Loose fat. Build muscles.
These are the two most common goals of everyone training in gyms all over the world.
And those two goals are summed up as Body Comp changes, improvements and eventually Transformations.
What is Body Comp?
Body Comp is short for body composition. This term is used to describe the ratio of fat and muscle in human bodies. And this is relevant as this ratio of muscle and fat tissue, as well as weight, determines leanness and looks. Two people of the same gender and body weight may look completely different because they have a different body composition.
As Body Comp is determined by the ratio of fat and muscle, it not only determines directly how we look. It is indirectly also a great indicator of how we feel and function.
Improving Body Comp is therefore not just a question of looks, it is also a question of performance and wellbeing.
Are Body Comp improvements the Ultimate Goal of everyone that trains?
Ultimately, yes it is, directly and indirectly.
What if I don't care much about how I look?
One might say I don't care much about how I look, my goal is to run a marathon or cycle up a mountain. That sounds logical. It isn't though. Body Comp improvements play a huge role in endurance performance. In that scenario its about optimizing the fat to muscle to bodyweight ration. One of the best examples is Lance Armstrong, who lost 20 lb. (9kg) in between the early 90s when he was an average pro cyclist and the late 90s were he arguably became the greatest the cyclist of all time (1). Losing 20 lbs. (9kg) from in this case primarily muscle has to be considered a Body Comp improvement in this specific scenario as it improves to kilo to watt ratio which is a key indicator of absolute performance in cycling endurance. The less you weigh in relation to your power output, the longer you can go. And win.
In another scenario, another person might say I don't care much about how I look, my goal is just to feel better and be healthy. So in this case, Body Comp is a key indicator. When we talk about being healthy, first immune function positively correlates with muscle mass. Yes, more muscle means better immune function. Second, muscle mass and strength are also the top two key indicators for biological age (3). The longer you can improve and maintain muscle mass and strength the younger you are. And of course, total body fat and body fat distribution are correlated to the hormonal system which regulates our wellbeing. Higher body fat combined with lower muscle mass has been shown to negatively impact blood sugar management, energy level, sleep quality and thyroid function which has been shown to impact well being tremendously.
Improved Body Comp is therefore a fundamental component of performance, health and wellbeing. Improving Body Comp will directly and indirectly affect any physical goal you have.
And of course how you look. If that's your goal.
The next logical question is: How do you improve your Body Comp?
There are multiple pillars that impact Body Comp. Everyone knows the two most important ones.
Training and Nutrition.
And there is also a third foundational pillar, the most have become aware of, the Mindset.
Beyond those three key components, there are many more that are often underrated, such as sleep quality and stress management. These two have to be managed in the many of cases to get Body Comp improvements. In this article we will focus on the three most important pillars: Mindset, Nutrition and Training.
Training for Body Comp
As a rule of thumb, all physical activities will have a positive impact on Body Comp to some degree.
We are made to move. Movement is life. Moving is essential for vibrant health, vitality and everyday performance.
If you prefer a certain type of movement or sport, do it.
As with every form of improvement, there has to be progression.
No progress equals no improvements. That is a logical fact.
Just going for a run twice a week for 30 minutes won't do much improvement-wise in the mid term.
Whatever you do for physical activity, it needs to be progressive. To get the most out of it. Instead of plateauing constantly, which is what most actually do.
When we take the example of running twice a week for 30 minutes. Initially, you can just go for running a longer distance within those 30 minutes every single time you run. That's progress. Obviously a few runs down the road, depending on your training status, that will be between 4 and 8 runs for most, you will plateau. That means no more progress. And the point were you plateau you have to change your program. A new program means new potential for progress. You might go from the 30 minute run to 10 intervals of 1 minute run and 2 minute walk. Measure the total distance you run in that 1 minute. Improve it every time. Do that until you plateau. Than change your program again. Maybe this time to a 45 minute run. And so on.
That's what's called periodizing a program. You cut it up into different programs and phases. You do each as long as you can progress on it then you change.
Interval Training for Body Comp
What I have described above is basically steady state running alternated with interval training.
I use a lot of Interval Training to improve Body Comp with clients.
One of the major benefits of interval training is that its fairly easy to be measured. Either run a set distance and take the time. Or run a set time and improve the distance. Those are the two primary options to measure the output and work done in an interval session.
Another major benefit of interval training is its time efficiency. A good interval training workout rarely lasts or needs to last longer than 20 to 30 minutes. Interval training is about doing the most work possible while you move. Its not about a lot of moving to do a lot of work. 1km total of interval sprints done in 30 minutes, thats about 2.5 minutes work and 27.5 minutes rest, has a greater impact to improve Body Comp that running 30minutes non-stop.
If you do a simple comparison between Sprinter and Marathon runners to illustrate this point and its correlation to Body Comp, my point is clear.
Cardio in the case of steady state running is a waste of time for body comp improvements. As the time invested in the relation to the results you get is very low.
Interval training is a key component in improving Body Comp as fast as possible.
And the top two options are sprints and Air Bike intervals.
Play a sport for Body Comp
Some say intervals are boring. They rather play. I get that point. If you do a sport like soccer, basketball, table tennis or Jiu Jitsu. Yes, this can definitely be taxing and a lot of energy will be spent, the fundamental principle of progression is hard to be applied.
If you have a GPS watch you could do the math how much distance you covered at what speed above 85% of your top speed, which will be the most relevant for Body Comp.
Fact is, almost no one will do that. Its work. And it takes some fun out of playing.
If you like to play a sport, do it. I like to consider it a complementary activity that I rather loosely measure.
Complementary means, I recommend to add that on top or next to the two most fundamental forms of training for Body Comp. The first one is Interval Training, primarily for its accountability, time efficiency and energy expenditure. And the second is strength training.
Strength Training for Body Comp
Body Comp is loosing fat and gaining muscle. To gain muscle in the form of hypertrophy or strength gain, the most efficient form of training is strength training or in a different term weight training. Training with weights is the most efficient form of training to put on strength and mass.
The strongest man and women on this planet, powerlifters, weightlifters, strongman competitor and throwers all base their training in lifting weights.
The muscular man and women on this planet, bodybuilders, all base their training in lifting weights.
Why gain strength if Hypertrophy is the goal?
Prof. Dr. dr Dietmar Schmidtbleicher's quote
"Maximum Strength is the mother of all Strength Qualities"
is the base of a modification I have made
"Maximum Strength is the father of Body Comp"
Why? Because the stronger one is the greater the stimulus of any form of Hypertrophy and Interval Training.
The stronger one is and gets, the faster the Body Comp results.
If you focus on pure metabolic adaptations, the greater the strength the greater the output and stimulus.
If we talk to a marathon runner for example, there is a need for maximal strength as maximal strength is needed for minimal ground contact time and maximal stride length. Which are key indicators of a great marathon time. Of course, a marathon runner does not need the maximum strength levels of a weightlifter. Precisely, they don't even have to be close. Nonetheless, maximum strength is needed to run 42km as fast as possible. And often underrated on an Elite Level. Eliud Kipchoge who ran the new unofficial Marathon World Record of 1:59:40h a few months ago said that adding in strength training on 3 days a week made a difference for him in improving his elite level personal best and setting the new world record.
What does running a marathon have to do with improving Body Comp?
My point is definitely not that one gets Marathon ready to improve Body Comp. That's too specific of a goal. My point is that Maximum Strength is base for power output. Even in an event that seems far away from Maximum Strength for most as running a Marathon. Power output is crucial in winning a marathon. The runner that can maintain the greatest average power output for the longest is the one that will win.
Also, the same is true for Body Comp results. The greater the power output which is based on maximum strength the greater the energy expenditure. And the greater the energy expenditure the faster the fat loss results.
And a 500PS car uses up more fuel and energy that a 50PS car.
Thats how Maximum Strength is the father of Body Comp from a Fatloss perspective.
And I use the term father rather then mother as a mother is needed in 100% of the cases. The embryo cannot develop outside the whomb of a mother. Yet, a father technically not that necessary as sperm alone does the job sufficiently.
So, using the term father in this case gives credit to that one out of 1000 exception that is weak and still has a lot of hypertrophy, basically the absolute majority of today's professional bodybuilders. And it also gives credit to that one out of 1000 exceptions that is weak and still has very low body fat. Everyone that has been around gyms for a while, knows that type, below average training, below average eating, and is still lean to shredded all year. Exceptions are just that though, expectations. They are not the rule. Their approach does not lead to reproducible results.
For the absolute majority of a baseline level of Maximum Strength will accelerate Fatloss through greater power output and energy expenditure. And greater Hypertrophy gains through greater mechanical tension and muscular damage.
Hypertrophy for Body Comp
The same counts for Body Comp. The stronger one is or gets, the easier it is to put on muscle mass.
10 reps with 140kg on the bench press stimulate more fibers and elevate muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree than 10 reps with 60 kg on the bench press.
Old school bodybuilders knew that. Look at every single bodybuilder of the 70s and 80s. They had great physique and excellent Body Comp. Lean and muscular. And every single one of them was quite strong. Even a smaller guy like Frank Zane was known to do 12 reps with 55kg Dumbells in each hand on the Incline Benchpress at about 85kg bodyweight.
And to press 55kg Dumbells on the Incline for 12 reps, one first needs to press 55kg Dumbells for 1 rep.
Maximum strength comes first.
If you can't handle higher weights for lower reps, you cannot handle them for higher reps. That is simple physics. And the base of fast and reliable hypertrophy gains.
"Maximum Strength is the father of Body Comp"
So we do powerlifting first?
Not necessarily. Gaining Maximum Strength is a question of progress. Not of a certain rep number. All sport science books will give you rep brackets for certain goals. Which is looking at the world in a very sterile and theoretical manner. It is looking at the world through a straw.
The reality is this, a beginner can get stronger by doing 2 sets of 15 reps. That's a fact. That means for a beginner doing 15 reps is training and improving the the maximum strength.
Whats also a fact, is that the more advanced someone gets the lower the average number of reps has to be to continue to make progress in gaining maximal strength.
Elite Level Powerlifters and Weightlifters don't get stronger by doing 3 sets of 10 reps.
Which doesn't matter that much to 99%+ of the gym population as they are not Elite Level Powerlifters and Weightlifters.
What matters is that progress in weights is directly proportional to getting stronger.
For Body Comp that basically means that we develop on a bell shaped curve on intensity and volume.
You start out on higher reps, depending on current strength level and exercise selection and then you progress to lower reps to continue to increase maximum strength and then the progression is back towards higher reps, for great muscular damage and metabolic stimulus.
How long does it take to progress through this bell-shaped curve?
How long is a rope?
It just depends on so many factors.
For example, this Body Transformation of Martin Gratzer, as a 12 time National Champion in shotput, with a 200kg squat and 160kg for 3 reps on the Incline Press, his training focus on lower reps for Maximum Strength and Explosive Strength for years. When he retired from shotput and he wanted to improve his Body Comp, we basically started out at the top of the bell curve. At a peak of maximum strength, increasing the reps and his total workload. With outstanding Body Comp results as the pictures show. That was an 18 week transformation and another 3 years of working with me before that.
The Body Comp Results from Sven Knebel, a competitive IFBB Bodybuilder were quite different. He was training competing for over 10 years before he started working with me. Basically for the whole time he did classic bodybuilding training. Doing high reps. Chasing the pump. Going for feeling the muscle. Which is technically a good approach. He was just weak. He was as weak as every bodybuilder today. So we started out on moderate reps and gradually moved to lower reps building his Maximum Strength. From the average weak bodybuilder he went to a 160kg Close Grip Benchpress, Chinups with 110kg bodyweight plus 60kg added on a belt, 240kg Back Squat and a 280kg Deadlift. Once we hit that strength level we gradually moved back to higher volume approach. Adding in supersets, trisets and eventually giant sets. With outstanding Body Comp results as the pictures show. That was an 18 week transformation on top of another 2 years of working with me before that.
A third example is Sebastian Rudolf. He was rolled in at a gym for years when he started working with me. His baseline strength and muscular development was low. I started him out on the far left of the bell shaped curve. Moderate to high reps. Lower weights. Progressively getting stronger. In just 3 phases and a total of 9 weeks he transformed his Body Comp to degree he never had before. These results are shown pictures below.
These are three examples that all started at different points of the bell shaped curve. And with all of them the goal of progressive training is to progress on that curve towards the right.
And this bell-shaped curve actually applies to the development in any form of training or sport. For example in soccer, when you start out you just play for hours a day. With the goal of developing the fundamental skills and understanding the individual aspects of the game. Then you move up the bell shaped curve and move specific components, passing, shooting, handling the ball. And once you reach the your technical peak and eventual play professional it goes back down the curve into to deepening the understanding and refining of the fundamental aspects of game. And the same applies to the development of an elite athlete in every single sport out there.
Summing up Training for Body Comp
In summary, we need to train for fat loss and hypertrophy in a progressive manner, to create a progressive energy deficit as well progressive strength and total volume.
The main forms of training I prefer are intervals, for their accountability, time efficiency and energy expenditure.
And the second is strength training. To first, build Maximum Strength as the base of progress in training for Body Comp. And second, to induce mechanical damage, the base of muscle protein synthesis and hypertrophy.
Training creates a stimulus for improvements in Body Comp.
Nutrition facilitates improvements in Body Comp
Next to training, by basically everyone now knows that nutrition is key to loose fat and gain muscle.
I even go that far to state that training itself is quite useless.
Which is proven in basically every gym everywhere in the world. People show up, train hard, often get sore. And still have little to no results.
Especially after the initial honeymoon phase of experiencing something new.
Training only stimulates progress. Nutrition is key to facilitate progress.
How to eat for Body Comp
First, one thing basically everyone agrees on – protein.
Protein is important for many functions of the body. Including recovery from training. And building muscle tissue. How much protein to eat depends on many factors. A guideline is 2g to 4g per kg body weight.
Second, the thing that most agree on—vegetables.
The main reason are the commonly known and promoted health benefits of vegetable due to vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, fiber, prebiotic, polyphenols, flavonoids, chlorophyll and much more. And another one is definitely satiety and vitality. Eating vegetables appears to be boring at times. They do fill one up, depending on total food intake, that's a benefit. And they help with vitality. The scientific and empirical evidence on vegetables is quite clear. They are definitely not magical. And you can even argue that they are not essential. That means that one can easily survive without ever eating a vegetable again. The case for them is quite solid. Eat them.
Third, where to get energy from - fats and carbs.
Historically there are two groups of fat loss diets. High fat, low carb. And high carb, low fat. Both work. That's a general fact. Research has shown that clearly, too. The question that has to be answered for everyone individually though, is which do you do, feel and train better on. And there is no answer thats true for everyone. Its individual. So, I real life this needs to be individualized.
Everyone that claims anything different or has figured out the holy grail of nutrition lacks real world experience. Basically they are too far left on the bell shaped curve of the personal development of being a nutritional advisor.
Nutrition for Body Comp is based on these three pillars. They are very simple. Where the art and science of nutrition are key is in individualization and adjusting nutrition as keeps making progress in Body Comp.
Do I need to track calories for Body Comp results?
Maybe you do. Probably you don't. Calories matter. That's clear. That doesn't mean they have to be measured. And it doesn't mean that measuring them is a cost-effective investment.
The CICO or calories in vs. calories out card has been played for years. The are many studies like this one (4) that basically "prove" that it makes no differences what you eat as far as macro nutrient distribution. Only the calories matter. Sounds simple. Technically it's highly oversimplified though. Looking at a study like the one above the participants are obese. One of the main reasons for obesity is overeating or a constant calorie surplus. That's correct. Therefore basically just restricting calories will make the obese lose weight and fat. The study proved that. And there are many other examples that are often cited that prove the same.
As a rule of thumb, the younger, leaner and more active a person is, the greater the results with a CICO approach. Statistically the majority of people that like to loose weight and body fat while functioning well and feeling great in their daily life are not on the younger, leaner and more active side. They also often are not willing to take the time and make weighing and tracking everything they eat a priority.
Weighing food, tracking food and doing the math takes times. Its too inefficient for most.
If you are willing to do that, do it. Track your food.
Don't go by only formulas that tell you how many macros and calories to eat and how much to increase or cut. These recommendations are constantly off. Use the tracking as a bootkeeping tool. Change macros and calories. Measure the change in body fat and weight through skinfolds and calipers. Then adjust.
And always by being aware that tracking food can be one thing through your journey of Body Comp improvements that can become mentally quite taxing.
How to approach to Body Comp Improvements mentally
Success is based on mindset. The greatest training program and nutritional advise won't lead to great progress if the mindset doesn't guide its execution. The following three principles are key to develop or mainain a mental approach that facilitates great progress in Body Comp:
1. "There is no such thing as a free lunch" - the results you will get is the sum of time and energy invested in training, not just the last and following weeks, its the sum of what you have ever invested. This quote originated as a foundational principle of economy and is often used by my good friend the Danish manager and entrepreneur Jesper Hojer when it comes to decision making and resource management. In the context of training and nutrition it is crucial to determine the relationship of input to outcome and the height of the end goal. It's the sum of all meals ever eaten. It's the sum of all workouts ever completed and training progress ever made. The sum of all micronutrients you ever ate and supplemented. And the sum of all decisions and habits ever. Be aware that you can't change past decision. You can just make the ones now. Invest time and energy with focus, precision and a rough end goal on mind. As a clear rule of thumb the greater the total investment, the greater the end results.
2. Do compare yourself with yourself. not others . Sometimes it motivates to compare yourself with others. Most of the times it doesn't, though. In the end, its only about your own progress. A bit better every month. Comparing yourself with exceptional examples and specifically freaks in bright lights is statistically destructive. Compare yourself with yourself from a week, a month and a year ago. That's statistically much more productive.
3. The way is the goal. Focus on progress over everything. Nobody can predict the results one gets. In any scenarios predictions and forecasts are statistically always wrong. Research proven this over and over again. One of my favorites is when Playboy bunnies outperformed Wall Street Investors on the stock market (5). A great example that an Ivy League education is not superior to just looking good in bunny dress, when it comes to predicting the unpredictable, which basically anything that happens in the future. We can barely predict future results. We can actively influence progress though. As progress is what can be assessed, managed and facilitated. Measure progress. Once you stall, change. Repeat. The more consistent you are in this approach, the more progress will pile up. 1% down, and 1kg muscle up a month isn't much. After a year, thats 12% down and 12kg muscle up, thats a different person.
This article is called "The Ultimate Guide to Body Comp Transformations" as it gives a conceptual overview over the three major pillars of Body Comp Results - training, nutrition and mindset.
A conceptual overview is key, as it acts like a GPS. It allows you to adjust your training, your nutrition and your mental approach. In this case to make constant progress in Body Comp.
And Body Comp is technically the most fundamental aspect of any form of physical training.
I have been lecturing on Body Comp in Hongkong and Thailand last month, and I will be lecturing in Vienna , the Dominican Republic , Amsterdam and Brugge/Belgium in spring next year. If you are interested in the specifics of my work and methods to improve Body Comp join me in these upcoming lectures.
2. Anti-Aging, Biomarkers and Strength Training
3. Advanced Training Tip, Wolfgang Unsoeld, Riva 2017
Picture: Sven Knebel with the epitome of a Body Comp Transformations. More on it here .