If you’re 6’3” and 250, it’s hard to see yourself training as if you were a 5’10”, 155-pound guy. For you, the treadmill probably seems like a medieval torture device. And forget restrictive diet plans—there’s no way you’re living on carrot sticks and kale juice.
But why should you train like a gazelle if you’re built like a grizzly bear? In other words: What’s the best way for a naturally big dude to shed some extra weight?
To get the lowdown on how big guys like Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy might get down to fighting weight, we got in touch with two pros from EXOS, the high-performance training facility that helped Lacy get absolutely shredded for his combine workouts: Scott Schrimscher, an EXOS performance specialist, and Joel Totoro, R.D., an EXOS nutrition solutions manager. We also talked to Luke Pelton, C.S.C.S., NSCA-C.P.T., a competitive powerlifting coach and weight training instructor based in New York.
Here are five fundamental strategies that a big guy should use to gain muscle and shed that extra weight.
1. CLARIFY WHAT YOU MEAN BY “LOSING WEIGHT”
First, it’s important to determine the difference between useless extra weight (the stuff you’re presumably trying to shed) and “functional mass” (which you presumably want to keep), Totoro says. “Ten pounds of fat is simply extra weight and extra stress on the body, whereas 10 pounds of muscle can produce force production, stabilize the body, and can handle more stress or physical loads.”
A big guy seeking to get lean, in other words, wants to “promote lean muscles maintenance or gains while promoting fat loss.”
This is especially important because gaining muscle tissue will also ramp up your metabolic needs. “Muscle tissue, by nature, requires energy to be used simply so it can exist and work minute by minute,” Pelton says. “If you have 10 lbs. more muscle than someone else, and you both sit in a chair for an entire day, you would theoretically have a higher caloric expenditure than the other person (all other physical attributes being equal),” Pelton says.
2. TRAIN LIKE A BIG MAN
Strength Training: You’re a big, powerful guy—so train like it! “By building strength and lean body mass, you’ll elevate your metabolism and that elevated rate will last for a few days,” Schrimscher says. He suggests focusing on two types of moves: Compound exercises (which train multiple muscle groups across multiple joints) and exercises that enhance stability and posture (like planks, pillar bridges, or Turkish get-ups). That way, you can build overall strength while improving your balance and maneuverability, Schrimscher says.
If you find that smaller muscles fail during compound movements, then it’s not a bad idea to train with isolation moves (those that involve one muscle across one joint), Pelton says. For example: If your triceps always get tired during bench presses or overhead presses, try training with triceps pushdowns and/or skullcrushers. Otherwise, focus on compound movements that will challenge multiple muscle groups.
“Practical Moves”: You don’t have to limit your training to the weight room. Pelton recommends fun compound exercises like sledgehammer swings, farmer’s carries, and tire flips, which are a favorite of football linemen. (“It doesn’t get much manlier than flipping a big ol’ tire down the block!” he says.) These full-body motions tax the core and lower body, and they’re especially versatile because you can change the weight of the implement and the speed of each rep to focus on strength or endurance.
HIIT the Gym: Instead of slogging away on the treadmill—which doesn’t always stimulate your body to shed fat anyway—consider high-intensity interval training (HIIT), Schrimscher says. “Research shows that high intensity interval training is not only more effective than long slow duration cardio but also more efficient, enabling you to perform more work in less time,” Schrimscher says. “Try using intervals of 30 seconds or 1 minute at a high intensity followed by rest periods of longer, slower duration intervals. You can progress over time by either increasing the high intensity interval duration or decrease the rest intervals, forcing your body to adapt more quickly.”
Circuit Training: Shake up your strength days by alternating exercises in a circuit, Schrimscher says. Circuit training breaks up your exercises, so you can do more work (either reps or weight) in a shorter amount of time. It also increases the number of muscles you recruit, ramps up your blood flow, and unleashes positive hormones, Schrimscher says. “As a result, you’ll increase the workout density—the quality and quantity of work per unit of time—improve your overall fitness, and enjoy cardiovascular benefits while increasing your strength, balance, flexibility, stability, and mobility.” A no-brainer.
3. EAT LIKE A BIG MAN
Demand the Most From Your Carbs: Choose foods with complex carbs (like those in sweet potatoes and brown rice) over simple carbs (white bread and sugary sodas). “You get more nutrients and fiber from a sweet potato than a slice of white bread, even though the calories may be the same,” Totoro says. “Vegetables, for the most part, are nutrient-packed and low in total calories. We recommend them often and in a wide variety.”
Eat Your Greens: Duh, right? But muscle-building vegetables like broccoli and spinach aren’t just rich in vitamins and minerals—they also help regulate levels of free estrogen in the bloodstream, Pelton says, and that’s important for guys who are trying to add muscle.
Skip the Bad Stuff: You already know to avoid sugary sweets, soda, and fried fat-bombs. (Diet soda doesn’t necessarily work better, either, since it can trigger a physical response that also leads to weight gain.) But guys often underestimate how many cheap calories they consume via beer and liquor, Pelton says. You don’t have to drop them completely—but cutting down on the drinks will pay dividends for your waistline and your liver alike.
Prioritize Protein: A high-protein diet is key for building muscle. Try to get anywhere from 0.8–1.5g of protein per pound of your goal body weight per day, preferably from lean meats or veggie sources like quinoa and brown rice. Spread out your protein intake throughout the day, since your body can only metabolize about 30 grams of protein in one sitting—anything more will just go unused.
Totoro suggests also supplementing with leucine, a critical amino acid for muscle development that can be found in whey protein powder, Greek yogurt, eggs, or a serving of a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplement. (EXOS markets whey protein isolate and amino supplements, both of which are NSF-certified for competition.)
Get the Right Fats: For years, guys labored under the false pretense that totally eliminating fat from their diets was the key to shedding it. Now, we know that’s not totally true. (As Pelton says, “Healthy fats are necessary!”) Totoro recommends eating “proteins that also contain healthy fats, such as fish, grass-fed animal meats, nuts, and seeds. These are great ways to incorporate the muscle-repairing benefits of protein and the anti-inflammatory properties of healthy fats.”
4. FUEL UP LIKE A BIG MAN
Stop Focusing on “Cutting Calories”: This is arguably the biggest myth of shedding fat, and it drastically oversimplifies the process, according to Totoro. “It takes calories to be big,” he says. “Going too low on calories can trigger your body to store more fat, as it fears this under nourishment may be long term and begins preserving energy for survival, not for performance.
Find Your Ideal Fuel: Formula 1 cars and Peterbilt trucks take different fuel in different amounts. The same logic applies for humans, too: You need enough calories to perform well in the gym and recover, without over-doing it, Totoro says. “The more you know about your fueling needs and body composition, the better you can create a fat loss plan that is specific to you,” he says. If you’re not sure about what works for you, consider asking a registered dietician to guide your efforts.
Hydrate: Big guys need lots of water. Pelton recommends drinking least a gallon of water throughout the day. If you have a big 32-oz water bottle, fill it up and drain it four times a day—that’s your goal.
Don’t Confuse Fluid Loss With Fat Loss: It can be tempting to try and shed a few pounds by dehydrating yourself, as boxers and wrestlers sometimes do. Don’t even bother, says Totoro: “This is extremely dangerous and not a permanent loss.” It can also seriously limit your strength. “Dehydration of as little as 2% of body weight—so, 4 lbs. of fluid loss in a 200-lb man—begins to negatively impact performance and focus.”
5. BE MENTALLY TOUGH
Don’t Trust the Scale: Gaining muscle will add weight (and speed up your metabolism), but it can also disguise your progress toward a healthier body. “A 6-pound fat loss with a 4-pound muscle gain might look like only a 2-pound change on the scale after months of dedication, but the reality is there was a 10 pound swing in functional mass,” Totoro says. Instead of relying solely on the scale, take a holistic view: Do you have more day-to-day energy (aside from post-workout tiredness)? Are you moving around better? Are your jeans suddenly baggier? Those kinds of subjective measures are good ways to build habits, Totoro says.
Find Your Model Athlete: Being realistic with your ideal body image can be a helpful psychological boost, Pelton says. Big guys should research and mimic “athletes like powerlifters, strongmen, Highland games competitors, and Olympic throwers,” says Pelton. “These guys are all pretty much built like grizzly bear/refrigerator hybrids and they train accordingly!"
Progress Slow and Steady: It can also be tempting to reach for the big weights right off the bat, even if you haven’t trained up for them. But shedding pounds of fat will go a lot more smoothly if you start with some baseline techniques and then gradually ramp up weight, volume, and exercise difficulty, Totoro says. After all: You wouldn’t jump into hardcore marathon training if you can’t run a 5K, right? Same rule applies. “Small, realistic, calculated habit changes that build on each other tend to work better than huge sweeping changes,” Totoro says.
BONUS: THE ONE-DAY NUTRITION PLAN
Here’s a sample day’s meal plan, courtesy of Pelton. Please note, though, that you may need a different amount of food to properly fuel your workouts and desired body composition. Consult with a registered dietician or nutritionist if you’re unsure.
— Breakfast: 2 whole eggs + 6 egg whites cooked in coconut oil, ½ cup steel-cut oats, 2 cups water
— Midday: Mix 1.5 cups Greek yogurt, 2 cups spinach, and 1/2 an avocado in a blender. (It might sound strange, but “this is delicious,” Pelton says.)
— Lunch: 8 oz. grilled chicken breast, 2 cups broccoli/cauliflower
— Afternoon: 6 oz. baked white fish (like cod or flounder), 1/2 sweet potato
— Dinner: 6 oz. lean beef patty over 1/2 cup long-grain brown rice