"Eat less and exercise more."
I want to ram my head into a brick wall every time I hear this common advice (full disclosure: Years ago, yours truly used to dispense this same advice. Oh, how I've learned from this. So young, so naive).
While it sounds reasonable, the problem is when people take this way too far. For many, it means "eat barely anything" and "train for hours a day, every day."
Unfortunately, taking this advice for long periods will get you a wrecked metabolism (muscle loss, high cortisol) and stalled progress with your fat loss.
Can eating less cause weight loss? Oh yeah.
Does working out more cause weight loss? Yep.
Does eating less and working out more cause weight loss? Yes...sometimes...and for only a little while.
The problem with this advice:
While eating less or moving more will allow you to lose weight, and dieting and training are the optimal way to go about this, there is a danger with taking a more-is-better approach. The danger occurs when you go to extreme ends of both to get to your goal.
Cutting back on your daily calorie intake doesn't mean slashing it all until you're at 500 cals a day. And, of course we know by now, that weight training for hours daily without sufficient time between workouts puts you down the path to consistently high cortisol and impaired recovery.
Unfortunately, it's quite common for folks to use this train more/eat less formula for such long periods, it stops working. This is known as "the plateau."
The plateau occurs because our body has smartly adapted to what we're forcing upon it. In times of high stress and low calorie intake, our body will preserve whatever precious nutrients it receives in order to carry out daily function.
And when our body has to focus on preserving itself and surviving, it cannot shift itself to an optimal fat burning environment.
There definitely is a point at which calorie intake is too low for weight loss. Yikes.
So what do we do when we hit a plateau? Cut more calories? By how much?
And with exercise, if we're already doing weights and an hour of cardio, should we do more cardio? More weights? What????
So. Many. Questions.
Let's dive in and discuss. We'll start with determining your proper intake.
First, I actually don't feel that most people need to count or establish a daily calorie number. Counting calories is a fairly advanced process and unless you are 15% body fat looking to cut to 10%, it may not be entirely necessary.
Most folks looking to lose 15, 20, or more pounds will do best with establishing healthy habits first before any such counting of a calorie. Learning to prepare fresh meals at home, reading nutrition labels properly to understand the sugar content, and using a "handy" chart like the one below are great places to start:
Breaks it down pretty simple, huh? For those who are in need of losing quite a bit of weight, it is going to come down to selecting the highest quality foods, in the right amounts.
Counting calories, when someone has a substantial amount of weight to lose, is focusing on details when details don't matter.
But for those who like numbers (I am one), have some time on their hands, and want to put a stop to this "eat less, train more" cycle, let's give you a couple action steps to start burning fat again.
Plan of Action #1: Get sufficient calories to optimize fat-burning.
Searching the internet, you'll find several different ways to go about determining an ideal calorie intake. However, I think for the most part, the range will be pretty similar all around. When you eat enough, just the right amount, you'll be able to fuel your body for it's basic functioning, perform at a high level with your activity, and still burn excess fat.
The single biggest factor determining your weight loss is calorie balance. Macronutrients, amount of carbs, and the timing of it all plays a role, but nothing is a greater influencer on your fat loss than your total calorie balance, specifically, being in a calorie deficit.
The formula I prefer to use for clients is one that is effective, simple, and straightforward. And for that reason, makes it my most preferred:
Multiply your current bodyweight by 10-12. You can multiply by 10 if you are very sedentary, and 12 if you are more active.
So a sedentary, 170-pound individual looking to lose weight, who drives to work, punches some digits on a keyboard for 8 hours, and drives home only to catch up on some Netflix binge-watching, probably only needs to take in about 1700 calories per day.
A 200-pound recreational gym-goer who trains with weights 2-3 days a week, and spends the rest of the day on his feet walking through school, moving a few boxes, or sitting in meetings will do well on a 2200 calorie plan.
That woman across the street throwing the jackhammer around and shovelling mounds of gravel in a wheelbarrow who weighs in at 160 pounds should be consuming 1920 calories a day, at the least!
These are just a few examples. And we don’t even need to get started on the breakdown of protein, carbs, and fat, because ultimately it will come down to having that negative calorie balance. The specific macronutrient convo can be saved for another day.
Now, once the nutrition is dialed-in a bit better, we can shift our focus to exercise.
Plan of Action #2: Strength train a few hours per week
Alwyn Cosgrove, co-owner of Results Fitness, and one of the leaders in the industry when it comes to fat loss results and experimentation with his clients, has a general rule of thumb for strength training for fat loss:
Aim for 3 hours per week of metabolic strength training.
With Cosgrove, it was found that clients got their best results when they were able to train 3 hours/week of metabolic resistance training. Whether it was 6 thirty minute workouts, 4 forty-five minute routines, or 3 one-hour workouts, the optimal number seemed to be 3 hours, with no added benefit coming after that threshold was met.
Any less may not work as well to get the fat loss results you’re looking for. If you are a lucky individual who has extra time over and above these three hours, then you can put more focus into aerobic, "cardio" activities.
Exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, chinups, heavy carries, sprints (running or biking), and various core exercises all done in superset, tri set, or circuit fashion will all work well. Reps should be kept to a metabolic, muscle-building target, in the 8-12 (or even higher) range.
Here is a sample of a possible circuit:
Goblet Squat x 15
TRX Row x 10
Single-leg Glute Bridge x 12
Feet-elevated Push-up x 8
Side Plank Row x 10
Rest 2 minutes after completing the whole circuit. Repeat for 2-4 sets and you have yourself a dandy of a metabolic resistance training workout for the day.
I hope by this point I’ve shed some light on the reasons why eating too few calories and training too much like a madman can have negative affects and slow your progress. You should have a clearer picture on what constitutes a sound nutrition and training program, that will give you results lasting for weeks and months.
if you want the quick and dirty of it all, here’s what I’m sayin':
- Counting your calories isn’t 100% necessary. If you were to measure your portions from this day forward by using your hand, you’ll make great progress, quickly. It's relative to your body size, so it will be completely customized to you.
- If you still feel you need/want to count calories, use the simple bodyweight x 10-12 formula to give you a good ballpark number to achieve each day.
- Aim for 3 hours a week of strength training. This should be the main focus, done in a metabolically demanding fashion. If you have more than 3 hours a week to exercise, the over and above time can be spent on metabolic intervals, or steady state “aerobic” activity.
The last point I will leave you with is, if and when you do come across a plateau, don’t try and bust out of it by starting with calorie cutting. Everyone wants to slash calories right away, but I want you to be smarter than that.
I want you to bump up your calorie deficit with additional exercise first. Find just a little more time in your week, even if it’s just an additional 10 minutes each workout, to spend on more training. Then, if you hit another plateau, you can shave some calories. Always create your deficit by upping exercise first, slashing calories second (if need be).
I hope that clears up one of the most common mistakes people make with their weight loss. You now have two strategies to put to use to start moving forward again.
Till next time,
Weight Loss Mini-Course