The reason you aren’t losing weight isn’t because you can’t, it’s because you won’t. The science behind weight loss is straight forward and it is well known to anyone who knows how to operate google. You must create a caloric deficit to lose weight. So what’s stopping us? We are. We find it easier to keep doing what we are doing, vainly hoping for an easier way to lose weight, a magic pill, a new exercise routine, anything. We do this because we know that dieting is hard, and even harder to do consistently. This article will cover recent research on weight loss, it’s implications for crossfit and strength athletes, and methods to increase adherence to a simple weight loss plan.
Now that paragraph might seem a little harsh, but it was written that way to plainly state what needed to be said. We are our biggest obstacle to weight loss, or more accurately, fat loss. The rest of this article will cover scientifically validated strategies for weight loss and their implications for crossfit/strength athletes. This research is a result of case studies and a meta analysis (research review) done by exercise researchers on competitive natural bodybuilders.
Now I know some of you are saying whoa, whoa, pump the brakes, bodybuilders aren’t athletes, they only concern themselves with aesthetics. True, they don’t compete in any physical events, but they do closely match the training and body characteristics of most strength athletes. They are also very good at manipulating their body composition, and as such, have been well researched. This allows us to more effectively separate bro knowledge from valid research. So if you were hoping for a review of Nose Tork (….yes that is a thing), then you should probably just hold your breath on that one.
The first thing we are going to cover is expectations and a realistic timeframe. First, the majority of your weight loss will come from fat. However, there will be some portion that will come from muscle loss. There are ways to minimize this, and luckily, once you finish the diet, you will quickly regain your hard earned muscle.
This diet will generally last 12-14 weeks and even longer if you have more fat to lose. It has to be this length to avoid excessive muscle loss, and to retain your sanity. Remember, if you try to make any significant change in your body, you must give it time and you must be consistent. Balls to the wall for a week won’t do a damn thing for you. Check out the infographic for a quick overview.
For this plan to work we need to develop a caloric deficit. Now we can do this by eating less food, exercising more, or both. In this case, we will choose both, with emphasis on our food. In terms of exercise, I recommend no more than 4 sessions per week. Those sessions should generally look like most crossfit classes, a good warm up, a heavier lifting portion, and a WOD. This should yield a 500 calorie burn if you are really pushing it.
There are some differences, for those of us wishing to lose weight and still participate in crossfit. Most crossfitters will do one compound lift for no more than 5-7 sets of 8 reps at most. Most bodybuilders will do 20 plus sets, with 10 plus reps per muscle group. So, we need to increase our overall exercise volume in the lifting portion to more closely match the volume of bodybuilders. Below is a recommendation for one session during a weight loss cycle.
Warm Up: Airdyne for 5 min, light stretching, dynamic stretching
Strength: Squat 5×10, Deadlift 5×8
WOD: 5 Rounds for Time or other WOD 15min or greater
Run 400m, 20 Pull Ups, 15 Squat Clean 135lbs men, 95lbs women
This workout is no joke, and it becomes even harder when you are in caloric deficit, but as the Marines said in an old ad campaign, I didn’t promise you a rose garden. Realistically, I don’t expect you to make to many PRs during the dieting period. You just need to get through the workouts.
You will also notice that this more closely matches a bodybuilder’s per session training volume. There are 10 total lower body sets, with 5 more sets of squat cleans. I recommend that your strength portion use some of the same muscle groups as the WOD, to keep the volume per muscle group high. So now that we have a template for training, lets move on to the harder portion of dieting, the food.
Basal Metabolic Rate
The first thing we need to do, is figure out how much food you need to maintain your weight. To do this we need to calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This calculation is only a best guess, but it will suffice for the beginning of the diet. Once you have this number, you know that you must eat less than this amount to lose weight on non training days. On training days, you must eat less than your BMR + your exercise. Here’s an example
Tony is 5’9, weighs 197lbs and is under 30 years of age. His BMR is 1976 calories per day. If Tony works out for one hour, he will burn 500 calories, putting his total daily expenditure at 2476 calories. Now that we know how much energy we need, where does it come from?
All food can be broken down into macronutrients, these are Protein, Carbs, and Fat. Protein and Carbs are 4 cal/gram, and fat is 9 cal/gram. Since we are dieting to loose as much fat, and preserve as much muscle as possible, we will aim to eat 1 -1.3g of protein per pound of bodyweight. Fat should make up 15-30% of your calories, with carbs making up the rest of the total. I know your thinking that you could eat more carbs if you didn’t eat that much fat. Unfortunately, dietary fat is crucial to maintain things like testosterone production. So don’t skip the fat.
Now lets figure out what Tony needs to eat to maintain his weight.
Carb: 78-147g depending on the protein you eat
You’re probably saying, “Jake, these are weird metric things and who knows how many grams of carbs are in a big mac?” First, there is the interwebs, which will tell you the macro nutrient break down of pre-made food. Secondly, I recommend an app called My Fitness Pal. It is a free exercise and food tracker. It will give solid estimates of calories used and your macro split, for any type of food you eat. Lastly, you might want to buy a cheap scale to weigh your food. This is a common practice in bodybuilding circles, but has yet to make the jump to other exercise realms.
Now that we know how much energy we need on training and non-training days, lets look at how much we need to eat to reach our target weight loss.
Rate of Weight Loss
Given our stated goal of minimizing muscle loss and maximizing fat loss, we need to keep our per week weight loss to no more than .5-1% of total mass. Unless you are very obese, losing weight faster than this will result in significant muscle loss.
I would recommend a target caloric deficit of 500 calories per day. Many people recommend this because, theoretically, 1 pound of fat is made up of 3500 calories. This is true, but your body is not a math problem. As a diet progresses, your basal metabolic rate will lower, sometimes to the tune of several hundred calories per day.
I recommend 500 calories as this is generally an aggressive enough reduction that weight loss will occur in most folks, and it will not make you feel terrible maintaining the deficit. We’ll maintain this level as long as it yields no more than a 1% of body mass reduction per week. If you are loosing weight faster try adjusting to 300 calories. If you aren’t loosing weight there may be several reasons.
First, you are likely not eating what you think you are. If you haven’t been weighing your food, do so, and if you haven’t been tracking it in a journal or an app then you have to do that too. No one can accurately guess the energy content of food better than a scale.
If you’ve got these wickets taken care of, you need to look at your exercise. Are you putting in the work, or are you bullshitting with your gym buddies most of the time? If all of the above are working, then you need to increase the caloric deficit by no more than 200 calories per day, for a week, until you reach the target weight loss. Reduce your carbs/fats to increase the deficit. Remember, fat and protein will help protect our muscle mass during the diet, so they are the last to be reduced. Lastly, if you have done all of this and none of it is working, you need to look at your recovery.
Exercise and Diet Insurance
Your recovery methods are you best insurance for a successful diet. Sleep is the most important factor. You can’t out-think or out-train 5 hours of sleep a night. Stress from work or day-to-day living can also preempt or stall your progress. Remember, your own beliefs about stress can change how your body copes with it. I always ask, “If the worst happens what are the consequences?” Oftentimes, they aren’t really as bad as we imagine, nor are they irreversible. Either way, you need to find ways to reduce your stress. If all of these things don’t work, I would consult a medical professional, as there may be a medical cause of your lack of weight loss. We have now checked the majority of the boxes for a successful diet, but we have yet to talk about food selection.
This area is left up to the individual. As long as you are tracking your macros and overall calorie expenditure, you can eat as you like, with the caution that the majority of your calories should come from clean sources. I generally recommend this, because healthier foods are generally less energy dense than their unhealthier cousins. You can have a lot more broccoli for carbs than donuts.
This article, by the Crossfit Journal, has a good list of foods to consider in the meal plan. Try to limit your choices to the favorable portion of the chart, but a few unfavorable choices won’t hurt you, as long as you stick to your macro split.
You now have all the tools you need to successfully diet. This plan assumes that you are tracking several key metrics in terms of your food and weight. I recommend weighing yourself and taping yourself, twice a week, to get good average weight and fat loss numbers. This will give you a good idea if the diet is working. If you are having some trouble then take a hard look at the trouble shooting section again. If you can stick to this plan, you can loose 12-20lbs, with the majority coming from body fat, but you have to be the one to do it.
Remember that the main obstacle to our weight loss is us and our attitudes towards our day to day difficulties. Try thinking in shorter term segments than the whole 12 weeks. Make a promise to yourself that you will track your food, and bust your ass in the gym, one day at a time and soon enough that’s one week down. Keep this up for long enough and you will have reached your goal. Consistency is king for weight loss.
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