I have written this article from a woman’s point of view to help other women but the principles remain the same for everyone and men need only add more calories to my example figures as necessary to use the same plan.
The way I see it a successful fat loss program should have four main components these being:
A clear goal
A sensible weight-training program
A clean diet
Cardiovascular exercise (lots of!)
The first two I shall only touch on briefly –
Ø Before you start your program it is imperative that you write down what you are wanting to achieve over the next 12 weeks otherwise its like trying to play darts with a blind fold on – what’s the point if you can’t see the target? Your goal should be measurable and specific e.g. By the 30th June I have lost 5lbs of fat, my body fat is 18% and I fit into my old jeans from last year. Or you could use your ideal measurements to work towards. I suggest you write your goals down and read them as often as possible to ingrain it into your subconscious, which controls all your actions. It sounds silly and tedious but it is a very important part of the process. At times when you feel tempted to stray off the path remember your goals and visualise yourself as the person you are becoming and don’t dwell on where you are now.
Ø I shall assume you already have a sound weight-training program in place, with a two or three day split being the most common choice. Weights and cardio work synergistically together to reduce body fat levels and both are as important as each other. Never be tempted to skimp on the weights in favour of more cardio, as the muscle mass you obtain from lifting weights is what indirectly causes fat loss through increase in metabolism. Muscle is also aesthetically pleasing and will fill you in and slim you down in all the right places without giving you the dreaded ‘bulky’ look. Women have only a tenth of the amount of testosterone that men have and therefore it is virtually impossible for us to build substantial amounts of muscle without the use of steroids so don’t use the fear of getting bulky an excuse for not doing weight training (and I mean weight training not feebly pushing around that 500g dumbbell).
Right now onto the nitty gritty of diet and cardio. Here are a few general pointers:
Ø It is much safer to use only a small calorie deficit as this will prevent your body from going into starvation mode and slowing down your metabolism, which is the last thing you want. A good range to start with is about 15-20% reduction off your maintenance calories. The easiest way to start is to track your normal calorie intake over 3 days to get an idea of your current intake. Use the average as your figure then subtract 15-20% from that to get your new daily intake amount.
Ø It is more effective to exercise more than to eat less. Many people fall into the trap of thinking they can get away with not doing any exercise but just eating less and losing weight that way, which will work up until a point when your metabolism simply shuts down. Exercising has the added advantage of increasing your metabolic rate, creating a calorie deficit without eliciting the starvation response, improving your cardiovascular and pulmonary health, increasing your body’s amount of fat burning enzymes and hormones and increasing insulin sensitivity. If you then combine this with frequent meals (at least 5 a day), which in itself increases thermogenesis, you can now eat more and still lose fat. Nice.
Ø Before you begin your program it is wise to establish your starting point so you know exactly where you are in relation to where you want to be, afterall using a street map would be pointless if you knew where you wanted to go but didn’t have a clue where you were at the time! So make a spreadsheet or similar and take your initial assessment noting down starting weight, body fat (I recommend callipers as the most accurate method), waist and thigh measurements and any other you feel necessary. A before photo also does wanders to overcome inertia! Remember to keep your results comparable by weighing and measuring yourself at the same time of day & in exactly the same areas and same side of the body otherwise your accuracy will be down e.g. first thing every Friday morning on an empty stomach. Consistent measurements taken religiously will be your best indicator of how the program is working for you – remember you never fail you simply get feedback. If you didn’t lose any fat this week then that’s fine as now you know not to repeat what you’ve just done but to tweak something and conversely if its not broken don’t fix it!
Ø Decide beforehand exactly what you want the outcome of the program to be and create an action plan, then all you need is consistency in your daily schedule to get you there. You must be prepared to analyse and change your program on a weekly basis to keep you steered in the right direction.
Ø Slow and steady wins the race – losing more than one or two pounds a week is probably not a good thing as much more than this is usually an indicator of muscle loss which we want to keep as negligible as possible and the slower the rate of fat loss the more likely it is to stay off permanently.
There are many schools of thought on cardio but as we know fat loss is very simply burning more calories than you consume therefore for this program we are looking at the most efficient ways of burning the most calories in our allotted time.
Ø Forget about the low intensity long duration cardio – it simply doesn’t burn a substantial amount of calories to be of much use and to add insult to injury it hardly raises your metabolism either. Intensity must be kept high to be effective and maintained for long enough to burn enough calories and create a high EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption), which will increase your metabolism for some hours after you have stopped exercising. The ideal range is somewhere between 75-85% of your predicted maximum heart rate (220-your age) so for example if you are 21 you would look to be working between 149 and 169 bpm but do what feels right for you – if 169 genuinely feels pretty easy to you then try bumping it up a bit or if you are new to exercise and are struggling at 150bpm then bring it down and work up gradually. You will learn to read your body and find your natural range after a few weeks where you perform your best.
Ø As much as I am an advocate of HIIT training (see my other article on this subject) you will burn more calories going at a steady pace at 85% MHR for 40mins than you would doing an HIIT session for 25mins even after factoring in the EPOC caused by the HIIT. Both methods can however be incorporated, for example I may do a 20min HIIT workout followed by a further 20mins of steady cardio at around 80% MHR which will still burn a large amount of calories but giving you the best of both worlds.
Ø For maximum fat loss I suggest you do cardio sessions for around 35-45mins duration and never ever more than an hour if you really must go for so long as it then becomes self-defeating as you increase the risk of injury, over training and catabolism. If longer sessions are required then it would be better to do 40mins in the morning then an additional 30mins or so in the evening, which has the added advantage of a double boost to the metabolism.
Ø Frequency is up to you but ideally should be 5-7 days a week but it is better to build up to this amount slowly e.g. if you currently do 30mins 3 days a week then next week do 4 days at 35-40mins each etc. Remember however that more is not always better and you only need to do as much as you need to – if you lose fat with only 4 days of cardio then that’s great, no need to do more, but if your body type requires it daily cardio could be the only way to get truly lean. Again it pays to be perceptive to your body’s signals.
Ø I personally think cardio first thing in the morning is the best way to start your day as the boost in metabolism will not be shut down by sleep like when you do it in the evening and slightly lower glycogen stores will help err the fuel burning more to the fat side of things. I have a whey protein shake with glutamine before and after exercising to minimise any catabolic effects.
Ø Many people fear losing excess muscle from doing lots of cardio but if your diet is sufficient this should not be too much of a problem. If you do find you are losing too much muscle then reduce your session time to 30mins and increase your calories slightly.
Whether you want to admit it or not if you are ‘doing everything right’ and still not losing weight then its probably your diet that needs to be cleaned up – never underestimate the strictness required to become very lean, its not as easy as it looks!
Ø Remember that too much of ANYTHING will be stored as fat regardless of how healthy it is or isn’t.
Ø On the other hand a small amount of anything will not likely be stored as fat as long as you are still in a calorie deficit.
Ø Beware of eating too much in one sitting. Your body only requires x amounts of calories to see it through the next 3-hour period and if you greatly exceed that amount chances are they will be adding to your storage tanks hence the small frequent feedings outlined in all good fitness programs. If you only take in just slightly less calories than what your body requires for any 3 hour time span then you will have still provided your muscles with an amino acid pool to be maintained with or for growth but you can still be drawing on your fat stores for some energy. Balanced meals will also keep insulin levels in check which allows maximum fat burning as all fat oxidation is suppressed in the presence of high blood insulin levels.
Ø A common trick to aid fat loss is to taper your carbs as the day goes along so for example you would have starchy complex carbohydrates in meals 1-3 then protein, healthy fats and fibrous carbs (vegetables) for the remainder of the day.
Ø Avoid fat storing meal combinations for example fat and sugar is disastrous as the sugar raises your insulin levels which is your storage hormone at the same time when you have lots of fatty acids running around in your blood so they all get mopped up into your fat cells before you can say doughnuts! Another bad combination is sugar and alcohol as alcohol is a toxin and so your bodies first priority is to remove it and thus putting everything else on hold which usually means more fat storage. If you are serious about losing fat then all alcohol should be kept to a bare minimum if not cut out completely. (Sorry!)
Ø Carb Cycling
Carb cycling is probably one of the most effective tools you can use for losing fat quickly and effectively. You get all the benefits of a low carb diet without all the associated side effects the most notable one being keeping your metabolism high and not slipping into starvation mode. Other benefits to lower carb diets are that they tend to be more thermic because of the higher protein component (30% of the calories from protein are used just in the process of digestion and assimilation), insulin levels tend to be more controlled allowing more fat burning and the reduction in water retention makes you look more defined. One of the problems with very low carb diets is that the body becomes very efficient at burning fat as a fuel (this is referred to as being in ketosis) so when carbs are reintroduced back into the diet your body doesn’t know what to do with them anymore so you tend to gain weight back very quickly. The good thing about cycling your carbs is that through the constant depletion and reloading of your glycogen stores your body becomes very efficient at utilizing dietary carbohydrates for muscle glycogen replenishment in favour of fat storage – a kind of grab it while you can situation. You also will not suffer from low energy levels as you take in enough carbs to keep you going with a big boost every 4th day, which also makes the diet easier to stick to. A hormone called leptin in your body is responsible for the way your body regulates its fat stores and is often found in low amounts in chronic dieters. These low levels may contribute to increased hunger and a slower metabolism, which leads to weight gain. Purposeful refeeds as used here help to keep leptin levels at an optimal level so your rate of fat loss does not drop due to this factor.
An example of a cycle you could use is to do 3 low carb days (around 90-130g) followed by a carb up day on the 4th (200-250g) then repeat the cycle. It is important to never do more than 3 low carb days in a row as any longer than this and you run the risk of going into starvation mode and having a frequent high day also makes you more likely to stick to your eating plan without being tempted to binge. If you are to have a cheat meal then have it on one of your high days. You should alter your nutrient ratios slightly depending on the day though protein should never go below 1g per lb of bodyweight. For example on your low days you may have something like this:
Typical woman – 1400 cals
45% protein = 630 cals = 157g
30% carb = 420 cals = 105g
25% fat = 350 cals = 39g
Then for your high day this will change to:
30% protein = 810 cals = 135g
50% carb = 900 cals = 225g
20% carb = 360 cals = 40g
So your fat intake will remain roughly the same but your proteins and carbs will vary. These are only example figures and you should adjust them according to your stats. Never under any circumstance drop below 1200 cals a day as this will slow your metabolism down to a crawl and do more harm than good. 1400 is about as low as I would go in general.
On your low days use the taper method I mentioned above so a typical day for you might look something like this:
Meal 1 – Oatmeal, protein powder and a small portion of fruit
Meal 2 – Oatmeal, low fat cottage cheese, small fruit if desired
Meal 3 – Chicken breast, small sweet potato, broccoli
Meal 4 – Tuna, large mixed salad, flaxseeds/oil
Meal 5 – Turkey breast with stir-fried veg, flaxseeds/oil
Meal 6 – Slow released protein e.g. casein
On your high day include carbs in every meal. If you find yourself losing weight too quickly then either increase your calories slightly or have 2 high days in a row.
At some time or another it is quite possible that you will run into a wall so here are a few tips to scale it instead of banging your head against it:
Ø Refocus on your goals, why they are important to you and if necessary write them out again. Look forward to where you are going and not mull over your current position.
Ø Fat loss may be simple but it’s not easy! You may need to increase the amount of work you are doing e.g. if you are training for 30mins then increase it to 40mins
If you are working at 155bpm then increase your intensity to 165bpm
If you train 3 times a week make that 4 times a week
If you currently have 3 cheat meals a week drop that to 2
Say you typically burn 450cals in a cardio session and you do that 3 times a week that’s 450 x 3 = 1350cals
But what if you increase that to 6 times a week?
450 x 6 = 2700cals
You’ve just doubled your fat loss!
Then maybe you increase your intensity so instead of 450cals you are now burning 550cals in a session.
550 x 6 = 3300cals
See how easy it is to burn those calories?
Ø Increase the frequency of exercise
Ø Increase the duration of exercise
Ø Increase the intensity of exercise
Ø Change the type of exercise you do to prevent adaptation and over training e.g. one day do a high impact activity like running then do rowing the next to give your joints a rest. Be creative and include as many different types of training as possible e.g. long bike rides, outdoor hilly runs, cardio circuits, skipping etc
Ø Make better food choices like cutting out all processed and refined carbs and eating all foods in their natural state.
Ø Make sure your calories aren’t too low – you may need to eat more to lose more.
Ø Include HIIT in your cardio workouts
Ø Sometimes do 2 cardio sessions a day
Hopefully this article has outlined some practical advice for you to use in your fat loss program. You need to be determined and you need to be inspired (I don’t like the word motivated as it implies you are only doing it because of the fear of what will happen if you don’t do it but if you are inspired then you are doing it because you want to – big difference). Remember to be flexible and constantly review your progress, as this is the most effective way of keeping you on the right track. Good luck!!