By Mike Samuels – Healthy Living, Heavy Lifting
Getting lean is a simple process: you burn more calories than you consume, and you lift some weights. If you do this consistently, then you can get shredded.
So, why are so many people getting it wrong?
We have guys who are trying to lose fat, claiming that the pouch around their middles must just be water weight. Then there are those who declare that they are 10% body fat…but in reality the only six-pack they have is the one they pick up from the store on their way home from work.
However, you also have the guys who go the other way. These stick thin dudes might have abs, or a mighty impressive biceps vein, but they are weak as piss. They’ve sacrificed muscle and might so they can post shirtless pictures of themselves on Instagram. Like boobs on a fat chick, abs on a guy with no muscle just don’t count.
Shredding fat while maintaining muscle and strength is a bit more difficult than simply losing weight, but even this should be fairly straightforward. Here’s where you could be going wrong:
1. You Don’t Care About Calories
Calorie counting might be about as cool as Pokémon cards and Tamagochis, but you need some kind of handle on your calorie intake. Tracking and monitoring calories is essential to reaching your goals. Not losing fat? You’re eating too many. Losing fat but getting weak and losing mass? You’re not eating enough. Before looking at anything more advanced, it’s vital to get your calories in line.
“Eating clean” is not enough. Eat too many clean foods and you still get fat. Wild salmon, organic almonds, peanut butter, and brown rice may be healthy, but it’s incredibly easy to overeat them, resulting in stalled fat loss or even fat gain. Some folks can instinctively gauge and manipulate their calorie intake for their goals, but they’re few and far between. For everyone else, finding a form of tracking calories is vital.
You could go old school with a pen and paper and spend hours pouring over food wrappers, but a much easier option is to use a website or download a tracking app for your phone.
How many calories should you be consuming? As a rough guide, men need around 14 to 16 calories per pound to maintain bodyweight, and women need 12 to 14 calories per pound. You can adjust this by either subtracting 15 to 25 percent from your maintenance calories for fat loss or by adding 10 to 20 percent for muscle gain.
2. You Care Too Much About Calories
Contradiction? Not exactly. As much as calories matter, they’re not the be-all end-all. Macronutrients come into play, too. If you were to hit your exact calorie target for fat loss but consume inadequate amounts of protein, then you would lose weight but a high percentage of this would be muscle. Ditto, on a bulk when you are consuming insufficient protein and a high amount of carbohydrate and fat. In this case, you’re unlikely to build much in the way of lean tissue.
The solution? Set yourself some macronutrient guidelines.
I have clients hit:
- A minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. (This increases to one gram per pound when in a deficit.)
- A minimum of 0.35 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight.
Once these are hit, then you can make up the rest of the calories as you see fit.
One caveat to this is that carbs are vital, both for recovery and performance purposes. While most people will err toward getting the remaining calories from carbs. (Simply because carbs are awesome!) I’d also recommend a minimum fiber intake of 12 grams per 1,000 calories to ensure that you’re not just getting all your calories from protein and fat.
3. You Obsess Over Food Choices
Eating good, nutrient-dense food is important, but the quantity of the foods you eat matters much more than the quality.
As I mentioned earlier, our clean-eating friends often eat very healthy foods, but they struggle to get anywhere because clean diets tend to be very high in calories (due to a high intake of healthy fats.) In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter whether you eat brown rice or white rice at dinner, choose oats or Fruit Loops post workout, or whether you fork out the extra money for organic, grass-fed beef rather than the regular stuff. Hit your macronutrients, aim for mainly healthy food choices, and everything else will fall into place.
4. You Completely Neglect Nutrient Timing
Nutrient timing has been getting a bad rap as of late, but it still matters. That’s not to say that you need to slam your hydrolysed whey shake mixed with dextrose within 60 seconds of finishing your workout, or pop BCAA pills during training. However, to maintain optimal performance, what you eat around your sessions does matter.
Training is too often underrated with people looking to improve body composition, but maintaining strength is paramount when cutting fat. For one thing, keeping your strength levels up and hitting your numbers on the squat, bench, and deadlift is a good sign that you’re maintaining mass. Secondly, anyone who is serious about training, or any competing lifter, will want to use a cut as a chance to improve his strength-to-weight ratio and make himself more competitive in meets–not have both bodyweight and strength go down.
The key to nutrient timing is simple: find what works for you. Most people will find that they perform best two to three hours after a moderately sized mixed meal, with a focus on carbs and protein. Alternatively, you might find that a smaller snack just 30 to 60 minutes before you train works best. Throw some caffeine or a pre-workout into the mix, and you’re good to go.
And for post-workout? The notion that there is a magical post-workout window in which you must get in protein and fast-acting carbs appears to be false.However, consuming something within three to four hours of your pre-workout meal (or five to six hours if you ate a larger meal pre-workout) seems to have benefits in terms of strength and hypertrophy (1). This isn’t to say that training fasted doesn’t work. If it suits your lifestyle and preferences, then go for it; however, ensuring that workout nutrition allows you to perform optimally should be at the forefront of your mind when planning your diet.
5. You Place Needless Restrictions on Yourself
Avoiding gluten? Avoiding dairy? Are you celiac or lactose intolerant? If you answered “no,” then there’s no need to answer “yes” to the first two. Too many dieters follow “rules” that don’t apply to them. If you genuinely don’t enjoy gluten and dairy (or grains, beans, or any other commonly banned foods in rules-based diets) or don’t feel great after eating them, then it’s fine to avoid them. If, however, you do enjoy these foods and suffer no negative effects from them (not to mention that eating them makes sticking to your diet easier), then include them in your diet. By not allowing yourself to eat certain foods or food groups, you often crave them more. This, unfortunately, often results in gorging on them on cheat or “binge” days.
Does Your Diet Suck?
Planning a diet is relatively simple, but so many athletes screw it up. So try to stick to the golden rules:
- Consume an appropriate number of calories.
- Hit your protein, fat, and fiber minimums.
- Consume mainly nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods.
- Include foods that you enjoy.
- Ensure your nutrition allows you to perform at your best.
If you do this, then your diet definitely doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s pretty damn good.