20 things I know about fat loss from 25 years of personal training
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
After plenty of trial and error and experience here is a summary of what I’ve come to know about fat loss after 25 years of personal training. I hope it saves some wasted time and effort.
1. People lie about what they eat.
Studies have shown this, people kid both themselves and others. Often they have amnesia around the bad stuff they’ve eaten and delude themselves around volume of food. It is interesting how many personal training clients I’ve had over the years who have been so resistant around filling out a food diary, I suspect, deep down they don’t want to know the truth. You need to get structured and specific around what, how much and how often you eat to minimise the effects of self-deception.
2. There is no such things as a fat burning zone.
It is true that you burn a greater percentage of fat at lower intensity of cardiovascular exercise but at a higher intensity you burn a greater total amount of everything. The harder you go the more fat you burn even if it is at a lower percentage of what you burn. Simple. This is not to say that high intensity exercise is the answer for you, as there are many factors, but don’t kid yourself that you are burning more fat by going slow (although it may indeed allow you to go for longer which can be of benefit)
3. Lack of sleep will hinder fat loss.
Like breathing, drinking and eating, sleep is a fundamental of life. Lack of quality sleep will hinder your motivation, ability to exercise and reduce self- discipline with food choices. It’ll also make you more likely to get sick and mean you’ll take longer to recover from exercise too. Plus there are the positive hormonal responses during sleep which affect metabolic rate. Note that an exception to this can be when you are in a state of crisis and thus anxious and thus not sleeping and this can result in an increased metabolic rate, however you’ll probably be burning muscle which will have an adverse effect on your metabolic rate in the long term.
4. If your life is a mess you'll struggle to lose fat.
Ok, there is the odd exception here such as an acute period of anxiety mentioned in point 3 but basically what I’ve observed is that people who exist in a state of chaos don’t experience significant weight loss. While everyone has challenges in life, you need to sort your stuff out or you’ll struggle to lose weight, it’s just too difficult. If you live in emotional turmoil you’ll emotionally eat as well. I can't emphasise this point enough.
5. It takes a concerted effort to lose fat, you need to be organised.
Fat loss tends to be difficult, there wouldn’t be a multi-million dollar industry built around it if it were easy! People who are successful at it are organised, focused and committed. It takes planning and consideration. It’s probably going to be uncomfortable at times as well, be prepared for that. It’ll have to go toward the top of your priorities in order to succeed.
6. Weight bearing exercise is promoted as good for fat loss and the reason is simple.
Just as it takes more energy to stand rather than sit, if you do standing exercise you have to use more muscles which burns more energy, it’s that simple. At the same perceived rate of exertion you’ll burn more calories running than riding a bike.
7. Fads come and go but what works doesn't change.
Regardless of equipment, clothes or technology the same things that worked 50 or 500 years ago still work today. Namely whole body exercises that feel demanding and eating a moderate amount of fresh, whole foods. That will never change. I notice the growing popularity of Cross-Fit and it is indeed effective but 20 years ago that was simply called circuit training! Much of what we are learning about sports science and the body is useful but we can’t get too far away from the basics and hard work regardless of what things get called or how they are packaged.
8. Reducing carbohydrate works for most people.
Remember back in the 70’s and 80’s when high carbohydrate and low fat was the norm? Well some people did actually lose fat that way! While I do believe the current trends are generally better, part of the reason it did work for some people is because they did so with structure and portion control and as a result ate considerably less. What is not widely known is what carbohydrates are in- the answer is vegetables, fruit, just about everything you can drink, bread, grains, pasta, cereals, rice etc. Some foods though are higher in carbohydrate than others and release into the bloodstream faster. There is some complexity here beyond the scope of this article but what is important to get is the total amount of carbohydrate eaten per day matters. Also some people are essentially more prone to putting on fat through eating a moderate amount of carbohydrate than others.
9. MYTH: You need to work on core stability as part of a fat loss program
Many, many people have lost weight with poor core stability over a long period of time. Undoubtedly the better your core stability the better you move and it does reduce the chances of low back pain. However if your ankle isn’t stable and it’s affecting your ability to walk/run and thus your fat loss program, working on core stability aint going to do much for it. Core stability can be useful bit it’s not the’ be all and end all’ that some people believe it to be.
10. Initial over enthusiasm & too much change too soon are the biggest killers of exercise & fat loss programs.
A strength & conditioning coach, who I greatly respect, made the point about excessive initial enthusiasm and that surprised me, but nothing I’ve seen or heard or experienced since has caused me to disagree. People who go like a bull at a gate initially get injured, sore, discouraged or simply can’t sustain the intensity. On the other hand if you adopt a measured progressive approach you are more likely to establish habits (a vital thing), you’ll also find that the continuous small progressions become like a self- motivating loop. I was also surprised when a very experienced dietician told me that she advises people against starting an exercise program when changing diet as it’s just too much change to manage at once. It’s practical as most people only have so much time and energy to focus on changing habits. Focus is what is required, you need to give yourself the best chance of being focused. If you want to be thin don’t spread yourself too thin!!
11. You need to follow a structured plan and program
An end goal such as losing 5kg is not enough, you need structure and a plan that revolve around the process. This is true for both diet and exercise. Rarely does a general intention to be more active or eat healthier work. It needs to be binary e.g. “for 3 months I will walk 5 days per week and cover at least 5 km in 1 hour.” That example is clear and you’ll know if you’ve achieved the objective or not. You need to get a structured program and get committed to it, it’ll help you form a habit and once that’s done it’ll be a lot easier to maintain. You can also review and make the program progressive to cater for your increased fitness and goals and hence help maintain motivation. An appropriately tailored plan can also help prevent the over enthusiasm problem mentioned in the previous point (point 10)
12. Cross training is wise
Cross training is simply using different forms of exercise within a session or within your program. Triathlon could be said to be Cross training. Using a variety of exercises not only helps to maintain interest and motivation but also reduces the chance of injuries through excessive repetition of a movement or particular muscles. If for example you were to hop on 1 leg 10 times you are much less likely to get injured than if you were to hop on 1 leg 1000 times. Here is a very general example of a 1 hour Personal Training session with Cross training; 5 min warm up- stability exercises, 20 min of circuit weight training, 15 min boxing/jogging, 10 min hill walking, 10 min stretching.
13. Weight train for fat loss
*The more muscle you have, the more calories (&fat) you burn at rest.
*Weight training does things hormonally before, during & after a session that are beneficial for metabolic rate. *If you weight train in circuit style (with purpose) you can burn as many calories as cardiovascular exercise. *You can use body weight exercises rather than actual weights *I believe (if done well) is lower risk of injury than running. * The benefits of weight training are becoming broader, more evident and increasingly recognised and supported by the medical profession
14. Be careful with what you drink
Soft drinks, alcohol, fruit juice and even sports drinks are surprisingly high in carbohydrate/sugar content. What’s more they don’t fill you up like whole foods high in fibre. If someone is serious about losing fat they need to consider this. Even if it is marketed well or contains fruit it doesn’t mean it’s wise to drink from a diet perspective. Getting too many calories through drinking can be more of a problem than getting too many calories through food.
15. Do cardiovascular activity straight after weight training to enhance fat loss
Firstly the longer you exercise the more and more you start to use fat as a fuel i.e. the more you use up stored carbohydrate in the body the more you use fat. Secondly the generally spasmodic and anaerobic nature of weight training means you tend to use more carbohydrate than fat as a fuel (this may seem contrary to point 3 but it’s complicated). So deplete some of your carb store through weight training and then do cardiovascular exercise to really dip into your fat stores. Cardiovascular exercise is less affected by fatigue from weights than vice versa. Moderate cardiovascular exercise can also actually help you recover from weights and reduce delayed muscle soreness. Trust me or try it for yourself, I also reckon it just feels better doing it that way.
16. If in doubt walk.
Cheap, no equipment needed, simple, can be done anywhere, minimal impact. Add intensity by going up hills/stairs or by carrying weights. Walking aids recovery the day after a more intense workout. Walking is also great during or after illness or injury or a lay off. Can monitor through a pedometer and achieve a specific amount of steps per week. Use to add more to the calories burnt part of the fat loss equation.
17. Relationships will change as a result of/or in order to lose fat.
To significantly lose fat you are going to have to make some changes to habits for an extended period. In making these changes you are going to inevitably change relationships with people or things. Consider this if you and your spouse regularly bond over rich foods and fine wine- that could change, if your social life revolves around drinking at the pub- that could change. Your relationship with TV may need to change and your relationship with food may change. Life is all about relationships, the significance of this is rarely considered with regards to fat loss.
18. Fat loss is never a linear path.
There are so many reasons physiologically and psychologically. This is why it is wise not to weigh or measure yourself too often- it is poor short term feedback. There are going to be many peaks and troughs, that’s just the nature of it- the more that can be accepted the better. Sometimes it will appear results don’t reflect effort. Staying focused on the process as much as possible is the key.
19. Myth: Pilates gets you lean, long muscles
Pilates is essentially very focused and specific stability and flexibility exercises. It does some wonderful things for posture, biomechanics & rehabilitation. It could even make you marginally taller, it can lengthen muscles and change your appearance (to a degree). It won’t significantly change metabolic rate though. If you want to be leaner you need to reduce the amount of body fat through expending more energy and/or diet. The above statement is misleading.
20. There are exceptions to all these points
There are no rules, only guidelines and undoubtedly there are many exceptions to every point I’ve made! Don’t let me limit you! If you can do something which is accessible, practical and fun you are probably on a winner, at the very least if you get started and have a go you’ll find out what you like/dislike. Are you ready to get committed to lose some fat but need some help? Perhaps it's time to consider Personal Training or an effective exercise program.
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