It’s that time of year when everyone is thinking about diet and exercise. And of course, everyone wants to lose the holiday pounds now. They want to see the bathroom scale go down and their clothes fit looser, but they’re not thinking about how the method they choose to lose weight will affect their weight loss long term. In this article I will explain the difference between fat loss and weight loss and the importance of building lean muscle in order to maximize “weight” loss.
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Before jumping on the latest fad diet, cleanse, or obsessive cardio training bandwagon, I hope you’ll take a moment to understand the difference between losing weight and losing fat. You’ll become a smaller version of yourself with either of these; however, the long term consequences vary greatly.
At my heaviest, I weighed around 150 pounds. I was a sedentary science major and was in class and labs all day with lots of studying at night, in addition to having a very poor diet plan. My lowest weight was 96 pounds when I worked 12+ hour shifts as a nurse on the Open Heart Team and in ICU, where we often didn’t have time for meals. I knew I wasn’t healthy at either of those weights, one I was too heavy while the other I was way too light. So I did some “research” and made changes to my diet and exercise routine, often following a fitness guru instead of a fitness professional. While I saw results from these quick fix methods, it didn’t mean I had become a healthier version of my previous self.
Since then I’ve found some top notch sports nutritionists who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. They don’t try to sell you a quick fix and they don’t make any gigantic promises. They simply give you the science behind the nutrition, along with the workouts to get you where you need to be. Then they tell you it’s not going to be easy and you’ll have to work for those results. Not what you wanted to hear, right? But deep down you already know that it’s going to take work. You didn’t gain weight over night so you can’t expect to lose it overnight.
And for my story…after years of weight training and eating healthy, my weight now stays around 110-115 pounds; however, I still wear the same clothes that I wore when I weighed 96 pounds. (Yes, I still own jeans from 20 years ago that I can still wear today.)
I’m almost 20 pounds heavier than I was before so how is it possible that I can still wear the same clothes? I changed my body composition, added lean muscle, and decreased my body fat. Keep this story in mind as I discuss scale weight below.
Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss
1. More is Better
For years, fitness gurus have been telling us that we need to work out 5-6 days each week to see results. That we need to do weight training followed by cardio or some suggest doing cardio followed by weight training. And by the time you get done with your weights & cardio, you’ve been in the gym for almost 2 hours. Who has time for that? And more importantly, who has the energy to do that 5-6 days a week while still living a normal life outside the gym?
True fitness experts (with degrees in exercise physiology and biomechanics) have proven the “more is better” philosophy to be wrong.
Plain and simple. More is just more. It doesn’t mean it’s better. It just means you are spending more time in the gym and less time allowing your muscles to recover.
Bottom line: You should be working smarter not harder.
When I started Get Glutes (a heavy weight lifting/strength program designed for women), Bret Contreras had us work out 3-4 days only and the workouts were much shorter than I was used to. I warmed up on a cardio machine for 5-10 minutes but otherwise I never did cardio per his instructions. Like many girls new to this type of training, I questioned Bret about this.
Hello!!! I’ve been working out 5, 6, even 7 days a week for an hour and half to two hours each day and you want me to cut back to 50-60 minutes 3 to 4 days each week?
Why, yes he did! Since Bret had been training some of the top figure and bikini competitors in the world, I decided to put my blind faith into Bret’s programming skills. After all, his record should speak for itself, so who was I to question his ability to write a workout program? And let’s face it. I had great work ethic but what I had been doing in the gym prior to working with Bret wasn’t getting me the results I wanted.
By the end of the first month of Get Glutes, I could already see a huge difference in my strength and my measurements. Although I was spending about 50% less time in the gym, I was getting amazing results. I was getting stronger, my body was changing shape, and I had a lot more energy to enjoy doing things outside the gym.
Tip: Good programming with good coaches is essential, but what is even more essential is actually listening and following their advice. Don’t be a cowboy and decide you know better than your coach! If your coach says you need to do 3 sets of 5 reps on an exercise don’t change it to 3 sets of 10. There’s a reason he wants you to do 3×5 instead of 3×10, so follow his plan. That’s what you’re paying him for, right?
2. Cardio is a Must for Weight Loss
Cardio has its time and place. If you’re a runner, biker, swimmer, etc., then by all means do your cardio. However, if you are looking to lose weight (lose fat), then killing yourself with cardio isn’t the way to get there.
“But people lose weight when doing cardio!”
Exactly. People lose “weight” when doing cardio, but there’s a difference between “weight loss” and “fat loss” and we’re going to discuss those things in a minute, but first let’s talk about scale weight.
The bathroom scale gives us a number that reflects our weight. Obviously, it tells us how much our bones, muscles, tissues, organs, and fat weighs.
But let’s break it down a little more. The number on the scale also reflects water retention, the last time you ate, the last time you pooped, how well hydrated you are, hormones at different times of the month, etc.
Get the point? The number on the scale fluctuates A LOT based on these things, plus many more. A lower number could mean you’ve lost weight (water, muscle & possibly fat) through diet and exercise, or it could mean you are dehydrated, haven’t had anything to eat since dinner the night before, etc. Just like a higher number on the scale could indicate you had a salty meal recently, are constipated, or that you have loaded up on carbs which naturally make you retain water.
3. What is Weight Loss?
Weight loss is measured by scale weight. Duh. You know that already, right? You hop on the scale today and it says 130 pounds. You jump for joy because last week it was sitting at 134 pounds. But before you get too excited about that weight loss, did you know that when you lose weight you are losing a combination of water, muscle, and maybe fat? Hint, fat is what we’re wanting to lose!
“But the number on the scale is going down. Isn’t that what we want?”
Not exactly. Muscle drives our metabolism. After working out muscle is constantly breaking down and building back up (along with most other tissues in the body) to make bigger, stronger muscles. You actually burn more calories during this recovery time than you will during your workout (resting energy expenditure or REE).
If you lose muscle through fad diets or with lots of cardio training, then the number of calories you burn during rest will go down, which will in turn hurt your “weight loss” goals.
In layman terms, the less muscle you have, the less efficient your body will be at burning calories. And the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism will be, and the more you’ll get to eat. Now isn’t that what you want? Who doesn’t want to be able to eat more while maintaining their weight?
–Ok, that’s the most simplistic explanation ever, but I don’t want to load you down with terms and science. If you want that type of info, then check out the list of trainers and sports nutritionists below.
4. How does fat loss differ from weight loss?
Now we’re getting down to the really important stuff. As we just discussed above, when a person loses weight (the number on the scale goes down) they have lost a combination of water, muscle, and possibly fat which in turn can actually slow down their metabolism. On the other hand, when you build muscle through weight training, you can stay the same weight while losing body fat. The number on the bathroom scale will remain the same; however, your measurements will be going down. This is called body recomposition. Essentially you’re swapping out fat for lean muscle.
Doesn’t the scale suppose to go up if I’m gaining muscle?
Another popular train of thought in the fitness world is that the scale is going up because you’re gaining muscle. Many people believe that a pound of muscle weighs more than a pound of fat, but that’s not true. A pound is a pound no matter what you are measuring.
A pound of muscle weighs exactly the same as a pound of fat. A pound is a pound is a pound.
However, a pound of muscle takes up about 20% less space (volume) than a pound of fat so when you are adding lean muscle through weight lifting and losing fat at the same time (body recomposition), you’re measurements will decrease, but the scale may not change at all.
And that’s ok. Reaching a certain number on the scale shouldn’t be your ultimate goal. Fat loss with muscle gain should be. This is where keeping up with measurements is extremely important.
Remember, muscle drives our metabolism. You want to add lean muscle, not only to fill out your shape so you won’t be “skinny fat”, but also to help keep your metabolism high.
5. So when IS cardio appropriate?
Let’s say you’re doing a solid program like Get Glutes, you have your nutrition dialed in by counting macros (macronutrients=protein, fat, and carbs), and you had been losing body fat until the last two weeks. You know your workouts have been consistent and your diet has been spot on, so you figure you have hit a fat loss plateau. This is called metabolic adaptation by the way. Our bodies have become extremely smart to survive famines and other crisis over the years. So just know your body will adapt to your diet (those very low cal diets??? Big NO NO!!! You’ll regret it later on because it will really slow or even damage your metabolism) and cardio routine over time.
So how do you break the plateau?
Well, this would be the time you brought out the cardio as your big gun. You would add in a short cardio session 3-4 times/week for 2-3 weeks ONLY!!! This would be in addition to your weight lifting sessions. When your body starts burning fat again (measurements start changing, clothes get looser, etc.), then you would cut out the cardio and continue with the weight lifting and current diet plan.
In summary, you don’t need to spend a ton of time at the gym to get the body (and health) you are wanting. Work out smarter and not harder by starting a good weight lifting program like Get Glutes.
Get your diet in order because you simply can’t out train a bad diet. Does this mean you have to go low calorie? No, it doesn’t. I suggest checking out Sohee Lee’s very basic guide to counting macros. This will give you an idea of how to incorporate your favorite treats into your meal plans while still losing body fat.
Whatever method you use to lose your weight will be the same method you have to stick with in order to keep the weight off so make sure it is something you can maintain long term.
My favorite nutrition books from trusted nutritional experts:
The Nutritional Experts
Have any questions? Let me know. I would be glad to help you out.