The fitness industry has fat loss programs backwards. We’ve been programmed to think that in order to lose fat, you need to elicit a caloric deficit. This is true. I am not one of those fitness conspiracy theorists who tell people to eat more to lose weight. Calories in must be less than calories out. It’s math. And science.
This can be accomplished by eating less or exercising more (a combination of both is generally ideal).
As a result, many guys gravitate toward programs that advocate aggressive dieting — low-carb, gluten-free, grass-fed acai berry shakes sprinkled with sawdust — and even more aggressive, super high-volume training programs. It’s what we've been told to do and we’ve been doing it.
Those programs work. It’s just that most of the time, they don’t work in the long term. Because you can only torture yourself for so long.
Instead, I prefer a different approach. Rather than referring to a fat-loss program as a fat-loss program, I prefer to think of it as a muscle-retention program.
Because that’s the point: to keep as much muscle as possible. Not only will that help you fill out your T-shirts (not to mention make you stronger and help you live longer), but the increased muscle mass will also help you burn more calories on a day-to-day basis and fend off fat.
I find — and this isn’t always the case — many guys follow a fat-loss program and do end up losing a fair amount of fat, but they also end up losing a fair amount of muscle. They end up as a smaller, weaker, more emaciated version of their original selves.
And much of that is due to the long-held mantra that fat loss = aggressive dieting + high-volume, metabolic-based exercise routines that leave you crawling out the gym door.
The Smartest Strategy For Fat Loss
Again, I am not discounting the notion that a caloric deficit needs to be in place in order to lose fat.
And I do feel the entire process can be expedited with an exercise routine that encourages the use of circuit-training, density-training, supersets, trisets, finishers, or anything that increases the likelihood you’ll work hard and/or hate life for 30 to 45 minutes.
Diet matters, too. But when people focus solely on what they eat, they miss out of a few key points.
As researcher Brad Dieter, Ph.D., explains on his blog Science Driven Nutrition:
“Exercise induces a whole host of changes that provide both short term and long term benefit, such as: improved cardiac function, improved muscle metabolism, improved metabolic flexibility, increased resting metabolic rate, decreased resting heart rate, improved heart rate variability, lower stress, increased bone density, etc., etc. Dieting doesn’t really give you robust results like that.”
This generally means implementing multi-joint, compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses with low to moderate rep ranges (3 to 6 reps).
In doing so, your body is nudged to keep muscle, as low(er) rep ranges tend to target more of the actual muscle fibers themselves in addition to providing the neural stimulus needed for the central nervous system to maintain strength levels.
High(er) rep, metabolic-style training, while still important and still very much a crucial component of any fat-loss program, tends to target endurance capacity more. Moreover, old-fashioned strength training still needs to be prioritized to maintain muscle, even if fat-loss is the goal.
Both approaches are important. However, low-rep, strength-based protocols, designed to keep muscle, tend to be vastly undervalued as fat-loss strategies.
Additionally, “fat-loss” programs (and dieting in general) tend to be abused. Many guys end up caught in a seemingly vicious, perpetual fat-loss phase abyss.
As Dieter notes, “most people would be far better off spending more time being well fed, and using that food to maximize training that improves their strength, power, balance, endurance, and conditioning and then using short, smart, dieting cycles to focus on fat loss.”
All of those things mentioned above—strength, endurance, conditioning, etc.—are hard to improve upon when your calorie deficit is too high for too long. That high-deficit approach tends to backfire long-term because many people neglect to appreciate the importance of fueling their exercise for better performance.
- Less, more purposeful exercise may be the key for fat loss.
- Dieting, especially for fat-loss, should be more of a brief, targeted endeavor. Not a year-round war.