Lean vs Performance: When?

Lean vs Performance: When?

I don’t write much anymore; there are a number of reasons for this.  The main would be my platform for education now is my client base.  I’m blessed to have a full schedule, and talk to people on a daily basis regarding nutrition, performance, body composition, and health.   Prior to that happening, I had (many, many moons ago…) a blog.  I would occasionally get enamored with a topic, and write about it.  This would be from an educational and experiential point of view. 

I honestly had no idea if anyone was reading, at all.  Keep in mind this was prior to the days of Instagram, and everyone being connected to everyone.  But the reach was greater than I knew.  And influenced more folks than I knew.  To this day, I have folks remind me about those posts, my pre-Dynamic Nutrition, pre-OPT CCP days.  Seems a lifetime ago.  But that reach, and influence, never fails to amaze me.  And it gives me pause.  Let me explain; this is actually the main point of this post.  The title at hand, and the recent controversial Instagram post by a well known mixed modal coach is actually secondary to the point I want to get across.  But I’ll talk about both.

Social media is amazing—we live in an amazing time, and I would not change, for a second, the fact I was born in the early 70’s.  I’ve seen the advent of the internet, and the massive social reach digital media can have.   When someone has the reach of upwards of 150k-200k followers on a SINGLE social media platform, combined with the world renowned reputation for coaching athletes to the highest level of performance sport, that is impressive.  With that, comes great influence.

“First, Do No Harm” – Hippocratic Oath

As a coach, I realize I have a great deal of influence (for clarity, I have neither 200k followers, nor a world-renowned reputation) with my athletes.  They come to me for advice, and I offer direction, suggestions, and coach to the best of my ability.  I fully understand that they may take my advice to the nth degree, and implement fully.  Or, if I am not clear enough, they may implement incorrectly; this may be counter productive to their goals.  I also need to be very, very careful to DO NO HARM.  Being counter productive to an athlete’s goals is just, simply, wrong.

In medicine, this is the first and foremost mantra.  As a critical care paramedic, this is even more extreme; I have the ability to either save someone from the brink of death, or take him or her there very, very quickly.  As a young medic, I wanted to fix EVERYTHING.  I had the tools, the knowledge, the passion.  I was fortunate enough I had a lot of experienced medics and physicians as mentors.  The longer I’m in the business, the more I see reservation being a valuable tool, than potentially harmful intervention.  One of my mentors, an excellent ER physician, told me “Sometimes, you just have to sit on your hands”.  I get it now at 44, but didn’t quite get it at 24.

My point in all this (I’m acutely aware I can be long winded.  Perhaps another reason I don’t write much, but that’s beside the point) is that with great influence, reach, and knowledge comes RESPONSIBILITY.  It doesn’t matter if you are a coach of ONE, or have the reach to perhaps hundreds of thousands, understand what you say will have massive impact.  If that impact is positive, congratulations, you’ve done your job.  If it’s negative, you haven’t, and need to ask why.

The Sacrifice:  Lean vs Performance.  Or, have your cake and eat it, too.

The secondary point of the post, and the one everyone seems to have their panties in a knot over, is the opinion from the well known coach that a competitive, mixed modal athlete must be as lean as possible to actually be competitive.  I received a text on this last night, and the slew of mud via comments on FB and Insta is honestly quite amusing.  But I actually don’t find the post itself amusing, at all.  It has a number very glaring flaws that I want to highlight, and explain from my point of view.

Also, as a disclaimer:  I don’t know Ben.  He’s obviously an excellent coach, as indicated by his track record.  He’s spoken of very highly.  I haven’t heard, from him, in person, his reasoning.  That may completely change my viewpoint.  I view most things on social media with a healthy dose of skeptisim.  I’m not sure if the post was a Paris Hilton-esque angle to create controversy (which, it obviously has).  Call me naïve, but I would like to assume maturity and high intelligence on his part.

Chasing Leanness As A High End Performance Based Athlete

There’s absolutely no doubt that an athlete carrying “an extra 5-10lbs” will not have the same level of performance in the mixed modal arena in certain events as a leaner athlete.  But what would the COST be of said athlete to drop that extra 5-10lbs?  That’s the question to ask! 

Over the years I’ve seen a plethora of physical and hormonal reactions to the metabolic demands of mixed modal training; some folks lean out.  Some don’t.  You can take two EXACT carbon copies of athletes regarding stature, age, diet, recovery, etc etc, and they may have a completely different response.  In a nutshell, it comes down to STRESS.  One person’s positive reactions to a stressor (adaptation) is another person’s negative reaction to the same stressor (failure to adapt).

Being lean is a stress.  Period.  Our bodies, and DNA, and dumb…like millions of years old dumb.  Your bodyweight set point and genetic predisposition to sit a certain percentage are relatively “set”.  Can this be changed?  Of course.  But the required stress to illicit said change is key.

If I have an athlete that is 5’10, 205#, and 15% BF, and he “wants” to get to 195# and 10%BF, from my end, I need to look at the cost:benefit ratio.  If said athlete is currently in a caloric surplus, this is, for lack of detail, relatively easy.  If that same athlete is only currently eating 2600kcal, and has the demands of multi-session training days 6 days out of the week, how easy will it be to lean that athlete out?  The answer, as always, is “It depends”.  But one thing is for certain, the stress leaning out, be it through increased or decreased caloric intake (the details of which are far too lengthy for this post) may cause a performance decrease.  3 months out from the Open, would that be wise?  In my experience, that’s an easy “No”.

I’d like to insert a paragraph from a phenomenally well written article by Kyle Ruth, from Training Think Tank; the full article can be found here: http://blog.trainingthinktank.com/2015/02/15/eat/

Body Composition, Performance, and Body Image

There are a number of issues clouding selecting an appropriate diet for your goals. The culture of fitness is permeated by the misconception that body composition = performance and that leanness/aesthetics are a natural result from training. The reality is that while there is a link between elite level athlete’s body composition and their performance levels, performance changes on an inverted U pattern. Many athletes chasing performance are tied so tightly to being lean that they actually sabotage their endocrine systems, essentially blunting their adaptive ability.

heoretical Relationship Between Body-comp and Athletics Performance


I am convinced that there are male and female games level athletes who maintain body fat levels below 8-10% to the detriment of their performance. These are athletes who adhere to extremely restrictive eating protocols while undertaking 2-3 training sessions daily. While they may subjectively judge the success of their nutritional strategy based on their leanness the end result is sub-par training and game day performance.


I could not agree more.  When this article was written, and I came across it, I distinctly remember yelling “Fuck YES!” at my desk.  Kyle had articulated the thoughts and experienced I had been seeing in very lean athletes over the years.  While the article is well written, the graphic says everything. 
Please note “Individual IDEAL”, and the distinct fact there is a point of diminishing returns and ergolyctic effects at extreme leaness.

Chasing Leanness As A Recreational Performance Based Athlete

This is a slightly different scenario, but when we look under the hood, it’s not much different than the above situation.  A vast, VAST majority of the client base I see currently under eats/over trains.  Is getting someone leaner ALWAYS a good idea, to increase performance?  Almost.  But the novice athlete that has immature energy system development and CNS engagement should NOT, and I repeat, should NOT be under fueled.  Under fueling equates to under recovery, and under recovery hampers training induced adaptations.  Yes, dropping 10lbs will make those pullups and HSPUs easier.  Until you gas out, shit the bed, and leave the gym feeling like a P.O.S.  Under fueling in either scenario is detrimental.  Lets not advise folks to do that.  As I stated on social media, I deal with a substantial amount of folks that have varying degrees of overtraining/HPA axis dysfunction/chronic under recovery due to “cutting templates”.  I don’t advise folks on how to train.  I leave that for the programmers.  I’d rather not have programmers telling folks what to eat…or what not to eat.

Body Fat Percentages as Targets

First off, this is a measurement that has so much margin for error, it should be thrown to the wayside.  The longer I’m in “The Game”, the less I find myself gravitating to numbers.  While this statement may raise the eyebrow of folks that know me and experienced coaches, I find “paralysis by analysis” to be infiltrating mixed modal sport.  I think the sport HAS to go through this; to quote Dr. Kurt Harris “Sometimes the best lab (measurement) is one that’s not run”.  Yes, I use labs, formulas, and calculations in my daily consulting.  But body fat percentage?  Doesn’t really matter.  As a measure of progress?  Maybe. 

But throwing out specific numbers for a general population to strive for, in my opinion, is negligent; what do these numbers even mean?  Do they absolutely correlate with increased performance?  No.  period.

The margin for error on most testing modalities, even DEXA (which most folks don’t have access to) is far above what is listed.  Bio impedance, which seems to be “the standard” right now due to cost and non-invasiveness, is NOTORIOUSLY inaccurate.  I’ve tested at 5% (LOL!!) and then 20% in the same week.   I would much rather have an athlete give me subjective or visual feedback.

If you’re a male competing in the Open division (ages 18-34), you need to be around 11 percent body fat or lower. Females should be around 16 percent or lower. If you’re not, the goal with your nutrition should not be to fuel your workouts—you gotta lose body fat.

Having a performance based athlete NOT fuel for performance is like having an aesthetic based athlete NOT fuel for optimal aesthetics.  The resulting demand on the endocrine, and specifically the cortisol and anabolic steroid hormone cascade, will absolutely be detrimental in the long run. 

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