Recently, a friend told me that he liked the lifting content on my site, but that he’d prefer some more weight management advice since that’s his focus right now. Later on, another friend echoed these sentiments because she’s struggling to start her own weight loss journey.
Let me make this clear: I don’t think weight loss should be the holy grail of fitness. It’s certainly way more popular than most other kinds of fitness right now, and it’s really been skewing the entire industry into weird places that are often unhealthy. I believe in being proud of your body and feeling good about yourself. Unfortunately, in order to achieve the levels of weight loss we’re often being urged to do, we have to take actions that are ultimately detrimental to our psychological health and potentially even our long term physical health. I fundamentally reject this kind of weight loss, but I understand that for many others, making healthier decisions and losing a bit of weight can be massively empowering. So if you’re one of those people, this article is for you, and I salute your decision.
I’ve endeavored here to put forth the simplest plan to achieve sustainable, healthy, long-term weight loss. These tips are broadly applicable, if not perfectly accurate in their application. The idea here is to focus on big, overarching concepts instead of boring, pointless details that you probably don’t care about. So here’s my advice:
Eat More Protein
Despite what some fanatics and gurus might tell you, protein is healthy and can be safely consumed even in extremely large quantities, unless you have a preexisting kidney condition. Ideally, you’re getting lots of protein from animal sources, including lean meats, fish, eggs, and dairy. These sources tend to have higher concentrations of leucine, an amino acid that’s crucial for muscular development and is a good indicator of how “good” a protein is. Getting an adequate amount of protein maximizes muscle protein synthesis, which means that you’re maximizing muscle built/maintained.
Another awesome effect of protein is that it tends to be more satiating than fat or carb sources - meaning that you can eat less of it and still feel full. This is crazy important for weight loss for obvious reasons. If you’re more full on less food, you’re eating fewer calories, and you’re losing more weight.
A good target for people of all activity levels is about 0.8g/lb of bodyweight. Additional protein above and beyond this number isn’t a bad thing, it’s just less effective in terms of building and maintaining muscle. This number isn’t too high - some fitness pros will even recommend 2-3x bodyweight - but it’s usually higher than most people are used to.
In order to reach this number, you’ll probably need to eat a lot more protein than you’re used to. This can also be difficult if you’re a vegetarian or vegan. Luckily, protein shakes make it much easier to get your daily protein in. You can also supplement with additional leucine if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, since more of your protein sources will be plant-based and thus lacking in leucine.
Eat More Fiber
Fiber is consumed in our diet through fruits and vegetables, as well as beans and some other foods. Fiber is a key component of digestive health, plus these foods tend to be packed with other nutrients anyway so it’s a win-win. As another side benefit, fiber is largely undigestible to the human digestive system, so some high-fiber foods (veggies) are low in calories while still filling you up. Fruits tend to contain more sugars, which isn’t a bad thing, but since it means more calories it may not be ideal if you’re looking to lose weight.
Finding fiber sources that you like is the key focus. Obviously you shouldn’t eat a ton of spinach if you hate it, (like how I hate kale) but finding a handful of fiber sources you DO like and relying on those will go a long way. Unfortunately, we tend to be a lot pickier with our veggies than the rest of our diet, so it’s one that a lot of us struggle with, myself included.
Eat Fewer Calories
To lose weight, you have to cut calories. It’s been fashionable to claim that a calorie isn’t a calorie, or whatever other fad we have going around at any time, but the truth of the matter is that it is, and always has been, about calories. There’s certainly a lot of flexibility and calories aren’t divine mandate set in stone, but the fact of the matter is that calories make up the vast majority of the equation.
You can and will burn calories through exercise, but the effect of exercise is more to improve your metabolism over time than simply to burn calories in the short term. It’s far harder to exercise calories off once eaten than simply not to eat them, so it’s best to focus on the diet end of the equation in terms of weight loss. Think of diet as what helps you lose weight, and exercise as what helps you prevent weight regain.
Calculate your base metabolic rate - I’ll include a link to a calculator here, but there’s plenty out there waiting just on the other side of a quick google search. Whatever number you get won’t be perfect, but it’s a start. In order to achieve a safe and steady weight loss of about 1lb per week, a 500cal deficit (less than that number the calculator gives you) is recommended. Much faster and slower rates of weight loss are possible, but 1lb/week is usually a good starting point. For women, you may want to take a smaller deficit of just 200-400 instead - since women will have naturally lower metabolisms, cutting out 500 may be a bit too hard at first. Weigh yourself regularly and average the numbers together at the end of each week. If you’re not seeing the average 1lb loss per week, just drop 100-200 calories and repeat until you are.
Cook At Home
I can’t tell you how important it is to eat meals you (or a family member) has cooked at home. It may take more time and be less convenient, and it may be hard if you have a demanding schedule, but it’s a vastly superior way to eat in terms of having control over your health.
When you eat out at restaurants, you have very little control over your diet. Sure, you can pick types of foods from a menu, but you have virtually no control over portion sizes, macronutrient makeups, or food quality.
Another problem with eating outside the home is that EVERY SINGLE PURCHASE you make can be done on a whim. Had a bad day? Guess I’m getting Taco Bell to feel better. Want to be able to have more time to relax when you get home? Fast food sure sounds good. Instead, when you cook at home, you make all your food purchasing decisions in one large batch, when you go to the grocery store.
There’s a saying that you should never go to the grocery store with an empty stomach, and it certainly holds true. Make sure you go to the store when you’re full and mentally refreshed so that you make good purchasing decisions and you’re set. Go to the store with an empty stomach and, if you’re me, you’re going to spend all your money on cheez-its and summer sausage.
Once you’ve done your grocery shopping, you’re set. If you get hungry at home, you’re going to eat something you have on hand rather than going out, and if you cook at home you’re going to cook something you have on hand. By ensuring that you only have the right foods on hand, you can more easily ensure that this is all you’re eating too. Invest in some tupperware to take food with you to work and get into the basics of preparing meals ahead of time. If needed, cook a bunch of food at once to save time and be ready for a few days.
Track Your Diet (And Everything Else Too!)
No matter what you’re doing, you should be tracking your diet, period.
Now this might initially sound hard, because everyone gets a bad idea in their head when they think “tracking”. We’ve been taught recently to think that all tracking has to look exactly like myfitnesspal or something similar: way too complicated.
This complicated tracking is absolutely useful. From an exactness perspective, calculators like myfitnesspal can’t be beat. But most people aren’t ready to use a tracking system like that, nor would they even have any idea what to do with the numbers that they get when they do! It’s a classic case of paralysis by analysis - you’re being given so much data that it’s overwhelming you.
The reality is that tracking can, and should, start off simple. Just keep a journal on hand and write in it every time you eat something, along with a description of what you ate, a rough estimate of your portion size, and a little note to go along with it (this was a bad decision, this isn’t ideal, I managed to make an awesome decision! etc). Once you can do this with regularity, start worrying about rough macros and calories and totalling them up on your notes. Only jump up to myfitnesspal if you’ve mastered pen and paper and are ready for it.
Tracking should be used for plenty of other things too. Keep a workout log of your sets and reps so you can know how to improve the next time you repeat that workout. Keep a journal and remark on the things you did well or poorly today. Just keeping the journal on hand and taking a few minutes here or there will work wonders for your sense of mindfulness and your understanding of what you can and should change. As with journaling your food, start simple and just focus on adhering to the plan - only get more complicated when you have to.
Cardio is usually recommended for weight loss, but the reality is that weight training is equally effective at getting the job done in the long term, where it counts. Short term, doing a lot of cardio will burn more calories and potentially lead to more weight loss. Long term, doing a crap ton of cardio is unsustainable and lifting weights has far more beneficial effects on raising your metabolism.
On top of that, weights tend to produce the lean, muscular look that most people are looking for when they want to lose weight. For many people, weights are simply the best pathway to their goals, even if they don’t know or accept that fact yet.
Lifting can be intimidating for some, particularly if you don’t have a trainer to teach you or a knowledge base to draw from. From scratch, learning to lift is far more complicated than just hopping on a treadmill for a half hour. At the same time, it can be hella simple if you know where to look. I think this is going to be the topic of a future guide, honestly. It sounds like such a perfect topic.
Even just 3 full body days per week, focusing on major movements, can be all that’s needed for most people. This equates to just 3 or so hours per week in the gym - a relatively painless sacrifice for your fitness goals.
Don’t Skip Cardio
On the other hand, it’s become fashionable in some (pro-lifting, obviously) circles to dish out plenty of hate on cardio. There’s a well-known “interference effect” in which a high volume of running in a training program can be detrimental to growth in muscle and strength. Unfortunately, this science has been bastardized over and over in order to hate on cardio of all kinds. There’s a real problem in the fitness industry where we’re all yelling over each other and refusing to listen to each other, so this has only fueled further divisiveness between lifting types and endurance types.
The reality of the matter is that cardio isn’t inherently evil, and some degree of cardio is useful no matter what your training goals. There are certainly some training goals in which cardio is minimally useful, but overall cardio is productive for your long term health and athleticism - as a friend so lovingly put it, you can’t get jacked if you’re dead.
When it comes to cardio, like lifting, it shouldn’t be overdone. Just 2-3 sessions of 30-45 minutes or so per week is often enough to elicit solid adaptations. Running is ideal, but it’s also the most stressful for your body. Instead, you may need to drop down to activities like walking, elliptical, bike, or stair steppers, which have less impact and may be less stressful on the body.
Start Slow, Progress Steadily
One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is being too overconfident about their ability to progress. Experts have been training for years and settle sooner or later into a mindset of smaller, more incremental improvements - they have to, because after initial gains, your progress slows down over time as you get closer to your genetic potential.
Likewise, beginners often see explosive growth for the first couple months of a solid program/diet and then get easily discouraged when those gains slow down. This is the phenomenon of beginner gains. However, if you approach everything with the right mindset, you can avoid this issue.
I see people trying to make big jumps in weight, rep ranges, or volume every time they come into the gym. This is a recipe for disaster. Again, try and keep changes small. Track your workouts so you know what you did the last time you did a particular workout, and just add 5 pounds here or a rep there. It doesn’t have to be a huge change to see results, and if you make huge changes, you’re going to hit a wall much more easily and sooner.
Another huge issue in the same vein I see with beginners is people trying to bite off more than they can chew. They’re trying to master myfitnesspal tracking, diet, cardio, learning weights for the first time, and massively changing their lifestyle habits, all at the same time. Rather than trying to do it all at once, I recommend focusing on just one thing at a time. Once you’ve mastered or gotten above a certain competency threshold in one habit, move on to the next one. Soon, you’ll have a completely changed set of habits, and you won’t have to have gone through the issue of doing everything at once.
Get into a mindset of slow, steady progress and you’re setting yourself up for long term success.
Don’t Buy Into Hype
There’s always someone trying to sell you something. Hell, I’m going to try and sell you something before this article is up. That’s because the fitness industry ultimately doesn’t exist to serve you. It certainly benefits from serving you if it can, but it exists to make fitness professionals money, and it’ll only serve you if this is beneficial to that long term goal.
Every fitness pro is trying to make a living, and that means that in order to live they have to sell you something. Of course, there’s massive loads of fitness professionals out there, so you can bet that a huge chunk of them (probably like a huge chunk of the people you know in whatever field you’re in) aren’t very good at their jobs, or aren’t particularly bright. Likewise, there’s plenty of garbage products out there, and every trainer is trying to establish themselves as an authority.
Unfortunately, sex appeal and flashy workouts sell. That means that trainers are trying to reinvent the wheel, constantly hyping some newer and “better” product in order to keep making more money. This means a constant hype train trying to convince you to buy this pill, do this goofy thing, buy into this superior training method, etc.
Don’t buy into it. Don’t spend money or time on it unless you’re already set doing something else and are just legitimately curious. Fitness success in virtually everything (except CrossFit, since it’s relatively new) has been worked out over the years. We know 80% of what it takes to get results. Focus on that 80% that’s easy rather than worrying about the remaining 20% that’s hard. Keep your money in your wallet and your eyes open.
I don’t think motivation boils down to willpower or self-discipline. I think that these things are certainly big factors in your success, but I think that the single biggest factor for many people is accountability.
Accountability can be a trainer, a friend, social pressure, a competition to prep for, or some sort of agreement or bet you make with yourself. Here’s an example. Call up your mom right now and send her 200 bucks. Tell her to call you back every week and ask you about your fitness journey. Tell her to dig, probe, ask a lot of questions, not accept short answers. Give her long ones when she does. At the end of each month, reanalyze your goals for the month and determine whether or not you’ve met them. If you have, you get your money back. If you haven’t, your dear old mom has just gotten an early Christmas present. The amount of money doesn’t matter - all that matters is that it’s significant enough that you’d miss it if you didn’t have it.
Trainers are a huge source of accountability, but let’s be honest, most of the time we’re being paid big bucks just to drag you into the gym and count your reps. Since a lot of that tends to go to the gym in the form of commissions, it’s not a great deal for anyone involved. If you can find cheap training, awesome! But for most people, it’s prohibitively expensive.
If you can find family or friends willing to work out with you or push you for free, that’s awesome, and you’re blessed as hell. Many of us would struggle to find friends that share in our goals, particularly if we’re in certain career paths. Even then, they might enjoy fitness but be interested in a totally separate thing from us, making it hard for the two of us to train together or provide ourselves support.
Making a bet with your mother (or another trusted person close to you) is a great option. Luckily, online coaching is becoming a huge alternative to traditional training. An online coach is paid a certain amount of money each month (usually just $100-200) and in exchange, you get accountability and customized exercise plans. It’s not perfect for people who do literally need to be dragged into the gym (the physical presence of a person waiting for you at an appointment time is still far more powerful) but it’s awesome for a lot more people. It’s cheaper for you, and the coach makes more money for their time. Of course, services vary highly from coach to coach, so it’s best to find a coach that fits your needs.
Surprise, here’s the part where I try to sell you something: you should check out my coaching page if you’re interested. I’m a full time online coach, so having more clients helps me support myself while still having time to write comprehensive blog posts like this one.
Buckle Up for the Long Haul
ABOVE ALL, understand that you are (or at least should be) in this for the long haul. There’s no shortcuts, no easy tricks. All it takes is effort and time. You don’t have to be perfect at first, or even ever. But by adopting a mindset of long term growth and investing in yourself for the future, you’ll start to see smaller changes add up over time. Don’t get discouraged by tiny blips in the data, and focus on watching long term trends in your health and fitness. Keep your head up and put in the work, day in and day out. It doesn’t have to be hard, but you do have to keep doing it.