I was at work yesterday morning talking to a co-worker about bodyfat testing and all of the reasons why somebody’s results might be sub-par.
For most people, “good” results consist of a lower bodyfat percentage. Although some might also be looking for overall weight loss and some looking for muscle gain, a lower bodyfat percentage is usually the #1 goal.
This means that, in general, you must lose at least as many pounds of fat as pounds of lean mass. If you lose a greater proportion of lean mass, your bodyfat percentage will increase, despite an overall weight loss.
Considering this from an aesthetic point of view, losing equal parts lean and fat mass would be detrimental to your overall appearance. You would end up looking similar, but smaller. The goal should always be to gain or maintain muscle mass, never lose it.
Since we’re talking about fat loss in this post, we’ll assume that maintenance is the goal. Body recomposition is very possible, but also very slow. You can’t ride two horses with one ass (or you must do so very slowly and carefully), so it makes the most sense to decide whether your goal is fat loss or muscle gain and stick to it.
Fat loss isn’t complicated. Yes, there is a little more to it than calories in versus calories out, but it’s not too hard. So when I sat down and thought about all the factors that one needs to take into account when attempting to lose fat, I came up with this equation:
Fat Loss = Caloric Deficit + Adequate Protein Intake + Weight Lifting + Sleep + Stress Management
Fat loss essentially equals five. If you leave out any or all of the pieces that contribute, your fat loss will be a four, three, two, one, or zero.
First off, let me clarify by saying that you can’t just pick any ol’ caloric deficit and expect it to work. An average suggestion for maintenance calories is usually around 15x bodyweight in pounds.
For a deficit, that number becomes 12. In extreme cases, maybe 10. But just the other day, I learned of a 200lb male consuming less than 1,700 calories per day to lose weight.
Here’s a secret; it doesn’t matter what else you’re doing in the fat loss equation, extreme caloric deficits will result in muscle loss and that is not our goal.
In fact, I would start at 13x bodyweight. At least then you give yourself some room to diet down further if need be. For a 130lb female, that would equate to that same 1,700 calories per day that we saw above.
Caloric deficits can be created multiple ways, but here’s the order in which I would attack your lifestyle to achieve it:
- Improve Food Quality – Your food quality should be the first thing to be changed. When you get rid of calorie-laden snacks (granola bars), desserts (ice cream), and drinks (alcohol), you’ll find yourself in a caloric deficit without even adding any exercise to the game.
- Increase Exercise Amount – Exercise is an important part of physical (both internal and external), mental, and emotional health and it should be your goal to move in some capacity every day of the week. You should be sweating somewhere between three and five times per week and you should be recovering at least twice.
- Decrease Food Quantity – If you haven’t seen any weight loss, then you may want to look at portion sizes, even when it comes to “healthy” foods. Items like nuts, guacamole, or oils can add up pretty quickly when it comes to calories, as can red meat and “healthy” carbs. Steak and sweet potatoes are protein-filled and low-glycemic, but they can add up pretty quickly (especially since they’re delicious and often covered in butter).
These rules aren’t set in stone, but it will give you a good idea of the three major ways to create a caloric deficit. #1 snakes out the hidden calories in your diet. #2 and #2 literally force you to move more and eat less.
I wish this was the only piece of the equation, but there’s lots more.
Adequate Protein Intake
As I mentioned in the introduction, part of our fat loss goal is muscle retention. In order to help retain muscle while in a caloric deficit, two things must happen. The first is adequate protein intake.
Protein intake has been studied up toward 600 grams per day (which, for the record, is six pounds of meat) and healthy individuals seem to suffer no side effects other than being ripped.
Protein does a few good things for us:
- Builds muscle and restores amino acids lost to cellular turnover
- Keeps us fuller as compared to most carbs and fats
It is also more thermogenic than carbs or fats, meaning it takes more calories to break the proteins down into amino acids. I’m not sure how statistically significant this difference is, but it’s definitely there and probably makes a greater difference in the long-term versus the short-term.
Anecdotally, there seems to be a negative correlation between high protein diets and body fat levels. The higher the protein, the lower the body fat. Those on fat loss diets also seems to spare a greater amount of muscle mass when consuming higher levels of protein. Reverse that and a low protein diet combined with a caloric deficit seems to lead to greater muscle wasting.
(Heavy) Weight Lifting
The second part of maintaining muscle while trying to lose fat is making sure that we stimulate the muscle that we’re trying to keep! If you don’t use it, you lose it. (That’s a valid saying, right?)
What builds muscle keeps muscle, so weight lifting is imperative to your muscle retention goal. Muscle protein synthesis is stimulated for up to 48 hours post-workout and this creates a pseudo-anabolic environment where we’re rebuilding the muscle we’ve broken down while also losing fat at the same time.
The other benefit of weight lifting is that it’s way less boring than wogging (walking/jogging at the same time) on the treadmill for an hour. Or the stair master. Or the elliptical. Or the bike. Or the rower.
Actually, keep the rower. It’s good for sprints.
Building muscle through lifting is fun. It’s also hard, so don’t worry about becoming “big and bulky.” It takes years of soaring testosterone levels to become bulky.
The trick with weight lifting for fat loss is to continue to lift as if you were trying to put on muscle. Don’t make the mistake of lifting light weights for higher reps so that you’ll burn more calories. Eating less burns more calories.
Sleep is probably the most overlooked piece of fat loss. Do you know when your greatest release of growth hormone is?
While you sleep.
Now I know you’re sitting there reading this all like, “But I don’t want to grow, I just wanted to be ripped like Taylor Lautner.” So just trust me on this one. One of the greatest effects of growth hormone is fatty acid mobilization.
Lack of sleep is also associated with markedly higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone that makes you hungry.
Want to inhibit your fat loss? Don’t sleep.
As a rule, I recommend at least 6 hours of straight sleep, every night. This gives you time to move through approximately four 90-minute sleep cycles. While it may not be ideal, it’s definitely a good place to start. If you really want to give your body composition a boost, try sleeping for anywhere between seven and ten hours, each night.
Not only will your body fat percentage improve, you’ll be more alert during the day, allowing you to work and workout harder and more efficiently.
I was wrong, stress management is undoubtedly the most overlooked component of fat loss.
When you’re stressed, you release hormones like cortisol and, consequently, ghrelin, making you hungry and causing you to seek salvation in the form of sugary, salty goodness. Or wine.
Oftentimes, stress keeps our sympathetic nervous system in the “On” position and prevents us from relaxing and recovering. In turn, we sleep terribly and end up eating more the next day anyway. It becomes a vicious cycle because this leads to more stress about our exercise and diet, beginning the cycle all over again.
Stress can be managed in a multitude of ways, including performing meditation or deep breathing exercises during the day.
Another option is to try and manage your stress-producing activities better. For most, this means turning your phone off periodically and definitely before bed, focusing your work to be more productive during the day, and making sure that when you aren’t working, you aren’t working. Clear your mind once in a while and make sure you spend time doing other things besides working (and make sure you’re actually present).
Is Your Equation Balanced?
If your equation is balanced, your fat loss should be at a 5. If you’re missing one or more pieces, you’re selling yourself short when it comes to body composition.
If you manage each component properly, fat loss should be a breeze.
Don’t try and prioritize these items because they all work together in a web. Only reducing your calories and lifting won’t work if your sleep and stress management aren’t there to help you recover and balance your hormones. Similarly, lifting heavy won’t do much if you caloric deficit contains .07% protein.
Don’t dip your calories too low at first. Start small and leave yourself room for error, so to speak.
But that’s about it. Lift heavy. Reduce your calories a little and eat protein all the time. Sleep a lot and don’t stress too much.
It’s really that simple. It may not always be easy, but it is simple.