Understanding How To Lose
With all of the myths, gimmicks, pills, powders, and quick-fixes available for fat loss, it’s no wonder that one of the most common questions we receive from our community is “How do I lose body fat?”
Women are so confused about the best way to burn fat, and with good reason. “Fat loss” is big business, and too many unscrupulous people put misleading information right at your fingertips, because they want your money.
Let’s be clear about one thing first: losing weight and losing body fat are not the same thing. You can: chop off your arm, go 24 hours without eating, or sit in the sauna and sweat for an hour and lose weight, but what you’re looking for is most likely fat loss.
Now that we have cleared that up, let’s move on to the king of fat loss, which is energy balance, or how many calories you’re taking, versus how many you are expending. You cannot lose fat if you’re taking in more calories than you’re expending over a consistent period of time. However, the seemingly simple equation of “calories in – calories out = fat loss” doesn’t quite cut it for women who want to look good, feel good, and feel healthy and strong, long-term. There are other things to consider, as you’ll read below.
If you want to lose or gain weight, the amount of calories you consume does matter. However, calorie counting isn’t as exact as many people think, leading women to feel like failures, or like there is something “wrong” with them if they don’t lose the exact amount of weight each week that their activity tracker suggests. If counting calories works for you, great! Keep doing it. For most women, calorie counting doesn’t work long-term, and it’s just one more unnecessary stress.
But… if you don’t count calories, then what?
First, pay attention to how you’re feeling. Are you hungry? If you’re not, don’t eat. It may be noon, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat lunch. Instead of looking at the clock, start listening to your body’s hunger cues.
Next, when you do eat, eat slowly and pay attention to the food you’re eating. If you eat slowly it gives your body time to tell your brain you’ve had enough. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes for your stomach to send a signal to your brain it’s full. You can practice slowing down by taking a bite and putting your fork down, or setting a timer for 20 minutes and making sure it takes at least that long to eat the meal. If you’re used to eating much faster than that, this may seem like an eternity at first. That’s normal. Trust us when we say that this strategy alone can make an impact on your goals.
The next step is to stop before you’re completely full. You should be satisfied, but shy of full. Some people refer to this as being 80 percent full. Again, it’s important to be listening for your body’s cues. Your body will tell you when you’ve had enough.
Lastly, try to avoid drinking liquid calories like soda, and multiple cups of coffee with cream and sugar. If you don’t think you could enjoy your coffee without sugar, try just adding a little less than you normally do, and gradually (after a week or two) try to add even less.
Rather than counting calories (again if it works for you, great and keep at it) practice these four steps:
When you’re trying to lose weight it’s important that you primarily choose minimally processed whole food rather than taking supplements or drinking meal replacement shakes. If that’s not realistic for your life at the moment, it’s okay to use protein shakes as a backup. Though it may be a challenge to avoid all packaged foods (and not all packaged foods are detrimental to your goals), we recommend that you emphasize foods you find in periphery of the grocery store as the bulk of your diet. That is, try to primarily consume produce, meats, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs, which are all usually found on the outside walls of your grocery store.
That doesn’t mean you can’t eat other things, but make sure that the majority of your food choices come from protein-dense foods and vegetables. We recommend that you shoot for at least two portions of vegetables and one portion of protein at each meal. Foods like spinach, peppers, fish, and chicken breast are nutrient dense and lower in calories.
You’ve probably been told to “eat your vegetables” more than a few times in your life, and whoever told you was right. Ideally, you’d eat about ten portions of vegetables every day, primarily of the colorful, fibrous, non-starchy varieties (e.g. leafy greens, peppers, zucchini, cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.), and secondarily produce such as potatoes and sweet potatoes. For reference, a portion of vegetables is about the size of your fist. Yes, your fist is a different size than your friend’s fist, but that’s the aim of this recommendation: smaller people tend to have smaller hands, and that works nicely for a relatively smaller portion. If ten portions sounds like an impossible number right now, shoot for just one more portion than you’re eating right now, and slowly increase from there. If you’re not sure what to eat, here’s a great infographic.
Protein-dense foods not only tend to be nutrient-dense, they also help you feel full for a longer period of time. Most women tend to struggle to eat enough protein. Here are some examples of protein-dense foods:
Aim to have one portion of protein-dense food at each meal. A portion of protein is equivalent to about the size and thickness of your palm (20 to 30 grams of protein).
While some women are concerned about higher protein intake affecting their kidney health1, there is no evidence that healthy people eating higher amounts of protein are at higher risk of kidney damage or disease.
It’s also recommended that you have one portion of fats at each meal. Seeds, nuts, avocado, oils, and butter are considered fats. A portion of fat is equivalent to about the size of your thumb.
Depending on your size you may need to increase or decrease the portions. If you find that you’re full with just half a portion, then reduce the portions. Your hunger and fullness trump all the recommended portions sizes, but start by eating your vegetables, then your protein, then starchy carbs. Here’s a handy guide.
We don’t recommend a low-carb diet, but eating your most carbohydrate-rich foods after you workout may help you toward your weight loss/fat loss goals.
Higher carbohydrate foods include breads, pasta, rice, and sugary foods. Yes, you can have these, but focus on less processed versions and eat most of them after working out. None of these foods are off-limits—total abstinence from any food simply isn’t necessary (unless you have a sensitivity or allergy, of course).
If energy balance is the king of fat loss, hormones are the queen. Total calories determine if you’re gaining or losing mass, but hormones determine what the makeup of that mass is (i.e. fat, muscle, bone, etc.). Because hormones control metabolism, and both hormones and metabolism are dynamic (meaning they fluctuate, rather than stay predictably the same at all times), fat loss isn’t quite as simple as, “eat less and move more.”
As Girls Gone Strong Advisory Board Member Dr. Brooke Kalanick explains in her article, “Is Metabolic Damage A Real Thing?”:
“We’ve been told to think of our metabolism as a simple math equation: calories in – calories out = fat loss. It makes more sense to acknowledge that our metabolism and hormones are fluid, dynamic, and adaptive. More like a rubber band. You can pull or push, but only to a point, then it snaps back (or it breaks altogether).
Calories matter, and so do hormones like insulin and cortisol when it comes to losing weight. But let those ideas go for a moment and just think of the rubber band analogy. In order to get a result, fat loss in this case, you have to put just enough stress on it to get movement without it snapping back.
The key is just enough. Not enough stress and you stay stuck. Too much stress, and like the rubber band, the metabolism springs back.”
So we know that the key to fat loss is a combination of energy balance with a healthy hormone profile. The question is, how do we achieve that?
Women have the added difficulty of dealing with hormones when they’re trying to lose weight. During your menstrual cycle, changes in your sex hormones (progesterone and estrogen) affect how many calories you burn and the cravings you get for certain foods.
Stress, sleep deprivation, severe food restriction, and carbohydrate restrictions impact your hormones and your health. You may want to lose ten pounds quickly, but it can be at the cost of your long-term health and fertility.
During certain parts of your cycle you’re more likely to have cravings. It’s perfectly normal, so it’s best to plan for it instead of hoping that by some miracle, or by simply being more motivated, you’re going to get through it. If you feel crazy chocolate cravings, get a small amount very high quality chocolate knowing that the cravings will come. When the craving hits, savor your good chocolate.
If you’ve lost your period and you’re not menopausal, it’s imperative that you go see your doctor. This is neither normal nor healthy.
Chronic stress slows down your metabolism making it difficult to lose weight. However, when people talk about fat loss, stress management usually isn’t part of the conversation
No one is stress-free and the goal isn’t to avoid stress completely. Rather than focusing on avoiding stress you should focus on managing stress. One way of managing stress is through meditation. Meditating for five to 10 minutes each day can help decrease your stress and improve your fat loss progress.
Tips for mediating:
Stress management has the added bonus of improving sleep, yet another thing people don’t typically consider when they’re working on reducing their body fat. Even one night of sleep deprivation can slow down your metabolism by five to 20 percent and make it more difficult to make healthy food choices.
If you have a young baby, sleep when your baby sleeps. It may feel futile to attempt to sleep knowing that baby will be up in an hour or less, but some sleep is better than no sleep.
Strength training is important when working on reducing body fat, because it keeps you from losing muscle while you’re eating fewer calories. If you avoid strength training, you’re likely to lose muscle when you lose body fat. Having less muscle not only means having less strength, it also means that you’ll burn fewer calories. With a proper strength training program, you’ll not only counteract the muscle loss, but slightly increase your muscle mass and give your metabolism a boost.
For fat burning workouts, we recommend that you focus on movements, rather than on exercising specific muscles. There’s nothing wrong with single-joint/isolation exercises, but compound exercises such as squats and push-ups use more muscles than isolation exercises such as biceps curls or leg extensions, giving you the most “bang for your buck” in terms of the time you spend in the gym. Focus on these key movement patterns: squatting, hip hinge (like deadlifts), pulling, and pushing.
You’ve likely heard of squats. What you might not realize is that in the squat family, there are many variations, including split-stance movements like lunges and single-leg movements like Bulgarian split squats. Squats are a great exercise for both improving lower body strength as well as core strength and stability. Take a look at this article for more details about squatting.
Hip hinge exercises are another type of lower body exercise. Instead of starting by bending at the knee like in squatting movements, the movement starts by bending (or hinging) at the hip. Exercises in the hip hinge family include deadlifts (all variations), Romanian deadlifts, glute bridges, step-ups, and hip thrust. Here are a few great articles about deadlifts and hip thrusts.
Pushing exercises involve, you guess it, pushing with the upper body (though some pushing exercises can involve the entire body, such as prowler pushes, or push presses). Examples of pushing exercises include all variations of push-ups, shoulder presses, bench presses. Here are two great articles about pressing movements and push-ups specifically.
Pulling exercises are also typically upper body exercises where you pull (though, as with pushing exercises, there are some pulling exercises that involve the entire body, such as sled pulls). Examples of pulling exercises include all variations of inverted rows, chin-ups (with or without assistance), pull-ups (with or without assistance), bent-over rows, and lat pull-downs.
Pick one exercise from each group (squat, hip hinge, push, and pull). Ideally, you will pair a lower body and upper body exercise (this is called a superset). With each superset perform five to 12 reps of the first exercise, rest for 60 seconds, and move to the second exercise, perform five to 12 reps, and rest for 60 seconds. That’s one round. Perform three to five rounds per superset, then move to the next pair of exercises (the next superset).
The weight you use should be the heaviest load possible with which you can maintain perfect form, while being able to finish the reps and still have one or two reps left “in the tank” (meaning you could do one or two more reps).
Yes, we’re talking about cardiovascular training. There are two main types of cardiovascular training: high intensity with breaks, and moderate intensity. Some examples of aerobic exercises include:
Keep in mind that most of these exercises can be used to perform high or moderate intensity cardio, depending on how you program them.
High-intensity interval training (or HIIT), an important element of fat burning workouts, alternates between very short periods of intense exercise and periods of rest. For example, after an easy jog for five to 10 minute as a warm-up, sprint as fast as you can for 20 seconds, then rest for 60 seconds. That’s one round. Sprint again for 20 seconds and rest for 60 seconds. That’s round two. You would typically complete three to five rounds and then cool down for five to 10 minutes.
The most important thing with HIIT is to work as hard as you can when you’re ‘sprinting.’ We’ve heard people say they’re “advanced” and 20 seconds isn’t long enough for them to feel anything. Nope, they’re just not going all out. The intensity for those 20 seconds should be along the lines of “a bear is chasing you, and it’s incredibly close!”
To progress, you can increase your work time (the sprinting), decrease the rest time, or increase the number of rounds. I suggest only changing one thing at a time.
You can do almost anything for HIIT, running, cycling, rowing and bodyweight exercise.
NOTE: if you’re new to high-intensity cardio or haven’t exercised in a while, remember that jumping into a workout program and working at a super high intensity probably isn’t a good idea. Instead, make sure you’re working at an intensity level that’s safe for your ability level.
Many of you have read that “cardio” is bad for you, and many of you have read that “cardio” is all you should be doing for fat loss. While your fat burning workouts definitely shouldn’t be cardio-only, some cardio is helpful. When used properly, it can help you recover more quickly from strength training and HIIT.
Moderate intensity cardio is any activity (such as walking, jogging, cycling, rowing) that you can do while holding a conversation. Your heart rate should be between 120-140 beats per minute the whole time. Twenty to 30 minutes, one to two times a week is a sufficient starting point for most women.
Depending on how much time you have, you can combine strength and cardio training in different ways.
For fat loss, in an ideal world, you’d be training four to five hours a week.
TOTAL TRAINING TIME: 4 hours and 50 minutes
Lastly, consistency matters more than you think when it comes to how to burn body fat. Rather than adding more to your workouts and eating less to lose weight faster, focus on sustainability. If you experience some hiccups and setbacks in your original plan, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just get back to it at the very next opportunity.
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