Back To The Basics: Creating an Effective Fat Loss Program

by Jordan Syatt August 1, 2011

I have always found it strange that despite being one of the most common goals in our society, fat loss is an extraordinarily misunderstood topic. It’s is a multi-million dollar industry, constantly bombarding us with commercials, products, and various “fail-proof” solutions promising the fastest and most effective results. In spite of all this, people are overweight, unhappy with their bodies, and utterly clueless as to how fat loss really works. As a result, people turn to expensive and legitimately worthless products in the hopes of finding the ultimate solution to fat loss. Clearly, something’s not right….

To be honest, the complexities of creating an effective fat loss program have been drastically exaggerated. In the simplest form possible, this article is going to outline all of the information you need to know in order to create a basic and efficient fat loss program.

Before we dive into things, I want to note that this article is solely intended to provide readers with a basic understanding of what is necessary to create an effective fat loss program, paying special attention to the word “effective.”

In the context of this article, effective implies that the program:

–   Produces “significant” results. Depending on a variety of factors, I generally consider significant to be a weekly fat loss of anywhere between .5lb – 2lbs per week

–   Allows for strength and muscle mass maintenance/gains

–   Is flexible enough to facilitate long-term success

Having defined “effective,” I’d note that there are numerous methods which promote fat loss; unfortunately, effective fat loss programs are few and far between. The purpose of this article is to give you a clear understanding of what is necessary to create your own effective fat loss program.

Effective Fat Loss Necessities

In order to create an effective fat loss program, there are a few aspects which are absolutely necessary.

1)      A Calorie Deficit

2)      Sufficient Protein Intake

3)      Planned “re-feeds”

4)      Strength Training: Reduced Volume/Increased Intensity

5)      The Ability to Roll With the Punches!

The rest of this article is going to briefly describe each of the above points and how you can incorporate them into your own fat loss program. Good. Great. Grand! Let’s do this.

1) A Calorie Deficit

When the goal is fat loss, creating a calorie deficit is an absolute must. Some “experts” claim that calories don’t matter; rather the type or quality of food eaten is of greater significance. However, the dietary guidelines outlined by these experts (i.e. the elimination of certain foods/macronutrients) can make overeating somewhat hard to do, thereby creating a calorie deficit.

There are numerous ways to create a calorie deficit, several of which I briefly discuss below:

  1. Reduce total calorie intake: This one is pretty straightforward. Consistently eat less than your maintenance caloric intake and you will lose fat. Here are some common strategies used in reducing total calorie intake:
  2. Increase protein intake: I will go into significantly more detail on this topic later in the article, but in the context of creating a calorie deficit, protein has consistently been shownto have a greater blunting effect on hunger than any other macro-nutrient. Less hunger + less eating = calorie deficit. I’m a math wizzzzzz!
  3. Cycle carbohydrates and fats: Another common strategy in reducing calories is to cycle carbohydrates and fats. This can be accomplished in many different ways, but one common strategy is to eat the majority of your refined carbohydrates on training days and cut them out on rest days. Strategically limiting specific macronutrients is an easy way to reduce total calorie intake.>
  4. Increase activity levels: I generally find that fat loss is most effective when the majority of a calorie deficit is achieved through nutrition. However, increasing activity levels and incorporating proper nutrition can effectively be combined to create a calorie deficit.

All of the approaches mentioned above are effective means of creating a calorie deficit. However, no two people are exactly the same and what works for one person may not work for someone else. Experiment and see what works for you.

Calculating Your Deficit

Before you can set an appropriate caloric deficit, you need to know your maintenance caloric intake. As a side note, maintenance caloric intake is just another way of describing how many calories you can eat on a daily basis to remain weight stable.

In the main, multiplying your bodyweight by 13 – 14 should give you an accurate estimate of your current maintenance caloric intake. I’d note this is by no means a perfect calculation, but for the general population it tends to work out extremely well.

Knowing how to calculate maintenance intake, we can use the same principle and multiply bodyweight by 10 – 12 (about 20% less than 13-14) which is generally a reasonable deficit to begin a diet.

To illustrate, let’s pretend we have a 200lb client:

Maintenance Caloric Intake: 200lbs x 14 = 2800 kcal/day

Caloric Deficit: 200lbs x 11 = 2200 kcal/day

If the calculations were correct, this client would be running a daily deficit of 600 calories and a weekly deficit of 4200 calories. Since 1lb of fat is equal to 3500 calories, a weekly fat loss of slightly more than 1lb should occur.

While these calculations tend to be very accurate and are a great starting place for most individuals, they are general estimates and in no way definitive.

Find your deficit, experiment, and tweak things along the way. As long as you’re consistently running a deficit you will lose weight.

2)   Sufficient Protein Intake

Getting an adequate amount of protein is an  absolute necessity when dieting. In addition to proteins effect on satiety, it has the highest  thermic effect (TEF) compared to carbohydrates and fat causing an increase in thermogenesis, and is the only macronutrient capable of preserving or building lean muscle mass. More muscle mass means an improved metabolic profile and an improved metabolic profile is exactly what we want.

While there is obviously a high individual variance, I tend to recommend a daily intake of at least 2.2g/kg (1g/lb) per pound of lean body mass for most individuals. Generally speaking, the obese dieter can get away with less protein, focusing more on achieving a calorie deficit, while the leaner and more athletic dieter will require significantly more protein.

…Just eat your protein!

3) Planned “Re-feeds”

Some might call a re-feed a cheat meal. Personally, I’m not a fan of the term cheat meal. Cheating suggests that you’re doing something wrong or against the rules which can lead to some serious psychological obstacles down the road. That being said, I find the term “re-feed” somewhat more fitting.

A planned re-feed is a pre-scheduled occasion in which you allow yourself to indulge in a favorite treat. I have found that consistent re-feeds of smaller portions is a much better strategy than completely abstaining from your favorite foods, possibly resulting in an epic binge. By incorporating planned re-feeds into your diet you can consistently enjoy your favorite treats during your fat loss program. It is a great psychological benefit to have a planned re-feed allowing you to enjoy your favorite foods without the guilt that inevitably follows a binge.

The two most important factors of planned re-feeds are:

1)      Not going out of control and turning it into an all-out bender

2)      Strategically placing them in your schedule

While planned re-feeds aren’t a necessary component of an effective fat loss program, consistently enjoying your favorite foods may aid in long-term diet adherence. I’d note that practicing moderation is of the utmost importance during a re-feed. If you choose to have a bowl of ice cream, stick to a bowl of ice cream; if you decide to have a donut, have a donut. Enjoy your food and don’t feel guilty about it, but don’t let it turn into an all you can eat buffet.

In terms of where to place re-feeds in your schedule, a common practice is to incorporate them on training days. If you workout 3-4x/week, incorporating a moderate re-feed post-workout won’t hurt your progress and could actually provide the motivation necessary to stay on track.

As long as you are consistently in a calorie deficit, you can incorporate your favorite foods while continuing to lose fat.

4 ) Strength Training: Reduced Volume/Increased “Intensity”

While I am sure you’ve heard that lowering the weights and increasing the repetitions is the best way to “cut up, bra!” it can actually do more harm than good. Contrary to popular belief, when the goal is fat loss the objective of training needs to be to maintain and/or gain strength. And how do you gain strength? By lifting near maximal loads….

Why is lifting heavy weight important if your goal is fat loss? It all comes down to what will preserve lean muscle mass most efficiently, and that’s lifting heavy ass weight!

This brings up the topics of volume and intensity on a fat loss training program. First, let me briefly define each in the context of this article:

–  Volume: The total amount of work completed in a single training session

–  Intensity: The amount of weight being lifted relative to your 1 repetition maximum (1RM)

Let’s discuss volume, first: Seeing as this is a fat loss program, you must take into account that you will be in some form of a calorie deficit; as anyone who has been in a calorie deficit for long enough knows, energy levels can take a significant turn for the worse. Additionally, as you are in a calorie deficit, it’s physiologically impossible to gain muscle mass (anyone who tells you otherwise is either an idiot or a crook) which negates the need for high volume. Therefore, reducing volume and getting in/out of the gym as quickly as possible can be of great benefit.

The following question, “how much can volume be reduced while maintaining muscle mass?” brings up the topic of intensity. In order to maintain strength and muscle mass you must be handling near maximal loads. While I wouldn’t suggest consistently using weights equivalent to your 1RM, a general recommendation is to perform full body lifts with weights in the ranges of your 4-8 repetition maximum (RM).

To make things more clear, here are some general guidelines to follow when creating a fat loss training program:

–   Train 3-4x/week with an emphasis on full body compound lifts (i.e. squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press)

–   Increase intensity by emphasizing compound lifts and using near maximal loads within your 4-8RM

–   Reduce total volume of the entire training session by limiting yourself to 2-3 sets for each movement.

Finally, I briefly want to discuss the role of cardiovascular exercise (i.e. metabolic work/running/biking etc) in the context of a fat loss training program. While metabolic conditioning is by no means a necessity, it can be advantageous for people who have a hard time achieving a deficit through nutrition alone. That being said, high intensity training (HIT) can seriously affect strength and for that reason its use must be taken into serious consideration. Another option would be to incorporate low intensity steady state cardio (LISS) which may be boring and take somewhat longer, but can significantly contribute to increasing energy expenditure as well.

As all things in life, it is all context dependent. Evaluate yourself and consider how strict you are with your nutrition. If your nutrition is in check and you’re in a substantial calorie deficit, metabolic work may not be necessary; if however you aren’t as diligent with your nutrition, incorporating metabolics might be helpful in creating a calorie buffer, allowing you more leeway with your food choices. It all depends on the context.

Increase intensity and reduce volume. Boom!

5 ) The Ability To Roll With The Punches!

In order to be happy and successful, not just in fitness and nutrition but life in general, you have to be able to roll with the punches. Life is SO short! I mean SOOOOO SHORT! Why spend your time worrying over insignificant details? So what if you’re friend is having a party and you’re on a diet? Go and have a blast! It doesn’t matter if you’re going on vacation to a place without a workout facility…take a freakin breathe and relax! A lot of people in this industry are under the impression that you’re either in or you’re out; it’s all or nothing. Well…that’s just stupid. Yes you need to work hard and yes you need to have serious discipline to experience great results, but great results and living an enjoyable life do not have to be separate. Work hard and be diligent, but don’t let life pass you by, because before you know it you’re going be old and wrinkly and none of this is going to matter anyway 😉


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