Even experienced lifters make these weight loss mistakes. Here’s what to do instead, plus a complete three-phase diet and workout plan.
Weight Loss Mistakes To Avoid
Looking great naked involves fat loss for most people, but common weight loss mistakes keep them from ever reaching their goals. Very few end up looking spectacular, not because they lack muscle but because they struggle to get lean enough to show it.
Why do people fail? Because they do crazy things, crash, and then return to their old ways. Here are the most common mistakes people make, plus the approach I use with clients.
First, let’s differentiate between a fat loss blitz and a more traditional approach. The former refers to using extreme measures to lose as much fat/weight as possible in a short time: normally two to four weeks.
If those measures are sustained for longer, bad things happen: libido drops, hormone levels get messed up, and metabolic adaptations occur that make fat regain likely. Your physical and mental performance will drop significantly too.
This strategy is for extreme situations only. For example, physique competitors could use it at the tail-end of their prep. But most people should use a more gradual approach: spending 8-16 weeks to drop fat without negatively affecting their health or well-being.
For the gradual approach, one of the worst mistakes is to start too aggressively by cutting calories too much. There is such a thing as metabolic adaptation. Your body will adapt and initiate “countermeasures” that make it harder to keep losing fat.
For example, leptin levels will decrease, increasing your hunger and cravings – your body is trying to force you to eat more calorie-dense foods.
Lowering leptin will also increase depression symptoms – one of the reasons people feel bad when they diet too hard for too long. Those depression symptoms might lead to “hedonic binge eating” to get a pleasure response and pull us out of that depression state. Decreasing leptin might also lead to a lowered metabolic rate.
The body will also increase ghrelin levels, which will dramatically increase hunger. Again, it’s a strategy your body uses to trick you into eating more to get out of the perceived excessive deficit.
Another aspect is cortisol. Two of the main functions of cortisol are:
- Mobilizing stored energy when you need it
- Increasing blood sugar levels when they’re too low
The bigger the caloric deficit (especially if that deficit comes with super-low carbs), the more energy you need to mobilize, and the higher cortisol will be.
High cortisol is bad for muscle mass, but chronic cortisol elevation can also affect fat loss. When released at the right time, cortisol is actually a fat loss hormone, but it can hurt your fat loss efforts if it becomes chronically elevated.
Why? Because chronically elevated cortisol levels will lead to a decrease in T3 (a thyroid hormone) levels. T3 levels play a huge role in how fast your metabolic rate is.
We have two main thyroid hormones: T4 and T3. T3 is the one that has a huge impact on metabolic rate; T4, not so much. The body doesn’t produce a lot of T3. It starts by producing T4 and then converts what it feels is “safe and needed” into T3. But chronically elevated cortisol will inhibit the conversion of T4 into T3.
So when cortisol is elevated acutely, then comes back down, it’s good for fat loss. But if it’s chronically elevated (like in a period of excessive caloric restriction), it can decrease your metabolic rate, making it harder to establish a deficit and lose fat.
Low T3 is also associated with low energy. So if it’s high for too long, you’ll feel lazy and move less throughout the day, expending less energy.
If you’re too hasty with caloric restriction, you’ll eventually adapt to that level and fat loss will slow or stop. And then what are your options? Eat even less? Not smart if you’re already at the low end of your needs. Train more? Sure, but your body will adapt there too, and you’ll quickly be stuck without a way to keep progressing.
And remember, you’ll feel like crap, have cravings, experience depressive symptoms, and feel drained.
Start with the smallest caloric deficit that’ll allow you to lose fat at an acceptable rate (around 2-3 pounds per week for most). As fat loss slows, you’ll be able to gradually (key word) lower caloric intake to continue progressing.
People will use their lifting workout as their primary fat-burning tool. They do so by dramatically increasing training volume and density by reducing rest periods or using supersets.
Charles Poliquin popularized this with his German Body Composition approach. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. You’ll need more energy to fuel the muscle contractions by doing more volume, which means a greater caloric expenditure. Using shorter rest intervals keeps adrenaline higher, which also helps burn more calories, even after the workout.
I use this kind of training with body composition clients, but NOT at the beginning of a fat loss plan. You’re painting yourself into a corner if you start with this approach. You’re stuck with keeping up with that strategy for the duration of the plan, even making it more intense if you want to keep progressing.
And while the high volume, high-density approach works well, it has some drawbacks that make it less than ideal for long periods, like a dramatic increase in cortisol levels.
When it comes to training, several variables can increase cortisol output:
- Volume: The more you do, the more energy you need to mobilize and the more cortisol you release.
- Intensiveness: This is how hard you’re pushing each set.
- Psychological Stress: If something creates mental stress, like a super heavy weight or knowing in advance that you’ll suffer, it increases cortisol.
- Neurological Demands: The harder the brain needs to work, the more adrenaline you release to speed the brain up and the more you release cortisol to trigger that adrenaline increase.
- Density: The shorter the rest, the more cortisol you release to keep adrenaline high.
A high volume/high-density workout where you use big lifts and go to failure (or close to it) is one of the highest cortisol-producing workouts. That’s fine for a short period of time.
But if you stick with it for too long, you’ll start to suffer the consequences like lowered testosterone/estrogen levels and desensitization of the beta-adrenergic receptors. In that last case, it’ll mean a dramatic drop in motivation, resilience, and physical and mental performance.
Your training program should be lower in volume when you begin your fat loss efforts and focus more on heavy lifting.
You should also put training efficiency at a premium. That means using a whole-body approach three days per week, using 3-4 big compound movements per workout. Then add a fourth workout using isolation exercises to hit the muscles that might’ve been neglected by the big lifts.
As you progress in the plan, gradually add volume. At the end of the leaning-out phase, conclude with one 3-4 week block where lifting is used as a fat loss tool.
Cardio is not the devil. In reasonable amounts, it won’t eat away your muscles.
The problem arises when people do too much from the start – either too much per session, too many sessions, or going too hard right away. The body will eventually adapt, and the amount of work you do no longer leads to significant fat loss.
I’ve worked with many CrossFitters, from normal folks to Games competitors. Even though they were fairly lean, they reached a point where they were no longer getting leaner despite a huge amount of daily physical activity.
I’ve seen some CrossFit athletes train 2-3 hours per day with fairly short rest periods. Yet, for all the time I’ve known them, their body compositions stayed the same, at least body-fat-wise. In some cases, this happens even with strict eating.
The extreme case was one girl who was a freaky machine. She could bench press 225 pounds, clean & jerk 235 pounds, deadlift 425 pounds, and run a marathon.
She trained 2-3 hours with WODs and strength work five days a week and would go out running for another 2-3 hours twice a week. She also did marathons, ultra marathons, and those crazy variations where you have to climb a mountain after your Ironman triathlon. Even with all of that work, she wasn’t ripped. Her body comp never really changed.
So while you can’t bypass the laws of thermodynamics, the body can adapt to excessive exercise. Over time, the same amount of exercise has less and less of an effect on fat loss.
If you started at 60-90 minutes of steady-state cardio, 5-6 days a week, where do you go when fat loss stalls? Do you up it to two hours a day on top of your lifting? What then? Add another hour?
First, it’s not realistic unless you have no life. But more importantly, the cortisol production would be massive, leading to huge recovery issues, muscle loss, neurological fatigue, problems sleeping, etc. And ironically, chronic cortisol elevation slows down the fat loss process.
When it comes to the amount of energy systems work, use as little as needed to maintain the adequate fat loss rate: 2-3 pounds per week at first, maybe down to one pound per week once you’re lean and are trying to get ripped. You might not even need any cardio at first.
Don’t use the kitchen sink approach. It won’t be sustainable. Use the least amount of work and restriction to achieve the proper rate of fat loss. Add work or reduce food intake as fat loss slows down.
As far as the hardcore energy systems work is concerned, those high-intensity intervals are a lot more demanding on your body than low-intensity cardio, even if it’s shorter. The level of effort (intensity) is much higher and will raise cortisol and adrenaline more.
The stress response is even higher if you don’t have the cardiovascular capacities to do the high-intensity intervals without feeling like you’re about to die.
A serious lifter in poor cardiovascular shape will do more harm than good by starting with intervals right out of the gate. It’s smarter to gradually improve your cardiovascular capacities with steady-state cardio and work in easier intervals. Then later, move to hard intervals.
Your body needs an energy substrate, and you need to consume it. While protein can technically be transformed into energy, it’s a costly and inefficient process. It needs to be turned into glucose by the liver. The problem? Once the body is efficient at turning amino acids into energy, it’ll turn your stored proteins (muscle tissue) into energy more easily too.
The energy substrate you consume the most will be used the most and used more efficiently by the body. If 60-70 percent of your caloric intake is protein, your body will become efficient at using protein for fuel, and muscle breakdown will increase over time.
The efficient energy substrates? Fats and carbs. During any diet, you want either:
- A sufficient intake of carbohydrates: A protein and carb dominant diet (Ornish)
- A sufficient intake of fats: A protein and fat dominant diet (keto, Atkins)
- A combination of both: A diet fairly balanced in carbs and fats (The Zone or Mediterranean)
Losing fat is an emotion-driven process. We want the fat gone now! So we tend to be overly aggressive with dieting, and many will cut out both carbs AND fats.
Many bodybuilders and figure competitors eat 800-1200 calories per day, consisting of almost exclusively of protein. Some bigger bodybuilders ingest 300-400 grams of protein per day with no more than 15 grams of fat and 15 grams of carbs.
If you’re on steroids, it can work… sorta. Sure, the steroids will protect their muscle mass. And they may still have energy if they take clenbuterol or ephedrine, which are essentially synthetic adrenaline or act on the same receptors as adrenaline. But after a few weeks, they feel like complete crap: they can’t sleep, can’t recover, have no energy, and experience mood swings.
If all you consume is protein, you’ll run into trouble. First, because of metabolic adaptation. What do you do when fat loss stalls? You don’t have any fat or carbs to cut. All you can take out of your diet is protein. And that won’t speed up the fat loss process, or if it does, it’ll come with muscle loss.
And no fat intake plus no carb intake is a disaster for your hormone levels, stress management, and psychological well-being.
You need a decent amount of at least one energy substrate to be functional. Keto is fine because true keto is high in fat. Same with a carnivore diet which is higher in protein but still has 40-60% of the caloric intake from fats.
The traditional low-fat bodybuilding diet is also fine because you have a good amount of carbs. The Zone Diet – around 30-40% protein, 30-35% carbs, and 30-35% fats – is also an option.
You can also spend time in all three approaches and match them to the form of exercise you’re doing. More on that below.
During a fat loss phase, do the minimum required to lose fat at an appropriate rate. When fat loss slows, you either increase physical activity or decrease caloric intake.
If you decide to increase physical activity, you can go from 20 minutes of cardio up to 25 minutes or add 2-4 work sets to your workout. That’s easy to do because you know how much you’re doing.
But what about reducing calories? Well, if you don’t know how much you’re eating, how can you adjust? Yes, measuring sucks, but those who measure have higher success rates than those who don’t.
You need to know how much you’re consuming and training to know what to adjust. Without measuring, reducing calories or adding another few minutes to a cardio session will be pretty hard.
Once you start measuring, make adjustments in phases. I normally have clients start with a low-carb and higher-fat phase. Then, in their second phase, they use more of a balanced diet but with fewer total calories. The final phase is carb-dominant but still with a slightly lower caloric intake.
The workouts reflect these changes. Think about it, doing a boatload of lifting volume or intervals while in a low-carb phase isn’t smart since carbs are a much more efficient fuel and will help lower the cortisol production from intense forms of training.
I use three phases with most clients. Competitive bodybuilders go through a fourth phase, but I won’t cover that here.
The goal: Improve the body’s capacity to use fat for fuel. Minimize training that relies mostly on glycogen since you don’t want to reinforce the use of that system.
Think heavier and lower in volume. It’s a “big basics” plan. You do three whole-body workouts per week, using four multi-joint movements: a squat, a hinge, a press, and a pull.
You want the sets to last 20 seconds or less and to take ample rest between sets (3-4 minutes). This way, you’ll stick to using mostly the phosphagens for fuel. You’ll start with 2-3 warm-up sets, then do 4-6 reps per set for 3-4 work sets per exercise.
You’ll also add a fourth training day, a “gap workout” where you only use isolation exercises to target the muscles that might’ve been neglected during the big-basic workouts. For example, maybe your triceps dominant, and your chest doesn’t get fully stimulated from a bench press. Do some pec work in the gap workout.
You’re allowed 4-6 isolation exercises on that day, so only choose lifts that’ll hit muscles that need the direct stimulation. These are done for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps.
Do 2-3 low-intensity, steady-state cardio sessions lasting 20-25 minutes. These would ideally be done separately from the lifting workout. But at that amount, it wouldn’t be detrimental to do them after your session. Or you can do daily walks of 45-60 minutes instead.
In this phase, you don’t want intervals, sled pushing, or conditioning circuits. It’s a “least mode,” not a “beast mode” phase.
It’s low carb and higher fat to improve the body’s efficiency in using fat for fuel. Keep carbs around the workout (30-45 grams depending on the person). Plazma is the best option for this. The rest of the day is protein and fat.
For calories, start at around bodyweight x 12-13. So if you’re 200 pounds, that means a caloric intake of around 2500 calories per day. If you’re leaner, you might need to start at 14.
The starting point isn’t that important because you’ll adjust weekly depending on progression:
- If you’re losing 2-3 pounds per week (after the first week, in which you will have a drop in water weight), keep the same intake.
- If you lose less than 2 pounds, decrease caloric intake by a factor of one (from 13 to 12 or from 12 to 11).
- If you lose more than 3 pounds in a week, increase by a factor of one.
Protein should be set at around 1 to 1.25 grams per pound of bodyweight. For a 200-pound individual, that means 200-250 grams of protein. This comes to 800-1000 calories from protein, which would leave you with 1500 calories in fat and carbs.
If you get 45 grams of carbs around your workout and 10-15 grams of trace carbs during the day, this means 200-240 calories from carbs, which leaves around 1300 calories from fat or 145 grams.
Increase lifting and cardio volume and get more into the glycolytic training zone. The goal is to burn more fuel and train harder.
Because this type of training increases glucose reliance and produces more cortisol, you’ll increase carbs. The cool thing with fat loss “periodization” is that you get more and more carbs with each phase. Psychologically it makes it easier: it feels like you aren’t dieting as hard. And remember, carbs lower cortisol and adrenaline.
Stick to 3 whole-body sessions and one gap workout. The whole-body sessions still use 4 main lifts. The sets are now increased to 8-10 reps per set (similar tempo as phase one) and the rest intervals are decreased to 2-3 minutes. Do 3-4 work sets. You can also add 1-2 isolation movements at the end of your workout.
The gap session is similar in the number and type of exercises, but you can add methods like drop sets and rest/pause sets.
Keep 2-3 cardio sessions. Ideally, do these on the days you’re not lifting. Warm up for 5 minutes, then do 5-6 minutes of intervals (15 seconds all out, 45 seconds relaxed), then go into 25-30 minutes of steady-state cardio.
Caloric intake should start at the same level as the last week of phase 1. But now fats are lowered and carbs are increased so that both are equal. Protein is stable at 1 to 1.25 grams per pound.
Let’s say your starting intake for this phase is 2300 calories per day with 250 grams of protein. This leaves you with 1300 calories from carbs and fats. That’s 650 calories each.
That means 650 calories from carbs is around 165 grams, and 650 calories from fat is around 70 grams.
Consume carbs mostly around workouts and in the evening. I would go 70 grams around the workout and 70 grams in the evening, with the remaining as trace carbs throughout the day.
This is the “beast mode” phase! You pull out all the stops and try to lose as much additional fat as you can in 3-4 weeks.
The training changes a bit and can go to something similar to German Body Composition, where you do 3 whole-body workouts per week. You superset one upper body and one lower-body exercise, and you have a total of three of these supersets per workout (so 6 total exercises).
Increase the reps per set to 10-12. The number of sets per exercise is 3-4. The rest intervals are 30-45 seconds between the first and second exercises in a superset and 90-120 seconds between sets.
In the fourth weekly workout, you have two options. You can keep up with your gap workout or do a conditioning session, like sled work, strongman medleys, etc. The decision depends on if you want to focus on even more fat loss or improving one muscle slightly.
You still do 2-3 cardio days (on the non-lifting days). But now, you use 30/30 intervals (30 seconds all-out, 30 seconds relax) for 6-8 minutes, followed by 25-30 minutes of steady-state cardio. On top of that, add 20 minutes at the end of the lifting workouts.
Start at the same caloric intake as the last week of the preceding phase. Since the volume is higher in this phase, we don’t need to lower the calories right away. However, we now minimize fats to increase carbs more. This helps us with the higher training volume.
Let’s say the starting caloric intake is 2200 calories per day with 250 grams of protein, leaving you with 1200 calories per day from fats and carbs (combined).
You’d bump carbs to 70% of that 1200 while fat is 30%. That means 840 calories from carbs, which is 210 grams per day. And 360 calories from fats, which is 40 grams per day.
For the carbs, consume a large proportion around the workout and in the evening. I always put carbs when we need to lower cortisol and adrenaline the most: around 70-80 grams at each of these two occasions. We also add carbs to the meal following the workout, roughly 40 grams in the example, and the rest are trace carbs at the other meals.
Keep in mind that these would be adjusted weekly based on progression.
The purpose of this plan is to use each phase to not only lose fat but also to prepare yourself for the next phase. And by adding carbs gradually, the whole period is much easier psychologically and will also allow you to recover better from your training and sleep better.