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How to get lean AND kick butt in workouts.
“Sammy, I want to take my shirt off at the beach and have people marvel at my chiseled abs… but also want to have enough energy to perform at my best in workouts- can this be done?”
Or put a different way…
“Pash, I have body composition goals. Can I get lean without feeling rubbish or passing out throughout the day?”
The short answer- Yep.
Here for a little more detail? Lets dive in.
The reason most people come and speak to me about switching up their nutrition is for some version of fat loss, improved performance or a combination of the 2.
We’re going to discuss how to do this the right way without sacrificing one for the other.
Public service announcement
Before we start I need to get this off my chest, mainly because it can be common for people to choose ‘weight loss’ as a goal without considering everything involved.
Know this- There is a big difference between weight loss & fat loss.
I’ve seen a lot of people get hung up on a scale weight (weight loss), and although it can be a valid metric it also needs to be used objectively and with other measurements in mind…
Because change can be made in multiple areas- a decrease in fat stores, increased lean body mass, improved strength/ fitness, a change in shape, fitting into old clothes, feeling incredible etc and these things can all happen despite scale weight staying the same.
So, if you’re in the process of choosing a fitness goal that’s based on changing any of the things mentioned above, ask yourself this question-
“If I could look, feel and perform exactly how I wanted would it still matter to me what the number on the scale says?”
If it’s a no, have a think about how you’d most like to measure your success. Is it in mastering a certain movement, getting PBs in your lifts or beating your 5K time? Whatever it is, make sure it’s the right thing for you and not just because you’ve plucked something out of the sky.
And if weight does matter to you, that’s cool too. Let’s not forget that dropping a little (or more) can often mean we’re more efficient in bodyweight movements, workouts and there are often health benefits too.
There are no right or wrong goals here, it just matters that they serve you best.
Back to the task at hand- how do we manage fat loss whilst also maintaining our energy levels and overall performance when training?
Here are a few tips for doing just that.
It’s an energy balance thing
If we’re talking about fat loss and performance, we have to talk about our energy balance- our calories in Vs calories out (CICO).
Managing energy balance can be done in a variety of ways, from being generally more conscious about our portion sizes, to following a specific protocol (Intermittent Fasting, going ‘Paleo’ or another trendy diet) or by tracking our food on an app/ taking photos etc…
^These methods all work and the relevance to us will all depend on our specific lifestyle and preferences- there is no ‘perfect’ way.
Ultimately, if we’re looking to get leaner we need to either reduce the amount of energy we take in (food/drinks), increase the amount of energy we expend (through training or general activity) or some combination of the 2.
Here lies the problem… If we want to lose fat through creating a reduction in available daily energy, how do we keep up with our training and other daily demands?
Opt for the slow and steady approach
Now this way is recommended for a bunch of different reasons…
The research says we’re much more likely to stick to something by making smaller and more convenient changes from the offset and then building from this point.
And to add to this, a more conservative approach also allows us more daily energy to use than if we were to jump in the deep end with a crash diet or by removing a whole macronutrient (cough *keto* cough) for example.
My recommendation: Choose a simple habit that you can change right now, and commit to doing it for a whole month.
Ideas could include- Eating green veg with each meal, reducing those late night biscuit sessions (talking to myself here) or walking to work. Then once you’ve consistently mastered this habit, choose another one, rinse and repeat…
Another way to think of this in regards to weight loss is to aim for ~ 1lb loss per week, or up to a 20% reduction in calories. These markers should be achievable whilst also allowing yourself the energy to do what you like with.
Have on and off periods.
‘Diet breaks’, AKA taking a bit of time off from changing up your nutrition is a useful idea to keep in mind- here are 3 reasons why.
1- They can offer us a bit of sanity in a period of potential difficulty (change is hard, especially when it comes to taking food from our plates).
B- We can manipulate our energy intake around certain times of the year or strategic programming changes (eg increased calorie demands for strength phases).
Lastly- We can give ourselves flexibility when we need it most. Remember, fat loss, or any change for that matter, doesn’t have to be linear.
Task- take a look at your calendar and work out when might be the best time to work on this stuff, taking things into account such as holidays, occasions, events etc.
Carbs are your friend.
Despite a bad rep over recent years, carbs are gooooood. And I don’t just mean the tasty kind of good, they keep us performing at the highest levels too.
This is because once ingested, Carbs break down into sugar- our primary source of immediate fuel. Fuel much needed for activities such as running, jumping, lifting, pressing, pulling, twisting, lunging… this stuff sound familiar?
Now, of course, this advice comes with a caveat.
Carbs are typically over eaten due to the fact they taste great, are convenient and can be found in pretty much everything, including the air we breath (or so it may seem).
With this in mind, how do we include the right amounts and types of carbs to serve our goals?
Ideally, we’d want a varied source of complex carbohydrates that offer a longer term and slower burning energy boost. Think root vegetables, oats, rice and pastas…
The simpler (and usually more tasty) carbs can also be included but require a bit more consideration. Mainly because they often contain higher calories, are less nutrient dense and generally aren’t as filling- all things that could trip us up when aiming to reach those lower body fat numbers.
Protein- My favourite macronutrient
Proteins are the building blocks of our buff bodies (think enzymes, cells, muscle, tissue, immune system… all that stuff).
Generally speaking, it’s common for people to skimp out on their protein consumption in favour of lower quality carbs & fats. This means they’re not getting the ‘optimal’ levels needed to help them recover, repair, develop and adapt to training and general life demands.
So what’s a good amount of protein to eat?
If we’re keeping things simple- you could aim to base each meal you have around a lean source of protein. 2 palm sized portions for the guys, 1 palm size portion for the girls.
If you’d like a more numbers based approach- Aim for approx 0.75-1g protein per lb of bodyweight or upwards of 25% of your diet coming from protein. This is more of generalised recommendation due to the nature of this blog post, but this should start you off in the right direction.
Another reason to eat more protein- it’s incredibly satiating. Increased protein intake has been linked with lower total daily calorie consumption because it keeps us fuller for longer. Perfect for what we’re talking about here and good news for you meat fans (of course there are many plant based protein sources too!).
Little tip: If you don’t think you’re getting enough protein or find it hard to get your levels up- consider a supplement. Whey protein (or other veggie friendly versions) is a cheap, convenient, low calorie method of bumping up your protein numbers. Supplements are of course not essential, but hey, if they’re good enough for top athletes in sport all over the world, they’re good enough for us too.
Fuel yourself around workouts
This one is pretty straight forward. If you want energy when you hit the gym, fuel yourself properly beforehand.
Aim to eat a meal about 90 minutes before sticking your headphones in and smashing a session. This should ensure your energy peaks at the right time and you’re not feeling too heavy after a big meal.
I guess the biggest problem with this would be if you train early in the morning. In this case experiment with smaller snacks that you can have in the lead up without having to rise at 4:30am. And if all else fails, some people actually prefer training fasted (without eating)- it’s a preference thing.
For an extra boost: consider a pre-workout coffee to kick you into gear. Go for a black coffee about 20 mins before. Then go and crush it.
I’ve probably saved the most important and most overlooked ‘til last.
If we’re honest, we all know the benefits of getting enough good quality sleep.
This is where the magic happens after all our hard work in the gym- we repair, we get stronger and we rest ready to go again.
Getting our 8 hours also means we generally have more energy and are happier throughout the day too- all good things right?!
You could also think about it like this- have you ever tried to make positive long term decisions based on your health, happiness and fitness goals when you’re absolutely knackered?
Exactly, it doesn’t work.
To top it off, research has said that we can eat up to 300 calories more per day if we don’t get enough sleep- we crave sugar and convenience foods to give us that quick hit- pass the coffee and cake!
So how can we get more/ better quality sleep?
Just call me the sleep whisperer. Or maybe not, considering how creepy that sounds.
First up- give yourself a bedtime (and stick to it). Our circadian rhythm (body clock) runs a lot more efficiently if we go to bed and get up at the same time - yes, even on weekends.
Turn your screens off an hour before bed. The perfect opportunity for you to hit some mobility, read, practice some meditation and fire up your parasympathetic nervous system (the bodies rest & digest mechanism).
Make sure your room is cold, dark and quiet- the perfect environment for snoozing.
Sleep is of paramount importance for anyone looking to try and look, perform and feel at their best- even more so if you’re going through any sort of lifestyle changes (such as a calorie restriction). Putting in effort to tackle this could be the most productive thing you do and is often too simple for people to take note of.
Let’s wrap this up with some final thoughts.
Getting leaner is damn hard. It’s a physiological and psychological battle and goes against everything we humans naturally want to achieve (ultimately staying alive and protecting ourselves).
Our metabolism slows, our hunger increases and you might find you want to shout at your PT a little bit more than usual :(
With this in mind, know that weight loss by definition is NOT sustainable. You cannot continue to lose weight forever, otherwise you’ll waste away to nothing. Not cool! So go into any change period knowing that it will be finite and despite it being tough, at some point things will begin to even out again- ahhh some good news.
Something that I also feel is important to mention- It is not essential to walk around ‘ripped’ all the time.
Genetics and individuality mean we’re all different shapes and sizes, and the truth is some people can walk around leaner than others. This is both annoying but something we should all accept.
Add to this that going too far to the extreme and into single digit body fat percentage territory could actually mean our performance suffers.
It’s common to base our body goals on the athletes/ professionals we see on TV and in magazines yet the truth is these people are both incredibly gifted genetic freaks and also the odds are they don’t walk around like that all the time.
Does this have to mean we give up trying if we do want to change our body composition, of course not.
These are all just considerations to make in this multi-faceted game of health & fitness we all find ourselves playing right now.
I hoped I’ve touched on something that’s relevant to you and will help in some way, of course if you have any burning questions please make use of the contact form on this website or get in touch with me via one of the many socials…