Oh No, What Have I Done?
We all have such short memories, don’t we? Every year, we start eating a lot of the wrong things right around Thanksgiving and the buffet of fat and sugar just keeps on rolling for the next couple of months: cookies, cake, pastries, doughnuts, whatever holiday comfort foods your family traditionally grubs on, and of course, enough alcohol to float a speedboat. Having been through this ritual of gluttony many times before, we are somehow still shocked that the result is a significant gain in body fat. The muscles that looked carved out of granite last summer are now submerged under a blanket of billowy dough. But now, spring is upon us. The ice and snow have melted, the sun is shining, and the land is warming once again. Panic mode hits as we realize we aren’t covered up in long pants and winter coats anymore. Worse, even though it may have seemed summer would never come, the season of tank tops, shorts, and lazy days at the beach or pool is not far off. Shit, how are you supposed to look good again? How will you lose all that fat in time? Relax, my brethren. I’m here to help.
Just Decide to Get Lean
The first and most important step is a mental one. You simply must decide right here and now that you are going to get lean, and you will do what needs to be done to reach that goal with the understanding that it will require effort. It won’t be easy after a season of relative sloth and indiscriminate eating, but the results will be well worth it. Once you are fully committed, everything else falls into place. All you need from that point on are a solid, structured plan that you will execute. Here is that plan.
Eat Clean and Stay Strict
Playtime is over, kids. You had your fun eating anything that wasn’t moving for months, so let’s buckle down now and clean it all up. In your heart of hearts, you know the things you can’t eat if you want to lose fat. Avoid butter, margarine, any deep-fried foods and saturated fats. Also avoid fruit juice, all breads, white flour, and white sugar. A serving or two of a low-glycemic fresh fruit like apples or berries is OK. Speaking of sugar, don’t think “sugar-free” is a free pass. Our bodies respond to certain types of artificial sweeteners like sucralose and saccharin that spur the same insulin response as table sugar. Insulin is a storage hormone, and it’s very effective at helping our bodies store fat. No Bueno! Most of us are so used to eating tasty things that it will be a difficult transition to more bland foods. The good news there is that you will have less of a tendency to overeat if the food isn’t what you normally find delicious.
Do the Math: Calories in vs. Calories Out
Overeating clean and healthy food? Is that possible? When the goal is fat loss, you better believe it! I’ve had the argument many times when I tell people the easiest way to start dropping fat is to reduce your carbohydrate intake. They heatedly inform me that it’s excess calories that make you fat, not excess carbs! Well, duh – less carbs equals less calories, unless you increase your intake of either protein or fat so your caloric intake remains unchanged. The IIFYM, or If It Fits Your Macros crowd, loves to preach that a calorie is a calorie, which is why they prefer to eat their carbs in the more delicious forms of Pop-Tarts and Froot Loops rather than boring-ass rice, potatoes, and oatmeal. While I refuse to accept this to be entirely accurate, I do concede that fat loss does come down to calories in versus calories out. You must expend more calories than you take in.
The prevailing wisdom for many decades was that it takes a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound of body fat. This was the conclusion of a scientist named Max Wishnofksy back in 1958, who also concluded this was the number of excess calories eaten that resulted in 1 pound of body fat gained. The numbers turned out over time to be a bit off, since they were based on dietary fat, which is pure fat. Human body fat is not 100 percent fat, but ranges from about 70-85 percent fat. It’s still a good guideline. However, exercise must be a vital component in fat loss. Many people still believe that simply restricting calories will achieve the same results as burning calories through exercise. The problem with that lazier method of fat loss is that our bodies are incredibly efficient at staying alive. When you reduce caloric intake, the body responds by slowing its metabolic rate and thus burning fewer calories. We often call this effect “starvation mode,” but the technical term is adaptive thermogenesis.
Another unwanted result of weight loss via caloric restriction is that part of the weight you lose will also include lean muscle tissue, which we all work way too damn hard to build in the first place to needlessly sacrifice. That’s why the best strategy for losing body fat and looking your best is to create a caloric deficit through a combination of diet and exercise. For example, let’s say your BMR, or Basal Metabolic Rate, is 3,000 calories a day. That’s exactly how many calories it takes for you to maintain the exact amount of muscle mass and body fat you have right now, given your daily activity level. If you reduce your caloric intake by 500 calories per day and burn 500 more calories doing cardio, that’s a total of 1,000 calories a day less than your BMR. In one week, that will roughly work out to losing 2 pounds of body fat. Over eight weeks, that’s 16 pounds of fat melted off your body, which is right around what the average person should be able to accomplish.
Keep a Food Log
It would be impossible to adjust your calories if you didn’t know exactly how many you were taking in in the first place, and most of us suck at estimating with any degree of accuracy. In years past, the more cerebral physique champions and professional athletes all kept track of their daily macros and calories in spiral notebooks. By weighing and measuring everything they ate and keeping detailed notes, they were able to add or subtract calories as needed, depending on their goals and results. In 2021, there are literally thousands of apps you can download to your smartphone that make this task much easier, doing the math for you. By tracking your food this way, you precisely arrive at the exact numbers you need to lose fat without losing muscle. Going too high on calories will prevent fat loss and going too low will see you eat away lean muscle tissue along with body fat. I can’t make a blanket prescription for exactly how many calories you should be taking in on this program, and neither can anyone else. Beware of any cookie-cutter diets that promise to be a one-size-fits-all solution. We all have different amounts of muscle and body fat, metabolic rates, and activity levels. Once you know how many calories you are consuming, you can start subtracting. Factor in the calories you will burn doing cardio, and you’re off to the races.
Adjusting Meals to Your Activity
While you must still respect the numbers of calories in versus calories out, it makes sense to adjust your macronutrients to your activities and when they are performed. You’ve all heard that you should cut carbs off at arbitrary times like 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m. That makes sense for the average Joe who doesn’t work out. If you do weight train, and train hard and heavy, you should be eating the bulk of your carbs around your workout. If you train in the morning after breakfast/meal 1, your heaviest carbohydrate meals should be that meal and then the meal following your workout. If you train after work, and you get out of work at 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. like most people, you should still have some carbs in that final meal even if it’s eaten at 9:00 p.m. You could also choose to have carbs in two of the meals leading up to that workout instead and eat just protein and veggies for your post-workout meal. This is what many competitive physique athletes on contest diets do. The bottom line is, you still want to have good workouts and keep your muscle mass as you lose fat, so it makes sense to eat most of your daily carbs before and after training.
How Many Cheat Meals Do You Get?
You get no cheat meals in these eight weeks. That’s just 56 days to lose as much body fat as you possibly can. There is no time to indulge your cravings for pizza or cheesecake. Cheat meals can be useful when you are subsisting on drastically lowered calories for months on end. Refeeds, which involve bumping the portion sizes of clean meals, also come in handy in those situations. You won’t need either in eight weeks. You can suck it up and stick out the diet for 56 days. Drink plenty of cold water with and between meals. Fill up on virtually calorie-free items like iceberg lettuce, celery, and cucumber (plain, not drenched in ranch dressing!) Always keep your goal in mind. It’s OK to feel hunger between meals when you’re getting lean. If you’re always full and content, it’s a safe bet you won’t be any leaner at the end of these eight weeks.
Weight Training to Maintain
One of the most common reasons lifters fail to lose as much fat as they had set to is that they are terrified at the prospect of not training to gain muscle. In their minds, they should always be striving to get bigger, even when they’re theoretically on a contest diet or a cutting plan like this one. It’s perfectly understandable, given the reason most of us set out on this journey was to get huge. So even though they may intend to get lean, many lifters sabotage their efforts by eating more than they need to. As stated previously, you can’t take in more calories than you expend and expect to lose body fat. You must alter your way of thinking and look at your weight training, at least for these eight weeks, as serving to maintain your muscle mass while you lean out. Don’t be fooled by the rare cases where people are able to get ripped while adding muscle. In those instances, the credit goes to a combination of extremely gifted genetics and metabolism, along with a long list of expensive and potentially hazardous drugs. Don’t worry about getting stronger in these eight weeks. Don’t even stress out if you lose a bit of strength. You will get it back once you resume your usual caloric intake and cut way back on the extra cardio you will be doing.
Cardio: HIIT vs. LISS
Speaking of cardio, it’s time to discuss the C word. You have your choice of performing two styles: LISS, or low-intensity steady state, or HIIT, or high-intensity interval training. Those who truly hate cardio typically opt for LISS, and will plod along on a treadmill at a moderate pace for 45-60 minutes, perhaps not even breaking a sweat. They do this because they don’t want to put forth any real effort, and they also erroneously believe LISS is superior for retaining muscle mass. Studies have shown this to be totally untrue. Longer cardio sessions lower testosterone and will in fact threaten to put you in a catabolic state where you lose muscle tissue. In contrast, HIIT sessions of 15-30 minutes, alternating 60-second periods of “sprinting” at 80-90 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR) with 60-second recovery periods at a slower pace at 40-50 percent of your MHR not only burns more fat, but also increases both testosterone levels and insulin signaling. The evidence is compelling. You can do either, but if you want to burn more calories in less time as well as stand a better chance of holding on to all your muscle as you shred it up, HIIT is the way to go.
You can either do cardio fasted in the morning, or what many others have found far more convenient, which is to perform it immediately after your weight training. If you choose to do that, hold off on your post-workout shake until your cardio is complete. If it sounds like too much to do both your weight training and cardio in one session, here’s a crazy idea – shorten up your weight-training workout! We just said you’re only trying to maintain your muscle mass in these eight weeks anyway, right? Shave off about one-third of your usual volume with the weights, and that provides ample time to get your cardio in too.
How much cardio should you do? Just as with the calories, no one can tell you exactly. You’ll have to start out with a baseline of 30 minutes every day and go from there. HIIT is an attractive option because virtually no one would ever need more than 45 minutes of it per day. With LISS, depending on your weight and how much fat you need to lose, it’s possible you’re looking at as much as two hours every day. In the end, it’s your time and your body, so choose what’s best for you.
What Results Can You Expect?
As we said earlier, the average man should be able to lose around 15-16 pounds of body fat in eight weeks. A 300-pound man might lose as much as 30 pounds, where a 170-pounder may only drop 10 pounds. Regardless, anyone who applies himself to the task and puts the work in will look significantly better by the end of the program. You can expect to see abs, veins, and separation between all the major muscle groups. You will be ripped and ready for the beach, pool parties, cookouts, or anywhere else you want to show off your cuts. Now go rip it up!
10 egg whites, ½ cup (dry) rolled oats with ¼ cup blueberries or strawberries
8 oz chicken breast, 1/2 cup (cooked) brown rice
8 oz salmon, large green salad or 1 cup steamed broccoli
Meal 4 (pre-workout)
8 oz ground turkey (1 tbsp salsa OK to mix in), medium sweet potato
40-50 grams blend of whey and casein protein
8 oz white fish, ½ cup brown rice
*Assuming late afternoon/early evening workouts