Keys To Maintaining Muscle In a Deficit

Have you ever heard that saying about money? ‘It’s not about how much you make, but how much you keep!” This means that the money you earn is not all that important if your taxes and expenses are super high. What you are left with after all those expenses is what you actually keep in your bank account. 

This is the same when it comes to weight loss, or more specifically fat loss. We often talk about how much someone loses on the scale, myself included. In reality, it’s not about how much weight specifically you lose, rather, it’s about how much fat mass you lose. It is not just about how much weight you lose on the scale, but also how much muscle mass you maintain in that weight loss. 

This is important because in the end, our goal is to lose body fat. Weight loss does not automatically equal pure fat mass lost. Weight loss can also be fluid loss as well as muscle mass lost. 

What our goal should be when we diet is fat loss, but also keeping our hard-earned muscle mass. This is not super easy. Anyone who has gotten extremely lean will know the feeling – as you get leaner and leaner, you feel like your muscle mass shrinks right before your eyes. 

Recently, my client, Emily Hearn (shown above), lost 16 kg over the 19 week prep for her comp where she won her WBFF Bikini division in the Australian show. Losing 16kg is a lot, especially on a smaller human and over 19 weeks. We needed to lose a lot, fast, in order to have Emily ready for the stage, but we also needed her to keep the muscle we spent years building. In the end, Emily had a drastically improved physique. She was leaner than ever while also having gained a tremendous amount of muscle on her glutes and shoulders. 

So how do you have someone lose a lot of weight and ensure it’s predominantly coming from fat mass while maintaining your hard earned muscle like Emily? 

Resistance Train

Resistance training is your best friend when it comes to maintaining muscle mass while dieting. A common phrase I like to use when people lift in a cut is to “lift the same way in a deficit as you did when you were lifting in a build.” Oftentimes when people think about fat loss, their training suddenly shifts from a heavy weights focus to a cardio focus only. No! Resistance training should be the foundation of your cutting process. Obviously, nutrition is key for weight loss, but resistance training is the foundation of your muscle retention. In order to maintain muscle mass while lifting in your cut, you should lift the same way you did when you were in a surplus aiming to build muscle.  

Not Super High Reps 

Hypertrophy can be achieved from a large spread of reps. Very low reps around 3-5 bring about just as much hypertrophy potential as higher reps in the 20-25 rep range when both taken close to failure. Higher reps, however, are actually more fatiguing on your nervous system. Think about it like this – if the last 3-5 reps of a working set lead to the mechanisms behind hypertrophy while you are doing a 5 rep working set, that means pretty much ALL of the reps of that set were useful for hypertrophy. Now, if you are doing 25 reps for a set (like a lot of people do when they switch their training to super high rep circuits), that means the majority of those 25 reps were not all that useful for potentially leading the triggers of hypertrophy adaptations. A lot of those reps you used were just increasing fatigue. If you are using 4-5 days a week of 20-30 rep sets of exercises, that’s a whole lot of reps which were not necessarily needed to maintain muscle mass. I like reps up to 15-20, but I use them sparingly in a cut, not all the time. Try to keep your focus on rep ranges in the 5-15 rep range in a cut as a general guideline for managing fatigue. 

Utilise Rest Periods 

You know what people commonly associate with fat loss? Sweating. You know what helps sweating? Super short rest periods where your heart rate is beating out of your chest. You know what allows you to lift heavier? Resting longer! 

When dieting for fat loss, a key component to maintaining your muscle mass in a cut is keeping your strength up. If you or your client are using 2-3 minute rest periods in a build, then you switch to resting 30 seconds in a cut, of course performance will be lower. You are making it far more difficult to lift the same amount of weight for the same amount of reps by diminishing your rest periods. In a cut, use your rest periods. 

Protein 

If resistance training is your best friend in a deficit, then protein is your even better best friend. They work in synergy together. Ensuring protein intake stays high is 101 to keep muscle mass in a calorie deficit. 

It’s pretty simple. Muscle loss comes from increased muscle protein breakdown. When we are in a calorie surplus, we are creating an anabolic environment for the body to build muscle mass. When we diet in a calorie deficit for fat loss, we are creating a catabolic environment in the body, hence why we lose fat mass and weight in general. We want to, however, lose fat mass and maintain muscle mass. So how can we best counter this catabolic environment? By ensuring protein intake is high to mitigate potential muscle protein breakdown. 

General leading nutritionist recommendations for protein intake in a diet is 1.6g – 2.5g per kg of bodyweight. The higher end is probably better if you are leaner. If you have higher body fat, the lower end should be sufficient. These are the ranges some of the leading nutritionists recommend, but use this as an example. 

Don’t Do Excess Cardio 

Cardio is a tool to help increase calorie expenditure in a fat loss phase. Outside of the obvious health benefits of improved fitness which can be achieved in a surplus with cardio, the primary reason cardio is used by my followers is for fat loss. Increased calorie expenditure to help further drive you into a deficit is a good thing, but it is also dose dependent. Remember, when calories are low, you only have so much energy to use. Ideally, we want to use a lot of this energy for high quality resistance training. This is where we must keep our performance high to do everything we can to maintain muscle mass. Cardio is a great tool, but too much can impact performance, increase fatigue, and even impact hunger levels. A big tip is to use cardio when you need it in a fat loss phase. Do not try and start with 7 days a week off the bat, increase slowly when needed. If you can achieve the desired rate of fat loss with only 1-2 sessions a week, great! Do that. Only increase the frequency when fat loss plateaus. For my clients, I strive to get them as lean as possible with as little cardio as possible. We only increase above 3-4 sessions a week when it’s absolutely needed. 

Decrease Intervals End of Cut 

Cardio can be done through steady state work or interval work. A 5 second overview of each is that steady state will be a lower heart rate which is maintained around the same level. The heart rate stays elevated but not at a super high level. Calories expended will not be as high as intervals, however, it is far less demanding on the body. Intervals will have short periods of intense sprints which are balanced out with a large drop of intensity and heart rate to allow recovery. Due to the short intense sprints which rapidly skyrocket the heart rate, calorie expenditure will be higher when comparing 30 minutes of intervals versus 30 minutes of steady state cardio. Intervals as said, however, are far more demanding. 

Does this mean not to do interval work? No, not at all. But a big tip I often use with clients in their comp preps is that when cals get very low at the end of their prep as they reach incredibly lean levels, fatigue will be higher. Energy coming from their food is low. They have dieted for months, at this point. What does this mean? Potential for muscle loss is highest at this point. This is why during the final weeks of a prep or hard cut when you reach a very low level of body fat, it can be a good idea to switch out interval work for steady state due to it being far less demanding on the body. This can allow for better recovery when cals are low and fatigue is high and a greater potential to still lift at a high level while managing fatigue. 

Stress and Sleep Management 

Our final key to maintaining muscle mass in a deficit is all about recovery. High quality sleep and managing stress goes a long way. Research has shown that people who sleep more when dieting lose more fat mass and maintain more muscle mass than those who are sleeping far less. Sleeping a solid 7+ hours can dramatically help to improve performance and focus, manage hunger levels, and maintain muscle. A big focus for my clients while dieting is ensuring you aim to get to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each day, if possible. Routine goes a long way here.

Recovery goes hand in hand with sleep. Something I like doing is having clients do things like get massages, read a book at night, meditate, and find other relaxing aspects to focus on in their week. Yes, we want to train hard, but we also want to balance out the stress of low calories and high activity with stress management. A stressed person tends to be a more hungry person, who can find getting in a quality session that much harder. 

Your key takeaway is focus on sleep and recovery. Yes, protein and lifting matter, but balance all that training and nutrition out with the ability to unwind and recover. 

So there we go guys! 

These are some of my absolute essential strategies to maintain muscle mass in a calorie deficit. 

Remember, it’s not about how much weight we lose. It’s about how much muscle mass we can keep and how much body fat we can lose in a deficit. 

Hope that helps!

Coach Mark Carroll

9 Ways you’re Ruining your Hip Thrusts

It’s time to fix your hip thrust! 
Hip Thrusts are one of my favourite exercises to program for clients… but only if they can do them well! Over my many years as a coach, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly which is how I’ve come up with this list of the 9 most common mistakes that people make when hip trusting. So, let’s get into it:
  1. Chin Position – When we thrust we want to tuck our chin onto our chest throughout the movement. I would cue this as “Chin tucked, eyes down at your knees”. Chin tucked means better ability to hip-extend rather than extending through your back which is commonly associated with feeling less Glutes and more lower back.
  2. Feet Too Wide – “I feel my adductors only!”. We often talk about feet positioning in reference to how close or how far away from your body, but width matters too! We want our feet to be just outside shoulder width at the absolute most.
  3. Feet Too Close – “I feel my quads only!”. Quickest fix is assessing how close feet are too your body. We want roughly a 90 degrees angle of the knee at top of thrust position. If your feet are too close, we get more knee flexion, increasing quads.
  4. Feet Too Far Away – “I feel my hamstrings only!”. This is commonly associated with having your feet too far away from your body. The further your feet are from your body, the more we increase hamstrings potential. Hip thrusts are effective as the bent knee decreases hamstrings.
  5. Driving With Toes – People driving off their toes increases quad activity. We want whole foot down ideally equal weight between the foot. Keep the heel down!
  6. Losing Scapula Position – Another one I see is people sliding all over the place each rep. When setting up, try to drive your shoulder blades down into the pad. This will help when driving up to not slide back excessively and lose positioning.
  7. Over Banding – Banding knees does not make it more Glute max receptive. The whole point of a thrust is to train hip extension and banding abduction can negatively impact hip extension. Primarily we want to focus on loading hip extension, not abduction.
  8. Bench Too High – I’m referring to when you’re performing dead stops. Your upper body positioning matters and we want to keep this locked in throughout the set. When a bench is too high, we lose this and it effects the form.
  9. Lifting Too Heavy – Hip thrust has become a bit of an ego lift. I think people forget where tension is greatest, being the top. Want Glutes? Make sure top range is reached completely!
Want to learn more about glute training?

Join my program YOUR GLUTE COACH

Coach Mark Carroll

Struggling with Hunger in your Deficit? My top tips to fat loss adherence

We’ve all been in a fat loss phase once in our lifetime, so we all know the pain of being hungry ALL. THE. TIME. Although a calorie deficit is 100% required in order to achieve fat loss, it doesn’t mean it’s a smooth-sailing process all the time, or sometimes ever. 

A calorie deficit is a simple concept but can be very hard to adhere to at times.

As you know, I train a whole range of clients – from general population to advanced Bikini Pro competitors. For all of my clients within this massive range, whether they are aiming to lose a few kilograms or prepping for a show, fat loss is still hard! 

In saying this though, it is generally my more advanced clients, specifically comp prep clients who go into major fat loss phases multiple times, who get the best results like clockwork. 

Why? Because of their strict adherence, strategies and repetition of their hunger management. But even still, the hunger for them can be brutal!

So, if you’re currently in a fat loss phase or for the next time you are, and if you’re struggling with your adherence and hunger, here are my top tips to getting on top of it:

Less Liquid Calories

As my clients get leaner and leaner, we transition away from liquid calories as eating real food (solids) will tend to be more satiating (or at the very least mentally). Drinking a protein shake in 5 seconds isn’t going to be as fulfilling as eating solids, such as chicken breast as your eyes are going to see more food and feel more rewarded (and hopefully full).

Don’t Eat Whilst Distracted

We always want to be eating in a mindful state which means sitting down and focusing purely on the food in front of us. This creates a better connection with our brain and our stomach which brings the focus to feeling more full at the end of the meal. Don’t watch TV or scroll mindlessly on your phone – we are all guilty of it but it’s a bad habit to have!

Stay Hydrated

Drinking water is the best way to feel full when you’re in a deficit! Being dehydrated is going to send signals to your brain that you’re hungry too, even when you’re not. Drink lots of water!!

Get your Fibre In

Eating foods with more fibre are going to have a more positive impact on you feeling fuller for longer. The most fibrous and filling food that we know of is potatoes so they’re a great option.

Eat Volume Foods

Look for foods that you can eat a lot of but have low calories – they are your best friend in a dieting phase! These foods, like greens, are going to make you feel like you’re eating waaayyy more than you actually are. 

Create & Stick to a Sleep Schedule

A person with poor sleep is more likely to experience higher levels of cravings and hunger. Aim for a strict bedtime routine (as much as you can) each night and get the same amount of sleep every night too.

Break the Deficits Up

You don’t have to diet for 12 weeks straight with absolutely no breaks. Use refeed days or diet breaks (where possible) every few weeks to give your body the reset it needs. This is a great tool that I use with ALL of my online coaching clients.

Be Kind to Yourself

You need to remember that it’s 100% normal to be hungry at times. New dieters are often shocked by this and think something is wrong – there isn’t! Unfortunately, hunger (at times) works hand-in-hand in a fat loss phase. It will come and go but it’s normal so don’t be too hard on yourself.

Well, there you go! My top tips for helping yourself out with those hunger cravings when you need to. The main point is that a calorie deficit is 100% required to lose weight but hunger is something you will experience through this so be prepared and have a good regime in place!

I believe in you, 

Coach Mark Carroll

Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding: What’s Right For You?

Powerlifting or bodybuilding? What’s the difference? Are powerlifters stronger than bodybuilders? Should you do one or the other? Can you do both interchangeably? Well, let me break it down! Getting strong at the basics is really what I think sets my methods apart from most comp prep coaches and coaches in general who tend to focus far too much on gimmicks. With my methods, we combine elements of powerlifting strength with bodybuilding rep ranges and training volume to build an elite level physique.

What is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting is an actual sport. It’s not just about lifting heavy weights in the gym. The specific sport itself involves aiming to achieve your 1 rep max lifted on 3 specific lifts – the bench press, the squat and the deadlift – in a powerlifting competition. The winner is the person who’s total of the 3 individual lifts is the highest. Put simply, powerlifting is a sport based off of strength performance. Very different to that of body building.

How To Train Powerlifting?

You may be wondering how to compete in powerlifting or how to start powerlifting. In order to train for a powerlifting competition your lifting will heavily centre around those 3 competition lifts. Since the goal of the sport is to squat, deadlift and bench press your max for 1 rep in the meet, it will be integral for you to train those 3 key movements over and over again. Training for powerlifting will be heavily based around these 3 movements. 

The Benefits of Powerlifting

Powerlifting relies upon only testing 3 different exercises. This means that through repetition of those 3 exercises you will become incredibly strong at these movements. Strength is very much a skill. To truly develop your highest strength potential in the 3 lifts, you will need to repeat those movements over and over. The more repetition, the stronger you will become. The aim of the game is increased ability to lift as heavy a weight as possible for 1 rep. However, this does not mean you will not also achieve strength adaptations on lower rep ranges as well as hypertrophy adaptations as a byproduct of resistance training.

The Challenges of Powerlifting

The goal of powerlifting is to lift the maximum weight possible on the squat, deadlift, and bench press for a one rep max (1RM) so naturally, training must revolve around those 3 big lifts. The downside to this is that you may not be able to develop the physique you want with such a specialised focus. There will definitely be differences in a bodybuilder vs powerlifter physique due to the difference in training.

Powerlifting can also be very time consuming, as you need to maximise rest periods in order to lift as heavy as possible. It’s not unusual to have 5-6 minute rest periods between sets. Therefore you may wind up spending additional hours in the gym as compared to a bodybuilder. The risk for injury also increases in powerlifting due to how hard you are pushing your body to lift at your max. Performing a proper powerlifting squat, bench press, and deadlift is crucial to prevent injury.

What is Bodybuilding?

Bodybuilding is a sport as well. I often like to say everyone who goes to the gym with the intent to build muscle and improve their physique is a bodybuilder. By utilising specific exercises in the gym, you can directly focus on improving the shape and size of the muscle. When it comes to bodybuilding, however, winning involves not performance based on strength, but rather the aesthetics of your physique. Bodybuilding is judged on the look, shape and size of your muscles and low body fat development. It will take years of resistance training combined with high levels of nutrition in order to compete in bodybuilding. Then, a very specific diet will allow the competitor to achieve incredibly low body fat to visually reveal their muscle mass. A bodybuilding show is not won from your performance in the gym, rather the gym is what you utilise to build and shape your physique. Judges will then determine the winner based on who looks closest to their ideal physique.

How To Train Bodybuilding?

Bodybuilding is about building muscle, not about how strong you are. In order to build as much muscle over the body to best represent the desired aesthetic physique, you will require a large array of exercises to best target as many muscles as possible in the body. No one exercise is essential to train in bodybuilding as no one exercise leads to superior hypertrophy adaptation for a muscle. To fully develop a muscle to its greatest potential, you will require many exercises for a muscle group. Each exercise can train a muscle in a slightly different way, raising the potential to hypertrophy that specific muscle.

The Benefits of Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding is a sport which will allow a lifter to have an incredible physique from a visual perspective. The recreational bodybuilder, majority of lifters in the gym, will have the benefits of improved muscle mass, strength, bone density and in most cases, improved confidence in one’s appearance. This is probably the main reason why most young people get into the gym initially- to look and feel better!

The Challenges of Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding is a unique sport in that every aspect of your day can greatly influence your physique potential. An athlete who plays rugby or cricket, for example, plays their game, then outside the game it primarily ends. Sure, their nutrition can support their performance in the gym, but it is nowhere near as time consuming and essential to their sport. Bodybuilding is a 365 day sport, 24 hours a day. Every choice you make in your day can greatly influence your physique. It’s a very demanding sport for this reason which is something you need to understand when it comes to time commitment as well as life commitment. You will also need to be in the gym more frequently than other sports in order to train your physique to its full potential by targeting each muscle. 

The Main Similarities Between Powerlifting and Bodybuilding

The biggest similarities between both sports are that lifting in the gym is essential. There is no sport without resistance training. You are utilising weights to develop the adaptation you are aiming to achieve. The gym is where your sport starts and finishes. We use resistance training to improve the specific requirements we need. Then from a nutritional standpoint, calories and protein will be essential components of both sports. Nutrition heavily supports performance as well as recovery. 

The Main Differences Between Powerlifting and Bodybuilding

What is the difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding? Both sports have huge similarities from the outside to the non gym enthusiast, however, how we want to look at utilising resistance training is almost the opposite between the 2 sports. 

Powerlifting – we want to make lifting the weight as EASY as possible. The goal is to use as much weight as possible and move a weight from point A to point B. The more favourable positions biomechanically we can use, the better. The less range of motion we can move the weight, the more weight we can use. 

Bodybuilding – we want to make lifting the weight as HARD as possible. The goal is to use the weights to create as much tension in the muscles as possible. This comes from making it as hard on the muscles as possible when moving the weight from point A to point B. We want to utilise positions that train the muscles where they are weakest, usually with as much range of motion as possible for the muscle to target where the muscle has its LEAST mechanical advantage. The more tension we can place through the muscles, the harder it will be to lift, but there will be greater potential to progressively overload that muscle, which will lead it to growing.

With both sports we want to improve our strength, but with bodybuilding, strength gains are not the essential component of the sport. They are a great byproduct of resistance training for building muscle. Likewise, powerlifting- strength is the key driver with muscle being a nice byproduct of aiming to lift heavier.

Powerlifting will be focused around neurological adaptations. To improve neurological adaptations, this will be best achieved by targeting very low rep ranges (1-5 reps). 

Bodybuilding will be focused around structural adaptations and muscle building. To improve this, we will tend to use a larger spread of rep ranges (3-5 up to 15-20 reps). 

So yes, both use resistance training, however, the rep ranges and specific lifts will tend to differ depending on the goal.

Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding Physique

As powerlifting is very much still resistance training which targets a lot of muscle tissue through the big compound lifts, you will absolutely build muscle. But again, this is not the sole focus. Since powerlifting requires focus on a few key movements, you will build the muscles these movements train. However, bodybuilders will target more muscles in the body as well as more direct focus on specific muscles which powerlifting does not target very much. This is why bodybuilding will result in a physique which not only will be more muscular, it will also require that no muscles be a weak point. The sport requires balance for an aesthetic physique. If, for instance, the arms are not matching the rest of the physique, more direct work will be placed here. Whereas powerlifting, the weak point work is not aesthetic based, it’s performance based. 

Incorporating Powerlifting into Your Bodybuilding Program

A lot of bodybuilders also powerlift at some stage in their career, for example during their off season from competing. The sports work well interchangeably as the differences between the sports  actually support the opposing sport. Both exercises involve the gym and involve lifting weights. The small differences are not so great that you cannot incorporate both.

My client, Lauren Simpson, competed in a powerlifting competition in 2018. 8 weeks later, she competed in the WBFF World Bikini competition in Las Vegas and WON and became WORLD CHAMPION! 8 weeks after powerlifting. 

Can everyone do this? No, but this shows you that both sports can work well together. However, to do both well and to their fullest potential, it’s best to target one at a time as much as possible. Specificity matters with lifting. The more you can train towards a specific goal, the more optimal performance you will achieve.

For my clients, I am a huge fan of strength and hypertrophy work together. Majority of my clients are neither powerlifters nor bodybuilders from a competitor stand point, but they all love becoming strong and building shape in their physiques. It’s for this reason that I love utilising both low rep strength phases at times, to undulate between hypertrophy focused phases.

Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding: So What is Right For Me?

Now with all that we have covered so far, what is best for you? Well, it depends. What is your goal? Do you want to be as strong as possible on low reps on the big 3 lifts? Is your focus more so on building a muscular aesthetic physique? Would you like to combine both into your training? 

If your goal is strength development on low reps – I strongly suggest spending a period of time with that being the focus. This does not mean you cannot build muscle and train for hypertrophy, however, the program should be heavily focused around strength first. This is why I created my program STRONG.

STRONG is my advanced women’s 12 week strength program aimed to have you achieve a 1 rep max on your big lifts! 

Is your goal focused more so on hypertrophy and less on strength? Then I recommend for the women out there to use my programs YOUR GLUTE COACH series, or my BUILDING THE BIKINI BODY series. 

For the guys, THE MALE METHOD series is perfect.

All of these options are focused around hypertrophy and building muscle all over the body. However, this does not mean these methods will not build your strength substantially, it’s just the focus is centred first on hypertrophy adaptations, then strength. 

You can achieve the best of both worlds, but this is best done by utilising specific training phases targeted at one goal first, and a slight regression of the other goal. Ideally you should spend 12-24 weeks focused on either of the options. Then come back and devote 12-24 weeks working on the other goal.

Regardless of whether you are powerlifting or bodybuilding, the key to incredible results are hard work and consistency then, very importantly, following high level training programs to optimise the process. This is what COACH MARK CARROLL training programs are all about- helping make science simple, to allow lifters like yourself to train confidently, knowing you are following the perfect steps to achieve your goals. 

Good luck in your future lifting. I cannot wait to be your coach and guide you to your next goals.

Coach Mark Carroll

Read our Other Educational Fitness Blogs:

7 Reasons Your Fat Loss Has Plateaued

Fat loss is not linear.

It’s a clear statement (well, I believe it is) but people still can’t tend to grasp the fact that fat loss itself does not occur at the same rate every day, or week.

Once we accept the fact that fat loss is not linear, so many other things will start to line up… such as the fact that you shouldn’t be rushing to drop your calories after a short-term scale weight loss plateau.

A lot of the time, I find that this is where people often go wrong in their dieting process which then leads to everything becoming way harder than it needs to be and failure starts to creep in. 

For the majority of people, you will do far better in the long-term by trying to lose weight on as many calories as you possibly can (whilst, obviously, staying in a deficit). Also, it’s often that the ‘weight loss plateau’ you’re facing is not so much a plateau at all… it might just be human error, such as:

  1. Lack of Tracking Consistency – Commonly, I have seen people only track foods that you actually eat which leaves out the whole range of liquid calories that we also consume! Likewise, I see people thinking they only need to track protein in key protein sources like meats or shakes, then leave out calories from protein in things like nut butters, snacks and other sources.
    Everything that has an energy value needs to be tracked! 
  2. Incorrectly Calculating their Initial Deficit – It’s very often that people stuff up their initial calculations which leads them to starting their ‘diet’ on the wrong amounts and numbers. 
  3. Increase in Carbs – A lot of people come to me on low-carbs & high-fat diets. I (most of the time) tend to rotate their macros to a higher-carbs and lower-fats approach as this is what works for the majority of my clients and previous clients. With an increase in carbs, your weight is going to go up due to the water from increased muscle glycogen… you’re not gaining weight. 
  4. Weighing ALL your Foods – People always start strong with tracking, but after a while we all get a little lazy and decide to start guesstimating and eye-balling food quantities. We need accuracy here ALL THE TIME! 
  5. Reduction in Movement – A friend of mine that I’m helping out with their nutrition recently stalled in their fat loss progress. Naturally, they wanted to reduce their calories to counteract this. As I started to dig down a little deeper, I found out that they were sick for the past week and weren’t able to train or exercise at all! Their calories aren’t wrong, their energy output was just reduced. 
  6. Time of the Month? – As a trainer who primarily trains women, I generally don’t get them to track their scale weight around their period. Your weight fluctuates A LOT on your period and sometimes that can throw you off mentally. Don’t beat yourself up over it, it’s normal! 
  7. Patience is the Key – A week of no scale progress is not a plateau… it’s just a little obstacle that you’re going to get over! Literally, the next day you could weigh yourself and be the lowest you’ve been. This is why I always remind you that FAT LOSS IS NOT LINEAR!

Fat loss is a hard task, so please don’t beat yourself up if you stall for a little – it’s all part of the progress. Trust me, I’m the professional here!

Coach Mark Carroll

 

Intensity Techniques – PARTIAL REPS

I LOVE intensity techniques! So far I have covered two of my staples – the “rest pause” method and “drop sets.” These are both more traditional ways to program to extend a working set. Partial reps are a touch different and I would say a more advanced strategy surprisingly to most people, due to performing in such a fatigued state. But, I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s go over the basics of partial reps. 

What are partial reps? 

Partial reps are in reference to performing a rep with less than full range of motion. This does not mean you perform all reps of the set as partial reps. Rather, partial reps are utilised when fatigue is high and full range of motion reps can no longer be achieved. A partial rep is a technique we can use to extend a working set. When you can no longer achieve a full range of motion rep, you have two options. You can stop the working set. Or the second option is to continue the working set but with a rep range you can utilise to keep the set going. This is why partials can be a good strategy to take a muscle to and past full range of motion failure. Just because a full range of motion rep can no longer be achieved due to fatigue, does not mean the muscle fibres can no longer keep being recruited and trained in the working set. 

An example of a partial rep as an intensity technique would be on an exercise like a leg extension. A leg extension has the greatest tension towards the top of the movement when your legs are fully extended. This is where the peak tension will be on the quads. The bottom range of the rep will be where tension is lowest. When you fatigue on a leg extension it will not initially be at the bottom of the rep; you will struggle to finish the top of the rep when the legs are extending. 

This makes sense as tension is highest at the top of the moment. Therefore the top will be most challenging and logically harder to finish the rep. But, this is where a partial rep strategy can be effective, as for the majority of the range of motion of the movement you still have muscle fibres that can be trained. It’s the very top portion where the quads are fully shortened which is fatigued. The idea of partial reps is to continue with the range of motion you still have available. 

Let’s say you cannot complete a full rep but you can make it 95% of the way up. The final 5% you cannot complete. This will be where a working set will commonly end. What if you instead continue the set with the range of motion you still have available? You cannot do a full rep, but can you do the next rep and complete 85% of the rep? Cool, let’s do that! Then the next rep you can complete 75% of the range of motion, then the next set 60%, etc. Each subsequent rep will have a drop off in the range of motion you can complete as fatigue continues to accumulate. 

The idea however is through the use of a partial rep, you are continuing to push the muscle fibres being trained in that movement pattern through whatever range it still has available. 

What exercises to use this intensity technique on? 

Now, this is important. Not every exercise is a great fit for intensity techniques. Especially, that of a partial rep method where you are truly trying to take a set to and past failure. Exercises like squats and deadlifts should be obviously, I hope, movements you would not utilise this strategy for. Technique breakdown is too great when in such a fatigued state. This can lead to injury. Rule number 1 – don’t hurt yourself in the gym! 

However, not all machine exercises are the best fits for partial reps. The movements I like to use for the partial rep intensity technique, will be exercises which are hardest in the shortened position. Like a leg extension! 

An exercise which is hardest in the shortened position means the exercise will have its greatest resistance during the movement in the range of motion where the muscle is shortening. 

Think leg extension, lying leg curl, lateral raises, dumbbell spider curls,  triceps cable extensions and hip thrusts. These movements are all going to be hardest at the top when the muscle is fully shortening. These are the exercises which make the most sense for partials as they will allow you to still achieve a large range of motion on the partial reps. 

Take an exercise which is hardest in the stretch position. The bottom position when the muscle is fully lengthened. As an example, let’s use a seated leg curl which is opposite to the lying leg curl. The seated leg curl is hardest in the position where the legs are fully straight. This is the starting position. When peak tension is here, at the beginning of the movement, when fatigue sets in, partial reps will be very hard to achieve, as the starting position is hardest. Partial reps are meant to allow you to extend the working set. Performing them at the range where it is hardest does not make sense. 

Now, a lying leg curl will have tension greatest at the top. This means the rep begins in a lengthened position. Then only at the very top is the movement going to be fully fatiguing initially. Due to this, it means partial reps can be utilised on a much larger range of motion as compared to the seated leg curl. You can take the rep most of the way up despite high fatigue. 

Then as fatigue accumulates, the range of motion will lower for each rep but we can still achieve a nice range for the majority of the 3-5 partial reps! 

When to use partial reps? 

Partial reps are a tool to take a set to all out failure and beyond. For this reason, we want to use this technique sparingly. High fatigue is associated with pushing to all out failure. We don’t want to be using this technique every set of every workout. 

Ideally it will be utilised on the final set of a working set only. Then only from time to time. NOT every single week of a program. 

Then finally, use partial reps on exercises which are safe to push to failure like a leg extension and lying leg curl! 

Partial reps are a fantastic tool, but like all intensity techniques, you need to use the right tool for the right job. 

Use wisely!

Coach Mark Carroll

Intensity Techniques – DROP SETS METHOD

In a previous blog I went over the use of one type of intensity technique: the rest pause method. Here’s a little recap on “intensity techniques” – intensity techniques are a TOOL to add another element to your resistance training. Whether it be additional training volume, pushing a muscle past true failure, or just a means to change things up in your training in a phase or week. Intensity techniques, when used correctly, can be a great training tool to add to your arsenal. Again, I will use the word, tool! Not needed every set of every workout.

Now, firstly, what do I mean by an intensity technique?

An intensity technique is a training method or methods, as there are quite a few options. A method to allow you to do one of the following:

  • Extend a working set
  • Take a muscle to true failure and beyond
  • Add additional training volume in a time efficient manner

In this blog, I will cover the second of the top four intensity techniques I use for clients – drop sets!

Drop sets are the most commonly used intensity technique in gyms around the world. As always, people have good intentions of using the drop set method but often struggle with the execution and correct placement of the method.

Let’s dive into drop sets and help you understand how to perform them correctly and also when to use this technique to optimise your training.

Drop Set Method

Let’s begin with the basics…what is a drop set?

A drop set is a method which allows us to extend a working set when we are unable to complete any more reps with a given weight.

With the rest pause method we covered previously, what we did was put the weight down, rest for 15-20 seconds, then pick that SAME weight up and go again with as many reps as we could. We extended the set through the use of a mini rest period, but the weight did not lower. The key to extending the set was a very short rest interval.

Now, with the drop set method we don’t utilise a rest period. We lower the weight immediately then jump back into the working set with the lighter weight.

By using a lighter weight, we can continue performing reps on a fatigued muscle.

Simple enough right?

Now, the question is, why would we use a drop set? The drop set allows us to take a working set to all out failure for a muscle group which will give us training volume when the muscle is in a highly fatigued state. When the muscles are fatigued at the back end of a working set, the velocity of the weight moving slows down involuntarily. When the speed of your rep slows down, this is a sign that our key mechanism to hypertrophy adaptations – mechanical tension is high. Tension within the muscle is greatest near the final few reps of a working set.

By utilising a drop set, we are able to continue the working set, which in turn, allows you to achieve more reps when the muscle is in a highly fatigued state. More training volume, more potential for mechanical tension. The drop to a lighter weight results in more reps being achieved rather than just stopping at the weight previously used. The result is more reps, more mechanical tension, and a potential increase of hypertrophy adaptations.

Sounds good right? Well yes, but also there are pros and cons to this technique. Pushing a muscle to and past failure can also generate a lot of fatigue and stress. This can lead to adaptations, but can also impact recovery and performance. This is why we use these sparingly. As I said earlier, intensity techniques are a tool. To achieve hypertrophy we want to train hard and close to failure, but we don’t actually need to train to all out failure every set or every session. Ideally taking working sets within 1-5 reps of true failure is a good place to be for growth, but when we do really want to push a muscle, a drop set can be a great strategy.

When to use drop sets?

A few things to look at here. What exercises are most suitable? What part of the workout is best suited to drop sets? Do you use these on all working sets of an exercise?

Firstly, what exercises are most suitable? A big part of training a muscle to failure and beyond is choosing the correct exercises to do this on. This is important because: A) some exercises already generate a lot of systemic fatigue and are best not taken to all out failure (e.g. deadlifts), and B) some exercises when severely fatigued can lead to severe technique breakdown and also safety issues.

The goal is to work hard, but work hard on exercises which you can safely push to failure and through technique breakdown, without hurting yourself.

I prefer exercises which are machine based which give you a lot of stability from the machine. For example, a leg extension, leg curl or leg press. Lots of stability and also movements you can safely fail a rep on.

Exercises like a barbell hip thrust or a dumbbell chest press can also be fine for free weights as they are again, exercises you can safely fail reps on.

What part of your workout do you implement drop sets? Well, it depends on the workout. If you are doing say leg extensions first for your quads, before then going into your squats, I would not want to be implementing a drop set in the leg extension first in your workout. This will most likely lead to a severe drop in performance for your squats.

Try to save the drop sets for more the middle-to-end of your workout if you have large compound movements in your workout. Those are hard enough as is. We don’t want to sabotage performance on those by creating severe fatigue earlier.

The end of your session can be a good way to implement a drop set, for example a leg extension to finish your leg day, or a dumbbell lateral raise for shoulders.

Should you use drop sets on all your working sets of an exercise? NO! Save the drop set for the FINAL working set only.

For example, you have 3 sets of leg curl. First 2 sets just do normal sets, then, on your third and final working set implement the drop set method! Take the final set to failure. When no more reps can be achieved, then immediately lower the weight and extend the working set.

Now that we have those points covered. The final take home point for understanding drop sets is a crucial one:

How much weight do you drop for the drop set?

This matters!

We don’t want to be using 100kg on a hip thrust for 10 reps, for example, then drop down to 50kg – a 50% drop. That would result in you doing your hard 10 reps to failure for the 100kg. Then, the 50% drop would mean you would be doing 20+ reps to just get close to failure. Not what we want!

Likewise, we don’t want to do 100kg, then drop 5kg off the bar and immediately try to do more reps again. Most likely, you will only be able to achieve 1-2 more reps which is not significant enough here.

The key to a successful drop set is getting the percentage drop right.

What I recommend always is a 20% drop in weight.

For example, you did 100kg for 10 reps, then your drop will be 20% – 20kg

You will then immediately perform 80kg for as many reps as possible.

What a 20% drop will look like is the ability to get close to the same initial rep target but not quite there. I ideally want a client to be able to achieve 60-80% of the initial rep target.

So for our example set of 10 reps at 100kg, I want the client to now be able to drop the weight to a level they are able to achieve a further 6-8 reps roughly. Not more reps than the intended working set number. Not way less reps.

The 20% drop will almost always result in you being able to successfully achieve that rep goal!

So there you go! The drop sets method broken down in what I really hope is a simple and digestible takeaway for you to implement in your training.

Just remember, these are tools!

The right tool for the right job is always key!

But when you use it, use it well!

 

Coach Mark Carroll

Intensity Techniques – Rest Pause Method

Intensity techniques are a great tool to add another element to your resistance training. Whether it be additional training volume, pushing a muscle past true failure or just a means to spice up your training, intensity techniques, when used correctly, can be a great training tool to add to your arsenal. 

Now, firstly, what do I mean by an intensity technique? 

An intensity technique is a training method/s (there are quite a few that I use) which allows you to do 1 of 3 things:

Extend a working set

Take a muscle to true failure and beyond

Add additional training volume in a time efficient manner

They are just that, tools. Definitely not something that needs to be implemented every single training program or workout. When used correctly and also timed correctly in a training phase, these can be a great method to challenge yourself in ways a typical set probably wouldn’t. 

In this blog, I want to cover 1 of the 4 most common intensity techniques I use for clients, and also HOW to use them correctly.
Honestly, I would say 9 out of 10 times I see these techniques used, they are used incorrectly, whether it be incorrect loading or the wrong intensity/percentage drop. It’s also important to consider where you place these in the workout, and also the correct exercises to use these techniques on. 

Hint: a low rep deadlift is most likely not the exercise you want to be doing partial reps or a huge drop set on! 

Intelligent training combined with these techniques is the key! Over the next month I will cover all 4 intensity techniques in detail but for this week, we will begin with the Coach Mark Carroll staple… 

The Rest Pause Method

Rest pause is definitely my favourite intensity technique as it’s so simplistic in nature, whilst also being really, really effective!

A snapshot of a rest pause method can be explained like this:

Say you are doing hip thrusts for 4 sets of 8-10 reps.

With this loading and rep range, you should be adding weight to each set, meaning that the 4th and final set should be your hardest and heaviest (the set taken closest to failure for 8-10 reps).
This is where we want to implement the rest pause method, on the final set! 

For example, the weight selection for the 4 sets would look like this: 

  • Set 1 – 90kg
  • Set 2 – 95kg
  • Set 3 – 100kg
  • Set 4 – 105kg 

The 4th and final set is where we will do a rest pause method.
You perform as many reps as you can for 105kg, ideally achieving your 8-10 reps and not having a rep left in the tank.

This is where the rest pause begins. REST for 15 seconds. I mean put the bar down after your 8-10 reps to failure and REST completely for 15 seconds. Just sit there, breathe and relax. Then, after 15 seconds you’re going to get back into the exercise with the same weight.

Your goal once more is to achieve as many reps as you can with that same weight. If the original set was taken to failure, realistically, you should be able to achieve about 60% of the same reps. Meaning, you should now only get about 6 reps. These sets should be taken to failure!

Now, that is a REST PAUSE X 1!
You have completed 1 Rest Pause, you rested the 15 seconds, then went back into more reps with that same weight. 

REST PAUSE X 2  is a more advanced method where you are not done yet after doing the above! Once more, after those 6 or so reps, you REST again. Put the bar back down on the ground and have another 15-20 seconds recovery. Then, you guessed it… back into your working set with as many reps as possible with that same weight for the third and final time.

Remember, it’s normal for reps to be lowered as you are fatigued. So realistically, you should only be able to achieve another 3-4 reps here. 

This is your second rest pause completed of that one set – hence REST PAUSE X 2! 

So that is it!

Simple. Brutal. Really effective!

We extend the working set simply by utilising mini rest periods once failure is achieved. Enough recovery to be able to achieve a few more reps. Insufficient recovery to be able to achieve as many reps as the original set. 

Why this method? 

This is a great way to take a set to failure, then past failure. It is also a time efficient manner to get more training volume done. 

Rather than wait another few minutes before doing another working set, the rest pause allows you to quickly accumulate more training volume to end that exercise. 

Other benefits? 

A key driver of hypertrophy is mechanical tension. Mechanical tension occurs when a muscle reaches a state close to fatigue. 

When you lift, notice how your rep speed stays consistent? Until you begin to fatigue. Then, despite your best efforts to move the bar quickly, bar speed slows down. This is not you purposely slowing the rep down. This is your muscles fatiguing and therefore the speed of the rep slows down. This part of the rep is where mechanical tension is greatest. 

Now if you do 10 reps, obviously, most of those will not be reps where you are slowing down. Maybe the final 1-3 reps of the set will be slower. 

With a rest pause method, by utilising the mini rest periods, we can extend the working set. It also means each of those additional reps will be done very close to failure, where the velocity of the rep is slowing down and therefore reps where mechanical tension is greatest! 

This is not something we need to do all the time by any means, but nevertheless, it’s a fantastic tool for the right time and exercise.

What exercises are best suited to the rest pause method? 

Exercises which you can safely push to failure! This is important. An exercise like a squat or deadlift are not the movements we want to take to all out failure. Technique breakdown will be too high. 

Exercises where we have high stability like a machine can be the best choice. These include leg curls, leg extensions, hack squat, machine presses, etc. These are exercises you can safely take to failure and beyond and not have the fatigue lead to system fatigue and high technique breakdown, but more so localised fatigue.

Now, I hope that covers rest pause in quite nice detail. It’s a method I use a lot. I love it… for the right exercise.

Final tip… 

Save the rest pause for your final working set. If you do 4 sets, don’t use the rest pause EVERY set – only the final working set!

Then, my second last tip: this does not need to be done every single week or program. Remember, it’s a tool. A tool is only good for the right job!

The next intensity technique blog I will bring you is DROP SETS. Don’t miss it!

 

Yours in hard work,

Coach Mark Carroll

Your Fat Loss Secret Weapon: STEPS!

These days, tracking your daily steps has become synergistic with fat loss. Commonly, people preach “increase your steps and eat less.” Simple enough, right?

So, why are steps useful? More importantly, why is tracking your steps useful?

Simply increasing your steps when you first start a diet is easy. Most people get motivated to get outside and move around when they begin a diet. It’s exciting! 

Although, just telling a client to go for more walks is actually different to giving a client an exact step target! 

Why do I set a specific range for clients to achieve when dieting for fat loss? Isn’t fat loss just about a calorie deficit? Eat in a calorie deficit and lose fat, right? Yes! But, there are variables that impact this. 

Before I answer the question of why tracking steps is such an integral tool to fat loss, let me explain firstly what steps are not:

  • Steps are not magic for fat loss.
  • Steps are actually quite time INEFFICIENT if your goal is to burn as many calories as possible in a short time frame.
  • Achieving a step target does not mean a calorie deficit does not matter, a calorie deficit always matters for fat loss.
  • Steps can be hard to achieve for busy people working office jobs versus that of a person in an active job, e.g. a personal trainer on the gym floor. 
  • High steps targets are not for everyone.

Now, if steps are not all that calorie costly, then why do them? 

Ok, so let’s think of fat loss… We need a calorie deficit to lose weight. Simple!

For example, a client has a TDEE of 2500 calories (their maintenance), and they create a 500 calorie deficit each day, therefore consuming 2000 calories a day.
Initially they achieve fat loss. In fact, the first month fat loss comes easy. Then 4-5 weeks in it slows, and by 7-8 weeks in it totally levels off.

People are confused by this, as they are still eating 2000 calories a day. Why is their deficit no longer working? 

This is a very common issue!

There is no problem so to speak. The client has just begun to experience “metabolic adaptation”. This is your body’s natural response to fat loss.

Your body decreases NEAT (Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) levels. NEAT is your incidental movement. Things like fidgeting, tapping, pacing around on the phone, walking around the gym between sets while on Instagram, etc. Basically it’s unplanned activity which still very much contributes to fat loss. This movement is expending calories; it contributes to you creating a calorie deficit. 

The longer we diet, the more weight we lose, and the more the body tends to experience metabolic adaptation. NEAT levels lower. In some people it’s very minimal, and in others it’s far more pronounced. 

For example, some clients I have done 12 week cuts with, both at the same weight, body fat level and training goal. Same exact TDEEs. 

Let’s say both clients have a TDEE of 2500, and both started their cuts on 2000 cals. One client finished their cut on 1900 cals. Only dropped 100 cals over 12 weeks further to get them their goal result.
The second client finished on 1300 calories. A further 600 cals drop compared to the other client. 

Why? Their bodies are different and experience different levels of metabolic adaptation. 

So, where do steps come into all of this? 

STEPS are a fantastic way to ARTIFICIALLY ensure NEAT levels stay elevated. 

Remember, metabolic adaptation is when the body decreases movement of which we cannot control. We move less, we expend less, which means our TDEE is lowering, therefore the original calories are no longer working. 

Having a client track steps is a great way to ensure their movement stays elevated even when their body does not want it to. 

Remember, when we start fat loss we tend to be motivated to get out and move more, but the longer we go, the more fatigued, less motivated and often hungrier we are…none of which says “hey let’s move a lot.” 

Having a step goal forces the client to get up and move, ensuring the client keeps their activity consistent. Yes, we cannot control NEAT levels lowering, but we can control your daily movement through steps. 

Keep this consistent, to best ensure consistent calorie expenditure is being achieved over the fat loss period. 

The standard 10,000 steps a day protocol can be the difference between someone hitting a plateau or someone who consistently loses and loses over the same time period.

If you want to keep losing fat, ensure not just calories are being met. Ensure your daily movement is staying up and not dropping off. 

Steps can be a simple but powerful weapon to combat fat loss plateaus. 

Have a step goal! Be consistent!

Simple but powerful tool! 

Coach Mark Carroll