If you're carrying a little more fat than you'd like right now and you've got something coming up – a vacation, a photoshoot, a Tinder date – we've got you covered.
Here's some advice from five fitness experts who know a thing or two about fat loss and physique transformation.
The devil is in the details, and those details have a lot to do with cortisol. When you resort to extreme measures to get lean, like massive caloric restriction or cutting out all carbs and training like a madman, you'll quickly be in a state of chronic cortisol elevation.
An appropriate amount of cortisol is good. More than that will have the opposite effect on your physique. This is why it's tricky.
When you're in a caloric deficit, you'll produce more cortisol. The greater that deficit is, the more cortisol you'll produce. Why? Because you need to mobilize more energy from stored glycogen or fat.
And while we often think of cortisol as a muscle-munching hormone (it can be), it's actually required for many key functions, like fat loss. Aside from mobilizing energy, it helps us maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Cortisol also increases adrenaline. It's a stress hormone that puts your body in the best physiological state to fight or flee when faced with danger. When you train, you produce cortisol, which increases adrenaline, which increases drive, motivation, strength, speed, coordination, and endurance.
So you can't train hard without cortisol. And the more (or harder) you train, the more you produce.
But too much cortisol can negatively affect how your body looks: first by breaking down muscle tissue and second by causing water retention. That water retention will make you look "fatter" even if you're carrying less fat. Excess cortisol also makes it harder to replenish muscle glycogen, making your muscles appear smaller and flatter.
By trying too hard to look great, you can end up making yourself look worse. So let's ask some experts how to get around that.
If a lifter had just four weeks to look his best (and he was desperate), what would you have him do?
My prescription would be to diet for 20 out of the 28 days. It would be four cycles of seven-day phases. Each phase would look like this:
- You'd go five consecutive days in a caloric deficit of 40%. You'd only be eating 60% of the calories you normally do to maintain.
- You'd then go two consecutive days at maintenance calories. You'd increase calories using carbohydrates – this will help maintain muscle mass.
- On all days, your protein intake would be one gram per pound of bodyweight. This will help maintain muscle mass.
The exercise program would be:
- Lift six days per week with the intention of not reducing the intensity even though calories are lower. This will help maintain muscle mass.
- Do low-intensity aerobic exercise six days per week.
This strategy is similar to a fat loss research study (1) that I published last year. Using this type of plan (two-day carb refeeds) enabled us to maintain muscle mass and metabolic rate better than not using refeeds. – Bill Campbell, PhD
When you're short on time and trying to look great naked, fat loss will only take you so far. You also need strategic physique development focused on creating the most dramatic visual impact.
How? By emphasizing the muscles that'll give you a more obvious V-taper, accentuating broad shoulders and a narrow waist: traps, delts, lats, and even forearms.
You'll be rowing every time you hit the gym. By dramatically increasing training frequency, you'll shock muscles into growth that have been previously trained only one or two times per week.
By increasing frequency, you'll prime your muscles to pull in more stored muscle glycogen due to the increased metabolic stress. As an ancillary benefit, you'll help unwind the damage of unbalanced training and poor posture.
To prevent overuse, you need to vary the intensity of your rowing. Once or twice per week, perform heavy barbell-based back work like deadlifts, Pendlay rows, or bentover rows for 4 sets of 4-8 reps.
Twice per week, do row variations in the classic hypertrophy range, like 3 sets of 8-12 reps. Here's a quick look at some of my favorites:
Single-Arm Landmine Row
Split-Stance Dumbbell Row
Finally, use two to three metabolic-based muscle builders. These are high-rep training methods meant to maximize metabolic stress. These are going to be less stressful on your joints and CNS:
One and a Half Rep Inverted Row
10-6-10 Chest-Supported Rows
Hat tip to Paul Carter for the 10-6-10 method. By using a 10-second isometric hold, you dramatically increase the metabolic stress and mind-muscle connection with your traps, lats, and rhomboids. The "6" is for 6 reps with a 6 second eccentric/negative. The final "10" is for ten partial reps.
Fat loss is obviously crucial when it comes to looking great naked. But if you're running low on time, shift your training to beef up your lats, traps, and delts. This will help you look leaner and bigger at the same time. – Eric Bach
There are 12 things you can do to get you some pretty fast results:
1 Think of this period as three blitz weeks.
You can use extreme measures to get leaner for three weeks – not four. The week before your goal date should be less dramatic.
Why? In three weeks, you'll begin to show signs of chronic cortisol issues. If you were to continue doing this for one more week, things would go backward, and you'd look like crap. By easing up on the last week, you'll reduce cortisol, flush the water retention, and fill up muscle glycogen to look bigger.
2 For the blitz weeks, cut all carbs except for around your workouts.
Get 50-100 grams of carbs around your workouts, depending on your size and the volume of the workout. This will give you more fuel and help you recover faster. It'll also decrease cortisol. I'd have 25-50 grams pre-workout and another 25-50g post-workout. Plazma™ is best, especially for the pre-workout carbs.
3 Set your caloric intake to around 10-11 calories per pound of bodyweight.
That's a pretty solid deficit, especially with a low carb intake. It's not a level I'd normally recommend, but it'll be okay for three weeks.
4 Set your protein intake at around 1.25 grams per pound of bodyweight.
5 Get the rest of your calories from fat.
Let's imagine a 200-pound man. That would be around 2000 to 2200 calories per day with (for example) 100 grams of carbs (400 calories). He ingests 250 grams of protein per day (1000 calories).
Protein + carb calories equals 1400 (400 + 1000) which leaves us 600-800 calories from fat. At 9 calories per gram of fat, that's roughly 66-88 grams of fat.
6 During the three-week blitz, consume a lot of sodium.
A good 5-6 grams per day, maybe even more if you're a bigger person who sweats a lot. Why? Because a higher sodium intake when you're on a low-carb diet will keep your muscles fuller and your contractions better. Reduce sodium on the last week.
7 Drink as much water as humanly possible in the first three weeks (and for most of the last week).
Here's a water manipulation plan for the final days: Shredded in 6 Days.
8 Lift four days a week.
And if you're desperate, do two-a-days: cardio and abs in the morning and lifting in the early evening. You don't want to lift too late or you'll spike cortisol.
I don't recommend using the lifting workouts to stimulate fat loss. Use them to maintain your muscle mass. Train the same way you would to build muscle. Don't fall into the trap of doing more volume. Use the cardio workouts to lose fat.
9 For the cardio, vary things daily.
The more variation you have, the less your body becomes efficient at that type of work. That means you'll burn more energy. (The more efficient you are, the lower the caloric expenditure for the same task.) I'd rotate through steady state, intervals, and higher intensity metcons like Prowler pushing, farmer's walks, etc.
10 Take at least 10,000 steps per day, not counting the workout.
11 On the non-lifting days, do steady-state cardio and abs in the morning.
Do this flexing "workout" in the afternoon.
12 The last week should be about doing everything you can to look your best.
It should not be about trying to be even more drastic to squeeze out a few more drops of fat from your adipocytes. You want to lower cortisol so that you flush out water retention and get your muscles fuller. – Christian Thibaudeau
To get in the best shape possible in such a short period of time, pull the levers you know will have the biggest return on investment: calorie management, strategic strength training, movement, and quality sleep.
Start by prioritizing movement. More overall movement equals more caloric output throughout the day. This can be as easy as moving around more throughout the day and accumulating more steps.
Nutritionally, increase the consumption of nutrient-dense foods and focus on staying hydrated. As you reduce calories, keep the food quality high to supply your body with what it needs to perform at a high level while in a caloric deficit.
Evenly distribute protein between meals and focus carbohydrate consumption around training and before bed if necessary for restful sleep.
Use high-quality fats in meals that are low in carbs. This will help with dietary compliance by reducing decision fatigue. Create a meal plan to keep you on track and maintain adherence leading up to the event.
Train hard, recover harder. Sleep will help with recovery, performance, adherence, improved hormone regulation, and body composition. Make it a priority.
Train with a high frequency, use a tension-based approach and ramp up the volume. Keep the split to no more than five days per week.
Rotate through a three-day body part split (hitting chest and back one day, legs the following day, and then delts and arms). Then repeat. Do 3-4 exercises per muscle group within an 8-12 rep range. Focus on technique, time under tension, and controlling the movements. – Austin Current
Increase your overall work capacity. This will put an increased demand on recovery, so in the same breath I'd also recommend incorporating more recovery strategies and making sure your entire caloric intake is made up of quality stuff.
Push energy-dense stuff down and nutrient-dense stuff up. Pretty simple, really. – Phil Learney
- Campbell BI et al. Intermittent energy restriction attenuates the loss of fat-free mass in resistance-trained individuals. A randomized controlled trial. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol
. 2020 Mar 8;5(1):19. PubMed.