Everyone knows by now that the only way to lose weight is to create a calorie deficit. I mean, this has been absolutely hammered beyond belief that it's almost a joke now. But the big issue people now face is how to create a deficit, and the usual (albeit not the best) answer I give when I'm asked is; “eat less”. I know myself that this is both a reasonable answer but at the same time a terrible one. Why? Because people already know that shit, and it’s usually the people desperate to lose weight who take things to the extreme and usually crash diet while simultaneously taking up a ridiculous amount of activity and wonder why they feel like utter shite and can’t sustain anything for more than a month or so.
This is essentially what happens during these 12-week challenges and the like. Others who use apps like Myfitnesspal often ask if the calories they burn during exercise can or should be re-eaten. And well, I would personally try and dissuade you from doing this. For one I don’t think anyone should be putting much faith in activity trackers to tell you how many calories you’ve burned. Two, I don’t think you should be putting that into your calorie tracker apps lest you become obsessed with calories/calorie burn and end up self-sabotaging your diet.
So, onto the topic, how do we create a sustainable calorie deficit?
Well, we have 3 options:
• Exercise alone
• Diet alone
• Diet and exercise combined
I’ve already spoken about why I think using exercise alone is a foolish way or creating a deficit. In my opinion this will be the most difficult method and the hardest one to accumulate overtime (especially when you eventually require a larger deficit). Calorie and activity trackers are just too inefficient, so the number of calories you burn could vary significantly. Yes, you technically can out train a bad diet (depending on what you consider a bad diet), but you're just making an already difficult task harder for no reason. The second option is a lot easier to manage and manipulate. If you’re no stranger to weighing food and reading nutritional labels you can easily create a calorie deficit by eating less. Furthermore, as you get leaner/lose weight your overall calories will go down, and it’s a lot easier to maintain this through diet than it is through exercise alone. Now, the third option is by far the best method we have at our disposal, exercising and dieting! By creating a deficit via exercise and calorie control you give yourself a few more options which will make your weight loss a whole lot easier.
So, say you wanted to create a 500-calorie deficit through exercise and diet. I keep using the word “exercise” as a blanket term, but not all exercise is the same when it comes to calorie expenditure. Weight training burns potentially more but at least just as much fat as cardio does, with the added bonus that it’ll spare muscle better. The problem here is that weight training generates more fatigue per calorie burned when compared to cardio exercise. Makes sense, right? You could/should have no problem walking for a couple of hours but hitting the weights hard for 2 hours should drain you. Breaking this down further we can see that low intensity cardio obviously generates less fatigue than higher intensity cardio, therefore low intensity cardio has a much higher (if not the highest) calorie to fatigue ratio or alternately known as stimulus to fatigue ratio.
Now, a side note on calorie calculators, nutrition labels and food databases. I’m aware they aren’t 100% accurate, but that’s irrelevant. If, for the most part, you’re eating the same or very similar meals week in and week out it shouldn’t matter. You will be lowering your calories as your diet progresses anyways.
My recommendation for fat loss while retaining as much muscle as possible is fairly straightforward:
• Use your diet to create the bulk of your deficit
• Lift weights regularly (3-5x per week)
• Use low intensity cardio to further accelerate your fat loss
• Use higher intensity cardio if you can handle and recover from it
The next question I’m usually asked, once all this is established is “how do I train?”. My typical answer is something along the lines of “what builds muscle, keeps it”. So, whatever you’ve been doing before, continue doing. Don’t fall for these silly myths like doing low weight, high reps burns more calories. This is not only false, but a terrible way to look at training. Training, besides some additional cardio sessions, isn’t there to burn calories. Training is there to preserve what you have already built and hopefully shift the ratio of fat to muscle burn in your favour. Personally, I’ve always found low intensity cardio to be very catabolic. Whenever I’ve dieted and used low intensity cardio to add to my deficit, I’ve ended up looking softer, flatter and been weaker. Whenever I’ve primarily used diet to create a deficit but supplemented it with more intense conditioning work like prowler pushes, sled drags, strongman events etc, I’ve looked fuller and stronger. Similarly, I’ve always favoured higher protein diets for dieting, for the same reasons. However, when it comes to dieting you need to accept that it’s entirely possible you will feel hungry at times. Deal with it. Having said that I wanna stress the importance of enjoying the food you do eat. Anyone who says they don’t eat for pleasure, just to fuel their body is a downright imbecile with a catastrophic lack of nutrition knowledge. Trainers who spout this shit do my head in. We’re trying to create and enforce sustainable, lifelong habits and lifestyle changes, not turn people into mindless dullard machines.
Ok, so we’ve spoke about dieting, fat loss and all that shit. What about weight gain? How do you create the perfect calorie surplus? Well, to be honest this shit ain’t nearly as difficult or as trivial as dieting to lose weight. In fact, nutrition for lifting is vastly overrated. Still, there are some things we need to consider. Again, once we’re at the intermediate or advanced level you might wanna consider using exercises with higher stimulus to fatigue ratios in order to accumulate more effective volume. Higher effective volumes will ultimately help shift the muscle to fat gain ratio favourably. By hitting greater effective volumes, you can essentially eat more too. We know eating in itself is anabolic, so the more food you can eat, the better. Generally, we know that untrained fat folk are usually a lot stronger than their thinner counterparts due to this very reason. Opting for a high protein intake may also improve body composition. And, personally, avoiding low intensity cardio helps me massively but you might have to experiment with that yourself. This is not my way of saying you should avoid cardio or conditioning, far from it. Accept that you are extremely like to gain some fat. If you’re scared of losing your abs, then being strong isn’t for you. Finally, when it comes to your diet, even during a massing or weight gain phase we need to consider food quality. Sure, you can add 10lbs eating nothing but pizzas and protein shakes, but do you really think you're going to look as good compared to if you gained 10lbs eating quality whole foods with a good number of fruits and veggies? Come on, yes weight gain/loss is merely the result of calories in vs calories out, but health and body composition (from my experience) are heavily influenced by calorie or food quality.
Another way of managing your body composition is to increase your NEAT and your overall effective volume. NEAT is your None Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, which is basically a fancy way of saying all the activity you do that isn’t purposeful exercise (tidying the house, walking to the shop etc). People who do more training burn more calories, not only during training but in the aftermath due to changes in heart rate, thermic effect, cost of recovery etc. By increasing your training volume, your thermic effect, NEAT and total energy turnover is gonna be higher meaning you’re able to eat more while limiting fat gain. Burning through more total calories means better nutrient partitioning and better insulin sensitivity which means it’s easier to store excess calories as muscle glycogen and therefore, not as fat.
So, to summarise creating both the perfect deficit and surplus aren't too dissimilar. Your diet/food intake is going to be the biggest influencer. For weight loss, you must create a deficit and for weight gain you need to create a surplus. Both can and will suck in their own way. Deficits suck because you typically need to restrict foods and certainly eliminate binging, which means you might possibly be hungry most of the time. Eating to gain mass can also suck, for if your calorie requirements exceed your appetite then force feeding is never fun. Additionally, whether you're trying to lose weight or gain it calorie quality matters. Yes, the big determining factor is going to be achieved via either under or over consuming calories, but I truly believe, based on personal experience and via Coaching that body composition will be affected by calorie quality. You can diet and lose weight by eating nothing but ice cream (seriously, look it up) but I guarantee you're going to look and feel like utter shit compared to someone eating quality foods. Similarly, you can do a Dreamer Bulk (again, google it) and gain weight, but you'll look like dogshit and you'll only have extra, unnecessary fat to trim once you're done. Both diets should be supplemented with training, and the training typically won't change too much depending on what your goal is. You may want to lower the volume slightly if you're dieting, and don't expect to hit any PBs, but other than that I wouldn't change my training much, if at all. Both diet strategies should be complimented with some form of cardio. Cardio isn't the devil, and a moderate amount won't kill gains. When dieting my personal preference is to do prowler pushes, sled drags, strongman training etc, but you might prefer something else. When gaining weight, I personally prefer walking up hills in a weighted vest or using the Airdyne bike. Again, this is all personal preference. Just do enough to stay healthy but not too much so that it trashes your recovery. So, there you have it, some simple steps you should be able to implement in order to create the perfect calorie deficit and/or surplus.