Nutrition Training

10 Most Common Fat Loss Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

When it comes to fat loss, most guys take an on/off approach, completely overhauling everything about their diet and training.

But really, the same foods and techniques that were so good at making you big and muscular during the colder months are the very same things that will get you ripped come summer.

You just need to vary the amounts.

I like to take a “dimmer switch” approach and slowly transition from building phases to chiseling down.

As our friend Jeff helped illustrate in this Reader Case Study, making sudden, drastic changes can lead to some seriously undesirable results.

Here are the 10 most common fat loss mistakes I see on a consistent basis.

1. Dropping calories too quickly

This is the big one. If you take away nothing else from this article, pay attention here.

Many well-intentioned fat loss programs involve going from 3,500 calories of pub food immediately down to 1,800 calories of lettuce, chicken, and rice.

Right away the weight starts to slide off. Great!

But then, so does the muscle and strength. Not so great.

When guys decide to apply the brakes, it’s often too late and they find that they’re now maintaining their current body weight on a measly 2,000 calories per day.

On top of that, they end up gaining even more fat than they had to begin with as soon as normal eating habits resume.

Talk about a kick in the balls!

But if you can reign yourself in and accept a more conservative approach, losing a consistent 1 lb per week, you’ll have a much better chance at maintaining your current level of muscle mass.

Even with this conservative approach, you’ll look dramatically different in just 3-4 months when you’re 12-16 lbs lighter.

If that doesn’t sound significant enough to you, imagine what 15 lbs of meat would look like in a shopping cart.

Now envision shedding that from your frame.

And since fat is less dense than muscle (meaning a pound of fat is bigger), that amount of fat loss would appear even more impressive.

Losing an honest 15 lbs of fat will make you look much different!

How to avoid this fat loss mistake

Find out exactly how many calories you’re currently taking in, and then subtract 3oo from that to determine your new daily goal.

Once the scale stops moving, subtract another 300 and keep rolling.

To get to single-digit body fat, it’s inevitable that you’ll start to feel hungry and overworked, but you don’t want to start there from Day One.

2. Decreasing protein

The naturally tendency is to increase protein during a bulk (because you’re building muscle) and to decrease it during a cut (a result of eating less overall).

But this couldn’t be more backwards.

When you’re bulking and in a caloric surplus, your body has plenty of energy coming in the form of carbs and fat and it’ll “spare” protein and allow it to perform its building function.

When you’re dieting, however, you’re in a caloric deficit and your body is calling on all available fuel sources.

But when most guys calculate their macros, they use a percentage of their total caloric intake and not a gram per pound approach.

If we take the common example of getting 30% of your calories from protein, we’re in pretty good shape during a muscle building cycle.

A 185 lb man eating 3,000 calories per day will be getting 225 g protein.

But if this same man is dieting on 2,200 calories per day and uses the same formula, he’ll only be getting 165 g protein.

The percentage is the same, but the gram per pound mark isn’t being met anymore.

How to avoid this fat loss mistake

When calculating your protein needs, stick to a “grams per pound of lean body mass” model versus using a percentage, especially during a cut.

If you’re bulking, you’ll be just fine with 1 gram per pound, but for cutting, opt for at least 1.25 g protein per pound or even 1.5 g per pound if calories get really low.

3. Increasing training volume

The instinctive thing to do when starting a cut is to really ramp up training volume.

Guys pile on the exercises, add extra sets, and decrease rest periods because they really “feel” like they’re working.

They’re sweating, breathing heavily, and their muscles are screaming, so they must be getting ripped, right?

I know this sounds like a solid plan of attack and it does indeed burn more calories than a strength-focused lifting program.

But it ignores one very important factor: you simply don’t have the same recovery abilities when you’re eating below maintenance.

Using multiple variations of the same exercise and hitting a muscle from every angle with an array of isolation exercises is great for stimulating maximal muscle fibers during a growth phase.

But when calories are limited and you already have trouble recovering from one workout to the next, this approach will do more harm than good.

How to avoid this fat loss mistake

Instead of following a high volume and low rest “fat loss” program like this:

  • Lat Pulldowns – 3×12-15
  • Cable rows – 3×12-15
  • Pullups – 3 sets max reps
  • One arm rows – 3×10-12
  • Deadlifts – 5×5
  • Dumbbell shrugs – 3×8-10
  • Rear laterals – 3×15-20

Stick to a program closer to this when you’re deep into your cutting cycle:

  • Pull-ups – 5 sets stopping 1 or 2 reps short of failure
  • One arm rows – 4 sets of 8-10
  • Deadlift – 1 max set of 5

In this modified program, we’re eliminating repetitiveness (i.e., not doing pull-ups and pulldowns), ditching the less productive isolation exercises, and adding a couple more sets of the important exercises.

And as full recovery from deadlifts can take a long time, we’ll keep that to one heavy set.

You’re still going to hit all of the same muscles, but you’ll have a much better chance of coming in for the next workout stronger or at least just as strong.

4. Nixing the heavy sets

fat loss mistakes heavy sets

As a direct result of increasing training volume, the heavy sets often become a casualty.

But the number one goal of a cutting cycle is to maintain muscle mass!

Failing to put an emphasis on maintaining strength is the best way to make sure you look terribly skinny, rather than ripped come beach season.

If you aren’t signaling to your body that muscle mass is of the utmost importance to survival, it’ll view muscle as nonessential.

Naturally skinny (ectomorphs) and skinny/fat guys are particularly susceptible to loss of muscle mass.

For us, having a decent amount of muscle mass is so far above our natural levels that our bodies would rather cut things back to baseline.

Now naturally, as you get deeper and deeper into a caloric deficit, your strength is going to decrease some.

But fight the temptation to throw in the towel on the heavy sets and do your best to at least match your bulking season lifts.

And if you miss a rep or two, don’t beat yourself up – just keep fighting to maintain everything you can.

How to avoid this fat loss mistake

Let’s say your bulking season bench press routine looks something like this:

135×12, 185×10, 205×8, 225×6, 205×6, 185×8, 135×8

When you get deeper into your cutting cycle and your energy and recovery abilities become a much more precious commodity, modify it in this way:

135×10, 185×8, 205×5, 225×6

You’ll save some energy on the warm-up sets, still match the ever-important heavy set, and ditch the last two volume sets that won’t do much more than dig into your recovery abilities anyway.

The main goal is to maintain the ability to lift 225 for the same number of reps.

Accomplish this for all of your main lifts and you’ll likely retain most of your muscle mass and end up shredded instead of just skinny.

5. Arbitrarily cutting carbs

I really love low-carb dieting.

It’s awesome for appetite control, weight loss, and providing nice, even blood sugar levels.

But abruptly dropping carbs from your diet the second you decide to shift into fat loss mode can be counterproductive.

It takes time to get used to a low-carb diet. Making the change too soon can cause your training to suffer.

Guys often report having the “low-carb flu” during the first several weeks of the diet.

Combine these flu-like symptoms with a caloric deficit and you’re sure to suffer in the gym and in terms of muscle retention.

How to avoid this fat loss mistake

If you’re just itching to start a really low-carb diet, go for it. Because they really do work.

But if you’re hesitant or feel that this isn’t the diet for you, don’t worry because going low-carb isn’t essential for fat loss.

It’s best to chip away at carbs slowly as a way to reduce overall calories as the weather gets warmer and warmer.

For example, let’s say you’re eating 225 g protein, 80 g fat, and 400 g carbs.

To initiate fat loss, you can cut carbs back to 350 g, ride that until weight loss tapers off, and then reduce it by another 50g to get the ball rolling again.

If you prefer the simplest approach, keep fat and protein the same whether you’re bulking or cutting and only raise and lower carbs.

6. Overemphasizing cardio

Cardio is great for overall health and it does burn extra calories.

But it also taps into your limited energy (and motivation), stimulates appetite, trains your body for endurance rather than strength, and can be mentally taxing.

I’m not saying to eliminate cardio. But don’t obsess over burning 500 calories a day on the Stairmaster.

You’ll lose steam quicker than you’ll drop body fat.

Don’t forget that weightlifting also burns roughly 200-300 calories per hour.

So cardio isn’t actually that far ahead in terms of calories burned and it’s actually inferior to lifting in muscle retention.

Combine a solid bodybuilding program with a reasonable diet and you really don’t need much cardio to burn extra calories.

How to avoid this fat loss mistake

Start off your cutting cycle with a very moderate amount of cardio – say two 15-minute sessions of steady state cardio per week (my favorite is walking at max incline on the treadmill).

As time rolls on, add a third and possibly fourth session.

When you need another boost, switch one or two of your sessions to intervals.

Then, tack on a few minutes to each session to keep the fat coming off.

7. Failing to control appetite

Just about any diet will work…on paper, that is.

The formula is actually very simple: caloric deficit + time = weight loss

But the problem is sticking to the plan.

Humans are programmed to put on body fat when calories are readily available in preparation for inevitable lean times.

The problem now is, calories are always abundant and the lean times never come.

So we end up in an unbalanced state, getting fatter and fatter.

And it’s a constant battle!

Smells waft from the burger joint, Mary brings in donuts to the office for the third time this week, and it’s someone’s birthday again!?

To make things even more difficult, through hormonal changes, our bodies increase our appetites when we diet because they perceive famine.

So he who can control his appetite wins the war on fat loss.

How to avoid this fat loss mistake

Read this article for everything you need to know about appetite control.

8. Not using the right supplements

I’m a big fan of analogies, so I’ll use one here to explain my view on supplements.

If you head over to the local auto parts store and pick up some of the “good” spark plugs and put them in your 1998 Toyota Camry, it isn’t going to make a bit of difference.

But if you’ve spent $10k building the engine on your weekend track-day car, you aren’t going to install the regular spark plugs in order to save a few bucks.

Supplements are the same way.

They aren’t going to produce results on their own, but don’t sacrifice potential benefits because you want to take a hard stance against them.

If you’re putting everything you have into dieting and training, all you can do from there is use supplements to help stack the deck in your favor.

And when calories are low, supplements become more important than ever.

Here are my favorites

The first two on my list are supplements that I use daily and think are the best all around supplements to support fat loss.

The last two are the next level supplements that can help you shed fat when you’re ready to kick things up a notch.

Coffee

Coffee is an amazing appetite suppressant. Plus, the caffeine helps mobilize fatty acids from tissue and into the bloodstream and increases thermogenesis (metabolic rate).

So you basically have a three-pronged attack aimed directly at destroying fat cells.

My current favorite is from RED Supplements.

BCAAs

Branch chain amino acids are important to have before fasted cardio or to give your body an amino spike between meals to prevent muscle loss.

I’m using and really liking this one with added caffeine to fuel my otherwise fasted 6 am workouts.

Ostarine

This by far the best muscle preservation supplement on the market (I’m going to use this one in the spring). It was actually created as a medication designed for people with muscle wasting conditions.

1 Andro

I ran a cycle of Super Mandro and gained muscle even though my body fat stayed the same or maybe even decreased slightly. It’s definitely worth a run if being both lean and muscular is your goal.

1 andro

9. Abusing Failure

Taking sets to failure or using some shocking techniques to go beyond failure is a great way to accelerate muscle growth…when calories are abundant, that is.

But during a fat loss phase, muscle growth isn’t as likely and your better off thinking in terms of preservation.

That means not beating your body down too hard.

When you’re in a caloric deficit, it’s not only more difficult to recover from intense workouts in terms of muscle and connective tissue, but you can also become neurologically fatigued.

The main idea is to hit your heavy sets, signaling to your body that muscle mass is still very much essential to survival so it’ll hang on to every last fiber and let fat come off first.

How to avoid this fat loss mistake

Ease up on yourself (just a little) during fat loss stages and take most sets to about one rep shy of failure.

Basically, stop a set when you feel the next rep would cause you to bounce the weight, loosen your form, or just plain cheat the rep.

10. Using too many tactics at once

And the worst case scenario, using all of the above mentioned techniques at once.

I’ve certainly been guilty of this in the past.

I decided it was time to cut and schemed up the absolute most perfect plan to get shredded.

So I started out with high volume weight training, 5 days of cardio, and cut the carbs all at the same time.

Then, I inevitably hit a weight loss plateau, but I was all out of tools.

I was feeling run down, weak as a kitten, and missing several pounds of muscle.

I failed to account for the combined effects of my intensive efforts on my metabolism.

When you eat at a deficit, your metabolism will naturally down regulate to protect you from perceived “famine” and then drop a little more from the inevitable loss of lean body mass.

You always need another “tool” in your back pocket to prevent you from getting stuck.

Don’t exhaust every tool at once and have the patience to implement one change at a time.

There will always be time to eat less and work more – don’t be in a hurry and back yourself into a corner.

All the best,

Nate

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Damian Pros
    February 5, 2016 at 2:28 am

    Excellent analysis Nate.

    Here is another mistake.

    #11 – Expecting To Get Hollywood-Like Shredded Abs In 1-2 Months And Then Quitting Because It Didn’t Happen

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 5, 2016 at 5:27 am

      Exactly! And on that note, following any plan with a time frame. 30 days to abs and 8 weeks to shredded plans only work for those who are just about there anyway. As always, great contribution, Damian!

  • Reply
    Rob
    February 5, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Love the article Nate, I’m with you on this stuff, barring the carb cutting (until the very last minute, not literally), I like to keep my donut and cake intake high and kill the workouts – If I’m getting ready to compete then cakes have to come out around the 4-6week mark but if I can keep my cals high and get super lean then that’s a win… Like you say the more you can keep in and still get lean the more you can play with later. Keep up the good work – definitely one of the best blog/websites out there.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 5, 2016 at 9:18 am

      That’s awesome that you can keep cake in your diet until 4-6 weeks out from a contest! Can you share a couple other strategies you’ve come to rely on over the years?

      • Reply
        Rob
        February 6, 2016 at 5:15 am

        Hey Nate,

        Yeah sure, I usually keep sub 10% all year round and during summer months (when it’s light outside) I employ two a day training three days a week and I always weight train 6 days a week. Usually in the gym for about an hour and 10. It’s all ball to the wall training 45-60 second rest periods. I always lift heavy on compound stuff which was tough when I started short rest periods but your endurance and strength goes back up. A lot of super sets and droplets too…..Then I usually enjoy chocolate milk as my post workout carbs as well as a protein shake. I try to get a 15 minute stairmaster session in after every workout too. Apologies if this a little all over the place I’m writing it on a train ha. Happy to share any more info though.

        • Reply
          Nate
          February 6, 2016 at 6:51 am

          That sounds like a brutal plan, Rob! I like to use a lot of alternating sets, vs supersets, with about a minute of two rest between chest and back exercises. Thanks for the info, it’s always great to get another perspective from experienced lifters.

  • Reply
    Tim
    February 5, 2016 at 8:35 am

    Lot of really useful stuff. Some of things I’m already using to success.

    I stopped bulking in December, and starting cutting AND started a strength building routine in January. The routine (How to build a classic physique by Matt Marshall) is designed to start very light and build up over time with an emphasis on strength, without lots of volume. Also, I cut back to 1 meal a day most days, with coffee and/or fresh juice throughout the day before my meal.

    During my bulking, I was walking around an average of ~210lbs at 6′. Just this morning (before I started my 6:30 am workout) I came in at 197.6lb, and have been sub 200lbs most days. My plan is to maintain this until my recovery ability is hindered by my weights/calorie ratio. At this point, I’ll intentionally add in a second meal each day and start adding the supplements (ostarine/1 Andro type stuff). And of course during this whole time, mega dosing dietary supplements (multivitamins, liver tabs, omega 3, zinc, etc.)

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 5, 2016 at 9:21 am

      I’m glad you’re making such great progress, Tim! Are you tracking how much you eat or are you just eating until full at that one meal?

      • Reply
        Tim
        February 5, 2016 at 10:19 am

        I only track my workouts, not my food. I typically just eat until I’m full or satiated. Some days, by the time I stop being productive I’ve been so focused all day, had enough coffee, and am so used to fasting I don’t even feel hungry. On those days I usually make an omelette of about 6 eggs or even just make a quick milkshake with eggs, cream, milk and protein powder and call it a day (because I know if I don’t eat, I WILL regret it the next day when performance suffers).

        • Reply
          Nate
          February 5, 2016 at 11:12 am

          That’s excellent. That’s one of the major benefits of Intermittent Fasting. As long as you don’t have a fat kid appetite, you don’t necessarily have to track your intake. I however, was able to steadily gain weight while fasting for 18 hrs per day, even before TRT.

  • Reply
    Jacob
    February 5, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    Good stuff as always, Nate. One thing I’ve found that works for me this week is eating a small snack for lunch and saving the majority of my caloric intake for dinner. For lunch I’d get a couple of full-fat cheese sticks (string cheese, whatever you call them) and a couple spoonfuls of almond butter with chia seeds (Barney Butter was the brand). The combination of fat and protein kept me full while keeping the calories low. Have felt great all week with no energy crashes. I haven’t really watched what I ate at dinner…I just skip anything terrible like cookies or cupcakes.

    After a week I’ve lost 4-5 pounds.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 5, 2016 at 2:41 pm

      That’s awesome! It’s all about finding the little tricks that work best for you. I’m “saving up” right now and I’m looking at a 1,600 calorie dinner to meet my macros. Life is good!

  • Reply
    Jinzang
    February 5, 2016 at 6:26 pm

    Study at McMaster shows you can lose fat and gain muscle even on a 40% calorie deficit with sufficient protein and weight training.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/how-to-lose-weight-and-gain-muscle-fast-new-mcmaster-study-1.3423359

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 6, 2016 at 7:07 am

      That’s interesting. It definitely highlights the importance of protein and weight training. I didn’t see a link to the original study, but I would have to guess that these guys were completely new to exercise and almost anything they do would likely lead to muscle gain and fat loss. That doesn’t explain why every experienced lifter on the planet loses muscle mass when they diet, even the professionals. Also, if this was applicable to everyone, there would be no such thing a bulking cycles. People would just get bigger and leaner indefinitely. Thanks for the info!

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