By Patrick Striet, CSCS ProSource
Owning and operating a gym which specializes in semi-private personal training, it will come as no surprise to you that 90% of the people who walk through the door are primarily interested in losing fat and looking better naked. I have been successful in helping many of these people get the results by implementing a multi-faceted approach stressing nutrition and efficiency.
Sadly, most trainers and coaches who deal with a fat-loss clientele simply sell workouts and empty promises. Rarely is there a nutrition component involved beyond general cookie cutter advice such as "eat more lean protein." In addition, many trainers put together "workouts" that are not structured and progressive training programs. What's more, many trainers don't apply the most efficient philosophy or principles with their clients, instead choosing to stress MORE: more steady state cardio, more volume, more days in the gym, etc.
Keeping all of the above in mind, I thought I'd share the philosophy I use to help my fat-loss clients achieve consistently great results.
Training is NOT a Weight/Fat Loss Method
I've always felt, despite the prevailing consensus to the contrary, that training (or "exercise" as most call it) is a horrible weight loss method. The objective of a structured and progressive training program is to increase fitness and performance: strength, conditioning, work capacity, movement quality, etc. You should evaluate the effectiveness of your training program based on its ability to drive improvements in fitness and performance, NOT on how much weight you lose or (typically) don't lose.
Expecting training/exercise, by itself, to result in significant decreases in body weight or body fat makes about as much sense as expecting adherence to any popular diet to increase your deadlift by 50 lbs. Can improved nutrition make a positive impact on your performance in the gym? Sure, a little bit, but if your numbers and strength are not moving up, and you are complying with a sound diet, are you seriously going to analyze your diet to get moving in the right direction? Probably not. Instead, you are going to look at things like frequency, volume, loading parameters, exercise selection, or training split.
It's the same with training and weight/fat loss. While training does burn calories and makes a very small contribution to creating the caloric deficit needed for fat loss, it is NOT the primary objective. If your goal is fat loss, and your weight and body composition are not improving, it's highly unlikely your training program is to blame, and if you are a regular reader of the training articles on this site from the likes of Josh Bryant, I doubt that's your problem. It's your crappy diet.
Look, I've done the math, and training (a combination of strength training and cardio) for one hour, 7 days per week, will typically result in an expenditure of about 3000 calories. That's all. The general belief (even though some have refuted it) is that there are 3500 calories in one pound of fat. So, as you can see, it's a 7-hour time investment for less than a pound's worth of calories. Trying to "exercise off" body fat is analogous to trying to drive a nail into a board with a screwdriver. If you bang away long enough, you might get the nail started. But wouldn't it be easier just to use a damned hammer?
In my opinion, this is the primary reason people discontinue a training regimen. They are expecting the training to burn up all kinds of calories and result in large-scale decreases in body weight and fat, and, when that doesn't happen, they say "screw it"and quit. The reality is, they are probably deriving a great deal of benefit from the program, but if the results don't meet their expectations, motivation dwindles. What's happened is that sensationalized, unethical fitness pros and the media have ingrained it into the typical person's head that a training/exercise program equals a weight-loss program. If more people, like the clients at my gym, were educated as to what the true benefits and objectives of training are, they would see the value in training and wouldn't discontinue it if the scale isn't moving.
Bottom line: train to enhance fitness and performance, NOT to lose weight and fat. Let your diet or, as I like to call it, "nutristyle," dictate and drive fat and weight loss.
In the Hierarchy of Fat Loss Nutrition, Calories Sit at the Top
Piggy backing off of the principle discussed above, the best and most efficient way to create a caloric deficit necessary for fat loss is to establish and adhere to your fat loss caloric requirements. It's far easier to simply eliminate 500 calories from your diet by eating in a slight deficit vs. spending an hour on the elliptical trainer.
For the general adult who's typically carrying far too much weight, has lost lean muscle and is generally unfit, I'll set their fat loss caloric requirements at 11-12 calories/pound of their current weight. For someone already fairly lean, and who carries a bit more muscle, I usually start around 14-15 calories/pound. These ranges typically put someone in just a slight caloric deficit. If it doesn't, and the results reveal that on a bi-weekly basis, despite 90% compliance, I adjust downwards. The goal at my gym is to find how MUCH (not how little) a client can eat and still drop fat.
Calories Rule, BUT Macros Matter
Once I've established a client's fat loss calorie requirements, I then take a look at macronutrients. Can you lose fat and weight just focusing on calories? Experience has told me yes, absolutely, but, if you want OPTIMAL results, and my clients do, then the composition of those calories matter.
My general guideline, and I'm sure you've heard this before, is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. In a fat loss phase, one of the goals should be to hang onto as much lean muscle tissue as possible, and eating adequate protein is one half of achieving this goal, with strength training being the other. [Editor's Note: A premium fat-loss protein such as ProSource's Vectron, is an excellent choice here. Vectron contains a unique weight management system called Prolibra that has produced (in an independent, randomized, double-blind, 12-week clinical trial) significant improvements in the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat for test subjects.]
The remaining calories are made up of fat and carbs, and the ratio of each is dependent upon the amount and type of activity being done. At least in the initial period of a fat loss phase, I like to keep carbs at about 1 gram per pound as well (this will typically change as time moves on). The remaining calories come from fat. For example:
200 lb. Male Strength Training 4 Days/Week
(no structured cardio other than leisurely walks)
Fat Loss Caloric Requirement: 2400 kcals (12kcals/lb.)
Protein Requirement: 200 grams (800 calories or 33% of the diet)
Carb Requirement: 200 grams (800 calories or 33% of the diet)
Fat Requirement (what remains): about 90 grams (800 calories or about 33% of the diet)
Remember "The Zone"diet? Looks a helluva lot like that doesn't it? A fairly even distribution of the macros.
Follow Meal Plans
Could one feasibly track their calories and macros eating a wide variety of foods which differ daily? I suppose they could, but it would be a royal pain in the ass. This is particularly true when trying to get the macros correct. It's not nearly as tedious to track overall calories, but trying to get those in the correct amounts while eating different foods every day would be a nightmare. This is why I devise actual meal plans for my clients to follow. While this sometimes appears to be too regimented to them, they soon realize it simplifies the process, making it more efficient and manageable.
Yes, the down side is that you are eating the same food every day, but no one said fat loss was easy. It's going to take some sacrifice, especially if you want optimal results. People need to get it out of their head that fat loss nutrition is this made-to-order, "your way right away" process. I've found too much food variety to be totally detrimental when it comes to losing fat. Pick a handful of fat, protein, and starch sources for each and stick to them. Trying to incorporate your mom's 35 ingredient chili recipe will have you pulling your hair out, spending an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen crunching numbers. Just keep it really simple. Boring is not bad when trying to lose fat.
I won't get into food sources too much. I always find it funny when people say "I don't know what to eat." That's usually not the problem, as most functioning members of society can rattle off "healthy" foods most nutrition experts would generally agree were, in fact, "healthy." The problem isn't not knowing WHAT to eat, but, rather, knowing HOW MUCH and IN WHAT PROPORTION to eat.
I'm often asked if I subscribe to an "if it fits your macros"(IIFYM) or a "clean foods" philosophy. As with most things, I think common sense dictates that going to either extreme is probably not necessary. Look, I've fit PopTarts into a client's post workout meal (IIFYM). If it fits, it fits. But 80% to 90% of the food on my clients' meal plans are comprised of "clean foods”: chicken, bison, top sirloin, fish, sweet potatoes, oats, avocado, etc. Also, it's not uncommon for me to allow clients "discretionary" calories they can use for whatever they want. I'll get their calories and macros as close to what they need as I can and then leave them 100-300 calories (depending on their weight) to use for whatever. Ten to twenty grams of a specific macro isn't going to make or break their plan, so I don't get overly rigid.
In the Hierarchy of Fat Loss Training, Strength Training Sits at the Top
What makes muscle, keeps muscle. As stated above, a primary goal during a fat loss phase should be to hang onto as much metabolically active muscle tissue as possible. Most people don't just want to lose weight. They want to look different and better naked. The only way to look "lean," "toned," "shaped," "ripped," "athletic," or whatever term you want to use to describe it, is to strength train, which adds shape, size, contour, and, dare I say it, "tone" to your muscles. It you want "the look," you have to have developed muscle tissue and low enough body fat for that muscle to show. Lack either one of those and you won't achieve the desired look.
Also, you need to STRENGTH TRAIN. This means a portion of your workouts need to be devoted to heavily loaded multiple joint exercises for 3 to 6 reps per set. All too often, people in "fat loss mode" start doing a ridiculous amount of volume, using short rest periods and very light-moderate loads. While speeding your workouts up and doing more, more, and more may seem like it is conducive to fat loss, the reality is you need to stress higher threshold type II muscle fibers, and a consistent regimen of light, high-rep circuit or "metabolic" (FYI, I hate that term, as everything is metabolic) stuff isn't going to cut it.
A really easy way to ensure you are meeting this requirement is to start each training session with a heavily loaded multiple joint exercise for 3 to 6 sets of 3 to 6 reps. This will get into the right fibers. After that, you can progressively increase your reps per set on the remaining exercises in your workout, working up to no more than 12-15 reps. Here's an example:
Deadlift 3-6 sets of 3-6 reps (2-3 min between sets)
Glute Ham Raise 4 sets of 8 reps
High Box Step Ups 3 sets of 10-12 reps each leg
Stability Ball Leg Curls 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps
In the Hierarchy of Fat Loss Training, Cardio Sits at the Bottom
My clients look at me like I'm nuts when I tell them there is no structured cardiovascular work in their training program, outside of maybe 5 minutes of intervals at the end of a strength training session (which is typically sprinting, sled work, versa climber, air dyne or battling ropes) and leisurely walking outside of the gym. I explain to them if they are eating in a caloric deficit by following their nutrition plan and strength training 3-4 days/week, very little else is needed in the way of structured exercise.
Cardio doesn't help to build or retain muscle tissue, can drive up stress hormones and lower anabolic hormones, and, what's more, you just become more and more efficient at it, which means you have to do more and more of it. If you eat right, you can spend your time doing something else besides plodding away on an elliptical.
For my clients, I'll program in a bit of cardio as needed, typically once they are eating a fairly low number of calories and I don't want to drop them any further, but they still have some fat to lose. This does not happen very often.
Look, if you like to jog or cycle just because you like to jog or cycle, then have at it. I personally like to ride my road bike and often times ride the two miles from my house to the gym and back 3-4 times per week with maybe 1 or 2 other longer rides simply to enjoy the fresh air and blow off steam. But none of this is necessary if you are lifting hard and eating right.
Also, if you are skeptical of the "no cardio" approach, put on a heart rate monitor while you strength train. This was an eye opener for me. My 50-60 minutes strength training sessions typically had me burning 600-700 calories with an average heart rate response of 75% of age predicted maximum, with peak heart rate often times exceeding 90%. AND it retains and builds muscle. Lifting weights may not be "aerobic," but it is certainly cardiovascular. If you think about it, strength training is nothing more than a form of interval training: work real hard for 20-60 seconds and then rest.
Fat Loss Finale
So, there you have, the Live Fit Fat Loss Manifesto. In summary, here are the take home points to lose fat most effectively:
- Keep training in perspective. Remember, training is NOT a weight loss method. It's a fitness and performance enhancement method.
- Set your calories, on average, at about 12 calories/pound (fitter people with more muscle can go a bit higher) to put yourself in fat loss caloric deficit.
- Set your protein and carb intake (initially for carbs) at 1 gram per pound of body weight.
- The remainder of the calories should come from fat
- Set up meal plans which meet all of the above requirements, follow them, and don't go crazy with food variety.
- Prioritize STRENGTH training to retain lean muscle while in a deficit.
- Limit or eliminate cardio (assuming you are following your nutrition plan) outside of leisurely walking and maybe a bit of interval work at the end of your strength training sessions.