You want to lose fat and then you want to maintain as much of your muscle mass as possible. Or even put on muscle mass.
Maintaining Your Muscle Mass
This becomes particularly important as we get older, because once you hit the age of about 35 you will lose from about half to one percent of your muscle mass per year (if you don’t do anything to maintain it).
But you’re doing something to maintain it, right?
Basically that means that you’re doing some strength training. And we’re going to talk a little bit more about that later.
And at the end I’m going to tell you about the part of the body fat reduction strategy that most people don’t place enough emphasis on. In fact a lot of people skip it all together.
Often people think that a lot of cardio is going to be their ticket to getting lean, but it’s actually not the most effective method.
What Is Body Fat Percentage?
Your body fat percentage is the ratio of your body fat to not just muscle, but also bones and organs and fluids and other things that are not changeable.
What Is Body Recomposition?
In case you’re able to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time that’s what we call body recomposition.
We generally used to say that only complete beginners could actually do body recomposition. But it seems that it might be possible for other groups of people as well.
So if you’ve had a long break due to injury or illness (several months), then you may be able to do body recomposition. Or people who are overweight or obese. If you’ve just never done a consistent weight training program where you’re doing three or four solid weight training sessions per week in a focused and structured way. This is something we call progressive resistance training. And I know based on my experiences in gyms and as a coach for over 20 years that most people don’t do a proper progressive resistance training program. In our goal of lowering your body fat percentage we want to hang on to as much muscle as possible.
Getting Into A Calorie Deficit
You need to get into a calorie deficit this simply means that you’re burning off more calories than your body needs to sustain itself on a daily basis.
In less experienced trainees or people with a lot of excess body fat, you may be able to lower your body fat percentage while eating at maintenance.
A lot of people assume that you have to count calories in order to get into a calorie deficit. Well, you don’t.
There are strategies that you can use that are more qualitative more habit-based and behaviour change methods that will allow you to naturally reduce your calories and get into a calorie deficit without doing any counting at all.
When You Might Want To Track Calories
But if you’ve been struggling with those habits and you still haven’t been getting the results that you want, you might want to use a more quantitative method where you’re actually using numbers and tracking your calories with an app.
Now I generally don’t recommend calorie counting and macro accounting on a regular basis for most people. It is a helpful strategy.
A lot of people just don’t want to do it for the long term!
The Benefits Of Calorie Tracking
But I think it’s a very helpful educational process for you to just have a look how many calories a particular food has.
When I have clients who have never used a calorie tracking app they’re always really surprised at how many calories certain foods have.
And then they’re pleasantly surprised at how low the calories are for fruits and vegetables and the things that we always encourage people to have more of.
Having more awareness is a tool that you can use in the long term because then you can pay closer attention even if you’re not doing the actual counting. But it might just cause you to say, “Oh I’ll just have half that avocado because I know the whole one is going to be about 250 calories and I don’t want to consume that much.”
The knowledge that you acquired during your time that you’re tracking your calories and macros perhaps is going to benefit you in the long term.
Calorie Dense Foods And Reducing Body Fat
Sometimes it can be really eye-opening. Something like nuts, a very healthy food. I do recommend having them. However, portion sizes are really important there because you want to make sure that you’re only having a smaller amount a quarter cup of cashews is about 160 calories. And that’s a fairly small serving. My favourite nut, the Macadamia, has probably about 20 calories per nut.
Not saying you shouldn’t have those nuts, but you want to be a bit more mindful about how much you’re having.
Setting Up Maintenance Calories To Lose Body Fat At Any Age
There are a lot of calorie counters on the internet you can input your details and you’ll get some sort of estimate of what your maintenance calories are.
The maintenance calories would be what your body would require to keep itself in its current state.
Instead of using those calculators I tend to just start off with a simple multiple 13 times your body weight in pounds. And that represents your total daily energy expenditure.
So for someone who’s 160 pounds their maintenance calories would be approximately 2080.
Theoretically you would need to drop your calories by 3 500 per week in order to lose approximately a pound of fat per week. So 500 calories per day multiplied by seven.
Estimating Your Calorie Deficit
These are all very rough estimates not everybody’s body functions exactly the same way to burn off the same amount of calories. But you need to set some sort of guideline and then work from that initial estimate.
So let’s say for that 160 pound person they’re going to drop their calories by approximately 250 per day. Because they don’t want to make that big a cut initially.
And they’re going to increase their calorie expenditure by approximately 250 ish calories. Perhaps with a daily walk.
That means you don’t have to go as hardcore with the nutrition if if you’re adding a little bit more physical activity. Generally I think it’s important to focus most on the nutrition because you’re really going to get the most result from that. And if for some reason you don’t have enough time all of a sudden to do all that exercise then you’re going to have a harder time catching up.
But some people might choose to do a bit of exercise and just do a minor modification of the nutrition. It’s totally up to you.
Retaining As Much Muscle Mass As Possible
In order to maximize your muscle retention while you’re in that calorie deficit and losing fat you don’t want to lose any more than half to one percent of your body weight per week.
Someone who weighs 160 pounds wouldn’t want to lose any more than 1.6 pounds per week.
Now if someone is 300 pounds they could go up to one percent and that would be three pounds per week.
So if you’re quite heavy and you have a lot of excess fat to lose, it’s going to be easier for you to lose that fat initially as you’re further away from the goal. And you’ll still be able to maintain your muscle mass, even though you’re losing a lot more fat.
You’re going to see rapid changes at the beginning and then as you get closer and closer to your goal you’re going to need to slow that rate of weight loss down. It usually happens naturally anyway.
Preparing For The Inevitable Plateau
That’s something to be aware of as you’re dieting as you’re losing body fat.
It does get harder and harder because essentially you’re going to have to cut your calories down further (or increase your activity further) as you get leaner.
This is a question I sometimes get in the comments. What do I do when I’ve been in a calorie deficit. I’ve been losing body fat. Everything’s been going well. And then all of a sudden I’ve hit a plateau and I’m no longer losing body fat.
Adjusting Your Calorie Deficit For Further Fat Loss
If you’re still using that original calorie deficit number that you created at the start of your journey it’s not going to work anymore.
This is one of the tricky things about weight loss. And I want you to be prepared for it so that when it hits you you’re going to be like,
“Okay, I know what’s happening here. I can adjust and keep moving forward.”
So let me give you an example to try to clarify this.
If you start off at 200 pounds your maintenance calories (based on that multiplying 13) would be approximately 2600.
If you you lose 40 pounds and you get your weight down to 160. Now your maintenance calories are 2080. That means that what was a calorie deficit is no longer a deficit for you at 160.
So what do you have to do drop the calories again. And I know that’s super frustrating because you think, “h I’m getting leaner and it was working.”
But once you’re a lighter person your body doesn’t need as many calories to sustain itself in that current state.
So in order to get leaner and lose more body fat you need to drop those calories down a little bit more or increase your physical activity.
Getting Leaner When You’re Already Lean
If you’re already a woman who’s 15 body fat or a man who’s like 12 body fat and you’re trying to get leaner and leaner. Then you’re starting to get into that territory of physique competitors who are trying to get lean for this stage. To temporarily achieve a very low body fat percentage.
So at that stage it does get more challenging. You’ll need to be more strict with your measuring and what you’re eating.
You can’t just throw in a muffin here and there if you’re already very lean and trying to get leaner.
Do You Need A New Strategy To Lose Body Fat?
The strategy is really the same. You still want to decrease your calories in some way or increase your energy expenditure. However, it just gets harder to eat that lower amount of calories.
I generally recommend that women don’t ever go below about 1200 calories and men don’t go below about 1800 calories.
If you’re 50 pounds from your goal, you don’t have to be as precise as when you get to 20 pounds from your goal or five pounds from your goal.
Then you have to be much more specific, making sure that whatever food you’re taking in is enough to keep you in a calorie deficit to continue to lose weight.
Muscle Retention And Growth
Now let’s talk about the part of reducing your body fat percentage that a lot of people miss altogether. And that’s muscle retention and growth.
I recommend 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
So if you weigh 160 pounds up to a 160 grams of protein per day.
The Importance Of Lean Protein
Now if you’re tracking calories and you know that you’re maintaining your calorie intake for each day, you don’t have to worry as much about the sources of protein that you use. You’ll know that you’re getting enough protein by keeping the calories low. If you’re deciding not to track but you still want to get into that calorie deficit then I recommend focusing more on lean protein sources.
That could be ground meats that are super lean. Chicken breasts. Yes, I know it’s the old standby. It’s a cliche. But it does have a lot of protein and very little else.
Protein powder. Whey protein isolate is probably the purest in terms of having the most protein without anything else. That’s what I personally have post-workout so that I know that I’m getting in a decent amount of protein throughout the day.
Lean fish and low-fat dairy products can be a good choice as well. If you’re vegetarian, you can try things like lentils or tofu in order to try to get that regular protein intake.
The Crucial Role Of Strength Training
And you can eat all the protein you want, but if you’re not doing strength training in order to maintain and build muscle you’re not going to get any effect.
You need that stimulus. Then you need the nutrition to get the growth.
Weight training three to five times a week is ideal. As we get older, we tend to need a little bit more recovery time. So if you’re in your late 40s or 50s you might find that you actually get better results on four days a week rather than five. Your muscle is growing in between workouts not during the workout. You’re breaking down that muscle tissue through the workouts and then as it repairs and regenerates. It builds so it becomes stronger.
Progressive Resistance Training For Fat Loss And Muscle Growth
That also means that making sure your training is progressive. Once you get stronger you push your weight up a little bit higher or you do a more challenging exercise.
If you follow all these steps you should be able to keep as much of your muscle as possible while you’re losing body fat.