The Art & Science Of Getting Bodybuilding Stage Lean Feat. Peter Fitschen

Have you tried to get exceptionally lean in the past, but failed because you didn't have confidence that the approach you were taking was the right one?

If so, today's blog will give you the confidence and structure you need.

If we're studying how to get very lean (with as much muscle as possible), who better to learn from than the high-level male and female natural bodybuilders? They're truly the best in the world at physique transformation.

Today's blog is a masterclass on the methods one of the world's best natural bodybuilding coaches (Peter Fitschen) uses to help competitors get exceptionally lean before hopping on stage.

Peter has been competing in bodybuilding since 2004, and has been a natural pro since 2012. He also has a bachelors degree in biochemistry, a masters in physiology, a P.H.D. in nutritional sciences, and co-author of the book Bodybuilding.

Today, Peter guides us through the exact process (rates of loss, diet breaks, macro adjustments, etc.) he used to get men and women shredded for stage. 

So even if you don’t have aspirations to compete, but simply want to get very lean for summer, the methods and strategies here will be very applicable to you (just the amount of leanness you push to should be different).

[*The content below is primarily my interpretation of Peter's thoughts from the interview. He deserves full credit for them. I've added a few of my own concepts or expanded on his thoughts when helpful.]

HOW LEAN DO YOU NEED TO BE? (BODY FAT PERCENTAGE FOR STAGE LEAN)

Worrying about what your body fat percentage is probably adds unnecessary stress, and just isn’t that accurate.  

For example, BIA scales (bioelectrical impedance analysis - the scales you stand on or hold in your hands that measure body fat with electric current) have an ~8-10% error rate.  

This large range of error means that someone could very easily be losing fat across 2 weeks, but the BIA scale could show fat staying the same (or even increasing).

Even DEXA scans (often considered one of the best ways to measure body fat) are prone to error (the average margin of error for a DEXA is ~4%), something Peter noticed when performing his own Natural Bodybuilding Contest Prep case study:

Because easily accessible methods of measuring body fat can vary so much from one measurement to the next, Peter prefers not to have his clients measure body fat. 

WHAT TO LOOK AT INSTEAD: 

1. What direction is the scale moving, and how quickly? 

2. What is your strength doing in the gym? 

3. How are you changing visually?

Visual changes will always be slower, but if the scale is trending down at the desired rate and you're maintaining strength, the visual changes will happen. 

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU'RE READY TO DIET?

Getting this lean isn’t something you should just jump into. As Peter said… 

“It’s not a couch to 5k.”

THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE DIETING TO AN EXTREMELY LEAN CONDITION: 

1. Before dieting, you should have spent a good amount of time focusing on fueling your training properly and building a solid amount of muscle. 

When you get extremely lean without a solid amount of muscle... you just look skinny. Not spending enough time focusing on building muscle is a massive problem that holds back many women and men alike in their quest to build a great physique, and is exactly why we’re such big proponents of the building phase with our online coaching clients.  

Especially before trying to get on stage, it’s wise to have trained for at least a few years. 

2. You shouldn’t have dieted (to an extremely lean condition) recently. 

Studies seem to indicate that it takes ~4-6 months for hormones and metabolic rate to return to normal after a prep after getting super lean. (1)(2

So it’s wise to wait at least 4-6 months before dieting again. 

But really, the minimum amount of time you should spend between phases of getting this lean is a year. 

As Peter mentioned, individuals who are always spending a good majority of the year dieting will never be fueling their bodies well enough to add lean muscle, and thus will likely bring the exact same physique to the table year after year. 

To see solid improvements from one show to the next, individuals should only diet to a stage ready level of leanness (keep in mind, this is much leaner/harder to come back from than getting “lifestyle lean” for the summer) every few years.

3. You should be sure you can truly adhere to the diet. 

Some past experience with fat loss, and knowing that you're able to be consistent/stick to a diet structure is very helpful.

Here's what we assess with online clients before (potentially) starting a diet:

DETERMINING HOW MUCH WEIGHT YOU NEED TO LOSE

IF YOU'VE ALREADY BEEN STAGE LEAN IN THE PAST - You'll already have a decent idea of how much you need to weigh to once again be shredded. Intermediate and beyond natural trainees can’t expect to gain much more than 5-6 lbs of muscle per year (this is not counting time spent dieting), weight at any given body fat won’t have shifted too much. 

IF YOU HAVEN'T BEEN STAGE LEAN BEFORE - For someone who hasn’t gotten this lean before, more flexibility is important. 

Peter prefers clients to pencil in multiple different show dates over the span of a few months, so that the client can still bring their best physique to the stage, whether they’re ready early or late.  

Ideally, you’ll start your diet with more weeks than estimated pounds to lose  

For example, if you estimate you have 15 lbs to lose, you’d want a longer diet timeline than 12 weeks. 

This is a very similar approach to what we use with online clients prepping for photoshoots - we want to make sure you have plenty of time to take a diet break if needed, and not feel rushed into the shoot if you’re progressing slower. Worst case, you’re ready early and reverse dieting into the shoot  

IS THERE A LIMIT TO HOW MUCH WEIGHT YOU SHOULD LOSE IN A SINGLE DIET PHASE?

Peter prefers to break the diet up into two separate diet phases (with a 4-6 week maintenance phase in-between) if someone has a lot of weight to lose. 

For example, someone 35 lbs away from their goal weight might lose the first 20 lbs, take a 4 week diet break, and then push to lose the last 15 lbs.  

But like all things within coaching… it depends. To quote him: 

“I generally don’t like to stop something that’s going well.” 

Meaning that if the diet is going smoothly, the clients biofeedback and training is good, and weight is dropping at an acceptable rate, there’s really no reason to stop the diet after an arbitrary number of weeks or pounds lost. 

HOW FAST SHOULD YOU LOSE? (DETERMINING TARGET RATE OF LOSS)

For most .5-1% of body weight lost per week is a smart recommendation. 

Peter was actually one of the researchers in “the literature” I’ve referenced on this blog in the past:

Basically, you want to determine your target rate of loss based on the .5-1% of body weight lost per week recommendation... 

→ For most men, this is ~1-2 lbs per week 

→ For most women, this is .5-1.5 lbs per week.  

...and then adjust your macro intake until you're falling in line with the desired rate of loss.

DO WOMEN NEED TO DIET LONGER THAN MEN?

One interesting variable that came up in this conversation (and one we discuss constantly with female coaching clients), is how the menstrual cycle impacts weight loss. 

If you have one week per month (around your period) where weight actually increases during your diet, that’s 25% of every month where we don’t know whether you’re actually losing fat or not. 

Cycle related water retention could be masking weight loss… or hiding the fact that weight isn’t changing. We don’t know for sure. 

But because of this, it does often make sense to set slightly longer diet timelines for women, as we leave a bit more room to make up for the uncertainty here.

TROUBLESHOOTING FAT LOSS STALLS

Most everyone knows how to set fat loss macros.

Few people know how to adjust when fat loss stalls.

When a client is eating macros that should be creating fat loss but aren't, it’s smart to dig into food logs and determine if there’s anywhere measurement error could be sneaking in. 

This is something we proactively address by requiring new clients to pre-plan their food diaries for the next day and send them to us nightly. 

This way, we can filter through for any potential sources of measurement error, missing nutrients, tweaks that could help reduce hunger or increase training performance, and ensure the client knows exactly what they need to do to be compliant. 

This is also (part of) why we have clients track hunger. Normally, when someone starts tracking food less accurately (thus it appears they aren’t eating much, but still not losing), the increase in untracked food will also lead to a decrease in hunger on the client’s daily metric tracker. 

Accounting for daily movement is also very important. 

One of your body’s primary defense mechanisms against getting super lean is a subconscious reduction in Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (N.E.A.T.) - you fidget, pace, blink, etc. less, and make decisions like… 

“Ehh, I’ll wait a few more days before walking to the mailbox to check the mail.” 

...without realizing that this is your body’s way of keeping you from burning precious calories. 

So of course this reduction in daily calories burned can slow (or stop) fat loss. 

Generally, the best way we’ve found to somewhat negate this is to give clients a step goal - somewhere between 8-12k is realistic for most. Past this (unless the client naturally moves a lot due to career or lifestyle), the time investment for adding more steps is so large that it makes more sense for most to just decrease calories or add traditional cardio instead.

HOW TO MAKE CALORIE ADJUSTMENTS

First, realize that once you've successfully created fat loss, it typically doesn’t take more than a 50-100 calorie per day / 350-700 calorie per week decrease to get fat loss to resume again when faced with a stall.

But really, I'd highly recommend working through the decision making process we use with online clients before adjusting macros:

[*To learn more about how we apply this system to online clients in a fat loss phase, check out our blog on How To Fix Stalled Fat Loss.]

When determining which macros these calories come from, here are the guidelines we use with our online clients: 

→ We want protein to be at a minimum of 1g/lb body weight daily

→ Ideally, fat will be at a minimum of .3g/lb body weight daily (although sometimes in situations like a show prep, clients will have to drop below this for a short period of time)

→ From there, carbs will typically be as high as possible within your calorie limits. 

So when decreasing, we'll typically be able to pull relatively evenly from carbs and fat the first half of a fat loss phase. Deeper into the cut (as fat is usually near the .3g/lb mark), we'll typically pull more from carbs.

HOW TO KNOW WHEN YOU NEED A DIET BREAK

First, do you actually have time to take a diet break? 

While often helpful psychologically, some recent research on shorter (one week) diet breaks does seem to indicate that they’re not a must for muscle or metabolic rate retention. (4)

SO....

→ Have more weeks left in the diet than pounds to lose? You’re probably ok to work a diet break in if needed.

If your macro adherence is slipping, a diet break can be a good idea. Issues like this can very commonly cause plateaus, and of course when the issue is sticking to the diet, decreasing calories doesn’t help.  

Plus, one week diet breaks do seem to decrease hunger and improve mood, which can really help client adherence coming back to the diet:

→ Have less or the same number of weeks left in the diet as pounds to lose? Likely safest to stay in the deficit. 

→ Things going smoothly and you’re losing consistently? There’s no need to interrupt your diet momentum by inserting a diet break.

[*Check out our Complete Guide To Diet Breaks blog to learn more about the best methods to use here.]

WHEN TO ADD CARDIO VS. DECREASE CALORIES

One of the thing I gathered from the conversation with Peter was that he prefers to keep cardio to the minimum effective dose with clients (as do we with our online clients).

He laid out your fat loss priorities as:

1. Food

2. Daily Activity

3. Actual Cardio

For most, it just makes sense to decrease food intake first. Dropping food intake by a mere 15 grams of carbs (a.k.a. not much) and get fat loss to resume again. 

To create a similar effect by increasing movement...

→ Adding ~1-2k steps per day is pretty manageable for most (to an extent), but will be more time consuming. 

→ Moderate to high-intensity cardio is extremely taxing on your already exhausted body. 

When reducing food, you just have to eat less... adding cardio means adding time to a clients already full plate.

That said, many people pushing to extreme levels of leanness will find that adding some traditional cardio is necessary to increase calories burned. 

In this case, low-intensity steady state (LISS) makes the most sense, as it won’t actively hurt your ability to recover like higher intensity modalities would. 

This could be as simple as adding two sessions of incline treadmill walking per week, 30 minutes at a heart rate of 120-140 beats per minute. 

SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS WHEN LOSING THE LAST FEW POUNDS

Truly getting to a bodybuilding show level of lean is far from a “healthy” thing for your body to go through. 

Many of your hormones are tied to the amount of fat your body has. And before hopping on stage (if you’re in a good condition to do so), you just don’t have enough fat on your body to produce optimal hormones. Your body is shunting the scarce amount of energy available to your most vital functions. 

So it’s important to understand that there’s a clear difference between getting sustainably lean and uncovering your abs vs. getting absolutely peeled for a bodybuilding show. 

Being this lean is very hard on your body, and isn’t something you should try to maintain for more than 2-3 months at most. You'll eventually need to gain fat back to return to a healthy place. 

REVERSE DIETING AFTER GETTING STAGE LEAN

Again, if you’ve gotten stage lean, you need to gain some fat back to restore health. (Individuals who have dieted but didn’t get super lean don’t need to be too concerned with reverse dieting.) 

Peter likes to see clients gain 1-2 lbs per week for the first (typically) 6-8 weeks post show, until biofeedback starts to return to normal levels.

From there, rate of gain slows dramatically (.2-.5% of body weight per week) so that you don’t have to diet again soon in the future. 

There’s no point in trying to stay stage lean post-show. No matter how high you reverse diet, you’ll feel like awful (and won’t be able to add muscle/improve your physique) until you add some fat. 

So aiming for at least a 100-200 calories over your current predicted maintenance is a good place to start. From there, increase or decrease calories as needed to hit the target rate of gain. 

And that’s how to apply the art of coaching + the science of nutrition to get bodybuilding stage lean. 

Check out Peter Fitschen’s content:

→ Website: https://fitbodyphysique.com/ 

→ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/fitbodyphysique/?hl=en

→ Book: https://www.amazon.com/Bodybuilding-Complete-Contest-Preparation-Handbook/dp/1492571334

These are the same science-backed strategies we implement with our online clients undergoing the physique transformation process. 

If you're ready to be coached 1-1 by our team to your best physique ever, click here now to apply for online coaching with our team.


about the author

Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcastand Instagram for more educational content.

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