I recently posted my progress photo in this (and other) groups showing the result of a year of fat loss progress. Since then, I’ve been getting a constant flurry of DMs asking for information, so I thought I’d take the time to put together a document outlining the approach that I took, in the hope that it might help and inspire those who are looking to achieve similar results.
Fair warning – this is a LONG read. If you’re looking for shortcuts and quick fixed, this guide isn’t for you – but the harsh reality is that if you want to lose a lot of weight, there are no shortcuts or fads that are going to get you there any quicker. So grab a coffee and settle down for what’s hopefully an interesting and valuable read. I would hope that even those who consider themselves to be fairly well established on their respective journeys will be able to take away a few key points from this.
Along with the inevitable sections on diet and exercise, I will go into quite a lot of detail about what I feel is the very overlooked psychological and mental aspects of a prolonged dieting/cutting phase, touching on the challenges I faced along the way, motivation, and balancing your mental and physical health.
Before we get started, I’m going to lay out a few key terms that I touch on in the guide. Most likely you will know what all of these terms mean, however it’s dangerous to assume, so here we go
Bulking – A term used to describe the state of being in a calorie surplys. Essentially a synonym for “gaining weight”
Calorie = A unit of energy. In the context of fat loss/body weight, calories are both consumed through food and drink and expended through activity, whether that’s formal ‘exercise’ or bodily functions such as digestion.
Cardio – Aerobic exercise that depends on the aerobic energy-generating progress. Examples are running, cycling, swimming, walking etc.
Cutting – A term used to describe the state of being in a calorie deficit. Essentially a synonym for “losing weight”
Energy Balance = The net effect of the calories that you intake versus the calories you expend. This can either be a “calorie surplus” (you intake more calories than your body needs), “maintenance calories” (you intake the amount of calories that your body needs) or a “calorie deficit” (you intake less calories than your body needs).
HIIT = High Intensity Interval Training – refers to exercise performed in short bursts of high intensity, with little rest time between intervals.
Macros – An abbreviation of Macronutrients, when people talk about their ‘Macros’ they are referring to the amount, or balance, of their diet that comes from the three main macronutrient types – Carbohydrates, Fat and Protein.
Maintenance Calories = See “TDEE”.
TDEE = Total Daily Energy Expenditure. This is a measure of how many calories you burn each day. If you ate exactly this amount of calories, you would neither gain, nor lose weight (in reality this is impossible as you will never know the EXACT number). Also referred to as “Maintenance Calories”.
INTRO: My story
I’ll make this brief, but I think it’s important to know a bit about the person who’s advise you’re taking. What makes them qualified to offer advice, and why should you trust it? Well, whislt I have no formal qualifications, I have ‘been there and done it’, so to speak. My starting point is one which I’m sure many people who are embarking upon a weight loss journey will relate to.
At the time of starting my journey just over a year ago, I was 33 years old and like millions of peolpe my age, have spent the last 15 years sat at a desk for 8 hours per day, and then sat on the sofa in front of the television for most of the rest of the day. Sure, I’d dabbled with the occasional bit of physical activity, but the stark reality is that I lived an incredibly sedentary lifestyle. I was always very much a ‘I’ll start the diet tomorrow’ kind of guy. Couple this with falling into the standard trap of eating too much junk/processed food and drinking too much alcohol, and before I knew it here I was, the classic middle-aged, pot-bellied stereotype who got out of breath reaching for another chocolate bar.
Two years ago this weekend, our family suffered an immense trauma with the unexpected and traumatic passing of my brother, who was just 18 months my elder. This led to another prolonged period of over eating and over drinking, and the blunt reality is that I was in a truly terrible place both physically and mentally. I knew that if I didn’t do something about the path I was going down, I could be in trouble.
Fast forward a little to March of this year, and I had just started to try and get things under control. I’d been dieting since just before Christmas, aside from a two week vacation, and then COVID-19 took the world by storm. All of a sudden I was working at home and things became even worse. Surrounded by easy temptation, staring at the same four walls, not even having to get dressed in the morning to step outside and face the world. For a month or two I continued down a bad road, and gained back most of the weight I’d lost, slipping back into bad habits with food and alcohol. Then all of a sudden, for reasons I still can’t explain, a switch got flicked inside me and ignited a burning desire to get off my chubby arse and finally do what I’d always wanted to do – get lean, and stay lean.
And here’s where this guide really starts….
PART ONE: Fundamental concepts
You know what they say about cliches – they’re absolutely true. And the best cliche of them all in the diet world is that ‘you can’t out-train a bad diet’. I’m afraid to say folks, that this is absolutely true. No matter how hard you are working in the gym, weight loss comes down to one thing, and one thing only – energy balance.
You MUST be in a calorie deficit to lose weight. End of story. No “if”s, no “but”s. The body is simply a machine. It needs a certain amount of fuel (calories) to perform it’s tasks. The more demands you place on your body (exercise), the more fuel it needs to perform those tasks. But the simple reality is that if you want to lose weight, you must consume fewer calories than you expend.
Why? Because in simple terms, when your body runs out of fuel through the food and drink you consume, it will turn to stored reserves of body fat to “top up the tank”. Conversely, when you intake more fuel (calories) than the body needs to perform the demands you place upon it, it will store that excess fuel as body fat for use at a later point. In a nutshell this is why we gain weight when we over eat and drink, and lose weight when we under eat and drink.
A common myth in the dieting community is that you can do certain exercises to ‘spot reduce’ fat or target fat loss from a particular area. This is 100% fantasy. Whilst you can do exercises which target certain muscle groups to promote muscular hypertrophy (growth) of that muscle, body fat is lost from around your body depending on a variety of factors, primarily genetic. The only thing you need to remember is that if you keep applying the principles of a calorie deficit, you will continue to lose body fat from anywhere it’s stored.
PART TWO: Establishing your caloric requirement
OK, so you’ve gotten this far and you believe me when I say that in order for you to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. But what does that actually mean, and how do you know if you are consuming the right amount of food? Well, the reality is that you don’t, really. It’s guesswork. You need to start with a number, and observe what happens with your weight over a reasonable timescale.
If you google “TDEE Calculator” you will find various websites offering tools that will give you a rough estimate of your daily caloric need in order to maintain your body weight. Try and find a calculator that has quite a few questions about you such as height, weight, age, gender, exercise level etc as these factors all contribute significantly to your approximate requirement.
When you have chosen a calculator of choice, you want to use it to give you your “TDEE” or “Maintenance Calories”. From this number, you want to subtract an amount of calories that you are happy to sacrifice each day. In basic terms, a larger deduction will equate to a faster weight loss, and a smaller deduction will lead to a slower weight loss. A generally established rule of thumb is that 1lb of body fat = approximately 3,500 calories, so deducting 500 per day will equate to roughly 1lb per week of weight loss. I don’t particularly like this way of thinking, because depending on your starting weight, age, height and gender, maintenance calories can very hugely from individual to individual. 500 calories to someone who’s TDEE is 1,700 calories is very different than 500 calories to someone who’s TDEE is 3,200 calories. So you see, there really is no “one size fits all” answer to this equation.
I personally prefer taking a percentage approach. I would recommend a deficit of around 15-25% depending on how quickly you want to lose weight. From experience I can say with certainty that a deficit of more than 25% is a bad idea and will hinder your progress (more on this later).
The key thing to begin with is to pick a number, and STICK TO IT. You need to spend at least two weeks eating, and exercising with consistency, in order to observe the results, so that you can adjust accordingly. Believe me when I say that NOTHING will derail you more quickly and easily than constantly making knee-jerk reactions to your intake or exercise program based on (for example) daily weight changes.
When you are starting out, DO NOT WEIGH YOURSELF DAILY. It is an absolute recipe for disaster and demotivation. No more detail needed, just don’t do it. If you can’t trust yourself to not do this then have someone in your house hide the scales (I’m serious).
At an absolute maximum, you should be taking a once per week weight reading. This should always be done under as near identical conditions as possible – ideally first thing in the morning, before eating and drinking, after you have been to the toilet if necessay, and without clothing. Consistency is key in making an accurate judgement in what is happening with your body weight.
You can use your weekly weight reading to make minor adjustments to your daily calorie intake or expenditure. If your weight is not reducing at a rate you are happy with, then make a small adjustment and re-assess next week. This could be by eating say 100 calories a day fewer (adjusting your intake), or going for an extra walk once per day (adjusting your expenditure). Or both. If your weight is reducing too quickly, then similarly, either increase your daily calorie intake slightly or decrease your calorie expenditure by reducing the length of that morning run.
The most important thing in all of this is accurately measuring the calories that you consume. There are a great many tools to help you do this, but by far the most common is MyFitnessPal. This allows you to scan and log everything you eat and drink. It’s laborious, but it gets results. You can’t possibly expect to know what you are consuming if you don’t track it. You won’t always have to be this meticulous, especially as you increase your knowledge of your body and nutrition in general, but at the start it’s absolutely essential.
PART THREE: Diet
They say that the best diet is the one you can stick to. That couldn’t be more true. There are so many fad diets and contrasting schools of thought on the ‘right’ diet, but the only thing that matters is that you can stick to the diet you impose on yourself.
One thing I wish I knew earlier in my journey is that for the purpose of a prolonged fat loss program, A CALORIE IS A CALORIE.
Yes, that’s right folks, 2,000 calories of Oreos is going to do exactly the same for your body fat level as 2,000 calories of celery. The difference is simply that you’d need a wheelbarrow to accommodate the celery, and you’d feel a lot more full after chomping your way through it.
Now that’s not to say that you SHOULD have a diet of 2,000 calories of Oreos per day. You don’t need me to tell you that eating clean is going to be better for your overall health and wellbeing than eating 90% junk. But if you have successfully established your calorie requirement, and are eating less calories than you need, you are going to lose weight regardless of the source of those calories.
So if I could give the slightly younger me one single piece of advice to take into the last year or so, it would be to EAT FOOD THAT YOU ENJOY.
Now, obviously this comes with a few points of note. All foods have varying satiety factors, and some foods can be eaten in large volumes for relatively few calories, whilst other foods can only be eaten in tiny amounts yet put a huge dent in your daily calorie budget. Therefore, it stands to reason that if one is voluntarily reducing their calorie intake for a prolonged period of time, it is smarter to get the majority of your calories from high satiety, high volume foods.
I didn’t lose weight by following any magic diet. There was no magic food that made me lose weight by eating it. I simply existed in a permanent state of caloric deficit over a prolonged period of time. At the beginning, I was too caught up in the concept of ‘good food’ and ‘bad food’ that it affected my relationship with things like chocolate, crisps (chips to you Americans!), sweets (candy), ice cream etc. I thought that if I ate those foods I would suddently stop losing, or even worse, start gaining weight again. That was because I was pretty ignorant about the fact that it’s just a numbers game. You can still enjoy all the foods you enjoy now, you just need to enjoy them in smaller quantities so that you can accommodate them in your daily/weekly calorie budget.
I’m a firm believer in the 80/20 rule, which applies to many facets of life, not just dieting. But in the context of diet and nutrition, if 80% of your calories are being spent on healthy, nutritious whole foods, then making up the additional 20% from ‘bad’ food (or most importantly, food you really enjoy, whether it’s deemed ‘good’ or not), is going to make your life better, and most importantly, not going to have any adverse impact on your goals.
It’s also worth mentioning that you don’t have to think of things in days. If the number you are working to is 2,000 calories a day, does that mean that you absolutely can’t eat 2,100 calories one day? Of course not. I found my happiest balance to be having fairly ‘lean’ weekdays and then weighting more of my calories to the weekend. So if my number was 2,000 a day, I might aim for say 1,750 Mon-Thu, then 2,250 on a Friday, 2,750 on a Saturday and 2,000 on a Sunday. Total 14,000 / 2,000 per day on average. It will have no impact on your goals whatsoever to do that.
As far as macros go, people get far too bogged down in macros in my opinion. For me, it’s something to worry about a lot more if you’re bulking rather than cutting. If you’re eating a relatively clean diet, comprised mainly of whole unprocessed foods, then your macros are going to be OK for general health.
PART FOUR: Exercise
We all know exercise is good for us, but how much should you be doing when you’re dieting? The honest answer is as little or as much as you want to do.
Here’s my take on it.
Some people love to eat, and some people get no pleasure from eating, and just use it to fuel their activity. I’m the former. I’m a huge foodie. I love looking at food, thinking about food, cooking food and most importantly, eating food. Therefore, for me, I would MUCH rather do more exercise, and thus be able to eat more to achieve the same net calorie number. For this reason I went in hard on the exercise.
At the start of my diet I was doing pure cardio, running 5-6 times per week on a treadmill. Then the better weather came and I went from the treadmill to the outside world. Once I’d lost quite a bit of weight, I built a gym in my garage and started to incorporate some resistance training (weightlifting) into the mix. I then learned that I enjoy resistance training a lot more than cardio.
Both cardio and resistance training are excellent ways to shed body fat. Your ultimate goal physique will determine what area you focus on to begin with. Once again, I’d say the only ‘right’ choice is the one you can stick to and apply consistency to. I would strongly recommend having a set schedule and trying to stick to it, especially in the early days when you are trying to work out your TDEE and reacting to the change in body weight. If you are doing vastly different amounts of exercise per week it’ll make it harder to ascertain whether you are under or over eating.
In terms of my routine, I wasn’t doing anything special. Over the last year I’ve ran, cycled on a bike, cycled on a spin bike, lifted weights, and done some bodyweight training (i.e. pull ups etc). I think doing a combination of varying different types of exercise has been good for overall health and strength, but in all honesty I could have done any type of exercise during my shred, and it would have yielded results, because the only thing that mattered was that I was in a net caloric deficit, achieved either through diet or exercise, or in this case, both.
PART FIVE: Psychology & Mental Health
There’s absolutely no getting around it, losing weight over a prolonged period of time is hard work. It takes a level of commitment and discipline that can be difficult to adapt to. But like anything that’s worth doing, results have to be earned. It’s not fun going out to dinner and ruling out 90% of dishes because they’d blow your calorie ‘budget’ out of water. It’s not fun saying no to that second, third or fourth drink. It’s not fun having broccoli instead of fries with that steak.
But do you know what IS fun? Getting the tape measure out for the third week in a row and seeing that you’ve lost yet more size from your waist. Going through your wardrobe and throwing away everything that you know you’ll never ever be big enough to wear again. Going round to see friends and family that you haven’t seen in a while and seeing their faces when they see the progress you’ve made.
The most important thing for me was telling myself “this is temporary”. And it is. You won’t be doing this forever. Depending how much weight you want to lose, it might feel like it, but trust me, it goes by a lot quicker than you think. And you need to remember that it’s not a race. You’re not in competition with anyone. There are no prizes for finishing first. There will be weeks where you might not be able to manage a 20% deficit, and you can only do 10%. That’s ok. There will be weeks where you might not manage a deficit at all, and you settle for maintaining your weight. That’s also OK.
Now, I’m going to give you some advice that I didn’t take myself during my shred, but in hindsight I should have. Give yourself a diet break every 6-8 weeks. By this I don’t mean stuff your face with every calorie you can find and say “it’s ok”, but I mean have a few days where you DON’Tvlive in a calorie surplus. Believe me when I say it will make your body and soul glad.
I’m a very determined person, and when I say I’m going to do something, it takes a lot to stop me. To that end, I was too stubborn to take my own advice, and put myself on the precipice of mental burnout on more than one occasion.
As I got to the last month of my shred (in mid November I made my decision that my cutting phase was going to end on 1st December no matter what weight I was), I cut my calories even more aggressively, and upped the intensity of my workouts, hardly ever having a rest day to let my body recover, and loads of HIIT cardio workouts. I was operating for the best part of a month in a 30-35% caloric deficit, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t recommend that to my worst enemy.
My sleep was affected massively, my moods were awful, my sex drive went out of the window completely. I was constantly exhausted and yet I pushed on, and kept doing it to myself knowing it would soon be over. In hindsight it was a mistake, and I’d recommend to everyone that you don’t want to fall into that trap and make the same mistake that I did, thinking that the more you push yourself (past a certain point) the better your results will be.
I’m going to end now with my ten TOP TIPS for getting through what will be a very difficult, but very rewarding phase of your life.
PART SIX: Top Tips
1) LOG YOUR FOOD AND DRINK METICULOUSLY
The more knowledge you have about how your body responds to a set calorie level, the quicker you will ultimately get to where you need to be, because that knowledge is what you need to optimise your plan of attack. A splash of oil when cooking? LOG IT. Some gum? LOG IT. No excuses!
2) DON’T BE A PRISONER OF YOUR CALORIE NUMBER
If you work out that 1,800 calories represents your 20% deficit, then this means you need to eat 2,250 just to maintain your weight. So if your average for the week is 1,900, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed, so don’t beat yourself up about it. It just means your deficit is about 15% instead of 20% this week, and that’s OK. You’re still losing weight!
3) SET SHORT, MEDIUM AND LONG TERM GOALS
Don’t get so obsessed about the end result. Sure, your goal might be to lose 20, 50, 100 or even 150lbs. But that doesn’t need to be the only thing you focus on. Set a short term goal, i.e. “I’d like to lose an inch off my waist this month”, a medium term goal, i.e. “I’d like to drop a clothes size by spring” as well as thinking about where you want to be long-term.
4) LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
If you need to skip a workout because your legs are screaming and you need to recover, take the time to recover. I’ve not listened to my body on more than one occasion during the last year, and I’ve injured myself in the process. I was lifting weights in the summer and I felt a twinge in my shoulder after the session. I woke up the next day and it was still sore, but instead of resting up for a day or two – which probably would have solved the problem – I stubbornly refused to take a rest day. I think you can work out where this is going – yep, I ended up injuring myself properly and couldn’t do that exercise for several weeks.
5) GET SOME MORAL SUPPORT
I consider myself very lucky that partway through my shredding phase, my wife wanted in on the action. The difference was unbelievable when we were both working towards the same thing, and could use each other for moral and metal support. If you don’t have someone in your life to lean on for support, drop me a message and I’ll be your support buddy!
6) SEE IT AS AN INVESTMENT IN YOURSELF
It’s easy to come up with reasons why we can’t do it, and chief among them is ‘I don’t have the time’, whether that’s to cook proper meals, workout, or both. And I’m sorry but they are just excuses. We all have the same number of hours in the day and it’s up to us how we choose to spend them. When I first started, my number one complaint was that I ‘lost’ so much of my ‘me time’. Then I realised that ‘me time’ meant sitting on my lazy arse, watching football and shovelling junk food in my mouth. Now my ‘me time’ is spent investing in my long term wellbeing. I see the time spent cooking, working out and meal planning as some of the most rewarding time I have, and don’t miss my old lifestyle one bit. Really challenging yourself to change your perecption on something can be really rewarding.
7) ACCEPT THAT SOMETIMES LIFE GETS IN THE WAY
It’s very easy to get so caught up in ‘the plan’ that you find yourself going to great lengths to not waver from your path. But sometimes, life isn’t perfect. Think twice before you instinctively turn down that piece of birthday cake, or a beer with a friend you haven’t seen for ages. If you are doing the right things, most of the time, you’re going to see fantastic results.
8) DON’T GET OBSESSED WITH THE SCALES
No matter how many times this advice is dished out, people think that the only thing that matters is the number on the scales. There are SO MANY factors that affect your body weight at any one given time (which is all a single scale reading is – a snapshot in time). The amount of water your body is retaining. When you last went to the toilet. Your hormones. There’s a lot more to it than your level of body fat.
Understand this – you can have existed all week in a true 20% calorie deficit, yet there will be weeks where your weight on the scale has barely moved. Now, you know that it’s physiologically impossible that your body hasn’t turned to your reserves of body fat this week, because you haven’t given it sufficient fuel to do it’s thang. Yet you stare at that number on the scale and say to yourself that you will have to eat less next week becuase what you’re doing isn’t working. NO!
Of course, if you continue to see no change after 2, 3 or 4 weeks, that can be indicative that you ARE consuming around your maintenance calories, and that your intake needs to be reduced. But do NOT make knee jerk reactions to one single weight reading.
The most important assessment tools you have in your arsenal, before we get to the scales, are:
Your eyes and the mirror
A measuring tape
These ALL give you a more accurate representation of your progress than the number on the scales at a freeze-frame moment in time.
Which brings me nicely on to the next point…
9) MAINTENANCE CALORIES IS AN ALWAYS MOVING TARGET
The good news? You lost 10lb this month. Amazing!
The bad news? Your body now needs less calories to do it’s thing. Not so amazing.
But unfortunately this is the harsh truth. A huge component of your caloric requirement is your current body weight. As you lose weight, you will need to recalculate your TDEE periodically to ensure that you keep striving for the level of deficit you are trying for. I would recommend adjusting this no more frequently than once per month, as we aren’t talking about enormous changes, but they all add up. If you lose 25lb, you are not going to need the same number of calories that you once did, and to continue to eat at that level of calories will simply erode into your deficit.
10) GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK
This shit is seriously hard work. It takes a massive amount of commitment and discipline, and we are humans not machines.
There are times when you just want to eat something because you damn well want it, and that’s perfectly OK.
The single most important thing is coming up with a plan that YOU can stick to. If you’re finding it too tough to cope with, scale things back a little and accept that it’ll take you slightly longer than you planned. It’s no big deal. Your mental health is every bit as important as your physical health, and holding yourself hostage to a plan even if it’s not working for you will ultimately cause you stress and mental anguish. I’m not saying don’t push yourself, you absolutely should, but learning to recognise your limits and giving yourself a break when you need it is fundamentally important.
So there we have it, I hope this guide can serve as a useful help to those who are just setting out on a similar journey to me, or even those who are already on their way but maybe needed some words of encouragement!
Take care and good luck in achieving your goals!