(note: This article won’t touch on different diet/training plans and their impact on health, it’s purely to look at the optimal way to change your physique – the fact that you’re embarking on a training and nutrition plan means you’ll likely be improving your health beyond it’s current state)
By and large people who start going to the gym want to achieve a so called ‘toned physique’. I use the term toning loosely because it’s not a magic process or certain type of training that tones the muscle. It is quite literally a loss of body fat while retaining or increasing muscle mass.
Before we get into what your training and nutrition focus should look like, here are some quick facts about toning and weight loss just to make the rest of the article make more sense:
- Weight loss is all about energy balance (energy in vs energy out) and getting into a calorie deficit
- If you’re eating less calories than you’re burning you will lose weight regardless of what you’ve eaten.
- If you eat the same amount of calories and you burn your weight will stay the same
- If you eat more than you burn you will gain weight
- Regardless of what diet plan you used, the reason you lost weight was a calorie deficit
- The above statements are irrefutable facts
- “Starvation mode” basically doesn’t exist – if you aren’t losing weight, refer to my above bullet points
- It’s difficult to gain any muscle mass while in a calorie deficit, by and large this only happens for beginners who are new to strength training. For more advanced trainees (2 yrs +), if you can simply not lose muscle mass while losing weight then that would be considered a good result.
- Muscle gain is a much much slower process than fat loss, so if your scale weight isn’t trending downward it’s unlikely you will be losing fat very quickly (or at all)
- Strength training is vital to stop the loss of muscle mass while losing weight, cardio won’t achieve this
- It is possible to lose fat without losing a lot of weight, especially if you’re beginner and your muscle mass increases.
- Your metabolism is the same as everyone else’s your age – people with high metabolisms just move more throughout the day than the rest of us. This last point is important to remember, so if your weight loss slows down, it’s purely to do with your energy balance, for whatever reason what your eating is now equal to what your burning.
So you get the point, energy balance is key for the fat loss process. I’ve broken down energy balance into a few different categories and given them a percentage of what I believe their importance is for optimally achieving a toned physique:
The Calorie is King for weight loss. So in my opinion, if your going to spend your time and focus on anything with regard to energy in, the main focus should be calories. Simply put, if you get this right you will get the result you want.
You could eat 2000kcal of pure chocolate and still lose weight if you burnt 2500kcals every day. You’d feel rubbish and it wouldn’t be optimal but you would lose weight. There’s nothing magic about certain types of training or different combinations of food that cause the body to lose more fat, it is pretty much all down to a calorie deficit.
PROTEIN, CARBS & FAT
You should aim to eat ~1.5g protein per kg of body weight. Protein is important for maintaining muscle mass, feeling full and overall health and wellness. Think of protein as the building block for all the essential things in your body (bones, muscles, organs etc). If you eat a low protein diet and you’re in a calorie deficit, you are likely to lose more muscle mass during the weight loss process. Whereas carbs and fat are essentially different energy sources. Fat has some essential roles in the body so never cut it out completely (what types of fat to eat is a whole other article unto itself), but by and large carbs and fat are a source of energy for movement.
Interestingly a fantastic recent study comparing low fat diets to low carb diets concluded that: “A year-long randomized clinical trial has found that a low-fat diet and a low-carb diet produced similar weight loss and improvements in metabolic health markers. Furthermore, insulin production and tested genes had no impact on predicting weight loss success or failure. Thus, you should choose your diet based on personal preferences, health goals, and sustainability.”
Basically, calories being equal, low carb or low fat diets made absolutely no difference to health or weight loss.
Therefore, the quickest and most simple way to guarantee a result is by counting calories and eat based on your food preferences. I’d recommend the app myfitnesspal, its free and easy to get to grips with. Interestingly recently it was published that men and woman can under estimate their calorie intake by 80-100%, quite literally eating double what they thought. Count calories for even a couple of days and you will learn a lot about the foods you eat!
Think meal timing, meal frequency, supplements etc – I like to call these magazine sellers – very little influence on your actual result but down to personal preference. If you want to eat 6 meals a day by all means, but as far as I’m aware there is absolutely no science to back up the idea that it gets you a better result.
STRENGTH TRAINING, CARDIO AND INTERVAL TRAINING
A bit like looking at protein, carbs and fat. Think of strength training as protein, it’s the building block to your toned physique, without it your likely to be losing fat and muscle mass during the weight loss process. At worst it will help you maintain muscle mass, at best it will increase your muscle mass, giving you that toned look. Cardio and Interval Training are more like your carbs and fat, they burn energy so can help aid you with your energy balance.
Traditional cardio such as jogging definitely won’t stimulate any muscle growth, but it’s the most effective way to burn calories. So if you’d prefer to eat more or you struggle to get into a calorie deficit because of your diet/lifestyle then cardio is a great option. Interval training doesn’t burn as many calories as cardio but it will help you retain muscle mass, become more athletic and give you a better bang for your buck in a short period of time (think: 10 minutes on the prowler!).
Whether you choose to do cardio or HIIT is up to you – they certainly aren’t essential for achieving a toned physique. There are countless benefits of doing some form of cardio training, so I would get at least some in there for optimal results.
NEAT (Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis)
This is basically all the moving around you do day to day (house work, walking to the shops, standing at your desk over sitting, cleaning etc). If you’re NEAT is high then you’re probably already in good shape purely because you can get away with eating more. If you’re NEAT is low then unless you start doing a lot of cardio, getting into a calorie deficit is always going to be difficult.
I strongly recommend you pick up a step counting watch if you’re embarking on a weight loss plan, you can get them so cheaply nowadays and they’re an invaluable tool. Look at the calories burnt during different activities to see what I mean:
Even just going from sat to standing could equate to up to 400 calories over a 10 hour day. That’s a whole meal! If you think you don’t move much your calories burnt (i.e. metabolism) is going to be rock bottom, meaning you’ll have to eat very few calories to get a result. Get a step counter and aim for 10000 steps as a good starting point.