Eric Helms Interview: People Who Can't Lose Fat, Common Training Mistakes, and Toxic Fitness Ideologies of 2016

Author: Jared Bichler

 

 

First off, it’s great to have you back Eric. As always, I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to provide value for others. Can you catch everyone up on what it is you’ve been up to since our last interview?

Eric: It’s an honour to be back Jared, and man…a lot has been going on in my life since we last spoke in may 2015. Well, I’m in the final part of my PhD. I’ll be submitting it for examination early next year, before March if all goes according to plan. I’ve published one study and a conceptual review on the use of RPE in resistance training that will be chapters of my PhD and I’ve got two chapters that will be published as studies in the hopper.  Finally, the flagship study of my PhD just started. It’s a collaboration with Dr. Michael Zourdos and his team at Florida Atlantic University. I’ll be going out there for over 2 months starting in September to oversee the bulk of collection.

Aside from my PhD, I’ve been competing in powerlifting. I recently got a personal best with a 150kg bench in competition which I am pretty happy about, but I’ll be taking some time off from powerlifting to focus on bodybuilding as i want to step back on stage and do my pro debut after I finish my PhD.

 

At 3DMJ we’ve had the pleasure of bringing Andrea Valdez onto the team as our 5th coach, and she is just amazing. I could literally talk about how awesome she is all day. Such a passionate, motivated person who truly wants the best for the team and our community.

Also since we spoke last I released the Muscle and Strength Pyramid eBooks for training and nutrition alongside my co-authors Andrea Valdez and Andy Morgan. Could not have done it without their editorial help, input on turning a video series into book format (they have both written numerous eBooks, these are my first), and assistance with all the logistical, marketing, and technological pieces that are outside of my expertise. These have been very successful, and it’s been very fulfilling to be able to get good information out to a broad base of people.  

 

 

Flexible dieting and macro tracking in general are often touted as superior long-term, “lifestyle”, approaches to nutrition. Do you feel this is the case? And at what point does flexible dieting cross over into another form of overly-rigid dieting?

 

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First I think we need to differentiate flexible dieting from macro tracking. Flexible dieting was originally based off of research on people with a “flexible restraint” attitude to dieting, as opposed to a “rigid restraint” attitude. This research trail uncovered some pretty interesting things over the decade and a half that it’s been steadily trudging down he rabbit hole. 

Most surprisingly, is that those with a more flexible attitude towards restraint tend to be less overweight, better at maintaining weight loss, happier, and show less signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Furthermore, later research found that as people adopted more “flexible traits” (shifted from one spectrum to the other; rigid to flexible), they became more and more successful with weight loss maintenance. So, not only is this attitude associated with more weight loss success, it is a malleable trait, not something inherent that is fixed. This to me, is the evidence of why “flexible dieting” is something to aspire to and the way to go long term.

On the flip side, “rigid dieting” is also just a mindset, and one characterised by black and white thinking. Where flexible dieters are more capable of allowing reasonable treats in their diet followed by reasonable compensatory decreases in caloric intake on following days, rigid dieters break from severe restriction, fall into binge eating and then compensate with severe restriction again, only to end their diets as heavy as before (or heavier) and emotionally traumatized. 

You might have noticed in my description of this dichotomy that I said nothing of meal plans or macro counting. Those are purely vehicles rather than mindsets. You can certainly use macro counting in an overly obsessive way, in which 24/7, 365 every meal is weighed to the gram, no eating out is allowed to maintain control, and it is emotionally traumatic when you realise your forgot to pack your food scale and you end up bingeing. 

Likewise, a meal plan can be set up with food alternates, an exchange based system, and only given out once the person has been adequately educated on the caloric and/or macro nutrition that their plan represents. 

Both meal plans and macro counting can be done “wrong”. A meal plan thrown at a beginner with no understanding of nutrition can set them up for failure because they don’t understand that swapping the banana scheduled at 4pm for an apple that is eaten at 3pm is perfectly fine. Rather, they can see this as a diet break and go off the deep end if they have the rigid mindset and aren’t properly educated. Likewise, throwing macro targets at a beginner can be completely overwhelming as they might have no idea what macros are, not understand the relationship between calories and macros, and struggle to fit foods to numbers and give up.

So as you can see, the behaviour and the underlying mindset are different from the method. If anything, the methods can work in a complementary fashion. I like the model of teaching a beginner what macros and calories are, then asking them to write their own meal plan, so as to learn how to fit foods to macros. From there, once they’ve developed the understanding and confidence of how to fit a diet to a set of numbers, they can move to an approach based solely around the numbers that has more flexibility and choice.

 

 

What have you found to be the most common mistake(s) people make in structuring their training? 

 

Typically the most common mistakes are rooted in a misunderstanding of how adaptation occurs. This is understandable as well, since the scientific community has struggled to come to a consensus as to the roots of muscular hypertrophy and strength development until recently (and even now there are unknowns and debates that remain). Understandably, this has been reflected in the fitness and bodybuilding community as well. 

                                                                                                                                          Photographer: Brandon Wells        Athlete: Nsima Inyang

                                                                                                                                          Photographer: Brandon Wells        Athlete: Nsima Inyang

For example, many programs of the 80’s and 90’s operated on the assumption that either muscular fatigue or muscle damage, in the course of weight training, was the primary driver of muscle growth. Super sets, drop sets, high rep sets to failure and forced reps, negatives, and other “intensity techniques” dominated many popular programs even leading into the more recent eras. To make matters worse, at least in the bodybuilding community, this trend stayed relatively pervasive since success was still being achieved by lifting in this manner. Of course at the same time the sophistication and the magnitude of drug use was also increasing, which perhaps allowed success despite a misguided approach.

Today, while the scientific community still has some debate around the roles of muscle damage and metabolic fatigue in muscle growth, it is largely accepted that the primary driver of muscle growth is progressive tension overload. The remaining debates are typically around how important the roles of damage and fatigue are, not whether they are the primary drivers of hypertrophy.

Thus, with an understanding of the primary driver of growth, one can setup a training program that makes sense. Frequency does not need to be drastically reduced because of the massive DOMS generated by a bomb and blast damage oriented routine, volume per session doesn’t need to reach astronomical heights due to piling on endless super sets, drop sets and giant sets in a fatigue oriented routine, and the load is dictated by the last micro or mesocycle of training so as to create progressive overload. 

With this understanding, the return of upper/lower, and full body splits has become popular. I say the return rather than the rise, because interestingly enough, full body compound lift oriented routines that emphasised strength development were the bread and butter of bodybuilders in the pre steroid era (not surprisingly). Without a need for astronomical volume per session to generate fatigue, or astronomical damage caused by training to and past failure, the same or more volume per body part can be programmed over a microcycle with less of the negative effects of fatigue. With this approach you aren’t forced to use lighter loads, you are less likely to incur soft tissue injuries, and you are less likely to have inconsistent performance. Essentially, with better fatigue and damage management, more frequent training can occur, progressive tension overload is easier to come by, and over time there is a greater net stimulus.

 

 

In my experience, there seem to be people (women especially) who seemingly ‘can’t’ lose fat. No matter how low you take Calories, how you cycle carbs/Calories, or how high you raise cardio- nothing seems to work. Why do you think this is?

 

I think one thing we have to acknowledge as coaches that work predominantly online, is that we miss a lot of things. Now that I’ve been at this for over a decade as a personal trainer initially and now as an online bodybuilding and powerlifting coach, I’ve come to realise how often the psychological rather than the physiological is the barrier to success. I’ve seen individuals who can’t even admit to themselves that they consume additional “off the radar” calories, or that they don’t count or severely underestimate the magnitude of the slip ups that occur. If they can’t admit these things to themselves, can you really expect them to admit it to their coach? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a former client come back to me a year or two later and spill the beans about what was really going on. Meanwhile, I was going through all kinds of mental acrobatics trying to figure out what refeed, diet break, carb cycling, ketogenic, or stubborn fat approach would work to get things moving. 

With that said, there are people who suffer from rather drastic energy expenditure compensation in response to dieting. I’m one of them, so I’m speaking from experience. One season in particular, I was maintaining 210lbs at 3300kcals to start and at the end was losing .5lbs per week on an average intake of 1800kcals at 185lbs, while doing daily cardio and lifting 5 days per week. That put my TDEE ~1100kcals lower than predicted. And that’s not something unprecedented in the literature. We often cite a number right around ~15% less than predicted as what you can expect from metabolic adaptation due to dieting. But that’s the mean. If you go 2 or 3 standard deviations out from the mean to cover ~95, and ~99% of the population, you’re looking at burning roughly a third less than might be expected, which is where I was that season.

Likewise, I’ve seen athletes in similar situations, like you said, often times they are women, but as illustrated in my case not always. What we also have to remember, is that if your body gets to this point where it is physiologically fighting weight loss as hard as it can, you better believe it is psychologically as well. The answer is typically a diet break, sometimes an extended one in order to successfully move forward.

 

 

Why is it that sometimes individuals lose fat extremely well, and other times it seems they can’t lose a pound of fat if their life depended on it? Despite having an identical, or perhaps even more invasive protocol the second time around. 

 

For all the same reasons I pointed out above. If you push your body too hard, and if you are also very psychologically stressed in that process, you’ll get to find out just how good your body is at fighting the process of fat loss. And, some people have a body that is much better at this than others. Likewise different approaches at different time points in the life of your body will yield different results. Push harder, the body pushes back harder. Sometimes that is a game that you end up on the losing side of.

 

 

Do you believe refeed days (referring to higher carb days, specifically), provide a benefit for fat loss? Whether directly, or indirectly.

 

Yes I most definitely do. Any day not dieting, is a day not dieting. It is a day that physiological processes aimed at reducing your deficit and threatening muscle loss are not occurring. Equally important, a refeed is a day your aren’t as psychologically stressed. A refeed is the same thing as a diet break, just shorter. With that said not all breaks from the diet are equally effective. A 24 hour refeed probably isn’t as effective as 2 days in a row, and 48 hours of refeeding isn’t as effective as a week off from dieting. 

It’s not all about leptin, there are so many downstream effects from changes in energy balance, including behavioural changes that can impact TDEE. Watch someone diet who has a tendency to stall, often their steps per day and their subconscious movement (non exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT) plummets. Then watch them after a week post diet, and it’s massively increased again. 

 

 

What do you feel are good methods to avoid significant decreases in NEAT during a dieting phase? 

 

NEAT is just one way, one very important way, that TDEE can decrease from dieting. Some studies have shown up to 60% of changes in TDEE are due to NEAT in response to changes in energy balance. Obviously the thermic effect of food decreases as you eat less, and yes to some degree BMR can decrease as well, but NEAT can be the biggest factor depending on the individual. Likewise, all of these systems are interrelated in the sense that they are responding to the same thing, a drop in energy availability. So the best way to combat one of the compartments of TDEE decreasing is similar to the same way you combat another. 

Thus, refeeds, diet breaks and intermittent approaches to caloric restriction are probably the way to go. Of course, that is all on top of the assumption that you are approaching fat loss with a reasonable, moderate approach (i.e. losing .5-1% of bodyweight per week, eating an appropriate protein intake, doing only as much cardio is as needed). If the foundation of the approach is a good one, refeeds on a regular basis can be very effective at slowing the reductions in TDEE. Likewise, semi regular diet breaks can have an even more powerful effect. Our approach at 3DMJ is often, as Jeff puts it “to dig a hole and fill it back up”. What this looks like, is that we’ll have 1-2 month periods of dieting, followed by a week or two of eating at maintenance. On top of this, during the weeks where we are dieting, there are 1-3 refeed days per week, and their frequency typically goes up as body fat goes down, and once we implement 2 or more, there is a 48 hour refeed in there. Between refeeds and diet breaks we’ve seen much greater success in dieting people down to very low levels of body fat with greater retention of muscle, less reduction in TDEE, less of a need to go crazy with cardio, better retention of gym performance, and less mental stress. However, it does necessitate longer diets. Most of the time, for bodybuilding divisions, our athletes are dieting 6 months or longer.

 

 

In 2016, what do you find being the most toxic ideologies within the fitness industry?

 

While it’s not always explicit, the simple ideology that your worth is represented by your body I think is extremely toxic. I got an Instagram account recently, and on one hand I love how on the whole it is a very positive community with a lot of mutual support, admiration and it that it has a playful, less serious attitude than other platforms. But, it is mind blowing how often I see people posting pictures of themselves in a manner that really shows how much their self worth depends on the acknowledgement of their body by others. Some people who post in this manner will say that they do this just because that’s the best way to get followers, and that they are aware of the ideology in question, but don’t buy into it. Some will say they post in this manner so that in the end they can use that platform to provide deeper content, but I think this is a misguided attitude. First of all, if that is actually true that they don’t buy into their body being all they are worth, well that’s good that the individual doesn’t buy into it. It’s good that they have a healthier view of their own worth, but it isn’t good in that they aren’t being honest with their followers. Essentially by doing that they tell their followers this is what you should value and this is how I see myself, when in fact they don’t feel that way. Secondly, posting in this manner only enforces the ideology that your worth in the fitness industry is defined by your body. Thirdly, it is a short sighted approach in terms of business, because a bunch of followers that only follow you because of your body probably won’t care much about something you have to say or teach that might have more substance. It’s not playing the long game, and rarely do people with this approach have a long lasting, respected career.

But truly, I think most of the time it isn’t that people “are just playing the game”. I think to some degree, many of us do have our self worth tied up in the way we look, myself included. To some degree that’s natural. It just shouldn’t be all encompassing. Also, I’m not saying we shouldn’t appreciate the development and hard work that goes into physique development, hell I’m a bodybuilder and a coach for bodybuilders. But, there needs to be a healthy distinction between the development of a physique as an athlete (or an aspiring athlete) for the purpose of competing in physique sport (or achieving a personal physique related goal), and the idea that you are somehow a better person or more valuable with an attractive fit body. A physique progress picture is one thing, but posts showing the “glamours” of the “aesthetic lifestyle” are two very different things. I am not chastising those who make posts like this, but more so I just worry about their lasting happiness when it is anchored in something superficial and the message it sends.

 

 

What kind of advice do you have for those who constantly struggle to gain and/or maintain traction with their fitness goals? 

 

Introspection. Self awareness. Purpose. Most of the people I meet who don’t have a solid direction in fitness (or life for that matter), can’t articulate what their goals are. And not just their immediate goals, but the purpose of why they are training at all. Just like the success of a business comes down to a strong mission statement, I believe the same is true for a person. I have gotten as far as I have in academia because I knew from jump street that my goal was to become as educated as possible on the science underlying bodybuilding and powerlifting. My goal was to become a leader in educating my community and to become the “go to” guy on drug free bodybuilding and powerlifting. Likewise in my training, I’ve been very focused on becoming the best bodybuilder and powerlifter I can be, and of course, in both pursuits I’ve made sure to enjoy every step of the way, and love the process.

On the last note, while it’s very important to have a clear destination in mind, you will never get there if you don’t love the journey. That is the balancing act that leads to success. Knowing what you are trying to achieve and loving the process of getting there, not being solely motivated by the final destination.

 

 

You’re on your death bed, and you’ve been notified that all of the content you’ve ever created has been erased, and no one will be able to access it again. On top of this, you’re only able to leave behind 3 pieces of fitness-related advice for people. What are your 3 pieces of advice?

 

1. Never stop learning.

2. Make meaningful human connections along the way.

3. Leave your community better than you found it.

 

Add on: What if the 3 pieces of advice are strictly related to living a better life in general?

The same!

 

 

Once again, thank you so much for answering these questions Eric. I’m sure the audience has gotten a lot of value from this interview!

My pleasure, honor to do so.

 

 

 

To contact Eric and/or view his work: 

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3DMJ Website 

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