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Friday, August 24, 2007

Want to Lose Weight? Get Off of the Scale, Part II


photo by jamski

In Part 1 of this series I discussed using body fat percentage as a better indicator of progress than scale weight. Hopefully you've gotten a device to measure your body fat, now what? What is the best way to maximize fat loss and minimize muscle loss? Here is a four-pronged approach to maximizing fat loss.

Track your body fat percentage

The first step is to take your body fat percentage. This is the number that you want to see decrease. You should continue to use a scale to measure your weight, but remember, as your weight begins to go down, your body fat percentage should also go down. You are definitely doing something wrong if your weight is decreasing but your body fat is staying the same. That is an indicator that you are losing muscle mass...something that you do not want to do. Usually this is caused by one of two things. One, you are not eating enough food. If you drastically cut your calories to a level far below your maintenance level, you will lose weight, but your body will consume muscle mass to feed itself and your metabolism will drop through the floor. You do not want this to happen. Don't eat less food than a 500 to 750 calorie deficit per day. The second possible cause of losing muscle mass is that you are not strength training. It is as important to strength train as it is to do cardio while losing weight. It will slow down the rate of weight loss, but you will lose mostly fat, and you will be much more likely to keep it off. Stop making excuses and strength train!

Nutrition and Diet

In order to lose fat, you must eat fewer calories than you burn. There is no way around this fact. No magic pills will melt the fat away, nor are there any mythical foods that help your body burn more fat. All of that crap is the domain of TV infomercial fantasy. You must eat fewer calories than your body burns each day. You can do this either by dieting alone, increasing the amount of exercise that you do, or with a combination of both diet and exercise. The combination is the best choice, since you will get health benefits that come along with regular exercise, as well as the weight loss benefits and you will keep your metabolism from decreasing.

How do you know how many calories your body burns each day? Here is an online calorie calculator that uses the Harris-Benedict equation to estimate your daily calorie requirements. Plug in your information and the result is the number of calories that you must consume each day to maintain your current weight. To lose 1 pound per week, you must consume 500 calories per day fewer than that number. Understand that the daily calorie number is an approximation based on research and fancy-pants statistics. Your actual number of calories required each day may be lower or higher. If you think you are eating at a 500 calorie deficit and you are not losing weight, log your food intake for a week or so, ensuring that you are staying under your allotted calories. If you still haven't lost any weight you may need to lower your food intake by 100 or so calories per day and reevaluate after another week. Continue lowering calories until you begin losing weight or, if you are a female reach the 1200 calorie level, or if you are a male reach the 1500 calorie level. You should not consume fewer calories than this. If you are at these levels and still not losing weight, you need to include more cardio and strength training to increase your metabolism.

Keep looking for positive feedback that you are moving in the right direction. If you are...congratulations on figuring this thing out. Keep it up. If you are not making progress, then re-evaluate and make changes. Don't continue doing something that is not working. If you continue doing the things that don't work...they are not going to suddenly start working.


I believe you must do some type of cardio to stick with a diet for the long term. The simple reason is that doing consistent, regular cardio of some type lets you eat more and still lose the weight. If I didn't exercise regularly, I would have a much harder time maintaining my weight, because, honestly, I love to eat. I'm not willing to deprive myself of eating the foods that I enjoy, so I compensate for that by exercising. So what exactly is "exercise"? Well, the CDC defines exercise as a repetitive activity that works up a sweat. Really, that's the official definition. Actually, I'm taking paraphrasing liberties, but you get the idea.

For a healthy heart, it is recommended that you do 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. For weight loss, I'm sorry to say, it will probably take more. If you are doing moderate intensity exercise, 60 minutes for at least 5 days per week is an average for the participants in the National Weight Control Registry.

If you are pinched for time, then you should try intervals. Research has shown that by introducing bouts of higher intensity exercise into your exercise routine, you can get more fat-burning bang for your time spent buck. If you are interested in getting into the nitty-gritty details, search for HIIT or the Tabata protocol. If you could care less about the research, just warm up for 5 minutes, followed by alternating between an easy pace and a hard pace every 60-90 seconds. Do that for about 10 minutes, then cool down for another 5 minutes. There you have it. The short and sweet way to do interval training in only 20 minutes.

Strength Training

Strength training is the real secret to losing fat. You may lose weight without strength training, but focusing on fat loss is much more difficult without hitting the weights. I will admit that I don't really enjoy strength training, I'm just a wuss that way, but I do recognize that it plays an important part in injury prevention from all of the running I do and I like what it does for my body composition. So I force myself to do it. When I go to the gym I'm definitely looking for the greatest benefit in the shortest amount of time, so here are my rules for getting a good strength workout quickly:

  • Stick to compound exercises - If you are pressed for time, this is the most important rule. A compound exercise is a movement that involves more than one joint. For example, a chin-up is a compound movement. Think about it. You bend at the elbow to pull yourself up, as well as at the shoulder. A chin-up is a great compound exercise that works your lats, upper back, and biceps. In contrast, an isolation exercise is a movement that involves only a single joint. The classic example is a bicep curl. You only bend at the elbow and the bicep is the only muscle used. Minimize the number of isolation exercises that you do in order to optimize your time spent in the gym. Here I've listed some of the best compound exercises that you can perform. If you have never heard of these movements and would like to see an example, go to ExRx.net, the best site I've ever seen for demonstrations of every conceivable strength training movement.
    • Squats - the king of the compound exercises, well, maybe squats would have to fight it out with deadlifts, but it's really a great exercise.
    • Deadlifts - Standard Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts
    • Rowing movements - Bent Over Row, Cable Row, One-Armed Dumbbell Row
    • Pull up variations - Chin ups, Pull-ups, Wide Grip Pull-up, use the Gravitron machine if you need to.
    • Dips - Great chest and tricep exercise, use the Gravitron machine if you need to
    • Shoulder presses - Military Press, Dumbbell Shoulder Press
    • Chest Presses - Bench Press, Incline Bench Press, Decline Bench Press
  • Use the proper amount of weight - Most people don't use enough weight when strength training. If you are using a weight that you can comfortably lift, using proper form, for 20 repetitions or more, you are using too little weight. Depending on your goal, you may want to use a variety of rep and weight ranges with the exercises. When I talk about a rep range, here is what I mean. If I say that you should lift in the 8 to 12 rep range, find a weight that you can lift between 8 and 12 times, but no more. When you reach the point that you can lift that weight 12 times, increase the weight. Here is a short list of rep ranges that are appropriate for different goals.
    • Hypertrophy (Muscle growth) - 8 to 12 repetitions per set is the bread and butter of the bodybuilding world. If your goal is to get bigger muscles, start with weights in this range. And don't think that you're going to get "hyooge" just by lifting in this range. To gain muscle you must eat appropriately, as well.
    • Hybrid Hypertrophy/Strength - 6 to 8 repetitions per set is a middle ground between focusing on hypertrophy and strength.
    • Strength - 3 to 5 repetitions per set is the recommended repetition range for increasing strength. Beginners who want to focus on increasing strength should stick with the higher end of this rep range. I wouldn't recommend that a beginner lift any weights that are so heavy that they can only lift 3 times. If you are a beginner, try a 5 sets of 5 reps protocol for one or two of the big compound exercises and you'll get good strength benefits while lowering the risk of injury.
    • Power - 1 to 3 repetitions per set is recommended for increasing power. This rep range is definitely not recommended for beginners. This range uses very heavy weights and without perfect form, close supervision, and a spotter, the risk of injury is very high.
  • Be a stickler for proper form - this goes out to that guy in my gym who curls, in the squat rack, no less, with 135 pounds but never moves his elbows from the 90 degree position. He just moves the weight by rocking it up with his back. He's moving the weight, but his arms are not getting any bigger or stronger as a result of doing that movement. If you are going to take the time to do the work, make sure you get the proper benefit of each exercise. Lifting too much weight using bad form is not going to make you any stronger, more toned, or give you bigger muscles. Use good form!
  • Change up your routine every 4 to 6 weeks - "Everything works, but nothing works forever." Don't change up your routine too much, or you won't be able to judge your progress, but every 4 to 6 weeks you should make minor changes to the exercises that you are doing. Try switching from barbells to dumbbells. Stand instead of sitting while doing shoulder presses. Change your grip from an overhand grip to an underhand grip. Switch to a narrow grip. Switch to a wider grip. Change to a variation of the same exercise. Change exercises altogether. The key to continued improvement is to look for small changes that will keep you interested and keep your body guessing. If you continue lifting the same weights, doing the same exercises, do you think that you will continue getting stronger as a result? You won't...your body will adapt and you will plateau. You've got to keep mixing it up.
  • Mean business when you are in the gym - if you aren't spending hours and hours in the gym each week, then you must focus on getting to work when you are there. Minimize socializing, and if you are reading a magazine between sets, you're not working hard enough. You must compensate for less time in the gym with more intensity. Try to improve on your last workout every time you set foot in the gym. Aim for one more repetition, less rest time between sets, add a small amount weight to a movement, or perform a movement slower. These are all progression methods that will keep you on the road to improvement.
Losing fat and keeping it off is a difficult process. Make the changes necessary to your lifestyle and let time do the rest. This is not a get thin quick scheme to help you lose 10 pounds (of water weight) in 10 days, but if you follow these recommendations for 6 months you will see changes to your body that you never thought possible. Sticking with the program becomes much easier as you begin to see results and feel better. So what are you waiting for? No one can decide to do this for you.

If you exercise regularly, what motivates you to continue? If you don't, what keeps you from starting, or being as consistent as you would like?

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