If you haven’t already guessed it, the title of this article is indeed steeped in sarcasm.
The idea of “New Year, New You” has always baffled me, even before I gained an interest in the science of human behaviour and goal setting.
I remember a younger (fatter) Jonny thinking, why can’t you just be the “New you” now? What will change next week when the clock turns midnight and it’s officially a new year?
Of course, it’s our way of drawing a line in the sand and rationalising the indulgence and debauchery in the days leading up to the big change.
It feels better to tell ourselves in the near future, everything will improve.
“It’s OK that I over-eat for the 12th day in a row because NEXT YEAR is going to be my year, I’m going to finally reach my goal and get truly lean for summer.”
However, there is nothing at all wrong with wanting to drop fat. Many people are in this game purely to improve how they look and that’s cool by us.
What isn’t cool, is the methods that are typically used to set up a fat-loss approach.
Fuelled by frustration that they’ve maybe gained a few pounds courtesy of the festive period and have failed to reach their leanness goals in the past, many will employ extreme and unsustainable methods to try and finally reach their goals once and for all.
When you consider all of the elements, it’s actually quite logical that a dramatic change would require complex methods and extreme techniques.
Well, most people have a rudimentary understanding of nutrition – the old “sugar is bad” and “skipping breakfast is unhealthy” diatribe.
Equally, MOST people are not in exceptional, model-esque condition.
Therefore, it would stand to reason that the answer lies in the finer details and complexities.
In the secrets that the fitness industry has been hiding from us all along.
Believe me, we know this frustration all too well – we spent a long time on the wrong side of the barrage of misinformation and we bought into the majority of fat-loss secrets and get lean quick schemes, only to find ourselves blaming something specific about the program for our lack of progress.
Luckily, mainly through sheer grit and relentless experimentation, we happened upon a very sustainable method to pursue fat-loss.
Principles that has allowed us to diet down to decently low levels of body-fat with relative ease and simplicity.
During a typical fat-loss phase, we eat out, drink alcohol, eat whatever we desire and train 3 times per week for the most part.
We both reached a level of leanness we were happy with relatively little discomfort. All because we kept some basic principles in mind.
Over this mini-series, I’m going to cover some principles of a fat-loss plan that I feel are both instrumental in success and also often overlooked.
Principle 1: Be careful how you measure
A common goal for a fat-loss approach is a body-fat percentage and In many ways, this makes sense. It seems like a way of quantifying how lean you are and to that extent it certainly seems like a good way to track your progress.
However, there are two main issues with relying on body-fat % to determine how well/badly your diet is progressing.
Firstly, there are many opportunities for measurement error, even when using a DEXA scanner, you may or may not receive an accurate reading.
If you then rely on this to assess whether you need to change the plan or not, it may lead to faulty decision making.
Secondly, you’re not actually chasing a %, you’re chasing a “look”.
If I measured you today and told you your body fat was 8% and that was what you’d set as your goal, would that instantly make you content and want to stop dieting?
My point here is that the % is irrelevant if you want to reach a certain appearance and unless you’re an athlete in a competitive weight class. Fat loss is typically synonymous with appearance.
The standard advice pedalled in this industry is to “ignore the scale” because it’s not indicative of progress.
To an extent, that is true. There are factors that will affect what the scale reads that are not fat loss or muscle gain. So, yes there will be days where you step on a scale and the number is not a fair representation of the progress you’ve made.
Maybe your water balance has been affected due to salt or alcohol or maybe you ate a large meal, later than normal, increasing the amount of food in transit when you step on the scale.
The key here is that non of these factors will accumulate linearly.
To put it bluntly, if you’re constantly gaining water, stomach contents and poo, your problems are far and beyond the accuracy of the scale reading.
The simplest way to measure your scale weight is to set a timeframe and monitor your daily weight on average.
The longer you diet for, the longer the period you can choose to measure.
I like to set this up in the following order:
1) goal weight (more on this later in the series)
2) goal rate of loss – based on current body comp, experience and preferences (again, more on this later)
3) use 1 & 2 to determine a goal time (number of total weeks to pursue fat loss)
I then the this total number of weeks and divide it by 8, rounding to the nearest whole number.
So for an 8 week fat loss phase, make decisions based on weekly average weight.
For a 16 week fat loss phase, make decisions based on fortnightly weigh ins.
For a 12 week fat loss phase (1.5) you’d round up and use fortnightly weigh ins too.
So how do you action this?
You start by implementing the habit of weighing yourself each morning. Before eating or drinking anything and after using the toilet.
Track this number somewhere. A notebook, iPhone app or spreadsheet
We provide all of our clients with tools to track and monitor their daily weight as well as all other relevant variables.
Then, if you’re using weekly analysis. Every week you calculate your average weight and compare if to the previous week’s average weight.
Use this reading to determine whether or not you’re on track. If you’re average weight is dropping at the rate you’d like, you’re on track. If not, calories need a change, simple.
Typically, the expectation is that with a calorie deficit, comes strength loss.
Sure, if you’re losing weight, some of this will inevitably be muscle and as your total mass decreases, you will become less stable under the weight of a barbell. But a calorie deficit doesn’t have to be a death sentence to strength gains.
Again, the standard advice is that to pursue fat-loss, you should change your program to adapt to and accelerate the process.
This is probably the biggest mistake you can make when it comes to planning out a sustainable fat-loss approach.
In a calorie deficit, the purpose of training is to retain (and maybe) gain strength and muscle. Nothing more.
We can add additional calorie expenditure when calories start to become scarce but, to begin with, I like to see trainees focus their efforts on progressing in the weight room.
Often, we will spend time trying to measure specific variables in order to prove that we’re losing fat and maintaining muscle. Arm circumference, body-fat %, resting heart rate, inside leg measurement, anything that might show we’re one the right path.
As you might expect, we like to use the simplest approach possible that still works.
If your weight is falling, on average, and your strength is either increasing or maintaining. You’re losing fat while holding onto muscle. It’s as simple as that.
Now that we know this, it makes sense to track strength during a fat-loss phase, even if strength is not itself a goal. But what is the most effective way to do this?
Unless you’re a strength athlete with specific requirements, I tend to use 1RM testing very sparingly. Instead, I favour a 3-5 rep max on specific lifts.
Typically I will build a program around a squat, hinge, press and pull variant usually form the backbone of 4-5 sessions spread across a week (I know, not exactly re-inventing the wheel).
I’ll program these out in either a fixed periodisation or use linear progression and every 8-10 weeks, I’ll set a week where we seek to evaluate where the strength is on each lift.
This is very effective for a few reasons.
1)It hides the potential slow gains from the trainee during the weekly grind.
2) 8-10 weeks is always long enough to allow sufficient work to be done between checkpoints (and potentially add strength) but also a short enough time to maintain motivation in the gym. The next deadline is always only a matter of weeks away.
3) The gain or loss in strength combined with a gain or loss in bodyweight gives a crystal clear picture of progress. 8 week intervals are then the perfect time to implement a diet break, program, adjustment or total overhaul of the process. Not too much time is lost pursuing the plan if it is ineffective but enough time is invested to achieve proof or failure of concept.
We’ve coached many clients who have gained strength while in calorie deficits of 6 months or more and, from personal experience, I’ve even managed to hit PB 1RMs after several weeks of heavy calorie restriction.
The issue with measuring only rep strength and average weight loss is that sometimes, numbers don’t tell the full story.
There are occasions where weigh ins will stay the same, strength may move by a kilo or two and yet body composition can improve dramatically.
This could be the result of any number of factors and its actually a very typical situation for someone returning from a lay-off from training or an individual totally new to training with a progressively overloaded rep scheme.
As mentioned, it’s usually the case with fat loss that we’re trying to improve someone’s appearance. Not how much they weigh on a scale or how much they can bench press. So, it makes sense that we would measure changes in appearance.
The key here is comparability.
No insta-selfies, no varied lighting, no flattering filters and photoshop adjustments.
Use the same camera, in the same room, on the same day and at the same time. I cannot stress how important it is to minimise the variables here.
If one picture is after a large meal, last thing at night with downlighting and your 8 week comparison photo is fasted in the morning in bright daylight, you won’t be able to infer much about your progress.
In my picture (left) above. I took a progress picture every Saturday morning before eating, after weighing myself. I closed the blinds to make the room dark and used a desk lamp to create low level, consistent lighting. These pictures provided some much needed steer on my fat-loss pursuits.
Standard dieting advice will often tell you to neglect some of the variables that are crucial to ensuring you stay on track.
Ignore the unnecessary details, meal timing, fancy supplements and greens shakes. Every 8 weeks, analyse your average weight change, your rep strength on 4-6 key lifts and compare progress pictures in comparable conditions.
Then, either make a change or stay the same, rinse and repeat.
We’ll be back next week with part 2 – setting a timeline and attainable goals.