More muscle and less fat: improved body composition. Everyone wants it, yet not many get it. Those who don't are often missing the big picture, focusing on little inconsequential things while making some big fat mistakes. Are you?
Mistake 1 – Not Training Often Enough
If you want to look like someone who lifts weights a lot, you need to lift weights a lot.
The more often you ask your body to adapt to a stress, the faster it's going to change. Sure, training two or three times a week can maintain or sometimes increase your strength levels, but from a body composition standpoint, it'll limit your ability to build muscle and lose fat.
This doesn't mean you need to suddenly start training every day of the week. Like most things, you have to slowly build up your training frequency over time. This gives the body time to adapt to the workload without incurring things like overuse injuries. Just add a single day of training to your program for a month. After a month, add another day. You get the idea.
These don't have to be ball-busting training sessions. It can be an arm day or a day where you focus on a weak body part for half an hour. But it will make a big difference in how fast your body composition changes. Bottom line: When you're doing more weight training while eating for your objectives, your body will respond to the stimulus. That means more muscle and less fat.
Mistake 2 – Doing Excess Cardio
You need some type of cardio, but probably not as much as you think. If you do need a lot, then your diet sucks, dummy.
Cardio, whether steady state or interval style, is important in body recomposition. Doing it in moderation in comparison to your weight training is far better than getting crazy with cardio in order to recomp.
Remember that your function will create your form. The more steady-state cardio you do, the more your body will adapt to meet those demands. So over time, you're probably going to look like someone who, well, does a lot of steady-state cardio. Interval training tends to be more anaerobic and can be done in short spurts that boost basal metabolic rate for a good deal of time after the session is over, unlike steady-state cardio.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both. But unless your goal is to look like a jogger, keep the steady state work to a few times a week for 30 minutes a shot. Make sure you're working hardest on your diet in order to get leaner. A few weeks of steady state multiple times a week can get you out of a rut. But more times than not, you probably need to assess your diet instead. If you "have to" do tons of cardio to stay lean, then your diet sucks. Period.
Mistake 3 – Disregarding the Importance of Sleep
Lack of sleep makes you fatter and even leads to muscle loss, regardless of diet.
Since when did not getting enough sleep become a bragging right? "Dude, I only sleep 5 hours a night!" Congratulations. How many times can you hit yourself in the nuts with a hammer before training? Like getting inadequate sleep, it doesn't make you tough, but it certainly affects your efforts in the gym. While you may be able to "function just fine" on a few hours of sleep, doing so still short changes your body composition goals.
In one study, the group of people that slept 8.5 hours a night lost more fat than the group that slept a mere 5.5 hours a night. Additionally, the group that slept less lost significantly more muscle (60%!) than the group that got the full 8.5 hours. Both groups ate roughly the same amount of calories per day. Just another reason why body comp is more complicated than just "calories in versus calories out."
Where do you think your recovery really comes from? Babies tend to do two things after they are born – eat and sleep a lot. Why? Because to grow, the body requires a tremendous amount of rest. So if you aren't getting an adequate amount of sleep, then when are you giving your body the extra time it needs for this process to take place?
Getting the mind and body to relax at night can be a problem. Make sure your circadian rhythm, which is established via dark and light, is functioning normally. When it's dark, your body releases more melatonin. When it's light, it reduces melatonin output and increases appropriate amounts of more excitatory hormones.
The light you expose yourself to can upset the release of natural melatonin by the body, and delay your restful state for sleep. Reduce TV, laptop, and cell phone use in the evenings, unless you're up late reading my articles, and open up the curtains so that your body is awakened by natural sunlight each morning. Morning sunlight exposure will help get your circadian rhythm back in order.
Extra help: If you have trouble turning your brain off at night in order to relax, try a good ZMA® product. And on nights where things are really rough, throw in 1-5 milligrams of melatonin or 2-3 capsules of Z-12™.
Mistake 4 – Not Knowing How Much You're Eating
It's easy to over or underestimate calorie needs. Track calories and macros, at least until you're better at eye-balling portion sizes.
When someone starts dieting – to gain muscle OR lose fat – they often just wing their serving sizes. One of the biggest problems with dieters is that they don't understand how important it is to get their portions and macros correct. How will you know if you're meeting, exceeding, or falling below the necessary intake in order for you to gain muscle or lose fat?
Don't start a diet if you're not going to take the time to weigh and measure your food. Even if your goal is fat loss, if you make the mistake of severely undereating, your dieting efforts will end up backfiring when you cave in and pig out. And calories add up quickly with certain foods. If you use olive oil every day on your veggies or in cooking, then not measuring it could be the single factor in why you aren't losing fat. One tablespoon of olive oil has 119 calories in it. That's not very much, and pouring it out of the bottle for two seconds too long can mean double or triple the calories.
If you're convinced that good fats are important, but you're ignoring total caloric consumption, good luck shedding body fat. I've had clients that found out after measuring their food that they'd been eating upwards of 800 calories more a day than they thought they were.
Spend a few months weighing and measuring your food to know what proper portion sizes look like so that you can eye-ball your serving sizes in the future. You'll be surprised at the difference in how fast your body transforms once you actually dial in your calories and macros correctly rather than winging it.
Mistake 5 – Not Drinking Enough Water
Even mild dehydration kills gym performance. Drinking ice-cold water boosts metabolism.
Sounds painfully obvious. Water is that "one simple trick" that really does play a huge role in fat loss. Water has a thermogenic effect in the body that's been proven to aid in fat loss. In fact, in one study using healthy men and women, consuming 500 mL of ice-cold water increased metabolic rate by about 30% over the course of 40 minutes.
Outside of that, even slight amounts of dehydration (around 2% of bodyweight) can negatively impact your performance. And while most of the data on it has been done on endurance performance, it wouldn't be a reach to say that it's vitally important to be well hydrated for intense weight training sessions.
An easy rule of thumb: Not sure how much to drink? Just go with one ounce per pound of bodyweight a day. Yes, that might be a fair amount of water, but it's better to err on the side of covering your bases rather than being even slightly dehydrated.
Related: 8 Mistakes Men Make With Diet
Related: 10 Mistakes Women Make With Diets
- Boschmann M, Steiniger J, et al. Water-induced thermogenesis.
- Nedeltcheva A, Kilkus, J, et al. Insufficient Sleep Undermines Dietary Efforts to Reduce Adiposity.