At the time of writing this (May 8th, 2022), the hot months are on the horizon, and those with an interest in looking good want to get ripped and peeled, but unfortunately, only a few ever make it.
Having just booked in for my first physique show on July 2nd, I’ll be focused more than ever on getting lean, and I will be using all of my knowledge to get there, so what better time to share some advice.
Getting lean sounds like fun, but it’s uncommon that someone’s efforts pay off the way they intended. Within a month, most people are frustrated; they’re not halfway done cutting and feel like they’re running through quicksand.
As a personal trainer, I get to hear my fair share of rants from people experiencing the same problems over and over. But I’ve been fortunate enough to work with hundreds of clients to understand what works for each individual.
In this post, I will go over the basics that must be adhered to should you want to get lean successfully and address a few weight loss misconceptions I often see.
Let’s start by addressing a seemingly complex topic, nutrition.
I’m often asked questions like, “do you need carbs, or do you avoid them altogether?”, “are eight meals a day better than six?” and “what’s the deal with sugar?
Let’s get a bit of background knowledge out of the way.
Calories are King
A calorie is a unit of energy, and your body needs it to survive. Calories are what determine whether you lose, maintain or gain weight. Bodyweight management is a straightforward equation.
- Eat fewer calories than you burn, and you will lose weight.
- Eat more calories than you burn, and you will gain weight.
- Eat as many calories as you burn, and your weight will remain stable.
That’s it. The very principle of weight loss and weight gain comes down to the amount of energy you’re putting in versus the amount you’re putting out. The rest of your diet doesn’t matter until your caloric intake has been addressed.
As a general guide, the more calories you eat, the quicker you gain weight and build muscle (providing you’re training correctly); however, the faster you’ll gain excess body fat too. The fewer calories you eat, the quicker you will lose weight, but a greater chance you will be burning through muscle too.
It’s a numbers game and a balancing act to ensure you’re gaining or losing slowly enough to reap the rewards without experiencing the potential downfalls of excess.
Fat loss and carbs don’t seem to go together in the eyes of most people trying to get lean. Dieting is synonymous with low-carb and even no-carb diets. While it is true that you will need to cut out some of your carbs during your quest to get lean, the amounts that are cut are usually way too extreme.
So what do I say when people ask me how many carbs they should consume when trying to get lean? Simple: “as many as you can while still losing fat at the desired pace”. The key takeaway is as many as YOU can because carb intake can be one of the most significant variables in dieting.
Two people with similar programs, ages, and body weight can often require different approaches. While some people might need to diet on as low as 100 grams of carbs per day, others may require double or triple that amount.
One thing is for sure, though, most people go too low on carbohydrates and eat too little food. When this happens, you will see the following occur: You’ll come out flying at that start, but then it will drastically slow down, and from there on, you will find yourself having to apply more aggressive protocols, which could be either dropping food lower or adding in shed loads of cardio. Eventually, you will plateau to a point where nothing seems to work and progress stalls.
It is best to use as many carbs as possible, as they will help you maintain your performance in the gym, which will allow you to keep your hard-earned gains and keep your metabolic rate healthy so you can lose fat longer and more efficiently.
Optimising Your Approach
To optimise your approach completely, you must calculate your daily macronutrient requirements and incorporate flexible dieting, whether trying to build muscle or burn fat.
The three macronutrients are protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Flexible dieting involves removing restrictions placed on foods by putting them into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories and instead focusing on the nutritional content of food, allowing freedom within your caloric intake. You monitor your intake by tracking calories and macronutrients and concentrate on eating nutrient-dense, healthy foods.
However, if you still fancy a bit of ‘junk food’, you can have it, providing it still fits in with the parameters of your daily calorie/macronutrient requirements.
It would help if you also aimed to optimise your time in the gym. Don’t be one of the guys that go into the gym and spend 30-40 minutes working out abs. Not only is this a waste of time, but there are far better things you could spend your gym time on. For example, prehab work and foam rolling are all the things that will keep you healthy and progressing long-term.
Going to the gym and blasting your abs for an hour still leaves me in awe since we can’t spot target fat loss; the actual definition will come through your diet. As the old saying goes, “abs are made in the kitchen”.
During a gaining phase, I love to hit heavy squats, and most of my leg development has come from a 3-6 rep range. I like to keep my squats (and other major compound exercises) in this rep range during a dieting phase.
If you want to keep your hard-earned muscle, you must continue to lift heavy. I tend to maintain around 90% of my strength when dieting, and if I start to find it harder to keep my strength, I will first abandon the higher rep work and save my energy and recovery for the heavier weights.
A big mistake during a diet is abandoning the lower rep work for high rep work. The main reason is that people have difficulty maintaining their strength as they attempt to keep workout volume at previous levels.
If you want to make your muscle look its best, go with what got it there first and keep lifting heavy.
Fortunately, we now have more scientific knowledge and access to more research and literature regarding calories, energy balance, and how to structure our diets for optimal fat loss. However, much of the fitness community still seems stuck in the dark ages.
There are so many myths and misconceptions floating around that it’s easy to get lost. Let’s go over some of the most common myths you probably hear regarding weight loss.
“You should eat small, frequent meals to speed up your metabolism.”
There is a theory that your body will burn more calories by making it digest multiple, smaller meals per day in comparison to larger, infrequent ones. It’s a reasonably similar notion that dumping a pile of wood onto a fire may be less effective than gradually adding in one log at a time – but your metabolism is not a fire.
You indeed burn calories digesting that meal every time you eat, referred to as the thermic effect of food (TEF). Some macronutrients contain a further increase in TEF; whether you look at the percentage increase from a single meal or a day’s worth of eating, that percentage will remain the same.
10 x 250 calorie meals will burn the same amount of calories through digestion as a 1 x 2500 calorie meal, providing they contain the same macronutrient breakdown.
“Eating carbs late at night makes you fat.”
Yes, carbohydrates are the body’s number one fuel source, and because you aren’t planning on training after a specific time of day, surely you need to limit your carbohydrates during that time?
Burning fat requires eating fewer calories than what you’re burning. It doesn’t matter if you choose to eat the calories before you burn them as long as the net result remains the same at the end of the day.
“Fasted cardio is best for fat loss.”
If you haven’t eaten for around 8 hours because you have been asleep, it will be easier to tap into those unwanted fat stores, right?
Research shows that as long as the energy balance of your diet is in line with your goals (i.e. you are burning more calories than you’re consuming, as mentioned above), fat loss is similar whether you choose to eat before doing cardio or not.
I’ll say that cardio isn’t even necessary for fat loss, but it can help. Science tells us that we lose weight when burning more than we’re consuming, and cardio can help with that. Adding cardio into your routine may help swing that energy balance (calories in vs calories out) in your favour, but it’s no more effective than eating fewer calories.
“When dieting, it is best to lift lighter weights for higher reps.”
I already touched on this above, but let’s dig deeper.
Typically speaking, the best way to look in shape is to engage in regular hypertrophy (lean muscle building) training with an emphasis on progressively overloading your muscles, challenging them more and more over time, while eating at a caloric surplus to support growth.
From there, it’s simply a case of bringing yourself into a calorie deficit by consuming fewer calories than you’re burning to shed enough fat that you’re lean enough to show off your hard-earned muscles.
There are more details to pay attention to, but this is the core of it. So let your diet work for fat loss and keep training like you did when trying to build muscle because what makes muscle best retains it.
“It is best only to train each muscle group once a week.”
Many people follow routines that have them exhaustively train each muscle group once per week, which is an inefficient way to train.
Why? Because muscle protein synthesis dramatically increases 65% above baseline 24 hours after a heavy resistance training session and then reverts to baseline at around the 48-hour mark post-workout.
Therefore, a far more prudent way to train would be to hit each muscle group 2-3 times per week and divide the volume across each session.
Misinformation saturates the fitness industry, but fat loss is a simple mathematical equation. Try not to complicate the situation by imposing ridiculous old-school beliefs into your routine.
And remember, the perfect diet will not work if you cannot adhere to the details. A diet has to be sound both physiologically and psychologically; leaving either variable unaccounted for usually sets people up for failure rather than helping them reach their potential.