At the time of writing this article, I have embarked on a mission to cut as much fat as possible while retaining muscle in preparation for the summer. I started March 1st at 204 Pounds and have lost 3.8 pounds so far. I decided to document my progress as to be a proponent of what I preach which is tracking macros, using calories in vs calories out, etc. I value the particulars of training and tracking because not only is it fun but it actually works. In addition to documenting my progress I’ve also decided to write this article. This article attempts to cover everything in regards to fat loss and the tools to accomplish this feat. This article is an amalgamation of principles, tips, tricks and knowledge that I’ve gained over the years to help me put on muscle mass. The same principles applied while understanding the underlying concepts can be used in reverse to achieve the goal of fat loss.
I am by no means some sort of “expert” but a humble practitioner of these methods. This article also attempts to address the pompous attitude that a lot people in the fitness community has when it comes to anything…well, fitness related. My goal here is to share and educate people on the basics to lead healthier & happier lives with no cost of entry. The goal here is to get people to read this, learn & apply without getting hit with a pay wall and condescension.
One of my biggest aims in not only this article but of all of my content is to give people who cannot afford a coach but has the ambition to learn and apply these principles the opportunity to get right just by reading one piece of free content that I provide.
With no further delay, let’s get into it.
The article is broken down into a few topics that I go deeper into:
- What is fat?
- Why reduce body fat?
- Spot reduction of fat: Myth or Truth
- Fat loss vs weight loss
- The importance of muscle mass retention
- Fat Free Mass Index Vs Body Mass Index
- The best fat burner, a caloric deficit
- Types of calories
- Does 3500 calories = 1 pound of fat?
- Cardio as a tool, not punishment
- Hunger cravings
- Rate of weight loss
- Not so fast, it’s just water
- Refeed days, the diet break
- “Eating clean,” brilliant marketing
- Diets are also fat loss tools & apparently religions
- Supplements for fat loss
What is fat?
Fat also known as adipose tissue is soft, connective tissue that is found beneath the skin(subcutaneous fat), around the organs(visceral fat), bone marrow(yellow marrow), and inter-muscular(muscular system). Fat or adipose tissue contain fat cells called adipocytes whose main role is to store energy in the form of fat. Fat also cushions the joints and insulates the body.
Why reduce body fat?
Obviously fat plays an important role in our survival. It is actually essential for proper function for a myriad of reasons. But when we have stored too much fat, it can become a health issue as well as an eye sore. Within the context of this article we want to reduce the amount of body fat we have if we are competitive bodybuilders, powerlifters, runners, etc. When bodybuilding we want to bring the most aesthetic physique possible. When competitive powerlifting, we want to compete in the lightest weight class possible while remaining the strongest possible. When running we want to be the most aerodynamic and lightest we can be in order to put in those all important miles. We also might want to reduce body fat for health reasons. Typically the higher the body fat percentage we have, the higher the chance that we are exposed to diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, etc. We want to keep our body fat percentage as low as safely possible.
Spot reduction of fat: Myth or Truth
As I’m typing this, it is 13 days away from spring and people are becoming more aware of the fact that it’s going to get warmer, pools are going to open up for the summer and the layers of clothing are going to come off and reveal our winter guts. So, naturally, people want to get rid of the gut while keeping the rest of the poundage they’ve accumulated during the winter. The “belly fat” burning routines commence but with no success.
Spot reduction of fat is almost certainly a myth. In order to reduce belly fat or get rid of that aforementioned winter gut, one has to reduce overall body fat. There’s simply no way around it. You can try all the “fit tummy tea” & “waist trainers” all you want, all you would end up with is going to the bathroom every 20 minutes to pee and cut off circulation from the waist trainer, all the while retaining the fat.
The same thing goes for fat anywhere else on the body. We cannot exclusively reduce fat on the thighs, arms, back, sides, etc. Overall body fat has to be reduced through diet & exercise.
Fat loss vs weight loss
Fat loss and weight loss are two different things. One can lose weight without losing fat. This is because weight is not just relegated to fat alone. Weight accounts for muscle mass, water, fat and other types of body mass. When losing weight, we can end up burning off muscle mass, fat and losing water. But when focussed on fat loss, we burn maximal fat loss in a slow, controlled fashion while retaining as much muscle mass as possible.
The importance of muscle mass retention
Muscle mass retention is important to keep our metabolism revved up. The more muscle we have an retain, the faster, more efficient our metabolism is. Retaining muscle mass is also important for competitive body builders who want a certain “look.” Powerlifters want to retain muscle mass in order to stay relatively powerfully competitive in their weight class.
Fat free mass index vs body mass index
When it comes to body composition, the fat free mass index(FFMI) is a much better indicator of muscle mass retention than body mass index. The FFMI is an alternative to BMI which accounts for a persons muscle mass. This index uses a persons height, weight and body fat percentage to come up with a FFMI score. The average FFMI score for men is anywhere from 18-20 and for women it is anywhere from 14-17. It is difficult to score above 25 and 21 for men and women, respectively, unless they are using steroids which is a topic for another article. To calculate your FFMI click here.
FFMI Ranges for Men
||Body fat percent
|Typical average guy
|Athlete / regular gym user
|Advanced gym freak
|Elite strength athlete (bodybuilders, etc.)
FFMI Ranges for Women
||Body fat percent
|Typical average woman
|Athlete / regular gym user
|Advanced gym freak
|Elite strength athlete (bodybuilders, etc.)
The above chart(s) was taken from: https://www.calculators.org/health/ffmi.php
BMI is a general indication as to whether we are overweight or not. The BMI uses only your height and weight and disregards our body fat percentage. So if a gym goer were to use this index, they would probably end up indexing as someone who is overweight because of the BMI’s refusal to take into account their fat free mass. Below are the categories for each BMI reading:
30.0 and Above
The above chart was taken from: https://www.calculators.org/health/bmi.php
The best fat burner: A caloric deficit
When you hear the term “fat burner” you probably think of some supplement pills that has the user feeling all coked out. The fact of the matter is that the best fat burner is a caloric deficit or negative energy balance. Before I go into this, I want to talk about a simple conception that is the thread running through this whole article, calories in vs calories out. Calories vs Calories out or CICO, is the bread and butter of weight loss, fat loss, weight gain and muscle gain. If you want to gain weight you have to be in a positive energy balance. In order to lose weight, you have to be in a negative energy balance. Being in a negative energy balance means that you are burning more calories than you are taking in. When this happens, the body is in a “catabolic” state. Catabolism is just a fancy word for “breaking chemical bonds.” When these bonds are broken, energy is released and used for a wide array of functions, one of which is the body’s movement. On the flip side, when we are in a positive energy balance, we are in an “anabolic” state which is a fancy word for “forming chemical bonds.” This takes place when energy is stored. In this case, when energy is stored, fat is formed.
Now that we know the basics of CICO, we can begin to understand how fat is burned but we cannot stop at CICO because macros play a huge role in body composition. You can be in a negative energy balance, lose WEIGHT, which includes fat AND muscle then end up looking like shit. But if you configure macros correctly you can cultivate an aesthetic, strong physique.
Types of calories
There are 4 different types of calories: protein, carbohydrates, fats & alcohol. But for the purpose of this article, we will only address the importance of protein, carbohydrates & fats. These types of calories are known as macronutrients or “macros.” Each macro nutrient has a specific amount of calories that it holds per gram and follows as such: Protein = 4 calories per 1 gram, Carbohydrates = 4 calories per 1 gram & Fats = 9 calories per 1 gram. Now how do macros play a role in body composition?
Fat Loss Macros
When we arrange these types of calories in such a way that it supports our fitness & conditioning goals, we have to take into consideration our current bodyweight & sometimes our height. In this case, we want to cut fat and retain as much muscle mass as possible. There are essentially two ways we can prescribe our macros.
For men: we can multiply current bodyweight by 14-16 calories. For women: we can multiply current bodyweight by 11-13 calories. Keep in mind these multipliers are estimates and should be used on a trial and error basis. So if you are noticing you are not losing any weight with a 16 calorie multiplier for men, work your way down until you start losing weight. Same goes for women, if no weight loss occurs over the first week or so, work your way down from the 13 calorie multiplier.
After you figure that out then we can break these calories down into macronutrient percentages. These breakdowns follows as such: Moderate carb: 30% Protein, 35% Fats & 35% Carbohydrate. Low carb: 40% Protein, 40% Fats & 20% Carbohydrate. High Carb: 30% Protein, 20% Fats & 50% Carbohydrate. Then there is “No Carb” 70% Protein & 30% Fat approach. I want to note that all of these macronutrient breakdowns should include fiber within the carb percentages OR you can just be sure to include 10 grams of fiber per 1000 calories. Fiber is essential to general digestive health, be sure to include fiber in your diet EVERYDAY.
This last macro nutrient breakdown is reserved for more extreme fat loss endeavors such as contest prep. This breakdown is simple, the trainee consumes 1.0g – 1.4g of protein per pound of bodyweight. Then 15-20% of the remaining calories are allocated to fats and the rest are carbs and 10g of fiber per 1000 calories.
This one is simple and straight forward. You can use online macro calculators that figure out everything for you. Once you put in the information they ask of you, all you need to do is choose a moderate, low or high carb option. Whether you are using online calculators or using multipliers, you can use macro tracking apps such as my fitness pal.
Does 3500 calories = 1 pound of fat?
Simply put, no. 3500 calories is the approximate amount of calories it might take to lose 1 pound of bodyweight whether it is muscle or fat. The body cannot and will not be reduced to simple arithmetic equations but it is good practice to keep track of how many calories we are consuming and burning. It is also worth noting that we may not want to try to go into too deep of a caloric deficit because we run the risk a portion of that 3500 calorie deficit coming from precious muscle mass. Which is why we want to keep in mind we should start slow in a modest deficit and slowly lose weight at a steady pace. In the case of obese and overweight trainees, we can stand to prescribe a deep calorie deficit of 33% of maintenance because the body might be more generous with liberating fat just so long as there is a proper macro nutrient protocol in position. That combined with resistance training is a great recipe for muscle retention and building which keeps the metabolism at a healthy level.
Cardio as a tool, not punishment
Too many people rely on cardio to lose weight and to be quite honest, cardio is just a tool, not an end all be all. Physical activity does not burn as many calories as one thinks. As a matter of fact, physical activity only accounts for anywhere between 10 to 20% of our Total Daily Energy Expenditure(TDEE). 70% is basal metabolic rate(our metabolism) and 10% is the thermic effect of food, the amount of calories used to break down and digest food.
Here’s a little trick that I like to use on myself and clients: Since we know that 20% of our TDEE accounts for physical activity, I like to take 20% of daily allotted calories and do that amount of cardio in calories 4 times per week. This insures that we are in a caloric deficit. So for example, at the time of writing this article, I put myself on 1900 calories per day. This number is predicated on a moderate 15% caloric deficit as is. I take another 20% of that, which translates to 380 calories, and do that on a treadmill, elliptical or bike at the gym. This is a tool that insures that I am in a negative energy balance by the end of the week when it’s time to weigh in. Therefore, cardio is a built in tool that is used to keep us on track and not used to punish ourselves if we fall off track. With my method, even when I “overeat” based on the allotted daily calories, I am STILL in a calorie deficit when I account for those 4 cardio days.
The mindset is not to fall back on cardio either. It’s not about relying on this built in mechanism that propels us forward. It’s about having a plan and sticking to it knowing that there are going to be bumps in the road. If the above method is too much, I give myself freedom to do 20% of what would be my maintenance calories in cardio 4 times a week instead of doing 20% of daily allotted calories. Because let’s be honest, hunger will strike which I will talk about how to deal with later in this article.
How I deal with hunger is simple. I make sure I am eating 3-5 small to moderate sized meal portions per day which includes snacks. I also have this small portions on larger plates to trick my mind into thinking I am eating more than I really am. The mind is a powerful thing, do not underestimate the power of these little tricks. As long as we are splitting up our daily calories amongst these 3-5 meals, we are set. The reason we do 2-5 meals per day is to avoid binge eating. If we were to eat 1-2 meals per day and split up the daily allotted calories amongst these two meals, we run into the issue of feeling hungry later or before bed or while sleeping and we end up overeating. This has definitely happened to me before. One spring when I was cutting, I had 2 large meals and ended up binge eating consistently effectively sabotaging my diet. Overtime I did not hit my weight goal. What I learned was that if i split my meals up amongst 3-5 meals per day it seemed to have managed my hunger much better.
Although the above is anecdotal, I would suggest you try. I am not writing a scientific article, this is more so a documentation and an amalgamation of tricks, tips and knowledge I have picked up along the way, use it. The essence of this portion of the article is rooted in adherence. You can round up all of the most intelligent evidenced based people in the community of fitness but if they do not understand emotional intelligence in regards to adherence, no amount of optimization will help you reach your goals.
Another way to keep satiety at a reasonable level is to consume a good portion of your fats with each meal. Fats, as well as high protein foods, keep you satiated longer. Some good sources of fats are avocado, peanut butter, peanuts, almonds, cashews, fish. Try consuming more of these kinds of foods to keep you full. Stay away from too many simple sugars such as juices, sodas, candy, cookies and cake. Save the sweets for refeed and cheat days. Sugar will leave you wanting more because it is hunger inducing.
Oh, another tip, drink your coffee black. Caffeine has been shown to suppress appetite. Give it a try.
Rate of weight loss
The rate at which one chooses to lose weight is totally up to them and their ability to understand and apply these concepts with discipline. As I mentioned before, a more obese trainee can stand to enter into a calorie deficit as high as 33% of their maintenance calories to lose 2 pounds per week, maybe even more than that if they have enough zeal. Coaches and trainers that tell obese people that they need to lose weight at a slower pace is lying and only in it to get as many weeks of coaching out of their clients as possible. Now on the other extreme end, if someone is prepping for a contest and wants to retain as much muscle mass as possible which would mean a much much much slower cut. This cut would mean that the client is precise with macros, nutrient timing, resistance training, etc.
If you’re the average lifter or if you are even obese or overweight and reading this, feel free to push your limits. Do not be afraid to lose up to 2-3 pounds a week safely.
Not so fast, it’s just water
When we first start our cutting process, we notice the pounds coming off quickly if done correctly. But not so fast, it’s just water weight dropping off. With the increase of physical activity with cardio and the cutting of calories, mostly carbs, these first few pounds are mainly water weight. When we start to get more into the thick of the program we will notice that we are losing fat because we will present a more “cut” or “defined” look.
Refeed days & the diet break
This is probably the most important part of the article. We need to avoid metabolic adaptations as much as possible. How we do this is by taking diet breaks. Diet breaks are planned periods of time where we increase our caloric intake back up to maintenance to keep our body from going into “starvation mode.”
After a few weeks of dieting, our body starts to think that we are going through some sort of famine. Our bodies are such a resilient thing. It strives to keep homeostasis at all times. One of the ways it does this is by keeping a reliable supply of energy in the form of fat. The body will adapt to caloric restriction by slowing down it’s metabolism. Now when this happens, by definition, it is no longer in a caloric deficit. Remember the little pie chart that stated 70% of our TDEE is accounted for by BMR. That is a HUGE piece of the pie and therefore influences most of our fitness progress. By slowing this aspect down, the body effectually places itself in position to store energy.
Let’s break this down further. NEAT or non exercise activity thermogenesis is everything the body does that is not sleeping, exercise, eating, etc. The body will slow down things such as blinking, fidgeting, typing, etc in order to conserved energy for survival. Considering all of this, this is how the body ends up storing energy for survival.
After 4-6 weeks of hardcore dieting, it is advisable for the trainee to take a week diet break. Sort of like deloading. It gives the body a nice break and reassures the body that it is in fact NOT going to have to attempt to survive a famine. This diet break can look like anything ranging from 3-14 days of eating at or slightly above maintenance or 3- 14 days straight at maintenance. Also, cardio is dialed back to about 50%. Anyway we decide to utilize this diet periodization technique, it is worth doing in order to avoid metabolic adaptations.
Refeeds are smaller, planned diet breaks that last from about 1-3 days. It’s just the shorter version of a week long diet break. Again this is a good way to avoid metabolic adaptations. The trainee eats at maintenance or just slightly above maybe on the weekends or a few days out of the week. Some weight gain is to be expected because of the increase in carbs and decrease in cardio. It’s well worth it as the body gets a much needed break from caloric restriction. It’s essentially taking a few steps back in order to take a large leap forward.
“Eating clean,” brilliant marketing
There is not such thing as eating clean. I do not even want to try to guess what that means. Here’s my take on diet. Get 80% of your calories from whole foods which includes 6-8 servings of fruits and vegetables, solid protein sources, complex carbs such as sweet potato, brown rice, pasta and oats and you’re good to go. Get the rest of your calories from junk food. Yes, junk food. We all have some guilty pleasures when it comes to food. Your favorite snack or drink can go into that 20% allotment. This 80% whole foods and 20% junk food should fit your macros!
Consuming junk is not an excuse to go over calories and miss your targets. As a matter of fact it should be harder to overeat junk when we have a 20% allotment because junk foods are notorious for being calorically dense so theres only so much of it we can consume within such a short window. My approach to dieting is flexible. If you are prepping for a show then disregard because that takes A LOT more stringency than just the average dieter in which case you should be hiring an expert coach.
Diets are also fat loss tools & apparently religions
I am keeping this one short and sweet because this should be common sense and the chatter around it is ridiculous. The ketogenic diet, paleo, carnivore, intermittent fasting, vegan, vegetarian, etc are all tools and ways of eating. One diet does not fit all. We all eat according to our culture and DNA. A diet suited for one person may not suit another person. People get so dogmatic about their diet. Each diet may have their own benefits BUT for some people the cons of partaking in a diet may outweigh the benefits. Fat loss is not exclusive to one diet either. As we explored earlier, fat loss is due to a calorie deficit. If any one of these diets have you losing weight it is simply because this diet allows for you to adhere to a plan that has you consistently in a caloric deficit. That’s it. Do what works for you.
Supplements for fat loss
I am not a huge proponent for supplements including supplements specifically for fat loss because some can have dangerous side effects. The only supplement I think is worth trying to aide in fat loss is caffeine. Caffeine supposedly speeds up our metabolism and allows for more liberation of fat. That being said, refer back to the section that talks about the best fat burner there is, a calorie deficit.
Multivitamins are useful during fat loss due to the fact that we are consuming less food, including fruits and vegetables that contains vitamins and minerals. Taking a multivitamin is a way to supple our bodies with these essentials.
The bottom line of this article is that fat loss comes from a negative energy balance. A low body fat composition is the result of macronutrient arrangement while in a negative energy balance. Just those two concepts is enough to allow for some serious introspection into how to do this fat loss thing.
- High protein, low carb during energy restriction: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22935440/
- Effects of high protein diets on fat free mass: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23739654/
- Muscle mass and BMR: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22516719/
- High protein and muscle mass retention: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23645387/
- Diet breaks & refeeds:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30654501/