Ask a random person starting any new exercise regime or starting a new ‘diet’ what their main motivation is and there is a high chance that you will be hit with something along the lines of:
‘I want to… lose weight’
‘… tone up‘
‘… lose belly fat / love handles / jiggly arms / etc…‘
Any of the above responses are a fine goal when entering a gym or lacing up a pair of trainers to take on something like couch to 5k. But, what most people are trying to say is that their main goal is ‘Fat Loss’.
However, when speaking to many within my circle of family and friends, there is still confusion about how to go about fat loss.
I mentioned in my first post that I have had several ‘fat phases’ in my life both in childhood and adulthood. I would not have classed myself as obese, but I was certainly overweight and carrying a few more kegs than I felt comfortable with.
My last ‘fat phase’ was as recent as 2018. I suffered an ACL injury in 2014 and, after a half-arsed attempt at rehab, a full ACL rupture and meniscus tear in 2016! This coupled with having the completely wrong priorities and not changing my eating or drinking habits meant I packed on more body fat than I was comfortable with.
I was also completing a part time master’s degree alongside work so a consistent and thought-out physical activity programme came second to studying. In hindsight, I could have maintained an exercise regime quite easily; I was just trying to maintain my unhealthy habits picked up during University and my early 20s. Any time I was not studying, I was trying to maintain some kind of pub life to have a ‘good time’ because that is what we do in Britain, right? In reality and due to being an athletic and sporty kid growing up, I did not adjust well to my new found sluggishness.
Making a commitment to studying part-time makes you realise that you definitely have more time in a day than you realise. So, when I was done, I made the decision to commit to something else: analysing my eating habits, commit to a properly thought out gym programme, and look and feel more like the person I was when I started Uni.
My two main priorities were:
- Strength and muscle (including maintaining rehab for my knee)
- Lose Fat / Cut / get shredded
The rest of this post will focus on how I went about this and outline certain tips and things that I leaned that helped me achieve these goals in my situation! This will not be a step by step guide to how to lose body fat. Again, without knowing you, your history, or your situation, I cannot prescribe you a cookie-cutter exercise regime or diet that will help you reduce body.
No one can.
If someone says they can, they are a bullshitter.
Right, onwards and upwards.
The Calorie Deficit!
There is only one be all and end all when it comes to fat loss and that is: calorie deficit. That is, your body is burning more calories than it consumes through feeding.
This is the only universal truth when it comes to fat loss.
This is achieved by either:
a) eating less (goes against my name, I know!)
b) moving more (exercise)
c) a mixture of both but paying attention to your own personal circumstances (the ideal)
- Eating smarter!
- Moving smarter!
I went with option c).
How this is achieved is up to the individual, their goals, and their environment.
There is no one-stop shop despite what many will try and say to you. I will touch on this throughout.
I did not follow any of the popular ‘diets’ out there. For some reason, diet and nutrition has landed in a place of zealotry like politics and football teams.
Keto, low carb, intermittent fasting, vegan, carnivore, paleo, atkins, weight watchers, slimming world etc… are all diets I am sure you have heard of and all have their groups willing to step up to the plate and declare them the holy grail of diet and fat reduction.
The truth is: they will all work as long as the individual maintains the caloric deficit. If one works for you and you can sustain it, then congrats. Power to you.
However, there is also a popular belief among many that ‘diets’ such as these do not work, that the person will ultimately regain any ‘weight’ lost. This is somewhat backed up by research.
I believe this is the classic ‘yo-yo dieting’ culture I am sure many of you are familiar with. It is not that the diet ‘didn’t work’, more that the individual did not consider cementing new habits and lifestyle changes that lead to maintaining their ‘weight’ loss.
Many of these diets are prescriptive in nature and will not take into account an individual’s personal life circumstances; and/or they are restrictive in the types of food that one may eat whilst following the diet.
This leads to two things:
- People do not develop the skills to plan their own eating as they have been told what to eat with no considerations to their food preferences
- People have restricted their food intake to include/not include some foods which can lead to anxiety about certain foods or eventual binging on their favourite foods because they have avoided them
Taking this into account, I made the decision to sit back and take a look at my current diet at the time. How could I adjust my current habits and food intake towards a food plan that would aid fat loss? How could I then sustain this?
Now, I will say that I always tended to steer towards your more traditionally ‘healthy’ foods anyway. I ate meat, veggies, fruits, grains, dairy and occasional treats. No food group was completely off the menu – except brussels sprouts!
However, after some tracking, I confirmed a suspicion of mine that I had held for a long time: I was simply eating too many calories.
Fortunately for me the fix was quite straight forward: I had to track my calories.
I did this using MyFitnessPal but other trackers/food diaries are available (unless MyFitnessPal wants to throw some ca$h this way ;)).
The next step was to buy a set of scales and, for the next three or so months, I stuck to weighing every ingredient I was using in my food preparation. I also adhered (mostly) to the recommend portion sizes on manufacturers labels.
My food choices remained roughly the same. What changed dramatically was the sizes of the portions I was eating. For example, I would weigh out 10-15g of peanut butter (instead of the subjective “tablespoon”) on toast. Or I would have one slice of toast (instead of two) with two eggs.
There were times when I thought ‘I can eat more than that’ and in all honesty, I could have definitely eaten bigger portions of many meals. But the hard pill to swallow is this: you do not need to eat that much food! It is well known that individuals tend to underestimate the amount of calories they have eaten. As such, weighing out my portions was probably the biggest contributor to my fat loss.
More often than not, sticking to the planned portion sizes left me satiated. But then there were times that I felt hungry.
Obviously, there were times I had to opt out of a doughnut at work, turn down another beer, or swap pringles for a carrot. This goes without saying.
But there were also times I was able to say yes to these things and was able to work around them as they still fit in to my overall calorie intake for a period.
There is a need for a sense of willpower and self-control in this process.
And unfortunately it can feel hard.
But then at times it also felt easy when I gathered some momentum and witnessed some decent progress.
The key is being as consistent as is possible over time. Such is life.
The only other nutritional ‘target’ I kept was to have a high protein intake to support muscle growth, retention (weight loss plan) and strength. I aimed for at least 1.5g/kg of protein per day depending on how the day was going eating/training wise. Anything higher does not necessarily lead to any further gains(z) and it is pretty situation specific anyway (e.g. more for strength and endurance sports). I found it worked and I hope my progress photo shows that.
After three months or so, I witnessed some pretty dramatic progress (as seen above) and had developed some mindful management of my food intake. I now see food prep as a life skill as much as financial management (that took some work too :|). Like any other skill, it can be learned through consistent and disciplined practice. Enough practice and it becomes second nature, think: riding a bike, swimming, learning a language etc….
I no longer need to weigh or track everything I eat because I can sort of guesstimate my caloric intake. However, I still weight out things like pasta, rice and nuts (very important – they’re sneaky f*****s!) as it is easy to overdo these.
Alan Aragon is a decent follow on Twitter and sums up a lot of this stuff quite nicely (I am still working on nr 4).
This was the easy part for me. I have for most of my life been involved in some form of sport or fitness regime. Albeit less so as I left University and entered the world of work.
New responsibilities, priorities, and goals combined with a perception of less available time resulted in me following a physical activity programme that was sporadic at best. I say ‘perception’ because I did have the time to fit something in; I was just prioritising other things and using it as an excuse to give myself.
Have a look at your day. You are probably doing the same thing.
The key to unlocking an active life was taking part in any sport, recreation, or training that I found enjoyable. The more I enjoy it, the more likely it is I would want to prioritise this over, say, watching another episode of something shit on Netflix, or lying in bed for an extra hour even though I am awake.
Fortunately for me, I love going to the gym and lifting for weights. I am also a very keen runner. Sorted.
For you, this may be very different. If you honestly cannot stand a certain mode of exercise, then why put up with it*? Find anything active that you enjoy: a team sport, tennis, hiking, running, yoga, Pilates, rowing, skipping, surfing, swimming, cycling, weightlifting, powerlifting, kettlebells, CrossFit, Zumba… the list is endless. As long as it avoids sedentary behaviour then you are good to go.
*A quick caveat, something being hard is not a good enough reason to avoid it.
Saying that, I am a firm believer that everyone will benefit from following some form of resistance training. Especially, if your goal is fat loss. A good resistance programme (weights or bodyweight) will aid in maintaining (and even increasing) your muscle mass and strength.
I will also say the same for taking part in a form of cardiovascular activity due to the plethora of benefits attributable to it.
My goals, as stated above, were:
- Strength and muscle (including maintaining rehab for my knee)
- Lose Fat / Cut / get shredded
Much like my approach to diet, I had to seriously think about my current life situation and how I could adjust my current daily routine to achieve my goals.
I also used my Garmin watch to track my calorie expenditure. Fitness trackers are not 100% accurate when it comes to calories burned during a session, but having a ball park figure allowed me to maintain a sensible approach to feeding before and re-fueling after training. If I did not make any progress, then it was obvious I needed to make a slight adjustment to my eating.
My gym routine went from one or two random sessions a week, often missed due to other ‘commitments’, to 3-5 structured sessions a week. I had some experience of planning out training programmes but a read of Starting Strength, 5/3/1, Stronglifts and a host of other beginner** material really helped in scheduling and gearing my sessions towards quality strength training.
** Yes, even though I had 10 years’ experience of working out, I had to leave my ego at the door and consider myself a beginner again.
Sessions were based around full body movements (squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, pull ups, bent over rows etc…) working at submaximal intensities and aiming to overload these movements during set training block durations.
See a below example of my ‘Deadlift’ sessions progression:
In addition to weights, I was performing one or two dedicated ‘HIIT’ sessions on a treadmill. A good resource I found was Redzone Running on Instagram. These guys are sports scientists who base their sessions on scientific research.
Here are a couple of examples:
Please note that whilst I do consider that HIIT to be a valuable training modality, I would air on the side of caution if you are a beginner as there is an increased risk of injury . If you are just starting out, the best approach is to carry out some low intensity sessions and gradually build the intensity as you become accustomed to training stress.
You can get a very good calorie burn from walking briskly for half an hour plus. Add some hills (even a treadmill on an incline) and you have a very good cardio session that induces minimal stress on the body. Which leads me to my next point…
I walked everywhere. I cannot stress enough how much this benefitted me.
Fortunately, I lived 2 miles from my place of walk. I used this opportunity to skip the bus and walk home.
On top of my walk home, I would insist on a 10-15 minute walk during lunch.
I would always take the stairs over an escalator.
If I was on a bus, I would get off one or two stops early and walk the rest of the journey.
I would trot to the shops instead of taking the car.
After an afternoon/evening in the pub, I would walk home (please be very alert/cautious if you are doing this alone at night!).
When my training focus shifted following this part of my life (kettlebells, 5k time trial, and an ultramarathon), I was still walking.
When the pandemic hit and I had to change up my training quite drastically, one thing remained: aiming to walk around an hour every day in total (can be broken up).
I honestly think it was the biggest contributor to my fat loss (equal to weighing my food portions). It is no wonder that so many armed forces have rucking exercises within their arsenal of training modalities.
My fat loss journey was about finding what would work for me in the long term. This will be the same for any athlete, fitness influencer or Hollywood star you can think of. They may have the £millions to throw at nutritionists, chefs, trainers etc… but the principles they follow will mainly be the same.
Find a way to be mindful about your food intake and learn how to prepare and follow a meal plan that includes the foods you enjoy whilst having some thought on your fitness / health goals. Consistent repetition will solidify these new behaviours.
Choose a range of physical activity that you will be motivated to choose over living a sedentary life.