When it comes to revealing the abs, what should we focus on more – are they crafted through hundreds of sit-ups, or are they made in the kitchen? If you’ve always struggled to get a six-pack, this article is for you.
Firstly, everyone has a set of abdominal muscles. We are all born with the ‘rectus abdominis’ muscle group, whose function is to allow flexion of the trunk i.e. to bend forwards. So why do some have extremely visible ab muscles compared to others? There are 3 factors to consider.
1) Levels of body-fat
This is the most important factor when it comes to revealing the abs. Put simply, if you are too fat, you are not going to see your ab muscles. In order to reveal the muscles underneath, we need to get rid of the fat lying on top of them. This is achieved through a calorie deficit over time. We cannot spot reduce fat, so unfortunately you will need to lose fat all over in order to see reductions around the mid-section.
2) Ab training
Individuals who have trained for many years with compound movements that have engaged their core muscles, will have larger and more prominent ab muscles. This is because over time, the muscles have grown in size and therefore protrude further. The abs are a thin sheet of muscle, so don’t expect them to grow as much as other major muscle groups like the legs or back, but we can hypertrophy them (make them bigger) gradually over a number of years. Train your abs twice per week, with exercises such as hanging leg raises, planks and cable crunches. Pay close attention to how you execute these exercises – do not use momentum but instead focus on contracting the target muscle through a full range of motion.
For some, it may take a lot longer to achieve the six-pack look, and this is largely due to genetics. Individuals who have stubborn belly fat i.e. fat around the mid-section that is the very last bit to go, will have to diet far longer than those who carry the majority of their fat elsewhere e.g. in the legs/lower back. There is nothing we can do about this unfortunately, besides continuing to diet down until we achieve the desired look. Genetics will also determine the shape of the ab muscles, so don’t expect perfect symmetry. There is no way to train your abs to be symmetrical if they aren’t, this is simply a feature of genetics.
In summary, diet is key for achieving the six-pack look. Train the abs twice per week to assist in the process, and don’t stress about genetic factors outside your control.
Intermittent Fasting or IF (particularly the 16:8 protocol - fasting for 16 hours, with an 8 hour eating window) is seen by many to be a superior way to lose body fat (and also build muscle). In this article we'll discuss just how superior it is, and whether you stand to benefit from trying it out.
Firstly, is IF superior for fat loss in healthy individuals with no underlying conditions? No!
Reducing body fat is achieved through a calorie deficit, and it doesn’t matter if you eat a set number of calories in the space of 8, 10 or 16 hours. If two diets are iso-caloric (ie, have the same number of calories), then both will create the same degree of fat loss, providing they are adhered to.
Where IF stands to benefit some individuals is through improving adherence to the specified calorie intake. Often, when those calories are spread out across the day, the meals are smaller and less satisfying, thus making it more likely you will over-eat. IF allows meals to be larger and consumed within a shorter time-frame, thus increasing your perceived level of ‘fullness’. If you feel full, you are less likely to eat more (providing you listen to your hunger signals!) If you are someone who has a large appetite, IF could therefore benefit you as the meals can be larger. If you are someone who can stick to a calorie deficit regardless of satiety levels, then IF will not provide any additional benefit.
Secondly, is IF superior for muscle gain? Not necessarily. Muscle growth is caused by progressively overloading in the gym. In layman’s terms, this means seeing a gradual increase in the weights lifted, or an increase in the number of sets or reps (with a given weight) in the gym over time. You should therefore eat in a way that optimises performance. Perhaps that means eating small meals frequently throughout the day. Perhaps it means training fasted. The effect that eating windows have on performance is highly individualised, so there is no one-size-fits-all formula. A 16-hour fast and an 8-hour eating window may benefit some people’s training, whilst for others it may be detrimental. The best way to establish what works for you is to try out various approaches.
To sum up, eating in a specific time window is not superior for losing body fat to an unrestricted eating window providing the same number of total calories is consumed. And time-restricted eating has little to do with muscle gain. You should eat in a way that optimises performance, which is dependent on the individual - that's you!
The 10,000 daily step count is considered by many as the ‘golden’ threshold when quantifying habitual activity levels. Failing to hit this target can mean endless notifications from an unforgiving FitBit or tracking device and anything greater is regarded as a glowing success.
The target of 10,000 steps per day can be traced to the product name of a Japanese pedometer made in the mid-1960s.
Nowadays, the reference point is based on scientific evidence, indicating that this number can help with body composition and other health-related goals.
On average, 10,000 steps will equate to approximately 8km (5 miles) and the amount of energy expended per step is roughly proportional to a person’s body weight (cal/kg/step). Obviously, the length of each step and the energy used taking those steps vary – according to height, age, body weight, fitness level, etc.
The energy used is also dependent upon speed (running vs walking) but the difference in terms of calories burned over a fixed distance is not as much as you might think; there is minimal difference in energy expended between a brisk walk and a slow run/jog. The graph below from one study shows that, where the two curved lines meet.
It's been shown that a greater number of daily steps was significantly associated with lower all-cause mortality. 8,000 steps per day was associated with a 51% lower risk of all-cause mortality, compared to taking 4,000 steps, while 12,000 steps per day was associated with a 65% lower risk.
At the simplest and perhaps most important level, fitness trackers can be a fantastic awareness tool to increase your activity levels via daily steps and encourage you to be more active. Walking has well-established benefits for mental health, mood, cognition and well-being.
Beyond that, the accuracy of tracking devices can be questionable, particularly when assessing energy expenditure. A study published in 2016, found that tracking devices overestimated energy expenditure by between 16% and 40%!
It’s doubly important, therefore, that you don’t ‘eat back’ the calories your tracker has said you’ve burned! Device or no device, it is poor practice to try and offset or mitigate exercise with extra calories. Losing body fat is about being in a deficit, so ‘bank’ the activity and don’t risk reducing it or wiping it out completely!
Writing this during the coronavirus, now more than ever is an important time to be mindful of your activity levels – if highlighting your step count with a phone app or tracking device helps you move more, then do it!
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
A question that a lot of our clients at bodyscanuk.com ask frequently, is: “I’ve been using a weight loss calculator and tracking my calorie intake… but I’m not getting any closer to my body weight goals. Where am I getting it wrong?!” Calorie calculator maths is thrown off by your body’s adaptive nature. Your metabolism slows down as you reduce your caloric intake. Starting with an accurate body fat measurement also ensures that you set realistic goals from the get-go. A Dexa scan UK shows you measurements in a language that is easy to understand.
Body scan weight loss calculator
The body scan calorie calculator takes your body metabolism’s adaptive nature into account. This gives a more accurate picture of what you need to do to reach your ideal weight. By getting a body scan, you receive an accurate picture of how long it may take to achieve visible results. Before you use a body scan calorie calculator, make sure that your expectations about body change and weight loss match with how your body works.
What to expect from the DEXA body composition test
Our DEXA body fat measurement Manchester clients achieve excellent results with the body scan weight loss calculator. But here’s what the DEXA body composition test or body scan can’t do: Predict every factor that affects your ability to reach your weight loss goals. Working out or meticulously tracking calories may be a viable weight loss approach for some.
Assess our affordable pricing, work with our DEXA body fat measurement London team and improve your results with a tailor-made approach.
We have a few clients at Bodyscan who measure EVERYTHING you can possibly imagine on their quest to improve body composition. At every visit they present slick graphs on impressive apps, bursting with meticulously measured and time-consumingly entered data.
But, despite their efforts, a lot of these people are seeing absolutely no progress in terms of lower body fat or muscle gain. Why? Because they are obsessed with measuring rather than focused on actually doing!
Tracking some data is important. A Bodyscan DEXA scan is itself an essential measurement. Without some quantifiable numbers, it’s mostly just guess work. And guess work doesn’t lead to outstanding results.
To lose body fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit, ie, consume fewer calories than your body burns (we often recommend a daily deficit of 550 calories because it equates to about half a kilo a week). So of course you need to track (or at least be mindful of) the meals you are eating to be sure you adhere to that overarching principle. Similarly, to build muscle, you need to see progress in the gym in terms of weights lifted and/or reps performed. If you are not keeping a record of your performance, it would be impossible to see any trends. There is a point however where additional data analysis does not provide better results and people often end up over-analysing. Paralysis by analysis.
At Bodyscan we recommend keeping it simple and focusing only on three to four key metrics. There is no need to complicate what is a very straight-forward process. So what should you track?
1. Calorie & protein intake
Without an accurate figure for the overall number of calories you are consuming, it’s difficult to know if you are in an appropriately sized deficit. Similarly, tracking protein is required to ensure you are consuming a sufficient amount (2g per kilo of bodyweight is a good rule of thumb).
2. Body weight
Of course, changes to body weight on their own do not paint the full picture, which is why it needs to be tracked alongside:
3. Gym performance
If you are maintaining your numbers in the gym, it’s a great sign that you’re maintaining your muscle mass. If your bodyweight is dropping at the same time, we can deduce that the change is due to a reduction in body fat. For those who just can’t resist a bit of extra data you can also look at:
4. Measurements (waist, arm, chest, thigh)
Seeing a decrease in your waist measurement is a good proxy for fat loss. Arm, chest and thigh measurements may decrease slightly too (especially if fat is being lost around these areas), which is why these measurements should be considered in conjunction with 1, 2 & 3.
To sum up, tracking data alone doesn’t dictate success, you have to actually put the effort in to alter the numbers. Instead of focusing on useless data like how many meals you eat per day or at what time or how many grams of this or that supplement you need, focus on the basic metrics which govern the majority of your progress and track these over time so you can determine the trend. From there, adjust accordingly.
Is 100 calories of chips the same as 100 calories of fish?
First, in a literal sense, a calorie is always a calorie since it’s a unit of energy. Energy cannot be made or destroyed, only transferred from one state to another.
When discussing changes in body fat, this is most closely related to energy balance over time – that is, whether you are in a calorie surplus or a calorie deficit. So, the calories in the food you eat is the key driver of whether you gain fat or not.
However, not all calories are treated equally within the body. Some of the calories in the food you consume will be used to digest, absorb, and metabolise the rest of the food, and some will be burned off as heat. This is known as the ‘thermic effect of feeding’ (TEF).
Protein has a TEF quite a bit higher than carbohydrates and fats, meaning that, in simplistic terms, more of the calories are ‘burned off’, leaving fewer to get stored as fat. Therefore a higher protein intake can be advantageous.
• Fat provides 9 calories per gram, and its TEF is 0–3%
• Carbohydrate provides 4 calories per gram, and its TEF is 5–10%
• Protein provides 4 calories per gram, and its TEF is 20–30%
A higher protein diet can also suppress appetite, preserve muscle mass and reduce food intake in real-world conditions.
Whilst a high-protein diet has this metabolic advantage, foods of all types that are more satiating (filling) can make sticking to a calorie deficit easier.
Based on research on the satiety index, food volume, fibre, and water content all appear to influence how filling a food is. Examples of some of the top ranked foods in this study included potatoes, fish, oats, and oranges.
By contrast, an ultra-processed diet (e.g. junk-type food) can result in a significantly higher calorie consumption. It may be wise, then, to limit junk food to better control your calorie intake.
Regardless of a food’s TEF, to maintain weight, we need the energy equation to balance (energy intake = total energy expenditure).
Energy Intake (food & drink) = RMR + TEF + Activity Thermogenesis
Resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the amount of energy required to maintain the body’s most basic functions at rest.
'Activity thermogenesis' refers to your energy expenditure from all activity. That is formal physical activity (e.g. training) as well as spontaneous activities such as fidgeting, maintaining one’s posture, walking etc. known as NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
Take-home: for fat loss, keeping body fat low and general health, design a varied diet with ample protein and fibre and one that is rich in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
High intensity interval training (HIIT) has gained popularity in recent decades.
It refers to any form of activity that alternates high intensity activity with periods of lower to moderate intensity activity (eg, 20-second sprint intervals with 60 seconds of walking, jogging or even complete rest.
By contrast, aerobic or steady state training (eg, jogging) is where a reasonably steady intensity is maintained for an extended period (say, 20 minutes or more).
For some, HIIT is revered as the single best way to burn calories in a time efficient manner.
With numerous variations under the broad umbrella of HIIT methods (e.g. Tabata, a short interval training protocol), HIIT can indeed be a time-efficient way to improve conditioning and overall fitness.
Perhaps because it also shares a couple of metabolic traits with resistance training (short bursts of intense effort followed by a period of rest, and an ‘afterburn’ effect), it’s often sold as a way to burn fat with minimal loss of lean mass.
But actually, HIIT does not always translate to an improvement in body composition or fat-loss efforts.
For a given amount of work, you will burn more calories with HIIT compared to aerobic or steady state training. There is also a greater ‘afterburn’ effect, meaning you will continue to burn more calories after you’ve finished the exercise.
In most instances, however, the amount of energy burned afterwards, known as excess post-exercise energy expenditure (EPEE) and related to post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), is considerably overplayed.
When comparing a 20-minute high intensity interval session versus a 30-minute continuous running session at a lower intensity, the interval session resulted in 57 more calories burned. This figure included both the calories burned during the exercise session as well as those burned afterwards (EPEE) and concluded that the major contribution to weight loss from both steady-state jogging and HIIT was from the energy expended during the actual exercise. The afterburn effect was “of negligible physiological significance as far as weight loss is concerned.”
It’s well worth noting that the researchers in this study made sure that the total amount of work done was equal between the two sessions.
The main benefit of interval training (HIIT) for fat loss is not, then, the calories burned per se but rather the time efficiency. For those with busy lifestyles, HIIT may be a preferable method to expend more calories in less time but a true HIIT session (repeated all-out sprints for 30 seconds-plus) is not for everyone.
The problem with regular HIIT is that it is taxing on the body and may interfere with strength and muscle gain by causing too much fatigue. Higher intensity means higher recovery and thus may prevent effective, progressive resistance training over time.
Given the fact that steady state training involves far less recovery, a reduction in injury risk and a lower requirement for cardiovascular fitness compared to HIIT, it may be a more feasible approach for beginners or people who are overweight or obese. Similarly, for those looking to optimise muscle building, it may be prudent to steer clear of regular engagement in true HIIT sessions.
Both HIIT and steady state training are effective methods for increasing overall fitness and can be used as a fat-loss tool to complement your nutrition. In the context of fat loss, adherence is the primary predictor of success, so choose a training protocol that you know you can stick to rather than worry about what type of ‘afterburn’ it might give you.
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
White and brown fat is yet another one of those topics that many people get hopelessly fixated about, along with other ‘rabbit holes’ like macro splits, meal timing, high- and low-GI foods, training pyramids and the like. Keep it simple!
The scientific term for body fat is adipose tissue. Adipose tissue forms part of the body’s complex metabolic and endocrine system that produces hormones to regulate many things such as sleep, sexual function, blood pressure, body temperature and appetite. One of the most important functions of adipose tissue is as a ‘master regulator’ of energy balance.
Adipose tissue can be categorised according to special biological functions, such as white, mammary gland, brown, and bone marrow adipose tissues. In humans, the overwhelming majority of body fat consists of white adipose tissue (WAT) and the other forms can be largely ignored.
WAT functions mainly as a fantastic energy reservoir, thermal insulator, and as a source of recently discovered hormones.
A kilogram of body fat contains about 7,700 calories (or 3,500 calories for a pound). A typical Bodyscan client (male or female) presents with about 20kg of body fat, which equates to over 150,000 calories! To find out how many calories you need to eat to reach your target, use our body composition calculator.
Increased and excessive adipose tissue mass, however, is the primary characteristic of obesity. Extremely obese individuals may have double or more (300,000-450,000 calories) that amount of stored energy. One obese individual fasted for over a year with no ill-effects (which proves that ‘starvation mode’ doesn’t exist!)
Adipose tissue can be found under the skin (subcutaneous fat), internally (eg, visceral fat around the organs) and intramuscular (between muscle fibres). Men tend to have more visceral fat and store more subcutaneous fat around the abdomen (android region) than do women, who carry proportionately more around their hips and thighs (gynoid region). The evidence indicates that body fat spot reduction is either a myth or doesn’t occur to any meaningful degree. Everybody has stubborn body fat areas.
Subcutaneous fat (the stuff you can pinch) is reduced by creating an energy deficit over a sustained period (ie, eating and drinking fewer calories than you burn).
Visceral fat will fall simultaneously. But because visceral fat is more metabolically active, it also responds directly to increased activity. So a combination of reduced consumption and increased exercise is ideal to combat both the fat you can see and the more dangerous fat that you can’t.
In summary, don’t get dragged down time-wasting rabbit holes about different colours of fat, or trying to turn one into the other. As it happens, nearly all of your body fat is ‘white’ and you can reduce it by eating a bit less and doing a bit more!
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
For most people, losing body fat is the quickest way to improve body composition and overall health. Achieving a low level of body fat will improve not only the visual aesthetic but also contribute to a reduction in harmful, visceral (internal) fat.
The issue that most face when trying to achieve this is how to maintain the muscle mass they have built up. Muscle-building is a slow, hard progress, so to see muscle disappear is dispiriting to say the least.
The most sensible step you can take to preserve lean mass when shedding body fat is to slow the rate of fat loss. The risk of muscle catabolism (muscle breakdown) goes up when you lose weight (body mass) at a faster rate. A faster rate will negatively alter the balance of muscle-to-fat loss. By slowing the rate down you can ensure maximum retention of lean mass. I recommend a rate of 0.5kg (just over a pound) of fat loss per week achieved through a sustainable calorie deficit of 550 per day.
It becomes even more important to slow the rate down as you achieve lower levels of fat. As well as being negatively impacted by rapid weight loss, muscle breakdown is inversely proportional to your total fat mass - ie, the leaner (lower fat) you get, the higher the risk of losing muscle.
So when you have more fat to lose, you can afford a faster rate without sacrificing much muscle, but as that total fat comes down, you cannot continue at the same rate. The rate must be adjusted proportional to your total fat mass.
Take a look at the (overall amazing) results for Bodyscan customer Jim below. In his first five months, he lost 20kg of fat (more than half of what he started with) and just 1kg of lean mass (a fat-loss-to-muscle-loss of 20:1). But four months after that the ratio had shrunk to just 2:1 (5.2kg of fat and 2.6kg of lean).
The graph on the left shows the three scans; the rate of fat loss (yellow) slows down while the rate of muscle loss (blue) accelerates. The tables on the right show the details for fat and lean mass, with the earliest scan at the bottom of each table and the most recent at the top. In each table look at the numbers in the far right column ('change since previous scan') .
Work to preserve muscle
The second thing you should be doing is resistance training throughout your calorie deficit to hold on to muscle. With an optimised programme of weights, calorie deficit and protein consumption you could actually increase muscle while losing fat. Or you could retain what you have or keep losses to an absolute minimum.
Without weight-training, it's typical for Bodyscan customers to lose 1kg of lean mass for every 3kg of fat. Work hard in the gym against with a small calorie deficit and you can halt muscle loss completely. Download our muscle guide to see what makes a great weights regimen.
So, in summary, to preserve your hard-earned muscle:
Before we answer the question, let me highlight some of the benefits of regular physical activity:
• Lower blood lipids. Lipids are fatty substances, an excess of which can cause fat deposits in the artery walls, increasing your risk of heart disease.
• Improved glucose regulation. The body functions better when glucose (blood sugar) is maintained within a tight range.
• Improved insulin sensitivity (if you are insulin resistant you are at higher risk of type-2 diabetes)
• Reduction in blood pressure (reduced risk of heart attack and stroke)
• Improved psychological well-being - reduced stress, anxiety and depression
I prefer, then, to emphasise the health and well-being benefits associated with any regular physical activity rather than focusing simply on calories. This is particularly true when losing body fat is the goal.
Key point: If you’re looking to lose body fat, let nutrition be the priority where your energy deficit does the ‘fat burning’ and have training/physical activity support it.
As for walking versus running over the same distance, yes, there is a difference in calories per mile and variation will depend on an individual’s age, weight, body composition, running experience, pace and physical fitness.
The more intense the activity, the greater demand for fuel (glycogen and fat) and energy to be produced at the same rate.
Further, running will have a slightly greater ‘afterburn’ effect, known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). In this study performed over one mile, EPOC remained elevated for 10 minutes for walkers and 15 minutes for runners. While the difference in energy expenditure and EPOC combined was about 30%, this amounted to just 48 calories. Nothing to write home about!
However, over longer distances and if done regularly, the difference may be more impactful. As a result, running may be preferable for people who want to expend more calories in less time.
However, that is NOT to say that running is a superior mode of exercise for everyone.
Walking, by comparison, can be an easy and seamless way to increase energy expenditure every day and has minimal impact on recovery and injury risk when compared to higher-intensity activities.
Also, for shifting body fat and creating a greater energy deficit, you will want to maximise the distance travelled (work done) but without significantly affecting hunger.
To that end, running may result in greater fatigue, glycogen depletion, and thus can be a sure-fire way to stimulate hunger and food cravings. In contrast, walking the same distance is less likely to be compensated for by reaching for food and therefore more likely to result in an actual energy deficit.
For those wanting to optimise body composition, my bias would lean towards low-intensity activities such as walking to complement a well-designed resistance training programme. (Also, if you are keen to gain muscle, running long distances encourages your muscles to adapt for endurance rather than to increase in size.)
If you prefer a more balanced approach, include a combination of resistance training and low intensity activity with some moderate-high intensity activity for cardiovascular fitness.
Ultimately, the decision should come down to what you love most. With exercise, place less emphasis towards the calories burned and more on how much better you feel after doing it. Again – let your calorie deficit through what you consume do the ‘fat burning’, supplemented and complemented by physical activity for overall good health.
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
During the coronavirus lockdown period, the gyms are closed and so most of us will have stopped weight-training completely. The two questions I’ve been asked many times recently are "How quickly will I lose muscle?" and "How hard will it be to get it back?"
Let’s start with muscle loss. Your rate of muscle loss will depend on:
1. How much muscle you had gained above your natural set point (the amount you have without weight training)
2. How much weight training you did to build that amount of muscle
The more muscle mass you’ve gained above your natural set point, the more you are likely to lose when you stop training. If you’ve only gained 2-3kg of muscle mass over the course of six months of training, you’ll likely maintain most of this. If you’ve been training for many years and have gained 12-15kg of muscle, you’re going to see a much bigger proportion (and therefore a bigger absolute amount) disappear.
Also, the more frequently and intensively you were weight training before lockdown, the faster you will lose the muscle mass you gained. For example, if your level of muscle is where it is because you normally train six times per week, expect a faster rate of muscle loss than if you were only training twice a week.
In other words, the more dramatic the reduction in your training regime, the faster your muscle mass will decrease.
When it comes to gaining back any lost muscle mass post lockdown, you’ll be pleased to know that "muscle memory" is real.
The nucleus of muscle cells is responsible for rebuilding new proteins. Over time, with effective resistance training, muscle cells adapt to gain more nuclei. This allows them to produce more proteins, making the muscles bigger and stronger.
If you stop training, your muscle mass can shrink slowly but the number of nuclei won’t change. This means the ‘machinery’ needed to build the higher amount of muscle mass you had will still be there. That’s the essence of ‘muscle memory’ and why those who have lost muscle mass find it fairly easy to regain their losses.
If you’re unable to do any resistance training at all during lockdown, when you get back to the gym make sure you resume the same routine you were before (or, more precisely, a high-quality, optimised regimen as detailed in our free e-book Twelve Reasons Why you're Not Gaining Muscle).
If lockdown prevents you training for 12 weeks, I’d expect it to take five to six weeks of solid training to regain your losses of size and strength.
Although lost muscle mass can be regained, I’d advise you to do as much resistance training as you can while the gyms are closed. This will slow the rate of muscle loss whether your long-term goal is muscle gain OR fat loss. All exercise is good for our physical and mental health during these extraordinary times and, if you weren't aware, strength training helps to maintain and increase bone density.
My blog about training at home would be a good place to start and has many exercises listed to help you. Stay healthy!
Tim Ferris’s bestselling book ‘The 4-Hour Body’ includes a chapter called ‘From Geek to Freak’, in which he claims to have gained 34lbs (15.4kg) of muscle in just four weeks, while simultaneously losing 3lbs (1.3kg) of body fat. On top of that he spent just FOUR HOURS IN TOTAL in the gym.
This claim is patently ridiculous and completely out of line with all scientific and anecdotal data and my own experience as a former competitive bodybuilder, personal trainer, body recomposition coach and Bodyscan consultant with about 4000 scans under my belt.
This article by Menno Henselsmans presents multiple recent scientific studies which clearly show a correlation between those performing more sets per week in the gym and those gaining the most muscle mass. One of the studies that led to the fastest muscle growth was by participants performing 45 sets on the triceps alone!
This study also shows that training a muscle three times per week instead of just once, even with the same total number of sets each week, led to significantly better increases in muscle mass and strength. There is plenty of similar research also showing a higher frequency of training leading to better results.
A similar training protocol to Geek to Freak can be found in another “research-based” bestseller, Body by Science.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that Bodyscan customers who follow the ‘less is more’ protocols achieve very low or even ZERO muscle gain, while ‘conventional’ programmes result in more predictable gains of 2-3kg over 12 weeks. I did have one male client who achieved 2-3kg (5-6lb) of lean gain in 12 weeks after following Tim's programme, but he was a complete newbie to any form of resistance training. Novices achieve the biggest gains in the shortest time because their muscles are new to the stimulus.
But I maintain that low-rep regimens certainly do not produce maximal returns, even for newbies, and produce very poor results for those with intermediate experience of weight training or above.
Where are those muscles now, Tim? (pics from his media pack)
If the scientific research and the protocols that successful bodybuilders have been following for decades all point against Tim’s routine, how did he manage to achieve the results he claims?
First of all, Tim is well known for his attention-grabbing, extreme weight-cutting tactics for sports with weight categories and even has an article on his website ‘How to lose 30 pounds [13.6kg] in 24 hours’.
The biggest factor at play in any rapid change in body weight is water.
Over 60% of a muscle cell is water. Therefore with extreme de-hydration and re-hydration tactics, you can potentially gain 15-30lbs (7-14kg) of water weight. When measured by almost any means, this non-fat mass would count as ‘lean mass’ which, if his weight numbers are true, Tim Ferriss has incorrectly (and conveniently) claimed as muscle mass.
In 28 days he would not have gained more than a few pounds of true skeletal muscle mass under his low-volume protocol.
I believe the pictures he presents of himself were achieved with ‘assistance’ and aren’t natural or were done in a much longer time frame with much more volume than he claims.
In the real world, four 1-hour sessions four times a week would be an optimal sweet spot for many. If you are stressed, older, have poor sleep or consume sub-optimal protein or calories, you may want to reduce this to 2-3x per week as you will have lower recovery capabilities.
If none of those apply, you could train 5-6 times per week for optimum results as you’ll be able to recover and therefore benefit from the additional training.
To conclude, the time-tested adage applies: if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If you want high quality information regarding body composition, you should be listening to those who are experts in the field, not an entrepreneur who makes outlandish claims.
Think about it for just a moment. If it was as easy to gain muscle as Tim says it is, every man and woman who weight trains would look like a Greek god(dess)! Looking at his website, Tim looks pretty slim, which makes me wonder, if he can put on muscle so quickly, why does he have so little now?
The amount of energy you burn each day, in calories, is known as your TDEE – your total daily energy expenditure.
It’s the sum of how many calories you burn at rest (known as your RMR) plus the number of calories you burn doing your daily activities, digesting food and other bodily functions when you’re not resting.
For you to maintain your weight and not increase body fat, your energy expenditure (TDEE) should be matched by the energy in the food and drink you consume. The number of calories in what you eat and drink is known as your ‘maintenance calories’.
Therefore, your maintenance calories and your TDEE are two very important numbers because, knowing them means you can work out what you can eat in order to lose body fat, maintain weight or gain muscle.
But they are just numbers. Or, rather, they are estimates or calculations of numbers. You DO NOT need to obsess over them and you don’t even need to know them, especially if your main goal is to lose body fat. Why? Because at the end of the day your body weight will show pretty conclusively if you are hitting your maintenance calories.
Consider this analogy, where your height is your maintenance calories and a bridge you walk under is your TDEE.
If you have been measured as 5'7" tall but bang your head every time you walk under the bridge that declares a clearance of 5'9" there is no point in re-measuring either the bridge or yourself - you are too tall for it! To walk under the bridge you need to duck down (reduce your calories), whatever the sign on the bridge (your calculated TDEE) says.
Forget about the numbers. Getting under the bridge is an empirical exercise. Either your height or the bridge clearance – or both – has been calculated incorrectly. You can’t change the height of the bridge but you can duck.
In the same vein, if you are putting on fat, you are eating more than your maintenance calories, regardless of whatever any formula or machine says it is or however many calories you think you are consuming every day (or how active you think you are). You need to reduce calorie intake until you stop putting on weight, and then duck down some more (go into a calorie deficit) so you start losing weight.
Many people come to Bodyscan wanting an accurate measure of their RMR and maintenance calories because “I’m eating less than maintenance and I’m still not losing weight.” Well, if you’re not losing weight you are NOT eating less than maintenance! Rather than try to make RMR/maintenance fit consumption, you need to change consumption to fit your TDEE!
If people see an increase in body fat fat when they "are in a calorie deficit" it's because, pure and simple, they are NOT in a calorie deficit! This is because
a) they are eating more than they think they are
b) they are less active than they think they are
c) both of the above
Tracking calories is notoriously difficult and unreliable; on average people underreport their calorie intake by about 47% and over-reporting energy expenditure by about 50%.
It may well be easier to track what you currently eat and adjust from there.
1) A decrease in Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
As we age, we burn fewer calories. One reason for this is the decline in resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is the number of calories we burn at rest. This has been shown to fall linearly with age. The fewer calories we burn, the fewer calories we must eat to maintain our weight, and so adherence to a deficit becomes more challenging.
2) Lifestyle changes
Typically our lifestyles at 50+ are not the same as they were when we were 25. Our activity levels are far lower, and so our energy expenditures are also far lower. 
So how do we overcome these hurdles?
One way we can help prevent the RMR from declining is by maintaining muscle mass. One of the reasons our RMR falls as we age, is because skeletal muscle mass tends to decline as we get older . There are other factors which contribute to the decrease in RMR (eg, a decrease in sodium-potassium pump activity) so some slowdown may be inevitable. However, by weight-training and preserving as much skeletal muscle mass as we can, we can mitigate as much as possible the decline in RMR and stop body fat increasing.
As for lifestyle, we simply need to keep as active as possible. More sitting around and less activity will lead to fat accumulation. Staying active will keep energy expenditure high, and thus make fat-loss easier. While we may lose speed and agility, walking, swimming, cycling and other low-impact activities are all good ways to burn calories. Better to move slowly than not at all.
To sum up, those who maintain the same activity level and who continue to weight train into older age, see just as good results. Take the example of Albert (results below), 66 years old, who in the space of 3 months lost over 6kg (a stone). Not only that, but the vast majority of it (5.1kg) was body fat; less than a kilo was lean mass. In our experience, people often lose 1kg of lean mass for every 3kg of fat, so not only has he done better than most, but he has done so at 66 years of age (our clients' median age is 37). Age is just a number, don’t let it define your results.
Given the disruption to our daily routine and built-in habits, many are panicking about gaining body fat, losing muscle and the potential implications for our general health and well-being.
This is on top of the stress, anxiety and uncertainty we’re all experiencing. It’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed and find yourself mindlessly eating/snacking due to the monotony, boredom and stress of our current situation.
To help combat the constant fridge-raiding, here I give you some tangible tips on how to manage your nutrition, health, well-being and sanity!
1) Your Food Environment
This is the number one area that you have control over. The food you bring into your home matters. Surrounding yourself with highly palatable/junk-type food leads to overeating. Do not purchase foods that you cannot control yourself around, especially packets of things like crisps, biscuits and snacks - who can eat only one crisp?! Out of sight, out of mind. Instead, keep nutritious, filling foods in the house that you enjoy and satisfy you.
2) Mindless snacking
Try not to consume meals/snacks when distracted (eg, when watching TV) as this can increase your food and overall calorie intake.
3) Develop your cooking skills
With more time on our hands, lockdown is a great opportunity to hone your cooking skills and develop your recipe repertoire. Cooking homemade meals in bulk is an easy way for you to continue to consume nutritious meals and practise portion control, plus it’s a money-saver!
Maintaining some routine can provide mental clarity and structure to your day. My clients and I have found this to be extremely beneficial. You can create a daily routine, or a weekly structure as a method to maintain some normality. I’d recommend including regular meal and bed/wake times, a set training/exercise schedule, and regular social interaction (e.g. video/phone chats).
5) Keeping active
Walking or any formal cardio is an easy way to stay healthy, improve mood, enhance cognition, reduce anxiety and keep a lid on body fat. I strongly encourage adding in some form of weight bearing or resistance exercise (e.g. dumbbells or bodyweight) to maintain and/or gain muscle tissue. Pick an activity that you enjoy and focus on how great it makes you feel afterwards.
6) Exposure to light early in the day
Where possible, aim to get some natural light exposure earlier in the day to help regulate your biological clock or circadian rhythm.
Sleep is one of the most important and perhaps underrated aspects of our lifestyle that plays a crucial role in our health. Sleep is restorative, and a lack of it can disrupt many systems in your body that protect you and keep you functioning at your best, including your immune system. Prioritise your sleep - this is the perfect opportunity to start creating healthy sleep habits.
8) Stay connected – mental health
During isolation it’s super important to stay connected. With modern technology, it’s easy to check-in with family, friends and loved ones. Reach out, communicate and ask if they’re okay or if there is anything you can do to help.
Stay positive and, for everyone's sake, stay at home as much as possible!
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
My favourite piece of home equipment is a suspension trainer (TRX, pic below). This is hugely versatile, takes up little room and allows anyone of any fitness level to get a very effective workout for the full body whether the goal is losing body fat or gaining muscle.
A pull-up bar (these can be installed in a door frame, as above) is another good buy, and both this and the TRX will serve you well long after lockdown is over.
Many people struggle to get into the good habit of motivating themselves to train from home and end up cutting their workouts short. 'Little but often' is the key here - if you’re feeling lazy or unmotivated, a 50-60 minute session may seem unappealing but most people could commit to 20-30 minutes pretty easily.
With bodyweight exercises, I’d advise taking all your sets to the point of failure (where you physically can't do any more) to ensure you’re challenging your body. Without the heavy loads, this is essential to still make the exercises effective, especially when it comes down to muscle and strength.
You can also look to increase the total number of sets you do by 25%. Due to the lighter loading, you will be able to recover more easily.
If you've got no equipment at all, here are some of the best bodyweight exercises you can do. Make sure you have good form on all of these.
Some real results from home workouts
What are you doing to stay healthy during this extraordinary period of self-isolation and decreased activity? Walking up and down the stairs in your block of flats? Skipping? Strictly scheduled meal times? Counting calories where you didn't before? Walking is perhaps the easiest thing to do. Share what you're doing to keep active and in shape in the blog comments below. Thanks!
Fuelled by what?!
This blog contains two responses to the Netflix film Game Changers from Bodyscan consultants Kevin Garde and Rob Webster. Kevin a Nutritionist and Founder of PRISM Nutrition. Rob is a vegan bodybuilder and has his own consultancy Vegan Physique.
First of all, let me say that I greatly respect the ethical and environmental decisions of others, particularly those within the plant-based community, and I enjoy the passion of those who promote plant-based eating.
My general comments
The ‘Game Changers’ documentary rather successfully attempts to scare viewers into being vegan/plant-based with false health and performance claims. The narrator pitches the scene whereby it’s a plant-based versus animal-based war, implying that one cannot exist without the other.
The exaggerated machismo displayed throughout (from MMA fighters and celebrated gladiators to the pinnacle of manliness – male erections) targets men who may have associated plant-based/vegan diets as being inferior and/or not ‘manly’.
As is typical with nutritional propaganda, the documentary is riddled with cherry-picked data, pseudoscience and bizarre experiments to turn people against animal foods.
Are high quality plant-based diets superior for health and performance compared to a typical micronutrient-poor Western diet? Most likely.
Are high quality plant-based diets superior for health and performance compared to a high-quality omnivore diet rich in micronutrients? No.
Q1. The evidence seemed pretty overwhelming in favour of a plant-based diet, didn’t it?
Of course, the documentary was embarrassingly biased. The sole purpose of a Netflix propaganda documentary (Game Changers) is to scaremonger and convince viewers that a plant-based/vegan is superior for health and performance. It isn’t.
The documentary treats diet choices as a false dichotomy between a plant-based/vegan diet and an atrocious western diet (i.e. copious amounts of junk-food, processed meats and refined sugars). A documentary should provide views from both sides, present the totality of the evidence, and let viewers formulate their own opinions.
Q2. They had a very wide spectrum of qualified professionals in sports and nutrition and medicine who endorsed a PBD, aren’t you won over by them?
A wide spectrum? I disagree. Yes, there were plenty of celebrities and medical professionals (all of which appeared to have an agenda) but few nutritionists.
Conflicts of Interest (edited from BioLayne.com):
Virtually all the ‘experts’ and medical professionals interviewed in the documentary promote/sell vegan products, books, or profit from veganism.
Q3. There seemed to be plenty of athletes in both strength and endurance who performed better and recovered better (including the presenter, an NFL team and the strongest man) on PBD, proof enough, surely?
Proof enough for what? That certain athletes can thrive on a high-quality plant-based/vegan diet? Sure!
While diet is important, it’s certainly not the only contributor towards improved performance. Genetics play a huge role!
Usain Bolt was reported to have eaten about 100 chicken nuggets before he broke the world record at the Beijing Olympics. Using a similar logic, should everyone now consume chicken nuggets to improve sprint performance?
Q4. What did the film NOT say?
Listed below are some facts from an assessment of the totality of scientific evidence around dairy products and milk. Milk and dairy are associated with:
• Reduced risk of childhood obesity
• A neutral or reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
• Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke
• Dairy products have been shown to improve body composition and weight loss during energy restriction
• Have a beneficial effect on bone mineral density
• More dairy is associated with less colorectal, bladder, gastric and breast cancer
• Evidence for prostate cancer risk is inconsistent
Including this evidence would have tarnished the narrative.
Overall, I was disappointed as I felt a massive opportunity went begging. That is, promote the benefits of a high-quality plant-based diet without demonising animal products. It doesn’t have to be either or…
Take-home: most people would benefit from eating more plants.
The documentary certainly fits with my own experience of eating plant-based for the last 4-plus years. Whilst I am a fan of the scientific method, science and studies can only go so far in providing rules of how our bodies will respond to certain ways of eating. There are studies which will support every hypothesis, and so for me the most important factor in determining how effective a way of eating will be, is how effective it actually is i.e. testing it out.
There is no use a diet being good on paper but not in practice. Fundamentally the topic of nutrition cannot be reduced to a 90-minute Netflix documentary, and the truth, which is it depends on the individual, doesn’t make good TV. Of course the documentary is therefore sensationalised, nevertheless it does make a good case for increasing our overall consumption of plant-based foods.
Reliance on anecdotes
In the movie there is perhaps an over-reliance on anecdotes. Any well-produced Netflix documentary will do quite well at convincing people they will experience the same results as the individuals mentioned. It’s important to remember that no one particular diet is going to work for everyone. And the only way to know if you will do well eating a particular way, is through empirical evidence i.e. giving it a try. Any study can cherry-pick data to suit a particular bias, so the only definitive way to know if something will work for you, is to try it out. Based on how your body responds, you can adapt accordingly. Whilst plant-based has worked for myself and clearly worked for these people, that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.
Is performance more psychological, or physiological?
It would be possible to find individuals at the top of their game who eat an omnivorous diet. It’s difficult to assess causation or correlation between diet and performance. Once an isocaloric omni vs plant-based diet has been matched in terms of the micronutrients, the factor that will determine how well someone will perform is more how hard they are willing to work, not how hard they are able to work. You can get strong eating plants for sure.
You can also get strong eating an omnivorous diet. We can see examples of individuals who have thrived eating plant-based, but they have also thrived because they are hard workers and psychologically can push themselves to the extreme. Work ethic is a mental attribute and not one determined by diet.
Are the individuals displayed representative of the average person eating plant-based, or more genetic outliers? Some people can smoke for their entire life and not get lung cancer, despite the science indicating that smoking causes it. There will always be outliers, hence there is no one size fits all.
Nutrition is only permissive
Nutrition on its own does not stimulate strength increases or performance enhancements. Training is what stimulates adaptation. The individuals displayed clearly are able to train very well on a plant-based diet and this is what has stimulated their performance improvements. Not everyone will perform better eating plant-based. People should eat in a way that allows them to perform best, regardless of whether that’s an omni or plant-based diet.
We hope you found those two points of view interesting and well-presented. Feel free to comment below. Thank you!
During consultations, we ask clients to tell us how active they are based on these descriptions in order to establish their maintenance calories.
However vague you might think those descriptions, or ignoring them altogether, most clients claim they are 'moderately active'. This is usually validated by doing something three times a week for about an hour each time.
But if you consider that there are 168 hours in a week, three hours of activity amounts to just 1.8% of it! When you look at it that way, it doesn't sound even remotely 'moderate'.
Pushing weights in the gym (a popular three-hours-a-week pastime for men) burns even fewer calories than running, which itself might burn just 500-600 calories depending on your speed.
Just as most of us think we are great drivers, most of us overestimate how active we are and underestimate how much we eat. In fact, on average we claim we eat 40% less and do 50% more than is the case!
This is critical when it comes to fat-loss because your activity level is the only thing you can change that will affect your maintenance calories - and you must eat below maintenance to lose body fat.
If you set your maintenance too high then you may actually gain weight, as in this real-life example for a 30-year-old man weighing 100kg:
1. You guess your activity level to be 'moderate' [maintenance = 3000 calories]
2. You plan to eat 2500 calories a day [a daily deficit of 500 calories]
3. Your activity level is actually 'light' [maintenance = 2650 calories]
4. Like most dieters, you miscount. You actually eat an average of 2700 calories each day
5. RESULT: You are in a 50-calorie daily surplus and you slowly gain body fat
Just about everyone (nutritionists and dieticians included) is notoriously bad at counting calories so it is very easy to eat too much, even with smartphone apps.
The bottom line is this - if you are not losing weight then you are not in a deficit. To that end you needn't worry about the actual numbers or count calories - with your current activity level unchanged you just need to reduce consumption until your weight does start to fall. It will only continue to fall if you remain in a deficit (read here why your maintenance is a moving target).
In the meantime you might find this ebook 'Seven Easy Tips for Fat Loss Without Counting Calories' useful to help you achieve your goal!
It is important to understand that the primary driver of increased muscle mass (hypertrophy) is the work done in the weights room. Nutrition, with an emphasis on protein intake, does play a role in enhancing the anabolic (muscle building) effect of weight training and acts as a substrate to help build new muscle tissue. Unlike fat loss, muscle building is a slow and inefficient process – patience and consistency are key.
If you are looking to build new muscle tissue, consider the points below to help maximise this process.
Eating in an energy surplus is likely optimal to promote a muscle building environment and to support progressive training demands. Eating below maintenance calories (ie, being in an energy deficit) decreases muscle protein synthesis and is therefore not optimal if you're looking to gain muscle.
The size of the energy (calorie) surplus depends upon the individual – trial and error works best. A few hundred calories above maintenance is the ‘sweet spot’ for many - unless you classify as a ‘hard-gainer’, whereby fidgeting and unconscious movement (NEAT) reduces the surplus.
A more individualised recommendation is based on changes in total body weight. A 1-1.5% increase in total body weight per month is a reasonable target for most. This, however, can vary depending on training age, genetics and body fat levels. Note – you cannot force feed gains in muscle tissue!
Total Protein – How Much?
In a review published last year, it was concluded that, for the vast majority, a total daily protein intake beyond ~1.6g/kg of body weight per day did not provide further benefit of gains in strength and muscle mass during resistance training. However, to quote the authors ‘it may be prudent to recommend ~2.2 g protein/kg per day for those seeking to maximise resistance training-induced gains’. It is worth pointing out that the analysis did not include those in a calorie deficit.
Greater than ~1.6 g/kg of protein per day may be beneficial for those looking to control hunger and minimise fat gain as protein is more satiating than carbohydrate and fat. With regards to a protein target to maximise muscle mass, I typically recommend ~2g per kilogram of body weight for most as a nice round figure to aim for.
Based on mechanistic research, 4-6 evenly spread (no more than ~4 hours apart) protein feedings is optimal for the goal of maximising rates of muscle gain.
A sample meal distribution to maximise the muscle protein synthetic response could look as follows. '/kg' means 'per kilogram of total body weight'.
From a pragmatic standpoint, particularly when consuming mixed meals, there is no need to focus too much on precise meal timing – the anabolic window has been shown to last 24-48 hours post-training. With that in mind, ensure ample protein in each meal.
A well-designed weight training program will provide a powerful anabolic stimulus for muscle growth and is by far and away the greatest contributor to gains in muscle mass. Nutrition will merely augment the adaptive response. Do both consistently and you’re golden!
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
As surely as night follows day, January will see gyms everywhere packed with newbies as resolutions to fight the flab take hold. Treadmills, cross-trainers and rowing machines that lay idle in December will attract queues of new members impatient to shed the results of their festive over-indulgence.
If you're planning on being one of those newbies (or you've become one already), here is one big reason why you shouldn't join a gym and another big one why you should.
But before that, recognise that you did NOT become overweight between Christmas and New Year! It actually happened between January and December! Putting on fat is due to consistently being in an energy surplus (consuming more calories from food and drink than you expend in all your activity) over an extended period of time.
If you ate an excess of 500 calories a day for the two weeks of Christmas you'd gain just two pounds (less than a kilo) of body fat. But continue that habit until NEXT Christmas and you'd put on 23.5kg, almost four stone, in fat.
1. DON'T join a gym to lose fat
Regular exercise is great for us. It improves our mood, self-esteem, energy levels and sleep quality. It reduces stress and the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, dementia and depression.
Further, if we are inactive we burn barely more calories than our bodies use to just tick over and it's very easy therefore to be in an energy (calorie) surplus and start storing body fat.
HOWEVER, for a lot of people joining a gym, to spend an hour on the treadmill or rower is NOT the best way to get rid of body fat. In fact, it can prove to be a very poor strategy for weight loss.
Why? Because it takes a A LOT of exercise to burn a significant number of calories, which are wiped out the next time you put food in your mouth.
Almost regardless of the speed at which you run, an average person will burn about 100 calories per mile. An hour on the treadmill at 10 minutes per mile will therefore burn about 600 calories.
LUNCH AT PRET: 720 calories. AN HOUR ON THE TREADMILL: 600 calories
If you then lunch on a Pret chicken and avocado sandwich (484 calories) your lunchtime calorie deficit is almost gone. Add a 'healthy' Berry Blast smoothie (240 calories) and you can see that your slog in the gym wasn't quite the fat-burner you'd hoped.
Of course, you shouldn't be thinking about a calorie surplus or deficit on a meal-by-meal basis (see point 3 below) but rather of your total energy balance on a daily or weekly basis.
Other reasons why exercise may not be a good fat-burning strategy for you:
1. If you don't actually like doing scheduled activities (like running, rowing or swimming) then the chances are you'll give them up.
2. If you have a busy job, putting aside 45-60 minutes every day could be very hard to achieve.
3. If you're new to exercise and you're using it to reduce body fat, it can lead you into a mindset where you end up trying to offset or mitigate the effects of exercise with food, along the lines of: “I just burned 600 calories on the treadmill so I can eat more now.” That way of thinking is almost certain to put you back into a calorie surplus.
4. Exercising makes a lot people hungry, so you could end up eating more than you normally would and putting yourself into an even bigger overall calorie surplus than if you hadn't gone to the gym in the first place.
LESSON: Rather than try and 'burn' calories through formal, scheduled exercise, it is much more effective and infinitely quicker to simply not eat the calories in the first place. In other words, use nutrition as your prime weapon in the fight against fat.
That certainly doesn't mean we should aim to be sedentary (remember all those amazing benefits of exercise above plus the fact that going to the gym may encourage you to make better food choices). But increasing our activity (especially our step count by just walking more) throughout the day is a much easier way to build more exercise effortlessly into our lives. Walking to and from work (or from a more distant bus stop), taking the stairs and going for a walk at lunchtime are simple, sustainable ways to increase activity. Ten thousand steps a day is a great target.
REMEMBER: If you can put yourself into a consistent calorie deficit of 500 below 'maintenance' (what your body needs to maintain the same body weight), you will lose 12 pounds (5.5kg) in three months.
To estimate your maintenance calories based on your activity level, use our Bodyscan body fat calculator
This is why you should join a gym - weights rather than cardio will improve the quality of your weight loss
2. DO join a gym to improve the quality of your fat loss
So, if I want to lose weight, I should steer clear of the gym?
No! Because you don't want to lose weight. You want to lose fat!
If you're on a calorie-restricted diet (ie, eating fewer calories that you expend) you want to be sure that most, if not all, of your weight loss is actually fat and not muscle.
To preserve muscle when in a calorie deficit you need to do resistance training and ensure you have sufficient protein in your diet (a good rule of thumb is 2g per kilo of body weight).
That means bypassing the treadmills and using free weights (dumbbells and barbells) or weight-machines. The process of building muscle is more complex, variable and takes longer than losing fat, but suffice to say that the weights room is the main reason you should join a gym if fat loss is your goal.
LESSON: Resistance training and nutrition are the best tools for you to look better in the buff.
Happy New Year! Have a great 2020!
(This blog was first published in January 2019)
Eating for fat loss is relatively straight-forward. Establish your maintenance calories and create a sustainable calorie deficit. The size of the deficit will determine how difficult it is to adhere to, but our recommendation would be a daily 550 calorie deficit (resulting in half a kilo of fat loss per week).
So for an individual whose maintenance calories are 2900, that would mean a daily calorie target to begin with of 2350.
The important words here, though, are 'to begin with'.
Because this number will change as fat loss progresses.
Many people will report a fat loss plateau and don't understand why things have come to a stop. The reason is simple: they are no longer in a deficit. How can this be?
It's because maintenance is a moving target. There are a number of factors which affect maintenance including:
1) Total bodyweight
2) Total muscle mass
4) Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or 'NEAT')
1) Assuming no change in muscle mass, less fat means we are going to end up lighter. Someone who's very overweight and ends up 10-20kg lighter from fat-loss will see a significant reduction in their maintenance calories.
2) Whilst it is something we try to avoid, most people lose some muscle when dieting. Muscle is calorically ‘expensive’ to the body, in that it burns calories at rest as it requires oxygen and energy to function. If a significant amount of muscle is lost when dieting, this will also serve to reduce our maintenance calories.
3) It should be possible to maintain (or even increase) the level of exercise as we lose fat. That way we can guarantee, providing we are working at the same intensity to the same level, during those sessions we will burn roughly the same number of calories.
4) Our non-exercise activity (NEAT) however is likely to fall significantly when dieting, and it is this component that people do not account for or are even aware of.
NEAT refers to the calories we burn day to day from non-sport-like activities. For example, walking to the train station, typing at a computer, fidgeting etc. NEAT makes up the largest component of our non-resting energy expenditure, and so changes in this play a big part in determining if your initial deficit is still a deficit many weeks into your diet.
Studies show that NEAT is regulated by energy balance – it increases with overfeeding and decreases with underfeeding. Whilst your initial calorie target may facilitate half a kilo of fat loss per week, this is based on the level of NEAT you had when you started your diet - therefore most likely when you were over-eating and putting on weight.
After 12 weeks of being in a calorie deficit, we are naturally going to be more lethargic and less active in a non-exercise-specific way. Whether aware of them or not, most people make choices that preserve energy, such as taking the lift instead of the stairs. This also extends to subconscious activities such as fidgeting in our sleep. This is something we can’t control, but nevertheless causes a reduction in overall calorie burn.
Reductions in NEAT, overall bodyweight and (perhaps) muscle mass can nullify the deficit we created at the start of a diet. Our old deficit is now our new maintenance. Bummer!
The only way is to increase expenditure from areas we can control (exercise), or decrease our calorie intake, or a combination of the two. The method you employ will depend on how low your calories already are and whether you can afford to reduce them further whilst still maintaining adequate macronutrient and micronutrient intakes.
Embarking on a new way of eating and making better food choices can be a daunting prospect. To help those of you new to tracking what you eat or if you just want to be more mindful of your caloric intake, here is a very basic introduction:
First, in a literal sense, a Calorie is always a Calorie since it’s a unit of energy and, as Einstein showed us, energy cannot just disappear.
Second, if you ever need it for a pub quiz(!) a food Calorie (properly known as a kilocalorie, or 1000 calories is the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of air-free water by 1 °C.
[Another bit of science for you: what we all call "a calorie" is actually 1000 calories, scientifically referred to as a kilocalorie (or "Calorie" with a capital 'C') and printed on the side of food packets as "kcal". But don't fret or get confused, every popular reference to "calories" in magazines, cookbooks, diet books and the numbers on food packets are all referring to what we all know as "calories". "Calories", "calories" and "kcals" are all used interchangeably when it comes to food.]
Macronutrients, or ‘macros’, are nutrients that your body requires in large amounts. There are three primary macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates and fat. Alcohol, technically speaking, is the fourth macro but (before you say it) not one our bodies need at all and certainly not in large amounts!
Micronutrients, or ‘micros’, are nutrients referred to as vitamins and minerals consumed in small amounts.
Protein’s primary role in the body is to promote growth, development and to help repair cells. Protein has a high thermic effect, meaning it requires a large amount of energy to break it down and digest. Higher protein diets can be a fantastic tool when looking to lose body fat due to it’ effects on muscle mass retention and appetite control.
One gram (1g) of protein equates to four Calories.
Although there is no physiological requirement for carbohydrates in terms of simply remaining alive, carbohydrates are the body's primary energy source. Carbohydrates play an important role in digestive health, metabolism, athletic performance, mood and even sleep. The more physically active you are (and the more energy you use, the more carbs you may benefit from.
One gram of carbohydrate equates to 4 Calories.
As an essential nutrient, fat plays a crucial role in both optimal health, and athletic performance. Fat is directly involved in the production and regulation of the sex steroid hormones in addition to playing a pivotal part in supporting a healthy immune system.
1 gram of fat equates to 9 Calories.
Alcohol is not required by the body and has a unique metabolic pattern relative to the other macronutrients.
1 gram of alcohol equates to 7 Calories.
To calculate your total calories, simply multiply the number of grams of each macronutrient by its Calorie count per gram. Note - by tracking your macronutrients, you automatically track your Calories too. To learn more about tracking your food intake, read my blog ‘Macro Tracking Made Simple’.
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
Tracking is a fantastic awareness tool that I encourage most of my clients to trial for at least a few weeks. As touched on in a previous article, macronutrients, or ‘macros’, are nutrients that your body requires in large amounts. There are three primary macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat.
To make food (calorie) tracking more straightforward, try these steps below:
Tracking can be a daunting prospect especially if you’re new to it. To make life a little easier why not focus on counting calories and protein only as opposed to tracking all three macronutrients.
For fat loss, a change in mass is determined by energy balance. As such, calories are the most important factor - the magnitude of your energy (calorie) deficit over time will determine how much body fat you lose.
A secondary focus should be towards protein intake. Protein’s primary role in the body is to promote growth, development and to help repair cells. Higher protein diets can also be a fantastic tool if you want to lose body fat due to its effects on muscle mass retention and appetite control.
The mix of carbohydrate and fat that fills the remainder of your calorie allotment can be left to personal preference. A sensible approach would be to avoid skewing it too far in either direction.
Being flexible within your approach can provide even greater freedom. For example, I am an advocate of encouraging a weekly calorie total to aim for instead of shooting for an exact daily intake.
This weekly “bigger picture” approach means you have the option of some higher calorie days (eg, when having a meal-out or socialising) offset by some lower calories days.
For protein, I recommend aiming for a similar daily protein target range but hitting an exact number is not necessary for most. A default recommendation for fat loss is often around 2 grams per kilo of total body weight – this may vary depending on muscle mass, body fat levels and activity.
There is no need to overcomplicate your tracking. Sticking to a fat loss programme while trying to juggle work and family commitments can cause enough stress.
But if you love detail, numbers and spreadsheets and want to track all macros (plus fibre and micronutrition), then go for it!
Most, however, will get great results following a weekly calorie and daily protein count only. If you’ve had difficulty or get stressed attempting to meet too many daily targets in the past, I’d suggest focusing on calories and protein and set flexible ranges that lead to the greatest adherence.
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
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There is still some debate as to whether fasted cardio is superior to fed cardio for fat loss (once total calories and protein are matched).
The general premise behind performing cardio after an overnight fast is that it accelerates fat loss more than if you completed the same work in a fed state.
To shed light on the topic, Schoenfeld and colleagues tested body composition changes associated with fasted versus non-fasted aerobic exercise in 20 healthy females who were randomly assigned to either group.
Following four weeks of aerobic exercises during dieting conditions (ie, being in an energy deficit), both groups lost body weight and fat mass. The key finding was that there were no significant between-group differences shown in any outcome measure. Put simply, the fasted group did not lose significantly more body fat compared to the fed group.
If that's the case, what is behind the idea that fasted cardio could be superior for fat loss?
For that to be the case, fasted exercise would have to achieve one of the following:
• Affect 24-hr energy expenditure so that the energy/calorie deficit is increased
• Suppress appetite leading to a reduction in calorie intake
• Have a protein-sparing effect delivering higher retention of fat-free mass (and therefore making a higher proportion of the weight-loss to be fat)
None of these conditions have been shown to be true!
Interestingly, a recent study on skipping breakfast before resistance training found a reduction in performance on the bench press and back squat. The male participants were resistance-trained and habitual breakfast eaters, providing solid evidence that fasted resistance-training performance among those who normally have breakfast may be compromised over the short term.
If you prefer, and feel better, training fasted without any comprise on performance, then go for it! But if you feel terrible training fasted and/or are only doing so for the proposed fat loss benefits, reconsider your strategy and include a meal/snack/shake beforehand instead. Fat loss will not differ once total calorie and protein intake remain the same. As always, for fat loss success, consistency and patience is key!
Bodyscan Consultant and Nutritonist
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