5 Exercises, Focus, and Follow-Through: Advice for the Lifter Who Hasn’t Made Much Progress

I got an email a few weeks back from a reader who wanted some quick advice on what he should do in terms of his training and diet, in particular on how to go from skinny-fat and weak, to lean and jakt.

At one point or another, this is what we all long for, after all.

Now, I say specifically on my contact page that I’m not available to look over programs or design one as a result of talking shop.

However, this reader’s request was pretty simple in that he even said I could respond with a one-word answer, so I was a little more open to see where we could take this for edification of everyone else who may have a similar inquiry.

Here’s his opening email to me, and an image of his current condition. 

Hi JC,

Question – is recomping an option for me? (simple yes/no would suffice)

My Situation –

  • I’m skinny fat (picture below)
  • Currently 5’10, 170 pounds
  • End goal 5’10, 170 pounds lean (no specific time frame, no rush)
  • Can’t tolerate low libido and irritability sub 2000 calories
  • I would prefer to maintain an intake at 2000-2200 a day and let body composition change itself with adequate protein intake

Curiosity question (if you have time) – would there be a difference in outcome between route A (surplus on training days, deficit on rest) vs. route B (consistent calories day-to-day regardless of training)? (Assumption: protein intake is adequate)

Thanks JC. If this is considered too much of a consultation and you don’t answer these types of e-mails I understand.

At first, I was just going to tell him to not worry about recomping, with my usual advice that he should simply eat more than 2000 kcals daily, and focus on getting strong.

But after we chatted a bit, he agreed to let me publish the picture, and the email as long as I gave him some personal advice, and shared it on the site, so here we are.

Here’s a bit of his back-story so you can get a glimpse of his life. Pretty typical of someone in his position, and I hope if your physique is similar to his, you can relate and take something from this.

Keep in mind, a lot of what’s going here, I describe in the Former Fat Boy Syndrome (article + podcast).

Paraphrased from our conversation – the quick facts.

  • Overweight/obese as a kid growing up
  • Started exercising at 15 yrs, 230lbs
  • Lost 70lbs within 8 months
  • Started reading various fitness websites, and following subpar training/diet routines so didn’t make much progress
  • Started college, stopped training, and gained some weight – back up to about 190lbs
  • At 20 yrs, decided to try cardio for a fat loss method and dropped all the way down to 145lbs (imagine how skinny he was at 5’10”). He stated he was eating about 1000 kcals with daily steady state cardio sessions.
  • Continued this activity for about a year and then stopped abruptly for about 6 months.
  • Started lifting weights again in September 2009. At this point he was 160lbs and about 20% body fat. Started reading respectable resources online and gained some confidence in what he was doing for a change.
  • However, he got a bit too confident with his approach, and instead of eating really well, he began to eyeball his macros, which made him under eat while he was going through pharmacy school (stress, lots of work, and general busy-ness).
  • 3 years later, he’s nearly 24, and pissed at himself for having so much knowledge, but his physique is proof that he’s not truly put any of it to good use

So now you know a bit of this guy’s history. He’s intelligent, and has been exposed to good fitness information – the kind that can actually serve and benefit him on the road to building his goal-physique.

But the guy thinks a bit too much. Here’s what I mean… From his email:

Options that I’ve considered from my research to get me there:

Here’s some options that I’ve considered after doing research to get me where I want to be

1) Bulking up slowly at a 200-300 calorie daily surplus then cutting down after that (or hoping that my body recomps)

2) Cutting down to 12% body fat then bulk up from there – this is what I’ve been kind of doing the past few weeks

3) Recomping with +10%/-30%

All of this stuff is good on paper. It really is, but at the end of the day, no one got big, strong, and lean by closely calculating, and predicting the outcome of their journey.

I’m reading a book right now called The Practicing Mind, and there’s a quote that stuck out to me.

“When you focus on the process, the desired product takes care of itself with fluid ease. When you focus on the product, you immediately begin to fight yourself and experience boredom, restlessness, frustration, and impatience with the process.”

Our boy is pretty wrapped up in a certain look he wants to achieve (the product), but failing all over to make the right moves which will make it happen (the process).

We’re going to stop this today.

I’m about to lay out an entire training plan, along with some nutritional guides, and how to ensure you make progress that will ultimately lead to where he wants to be.

In other words, I’m going to lie out a process he (and many others) can follow in order to achieve the product their going for.

Let’s talk training first.

This is going to be a simple routine, and you can mix and match as you like, as long as you

  • stick to the structure (don’t add more sets/reps)
  • commit to 4-6 weeks of each block before making movement changes

The 5 Movement Miracle

In this program, you’re training 3 days per week or every other day.

You focus on 5 movements with a final 10-minute session to get in as much “pump” work as possible.

1. Squat/Leg press – 3×5-6, 1×12-15 (2m rest)
2. RDL (or from the floor) – 4×8-10 (1.5m rest)
3. Chin ups (or pulldowns) – 5×3 (2m rest)
4. DB Bench (neutral grip) – 4×8-10 (1.5m rest)
5. Seated row – 5×10-12 (45s rest)
10 minutes of legs ‘pump’ work

1. Barbell Glute Bridge – 4×5 (2m rest)
2. Squat/leg press – 4×8-10 (1.5m rest)
3. Incline Press– 4×6-8 (2m rest)
4. Barbell Row – 4×6-8 (2m rest)
5. Cable/Band Face Pulls – 5×10-12 (45s rest)
10 minutes of arms ‘pump’ work

Here’s the lowdown:

  1. Focus on only a handful of exercises and only do 5 main movements per training session.
  2. Make sure the movements are comfortable for you – the ones above are merely examples.
  3. Work on these movements for a period of at least 4-6 weeks before making changes.
  4. If you stall, before the 4th week, you started out too aggressively. Reset the weight to 80% of what you stalled on and start over.
  5. Swap the movements out on the 5th or 6th week with something similar. Instead of RDL’s, do deadlifts from the floor.* Instead of DB bench, do incline barbell bench, or DB floor presses (JC’s personal favorite). You can swap out the glute bridges for hip thrusts when you get good at this movement. You could also do weighted hyperextensions here if you wanted.
    *drop it to 3-5 reps for deadlifts
  6. Keep it simple by focusing on getting strong on these main movements, and keep a logbook.
  7. PUMP WORK: Set a timer for 10 minutes. Pick 2 movements (opposing muscle groups based on the days or arms or legs) and super set them with only enough rest with the time it take to switch movements until your time is up. I’d focus on the 15-20 rep range here to get a good pump – imagine yourself as a bodybuilder training to get all puffy in the gym. For arms, I like to do cable curls followed by cable press downs. For legs, I like to do hyperextensions followed by leg extensions. Once the timer is up, you stop – no excuses.

Dietary Strategy

Okay, I know what it’s like being a FFB. I’ve been there – super afraid to eat any food in fear that I’d wake up to my former fat self. However, please understand this is not going to happen. I can assure you that.

Also in his case, consuming 2000 kcals a day in hopes of a recomp happening is not the best strategy. Why? Because I know he’ll need more food than that if he wants to grow.

I know this firsthand because I currently have a group of guys whose main goal is to get strong and put on mass, and the main complaint of theirs is not being able to eat enough to gain weight.

Let’s put the numbers in perspective.

If he consistently eats 2000-2200 kcals daily, that puts him at just under 13kcals per pound of body weight. For most who are even remotely active (training 3-4x per week), that’s not even maintenance for them.

So the first thing we have to do is get rid of the tendency to under eat.

If that means tracking your intake to make sure you get a minimum amount of calories daily, so be it.

The worst thing you can do for yourself is continue to under eat in hopes that it will magically change your body – it’s just not going to happen.

And just to burst your bubble, I have a female right now who weighs 109lbs and eating around 2800-3000 kcals on her training days with around 2000 on her off days. What’s her goal? She wants to get strong and actually look strong.

So stop being a weenie when it comes to your intake and eat up. Do what it takes to get the body you want.

What does that mean, exactly?

For his body type, I’d never advise an all-out bulking diet, but one that supports his goals of getting bigger and stronger.

A good starting point is determining maintenance (which for many who are training 3-4x per week is 15 kcals xbody weight in pounds).

Since we want to keep fat gain to a minimum for all the psychological, dysmorphia bullshit us FFB’s deal with, I say to start with about 16-17xbw on training days, and 14-15xbw on off days.

Macros Made Easy

Set protein at 1g/lb
Fat at 25%
Carbs for the rest

Example Diet:

170×17 = 2900 kcal – Training Days
170g protein
80g fat
375g carbs

170×14 = 2400 kcal – Off Days
170g protein
65g fat
285g carbs

So this is just an example, if you’re afraid carbs will make you fat, then you’re probably afraid to do what it takes to change your physique.

Ending notes:

Train for performance as opposed to aesthetics. Here’s a reminder article: Train Like an Athlete, Not Like a Fitness Model.

Get stronger, and have fun with the training.

Do not get in a rush and expect results yesterday.

Don’t try to do more than what I’ve written above.

Simply stick to the plan, and execute.

15 thoughts on “5 Exercises, Focus, and Follow-Through: Advice for the Lifter Who Hasn’t Made Much Progress”

  1. I’m an example of a FFB who is having to eat a lot to build muscle. I am currently eating about 2700 calories on rest days, and 3400 calories on lifting days, and I would be scared of adding too much fat, but I don’t think I am, because I am still managing to add reps to my pull-ups, which wouldn’t be possible with too much added fat.

  2. “A good starting point is determining maintenance (which for many who are training 3-4x per week is 15xbody weight in pounds).

    Since we want to keep fat gain to a minimum for all the psychological, dysmorphia bullshit us FFB’s deal with, I say to start with about 16-17xbw on training days, and 14-15xbw on off days.”

    Hi JC! I know this question might probably sound stupid but what do you mean by this statement? I currently weigh 185 lbs. so does that mean I do 14-15 reps of BW on off days? I know this doesn’t make sense. Lol. Please enlighten me. Thanks!

  3. One thing that stuck out to me when I looked at his pic was his body shape; soft and weak looking.

    That got me thinking that he needs to focus on the quality of his diet as much as the quantity. I then noticed you make no mention of where he should get his energy/calories from. Was this something you discussed?

    I sincerely think that without a fairly big shift in food type he simply ain’t gonna get the results he wants, despite doing a solid training program, which yours obviously is.

    Let me know…

    • okay… letting you know.

      His body shape is soft because he’s not done anything right in terms of training and actually eating to support those goals. Instead, he’s gone back and forth from bulking to dieting, which just made him soft.

      I don’t really think he needs to put too much emphasis on quality right now because if you’re at all familiar with health and fitness, you’re probably making better than average food choices. His focus needs to be on sticking to the program and eating enough to support his goals.

      I’m not worried about him skimping on lean protein, whole foods carbs, and fats, or maybe having the occasional burger. I’m more worried about him not eating enough over all, and repeating this madness.

  4. I like the way you’ve simplified the macros. I myself don’t count macros or calories any more ever since I found that on carb backloading I’m consistently eating over 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight and the controlled timing of carbs allows me to both stay within my caloric upper limit and still eat my favourite foods consistently. My strength has been constantly going up too as a result of eating more and proper rest.

    I didn’t get to thank you for replying to an email I’d sent a few weeks ago. I wanted to let you know I’m on the Texas Method now as per your recommendations and am enjoying it!

  5. Awesome article, JC! Being a FFB myself, I can definitely relate to a lot of what you are talking about. People just need to stick to a goal and stay consistent, results will follow.

    Also, excellent job enforcing higher carbs. I did low carbs for years and I always felt horrible and never made much progress. I don’t know where the low carb movement came from, but it’s great to see it slowly starting to die off.

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