The Truth About Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss: Why You Should Care.


When someone says they want to lose weight

What they really mean is that they want to lose fat.

And this is a crucial distinction to make.

Because it will inform every aspect of your approach, from how you train and eat to which metrics you keep track of.

Most plans are designed purely with weight loss in mind, but whether that weight comes from muscle or fat isn’t a consideration.

This is a huge mistake.

Muscle, and by extension, strength, is the most valuable commodity you possess when it comes to promoting optimal levels of health, energy, and just plain looking good with your clothes off.

It’s also a crucial component of longevity. 

According to Dr. Peter Attia, a world-renowned expert in the science of healthy aging, the amount of muscle and strength you can maintain as you grow older is one of the most significant contributors to the quality of your life.

Maintaining your muscle is also the secret to keeping the fat off long term.

Man and woman post weight loss.

Muscle is three times more metabolically expensive for your body to maintain than fat.

It takes two calories to feed a pound of body fat.

In contrast, maintaining that amount of muscle costs your body a whopping six calories. 

So the more muscle you have the higher your metabolism will be, the more food you can eat without gaining fat.

Changing your muscle-to-fat ratio is also the whole gig if you want to radically change how your body looks.

If someone loses 30 pounds on the scale, 50% of it coming from muscle and 50% from fat, they will look almost exactly the same, just a smaller version.

And because their metabolism will now be slower due to the muscle they have lost. They will be way more likely to regain any weight lost within 12 months of finishing their diet.

But that’s not even the worst part.

A more significant percentage of the weight they regain will come from body fat, so they’ll likely wind up even fatter than they were in the first place.

This is one of the major causes of the post-dieting “rebound effect” that perhaps you or someone you know has experienced.

But if you only drop 10 pounds of scale weight, but that breaks down to actually losing 20 lbs of fat and gaining 10 lbs of muscle, you’ll look like a completely different and considerably more jacked human being.

And your metabolism will now be running higher than Snoop Dogg flying on a 747.

The main challenge to doing this is breaking free from years of societal conditioning regarding the value of the scale and how much you put into what it’s saying.

I’ve had multiple clients drop clothing sizes, look noticeably more defined and get significantly stronger in the gym, yet still feel like they’re failing because the scale hasn’t moved much.

The scale can be a helpful tool, but it is far from the be-all-end-all that most people think it is.

And the sooner you can break free from judging your success entirely on what it tells you, the better.

Following a conventional weight loss-focused plan will have about 70% of any weight loss coming from fat, with the remaining 30% from muscle.

This is an unacceptable ratio, and we can do better.

And if you decide to go on a crash diet, you’ll sacrifice an even more significant percentage of that muscle in exchange for more rapid weight loss.

This is a deal with the devil and, in almost all cases, an awful idea.

Most “conventional wisdom” about weight loss is wrong

You don’t need to do a ton of cardio or give up eating carbs at night.

In fact, doing excessive amounts of cardio might be one of the worst things you can do if your goal is to lose body fat.

And saving most of your carbs for dinner can help you experience fewer food cravings, maintain more muscle, and enjoy higher all-day energy levels.

Plus, carbs with dinner are the bomb, so there’s that too.

Rather than focusing on weight loss, it is much wiser to focus instead on doing what’s called a Body Recomposition plan (or Recomp, for short)

This is where the goal is to change your body’s muscle-to-fat ratio.

This will lead you to a leaner, more defined appearance, and you’ll have a much easier time maintaining your new body over the long haul.

Plus, you’ll reap all the health, performance, and longevity benefits of having high levels of strength and muscle.

The classic bodybuilder’s approach, where you alternate between periods focused on packing on muscle and times where fat loss is the goal: AKA: bulking and cutting, works great.

My only issue with it is that it’s unnecessarily complex. Especially for those not looking for the extreme amounts of muscle a competitive bodybuilder needs.

And during the bulking phase, you’ll also have to be comfortable with getting a little chubby because some additional fat will always come along with the muscle.

IME, after working with hundreds of clients, this is a major mind fuck for most people and something they have difficulty dealing with.

Fortunately, in the majority of cases, this approach isn’t necessary.

Because with a well-designed diet & training program, you can burn fat and build muscle simultaneously.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Newb Gains.

When you first do a body recomp program, your muscles are hypersensitive to the stimulus that strength training provides. 

And muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the mechanism by which your body builds new muscle, will be at an all-time high.

In someone new to proper strength training, you’ll still be building muscle up to 72 hours after your workout.

Whereas in someone who’s already got some time in the iron game, MPS dries up within 12 – 24 hours.

So it’s not uncommon for men to see gains of 15 – 25 lbs of hard-looking muscle in their first 8 – 12 months while simultaneously stripping away body fat.

Ladies can expect to add about half that amount of muscle in that time frame.

The changes can be spectacular.

You’ll also gain hundreds of pounds of full-body strength. You’ll not look strong; you’ll be strong as well.

Progress slows between 8 and 12 months after you start a body recomp. And at that point, the bodybuilder bulking/cutting approach becomes an option worth exploring.

But by then, the changes will already be so dramatic that you might decide to shift into a much easier-to-manage maintenance plan.

This is the metabolic equivalent of earning passive income.

You have done the upfront work of building muscle. You can now maintain it and enjoy the benefits with a only a minimal investment of time and energy.

1 – 2 workouts a week are all that’s needed to keep your gains for the rest of your life.

Train Hard, Diet Easy.

Doing a Body Recomp requires a different approach than a plan focused on just losing scale weight

First and foremost, it means making strength training, not cardio, the centerpiece of your training program.

When you’re on a diet, you create an environment where your body no longer gets the energy it needs from food. This forces it to consume its own tissues to make up the deficit.

Sounds gross, right? But that’s the process by which weight loss occurs.

The two tissues it can consume to do this are stored body fat and lean muscle. Fortunately, you have significant influence over which one it chooses.

By engaging in vigorous strength training 3 – 4 times a week, you send an “anabolic signal” to your body, making it clear that muscle is essential and that it should burn fat instead.

These don’t need to be multi-hour sessions either; for best results, you should be in and out of the gym in 45 – 60 minutes.

It’s also important to note that your strength training program must adhere to the principles of progressive overload, allow for adequate rest and recovery, and comprise primarily of heavy compound lifts.

These are exercises like squats, rows, presses, and dips which hit multiple muscles simultaneously and which build a balanced, proportionate-looking physique along with real-world functional fitness.

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And your workout should evolve as you get stronger with the weights, sets, and reps changing regularly to keep you progressing.

I’m not talking about that tired old “3 sets of 10” on bench and curls with the same weight forever nonsense.

You have to be willing to lift hard and heavy to get the above mentioned benefits.

This can and should be done in a safe, joint-friendly manner. 

But, I must emphasize that intensity matters.

Next up is to eat only slightly below maintenance calories.

Maintenance refers to how many calories it takes to maintain your current weight. And unlike traditional weight loss plans, you don’t need to starve yourself to do a body recomp.

There is some individual variability here, but eating just 200 – 400 calories below maintenance is an excellent place to start.

This creates a smaller energy deficit than in a classic weight loss diet. But remember, our goal is not just to lose weight but specifically to lose fat and gain metabolism-boosting muscle.

You can create this deficit in numerous ways, ranging from following a particular “name brand” diet to using a flexible dieting approach to employing something like Intermittent Fasting.

What’s most important is that it’s done in a way that is easy to follow, enjoyable for you, and sustainable over the long term.

If you’d like a “plug n play” guide to making this work, you can download a free copy of my diet manual Effortless Eater.

It takes several science-backed approaches and stacks them in a way that not only compounds their benefits but which also makes following them super simple.

Get your copy here

Another crucial factor in your diet is ensuring you get enough protein to support building new muscle.

The evidence shows that between .7 and 1 gram per pound of body weight is ideal. But even on the low end, this can be quite a challenge to get from food.

So adding a daily protein shake is a convenient way to get this done.

Fortunately, the days of protein powders tasting awful are long gone, and modern shakes have flavor profiles more in common with your favorite desserts instead of chalk dust.

What gets measured gets managed.

Finally, let’s discuss the specific metrics to track when you’re doing a Body Recomp.

Outside of going to a kinesiology lab or fitness testing center and doing either a Bod Pod, Hydrostatic Weigh In, or DEXA Scan, any of the convenient ways you can track your muscle-to-fat ratio are so wildly inaccurate that they’re not even worth doing.

All they will do is confuse things and have you spinning your wheels.

Fortunately, there are a few things that, when examined in combination, can give you a clear picture of what’s happening.

First up, it’s essential to track your nutrition.

Studies show that most people wildly underestimate the amount of food they eat, so tracking, at least for the first few months, can help you dial in your diet and stay on track.

By far, the two numbers to focus on are calories and protein. You don’t need to worry about nailing your carbs or fat. 

Trying to do that makes things needlessly complex.

Eating fewer calories will lead to weight loss. Ensuring you get enough protein will help ensure that weight comes from fat, not muscle.

The evidence is clear: so long as calories and protein are dialed in, you can divide carbs and fat based on personal preference without compromising results. So long as you avoid going to extremes with either one.

The easiest way to keep track of your nutrition is by using an app like MyFitnessPal.

Next, weigh yourself daily.

As mentioned above, the scale is not the most important metric, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely useless either.

I’ve written a more in-depth article on why daily weigh-ins are the way to go and how to do them here.

Every week, you should get out the tape measure and take measurements in the following places:

Chest, upper arms (flexed), thighs, and stomach (3 fingers above naval and three fingers below).

Learn to take these measurements yourself rather than relying on someone else. And take them at the same time and day each week. Measuring down to the individual millimeter.

Even small losses and gains should be noted.

Take a new set of progress pictures every 4 – 6 weeks. Take one pic from the front, one from the back, and one from the side. These are invaluable to see how much your body has changed over the long term.

Take them in the same lighting and at the same time of day every time.

Finally, track workout performance.

Choose a few key lifts and use these as your leading indicators of progress.

I recommend choosing some type of press, a pull-up or row, and a squat, deadlift, or lunge variation.

Using myself as an example, my key lifts are weighted dips, weighted chin-ups, and trap bar deadlifts.

When you first start training, you’ll improve by leaps and bounds on a workout-by-workout basis. But this has less to do with gaining muscle and more with getting better at using your body.

But after the first month or two, this becomes an invaluable metric in tracking your progress.

If you are getting stronger on your key lifts, it indicates that you have added some muscle.

If you get stronger and lose weight, it’s a sure sign that you have lost body fat.

None of these metrics tell you the whole story in isolation, but when looked at in combination, they’ll give you a clear picture of what’s happening.

The Big Picture

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be strong and defined instead of skinny and weak.

And if you’re over 40, I can’t understate how important  your muscle mass is.

You lose between 3 and 8% of your muscle each decade past thirty. And if you do the wrong weight loss plan, you could increase that rate of muscle loss exponentially.

So please don’t fall for the weight loss trap; instead, dedicate your efforts to a body recomp, and it’s all upside.

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