First things first!* Stats and progress pics: I dropped 45 lbs in 30 weeks, 24.5% –> 11.4% body fat. Before & After pics and gifs! And no, I didn't do cardio.
I also made over 40 recipe cards of low calorie + high protein dishes, I'm not at all a chef so I kept them pretty simple in terms of complexity and tried to note if something really didn't turn out well. The good news is that when you're hungry pretty much anything can taste great, and Sriracha covers a lot of cooking sins.
I found these 3 rules ages ago on a bodybuilding forum and have found them to hold true and have some basic logic underpinning it all.
Rule 1: Create a Calorie Deficit. (CICO) – If you're new to r/loseit then check the Quick Start Guide! The fundamental idea here is that our bodies need X calories every day to maintain the status quo, this is the "calories out" part of the old 'calories in = calories out' equation (aka TDEE, or maintenance). So, everyday our body uses calories and every day we eat calories. BUT, if we eat fewer calories than our body needs then our body will use itself for energy, thus we lose weight. This is the only way weight-loss is achieved. We have to get our body to use itself for energy!
If every pound of fat is roughly 3500 calories, then creating a daily deficit of 500-1000 calories will mean about 1-2 lbs of fat loss per week. My absolute favorite part about this equation and why I think it's far superior to any other weight loss advice is that it allows us to have a high degree of predictability. If I want to lose 28 lbs, and I commit to losing 2 lbs/week, then I can have confidence that this whole process will be finished in about 14 weeks. Yes, there are adjustments and setbacks along the way, but I can see the progress every week and know within a few weeks if I need to change anything up by either decreasing calorie intake or increasing calorie output (exercise). I don't think you find this with almost any other major dieting philosophy, they seem to just say "Here's some guidelines, no idea if or when you'll reach your goal, but good luck!"
I realize probably everyone here is acutely aware of CICO. And if the only goal is to drop "weight" then Rule 1 is all we need. But if we really want that weight to be specifically fat then I think Rules 2 & 3 are just the ticket. Although, to be fair, the higher your body fat % is the more likely the weight loss will be fat loss. However, the leaner you get the harder it can be to target fat loss.
Rule 2: Resistance Training / Lift Weights. Through CICO our body is getting the signal to lose weight, but since muscle is more metabolically taxing on our system it can be tempting for the body to burn muscle to help reach homeostasis faster. Therefore by lifting weights we send the signal to our body that "Hey! We need that muscle, get your energy from elsewhere. May I recommend the fat?"
I think a lot of people insert cardio here, and while I heartily believe that there are so many great reasons to do cardio — such as personal enjoyment, heart health, work needs, athletic performance, etc etc — I think cardio in this fat-loss context is really only good for Rule 1 purposes. Cardio burns calories and increases our Calories Out, but I think it's soooo much easier to just not eat 100 calories than it is to burn 100 calories. So, my preferred method of losing fat is to start with the 3 Rules and if after a few weeks I see my rate of weight loss has slowed below my goal and I'm already at my recommended caloric minimum (1500 for men, 1200 for women) well then I can use cardio to help burn off the difference. It's not a first resort, it's a polishing move! (Again, lots of great reasons to do cardio, just strictly talking fat loss goals.)
As far as what kind of weight lifting? I like full body workouts 3x per week. In fact, during my 30 weeks my workouts were super fast and averaged around 20-30 minutes each. I usually worked out for like 90 minutes or less per WEEK. Generally, if you do 1 or 2 exercises per body part (Chest, Back, Shoulders, Legs, arms) and for 3 or 4 sets per muscle group then you'd have a really great start. And yeah, machines are great if you're new to the gym and intimidated by all the stuffs. More or less, all weightlifting programs work if you focus on the idea of "progressive overload", which basically means to do a little more than last time. 1 more rep? Great. Added 5 more lbs? Amazing.
Before you think that lifting weights isn't for you and I'm a dingdongapotamus, let me say that it's great for not just vanity purposes, but it can increase your heart health, strengthen tendons/ligaments, improves insulin sensitivity, lowers inflammation, reduces cancer risk, and a whole host of other great benefits. And yes, this also applies to women. Fear not, you won't get "bulky", believe me gaining muscle is not nearly so easy as that or else steroids wouldn't be so rampant in bodybuilding communities.
Rule 3: Eat Protein (Aim for 1g/lb of LBM, or .82g/lb of total body weight). I know this one may seem unimportant, but it is important! Rule 1 says "Hey lose weight!", and Rule 2 says "Hey keep muscle!", but Rule 3 finishes the signal to keep muscle by enabling your body to rebuild it after you've busted it up in the gym. The rules all work in harmony!
Now wtf is "1g/lb of LBM"? Well, LBM = Lean Body Mass, which is basically your total bodyweight minus your fat mass. For example: You weigh 200 lbs with 20% body fat, your Lean Body Mass (LBM) is 160 lbs, therefore eat 160g of protein per day, or using total body weight would be 200 lbs x .82 = 164g.
Personally I like using the LBM instead of total body weight because if you have 40% body fat then you won't benefit from a higher protein intake, and your diet success may be easier by allowing those calories to switch to carbs/fats. Sustainability trumps everything else imo.
The amount of protein recommended here is hotly debated in fitness circles, so feel free to adjust based on what makes scientific sense to you. Here's some articles with varying opinions:
This is also where my recipes could come in handy to see some low cal + high protein meals, most of them can have the lean meats substituted or modified to your own taste.
As far as how to figure out your body fat percentage, you can usually get this done for free at a gym and maybe check in once or twice a month to see how that's going. There are also expensive fancy options like DXA, the bodpod, or hydrostatic weighing. Personally I like body fat calipers. This caliper in particular gets the job done with minimal effort, it's cheap and you can do it at home. The downside is that 1) it doesn't measure visceral fat — which is the fat next to your organs — this is important because your Lean Body Mass may be less than you realize, and seeing your LBM decrease over time could actually be visceral fat loss and not lean muscle tissue; 2) it can be inconsistent, but I think this isn't all that big of a deal and if you practice every morning for a week then you'll get a good feel for it, at least good enough to have a steady look at your progress. As far as accuracy goes, no method is 100%, there are no perfect options. There are really awful options though, and I'd classify those cheap bathroom scales with the convenient electric BIA measurements as awful. If your gym uses one of those bigger expensive ones then it's likely as good as anything else out there, but the cheaper ones are useless. My $30 RenPho scale says I went from 14.9% to 11%, and there's no way my before pic is 15%. Ha, if only.
Myths + Things that don't really matter:
- Meal timing or frequency – smaller more frequent meals don't trick our metabolism into burning more calories. Eat whenever is most convenient to keep you on track. I push my meals as late into the day as possible so that I don't try to sleep on an empty stomach. I often eat just before bedtime, even though it probably hinders my sleep quality a little, it's still preferable for me.
- Your metabolism is fine – A cool study compared hunter-gatherers in sub-Saharan Africa against Europeans and Americans and found that our metabolisms are all still the same despite massive lifestyle differences. If you think something may be wrong then get it checked out by a doctor! There's probably medicine for it and you can still reach your goals!
- Your low thyroid has ruined your weight loss chances – Well, I have hypothyroidism. In fact, before I was even diagnosed and medicated 10 years ago I managed to lose 30 lbs. Now, it was hell, but I did it. Of course now that I'm medicated it was so much easier and more pleasant to lose 45 lbs, so fear not! You can still do it!
If you're new to the gym, or are intimidated by the prospect then here are a few tips and thoughts.
- No one cares. I mean this in the best way possible! No one is watching you! I'm easily one of the weakest people in my gym, period. Sometimes I'm lifting weights that Jr High students can lift as a warmup. But no one knows why I'm doing what I'm doing. Maybe it's a deload week, or a warm-up, maybe I'm recovering from an injury, working on form, or it's a light recovery day. The stronger people at the gym know these things, and even if they look your direction you have no idea what they're thinking or if they're able to connect a thought at all after the monster set of squats they just finished. Sometimes you're just between sets and looking around cuz that's all there is to do. Focus on your own workout, and if someone is truly being a 1-off prick then report them to the desk, because most gyms don't want that kind of client ruining their reputation.
- Don't be afraid to hire a trainer! They can help teach you proper form and help put together a weightlifting program for you that meets your own specific needs and goals.
- The big hulks are usually the friendliest. If you catch them lingering around they probably wouldn't mind chatting with you about their journey. But they're not god either, so take any advice you get in the gym with a grain of salt, you're the master of your own destiny, so own it and do your homework, too.
- ABC, Always Be Checking your form. We get into a rhythm and get complacent about our form. Even if you've been feeling good for months it's not a bad idea to look up an exercise and review if your form is still good. Check in with yourself often. I realized about 5 months in that I was short-arming my push-ups, so I slowed it down to regain my range of motion, and it made a big big difference.
- No rush, take your time! This isn't about hitting your peak in 30 days, it's better to think in months instead of days. If you're new then go super light the first few weeks as you're checking in and working on your technique. If you miss a week or two then don't try to just pick right back up where you left off, go light for 1 or 2 sessions and check back in with your body. No one in the gym will be impressed with what we load on the bar, so it's best if we leave our ego at the door.
- Use the equipment for its intended purpose. If you're not sure how to use something then ask the front desk, and machines often have handy stickers with instructions. I've been going to gyms for over 25 years (I'm 39 btw) and still consult the instructions sometimes. Whatever you do, try not to invent new uses for equipment as it may not be safe for you or those around you. A good rule of thumb is that you should always be in absolute control of the weight, no matter how heavy it feels, and with a good stable connection to the ground or equipment.
- Use one station at a time. Try not to reserve multiple machines/racks/areas simultaneously. If the gym has created their own circuit then you're fine to rotate through machines accordingly, but generally work through one setup at a time, and keep lanes & paths clear — ie. don't work out directly in front of the dumbbell rack, just take a few steps back. If the gym is really empty then take your chances, but be willing to lose your setup if someone steps in while you're away or offer to let others work in with you.
Meal Prepping was such a vital part for me. I cooked for a couple hours on Sunday and then my week was so much easier. Those days where I didn't feel like cooking couldn't really pop up since food was always ready, so I never stopped to grab junk food after a long day.
My only binge came on the heels of watching cooking shows. A week of seeing David Chang mashing on fried food built up an insatiable desire to do likewise, so maybe out of sight is out of mind when it comes to consuming entertainment. Still, I logged that binge at roughly 3600 calories of junk which isn't all too crazy in the grand scheme of things. But I didn't punish myself, I just went back to my 1500c/day routine and generally laughed for the next week as my weight jumped and slowly returned to normal. There's a fantastic post about how water is pulled into our gut to process food that I highly recommend reading, it'll calm your fears when you notice your weight jump or fluctuate. My weight jumped 5 lbs overnight, but mathematically I knew that I hadn't consumed 18,000 calories, so all I needed was a little patience. And really, patience is the name of the game in this whole process.
So, I cooked on Sundays and then throughout the week I'd look up recipes, cruise r/MealPrepSunday, r/instantpot, r/1500isplenty, r/1200isplenty, and restaurant menus, meal prep companies, cooking sites like SeriousEats, or any hankering I got for a type of food, and then I'd try to figure out how to recreate it to my taste in a low calorie + high protein style. About 4 months in I was craving ice cream, so I built some really lean meals so that I could eat Halo Top every day for a week. I was quite pleased.
During the week when I would research recipes — which helped my fixation on food — I'd 'rehearse' what my meals could be for next week. I made a spreadsheet where I could put together meals and see their calorie totals, because there were certain staples I knew I'd be having every day like my yogurt snack and protein shakes, so getting to know what else I could get away with really helped. I'd hit my local grocers website to peruse their items which usually contain nutrition info. So I could actually decide my meal, the ingredients and total nutrition profile before ever stepping into the store. This meant I'd have a very specific grocery list that would keep my store visits very focused and quick, no lingering on stuff that won't fit into my diet. Get in get out, no temptation.
Every week I tried to challenge myself with cooking something new and interesting that I was excited about, because meal prepping isn't sustainable if you're not looking forward to what you cooked. And if all else failed a few shots of hot sauce could usually salvage my worst creations. (Exhibit A: my turkey-stuffed bell pepper. #FAILsquad)
My Favorite Tools!
I'd perish without my Coleman water bottle, the water flow is the flippin' best. I know most people use MyFitnessPal, but I've been using MyPlate for ages and think it's fine, though I wish I could just say how many grams of an obvious item like sweet potatoes I have instead of this weird "1 medium sweet potato" garbage. Brah, I'm in Texas, ain't no medium anythings here.
My food scale is mission critical, I even weigh things that shouldn't need weighing, like canned tuna, and am surprised at how often labels are inaccurate on the actual contents. I also weigh myself every day on a RenPho that syncs with their phone app, so logging that is super easy. And of course HappyScale makes good use of the data if you're on iOS, and Libra is apparently a good alternative for Android users.
For me, Sundays are my big check-in day where I measure my weekly progress. I log all my stats and compare against previous weeks. I use MyoTape to measure my waist, calipers to measure my body fat, and then I use a dry erase marker to write it on my bathroom mirror. You can see my progress pics here which shows how I log my progress on the mirror. I felt immense satisfaction when adding a tally mark for each completed week, and then being able to see my original starting weight/bf%/waist when compared to where I'm at currently, and it gave me something to push for: I want to beat that score come next Sunday! So every time I walked into the bathroom I was reminded of my mission, I loved it. It also gave me several points to track progress, because sometimes my weight wouldn't shift week over week but my body fat % or waist would show progress, and it helped keep me sane and motivated.
I also really love spreadsheets. I made a spreadsheet that let me see how my progress was shaping up at a glance. I input my total calories for each day and see how the week is looking, as well as my weekly stats and try to see when I'll hit my final goal. When I'm bored or feeling anxious I just tinker with the stats and write formulas to see trends. Hey, I find it soothing. I also made a tab with a blank sheet for anyone interested in downloading or copy/pasting to their own sheet.
Post Goal Achievement
My original goal was to get down to 10% body fat, but I only got to about 11.4%. Why did I stop? I'm a filmmaker, and I was lucky enough to direct a corporate project in Ireland. Well, my producer & I decided we'd stay an extra week to explore after filming wrapped. I didn't want my first trip to Europe (which was awesome BTW, Cliffs of Moher anyone?) to get squashed by my dieting, I may seem neurotic but even I have my limits. Well, I'm a big fan of donuts, and apparently Ireland likes to make them. I promise I did not see a donut I didn't aim to eat. Anyway, I ended up traveling for a month and it def set me back, then more traveling, then the holidays and flu, etc etc. I started 2020 weighing 202, so I'm spending January & February leaning up again and I'm already back to 184ish, and this has been a far easier time than last time both mentally and physically. Not nearly as much hunger or stress, it's been quite blissful actually.
I think though it's really important to set a new goal of what you'll do once you achieve your first goal. It can be so easy to think you've arrived and kinda throw all the luggage on the bed and slip back into old habits. For me, I want to now bulk and put on 20-30 lbs of muscle which will require even more discipline than losing the fat. It's a new challenge and will require learning a new set of skills and understanding of how the body works. It'll keep me mentally engaged which is critical.
Maybe your goal is just to maintain, or run a marathon, or have a photoshoot. I dunno, but I think planning for success will help keep you there afterwards.
I used a lot of things to keep me motivated!
- Keep it secret, keep it safe. I tried to tell as few people as I could about my mission. I think sometimes talking about a goal can fulfill the internal drive to accomplish it. So I played a game where I wanted to see how much weight I could lose before someone noticed it. Unfortunately, no one really noticed. C'est la vie. Well, I went to Schlitterbahn with my family and my brother noticed, but my shirt was off so that kinda felt like cheating. But he did notice, so I'll takes what I gets.
- I wanted to drop weight for a short film role that I wrote for myself, and I knew the character needed to be physically different than where I was at. Work kinda got in the way so I haven't shot the film yet, but it did help me stay dialed in.
- Probably my biggest motivator was for my podcast. I host a film analysis podcast and so a few months into my diet I decided I wanted to do an episode about my fat loss journey/rules, kind of a 1-off special where we apply our analysis to something non-film related. Well, I knew the episode wouldn't be fun if I didn't like my Before & After pics, but I also wanted to prove that cardio wasn't necessary to lose fat. So, adhering to my rules became doubly important while also hitting my goals. I really wanted to do the episode, so I had to finish what I started!
- Likewise, posting to r/loseit became a big goal of mine as well. I've read so many inspiring posts here and I really wanted to try and contribute my own experience and ideas. I know by contrast there are so many more inspiring stories here (check the Top All-Time posts if you want to cry and break through walls), but hopefully I've added a little to the conversation!
- When it comes to working out it can be hard to feel motivated. Especially during the first few weeks before it's become regimented. But nothing comes close to getting my blood going and my motivation peaked more than watching CrossFit videos. I'm not a CrossFitter, never stepped into a single one of their gyms, and personally have thoughts/opinions on some of the methodology, but nitpicking aside, they are incredibly inspiring to watch! I love watching the documentaries ("Fittest on Earth", and "Redeemed and the Dominant") and even just watching their workouts gets my blood pumping and inspires me to hit the gym.
- I also love surrounding myself in images that are closer to my end-goal. I know that isn't for everyone, but for me and my goals it's really inspiring to see where I'm trying to go and to try and somewhat "normalize" it in my head, like it's not impossible, just takes a little discipline and patience.
- My favorite CrossFit video is Katrin Davidsdottir vs Mat Fraser. Katrin is incrediblelelelelele.
- Reading, learning, tinkering. Generally, I'm not a fan of tinkering. Like, sometimes a client will want an edit or change in a project that seems more about tinkering for the sake of putting their fingerprint on it than actually trying to improve the project. But, in this case, I think reading articles, watching videos, and trying to learn more and to use that knowledge to make adjustments is really motivating. I think education excites us to try these new things out! There are countless sites and subreddits on fitness and nutrition. Here's a few of my faves:
- Examine.com – Great info on a variety of nutrition and supplement topics. Check these out to dip your toe:
- StrongerbyScience.com – covers weightlifting and recent research on nutrition and a whole host of stuff:
- They also have a podcast that's worth checking out
- Bodybuilding.com – This one has soooo much content that quality is a fair concern, it's easy to run into outdated info or generic bro-science. Yet, there's still plenty to glean and a great database of exercises, recipes, and transformation articles to get inspired by.
- Athlean-X – YouTube channel that is very practical and science-based. There's a lot of physical therapy advice and videos to help with weightlifting technique. This is an incredibly refreshing channel in the fitness world as he (Jeff) puts a lot of emphasis on healthy movement and lifestyle.
- Bob & Brad – YouTube channel with physical therapists, great info, fun personalities
- Some great Instagram accounts to check out:
- Examine.com – Great info on a variety of nutrition and supplement topics. Check these out to dip your toe:
Wrap it up, Wes! Cool. Overall, the idea is to focus on where the overwhelming majority of progress comes from and just do that. If 95% of progress (#madeupstats) is achieved by CICO, lifting weights, and getting enough protein then I'd rather not stress over details that don't add up to much. I'm not looking to be Mr Olympia or play in the NFL, so the edge I can attain by obsessing over stuff gurus say in fitness mags or whatever just aren't worth my time investment.
It was a fun journey and one I hope to never repeat. I think Phase 2 of adding lean muscle is going to be a lot of fun and will likely have its own setbacks and learning curve. But I'm hoping that by staying focused I can make my 40s feel like my 20s. And remember: Never give up, never surrender.
*it took everything in me to not link "First things first" to this.