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How I Got Lean in Quarantine

I spent the second half of 2019 trying to gain some weight. For about 9 months I lifted hard in the gym, and ate much more than I was used to. By the start of 2020 I was pretty sure I had added muscle but there had been some body fat gained along with it, which is almost always the case, and I wasn’t used to seeing the outline of my abs disappear. In March I decided to start a 12-16 week lean out phase to strip off the fat and see if there was additional muscle under there. I set everything up ready to go, put together a 4 day a week weight training plan and calculated my calorie requirements to get a nice gradual weekly weight loss. Then 4 workouts into the plan – disaster struck. As Covid hit London we were all sent home from the office, and all the gyms across Europe closed. I decided to press on anyway and see what kind of results I could get with no gym and only some basic equipment. Apparently, everyone in the country had the same idea as all the weights on Amazon were completely sold out but I managed to get a pullup bar and a set of resistance bands and went back to the drawing board on a workout plan. Here’s how I approached it week by week and the results over 16 weeks, with a few more photos further down.

The Training Plan

I had my bodyweight, a pullup bar, a set of resistance bands, an ab wheel and to be honest was pretty sceptical about getting results without weights. I started with 4 resistance training sessions per week, alternating between upper and lower body workout days, training for an hour in the evenings after my day job. This allowed me to cover all the major movements and meant I could hit each muscle group twice per week which is where I’ve had good results in the past. Although I was missing the gym there was something very satisfying about closing my laptop at the end of a day’s work and only having to walk into the next room to train.

Normally in the gym I would choose a weight where I can’t do any more than 12-15 repetitions on most exercises, but I found that the resistance level of the bands often meant I could do much more which was pushing me more into endurance training territory than muscle building. To get around this I used a technique called pre and post exhausts which involves putting 2 exercises back to back that work the same muscle, for example using banded flys to exhaust the chest before jumping straight into banded pushups. This worked really well and meant that I was hitting my limit between 8-12 reps on most exercises. In week 9 I switched things up to a push/pull/legs/full body workout split, training 5 days per week and I stuck with that right through to week 16, changing up exercises slightly at the end of week 12. All the workouts were focused around big compound movements with some accessory work thrown in for arms, shoulders and abs. I had 4 resistance bands, each with a different thickness so when one got too easy I progressed to the next one or just changed up the exercise to something more difficult.

On a lean out plan like this I would normally add cardio once or twice per week but in week 2 of lockdown I went out for a run and tore a calf muscle. No more running…. Even going for a walk was painful so I knew cardio was definitely off the table for the majority of the plan if not all of it. In the end I didn’t do any cardio sessions at all after week 2 as my calf couldn’t handle the impact of running or skipping, so the results are completely from resistance training and diet (take note cardio addicts).

My lockdown gym

Eating for Fat Loss

As I couldn’t do cardio I knew I would have a to be a little stricter than normal on calorie control. When trying to lose weight, the most important thing is how many calories you eat per day, which needs to be lower than the calories you burn through activity + exercise. It’s very hard to build any new muscle in these conditions so my best hope was that I could maintain the muscle I had gained over Winter and lose weight from my fat stores instead. I started with a daily calorie target of 2,100 calories which I knew was just below maintenance. Once calories were set I aimed for a daily protein target of 125g, about 40% of my total daily calories from carbs and the rest from fat. Some people go very low carbs when they want to lose weight, but I know from experience that I can handle carbs well and feel like crap when I go too low so I wanted to keep carbs and calories as high as possible while still seeing weight loss.

My typical eating routine was breakfast around 8am, lunch at 12:30, an afternoon snack at 4:30, dinner around 8:30 (just after the workout) and then bed around 11pm. For the 16 weeks I tracked absolutely everything I ate on MyFitnessPal from the moment I woke up until I went to sleep; This took a bit of time to start with but what I ate week to week didn’t change a huge amount so once all the foods and amounts were programmed in it became a really quick and easy job to update it every day. Breakfast and snacks stayed the same most days, while lunch and dinner varied. After lunch I would plug in what I had eaten already and see how many calories I had left for the rest of the day then adjust the remaining meals to fit in that window. Some days that meant reducing or removing carbs at dinner, other days I had room to add more calories so went for a slightly larger portion of carbs/fats with dinner or included a yoghurt or fruit for dessert. Every meal had protein in it and that was the only thing that I didn’t move much as the weeks progressed.

After that I just adjusted calories based on what the outcome was. When my weight was falling at the rate I wanted it to I kept everything exactly the same, and when weight loss slowed down I reduced calories slightly, mostly by removing fats and carbs while keeping protein high. Here is how it ended up looking:

  • Weeks 1-5: 2,100 calories per day

  • Weeks 6-10: 1,800 calories

  • Weeks 11-12: 1,700 calories

  • Weeks 13-16: 1,600 calories

Apart from being slightly hungry a few evenings before bed, the diet was very easy. It wasn’t restrictive at all, and while I had some general principles in my head (protein with every meal, lots of veg & water, carbs later in the day, limited processed foods & sugar) no foods were off limits. I was eating chocolate and small dessert portions right up until the end and regularly having a burger or pizza on Saturday nights. As long as I was in a calorie deficit over the week and my weight was falling over the longer term I was happy, and this also meant I didn't feel the need for any food binges. It's worth mentioning at this point that tracking to this level of detail isn't always needed, and the majority of my clients don't do any tracking throughout their programme. As my diet stays fairly similar through the year and I already have all the important principles in place, I like to track calories fairly closely when trying to purposefully lose or gain weight.

Managing Recovery

A very important factor to consider in any training plan is recovery, which mostly comes down to rest, stress and sleep. I mostly trained 4 days a week but towards the end bumped it up to 5 for more volume as I felt like I was recovering well and my performance wasn't dropping off. I started getting quite stiff a few weeks in which I think was mostly from home working – a combination of moving less through the day and a poor work setup meant that my back, and quads would get really tight. To help with this I added in foam rolling and a yoga session which I would do on one of the rest days, then I’d have at least one day of complete rest where I would do nothing more difficult than going for a walk. Sleep wasn’t an issue as working from home meant no travel in and out of the office, so I could sleep later than normal and get 8 hours most nights. I also felt that my stress levels were pretty low, probably because of not having to travel in and out of central London and having more time in the evenings to unwind.

Measuring Progress

Throughout the programme I tracked bodyweight, body fat % (estimated), body measurements, daily calories and protein. My goal was weight loss of around 0.3kg per week which is 0.5% of my total bodyweight and I stayed fairly close to this number throughout. This is fairly conservative, usually with clients I aim for a drop of between 0.5% to 1% bodyweight per week depending on how aggressive they want to go with it. I could have pushed weight loss harder but wanted to do it gradually, and see how low I could get my body fat % without being really restrictive on calories. I took waist circumference measures every 4 weeks which allowed me to estimate my body fat % and monthly photos allowed me to see the changes side by side over the months

Over the 16 weeks I lost just over 5kg, from a starting point of 58.2kg at around 12% body fat, to 53kg at around 7% body fat. It’s hard to be really accurate with the body fat measurement; the method I use told me I was at 6% by the end but I’m pretty sure it was higher than that from the pictures, maybe 7%-8%.

The Results

In total I lost just under 1kg of muscle and 4kg of fat which I am pretty happy with. Next time I will probably try and push the weekly weight loss harder and see if I can get there in 12 weeks rather than 16. While I’m happy with levels of leanness I would still like to build more muscle, particularly around the chest and shoulders where I’ve always struggled. But I know any noticeable changes take time, adding muscle is a much slower process than people realise. After this I’ll probably just maintain 8-10% body fat for the rest of Summer then go into a 9-12 month muscle building phase (with weights this time) and see if I can add a few more kg of muscle before coming back to repeat the process again.

If you are ready to take action with your own gym or home workout plan and want me to take all the guesswork away then check out my coaching page here for packages.

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