternative. In fact, a secretagogue like MK-677 (which stays active for 24 hours and is equivalent to roughly 3-4 iu of GH per day in terms of production) can provide effects on par with exogenous growth hormone. It is also significantly less costly than growth hormone, which will help reduce the blow to your bank account. For many individuals it will end up being the most sensible choice. Regardless of the source, growth hormone is one of the best possible options for minimizing fat gain as you add lean mass.
Traditionally, bodybuilders have focused on diet, training, cardio, and also the manipulation of hormones when attempting to get /stay lean. As mentioned above, growth hormone has long been part of the bodybuilder’s fat loss arsenal, but when it comes to the manipulation of other endocrine hormones, most of them, outside of T3/T4, have received comparatively little attention. This is a mistake, as our body composition isn’t determined by a single molecule, but by a panoply of tightly regulated, inter-related hormones. The more of these hormones we can manipulate in our favor, the less likely we are to store calories as bodyfat, thereby bringing us one step closer to becoming the muscle building, fat destroying machine we all want to be. To this end both insulin and cortisol management is critical.
When insulin first hit the scene bodybuilders viewed it mostly as a muscle building agent, while relatively little emphasis was placed on its negative effect on fat cells. Things remained this way for a little while…until people started to realize they were getting fat. You see, insulin is a double-edged sword in that it not only promotes recovery and growth, but it also stimulates fat storage. The more of this hormone we are exposed to, the fatter we will get (assuming all other variables are equal). This is because insulin has a direct, negative effect on fat cell function by inhibiting lipolysis. In laymen’s terms, this means that it orders fat cells to stop releasing stored fat. However, insulin’s effect on fat cells is not unique. As the body’s primary storage hormone, insulin signals multiple cell types (fat, muscle, brain, etc) to not only accept incoming glucose, but to stop currently stored fatty acids from being released into the bloodstream. Needless to say, this makes fat loss much more difficult.
This is also the reason why low-carb diets tend to burn bodyfat more quickly than those which contain larger amounts of carbs—because carbohydrates are insulinogenic by nature. They increase blood glucose levels, which in turn stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin as a means of blood sugar regulation. When muscle and fat cells come in contact with this newly secreted insulin, a transporter protein known as Glut-4 (which is located inside muscle and fat cells) rises to the cell surface and immediately shuttles any available glucose inside the cell. When this glucose is absorbed by muscle cells it promotes glycogen replenishment, accelerates recovery rate, increases performance, and leads to bigger, fuller muscles. But when it is absorbed by fat cells it is converted to fatty acids for future use (i.e. stored as bodyfat).
Furthermore, the more insulin that insulin receptors come in contact with (which are located in muscle, fat, etc), the less sensitive they become to its actions. This is called insulin resistance. As a result, the pancreas must produce more insulin in order to transport an equal amount of glucose inside the cells. Why is this bad for fat loss? It’s really simple and can be summed up in the following sentence. Muscle cells become resistant to insulin’s signal (i.e. they lose sensitivity) more quickly than fat cells! This means that long after our muscle cells have stopped efficiently absorbing glucose, our fat cells are still doing a wonderful job, which is the exact opposite of what we want. In the end, a larger percentage of glucose ends up getting absorbed by our fat cells and converted to fat. So, if we want to make it as easy as possible for our body to lose fat, we have to keep our overall insulin sensitivity as high as possible, so that our muscles’ capacity to absorb glucose is never diminished. This is the only way to minimize the amount of glucose that gets absorbed by our fat cells.
When first learning that we must minimize overall insulin levels in order to improve our ability to stay lean, some bodybuilders express concern that this will have potential negative ramifications on muscle growth. They figure that by reducing levels of such a powerful anabolic and anti-catabolic hormone, that their body’s muscle building machinery will be weakened, resulting in impaired growth. On the surface this logic seems to make sense…until one realizes this is not necessarily true. In fact, chronically elevated insulin levels, whether it takes place through excessive pancreatic production or irresponsible exogenous administration, can have the exact opposite effect. This is because insulin resistance makes it more difficult for our muscles to absorb glucose, it reduces the rate of protein synthesis via the decreased phosphorylation of insulin-dependent enzymes, and increases proteasomal protein degradation. When it comes to reaping maximum benefits from insulin (either exogenous or endogenous), it all comes down to how well our bodies respond to the hormone, rather than how much we are able to pump into our system. Not only can we grow more quickly and stay leaner by doing things this way, but it is a much healthier-safer approach and also less likely to result in aesthetic imbalances (Note: visceral fat storage, which results in stomach distension, is caused by insulin resistance).