The timing was perfect.
Just as I was writing a post on the Most Common Fat Loss Mistakes, I had several readers contact me within a week asking for help on the very subject of diets gone wrong.
But one reader's plight really jumped out at me.
Frustrated, Jeff wrote in saying…
I'm 30. 5'10”, 164 lbs.
– Recently I lost 30 lbs in about 3 months. I did this by eating 1200 calories a day and working out 5 days a week (3 big lifts, 2 cardio/isolation)
– Comparatively I look great. Much thinner went from a skin tight 34′ pant to a loose 32. Healthier and happier.
– Here is the problem. I went and did a dexascan and I'm still 29% body fat! Apparently I have a thin layer of fat spread over my entire body, and I am under muscled, particularly around my core.
– So what do I do next?
After corresponding back and forth with Jeff, it was clear that he had done several things right and was capable of extreme dedication to his goals.
Before embarking on his diet, Jeff weighed 194 lbs.
His diet and exercise regimens at that time looked like this:
|Daily intake||2,500 - 3,000 (less than perfect) calories, not tracking protein|
|Weightlifting||Consistently lifting for 3 months prior to beginning diet|
|Cardio||Recreational hiking and other mountain sports|
Eager to lose weight, Jeff made a drastic cut in his calories and made some changes to his gym routine:
|Daily intake||1,200 calories, not tracking protein|
|Weightlifting||3 full body workouts per week, 2 isolation exercise workouts per week|
|Cardio||2 days of cardio per week (on isolation days), skiing on weekends|
As a result of this dramatic and swift reduction of calories and increased workload, Jeff dropped 30 lbs in only 3 months, ending up at 164 lbs.
Unfortunately, he also reported a significant loss of strength and muscle mass.
And, of course, the DEXA scan found that he was still 29% body fat despite all his efforts.
In a moment, we'll review what this did to his metabolic rate, which was my main concern.
Jeff's Current Goals
Jeff wants to:
- Be lean and muscular at 160 lbs and 10% body fat.
- Increase his strength on his main lifts.
- Be able to maintain his weight on well over 2,000 calories per day.
To get where he wants to be, he needs to add a significant amount of muscle mass while substantially reducing body fat.
To create a program that allows Jeff to meet his body goals, we have to think a little bit about the challenges he's facing.
As I wrote about in my Skinny/Fat Guide, many guys are up against a wall when it comes to transforming their physiques.
For men who are just plain skinny, the solution is to simply gain weight overall. Even if some fat accumulation happens, it'll most likely be welcome body mass.
For the stocky guys with a good base of muscle but a little too much fat around the middle, the aim is to just slim down.
In either of these scenarios, the plan is simple. Just set your sights on that singular goal and give it hell.
But the majority of guys have two goals that absolutely must be accomplished before an aesthetic physique can be achieved.
Like me when I was starting out, Jeff is solidly within this last group.
While I think the methodology could have been better, I have to commend Jeff on his discipline and determination.
He saw a problem, created a plan of attack, and then executed it with enthusiasm and diligence.
How many of us out there can go from eating up to 3,000 calories per day down to 1,200 without a hitch?
I know I'd be unlikely to stick to such a daunting diet at this point in time.
So let's dive in to Jeff's plan.
What Jeff is doing right
Even though Jeff emailed me for help with his problem, he was obviously doing many things correctly in order to lose 30 lbs in 3 months.
He has measurable, long term goals
Rather than saying, “I'm going to start exercising, change my diet, and see what happens,” Jeff has very specific goals of where he wants to end up.
He wants to be 160 lbs at 10% body fat and has specific strength goals for his main lifts.
A body weight of 160 lbs is measurable, 10% body fat is measurable, and 1 rep maximums are measurable. So far so good.
He has a plan of attack
Jeff wants to be a certain weight and body fat percentage, so he set a daily caloric limit and implemented a cardio program to get him there.
He wants to attain a high strength-to-weight ratio, so he's following an appropriate 5×5 lifting routine.
He doesn't overdo the exercise
Jeff is doing 3 full body workouts and 2 cardio and isolation exercise sessions per week.
Most guys make the mistake of doing 6 hours of cardio per week right out of the gate when starting a fat loss plan.
That may be great for immediate results, but it doesn't leave you much room to increase activity once the weight loss slows or stops all together.
He tracks his intake
Jeff set his calorie goal and tracked everything in a spreadsheet.
He doesn't just estimate how much he's eating, he's certain of it.
Not only does Jeff have a plan of attack and a method of tracking, he sticks to it EVERY DAY!
He sees the big picture
Beyond just wanting to look a certain way, Jeff wants to improve his cardio and strength-to-weight ratio to improve his performance in outdoor/mountain sports.
Having a larger, lifestyle goal in mind will improve program adherence.
Basically, you need to want more out of life than just having abs (sounds crazy, I know, but it's true). Jeff gets this.
What Jeff did wrong
While Jeff's plan was ambitious and well intentioned and he did a lot right, there were a couple significant “misses” in his program. It's those shortcomings that led to his current stats.
He cut too many calories too fast
This is the elephant in the room.
Whatever you cut your calories to will eventually become your maintenance level!
Before his fat loss diet, Jeff was enjoying a beer and pasta heavy 2,500 – 3,000 calorie per day diet.
He then abruptly slashed his daily intake to 1,200 calories.
While this is great for quick results, it isn't the best approach for sustained weight loss, muscle building, or muscle retention.
If he'd continued down this path, I fear he would've ended up seriously under-muscled, still overly fat, and with a wrecked metabolism to boot, unable to make anymore calorie cuts.
He didn't get enough protein
Jeff didn't specifically track his protein or give it much priority, but he estimated it was about 100g per day.
During a bulking cycle, I would advise him to get at least 1 g per pound of bodyweight, or at least 160 g.
I would recommend even more during a cut.
Not only is protein responsible for building new muscle, it has a major role in muscle preservation during a caloric deficit.
To further support a high protein diet, protein has the highest thermic effect of food out of all three macronutrients.
This means that you can consume more calories than your body will actually net because protein takes around 30% of its own calories to digest.
Getting a higher percentage of his calories from protein will help Jeff increase the total number of calories he can eat.
The Recovery Plan
Jeff has already enacted this recovery plan. Our first priority was to stop any further metabolic damage and muscle loss by taking the following steps.
The first order of business was to get his caloric intake up to maintenance level so we could assess the situation.
He was already working his calories back up so I asked Jeff to keep adding another 100 calories to his total every week until his weight loss stopped.
After slowly increasing his calories, he's found that he's now maintaining at 1,600 calories per day!
Obviously that's not ideal.
Once we had Jeff's new maintenance calories established, I asked him to increase his protein intake up to 160g per day while keeping overall calories the same.
Having the elevated protein intake is going to help him get his maintenance calories higher, control hunger, stop muscle loss, and hopefully bring back any lost muscle.
Now that we have the brakes applied to this weight loss train, it's time to move forward.
The number one most important goal on a fat loss program is to retain muscle mass.
Not losing weight at all is better than losing muscle and fat equally at any rate.
So it's always best to err on the side of caution.
This is going to be a multi-stage process
Jeff is 164 lbs at 29% body fat.
If we do the math (0.71% lean mass x 164 lbs), we see that he has 116.4 lbs of lean body mass.
Unless he increases his lean muscle mass, he'd have to get down to about 125 lbs to achieve his body fat percentage goal!
This doesn't align with what he wants for his physique, so at some point he's going to have to work on building his body.
Since Jeff is relatively new to consistent and structured weight training, he's still prime for newbie gains and can potentially build muscle while he drops fat, provided he eats just under maintenance.
NOTE: The diet is the linchpin in this scenario, so Jeff can continue on with his current lifting and cardio routine.
I want Jeff to lose weight at a more controlled rate and make body composition shifts for as long as he's comfortable.
Right now, I think he can slowly increase his calories to at least 1,800 – 2,000 per day without the fear of gaining fat.
The scale may jump, but it'll be a rebound in muscle mass and glycogen stores.
He should stick to the higher protein intake and between 1,800 – 2,000 calorie per day for as long as he can maintain his strength and lose fat.
The turning point will be when the results stop or he starts to feel too skinny, probably around 150 lbs.
At that time, I want him to go on a mini (clean) bulk for a couple months to regain some muscle mass, bring back lost strength, and reset hunger hormones.
He'll do this by adding 200-300 calories to his daily total and holding steady for as long as the scale creeps up.
When his weight stabilizes, he can add another 200-300 calories and repeat the process several times.
After the severe caloric restriction, his body will be eager to pack on lost muscle mass in the presence of additional calories.
Now, as a result of increasing muscle mass and reseting hormones, his maintenance level will be well over 2,000 calories per day and he'll be in a much better position for fat loss.
Once he reaches this point, he'll be ready to begin cutting at a much slower rate than he attempted with his previous diet, and can begin chipping away at his daily calories to reveal his new muscle mass.
What you can learn from Jeff
The importance of muscle mass
You probably don't care to look like a competitive bodybuilder, but the importance of muscle mass still cannot be overstated.
Everyone likes to focus on fat loss, but even at 5'10” and 160 lbs, you won't have the body you want unless a strong foundation of muscle is built first.
Take it slow
I can only think of two cases where aggressive fat loss is going to be your best choice.
One, for the morbidly obese. Losing weight at a moderate 1/2-pound per week would take a lifetime if you have that much to lose.
When it comes down to health, rather than aesthetics and strength, who cares if you lose a little muscle in the process of saving your life?
And two, extreme mesomorphs.
If you look like a retired linebacker, have cannon ball shoulders, and can deadlift four plates despite not having set foot in a gym for over a decade, you can probably retain muscle even on a serious caloric restriction.
But for the rest of us, a more conservative rate of fat loss is much more appropriate.
Sometimes you have to take a step back
This isn't what most people want to hear and it isn't the best marketing strategy for a coach.
But when guys approach me saying that their weight loss has stalled even though they only eat 1,400 calories a day and do an hour of cardio 7 days per week (this happens a lot), what else do they think they have to give?
At that point, it's best to change gears and work on building muscle for a while.
You'll “recharge your batteries” and be in top fighting shape to take a running start at fat loss in a couple months.
When people look at my before and after picture, they assume it was a linear process, but in reality, my progress was the result of a dozen bulking and cutting cycles.
If you have normal testosterone levels, it may only take you a couple times up and down in body weight before you settle on your ideal physique.
As you can see, your best chance at long-term success is to take a moderate approach from the beginning.
I would much rather lose weight on 2,700 calories per day than 1,200. Wouldn't you?
But if you've already made the mistake of getting too aggressive with your fat loss attempts (don't feel bad, I've done it several times), make peace with the fact that you'll have to do a little backtracking at some point to ultimately end up where you want to be.
It'll be worth it!
All the best,