Post written by Leo Babauta.
At the moment, I’m in the last phase of my Bellyfat Challenge — I’ve lost a good amount of fat but I have about 10 pounds to go (or so).
I’m enjoying getting lean, but those last few pounds are always the toughest.
And so, I’ve called in some experts.
Last week, I shared my favorite fitness bloggers and, in turn, the fitness blogs they read. This week I’ve called on them for tips on getting lean.
Now, let’s look at the question I’ve posed to them:
- I asked for their top tips for getting lean. Not every tip, just the best.
- Assume the person isn’t obese but has a bit of a spare tire
- Assume the person already exercises regularly and tries to eat “healthy” most of the time.
So, if you have a lot of fat to lose, this guide won’t be for you. I’d suggest some other posts:
- 4 Simple Steps to Start the Exercise Habit
- How to Make Exercise a Daily Habit
- Five Simple Exercise Programs for Beginners
- The Building Blocks of a Super Healthy Diet (with a sample meal plan)
- A 12-Step Program to Eating Healthier Than Ever Before
If you’re looking to get rid of that last bit of stubborn fat, here are some great tips.
1. Mark’s Daily Apple. Mark Sisson is one of the leading advocates of a return to the diet and activity style of our primal ancestors, and the author of The Primal Blueprint. Here are his tips:
- Make your short, fast, intense workouts even shorter, faster, and more intense, and your long, slow workouts even longer and slower. A common impediment to real leanness is overtraining. We’re inundated with the idea that “more is better” when it comes to working out, but the reality couldn’t be more different. Excessive exercise gives your body the “danger” message; throughout the course of our evolutionary history, high levels of activity – running, lifting, throwing, climbing – generally meant something was chasing us or we were chasing something else. When you spend an hour jogging on the treadmill or cranking that elliptical machine, your body goes into that flight or fight mode automatically. When you weight train seven days a week, your body thinks you are in mortal danger. Why else would you be subjecting your body to that kind of stress on a regular basis, if not for survival’s sake? Cortisol is the stress hormone, and too much cortisol leads to insulin resistance, weight gain, and muscle waste. Overtraining is the classic way to secrete excess cortisol. That said, intensity is important, but only in small doses. Instead of spending two hours in the weight room, keep it to a maximum of forty-five minutes, but make it a good hard all-out effort. Even twenty-five minutes will work. Push yourself harder and faster and shorter, and you’ll get better results in less time. By the same token, instead of running at 85% of your maximum heart rate for an hour and burning primarily glucose and glycogen, go for a three-hour hike, or even just a walk around the neighborhood. By keeping your heart rate at no more than 75% of your maximum, your body becomes a fat burner. If leanness is your ultimate goal, there’s nothing more effective than limiting the secretion of cortisol and maximizing the use of fat for fuel. Then pick one day a week where you do a series of short, all-out sprints, with the heart rate at max for 15-40 seconds. Short, intense workouts improve insulin sensitivity and minimize cortisol, while long, slow workouts optimize the use body fat for energy.
- Intermittent fasting. My last tip is my personal favorite, and it might just go against everything you’ve ever heard about proper fitness and nutrition: fast once or twice a week, preferably before your workouts. Intermittent fasting – going 18-30 hours between meals every once in awhile – can actually stimulate fat burning while maintaining muscle mass and conserving strength. It’s an old holdover from the early hunter-gatherer days, when the hunt wasn’t always successful, but we still had to develop a way to extract enough energy till the next meal. Our bodies always turn to body fat for energy first; in fact, that’s why we store body fat in the first place – to save for energy for later, leaner times. For the person who’s almost lean, but not quite there yet, throwing in a fast once or twice a week can really be the difference maker. I’d even try ending each fast with an intense weight training session and waiting an hour after to eat to really get the full benefit.
2. Fitness Black Book. Rusty Moore is an authority on creating a lean, slim, athletic look. Rusty, btw, has a new ebook out that I’m reading now called Visual Impact: Mastering the Skill of Gaining Muscle Without Bodyfat. Here are Rusty’s tips for getting lean:
- Focus on Creating a Weekly Calorie Deficit, Not Daily. I love the holidays, parties, picnics, social gatherings, wedding receptions, etc. The thing in common with all of these major life events is that they have good food (usually a ton of good food). You can still enjoy these events and eat all of that good food and lose weight. The way to do this is have days in the week where you go quite a bit below maintenance. By the end of the week you can still create a calorie deficit, even if you enjoyed plates of great food. Life is too short to miss out on pies, cakes, and homemade food made by loved ones.
- When Eating Alone, Go Strict and Low Calorie. My rule of thumb is to eat lower calorie meals when I am eating alone. When I am not around friends and family, I treat eating as purely functional and eat pretty bland. This gives me much more wiggle room when I do meet up with friends or family. It works really, really well in keeping the calories down while still enjoying good food and couple of beers in a social situation.
- Go Into Your Workouts in a Fasted State. Your body is in either a “fed” or “fasted” state. When your body is in a fed state it primarily uses carb-energy for fuel. It is the body’s preferred method of energy. When your body is in a fasted state it releases HGH. This hormone helps release body fat from stored fat cells into the bloodstream so you can use that for energy instead of stored “food energy”. Intense exercise also raises HGH levels. When you combine exercise with this fasted state, you create a great synergistic condition for fat loss. It works extremely well. Obviously you can’t overdue this and fast for way too long or exercise too hard, but done strategically this works wonders.
- Avoid Insulin Spikes. When insulin levels are high, HGH levels are low. Insulin is a “storage” hormone. It helps store the nutrients from the foods you eat. A high level of insulin means a high level of storage (not what you are after if weight loss is your goal). You can avoid insulin spikes by eating foods with a low GI rating. Another method is to never eat carbs by themselves. If you eat a bit of fat and protein with your carbs there is less of a chance of a large spike in insulin. That is why I would recommend a bit of cream cheese or butter on a bagel than eating a bagel alone. I make it a point to never eat carbs without some fat or protein.
- The Amount of Meals Per Day Doesn’t Matter. I think people should stick to what feels natural as far as how often they eat. Some people do better with 6 small meals and some do better with 2-3 meals. It really is the total calories that matter as far as weight loss goes. The idea that you metabolism will drop if you skip meals is slightly “old school”…research has proven that idea to be out dated. I am not saying that 6 meals per day is bad either, but it certainly isn’t necessary. If you do eat 3 times per day they have to be much smaller portions than the person who likes to eat 3 times per day. I have always been able to reach my lowest body fat percentage on 3 meals or less per day. It kills me to eat tiny portions!
3. Zen to Fitness. Chris shares all around good advice for getting fit and finding balance in life. Here are his tips:
- Stick to wholefoods 80% of the time. Nothing from a packet (lean meat, fruit, vegetables nuts and seeds. If your a vegetarian eat more protein packed legumes in place of the meat. Cutting out grains and dairy is also big for fat loss)
- Go to bed slightly hungry (works a treat for leaning out).
- Increase the intensity of your workout and aim to break a sweat (Checkout Crossfit.com for inspiration and Turbulence Training programs).
- Relax more to bring down stress hormones and burn fat (Meditation, Visualisation, Deep Breathing).
- Make sure you’re getting 7-9 hours of deep sleep each night.
- Have a few cups of High Quality Green Tea a day.
4. Fit and Busy Dad. Chris Lopez lives in Toronto and shares some great tips, workouts, and strategies for dads (actually all parents and anyone who is busy) who want to get and stay in shape. Here are Chris’ top tips:
- Come to the acceptance that getting lean is incredibly simple to do, but very difficult. Once you reconcile your feelings towards getting lean and accept that you have to work your tail off, then you’ve overcome a huge barrier and will be ready to start.
- You must plan everything: from your time, to your workouts, to your meals … everything must be meticulously planned.
- Follow the rule of 165: it doesn’t matter as much what you do in the 3 hours you train per week as long as you’re working hard. What matters is what you do in the other 165 hours remaining. That said, here are the things that you should be focusing on are…
- sleep 8-9 hours per night.
- eat whole natural foods (known as Real Food) preferably mainly from plants.
- train with intensity as opposed to training solely for duration (more does not necessarily mean better).
- balance your high intensity exercise with complimentary practices such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong or mediation to manage stress.
- keep a journal of what you’ve done and try to break records each and every time.
5. Fitness Spotlight. Excellent fitness and health articles throughout the week, jointly written by two bloggers — Mike O’Donnell and Scott Kustes. Since I like both bloggers, I’m featuring both of their tips here.
- Ditch the alcohol. While I have nothing against a few drinks now and then, I find that after a drink or two, my food choices go downhill somewhat (in direct proportion to how much I drink). I’m more lenient about the kinds of food I’ll eat after drinking, even if just having one or two. Further, alcohol is just empty calories and isn’t doing you any favors in losing those last 10 pounds.
- Know that stubborn fat is stubborn for a reason. It usually it does not get enough of a hormonal signal (catecholamines) at the fat cells to start lipolysis (the release of stored fat to be burned up in the muscles). This is key, as you can’t burn stored fat if it never comes out of the cell in the first place
- Having a calorie deficit state is needed of course in the overall equation to burn more fat than store over time. Although you don’t want to starve yourself in the process (and that will not lead to better fat loss in the longterm). Aim for a reasonable deficit such as around 12x/ideal bodyweight (this is just a rough number of course and you can adjust as needed).
- Keeping and building muscle is a strong boost to your resting energy expenditure (up to 48 hours after training). Use resistance training with compound exercises, full body workouts and reps around 5-10. Any isolation work should be done last in a workout. Also using supersets of antagonist (opposite) muscles with short rest between sets (30-60 sec) will result in a greater post workout hormonal response and less time working out.
- Keeping insulin stable is important all day long, so avoiding all sugar and anything that breaks down quickly into glucose in the body is the goal. High blood sugar will slow down/stop any reason the body needs to keep releasing fat to be burned.
- The use of intervals is a good way to help boost adrenaline/noradrenaline (catecholamines) to help release fats to be burned. This should be done after using resistance training or an off day, but not every day. Going too hard too often will result in the body becoming overstressed and not recovering (which will lead to more muscle loss and more stubborn fat gain). After a short interval session (like 10 min) adding more slower intensity exercise such as walking will help burn the fat now released into the blood stream (and not overstress your body’s ability to recover).
- Take fish oil as it will keep inflammation down, and result in more weight loss and quicker recovery. Also don’t discount the need for a good night’s sleep as the most powerful spike of Growth Hormone (catecholamine) comes in the first hours of restful sleep. Having less sleep or a stressed out lifestyle will only result in more muscle loss and stubborn fat gain.
- Try adding caffeine (cup o’ Joe) 30min prior to a workout while in a fasted state (first thing in the AM, 2-3 hours after your last meal) to boost more intensity during the workout and adrenaline/noradrenaline release.