Ben Greenfield on Exercise and Nutrition for Optimum Body Composition and Performance

Confused on how to train for size, strength, fat loss or endurance? This week Dr. Ruscio welcomes Ben Greenfield to discuss these issues and more. Ben Greenfield is one of the world’s leading personal trainers and wellness consultants and the author of the New York Times Bestselling book Beyond Fitness.

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Dr. R’s Fast Facts

  • Ben and Dr. R’s preferred exercise and nutrition plan:
    • Low intensity exercise in the morning and low carb during day, paired with;
    • Weight training/HIT in the afternoon and carbs with dinner.
  • Training and nutrition for:
    • Size:
      • Training – compound/multi-joint lifts 8-12 reps., careful not to over-train. Gene test available for this. Tracks nervous system recovery via heart rate variability.
      • Nutrition: eat as much as you can.
      • Supplements: colostrum and creatine
    • Strength:
      • Time under tension: 1 set per body part to complete failure with a weight you can lift 3-8 times
    • Body comp/fat loss:
      • Training: Morning fasted cardio, low intensity. High intensity interval training afternoon.
      • Nutrition: limit carbs until evening
    • Endurance:
      • Training: Morning fasted cardio, low intensity. High intensity interval training or weight training – oscillated.
      • Nutrition: limit carbs until evening
      • Periodically (once a month to once a quarter) have a very hard session where you go all out.
    • Get as much low level activity during the day as possible:
      • Standing desk, air squats, frequent small and frequent activity breaks.
    • For those who are ill or burnt out:
      • Saunas a few times a week
      • Yoga, tai chi, morning walks
      • Slow movement weight training
      • Mobility work; foam rolling, stretching, etc.
      • Tracking this with heart rate variability

 

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Topics:
Fast Facts…..0:42
Ben Greenfield Intro…..2:45
Carbohydrate Timing…..10:45
Training Techniques – Strength…..18:43
Training and Nutrition Techniques – Size…..21:23
Training and Nutrition Techniques – Endurance…..25:32
Training, Nutrition and Lifestyle Techniques – Fat Loss…..30:27
Cardiovascular Exercise Capacity…..44:30
Restorative Training Techniques – Illness and Overtraining …..47:07
Ben’s Most Fun But Most Unhealthy Activity…..51:47
Episode Wrap-Up…..56:24

Links:

(19:19) Body by Science
(19:25) Efficient Exercise
(22:23) 23 and Me
(22:25) DNA Fit
(56:37) Ben Greenfield Fitness
(56:54) Beyond Training

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Exercise and Nutrition for Optimum Body Composition and Performance

Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio, discussing the cutting edge in health, nutrition, and functional medicine. To make sure you’re up to date on this and other important topics, visit DrRuscio.com and sign up to receive weekly updates. That’s D-R-R-U-S-C-I-O.com.

The following discussion is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease. Please do not apply any of this information without first speaking with your doctor.

Now, let’s head to the show!

Fast Facts

Dr. Michael Ruscio: Hey, guys, this is Dr. Ruscio with your fast facts for Ben Greenfield coming on the show and discussing exercise and nutrition for optimum body comp and performance. It was a great episode.

Ben’s—and my—preferred exercise and nutrition combination involves low-intensity exercise in the morning and low carb during day, and this is then paired with doing weight training or high-intensity interval training in the afternoon and having most of your carbs in the afternoon with dinner.

Ben goes into his tips for training and nutrition for optimum size, for optimum strength, for optimum body comp and fat loss, and for optimum endurance, and I’ve listed some notes in the written summary on this if you want to look at some of the particulars, or of course, you can go through the full episode or transcript to get the details.

Another important tip is to get as much low-level activity during the day as possible for, of course, general health and wellness, for body composition, and for performance. This might involve a standing desk, doing air squats every time you go to the bathroom, or just any kind of small, frequent activity breaks, like using a pull-up bar periodically or what have you. He also provides his recommendations for those who are ill or burned out: saunas a few times a week; yoga, tai chi, or morning walks a few times a week. You may also want to try slow-movement weight training. This is essentially just doing normal weightlifting but doing it at a very slow pace. Also mobility work, like foam rolling, stretching, and tracking this with heart rate variability can be very helpful to prevent overtraining.

Those are some of the fast facts, and now we will jump into the show. OK, thanks.

Ben Greenfield Intro

DR: Hey, folks. Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio. This is Dr. Ruscio. I am here with pretty much the main man when it comes to endurance training, Ben Greenfield, who is a very well celebrated and accomplished triathlete, amongst other things. I’m happy to have Ben here to talk about all things exercise and training and performance. Ben, welcome.

Ben Greenfield: Hey! Thanks, Michael. It’s cool to be described as celebrated. It makes it sound like there’s always a party following me around.

DR: Yeah, right! Well, you’re a pretty fun guy.

BG: Yeah. Yeah! There is always a party following me around.

DR: Can you tell people a little bit about your background and what you’re doing and how you’re kind of involved in the exercise and health and fitness space?

BG: Yeah, sure. I’ve been in this space for the last two decades, pretty much. I was never the morbidly obese person who had a come-to-Jesus moment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that just wasn’t really me. I grew up with a big love for fitness and nutrition and biohacking and broscience and everything else that we find in this arena. I played collegiate tennis. I studied exercise science, biomechanics, and exercise physiology in college and got a master’s degree in that. I briefly considered going to medical school and instead delved into the world of managing gyms and opened up a bunch of personal training studios and gyms across Idaho and Washington and pretty much was a glorified rep counter for about seven years. I just basically ran all these personal training facilities.

I say “glorified rep counter, but really the way that I differentiated myself was I partnered with a lot of local docs, so we did quite a bit in the realm of exercise as medicine. I had everything from platelet-rich plasma spinners so that we could take out patients’ blood and then reinject into areas of inflammation, to indirect calorimeters to measure oxygen consumed and carbon dioxide produced to approximate metabolic rate at rest and during exercise. We had a series of high-speed video cameras for things like run gait analysis, bicycling fits to reduce joint injuries, things like that. We had exercise EKGs. In all my facilities, we worked with local docs, so all my gyms were in the same facility as a physician, so we could work with the doc to get blood and then look at a patient’s or a client’s blood, everything from thyroid to hormonal balance to inflammatory, etc., to really differentiate my business as the place to go when nothing else is working, when it comes to things like fat loss or the 40-year-old mom who wants to look good in her bikini from high school, that type of thing.

Then after doing that for many years, I was voted as America’s top personal trainer, and that kind of thrust me more into the world of writing and speaking, and that’s kind of more what I do now. I travel around and speak at fitness and health conferences and stuff like that. I think that’s where we originally met, at Paleo f(x).

DR: Right.

BG: And then I also do quite a bit of blogging, podcasting, sitting at home in my underwear at the kitchen table, and writing, and then I also compete professionally in obstacle course racing and other masochistic events, primarily endurance events. Tomorrow I’ll shove out to do a 60-hour race in the backwoods of Vermont, where, according to the weather app on my phone right now, it is -10 degrees.

DR: Woo!

BG: By the time this podcast comes out, I may have lost a few appendages from frostbite.

But, yeah, that’s what I do. And the reason I do stuff like that is not to necessarily prove anything to myself. I kind of got done doing that long ago, but now it’s just for me to spend time in the trenches, testing out nutrition and supplements and training protocols and biohacks and kind of figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting the most out of the human body and the human brain. That’s what really kind of lights me up now, delving into science, taking that stuff into the trenches, using myself as a guinea pig, and figuring out how people can get the most out of their bodies, how they can—to borrow the ethereal woo-woo term—climb their own personal Mt. Everest. That’s kind of what I do now.

DR: Nice. I like it. I definitely feel a kinship with you in some regards because my undergraduate training was in exercise science and kinesiology, and I think we both have a pretty good athletic background, and I also have to give you a hat tip. I think many of the people listening know that I spend at least an hour a night reading the recently published abstracts on a number of topics, and one is exercise. I had recently gone on your podcast, and so we had kind of been in communication, and a few weeks later, I came across a study showing a different exercise and nutrition approach for optimizing, I believe it was, cycling output. I shot you a note, and I was impressed that your response was, yeah, we already did a blog or a podcast on it, picked it apart, analyzed it. I have to say, I was like, you know what? Ben’s on top of his game. So a hat tip to you on that, my friend, for being on the edge.

BG: Yeah, I remember that study. That was the one where they took cyclists and what they did was they deprived them of glycogen by having them do a very high intensity workout in the evening. They had them restrict carbohydrates with dinner, sleep overnight in a carbohydrate-fasted state, get up in the morning and do what’s called low-intensity steady-state cardio, and what they tested was these cyclists’ ability to do things like time to exhaustion, fat oxidation, their ability to maximize glycogen stores, etc. And it turns out, when you put yourself into a carbohydrate-depleted state like that, there are some cool mitochondrial adaptations that occur that actually allow you to have enhanced endurance performance once you’re back on a regular diet.

It’s this whole concept of… well, originally the concept was train low—”low” referring to carbohydrate intake—race high—”high” referring to carbohydrates taken in during exercise. This particular study, I think the way that they phrased it was sleep low, race high, the idea being that you sleep in a carb-restricted state. I actually am not a huge fan of that approach. I’ve tried it, and I find that sleep suffers. I’m a bigger fan of carb refeeds. At the end of the day, you replenish and restore your liver and your muscle glycogen stores. Then for the most part, the rest of your training is ketotic or has some level of glycogen depletion, so you get those superior mitochondrial adaptations, you get that ability to be able to burn fat efficiently, to be able to utilize ketones, but you’re not 24/7 in that state, and you’re also not sleeping in that state.

Carbohydrate Timing

BG: I think that those are the two mistakes that athletes make when going after low carb or ketosis, not throwing in some refeeds and also going to bed in that carb-restricted state, which, frankly, if you’re waking up at midnight or 1:00 as hypoglycemia sets in, you can only go for so long with that kind of sleep deprivation.

DR: Sure. I actually want to give a huge second to the carb refeeding. That’s something that through my own just kind of observation, trial and error, and listening to my body… and I think really listening to your body is really, really important because I fell into this just through listening to my body. I would eat low carb most of the time, and I would start noticing that at night I would just be craving carbs. After a while, I started noticing that I would sleep better if I had kind of a higher carb meal as my last meal of the day. I just kind of started going with that, and then I was comforted… I think it was probably about a year later, when I saw Robb Wolf post something about a group of policemen, where they have improved body composition when they withheld carbohydrates except for a large refeeding meal at the end of the day and they actually saw better body comp from that.

BG: Yeah.

DR: And it seemed to work for me. There’s certainly a lot of plausibility to it.

BG: Yeah, John Kiefer talks about that a lot in his Carb Back-Loading program.

DR: Right.

BG: One thing a lot of people get confused about is this idea that insulin sensitivity is higher in the morning, so they’re like, why wouldn’t I want to refeed in the morning when insulin sensitivity is higher and I’m going to be more likely to partition that carbohydrate that I take in? What a lot of folks fail to remember is that insulin partitioning fats into tissue includes insulin partitioning sugars into fat tissue, so it turns out that even though insulin sensitivity is highest in the morning, carb feeding in the morning actually has more potential to shovel energy substrates into fat tissue than carb feeding in the evening when insulin sensitivity might be a little bit lower. The trick is that what you want to do is exercise preferably in the early afternoon or the evening. When you do that, you upregulate what are called your GLUT4 transporters and some of the transporters that are non-insulin dependent that can, even in the absence of insulin, drive some of that energy substrate into muscle tissue. That’s kind of the trick.

I find that’s a really, really good one-two combo for me for mitochondrial density and staying lean and also for a lot of the folks that I work with. We’ll do a super-duper low-intensity cardio, like 20 to 30 minutes of swimming or an easy walk in the sunshine with the dog or a yoga session or something like that in the morning, and then in the later afternoon or the early evening when body temperature peaks and reaction time peaks and coordination peaks and post-workout protein synthesis peaks, that’s the time of day that we’ll do the high-intensity interval training or the weight training, and then at some point later on, within the next several hours, have dinner, include most of the day’s carbohydrates with dinner, and then just kind of rinse, wash, and repeat. That scenario seems to work pretty well.

DR: It’s funny that you mention that because I think much of that is something that a large body of the bodybuilding community kind of does. I know that they like to do the morning low-intensity cardio and then the main weight session later in the afternoon. Some of the nutrition, I think, is a little bit different with some of the bodybuilding circles, but that seems to be something that was really well adopted by a lot of bodybuilding circles, anyway.

BG: Yeah, during the lean phase. I was a bodybuilder for a couple of years, and one thing that, of course, during the mass gain phase, which was typically several months out from competition, is you just avoid cardio like the plague.

DR: Right!

BG: Frankly, you were still pretty cardiovascularly fit because when you’re dumping copious amounts of lactic acid into muscle tissue and you’re also getting huge increases in peripheral blood pressure, driving blood back towards the heart, you actually get some pretty cool cardiovascular training effects just from that whole low-weight, high-rep-to-failure type of approach to where you don’t really have to worry about your cardiovascular fitness. But, yeah, you avoid cardio like the plague and just eat ungodly amounts of calories.

Then you start into the low-intensity steady-state cardio. You start to kind of sculpt and tone some of the body parts that you’ve built bulk in over the rest of the year, and then you get down to the show, and of course, the icing on the cake is to take a bunch of diuretics, and your skin is really tight against the muscle. Then you get up and pose, and then you eat a ton of pancakes to refill the muscle with glycogen, and then you compete that night. It’s a super-healthy sport, let me tell you!

DR: Definitely! Well, I’ve never done a competition, but I got into that college, and I did the bulking phase and the cutting phase. Man, I’ll tell you, the bulking phase is not the best feeling when you literally eat so much at a meal that you need a nap afterward, after almost every meal. It’s just not the healthiest thing in the world.

We touched on the mitochondria, and I thought that might be a good transition point into what we talked before about discussing today, which was some of the training techniques that can be used to get people to whatever goal that they’re trying to get to. I know one of the things that we can affect with training is mitochondrial density, and maybe to kind of give people a 30,000-foot orientation—and, Ben, if you want to expand on any of this or tweak it, please—at one end of the spectrum, if we go with a lower-rep, higher-weight kind of application, you’re going to do maybe squats, and you’re going to do three or four reps at a heavy weight, a weight you can only do three or four times, that kind of gives us more of an adaptation of the electricity to the muscles, kind of a neurological adaptation. If we go to the other end of the spectrum, maybe around 12 reps, now we start seeing more of a local metabolism of the muscles, and that’s more of a mitochondrial and more of an oxygen utilization sort of adaptation. Then in between there, we have a little bit more of a synergy of both of these.

Maybe with that as a jump-off point, Ben, can you walk through what some of the main things that you try to achieve with different training applications are and kind of what the endpoints they serve are? Maybe to make that a little more clear cut, for someone who is trying to get stronger, what are some of the top things that you do? For someone who is trying to have better endurance, what are some of the top things that you do? I think people are probably ultimately trying to either gain size, gain strength, optimize their body comp, or optimize their endurance, and I’m sure you deal with that a lot, so what are some of your main training go-tos for size, strength, body comp, and endurance?

BG: Sure. I’ll just hit on a couple of quick tips for each of those.

Training Techniques – Strength

BG: When it comes to strength, I’m a big believer in time under tension. Many of the folks who come to me wanting to build strength, they are not strong already. In fact, many of them are fragile. They’re either endurance athletes, or they are people pursuing anti-aging or longevity because they’re, like, 50-plus years old, and they really can’t handle a lot of the same strength training protocols that you might program for someone in rugby or football, for example. So one of the go-to resources that I use for strength building is kind of the Body by Science (1) Doug McGuff type of approach, which is very similar to Keith Norris’ Efficient Exercise (2) approach, where he uses those ARX trainers.

The idea is you’re doing one set per body part to complete failure. It might be 30 to 60 seconds up, 30 to 60 seconds down, with a relatively challenging weight that completely exhausts you within about three to eight reps. You might do a chest press, a pull-up or a pull-down, an overhead press, a row, a leg press, and perhaps some kind of a core motion. I have a lot of clients who just want to get stronger with low impact, and we’ll do that a couple of times a week. And of course, I’ll focus on other fitness parameters within a program like that, liked fasted morning cardio, a couple of long high-intensity interval training sessions, a couple of short high-intensity interval training sessions, maybe a bit cardio bout on the weekends, and that’s kind of a good scenario for strength.

For that first parameter you mentioned, for strength, one of my go-tos is that whole idea of super-slow training, time under tension, so you build strength without necessarily increasing risk of injury. Sure, there’s probably some strength conditioning coaches wanting to jump through the airwaves right now and talk about Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, like a 5×5 or a Westside approach. Sure, all those work, but what I find for the general population, moving very slowly and breathing very slowly and building up enormous amounts of peripheral blood pressure and muscular tension for long periods of time under low impact is a far more palatable and sustainable injury-free way to build strength. That’s one of my go-to protocols for strength building.

Training and Nutrition Techniques – Size

BG: Typically if someone is looking for size, they’re the ectomorphic male athlete. You don’t get a lot of females wanting to bulk up even though it happens sometimes. Some of them want to get the Beyonce booty shelf look, and there certainly are strategies that can be used there, but for size for guys, really that’s where you change things up from both a nutritional and a training standpoint.

From a training standpoint, for size, I’m a big fan of multi-joint lifts. That’s not rocket science—squats, overhead press, bench, clean, stuff like that—but one of the things that I do is I track nervous system recovery because a lot of guys will overtrain themselves very quickly, especially ectomorphic guys who tend to genetically be endurance responders. That’s a SNP that you can easily test through 23andMe (3). You export the data to DNAFit (4). You can see if you’re a power responder or an endurance responder. A lot of these guys get super-duper beat up from these multi-joint sessions that might last an hour, where you’re cranking out, depending on your training goals and the type of program that you’re on, typically a hypertrophy range of, like, eight to twelve reps. There’s a lot of inflammation, a lot of muscle tearing, a lot of lactic acid, and musculoskeletal soreness, that delayed-onset muscle soreness, that might subside after about 48 hours, but if you’re tracking nervous system recovery, sometimes folks will take 72 hours plus for an aspect of recovery called heart rate variability to bounce back. If you’re testing your heart rate variability, you preferably would want it to be above about 90 before you come back for another really hard, heavy session like that if you want to build strength without overtraining, without injury, and without illness.

So for strength training, the best two tips I can give you are lift multi-joint, but also don’t just track your recovery based on your level of soreness. Also do a morning heart rate variability measurement for about 5 minutes so you can see when not just your musculoskeletal system has recovered, but also your neuromuscular system.

From a nutrition standpoint, it’s pretty much eat, eat, eat. We’re talking breaking some of the rules when it comes to fasting and giving your digestive system a break. I helped my brother-in-law, who is just a super-duper skinny basketball player who had tons of strength conditioning coaches trying to put bulk on him. They couldn’t do it. Finally my wife had me write out a program for him, and I had him up around 7000 calories a day. We’re talking about six to eight meals a day, 20-to-30-gram portions of protein spread throughout the day, the use of very anabolic supplements, including things like colostrum and creatine. Those are a couple of the biggies that we use for increasing insulin-like growth factor, increasing water retention, increasing the ability to crank out a few extra reps in the gym, but it just comes down to frequent meals, frequent protein feedings. Again, this flies in the face of longevity and health sometimes, but we’re talking in the range of about 0.7 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, whereas for me personally, I’m not trying to bulk up. I’m more interested in longevity and just overall health, so I steer closer to the 0.5 to 0.6 grams per pound of protein. But, yeah, for size, it’s a whole different ball game if size is what you’re going after, and you have to be cognizant that there are some health tradeoffs.

DR: Sure.

Training and Nutrition Techniques – Endurance

BG: For endurance, I touched on that idea of morning fasted cardio, which is really great for burning fat without creating excess stress. I’m a big believer in primarily focusing on the activation of your parasympathetic, rest-and-digest nervous system. I recently had Mark Sisson on my podcast, and he refers to it as easing into your day. I kind of do the same thing. All my morning workouts are yoga, walking, easy swimming, stuff like that. But when you do that in a fasted state, you really are burning a lot of fatty acids as a fuel. Generally if you have some caffeine or some green tea beforehand, you can amplify that even more, and that can help out with building mitochondrial density, as can limiting carbohydrate intake, using some of the strategies that we described earlier.

But the biggest mistake I see endurance athletes make—and I talk about this in my book, Beyond Training, a little bit. There are kind of two different approaches to building endurance. There is the approach that a lot of professional athletes use. It’s called polarized training. When you look at cross-country skiers, marathoners, triathletes, cyclists, etc., the majority of successful professional endurance athletes on the face of the planet use polarized training. What that means is about 80 percent of their training is done at a very low intensity, steady-state, aerobic zone that would be considered easy and conversational, and then about 20 percent of the training is extremely high intensity. Very, very high, pain-cave, close-to-maximum-heart-rate type of intervals, and there’s not really much work done outside of those two zones.

That’s one way to increase mitochondrial density and gain superior endurance performance. The problem with that is it can take copious amounts of time to build endurance when training at that extremely low level, conversational intensity, and so unless someone has three, four, five, or six hours a day to play with for very long, low-intensity runs, bike rides, swims, etc., that particular approach doesn’t work all that well, especially when you consider that there is another pathway via which you can activate mitochondrial density and mitochondrial building and endurance performance, and that would be via high-intensity interval training. That would mean that three or four times a week you’re going to do a different series of high-intensity intervals, some in the 4-to-6-minute range, so you’re hitting a little bit of the VO2 max type of effort, some in the longer, 8-to-10-minute range, so you’re training your lactic acid tolerance, some in the very short, powerful kind of creatine phosphate-utilizing 30-second, 20-second, 10-second range. You kind of mix things up throughout the week like that.
That’s the approach I use. I find that if you can hack your environment so that you’re engaging in low-level physical activity a lot of the day, like right now while you and I are talking, I’m walking on the treadmill. I’ll probably be walking for much of the day today. I’ll walk a good six miles today just writing and doing consults and stuff. I’ll stay on my feet. I’ll throw in a few bodyweight squats here and there, or I’ll go hang from the pull-up bar in the office. Once you add all that up throughout the day and you throw in a little bit of high-intensity interval training as icing on the cake at the early afternoon or late afternoon or early evening hour, that’s an approach that is a little bit more palatable for the average person who wants to build endurance versus that polarized training approach.

You have the polarized approach, and then you have the HIIT approach, the high intensity interval training approach. Of course, the mistake most people make is they don’t use either approach. They go out for their hour-long lunchtime run at kind of a hard pace, isn’t that hard, but isn’t that easy, and unfortunately all that does is it exhausts muscle glycogen, so you get back and you’re hungry and you want to eat a bunch of carbohydrates, but it’s not a high enough intensity to stimulate things like maximum oxygen utilization or the ability to buffer lactic acid, but it’s not a low enough intensity to where you’re really training your aerobic engine. You want to either use the polarized approach if you have a bunch of time on your hands or use the high intensity interval training approach if you just are pressed for time and you have, say, a life—family, hobbies, jobs, stuff like that.

DR: Yeah.

BG: That’s strength, that’s size, that’s endurance. What was the other one you asked about?

Training, Nutrition and Lifestyle Techniques – Fat Loss

DR: Body comp or fat loss.

BG: Yeah. Fat loss, honestly a lot of it is kind of synonymous with endurance.

DR: Right.

BG: Low-level physical activity throughout the day, a fasted morning exercise session. I find with fat loss, it’s a lot of the other variables that can contribute to inflammation that they have to take into account. Dr. Cate Shanahan goes into this, the science of it, pretty well in her book, Deep Nutrition, about how fat cell apoptosis or fat cell conversion into, say, brown adipose tissue or other cells really can’t occur in the presence of inflammation.

When I am looking at the protocol of someone who wants to lose fat as efficiently as possible, I’m typically looking at not just some of the training recommendations that I’ve gone over already, like fasted morning cardio, throwing in some high intensity interval training, doing some super-slow strength training so you get the metabolism up and the lean muscle formation, but I look at environmental variables like air, electricity, water, personal care products, household cleaning chemicals, temperature fluctuations, things like that. What I mean by that is, are they filtering the air in their home, or are they getting exposed to lots of mold and fungi that might be affecting metabolism? Are they exposed to constant WiFi and Bluetooth? Are they drinking good filtered water, or are they getting a lot of phytoestrogens and birth control pills from their municipal water supply? Is their home and their car at a constant temperature, or are they forcing their body to burn extra calories by perhaps keeping the office cold and maybe taking some cold showers in addition to the warm showers that they might frequently be taking? Are they always bathed in blue light so they’re shutting down their melatonin production and waking up with imbalanced leptin and ghrelin levels, or are they cognizant of their light exposure during the day?

When you add up all those things—their shampoos, their soaps, their household cleaning products—those are all the things that fly under the radar that, even if your nutrition and your fitness are in order, are going to hold you back in many cases from being healthy or from losing fat or from having hormonal balance that’s set up for good fat loss. I look at a lot of that stuff in addition to the training principles.

But as far as the training goes, ideal scenario for fat loss is 365 days a year, you wake up and you do a fasted morning cardio session that’s nice and easy for 20 to 30 minutes. You alternate in the afternoon or the early evening between a short, brief high-intensity interval training session or some kind of weight training session like the super-slow strength training. Every once in a while, you really throw in something that really drains your energy stores, like a two- or three-hour hike in a fasted state with just water. That can sustain fat loss all year long in a scenario like that.

DR: Nice. It sounds like there’s a lot of overlap between the endurance and the body comp, like you said, but I also want to second where you go if you’re finding someone is looking to lose weight and a bit resistant, which is some of these other, I guess, health-minded factors, we could say. Certainly we’ve talked a bit on the show before about how when we clear things like intestinal fungus or SIBO, we’ll see weight loss.

In some cases, it can be quite dramatic. I remember I had a friend from school many, many years ago. He was actually my roommate, and he trained with me, and of course, we lived together, so I saw everything he ate. He had a great training regimen, low-carb paleo diet, really good, but the poor guy just couldn’t drop any weight. We determined he had a fungal overgrowth, treated that, and he lost 22 pounds in about a month. I remember people asking him, “What did you do?!” And without sounding like a salesman, he didn’t change his diet, didn’t change his exercise, and it was just the clearance of that intestinal fungus that allowed the weight just to come rolling off.

It’s not a guarantee, but definitely if someone has some internal factors that are causing inflammation or an internal stress response, then addressing those can be sometimes the missing ingredient for fat loss.

BG: Yeah. Absolutely. I know that you talk about that quite a bit on your podcast. You have a wealth of information on that stuff.

DR: Yeah, and you make some great points for some of the other things that we haven’t talked about, like stress, like air, environmental pollutants, what have you. There are definitely some things for people to keep in mind should they be struggling with weight loss. Don’t forget about some of these basic and foundational points before maybe running to GNC and trying the supplement program du jour.

BG: Right, and the biggest thing for fat loss is just remember that exercise is optional. That’s the biggest thing that I emphasize to people who want to lose weight. Everything from twitching to standing breaks to every time you use the bathroom doing 20 air squats to throwing in a hundred jumping jacks at the end of each hour to putting a pull-up bar in your office, keeping a kettlebell under your desk, using a standing work station and alternating from kneeling to lunging to standing to sitting during the day, using a treadmill workstation if that’s an option for you. Just basically low-level movement all day long is highly conducive to fat loss. That, I would say, is the biggest win if you’re going to do anything. Just move all day long.

DR: I like it. It’s kind of how we were designed to be anyway, so it makes a lot of sense.

BG: Yeah.

DR: So what else? I mean, there are a lot of different ways we can go from here. Here’s maybe one I’d be curious to get your take on.

Cardiovascular Exercise

DR: A lot of times in the kind of paleo-ish space, cardiovascular exercise is vilified, and I think, to some extent, that is justified. There have been some studies showing that men that do exclusively cardiovascular exercise compared to men that do weight exercise, the men who do weight exercise have a better secretion of testosterone and not as high of a secretion of cortisol, and the inverse was shown for the cardio or endurance training group; they tend to secrete more cortisol, less testosterone.

BG: Right.

DR: I get that whole piece, but I don’t think we necessarily have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. From someone who competes in endurance types of events, what have you found with that in your own personal experience and with the clients that you work with?

BG: There are certainly some studies that have been done by, for example, Dr. John O’Keefe, that have definitely shown a law of diminishing returns, potential plaque formation, and an increase in the risk of cardiovascular incidents when you exceed about 90 minutes per day of physical exercise, especially when that exercise is both intense and voluminous. Granted, there’s not a huge portion of the population doing that, but I would say that most endurance athletes such as Ironman triathletes, marathoners, ultramarathoners, many cyclists, they do indeed fall into that category. In a situation like that, and for my own endurance performance, one thing to bear in mind is that in terms of slow-twitch muscle fiber composition, the ability to cool the body, the ability to carry food and carry drink to allow one to go for long periods of time, etc.—and this is something that Tim Noakes talks about quite a bit in his books, such as Lore of Running, or he has a newer book; I don’t remember the name of it, but if you just google “Tim Noakes’ newest book”—you’ll learn that the human body has very capable innate endurance performance capabilities that don’t need to be trained that often.

One thing that I focus on in my own routine is I’ll only do something big and voluminous once or twice a month, where I’ll actually go out and really go the well when it comes to heading out on, like, a two-hour trail run or any of these other things that have been shown to be potentially cardiovascularly harmful, increase cortisol, decrease testosterone, potentially even decrease metabolism when done in excess, etc. The reason for that is because I trust the innate endurance performance capabilities of the human body and I know that if I instead engage in low-level physical activity during the day, touch it up here and there with some high-intensity interval training, and also—to enhance my efficiency, my economy of movement, my ability to, even in chronic repetitive motion, recruit, for example, more motor units, more muscle fibers—strength training. That’s been shown to have a pretty significant positive effect on endurance performance. Once you put all that together, it means that pursuing endurance and endurance events is not necessarily flying in the face of health if it’s done properly. It just comes down to a lot of people will not trust their bodies.

One of my acquaintances, Chad Trammell, who just won the World’s Toughest Mudder, which is 24 hours of just hard-core endurance, he covered almost a hundred miles, but leading up to that, I think his longest run was something like 20 miles. When I did my first Ironman triathlon, I hadn’t really exercised longer than three hours, and I won my division in Ironman. A lot of people have to get over the fear that they’re not going to be able to, for their race or for their event, actually rise to the occasion because they don’t trust those innate endurance capabilities. But if you train strength, power, speed, balance, and you sprinkle in here and there a few hard endurance sessions, you can be a triathlete, a marathoner, a cyclists, an ultramarathoner, etc., and not realize a lot of these deleterious effects of consistent dips into the well from an endurance standpoint.

The other cool thing is that when you look at this from, like, an ancestral survival standpoint, when I go compete in Train To Hunt, which is a bowhunting, obstacle course racing, meatpacking competition that I do, when I go do a Spartan race, when I go do these events where you’re moving your body over, under, through for long periods of time, you’re simulating what people might have experienced during battle, during persistence hunting, during long periods of survival, most of the CrossFitters fizzle out really fast. They just can’t go. They don’t have that aerobic engine to be able to survive for long periods of time. If you dropped me in the middle of the woods and told me I had to survive for 30 days, I’d much rather have someone who was doing smart endurance training by my side than a really strong CrossFitter who had eschewed a lot of endurance training and might be able to survive an attack by a bear, but is going to fizzle out after a day or two of rucking through the forest.

My idea is that endurance isn’t necessarily bad. Pursuing crossing the finish line of an endurance event is not necessarily going to be physically harmful. You just have to go about doing things the right way. I talk about that quite a bit in my book, Beyond Training. There’s a right way and a wrong way to train for endurance. Really it depends on how you’re going about doing it, but I think that if you can go for long periods of time… if someone walks up to me and tells me, “Hey, you have to run over to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho,” which is 30 miles away, I would like to, even when I’m 60 or 70 years old, be able to say, “All right. Game on.” I know I can do that. I can go survive for long periods of time. I think that’s a skill that is necessary. It’s a training system that if you really want to realize the full potential of the human body, you should have. It’s just that a lot of people think that to get that you have to run 20 miles every weekend, and that’s not the case.

DR: Right. I was hoping you were going to have a response similar to that because I think a lot of times we misinterpret information. Maybe the people who were training the wrong way, as you put it, to paraphrase, with excessive bouts of very long-duration, higher intensity cardio, are going to do detriment to themselves, and that’s maybe what we see with some of these studies. But if the preparation for endurance events is done the right way, it can lead to a high endurance output without causing any deleterious effects to the body. I love the analogy of a CrossFitter kind of pooping out, being able to go hard and fast for a short period of time, but then having the inability to go for a little bit longer.

Maintaining Endurance Capacity

DR: I want to ask you a follow-up question on that. I’m not sure if your book would be a better place for people to get an expanded narrative on this, if it’s maybe kind of hard to answer succinctly, but it sounds to me like the best approach to be able to maintain that endurance capacity would be the low-level cardio session in the morning, like we talked about, as much activity during the day as people can get, using a walking desk or doing air squats when they go to the bathroom or what have you, and then doing different types of interval training for their evening workout, sometimes higher intensity, sometimes lower intensity, having a little bit different of an application there. Would that be the correct way to kind of apply this to maintain that optimized endurance capacity rather than just doing maybe three days a week of CrossFit?

BG: Yeah, but you still have to throw in the big stuff every once in a while.

DR: Gotcha.

BG: For example, one thing I’m doing this year is the Spartan Delta. It’s like an Ultra Beast, which is 26 miles of obstacles that takes eight or nine hours; a 12-hour Hurricane Heat, which is just like climbing through rat tunnels with sandbags on your back all night long; and another four-hour race. I’m heading off to a 60-hour race this week, and a lot of people are like, how do you train for that? I’m like, I pretty much walk on my treadmill while I’m talking to people on the phone, I throw in some power/strength/speed training, and then my actual training is when I show up to an event like that… and I find that if even once a quarter I can do a race that really pushes me to the edge, I can maintain my edge all year long, all life long.

But again, that’s the issue. A lot of people just want to go out every weekend and train for this type of stuff, trying to simulate the event, and it’s just not necessary. You have to trust the innate endurance capabilities of the human body. It really doesn’t take as much as you’d think to be able to toe the line in some of this stuff. The last Toughest Mudder I did, I raced 53 miles. Going into that race, the longest I had run was six miles for actual training, but I had done a lot of strength training, I had done a lot of power. I had run 10×100 meters up my driveway a couple of nights a week. That’s the way that I train for this stuff. It does work. You just have to trust that it works, and then as long as you take care of your cooling or your heating, your food intake, your water intake, stuff like that, you’d be surprised at what you can do.

DR: All right. Very well said.

Restorative Training Techniques – Illness and Overtraining

DR: What about—if you have one—the best exercise approach for someone who is burned out? I’m sure there are some people listening to this who are in the midst of trying to recover their health. They’re probably feeling a little bit burned out, a little bit beat up. Where would you start with someone like that?

BG: I’m really into restorative types of activities for things like adrenal fatigue and recovery from overtraining. A sample program for something like that would be, for example, a few times a week you’re going to do a dry sauna or an infrared sauna, where you’re getting a nice heating effect, you’re getting some heat shock protein production, a big dump in nitric oxide and brain-derived neurotrophic factor and the same endorphins that make you feel good when you go out for a hard run or finish a tough CrossFitting session, but it’s much more restorative. You also, of course, get some of the movement of lymph and blood and sweat. I personally sauna almost every day, but doing something like that a couple of times a week, that would be one component. You could do yoga, body movement, tai chi, stuff like that. I’m a big fan of morning walks in the sunshine to get plenty of vitamin D. That would be another component of that program. Again, a lot of parasympathetic nervous system training.

The super-slow training that I described, that also… again, you want to track how much something stresses especially your sympathetic nervous system if you are bouncing back from overtraining or adrenal fatigue, so measure your heart rate variability the morning after you do something like a super-slow strength training session, but I find most people can handle that 12-to-20-minute session one or two times a week, even if they are a little bit beat up from an overtraining standpoint.

Yoga or tai chi, whether it’s in or out of the sauna, is another thing that I recommend, and then plenty of mobility work—foam rolling, traction work with a mobility band, work with a lacrosse ball, etc. That stuff can help you put work into the body, help you feel like you’re actually making your body better, which is what a lot of folks crave who have dug themselves into that overtraining or adrenal fatigue hole. They want to pursue making their bodies better, and that’s kind of what got them into that issue in the first place, but doing that type of stuff, that soft tissue work, that deep tissue work, it can help to fix a lot of injuries and issues while you’re waiting for things like your cortisol and your DHEA to bounce back and your inflammation to subside and your TSH to go back up and your testosterone or your estrogen to rebalance—all those things that tend to fail from a biomarker standpoint when you have adrenal fatigue.

A sample program might be that every morning you go for a walk in the sunshine. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you hit the sauna for 20 to 30 minutes and do some light movement in the sauna. On Tuesday and Saturday, you do a super-slow strength training session. On Thursday, you do a full-body foam roller session, the same thing on Sunday, and then Sunday might also include a hike or a very easy bike ride or something like that. None of those things that I just described are going to beat up the body all that much, but they can at least help you to maintain some movement, some lymph flow, some blood flow, some health, some fresh air—not a complete loss in fitness—if you are laid up from something like adrenal fatigue or overtraining.

It all depends on the person, too. A triathlete, for example, if they have adrenal fatigue or overtraining, even if it’s light and easy, I don’t have them doing any running or swimming or cycling because a lot of time the body identifies that as competition mode, battle mode. The sympathetic nervous system takes over. Adrenaline and epinephrine start to get produced. For somebody like that, I might say, “OK, so for your easy movement, you’re going to walk or you’re going to do yoga, but nothing chronic repetitive-motion based,” whereas the CrossFitter, maybe I’ll keep them away from the super-slow strength training session because any time their hands grip something and they start to push weight—boom!—battle mode kicks in.

DR: Right.

BG: For them, they might be doing an easy swim or an easy session on the bike. It really depends on the person, too, and what their body is programmed to identify as stressful.

DR: Good point. All right, well, I have two things to kind of bring us to a close that I wanted to ask you.

Ben’s Most Fun, But Most Unhealthy Activity

DR: One is, and kind of the context for this—and I know our audience is used to hearing this—we get really focused on the things to do to become healthy, but I think it’s equally as important to show people that we’re not necessarily health fanatics and we have a fun side where we sometimes do things that are “unhealthy.” With that in mind, what is maybe the most fun, but also the most “unhealthy” thing that you’ve done lately?

BG: Gosh… the most fun, but the most unhealthy. What have I been doing lately? I just got done with a big hunt with Texas, but there wasn’t much unhealthiness associated with that even though it was a heck of a lot of fun. It was very sedentary. I was sitting for eight to ten hours at a time on the frozen tundra in Texas Hill Country, but I wouldn’t necessarily qualify that as unhealthy.

Man, I live a pretty healthy life. I can’t think of anything I’ve done in the recent past that I would consider to be that unhealthy. I’m trying to think. I guess, this weekend I went to this Native American hot spot that’s like a healing springs and just basically spent Saturday and Sunday sitting in hot springs, not exercising at all, just lounging around in the hot springs, getting out, eating copious amounts of food, drinking some wine, tweaking the brain with some THC, getting back in the hot springs. I suppose some might consider that to be mildly unhealthy, but that’s probably about as close as I’ve toed the line to unhealthy in the past little bit.

DR: That actually sounds like a lot of fun!

BG: It was, and actually the body felt amazing afterwards. It’s really cool the type of energy that places like that, special places on earth like that have. Yeah, when you combine stuff like that with alcohol and weed and food, yeah, I guess it could be considered kind of unhealthy.

DR: Again, I think it’s important, especially for some of the people listening to this, to reiterate that because what I see in the clinic sometimes is as people are trying to regain their health, they become more and more sheltered, and they stop doing anything that doesn’t involve eating good food, sleeping, regular exercise, rest, work, and going to bed. They forget that, oh, yeah, maybe I can go to the spa and have a drink and hang out or have dinner with a friend and have a few drinks or whatever it is. It’s just nice to share that. I think that’s not very unhealthy, but unhealthy enough, and it sounds like a lot of fun.

BG: Yeah. Honestly, when I binge, I might have some extra dark chocolate dipped in almond butter. I’m not a Twinkie and Carl’s Jr. kinda guy.

DR: Sure! The other thing, and if we can organize this, great, if not, that’s fine, but I’m going to show my somewhat East Coast-ness with this request. Undoubtedly, Ben, you can smoke me in any kind of endurance race, but maybe at this year’s Paleo f(x) we can have an arm wrestle contest and see who comes out on top.

BG: That would be actually kind of fun. There’s one thing that a lot of people don’t know about me, and that is that I have a gorilla grip. I’ve got banana hands.

DR: Oh, great.

BG: For my obstacle course racing and all the pull-ups and everything else that I do and the copious amounts of grip strengthening, I do have a pretty strong grip. I actually just wrote a huge article on my blog recently about how grip strength is associated with longevity and overall body strength and all this cool stuff, so, yeah, I might take you up on that. I don’t do a lot of arm wrestling, but I can certainly break your fingers even if you beat me in the actual event.

DR: Yeah! I think the odds are definitely not in my favor on this one, but Robb Wolf and I tried to organize a sprint-off two years ago, and it was just so hard to get that organized, so I figured arm wrestling is something that can be done quickly and easily, and so this might be a more accessible challenge.

BG: Game on. Yeah, I’ll start training my internal shoulder rotation.

DR: Yeah! And if you win, I won’t speak of it on the show, but if I win, I’ll make sure to tell everybody about it! No, I’m just kidding. I’ll let everyone know either way.

BG: Game on.

DR: Cool.

BG: We just have to run 15 miles first.

DR: Then you’re definitely going to smoke me.

Episode Wrap-up

DR: The final thing, I guess, is just where can people track you down? I know you have a book out. You have a great website with a lot of content, a podcast, so where can people learn more about you or follow you?

BG: Yeah, well, my website, I think we mentioned it. It’s BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and then for those who want to take the deep dive, I have about 450 pages jampacked with biohacking content and gut, digestion, brain, sleep, performance—you name it. I just released the updated version of that book, so it’s all up to date, and that’s called Beyond Training. It’s a New York Times Best Seller, and you can get that at BeyondTrainingBook.com.

DR: Sweet. All right, my man, this has been a great episode, and I’m sure people will get a lot out of it. I’ll look forward to connecting with you at Paleo f(x) if not before then.

BG: Sweet. Thanks, man, and thanks for everything you do, helping people poop better and eat tasty food without dying.

DR: Absolutely, my man. Thanks for coming on.

BG: All right, talk to you later, man.

DR: All right. Bye.

Thank you for listening to Dr. Ruscio Radio today. Check us out on iTunes and leave a review. Visit DrRuscio.com to ask a question for an upcoming podcast, post comments for today’s show, and sign up to receive weekly updates. That’s D-R-R-U-S-C-I-O.com.

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Discussion

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6 thoughts on “Ben Greenfield on Exercise and Nutrition for Optimum Body Composition and Performance

  1. Hello Dr. Ruscio,

    I hope all is well with you. I am a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer working with the University of Rochester in NY, and I’ve been listening to your podcasts for a while now. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate them. I think you do a wonderful job of delineating evidenced based recommendations vs. new research vs. your opinion vs. what you see anecdotally in your clinic, and that is indescribably valuable in today’s mess of nutrition resources. I actually have all of the other dietitians in my office listening to your podcasts as well, and each Friday we meet to discuss them! They have helped so many of our patients, particularly those with hypothyroidism. Thank you for all the effort you put into them.

    I just listened to your podcast with Ben Greenfield (which was wonderful!) and I had a few questions about carbohydrate consumption and timing.
    1. In the podcast you talked about restricting carbohydrates until the evening – does this mean you don’t consume any carbohydrates until your last meal, or do you eat maybe a certain percentage of your carbs throughout the day, and then the rest in the evening?
    2. When you eat the carbohydrate rich meal in the evening, should that be after or before the HIIT/strength workout?

    Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you,
    April

  2. Hello Dr. Ruscio,

    I hope all is well with you. I am a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer working with the University of Rochester in NY, and I’ve been listening to your podcasts for a while now. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate them. I think you do a wonderful job of delineating evidenced based recommendations vs. new research vs. your opinion vs. what you see anecdotally in your clinic, and that is indescribably valuable in today’s mess of nutrition resources. I actually have all of the other dietitians in my office listening to your podcasts as well, and each Friday we meet to discuss them! They have helped so many of our patients, particularly those with hypothyroidism. Thank you for all the effort you put into them.

    I just listened to your podcast with Ben Greenfield (which was wonderful!) and I had a few questions about carbohydrate consumption and timing.
    1. In the podcast you talked about restricting carbohydrates until the evening – does this mean you don’t consume any carbohydrates until your last meal, or do you eat maybe a certain percentage of your carbs throughout the day, and then the rest in the evening?
    2. When you eat the carbohydrate rich meal in the evening, should that be after or before the HIIT/strength workout?

    Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you,
    April

  3. I’m wondering if you can discuss specific brands of the tools for patients who want to start self-monitoring/assessing more can look at. I have heard negative things about some of the highly-rated Amazon brands of glucose monitors, HRV monitors, etc, What are some examples of brands that patients can purchase for peace of mind when it comes to accuracy while not breaking the budget?
    Thank You!

  4. I’m wondering if you can discuss specific brands of the tools for patients who want to start self-monitoring/assessing more can look at. I have heard negative things about some of the highly-rated Amazon brands of glucose monitors, HRV monitors, etc, What are some examples of brands that patients can purchase for peace of mind when it comes to accuracy while not breaking the budget?
    Thank You!

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