How to reorient my exercise regimen (and diet) toward fat loss?
November 28, 2015 7:59 PM   Subscribe

Hi- I'm trying to figure out how to change up my exercise routine and diet to work on fat loss, as opposed to an emphasis on building strength. Details inside.

I've been weight training more or less seriously for almost three years now, going three times a week for relatively short, intense sessions focused around a major compound lift. It's worked pretty well, and my body composition has definitely changed for the better, but I'm still kind of flabby and I'd like to switch and work on that for a while.

I'm 32, 6 foot nothing and 188 pounds, and eat fairly well (more on that in a bit), and get regular low-level exercise in addition to my gym sessions by walking two miles to and from school 4 days a week. I've successfully lost a lot of weight before (down to ~160) by strictly counting calories and doing cardio, but not while simultaneously weight training.

This is what my gym card looks like right now- I'm about to take a week off to recover, study for exams and make any necessary changes to my plan. All exercises are 3 sets of at least 8 with increasing weight, the last to failure; the weights listed are what I'm up to as of this morning:

Monday: squats (115/120/130), assisted pullup (70/65/55), incline dumbbell press (37.5x2/42.5x2/47.5x2), torso rotation machine (70/75/80)

Wednesday: bench press (105/110/120), bent-over dumbbell rows (30/32.5/40), back extensions on Roman chair (10/10/10)

Friday: deadlift (110/115/125), cable tricep pushdown (42.5/47.5/57.5), dumbbell curl (20x2/22x2/30x2), planks (body weight)

As I understand it- which isn't terribly well; there's a lot of bro-science and mutually contradictory advice out there- it's important to keep lifting heavy, to eat a caloric deficit that's high in protein, and as a (distant?) third, to do cardio.

First question: should I be doing anything differently above? I'm switching out some of the exercises for similar ones to stave off boredom (barbell rows, torso rotation on the cable machine instead of the weird swively seat thing, overhead tricep pushdowns) and maybe adding some (dips and/or leg lifts).

Second: Cardio. Should I do it? How much, and when? I've found that for at least one day after I do squats or deadlifts I'm pretty much incapable of doing my preferred cardio on the elliptical, but I've also gotten conflicting information about whether it's okay to do it on leg day.

Third, and most important: Diet. Any tips for putting together high-protein, low-calorie meal plans? Especially for someone who's terrible at meal planning and generally just tries to buy nutritious food, not keep any crap around the house and wings it from there? And what about counting calories or measuring portion sizes for homemade foods, especially more complex recipes with more than one main ingredient- how on earth can one do this accurately?

I know this is a lot to ask, and a lot of it's been asked before, but I'd really love to get input from Mefites who've tried (and hopefully accomplished!) similar goals before. Thanks, and thanks for reading the wall of text above : /
posted by Merzbau to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
AGH. Forgot to include a day's worth of food as an example:

Breakfast- multigrain oatmeal (unsweetened) with tbsp unsweetened peanut butter; 1 skyr yogurt; ideally an apple but I don't always manage this
Lunch- I'm stuck on campus a lot of the time, so for honesty's sake (sigh) Chipotle: tofu bowl, brown rice & black beans, veggies & sour cream. This is first on the chopping block for obvious reasons.
After the gym- smoothie with 2 cups skim milk, banana, another tbsp of peanut butter and two scoops of whey powder
Dinner- A salad (spinach, sliced apple, almonds, snap peas, whatever miscellaneous veggies I have lying around), some kind of protein (premade turkey chili, soup, whatever; this is definitely an area where I fail pretty often).

On days I don't work out my breakfast is usually a three-egg omelet instead. The whole thing is highly variable, too; I have a lot of problems sticking to a predictable plan.

I have and occasionally use MyFitnessPal, but I really struggle with getting accurate calorie counts for anything that doesn't come from a box or a can, and can never manage to reach the recommended 1g protein/lb bodyweight without going over my calorie limit.
posted by Merzbau at 8:06 PM on November 28, 2015

You sound like you're on the right track, to be honest, with what your goals are and the kinds of foods you're using to get there.

In fact, given that you're eating pretty healthy already, I think your only real option is to bite the bullet and get a kitchen scale. As you say, the trouble with accounting for non packaged food on something like MFP is estimating portion size. The only real solution I've found is to keep the estimating out of it and just weigh stuff. Particularly things like olive oil and other calorie-dense foods --- 200 calories worth won't look like much at all.

I'm an active cook and I like trying new recipes and experimenting with my cooking. Incorporating the scale really hasn't been a problem --- I use MFP too and while I'd say entering stuff in MFP adds a minute or too to my meal prep, weighing stuff doesn't take much time at all. They're like $20-$30; I recently got a new one on the basis of the reviews over at Sweet Home and I've been really happy with it.
posted by Diablevert at 8:33 PM on November 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was asking the same thing a couple of years ago.

I ended up increasing my exercise. Very regular, very significant exercise.

Gained weight.

Then I got checked out for sleep issues. I had a very significant issue, and after some therapy, I mostly overcame my sleep issues and now feel a lot better.

But I didn't lose any weight.

So I went to a nutritionist.

Lost a bunch of weight.

The quick tips:
* Starchy/carbohydrate-filled foods are incompatible with weight loss. Do not bargain with yourself on this. Just end the involvement of these foods in your diet as a habit. Target grains (no rice! no wheat flour products! no corn or corn syrup! no oatmeal!) and sugar (if it has significant added sugar per serving, just don't buy it and get rid of it out of your pantry) and alcohol (arrrgh that's the sucky one! But it distinctly works against weight loss), and throw white potatoes onto that list & you should have an idea of what you need to avoid. This goes for condiments too! (Although you won't miss them much, because you won't be eating sandwiches or bread) Someday you might eat these things again, but not while trying to lose weight.
* This is going to go hand-in-hand with the thing I said above, but avoid a reliance on processed foods. Try to cook things yourself. Try not to eat things out of a can or a box.
* Your body needs protein and it needs vitamins. You will get protein from a diet consisting of non-processed meats, eggs, and vegetable protein sources (that aren't excessively starchy) - this includes vegetable-derived protein powders. You will get vitamins from fibrous non-starchy vegetables. While most people would consume an acceptable amount of healthy dietary fat from these sources, you could always add some more fat. Don't go nuts, but don't severely ration quantities of olive oil that you add to things.
* Your dietary balance should fit your lifestyle. If you have more muscle to maintain, you should eat more protein. (be careful - an aggressive protein appetite may actually be your body experiencing a form of hormonal food withdrawal) Otherwise you can stick to the dietary guidelines for protein and vegetables.
* You don't need to count calories. Worry about having the base requirements of the types of food you should be eating, regardless of preparation. Are you hungry more than 20-30 minutes after your last meal? Feel free to eat more, within reason.
* Here's a good rule for dietary balance: make half of your serving plate protein and make half of it vegetables. (And certainly don't shy away from having half a plate of broccoli, cauliflower or spinach in the morning with breakfast)
* This is the tricky part and you will likely need a professional nutritionist for this - you should figure out if you're allergic to any foods. The nutritionist's plan helped us (my wife did her diet plan alongside mine) rule out significant inflammatory responses from eating soy, dairy/lactose, or gluten. Inflammatory responses can persist for years as low-grade digestive misery issues that contribute to bloating and weight gain. You don't know that you have these issues, but you don't know that you don't have these issues either.

This is a very simplistic explanation of what we went through. Weight loss was gradual but steady for me at first; the adjustment for endurance exercise was trickier, as I had to figure out how to meet nutritional obligations for my exercise activities (especially if I started feeling weak). Ultimately the initial program lost me around 15 lbs. Weight loss stopped for a while after the end of our consultations with the nutritionist - we slacked on things like occasional beers and working quinoa into our diets, plus occasionally we're in a position to eat pure crap - but at one point I lost another 10 lbs rather rapidly, and haven't gained it all back. Since I've put on muscle this year as well, I've surely lost more than 25 lbs of fat. My wife has had similar results.

Somewhat conveniently, this diet tracks well with the "paleo" diet, and you can use similar resources and guidelines, but don't feel pinned down to that diet's full set of rules.

(there was also a lot of information given to us about avoiding certain additives and unhealthful variants of food ingredients - mostly cheap oils, certain thickeners, etc. But these hints were tied more with long-term digestive health outcomes, not so much for weight loss)

More than anything else, it was an eye-opener to realize that, as our nutritionist warned us, sugar and high-glycemic foods have almost nothing positive to offer to the body except a fantastic ability to be stored as belly fat. They are addictive and you will crave them if you have a habit of consuming them. Anything made with more than 2g of sugar per serving or anything made with white bread should be treated like cake. And you should have cake and enjoy cake every once in a while! But don't have an Italian sub, count the tomatoes as a "vegetable serving" and think that the big honking white bread loaves on the outside are any better for you than a slice of cake. I think the fact that our daily food choices are now influenced by this truth is the single biggest factor in the success of our diets. We were eating bad things like they were good things & not doing well, and then we started treating bad things like bad things and now we feel really great but also have moved down a couple of sizes of clothes in the process, which is nice.

I should repeat, though, that getting sleep issues checked out may be something you want to do if there's any indication you have them, like headaches from waking up, really rough dreams, or a noted tendency to snore insufferably. You must get good sleep for a weight loss program to work.
posted by brianvan at 9:30 PM on November 28, 2015 [26 favorites]

I have a lot of problems sticking to a predictable plan.

Along with a need for a scale or at least measuring cups, this is the issue, I think. You need to stop winging it.

Meat (or veggie protein alternatives, including protein powder or bars) should be the focus of your meals. I can't really speak to the veggie option, but for meat, you can either

1) Cook a bunch at once, freeze some of it in individual servings, and reheat them through the week. Requires purchase of single-serve, freezable storage containers. (Recommend roasts, very easy to cook on a Sunday)

2) Shop every 2-3 days so you have fresh options ready to go, and cook fast on the stovetop (e.g. wok, pan) or grill. Stir frys, grilled steaks, etc. (I like this, myself, because it's fast and fresh. But it means shopping frequently.)

3) Get prepared meat from a deli, grocery store, or restaurant on the way home (e.g. roasted chicken) and make your greens/salad/starch to your specs once you're in, or

4) Get a crockpot and prep in the morning, so things are cooking while you're away. (If mornings are rushed for you, maybe not a good idea. I have no experience with a crockpot, but have seen some hinky-sounding recipes :/ I'm sure there are ways to make beautiful meals this way, but I'm guessing that would take more prep time than you've got. It also gives you less flexibility in terms of when you're coming home, etc., you'd have to be sure you're in at X time.)

Those are basically the options if you want to control your macros that tightly. All of them involve a little extra work and planning, unfortunately, until most of the rest of the world catches up and truly macro-friendly takeout is available everywhere.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:58 PM on November 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thing that jumps out at me is that the weights you listed (at least for your squats and deadlifts) look awfully low to me for someone who's been training as long as you have. (For reference, the strength standards I've found online -- both and Starting Strenght [PDF] -- say that your 1RM on the deadlift should be around 270 lbs. at the minimum, which would put your work sets at 175 or higher.) This actually seems like it might be one of those situations where you'd see better results by eating more and thus being able to bump up the intensity of your workouts. You might also consider adding farmers' carries to your training; Dan John swears by them for fat loss, and I've generally found that he knows what the hell he's talking about.
posted by asterix at 10:23 PM on November 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree that these weights seem very low for the time you have put in. Did you make up this program yourself? You should be squatting more than once a week, for a start - more like every session. Check out Starting Strength mentioned above, or perhaps Ice-cream Fitness if you like the accessory lifts.

For cardio: assuming you have decent cardiac fitness (eg: you could go out tomorrow and run several miles without an issue) then fitness wise, the cardio time is mostly important for burning calories, and for weight loss it is easier to not eat the calories in the first place. If your cardiac fitness is not that great then it's worth adding some cardio time just for that, in my opinion, but that really depends on your values.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:48 AM on November 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ditch the carbs. Greek yogurt with berries would be a good breakfast. Chipotle is easy - just say no rice (and have guac & cheese instead). IMHO this is easier long term and much more effective than counting calories. Cardio has never had an effect on my flabbyness...but it improves my general health and motivation, so, yes to cardio.
posted by The Toad at 2:59 AM on November 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Folks are pointing to reducing the carbs - and that's what I came here to say. There's a large community on Reddit called ketogains that is focused on your question exactly.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:04 AM on November 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm basically exactly your size: I'm 6 foot and almost 185 now, but I was 6 foot and about 196 a couple months ago. As you know, this weight loss gets slower and slower the less you have to lose—or maybe it just feels that way.

It's sad and boring to repeat that it comes down to calories. But I don't think cardio and bulking are opposed as much as people think. For you now, really, it's about making a choice between reducing caloric "intake" or increasing caloric burn—and an important choice in what sort of calories those are. But I think most of us would rather burn. Like, I'd rather have to take three spinning classes a week in addition to whatever else and still have a giant steak and a yogurt for dinner.

I would throw in a pitch for fairly aggressive yoga here. When we build muscle (and also when we're not 22 years old), we slowly fold inwards. Hamstrings and quads and pecs get shorter as most guys bulk them; shoulders and hips get crimped. Throwing vinyasa yoga in the mix both lengthens those muscles and also builds muscle groups that are a bit harder to access (forearms, calves, delts, all the scapular muscles, that weird muscle that wraps around on the front of your shins???) and also helps strengthen ligaments and joints. Anyway, you might find some nice results with yoga, because it really does merge cardio with weight training.

Finally, your diet sounds pretty unpleasant. It's good that you have eating habits at all, because I think that's the secret: repetition. (For other people, the secret is a teammate, but not all of us can have that.) I would also recommend throwing out all the carbs and sugar if you want results. My daily breakfast these days is two hard-boiled eggs with olive oil and cheese and nuts, so that I have fat to burn. Ditch all that low-fat milk and yogurt for something substantial and fatty. I would recommend r/ketogains too, though I would warn that they're a bit doctrinaire. But they do have a lot of useful experience!

I'd also pitch for all the crazy spiky foam roller and ball stuff if you're not doing it; the copyrighted name is "Yoga Tune Up®" I think but is also called RX or just "therapy balls." I know you're saying, hey, that's not weight loss! But all this stuff is linked up; and besides, you can't keep working out if you get injured, because then it all goes to hell.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:38 AM on November 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yikes. Thanks for the notes, everybody! I've definitely got some changes I can make right away. I've tried cutting sugar completely from my diet, but always end up relapsing on yogurt- I can definitely try that again. I already don't keep bread or anything starch-based around except for quinoa (I usually make a batch of it mixed with beans, miscellaneous veggies and a little olive oil, vinegar and lime juice), but that can go as well.

agents of KAOS- I didn't design the program myself; I asked for help from a trainer at my gym to put together a simple program for 3 days a week that I could work in around my class schedule. I'm not particularly attached to it, either, and if I can do things better I'm more than willing to make major changes to it.

It's definitely a little discouraging to hear I'm so far behind on my squat and deadlift progress, but this is honestly why I'm coming to metafilter with this stuff- I don't really know what I'm doing, and haven't been able to really find anyone else to work out with. I was a little inaccurate with my initial estimate of time spent (I've been doing both squats and deadlifts for closer to two years, with a fairly long gap in late 2014) but that's still not great. I've seen a lot of recommendations for Starting Strength, and looking at the program online it definitely seems doable.
posted by Merzbau at 7:00 AM on November 29, 2015

About calories- it looks like if I'm going to do Starting Strength, my best bet for a little while will be to concentrate more on proper form and upping my squat and deadlift weight for the first 4-6 weeks and just eat as cleanly as possible while making sure I get enough food.

But after that, I do want to figure out the proper calorie deficit, and I was wondering what math people recommend, because again, there are some wildly conflicting numbers out there. I'm not sure that I trust MyFitnessPal, for instance, but it at least seems to give me numbers in the low-to-middle range. I've gotten estimates of 2500+ from other formulae, which seems insane.
posted by Merzbau at 7:07 AM on November 29, 2015

Sorry to keep beating the low carb drum -- here's a calculator for figuring out a calorie deficit that will work for you.

Most low-carbers set the net carbs to 20g starting out, and you should underestimate your "amount of exercise" - based on what you've posted as your normal food, the apples, black beans, brown rice, yogurt, skim milk, banana -- those would put you well over 20g of net carbs per day. (A medium apple has about 20 net carbs - net carbs is carbs minus fiber. A 1/2 cup serving of black beans has about 13 net carbs. Bottom line: you haven't cut out sugar, if you consider that carbs act like sugar and are, from my way of thinking, basically sugar + vitamins that you can get from lower carb foods.)

The keto gains folks are used to taking questions about "how can I work out without carbs?!!!!" They have a lot experience working out, cutting carbs, slimming down, and staying healthy. General information, including a nice FAQ about low carb eating can be found here, including typical foods, recipes, etc.

To answer another question you had: MFP will let you enter a homemade recipe and figure out the nutrition. You tell it how many servings your recipe makes and what the ingredients are.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:16 AM on November 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also -- don't "eat back" the calories that mfp tells you you can eat if you've been working out. Don't trust mfp for that. And if you decide to go low carb, don't believe mfp about how many days it'll take to lose weight, based on your calories. It's not good at estimating that either.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:18 AM on November 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

MyFitnessPal gives notoriously low calorie recommendations. Try, but make sure you are being honest about your level of exercise. It doesn't matter if you get the level wrong to start - eat at that number for at least a couple weeks, check if you are losing weight at the rate you hope, and then adjust your intake up or down if not. Calculators aren't magic anyway so there is no objective actual number you should be getting, there will always be some trial and error.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:51 PM on November 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

« Older Transmontaigne Empires   |   outside of the everyday life experiences? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.