We devote a good part of our lives to training. Why? In large part, to look better naked. For most, that means we'll need to lose fat.
This is where most people fail. Very few end up looking spectacular, not because they lack muscle, but because they struggle to get lean enough to show it. To look really impressive shirtless, you don't need pro-bodybuilding levels of muscle mass. You just need to be relatively lean.
Why do people fail? Because they do crazy things, crash, and then return to their old ways.
Here are the most common mistakes I see people make, plus the approach I use with clients... who are able to KEEP their results.
1 – Early and Excessive Caloric Restriction
First let's differentiate between a fat loss blitz and a more traditional approach. The former refers to using extreme measures to lose as much fat/weight as possible in a very short period of time. Normally two to four weeks.
If those measures are sustained for longer, bad things happen: libido drops, hormones levels get messed up, and metabolic adaptations occur that make fat regain likely. Your physical and mental performance will drop significantly too.
This strategy is for extreme situations only. For example, it could be used by an extremely obese person who has to drop as much weight as possible in a few weeks to be allowed to get a surgery more safely. It could also be used by physique competitors at the tail-end of their prep. They might need extreme measures to drop down to the level of body fat that's required for competition.
But most people should use a more gradual approach: spending 8-16 weeks to drop fat without negatively affecting health or well-being.
For the gradual fat loss approach, one of the worst mistakes is to start out too aggressively by cutting calories too much. There is such a thing as metabolic adaptation: after a period on a certain caloric intake, your body will adapt and initiate "countermeasures" that'll make it harder to keep losing fat.
For example, leptin levels will decrease which will increase your hunger and cravings – your body is trying to force you to eat more calorie-dense foods. Lowering leptin will also increase depression symptoms – one of the reasons people feel bad when they diet too hard for too long. Those depression symptoms might lead to "hedonic binge eating" to get a pleasure response and pull us out of that depression state. Decreasing leptin might also lead to a lowered metabolic rate.
The body will also increase ghrelin levels, which will dramatically increase hunger. Again, a strategy used by your body to trick you into eating more to get out of the perceived excessive deficit.
Another aspect is cortisol. Two of the main functions of cortisol are:
- Mobilizing stored energy when you need it
- Increasing blood sugar levels when they're too low
The bigger the caloric deficit (especially if that deficit comes with super-low carbs), the more energy you need to mobilize, and the higher cortisol will be.
High cortisol is bad for muscle mass. So right off the bat it's something you should try to avoid. But chronic cortisol elevation can also affect fat loss. When released at the right time, cortisol is actually a fat loss hormone, but if it becomes chronically elevated it can hurt your fat loss efforts.
Why? Because chronically elevated cortisol levels will lead to a decrease in T3 (a thyroid hormone) levels. And T3 levels play a huge role in how fast your metabolic rate is.
We have two main thyroid hormones: T4 and T3. T3 is the one that has a huge impact on metabolic rate. T4 not so much. The body doesn't produce a lot of T3. It starts by producing T4 and then converts what it feels is "safe and needed" into T3. But chronically elevated cortisol will inhibit the conversion of T4 into T3.
So when cortisol is elevated acutely, then comes back down, it's good for fat loss. But if it's chronically elevated (like in period of excessive caloric restriction) it can decrease your metabolic rate, making it harder to establish a deficit and lose fat.
On top of that, low T3 is associated with low energy. So if it's high for too long, you'll not only have a lowered metabolic rate, but you'll also feel lazy and move a lot less throughout the day, which means you'll expend less energy.
If you're too hasty with caloric restriction, you'll eventually adapt to that level and fat loss will slow down or even stop. And then what are your options? Eat even less? Not smart if you're already at the low end of your needs. Train more? Sure, but your body will adapt there too, and you'll quickly be stuck without a way to keep progressing.
And remember, you'll feel like crap, have cravings, experience depressive symptoms, and feel drained.
The Better Approach
Start with the smallest caloric deficit that'll allow you to lose fat at an acceptable rate (around 2-3 pounds per week for most). As fat loss slows, you'll be able to gradually (key word) lower caloric intake to continue progressing.
2 – Too Much Lifting Volume From The Start
People will use their lifting workout as their primary fat burning tool. They do so by dramatically increasing training volume and density – either by reducing rest periods or using supersets.
This was popularized by Charles Poliquin with his German Body Composition approach, and has been used by many experts to get rapid fat loss in clients.
I'm not saying that it doesn't work. By doing more volume, you'll need more energy to fuel the muscle contractions, which means a greater caloric expenditure. By using shorter rest intervals, you keep adrenaline higher, which also helps burn more calories, even after the workout is done.
I do use this kind of training with body composition clients, but NOT at the beginning of a fat loss plan.
If you start with this approach, you're painting yourself into a corner. Just like if you cut your calories too much too soon, or use fat burners right away. You're pretty much stuck having to keep up with that strategy for the duration of the plan, even making it more intense if you want to keep progressing.
And while the high volume, high-density approach works well, it comes with some drawbacks that make it less than ideal for longer periods of time... like a dramatic increase in cortisol levels.
When it comes to training, several variables can increase cortisol output:
- Volume: The more volume you do, the more energy you need to mobilize, and the more cortisol you release.
- Intensiveness: This is how hard you're pushing each set.
- Psychological Stress: If something creates a mental stress, like a super heavy weight or knowing in advance that you'll suffer, it increases cortisol more.
- Neurological Demands: The harder the brain needs to work, the more adrenaline you release to speed the brain up, the more you release cortisol to trigger that adrenaline increase.
- Density: The shorter the rest, the more cortisol you release to keep adrenaline high.
A high volume/high-density workout where you use big lifts and go to failure (or close to it) is among the highest cortisol-producing workouts you can do. That's fine for a short period of time.
But if you stick with it for too long you'll start to suffer the consequences like lowered testosterone/estrogen levels and a desensitization of the beta-adrenergic receptors. In that last case, it'll mean a dramatic drop in motivation and resilience, as well as physical and mental performance.
The Better Approach
When you begin your fat loss efforts, your training program should be lower in volume and focus more on heavy lifting.
You should also put training efficiency at a premium. For me, that means using a whole-body approach three days per week, using 3-4 big compound movements per session. Then I'll add a fourth workout using isolation exercises to hit the muscles that might've been neglected by the big lifts.
As you progress in the plan, gradually add volume. At the end of the leaning out phase, conclude with one, 3-4 week block where lifting is used as a fat loss tool.
3 – Lots Of Hard Cardio From The Start
While we don't see it as much among hardcore iron-heads (it's more common among general fitness folks as well a competitive physique competitors) it's becoming more common.
Of course, cardio is not the devil. In reasonable amounts it won't eat away your muscles.
In fact, a few studies have found that people who dieted down while doing cardio (no lifting) lost less muscle and more fat than people who dieted down without doing any form of cardio or lifting. Of course, those who also lifted lost even less muscle (no loss or even a small gain).
But the message is that cardio, in acceptable amounts, can help you lose a bit more fat and won't lead to muscle loss.
The problem arises when people do too much "energy systems work" from the start – either too much per session, too many sessions, or going too hard right away. It's similar to what happens when you do too much lifting volume or cut calories too much. The body will eventually adapt and the amount of work you do no longer leads to significant fat loss.
I've worked with a lot of CrossFit participants ranging from normal folks to Games competitors. Even though they were fairly lean, they reached a point where they were no longer getting leaner despite a huge amount of daily physical activity.
I've seen some CrossFit athletes train 2-3 hours per day with fairly short rest periods (CrossFitters have a hard time resting even during heavy work). Yet for the time I've known them (2-3 years) their body compositions stayed the same, at least body-fat wise. In some cases, this happened even with strict eating.
The extreme case was one girl who was a freaky machine. She could bench press 225 pounds, clean and jerk 235 pounds, deadlift 425 pounds and could run a marathon any day.
She trained 2-3 hours a day with WODs and strength work five days a week and would go out running for another 2-3 hours twice a week. One day, as part of a charity event, she trained for 16 hours straight (1000 burpees, 1000 box jumps, 1000 thrusters, 1000 double-unders, 1000 wall-balls, a 1000-calorie row, and a 10 kilometer treadmill run).
She also did marathons, ultra marathons, and those crazy variations where you have to climb a mountain after your Ironman triathlon. Even with all of that work she was far from ripped. Her body comp never really changed.
So while you can't bypass the laws of thermodynamics, the body can adapt to excessive exercise like it does to excessive caloric restriction. Over time, the same amount of exercise has less and less of an effect on fat loss.
If you started out at 60-90 minutes of steady state cardio per day, 5-6 days a week on top of your lifting, where do you go when fat loss stalls? Do you up it to two hours a day on top of your lifting? What then? Add another hour?
First, it's not realistic unless you have no life. But more importantly, the cortisol production would be massive, leading to huge recovery issues, muscle loss, neurological fatigue, problems sleeping, etc. And ironically, chronic cortisol elevation slows down the fat loss process.
When it comes to the quantity of energy systems work, you want to use as little as needed to maintain the adequate fat loss rate: 2-3 pounds per week at first, maybe down to one pound per week once you're lean and are trying to get ripped. You might not even need any cardio at first.
The Better Approach
Don't use the kitchen sink approach. It won't be sustainable. Use the least amount of work and restriction to achieve the proper rate of fat loss. Add work or reduce food intake as fat loss slows down.
As far as the hardcore energy systems work is concerned, understand that those high intensity intervals are a lot more demanding on your body than low intensity cardio, even if its shorter. The level of effort (intensity) is much higher and will raise cortisol and adrenaline more.
On top of that, if you don't have the cardiovascular capacities to do the high intensity intervals without feeling like you're about to die, the stress response is even higher.
A sedentary person, or even a serious lifter who's in poor cardiovascular shape, will do more harm than good by starting with intervals right out of the gate. It's smarter to gradually improve your cardiovascular capacities with steady state cardio and gradually work easier intervals in and later move to hard intervals.
4 – Going Low Carb AND Low Fat
Your body needs an energy substrate and you need to consume it. While protein can technically be transformed into energy, it's a costly and inefficient process. It needs to be turned into glucose by the liver. The problem? Once the body is efficient at turning amino acids into energy, it'll turn your stored proteins (muscle tissue) into energy more easily too.
One of the first things you learn in exercise physiology is that the energy substrate you consume the most will be used the most and used more efficiently by the body. If 60-70 percent of your caloric intake is protein, then your body will become efficient at using protein for fuel and muscle breakdown will increase over time.
The efficient energy substrates? Fats and carbs. During any diet, you want either:
- A sufficient intake of carbohydrates: A protein and carb dominant diet (Ornish)
- A sufficient intake of fats: A protein and fat dominant diet (Keto, Atkins)
- A combination of both: A diet fairly balanced in carbs and fats (The Zone or Mediterranean)
Losing fat is an emotion-driven process. We hate what we see in the mirror and we want that fat gone now! So we tend to be overly aggressive with dieting and many will cut out both carbs and fats.
I can't tell you how many bodybuilders and figure competitors I've seen eat an 800-1200 calorie per day diet consisting of almost exclusively of protein – something like 150-250 grams of protein, 10-15 grams fat, 10-15 grams carbs per day.
I've seen some bigger bodybuilders ingest 300-400 grams of protein per day with no more than the same 10-15 grams of fat and 10-15 grams of carbs.
If you're on steroids it can work... sorta. If by "working" you mean you'll end up looking good but feeling bad. Sure, the steroids will protect their muscle mass, and they may still have energy if they take clenbuterol or ephedrine, which are essentially synthetic adrenaline or act on the same receptors as adrenaline.
But after a few weeks they feel like complete crap. Can't sleep, can't recover, no energy, mood swings, depressive symptoms, etc.
If all you consume is protein, you'll run into trouble. First, because of metabolic adaptation. What do you do when fat loss stalls? You don't have any fat or carbs to cut. All you can take out of your diet is protein. And that won't speed up the fat loss process, or if it does, it'll come with muscle loss.
And no fat intake plus no carb intake is a disaster for your hormone levels, stress management, and psychological well-being.
The Better Approach
You need a decent amount of at least one energy substrate to be functional. Keto is fine (if that's your thing) because true keto is high in fat. Same with a carnivore diet which is higher in protein than keto, but still has 40-60% of the caloric intake from fats.
The traditional low-fat bodybuilding diet is also fine because you have a good amount of carbs in there. The Zone diet, which has around 30-40% protein, 30-35% carbs and 30-35% fats is also a possible option.
You can also spend time in all three approaches and match them to the form of exercise you're doing. More on that in a bit.
5 – Not Measuring Your Food or Workouts
My philosophy during a fat loss phase is to do the minimum (training volume and/or caloric deficit) required to lose fat at an appropriate rate. When fat loss slows, you either increase physical activity or decrease caloric intake.
If you decide to increase physical activity, you can go from 20 minutes of cardio up to 25 minutes. Or add 2-4 work sets to your workout. That's easy to do because you know how much you're doing.
But what about reducing calories? Well, if you don't know how much you're eating, how can you adjust? It's impossible!
It would be like adding 5 minutes of cardio when you have no idea how much you're doing at the moment. Yes, measuring sucks. It's boring and takes time. But from experience, those who measure have higher success rates during fat loss phases than people who don't.
The Better Approach
You need to know how much you're consuming and training in order to know what to adjust. Unless you're psychic, reducing calories or adding another few minutes onto a cardio session is going to be pretty hard without measuring.
Once you start measuring, my approach to making these adjustments is through phases. I normally have clients start with a low-carb and higher-fat phase. Then in their second phase, they use more of a balanced (similar fat and carb level) diet, but with fewer total calories than the first phase. And the final phase is carb-dominant, but still with a slightly lower caloric intake.
The workouts reflect these changes. Think about it, doing a boatload of lifting volume or intervals while in a low-carb phase isn't smart since carbs are a much more efficient fuel for these activities and will help lower the cortisol production from intense forms of training.
Putting It All Together
I use three phases with most clients. Those planning on competing go through a fourth phase, but I won't cover that portion here.
The goal is to improve the body's capacity to use fat for fuel. So you'll actually minimize training that relies mostly on glycogen since you don't want to reinforce the use of that system even more.
Think heavier and lower in volume. It's a "big basics" plan. You do three, whole-body workouts per week, using four multi-joint movements: a squat, a hinge, a press, and a pull.
You want the sets to last 20 seconds or less and to take ample rest between sets (3-4 minutes). This way you'll stick to using mostly the phosphagens for fuel. You'll start with 2-3 warm-up sets, then do 4-6 reps per set for 3-4 work sets per exercise.
You'll also add a fourth training day, a "gap workout" where you only use isolation exercises to target the muscles that might've been neglected during the big basic workouts. For example, maybe you're triceps dominant and your chest doesn't get fully stimulated from a bench press. You might want to do some pec work in the gap workout.
You're allowed 4-6 isolation exercises on that day, so only choose lifts that'll hit muscles that need the direct stimulation. These are done for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps.
It's 2-3 low intensity, steady-state cardio sessions lasting around 20-25 minutes. These would ideally be done separately from the lifting workout. But at that amount, it wouldn't be detrimental to do them after (or even before) your session.
Instead of 2-3 sessions lasting 20-25 minutes, you can do daily walks of 45-60 minutes.
You don't want intervals, sled pushing, or conditioning circuits in this phase. It's a "least mode" not a "beast mode" phase.
It's low carb, higher fat to improve the body's efficiency to use fat for fuel. Keep carbs around the workout (30-45 grams depending on the person). Plazma™ is the best option for this. The rest of the day is protein and fat.
For caloric intake, start at around bodyweight x 12-13 caloric intake. So if you're 200 pounds that means a caloric intake of around 2500 calories per day. If you're leaner you might need to start at 14.
The starting point isn't that important because you'll adjust weekly depending on progression: if you're losing 2-3 pounds per week (after the first week, in which you will have a drop in water weight) keep the same intake. If you lose less than 2 pounds, decrease caloric intake by a factor of one (from 13 to 12 or from 12 to 11). If you lose more than 3 pounds in a week, increase by a factor of one.
Protein should be set at around 1 to 1.25 grams per pound of bodyweight. For a 200 pound individual, that means 200-250 grams of protein. This comes to 800-1000 calories from protein, which would leave you with 1500 calories in fat and carbs.
If you get 45 grams of carbs around your workout and 10-15 grams of trace carbs during the day, this means 200-240 calories from carbs, which leaves around 1300 calories from fat or 145 grams.
You'll increase lifting and energy system work volume and get more into the glycolytic zone of training. The goal is to burn more fuel and train harder.
Because this type of training increases glucose reliance and produces more cortisol, you'll increase carbs. The cool thing with fat loss "periodization" is that you get more and more carbs with each phase. Psychologically it makes it easier because it feels like you aren't dieting as hard. And don't forget that carbs are the best tool to lower cortisol and adrenaline.
We stick to 3 whole-body sessions and one gap workout. The whole-body sessions still use 4 main lifts. The sets are now increased to 8-10 reps per set (similar tempo as phase one) and the rest intervals are decreased to 2-3 minutes. Do 3-4 work sets. You can also add 1-2 isolation movements at the end of your workout.
The gap session is similar in the number and type of exercises, but you can add methods like drop sets and rest/pause sets.
Keep 2-3 cardio sessions here. Ideally you'd do these on the days you're not lifting. Warm up for 5 minutes, then do 5-6 minutes of intervals (15 seconds all out, 45 seconds relaxed) then go into 25-30 minutes of steady-state cardio.
Caloric intake should start at the same level as the last week of phase 1. But now fats are lowered and carbs are increased so that both are equal. Protein is stable at 1 to 1.25 grams per pound.
Let's say that your starting intake for this phase is 2300 calories per day with 250 grams of protein. This leaves you with 1300 calories from carbs and fats. That's 650 calories of each.
That means 650 calories from carbs is around 165 grams, and 650 calories from fat is around 70 grams.
Carbs are to be consumed mostly around workouts and in the evening. I would go 70 grams around the workout and 70 grams in the evening with the remaining as trace carbs throughout the day.
This is the "beast mode" phase! You pull out all the stops and try to lose as much additional fat as you can in 3-4 weeks.
The training changes a bit and can go to something similar to German Body Composition where you do 3 whole-body workouts per week. You superset one upper body and one lower body exercise, and you have a total of three of these supersets per workout (so 6 total exercises).
You'd increase the reps per set to 10-12; the number of sets per exercise is 3-4. The rest intervals are roughly 30-45 seconds between the first and second exercises in a superset and 90-120 seconds between sets.
In the fourth weekly workout you have two options. You can keep up with your gap workout or you can do a conditioning session, like sled work, strongman medleys, etc. The decision depends on if you want to focus on even more fat loss or improving one muscle slightly.
You still do 2-3 cardio days (on the non-lifting days). But now you use 30/30 intervals (30 seconds all-out, 30 seconds relax) for 6-8 minutes, followed by 25-30 minutes of steady state cardio. On top of that you add roughly 20 minutes at the end of the lifting workouts.
Start at the same caloric intake as the last week of the preceding phase (remember that you adjust caloric intake every week during a phase, based on progression). Since the volume is higher in this phase, we don't need to lower the calories right away.
However, we now minimize fats to increase carbs more. This helps us with the higher training volume.
Let's say that the starting caloric intake is 2200 calories per day with 250 grams of protein, leaving you with 1200 calories per day from fats and carbs (combined).
You'd bump carbs to 70% of that 1200 while fat is 30%. That means 840 calories from carbs, which is 210 grams per day. And 360 calories from fats, which is 40 grams per day.
For the carbs, you'd still consume a large proportion around the workout and in the evening (I always put carbs when we need to lower cortisol and adrenaline the most). Around 70-80 grams at each of these two occasions. We also add carbs to the meal following the workout, roughly 40 grams in the example, and the rest are trace carbs at the other meals.
Keep in mind that these would be adjusted weekly based on progression.
The purpose of this plan is to use each phase to not only lose fat but also to prepare yourself for the next phase. And by adding carbs gradually, the whole period is much easier psychologically and will also allow you to recover better from your training and sleep better.