How To Stick To Your Fat Loss Targets
Fat loss is a funny thing. If you asked most people if they’d like to lose a little fat, they’d probably tell you they would. Some of us feel so strongly about this it influences our behaviour on a daily basis. We alter the way we dress, walk, speak about ourselves, interact with others and even our opinions of ourselves as people can be changed by the way we look. I don’t particularly like this aspect of our nature, and a lot of the conversations I have with clients are centred around the fact that your worth as a person doesn’t change regardless of the way your body looks. That isn’t to say it isn’t still a good idea to get into better nick for health, energy, longevity, mood, confidence, and other reasons, but if your primary internal narrative is that you’re somehow “less than” someone or something else because of the shape of your body, you may want to give some serious consideration to giving your head a wobble.
Nevertheless, regardless of motives, fat loss remains to be the single biggest struggle of the gym-going (or every now and again gym-going) population. So, as a guy who’s job it is to help people with that, I thought I might write a few words on the topic.
The issue here isn’t necessarily getting started on a fat loss programme, diet or workout regime. The major issue as I see it, is creating a situation in which sticking to those parameters is easy, enjoyable and sustainable. It isn’t obvious to me that this is the current reality for most people. It seems to me that the current reality is more of a stop-start, self-punishment culture of dieting that results in rapid weight loss followed by rapid weight gain, a screwed up metabolism and poorer psychological (and physical) health. Let’s address that in this article, shall we?
The Goal Isn’t Enough
Now, listen. Having a goal is important, and necessary. If you don’t know what target you’re aiming at, you’re unlikely to know when you’ve hit it. Defining where you want to be is the first step. But that’s all it is, the first step. Having a picture of your ‘ideal body goals’ on your phone isn’t really helping you very much. But we expect that things like this are going to be enough to keep us motivated, on track and progressing. The truth is, after the initial novelty of looking at that image has worn off, it has very little (if any) effect on your actions in the real world.
And that’s exactly what I want to talk about. Actions.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control”. Source: Ryan Holiday, Daily Stoic
Let’s simplify this a little and apply it to our fat loss efforts.
Celebrate Action More Than Results
Imagine for a second that you’re learning a new skill for the first time. Let’s say you’ve chosen to take up golf, and you’ve hired an instructor to teach you how to play. You arrive at the golf course, the instructor hands you a random club and tells you the goal of the game is to hit the ball into the hole using that club. Then he stands back, completely uninterested, and sometimes hurling abuse at you, every time you miss. If you happen to fluke one in the hole, however, he’s more excited than a Labrador that’s just seen it’s owner for the first time in five minutes.
Would this guy be value for money? Would you be any better at golf than you were before you’d started? Probably not. But this is analogous to our approach to fat loss (or fitness, or muscle building, or whatever). We obsess over the end goal, the result, the reward, to such an extent that we overlook the basic action steps we need to get there.
In reality, when you go to see a golf coach, he (or she, apologies for assuming genders) will coach you through a series of actions to improve your technique. He’ll focus on your swing, your foot position, and a bunch of other golfy-things that someone who knew anything about golf would probably understand. The point is, the instructor, and you as the player, aren’t in direct control of whether the ball goes into the hole or not. You can’t say with certainty you’ll make that chip or putt or whatever. What you are in control of are the actions you take to get up to that point. By focusing on what you can control, the actions, and mastering the skill through consistent, dogged repetition of those actions, you drastically increase your probability of getting your ball close to the pin (or in the hole). So, I would imagine, a good golf coach wouldn’t hurl abuse at you for missing a shot. He’d celebrate the parts of the golf swing you got right, and give feedback on the parts you could improve, in order to increase the likelihood of getting your ball closer to the hole.
This would be a healthier and more successful approach to fat loss. Rather than hurling abuse at ourselves mentally for not losing enough weight this week, if we begin to focus on the actions that increase the probability of weight loss, we’ll have more success (and a better time doing it). The constant self-flagellation loop we all seem to get into from time to time isn’t conducive to achieving your goal. Not only this, but hyper-focusing on the result (especially if the result is weight/number-based), leaves our emotions at the mercy of the scales every Monday morning. Being on a massive high when you lose a few lbs and experiencing a crushing low when you put one back on really isn’t representative of you improving your overall health and wellbeing.
I’m not suggesting you throw out your scales or stop measuring your progress. I’m not convinced that would be a good idea at all. However, I am advocating for a psychological switch of focus from the result to the action. If we focus on, and celebrate the times we achieve, consistent actions that improve our likelihood of losing fat (or whatever your particular goal might be), there is an extremely good chance that the result you’re currently chasing will simply come as a by-product of your consistent efforts over time.
So, all of this begs the question, what exactly is it you should be focusing on? The remainder of this article will address that very point, my friend.
What To Focus On For Fat Loss
I’d like to start this part of the article by bringing up what’s known as Pareto’s principle, or the “80/20 rule”. Vilfredo Pareto, after whom the law is named, was the first to discover that around 80% of a population’s wealth belongs to just 20% of the population. Feel free to argue amongst yourselves about that, as I’m not getting into a political discussion, but I bring this up because it’s since been successfully extrapolated to pretty much every area of life. Fat loss is no different. The tweak that has been made to the wording of this principle, is as follows:
80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.
Hand on heart, after over twelve years in and around this industry, nothing is truer than that statement. Eighty percent of the things people do to lose fat are doing very little to help them progress. That isn’t to say they’re useless (although often, they are), but they aren’t the most efficient uses of time in order to see progress and get you closer to that goal you’ve been chasing. And, in my opinion, an efficient use of time is the main thing most of us should be focusing on if we’re trying to change our body in some way. We’re all busy people, with jobs, families, and commitments, and the small amount of time we actually have to look after our physical vessel needs to be effective.
If you’re like me, and you have the time (and inclination) to do weird stuff like use the sauna, take ice baths, do red light therapy, yoga, meditate and mess around with different ways of eating (just to see what happens), go for it. But I do these things to optimise my existing foundations to make myself better. I understand that these things are making up only (in fact, probably much less than) 20% of my results. The foundations of my lifestyle make up 80% or more of the results I experience, and this is what I tend to focus on with clients, too. Very rarely will I move beyond the fundamental actions that produce the biggest results with a client, because for most people, time is an extremely precious resource that is in short supply. Asking a working mother of three who’s battled with her boss and family to carve out two hours per week to go to the gym to start messing around with ice baths in a morning won’t go down very well and will only add to her already high stress levels.
So, with that in mind, let’s proceed with the most important tasks you can focus on to help you move forwards with your fat loss goals – the 20% of things you can do to produce the 80% of your results (in order of importance, in my opinion):
You may or may not have been expecting to see sleep on this list, but chances are you weren’t expecting to see it as my most important factor to fat loss. While it’s true that on its own, you need more than just good sleep to lose fat, and indeed, you can lose fat whilst sleeping poorly, these facts both miss the point. The reality is, under fairly normal circumstances for most of the population, fat loss isn’t that complex. We’ve all heard the basic stuff trotted out time after time by Instagram influencers: you need a calorie deficit, blah blah blah. It’s not that we don’t know what to do. It’s that we aren’t doing it. So, with this in mind, I come at the fat loss problem from a different angle – what is most likely to take us off course?
The undeniable answer to that question is, in part at least, a lack of sleep. Intuitively, everything seems worse with a lack of sleep. We’ve all had those days where we’ve only slept a couple of hours if at all, and it’s just a grind the entire day. Throw in a diet and workout plan into that mix and you’ve got a recipe for a 16” meat feast and a bottle of wine. We have to prioritise sleep before we look at anything else.
Aside from the pure energy component, optimising our sleep is like taking the handbrake off the car. Sure, you can probably move the car forwards without releasing the handbrake, but you’ll do some damage to the vehicle. Take the handbrake off, and you’ll have a much smoother ride. Our endocrine system, nervous system and digestive system are all better off when we sleep properly, not to mention our recovery from workouts is enhanced (we spend less time ‘sore’) and our ability to perform at our best in the gym gets a massive boost.
To learn more about sleep and how to improve yours, read my article on sleep by clicking here.
This one you probably were expecting. The old cliché “you can’t out-train a bad diet” is true. Ultimately, if your goal is fat loss, we need to look at what you’re putting in your mouth (stop it, we’re having a grown up discussion). There are a few considerations to be made when looking at your nutrition. Some of the more advanced factors are way beyond the scope of this article, but we can go over the more basic ones.
Firstly, we make it a numbers game. Calories are the measurement of how much energy we take in relative to how much energy we burn off on a daily basis. Your current average calorie intake, combined with your current average activity levels, are maintaining whatever your bodyweight currently is. So, with this in mind, we’d be well served to establish the number of calories you’re actually taking in. Most people don’t do this, even when they have the information I’m providing in this article. Instead, they end up drastically reducing their calorie intake in a Hiroshima-bomb style all or nothing approach. This results in drastic weight loss, frustration, hunger, boredom, and drastic weight gain. Just saying.
A better approach would be to establish exactly how many calories you’re taking in via a food diary (an app such as My Fitness Pal can help with this) and using this as a baseline to work from. Maybe you keep the calories the same and use exercise to create a calorie deficit, or maybe you marginally reduce your calories (like, 100 less per day). The point is, we don’t go to extremes from the word go. We make it a process that you enjoy, rather than one that makes you want to have a nice hot bath with your toaster.
Secondly, the contents of your meals matter beyond just how many calories they contain. Ideally, every meal has a good source of protein as one of the main components, which can then be paired with either a carbohydrate or fat source. There really aren’t any rules on how many meals you should have per day, what your ratio of carbs to fats should be, or what times you should eat each meal (although I’d advise against eating late at night). You really just have to find what fits for you – what works with your lifestyle, your taste, your digestive system, what fuels your workouts & general day-to-day energy best. This probably requires either a lot of trial and error, a really good coach, or in many cases, both.
As I mentioned, there’s a lot more to the nutritional side of things, enough to fill many books and enough that really boring people viciously argue about it for hours on the internet. But, I think it’s not too controversial to say that the things I’ve mentioned above are a good way to start building some nutritional foundations for fat loss and health.
3. Weight Training
Let me start this part by saying you can absolutely lose fat without weight training. Countless people have, and I don’t want to present this as essential just because it’s a big part of my methodologies. However, having said that, weight training can be an extremely efficient use of time if you’re looking to lose fat and build a bit of shape to your body at the same time.
By training with weights we begin to develop muscle – which, if you’re keen on having some sort of shape to your body when you’ve lost the weight, is a bonus in itself. However, muscle also has a higher caloric demand than fat tissue, meaning the body has to work a little harder to provide muscle tissue with a supply of blood, oxygen and nutrients, whereas fat tissue doesn’t require these things in the same amounts. In simple terms, having a higher amount of muscle mass means we burn more calories at a resting state, or we have a higher metabolic rate.
The final factor I’m going to mention in this article is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or N.E.A.T. Yes, that’s a ridiculous name and no, I don’t think I’m smart for reciting it. In simple terms, this just means how much activity you do that isn’t formal cardio or weight training. The easiest way to track this is through your daily step count. In terms of how many calories you burn off per day (that isn’t a result of your metabolism), N.E.A.T. far exceeds your hour in the gym. So maximising this is important.
The way I approach this with clients is similar to the way I approach their nutrition. With nutrition, we establish their current calorie intake and use that a baseline to come down from. With N.E.A.T., we establish their current step count and use that a baseline to work up from. Let’s say your current step count is an average of 4000, we’d push you slightly to hit 5000 per day. More isn’t necessarily better here, just like less food isn’t necessarily better. We just set that 5000 target, and we can gradually increase that in line with the rate of weight loss week by week.
In summary, we’ve gone through a few things in this article. Firstly, the importance of celebrating your actions more than, or at least as much as, your results. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. We are the result of our daily habits, and if we make a big deal to ourselves and celebrate the small wins we get on a daily basis, we’ll most likely experience the results we’re after as a by-product of our consistent, daily efforts.
Secondly, we’ve gone through the most important daily actions we can focus on in order to make the most of our time (which for most of us, is in short supply). This isn’t to say there aren’t other things that can be valuable to your fat loss, health and performance efforts, there definitely are, but the majority of your results will come from focusing on the things we’ve discussed in this article.
I really hope this was useful for you – if it was, please feel free to share this article with someone else that might find it useful too.
Thanks and speak soon