So you wanna lose fat?
Maybe you want your clothes to feel looser.
Maybe you want to look better naked.
You wanna tighten things up but you don’t want to forgo Sunday night football parties, Friday night happy hours and other fun, fall festivities.
I am going to walk you through how to lose fat over time in a sustainable way without severely restricting yourself.
For the past 10 weeks I have been leaning out for an upcoming NPC bikini contest and it is important to know that I have spent the past 10 weeks eating maintenance calories.
It has not been easy to hit maintenance, however, it has not been a stressful deficit that affects my lifting, energy or mood….yet.
Throughout the #bikiniprep :
- I have consumed alcohol
- I ate Reese’s for breakfast (Okay, Quest peanut butter cups, same thing)
- I have continued to eat my favorite cereals and oats and PB2
- I have gone out to eat sushi
- I have traveled
Consuming maintenance calories created a slight deficit for my body with my active lifestyle.
I have gotten significantly leaner just by making sure to hit my maintenance calories each day or average maintenance calories for the week as a whole.
I am going to walk you through how you can plan to sustainably lose fat without feeling like you are on a diet.
But first, how does fat loss work?
Fat loss occurs when you achieve a caloric deficit over time.
You can create a deficit via intense exercise (expending more than you consume) or by manipulating your caloric intake to consume less calories.
Nutrition (what you eat and how much) is typically the most effective way to start to lose fat because it is easier to quantify and strategically manipulate.
Relying on calories burned can be tough to estimate.
Eating maintenance calories also gives you a few more calories to play with than a severe caloric deficit diet.
This way it doesn’t always have to be collard greens and free range chicken, you can add in some hot dogs, cookies and a cocktail with your chicken and kale…. it is all about balance and moderation.
Second, what is a deficit?
A “deficit” referes to the lack of calories you are eating; or how many fewer calories you are eating than what your body needs to maintain your current weight.
It can also refer to how many calories you have burned in comparison to how many you have eaten.
If your body needs 1,800 per day to maintain your weight and you feed it 1,500 per day, you are at a 300 calorie deficit per day and a 2,100 calorie deficit per week.
If you consume 2,000 calories and run a half-marathon race, (effectively burning over 1,000 calories), you are at roughly a 1,000 calorie deficit.
I argue that you DO NOT have to take your diet to a severely restrictive point at the beginning of a fat loss program if you seek a realistic lifestyle.
As long as you plan on trying to get stronger (aka lifting heavy), you will get leaner over time, on maintenance calories.
This article will teach you how to quantify your nutrition in a less restrictive way, get strong and lean out without being remarkably hungry to feeling restricted.
Read on to find out how you can lean out without surrendering to a severe deficit.
Three steps to get leaner without severely restricting:
1. Quantify what you are doing and strive for maintenance calories first.
The problem I see with people trying to lose weight or who have failed at diets in the past is that they go from 0 to 100.
It’s very common for people to switch gears from eating whatever they want, whenever they want, (Hello, Big Mac) to eating plain chicken and kale.
I don’t know about you but I would last zero minutes on a chicken and kale diet.
Meet John Smith:
Before reaching out to me to try my #Daretoeat Program, 185-pound John Smith might have been eating well over his 2,400 calorie/day maintenance level on average for the week.
Maybe he has busy work days when he barely eats 2,000 calories, but then on the weekends he eats 3,300 calories (booze and wings??); on average he is eating a surplus of calories for the week.
John starts to feel his belt get tighter and he decides to start a “diet.” (PS I hate that word).
On day 1 of his “diet” he eats:
- one protein bar for breakfast
- chicken and spinach for lunch
- a small piece of fish for dinner
- protein shake after is workout.
After about three to five days of this John feels like a failure because he simply cannot sustain eating what he thinks will make him lose weight (a mere 1,500 calories).
He then ditches the diet and goes out to eat; he orders basically everything on the menu and drinks five beers.
Simply coaching John Smith to eat maintenance calories first (roughly 2,400) and teaching him how to diligently quantify what he is eating can lend him to lose some initial weight without feeling like he is on a diet.
Example of how 185-pound John could eat maintenance calories:
- 3 eggs, 6 egg whites, spinach, feta, two pieces of toast (650 cals)
- banana and whey protein with water for a snack (230)
- lean burger patty, cheese, green salad (~150cals), greek yogurt (~540)
- Quest bar snack (~200)
- salmon, broccoli, corn tortilla chips (~480)
- frozen yogurt with protein powder on top (~200)
- total: 2300 (with room for error of 100 calories)
**above example is very akin to what my real client John eats in Chicago.
The aforementioned is not easy, but it keeps clients like mine satiated, satisfied and supports their strength training.
So what are maintenance calories?
Maintenance calories means you are eating the precise amount of calories to maintain your current bodyweight. It means eating just the right amount, no more no less…
Simply hitting maintenance calories requires diligent efforts.
For me, some days maintenance calories don’t feel like quite enough…and it probably isn’t due to my activity level.
In fact, eating enough calories can often be tough because there are days you might not be as hungry as others.
However, eating enough will help you with part II of this article.
How do you find maintenance calories?
Take your bodyweight times roughly 13 for an approximation.
If you are very active you can multiply by 14.
I always use 13. Using the generic “13” number is how I created a slight deficit the past two months with my active lifestyle while prepping for the bikini contest.
I have learned that what works best for me is to eat basically the same things every day. (See what I eat here.)
Stick with things you love to eat, foods you digest well and you foods which you can more easily track.
When you eat maintenance calories, understand that it can be the same number of calories every day, or it can be alternating high and low days that average to your maintenance level.
If you want to be able to eat more on the days you lift or exercise, (adding in a pre-or post workout snack, or a desert after dinner) you can rotate high and low calorie days.
Example: Let’s say I weigh 115 and my maitenance calories are roughly 1,500/day.
You could shoot for 1,500 every day, OR do:
- two high days: 1,800 (deadlift and squat days)
- two medium days: 1,500 calories (upper body training days)
- three low calorie days: 1,300 (rest days or active rest)
There are several ways to do this.
However just making sure you stay at maintenance when lifting heavy will help you lean out. You may or may not feel hungry doing this.
My client Jo has gotten leaner at maintenance calories because she is lifting three days a week and teaching several exercise classes.
She had to switch to maintenance calories (after being on a deficit for six weeks) because she was feeling hungry and she knew that trying to sustain a moderate caloric deficit with an active lifestyle was not realistic for her.
Like me, she wanted to be able to fuel well before lifting and afterward.
Jo likes to shoot for the same amount of calories each day, saving higher calorie days for weekends when she goes out to dinner with her husband and family.
Doing alternating high and low calorie days helps me manage hunger, doing the same number until the weekend helps Jo so she can indulge without reprecussions.
Find what works best for you and your training schedule.
How do you track what you are doing?
- Get an app (Livestrong and MyPlate are excellent apps!)
- use measuring cups, tablespoons, etc. for a few weeks to see what 1/4 cup, for example, looks like
- consider getting a food scale
- quantify your training days and know when to eat more/less
It is quite frustrating to see what 20 grams of peanut butter actually looks like on a food scale, however, doing so is very eye-opening as to how/why you are having trouble losing those extra pounds.
Adding in what you think are a couple hundred, harmless calories of “good fats” could actually be 500 extra calories you didn’t realize you were eating every day.
If you do not want to meticulously count calories daily, try to at least jot down a rough estimate of what you eat normally and see how much you typically take in on a weekday and a weekend.
From there you can make some small adjustments.
Don’t get me wrong, you can’t have it all and get leaner.
You have to stay at maintenance calories or less to lean out.
The way I see it you simply have to make some deals with yourself if you want to change your physique.
- If it’s a day you want to have some wine, omit the cookie after lunch
- If it’s a day you’re having pizza at dinner, have salad with veggies (and protein) at lunch instead of a sandwich and fruit
- If you want ice cream, have it! But not every day unless you ar meticulously counting calories in order to fit it into your planned numbers.
2. Work on getting stronger.
For the first half of this preparation I focused on getting as strong as possible, specifically in the big three lifts (squat, bench and deadlift) and the weighted chin-up.
When you are going for heavy lifts the greater amounts of carbs and protein you eat are put to good use after the training session.
You will increase lean muscle mass thanks to the protein and carbs repairing the fatigued muscles.
If you are new to lifting weights, know that it is normal to be more hungry than usual when you are really stressing the muscles.
Enter, high/low cal days as mentioned above; make sure to emphasize protein.
How do you build strength?
This is always a loaded question.
My best, biased advice for you is to focus on strength in the big (powerlifting) lifts.
The bench, squat and deadlift all use several big muscles in the body and work in very simple, healthy movement patterns.
Other big muscle recruiting lifts that I love are chin-ups, hip thrusts, push-presses, lunges and front squats.
When you do these exercises with the goal of building brute strength, try and do three sets minimum and stay in the 3 to 8 rep range.
When you do accessory exercises like bicep curls, face pulls, tricep extensions and you focus more on muscle growth (toning), do 8-12 rep ranges to see more definition.
Make sure you take time to recover or lift in such a way that you body can handle the stress.
Lifting 4 days a week makes hunger manageable on maintenance calories.
The final way you can lean out by eating maitenance calories is: don’t kill yourself in the gym with tons of cardio.
Jo removed her long, 50-minute treadmill runs and started lifting weights.
She even managed to not only rep 6 chin-ups neutral grip but also do 4 towel grip chin-ups on the #Daretomove program! Not easy!
If you want more movement in your life instead of doing lots of cardio, go for leisure walks, take a yoga class.
No need to put more stress on the body than it already has from the caloric deficit and strength training.
Trust me when I say it is hard to figure out how much to eat when you are very active.
Keep tabs on your calories and stay in the maintenance zone. When you do this and lift heavy, you will lean out over time as you get stronger.
3. Be strategic with exercise.
This section piggy-backs off of the former section. I want to delve into why sometimes it is important to exercise much less, or focus on one thing at a time.
She exercises all the time.
Samantha went through a phase when she was the fastest girl in class and always used the heaviest weights when she lifted three days a week in the gym.
At that time she was also eating a lot of food to fuel those workouts and is disappointed in how she looked aesthetically.
She wanted to lose more weight, but, when she kept her calories low she could barely manage to drag herself the the gym.
When did make it to the gym she felt hungry, performed poorly and was more than frustrated.
Did I mention she is uber competitive?
Samantha knows she can’t keep up the eating 1,200 calories and working out like a fiend because she has had to call in sick to work twice already from being exhausted.
When exhausted, she wants to binge eat. It’s a bad cycle.
So what should she do?
She needs to pick what makes her the happiest right now, and focus on one thing at a time.
She either needs to:
- eat more calories to sustain her frequent gym excursions and be happy with her strong body
- eat maintenance calories and moderately train (3-4 days a week)
- or eat a caloric deficit and exercise less.
I personally dealt with this frustration when I realized for bikini competition purposes I had to focus more on nutrition than lifting.
I am the girl who wants to try and lift heavier or do more reps every time I walk into the gym.
However, calories come first when you are prepping for a bikini contest.
And, to that point I have proved that on maintenance calories (or a slight deficit) you CAN and will get stronger on a strategic program and leaner.
So, the good news is you don’t have to eat big to get stronger.
(This rule make not work for serious powerlifter who want to have more mass to move mass).
If you find yourself in Samantha’s shoes, it is imperative to quantify your workouts and do less of them.
Lift in a strategic manner, on a scientific program and don’t go nuts with excess cardio.
Having more strength will take more muscle and more muscle will give you more metabolic tissue. The more metabolically active tissue on your body, the more calories you may be able to take in than you could before.
When you focus on eating enough protein and carbs throughout the day, (when I say “enough” I mean roughly one gram of protein per my bodyweight when trying to build strength) and you stay within your calorie guidelines you can and will get stronger if you follow a strategic program.
Strategic strength program + protein + consistent practice = strength
Strength comes from introducing unique stressors on the body and so long as you work on a strategic program, increasing weight on most lifts each week, your body will make the correct adaptations and get stronger.
In tandem with the training you must be pre-fueling and refueling well.
I am not advocating that everyone do pre- and post-workout nutrition.
I tell all of my clients to do what works best for them and fits within the calories they aim to eat.
If you feel sick when you eat right before a workout, don’t do it.
If you don’t have an appetite immediately after you eat, don’t stuff your face in the car on the way home!
You do not have to stuff your face before and after every workout to get stronger…
…but you can, as long as you quantify how much you are eating and make sure you do not go over maintenance calories or your planned high calorie day that keeps you at maintenance for the week.
The idea that you have to eat big to get strong is not necessarily true.
You do need to emphasize protein in tandem with eating maintenance calories when leaning out is the goal.
It is important to note that getting strong and getting shredded cannot always go hand-in-hand.
Neither do being thin, eating big and exercising 10 times a week.
At some point you must decide what you want the most: to get stronger and perform in the gym, or work on your physique.
However in the beginning if you take a moderate approach to lifting (3-4 days a week), focus on it without exorbitant amounts of cardio and eat maintenance calories you will get results.
I speak from experience in the most recent weeks of my #bikiniprep that maintaining a caloric deficit is not easy.
However I can tell you that having a good idea of how much your body needs on a day-to-day basis can be eye-opening and step no. 1 of leaning out.
If you are new to fat loss or simply trying to lose a little weight and still be social, making sure you eat maintenance calories each day or on the week as a whole can help you start to lean out without the stress of a big caloric deficit.
Knowledge is power.
Once you know how much you need to maintain your current weight or even create a slight deficit with moderate exercise you have the power to take control of your waistline.
Try calculating how much you eat on average and then see how that measures up with your maintenance calories (Bodyweight x 13). Now you have a starting point!
One final word of advice: BE PATIENT! Eating maintenance helps you lose weight over time when training consistently and getting strong.
Your bodyweight might even go up in the short-term from strength training, (as you lose inches and lean out) but stay the course and lose fat in a realistic manner with maintenance calories so you can enjoy life, and a drink too!
If you have any questions, email me at email@example.com