Archive | February, 2014

The Practicality and Sustainability of Flexible Dieting

17 Feb



Take a look at some of the popular diets being promoted via social media, fitness magazines, and celebrities. Chances are you will quickly become lost and increasingly confused. With so much nutrition dogma promoted in the fitness community, no wonder individuals may find it difficult to find the truth in goal-oriented nutrition practices.

If you are reading this, chances are you are contemplating taking a dive into the world of health and fitness or have already taken the plunge to improve your health and body composition. At some point or another, you have most likely made an attempt to determine the most appropriate nutrition protocol for meeting your goals.

Fad diets

First off, let’s address fad diets. Fad diets are diets that promote quick weight loss and restrict or eliminate specific macronutrient s or food groups completely. The problem with most fad diets is they are not sustainable overtime. Yes, you may lose weight on a fad diet. However, did you learn the art of balancing caloric intake in relation to your body’s metabolic needs and your body composition goals?

Fad diets may work temporarily in terms of weight loss because they eliminate food groups completely which is an indirect way of decreasing overall caloric intake. The opportunity for growth and development in terms of building a sound nutrition knowledge-base by learning to become an educated nutrition consumer is severely restricted when fad diets are used for weight loss. With that being said, fad diets are forever fleeting.

Shortcomings of cookie-cutter nutrition plans

What about cookie-cutter diets you read in your favorite fitness magazines? You know, the diet plans your favorite fitness or bodybuilding competitors reportedly follow. Most of these diets focus on the specific foods you eat at each meal – rather than the overarching determining factor that should drive your goals– overall caloric intake. There is nothing inherently magical about 6-8 small meals consisting of the same monotonous food items.

Furthermore, most of these plans fail to break down the calories and macronutrient profile for the diet as a whole. An individual’s nutrition protocol should be individualized based on height, age, activity level, goals, and current body composition. Failing to construct a nutrition plan without taking these variables into consideration leaves the individual shooting in the dark. What if progress stalls?

How can you accurately adjust macronutrients and calories accurately if you had no idea how much you were eating to begin with?

Introducing: Flexible dieting

Flexible dieting, also known as IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), has surfaced as a nutrition approach that accommodates the basic rule of physics in terms of energy balance: thermodynamics. The premise of IIFYM is the belief that the individual has a set macronutrient target that should be hit every day to achieve fitness goals.

What is a macro-nutrient?

Macro-nutrients are nutrients that yield energy in the form of calories. The three macronutrients include:

  • Carbohydrate
  • Protein
  • Fat

What is a micro-nutrient?

Macronutrients are needed in larger amounts for energy metabolism purposes, while micronutrients are only needed in small amounts within the diet. Micronutrients include:

  • ·         Vitamins
  • ·         Minerals

The big picture

IIFYM is a very flexible nutrition approach in which arbitrary food labels such as “bad foods” and “clean foods” are disregarded. We have all heard someone say they “eat clean” when trying to lean up, but what exactly constitutes a food as being a “clean” food? And isn’t the total calorie intake more important for dictating body composition changes than a subjective label of a “clean” vs “dirty” food? 

Can our bodies decipher between a “clean food” and “bad food” when digesting and absorbing nutrient substrates at the molecular level? At the cellular level, the body recognizes food parts as glucose, amino acids, and lipids.

Research has suggested the effect of meal frequency on metabolism does not lead to a greater fat oxidation (Munsters 2012). Dogma of stoking the metabolic fire by eating every 2 hours to reap the “thermogenic effect of food” is often promoted by “fitness gurus,” however, research (Taylor 2001) suggests otherwise. From a thermodynamics standpoint, total energy intake (calories) in relation to calories burned is the driving force in dictating energy balance.  

For instance, a trained individual counting macronutrients with a consistent caloric intake of 3,200 calories in four meals is no different than that same individual consuming 3,200 calories via eight meals.

With that being said, subjectively obsessing over a specific food rather than taking an aerial view of the bigger picture is neglecting the overarching determinant – total calorie intake. We sometimes fail to look at the parts and not the whole. The purpose of IIFYM is to focus on achieving daily set macronutrient targets (fats, carbohydrates, protein), and also micronutrient goals (vitamins and minerals) in an effort to achieve your desired body composition.

The problems with IIFYM dieters is too often individuals will hit their macronutrient targets while coming up short in terms of achieving an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals. It is the thought of the author that the bulk of one’s diet should focus on nutrient-dense foods for a number of reasons:

1)      To meet fiber recommendations (25-38g per day or 14g fiber per 1000 kcals)
2)      To obtain phytonutrients via the diet – which may possess anti-cancer benefits while possibly preventing the onset of some chronic diseases
3)      To acquire sufficient micronutrients including vitamins and minerals
4)      To promote sustainability in terms of life-long dietary habits

Is Flexible Dieting Sustainable?

If body composition improvement is the primary goal, consistently hitting one’s target calorie and macronutrient numbers is by far the single most significant step to achieving one’s desired body composition goal – whether  it be fat loss or building lean body mass.

There is a learning curve with counting macronutrients and becoming accountable for tracking calorie intake. The educational process of becoming an informed consumer in terms of monitoring nutrition intake and reading food labels is the beauty of flexible dieting. In doing so, one learns the art of balancing macronutrients to achieve a desired outcome.

Through monitoring intake, one can adjust and refine the numbers accordingly to achieve the desired body composition goal. If one is not aware of how many calories or what distribution of macronutrients he or she is consuming, how can that person optimally manipulate and adjust energy needs once progress stalls if he or she had no clue what their energy intake looked like in the first place?

The sustainability of flexible dieting is applicable if the individual takes ownership in becoming an educated consumer. Establishing a sound knowledge-base of logging total calories and learning the art of balancing macronutrients based on estimated calorie needs in relation to body composition goal is paramount.

Familiarizing oneself with macro and micronutrient content in relation to serving size is also very important. It is always beneficial to use a food scale, measuring cups, or measuring spoons to recondition ourselves on what a true “serving size” is. The ultimate goal of flexible dieting is to instill learned behavior of what a serving size of particular food looks like to where the individual can “eyeball” a particular serving size of a food without measuring while being rather precise and accurate.

In terms of physiological processes behind physique transformation, total energy intake is the driving force in determining body composition. With keeping nutrient-density in mind, one can achieve a desired body composition goal while enjoying a variety of foods. Honoring personal preference is one of the most powerful, yet underrated tactics for achieving optimal health and body composition. The art of flexible dieting serves as an educational tool for the individual, promotes balance, and instills a nutrition-centered mindset for the individual based on longevity and sustainability.


1.      Marjet J. M. Munsters, Wim H. M. Saris. Effects of Meal Frequency on Metabolic Profiles and Substrate Partitioning in Lean Healthy Males. PLoS One. 2012; 7(6): e38632. Published online 2012 June 13. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038632


2.      Taylor, J. S. Garrow. Compared with nibbling, neither gorging nora morning fast affect short-term energy balance in obese patients in a chamber calorimeter. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 April; 25(4): 519–528.


Performing the Squat: Safety, Depth, and Foot Position

3 Feb

The squat is one of the most functional exercises anyone can perform.  The term functional is something that gets thrown around very loosely in the fitness community today.  The squat is functional because it mimics movements that individuals perform on a daily basis such as sitting in a chair or lifting heavy objects from the floor.  For many years, strength and conditioning programs use the back squat to improve athletic performance such as sprinting ability (McBride et al. 2009, Comfort et al. 2012).   Bodybuilders, professional and recreational, often perform the squat to stimulate large amounts of muscle mass in one movement.  Even with many people performing this exercise on a weekly basis, questions and concerns often arise regarding this technical lift.  In this article, I am going to the following questions:

Are loaded squats safe?  

What is the appropriate depth that I should squat?

How should I position my feet and how wide?

Before I dive into answering these questions, I want to briefly review the basic anatomical and biomechanical areas of focus during a squat.  A squat is a closed-chained, multijoint exercise that involves several major muscle groups (Clark et al. 2012).  Descending into a squat involves flexion of the hip, knee, and ankle joint.  While ascending back to the starting position involves hip and knee extension and plantar flexion of the ankle joint (Schoenfeld 2010).   The quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, hip abductors, hip adductors, and other hip flexor/extensors are dynamically activated to perform this movement.  To provide stability, the large muscles of the back and core are isometrically contracted to safely protect the spine.  As you can see, by performing one movement, large amounts of musculature can be activated. 


In 1961, a study by Dr. Klein at the University of Texas, revealed that full squats increased the laxity in the collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments (Klein 1961).  Shortly thereafter, the American Medical Association (AMA) released a position stand stating that full squats can cause “potential for severe injury to the internal and supporting structures of the knee joint.”   Full squats were removed from many military and education-based physical fitness programs.  It wasn’t long before other follow up studies replicated Klein’s protocol, but found contradicting results.  The data showed no reduction in the stability of the collateral or anterior ligaments.  Current research has shown that the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is under the most shear force during the beginning of the squat at 15° to 30° of knee flexion.  The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) experiences the most shear force as the knee reaches 90° of flexion, with diminishing force past this point (Comfort 2007, Schoenfeld 2010).  Almost no shear forces were observed below the parallel position, probably due to the fact that compressive forces are greatly increased as one moves deeper into the squat.  Compressive forces are caused by the compression of the menisci and other soft tissue structures from the posterior, upper tibia and the superior posterior femoral condyles (Li 2004, Schoenfeld 2010).  From the current body of evidence, loaded squats are considered a safe form of exercise when performed with proper technique.  Injury during the squat movement usually occurs when a lifter is using bad technique, too high of load, or has a pre-existing pathological condition that was not addressed.  Understanding proper mechanics can make the squat a safe and effective way to achieve many fitness goals.


Squats are often categorized into 3 distinct groups: partial squats, half squats, and deep squats.  Partial squats consist of a knee angle of 40°, while half squats range from 70° to 100°.  Anything greater than 100° would be classified as a deep squat (Schoenfeld 2010).  Determining the appropriate depth for a lifter is dependent on many factors such as anatomical structure, training goals, and training status.  Speaking from experience, I can say that not everyone will be able to perform a full squat.  Some individuals may have an anatomical condition that will not allow certain joints to move through a complete range of motion.  Always go through the range of motion that presents no joint discomfort.  To my knowledge, the sport of powerlifting is the only sport that requires an athlete to squat to a certain depth.  This sport requires athletes to squat to a depth where the hip joint descends below the top of the knee.  So depending on the circumstances, squat depth may be a pre-determined height.

The main interest in squat depth is usually in regards to muscle activation.  The quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus maximus are the most common muscles observed for muscle activity in the squat.  Quadriceps activation has been shown to peak at approximately 80° to 90° of flexion with the same values observed at greater degrees of flexion (Schoenfeld NSCA).  Other data also suggest that squatting deep would have no extra benefit on quadriceps activation (Caterisano et al 2002).  One main argument to these conclusions are that participants used the same load in the half squats and deep squats (Clark 2012).  In most conditions, individuals will be able to lift greater loads in the partial or half squat than they can a deep squat.  The greater load lifted during the squat, the greater the quadriceps activation (Paolli et al 2009).  Caterisano et al. also found that gluteus maximus activation was significantly higher in the deep squat compared to the partial and parallel squat (2002).  The gluteus maximus is a powerful hip extensor which helps to control eccentric lowering into the squat while also providing powerful force to extend the hips back to the starting position.  The hamstrings, another powerful hip extensor, are not quite as active during the squat as the gluteus maximus.  As a bi-articulate muscle group, the hamstrings shorten at the knee joint and lengthen at the hip joint so there is relatively no change in length-tension ratio.  Therefore, the current body of data suggests that squatting to parallel would be beneficial for training the quadriceps and to achieve better gluteus maximus development, one may add full squatting into their program.


It is a common belief in the fitness industry that foot width and placement will affect the activation of specific lower body musculature during the loaded squat.  A few studies have investigated the difference in muscle activation between narrow stance squats (less than shoulder width), normal stance squats (shoulder width), and wide stance squats (greater than shoulder width).  The gluteus maximus and adductor longus experience significantly greater activation with a wide stance compared to a narrow stance (Clark et al. 2012).  This is potentially due to the fact that most individuals push their hips back and knee track out over the toes during a wide stance squat.  By doing this, you would engage the hip musculature more during the squat movement.  The same studies have shown no significant changes in quadriceps activation during different stance widths.  Based on this data, doing close stance squats may not prove to activate the quadriceps more effectively than other widths.  Instead, one should strive to increase the load lifted to enhance quadriceps training.

Squatting is one of the most common exercises in strength and conditioning programs, and the current body of research claims it to be completely safe when performed with proper technique.  Squat depth should be chosen according to the anatomical structure and goals of the individual.  Feet width in the squat is recommended to be approximately shoulder width, however each individual should find a position that is most comfortable for them.  Remember that squatting, like any technical athletic movement, is often improved by practice and repetition.

Please list any comments or questions below.