Nutrition Training

I lost 30 lbs but I’m Still 29% Body Fat – Help! (Reader Case Study)

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.

Jeff's Overview

Before embarking on his diet, Jeff weighed 194 lbs.

His diet and exercise regimens at that time looked like this:

Daily intake2,500 - 3,000 (less than perfect) calories, not tracking protein
WeightliftingConsistently lifting for 3 months prior to beginning diet
CardioRecreational 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 intake1,200 calories, not tracking protein
Weightlifting3 full body workouts per week, 2 isolation exercise workouts per week
Cardio2 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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Seriously disciplined!

case study initial weight loss

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.

Specifically…

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.

He's consistent

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

case study weight loss chart

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

case study jeff maintenance

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.

Step 1

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.

Step 2

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.

Moving Forward

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.

Step 1

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.

Step 2

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.

Step 3

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.

Take away

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,

Nate

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    Florian Ulrich
    January 31, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    This is really awesome. I am also working on losing body fat, and here I got some primers as to how to make my diet and routine more specific. Thanks!

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 1, 2016 at 8:23 am

      That’s great to hear, Florian! I’m working on a “Most common fat loss mistakes” article that should help you even more. I’m aiming to have that out this week.

  • Reply
    Max
    February 1, 2016 at 4:06 am

    Fantastic insight in this post, much of this was new to me. Your posts lately have really been top notch. Keep up the great work.

    –Max

  • Reply
    Derek
    February 1, 2016 at 10:09 am

    Fantastic post as usual.
    I’m curious to know your thoughts about recomping.

    Two weeks ago I started hitting my macros and doing my very first serious cut.
    27 y/o, office job, I started with the iron last year.

    This happened in 14 days (lifting 3x a week, cardio 1x, 1800 kcals a day) :

    Total 192 lbs > 188 lbs
    Muscle 81,7 lbs > 83,3 lbs
    Fat 48.7 > 42.1

    Is it too soon to celebrate the presence of some hidden action hero genes?
    I mainly thought about newbie gains or a muscle starting to feel like a muscle again.

    Thanks
    Derek

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 1, 2016 at 2:34 pm

      Haha, you may have some action hero genes! But seriously, most guys can see a recomp effect in the first 6 months of training or when drugs are introduced. But even then it’s limited. Even pro bodybuilders bulk and cut and they have the absolute best genetics and the perfect concoction of drugs. How did you get those numbers?

      • Reply
        Derek
        February 1, 2016 at 3:25 pm

        BIA done with a decent machine and constant variables (each monday morning on empty stomach). What’s your favorite method of estimating BF at the moment?
        Mine is bioelectrical impedance analysis plus common sense, mirror and minus ego.
        D.

        • Reply
          Nate
          February 1, 2016 at 6:47 pm

          That’s good that you were consistent and that’s a decent method. I think the most accurate is the DEXA scan and underwater weighing, but those aren’t accessible to everyone. I like to use the 7 site test with calipers. I used quite a few methods during my labs in college and they all had a margin of error of at least a few percent. I like to do as you suggest, monitor the mirror and the scale. I also use strength as a variable. If I feel like I’m losing muscle, but I’m getting stronger or maintaining, I know it’s all in my head.

  • Reply
    Dman
    February 1, 2016 at 11:36 am

    Amazing post. Especially about the non linear nature of it all. I think I will probably fall into that camp. I’m 5’9, 164, 22% bf by dexa. I’m starting a protein sparing modified fast, and before reading you I thought it would be linear. But now I’m thinking I’ll probably need a bunch of cut/bulk cycles to get where I want to be.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 1, 2016 at 2:31 pm

      Yeah, it isn’t what most people want to hear, but it’s only a select few guys who can start working out and just continue to get bigger and leaner at the same time. Doesn’t mean it can’t be done, though. I can tell you first hand that the work is definitely worth it in the long run!

  • Reply
    John
    February 1, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    This same situation happened to me. I lost about 50 lbs by cutting calories down to between 800 – 1,200 per day and doing 2- 3 hours of cardio daily (I work from home so I would go in the morning, lunchtime, and the evening) over a span of three months.

    I then had a heart attack and could perform no cardio/exercising for about several months. This combined with eating more and I am now just ten pounds away from my original starting weight and am having a real tough time losing weight again (though I feel I look better than I did originally because I did start lifting weights).

    After reading this article I can see my mistake – cutting calories too low too soon and the insane amount of cardio I was doing. Hopefully this article can save someone else from the same mistake!

    Thanks Nate for the information!

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 1, 2016 at 2:29 pm

      Sorry to hear about your hear attack, John. But I’m glad to hear that you’re getting back at it. Just keep in mind this time, you always want more room to cut calories and occasionally you’ll have to bump them up for a while.

  • Reply
    John Tyndall
    February 1, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    This goes way beyond the typical advice to eat at a caloric deficit to lose weight. I’ve never heard anyone say before that your deficit will become your maintenance, but it is, of course, true and insightful. Looks like you’re recovery plan has Jeff both losing fat and gaining muscle at small increments. With the right macros, do you think it’s possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time to any great extent, or is it true that it just can’t be done for all but absolute beginners to weight lifting?

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 1, 2016 at 6:54 pm

      It’s a sad truth that I had to learn the hard way. During a few of my hurried attempts to lose weight, I ended up maintaining on about half of my previous calories. I had to slowly build back up before I could continue cutting. I’ve also had a few clients come to me and say that they were diligently eating around 1,400 calories for months and they’re maintaining over 220 lbs. I do think it’s possible for some to recomp but it’s never the guys who are overly fat and severely under muscled to start. I’m hoping that since Jeff is still relatively new to lifting, he can recomp if he eats near his new maintenance.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 2, 2016 at 6:52 am

      I forgot to ask for your input. What’s been your personal experience with recomping over the years? Also, in the case of actually making it happen, the results will naturally be much slower. So for my case, I’m already at the weight I want to be and my wardrobe (and thus job) can’t tolerate huge weight fluctuations so I’m content with slow refinement.

      • Reply
        John Tyndall
        February 2, 2016 at 10:44 am

        Thanks for your interest in my input!
        I haven’t always taken exacting measurements on my stats like I do now.
        I recently bulked to a record weight of 240, but my bodyfat made it up to 20%. Funny how the fat does not show when you have a lot of lean mass as well.
        I got a lot of compliments at that weight.
        No matter the look, 20% is unacceptable to me, so I started cutting. I haven’t lost any muscle, but I’m down to 16%.
        So my experiences show that I’ve gained fat with muscle, and the best I can do is hold muscle while cutting. Not sure if that will stay true as I keep cutting.
        A lot of people ask me about the amazing before and after pics on the web of folks who seemed to have both built muscle and lost fat over a few months, and all I can do is speculate.
        It is true that a lighter person with single-digit body fat can look jacked up.
        We’re the same height, and though I’m heavier than you, I feel like you look just as muscular as I ever have!

        • Reply
          Nate
          February 2, 2016 at 11:08 am

          Of course I’m interested in your input! You’ve been in the game for quite a while and you have a rational thought process. That’s awesome that you can get compliments at 240 and 20% BF. I’ve seen plenty of guys that look goofy at single digit body fat and look much better with a little more weight on them. It’s a highly individualized thing, when it’s purely aesthetics. And yeah, it’s crazy how much bigger I look when I lean out. I end up looking smaller/almost average in clothes but shirtless I look at the upper end of athletic. I bet in person you’d dwarf me though.

  • Reply
    Mario
    February 1, 2016 at 10:46 pm

    Hi Nate,
    Interesting case discussed on your blog. I think it reafirms the importance of the right diet while wanting to lose weight. Cutting down calories will reduce the weight, but will get you into a different Muscle/Fat ratio than the desired one.
    Quick question: What are your thoughts on thermogenics to reduce body fat? Are they a Scam or really aid on the objective on reducing body fat?

    Looking forward for your article on Mistakes when trying to lose fat.

    Thanks for your time and effort put into this blog.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 2, 2016 at 6:48 am

      I think thermogenics can work, but they won’t cause weight loss on their own. My friend is a supplement retailer and he give me a lot of fat burner sample packs and I always like to take one before cardio. At the very worst, they function like a pre-workout. At best, they help mobilize fat stores and elevate my energy expenditure, leading to a more effective workout.

  • Reply
    Roy
    February 1, 2016 at 11:46 pm

    Hey Nate,

    Any chance you could make a sample spreadsheet and graph available for those of us who would also like to track everything in similar detail, or suggest one to use?

  • Reply
    Craig
    February 1, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    Great article Nate! Not sure if he is still doing the 3 full body workouts if so he might need to cut that back as well , with all he his doing he is not getting much time for muscle recovery.

  • Reply
    Andhika
    February 3, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Hi Nate,

    Your blog is awesome and really manly..I love the combination between fashion and diet..great job
    May I write some guest post for you?

    Regards
    The Fashion For Men

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