The majority of fat loss advice geared towards women in the mainstream media is straight up BAD.
Detox teas, waist wraps, super expensive “for women” protein powders (as if they somehow engineered the amino acids to be more beneficial for women)… it’s absurd.
This stuff triggers me honestly.
It’s garbage advice, designed strictly to make money, with no concern for how dis-empowering it is to make people feel like they’re trying everything, but nothing is working.
It makes people feel “stuck” in their bodies.
I’ve watched a lot of badass women escape feeling stuck, and I can tell you, the process doesn’t involve wrapping yourself in Saran Wrap, or drinking “metabolism-boosting fitness teas”.
Anyways, before I rant any longer… ladies, if you want to get lean and defined, here’s what to do.
Most clients at the start of nutrition coaching with me have been under-consuming protein for a long time.
Anecdotally, this has been especially true for women.
This is unfortunate, because protein has a TON of benefits to helping you build a leaner, stronger body.
→ It keeps you full longer than any other food.
The most satiating (a.k.a. most filling) foods, in order, are:
1. Lean protein
2. Fibrous carbs
Why does focusing on more filling foods matter?
Getting lean and defined typically involves some fat loss. So, if you’re trying to get leaner, you’re going to have to gear your nutrition towards fat loss.
The biggest struggle in a fat loss phase? Fighting off hunger.
This is especially true for women, as hormonal fluctuations plus the fact that you often just don’t get to eat as much due to typically smaller body sizes (a 130lb woman looking to get lean simply WON’T be able to make it happen on 2,500 calories), means we need to do everything possible to fight off hunger while still allowing you to be in a calorie deficit to create fat loss.
Focusing on eating 25g+ of lean protein at every meal is one of the most impactful things you can do to stay satiated in a fat loss phase.
→ Protein burns more calories during digestion.
I talk about this a lot more in-depth HERE. But basically, 20-35% of the calories you eat via protein are actually burned off during digestion. This is a lot higher than the other macros. So by eating more protein, you’re burning more calories.
→ Protein helps you build lean, defined muscle.
I think we’re pretty much past the thinking that women “don’t want to build lean muscle” right?
I mean, there’s an idea passed around in the fitness space that women are scared to gain muscle for fear of getting bulky. Personally, I haven’t heard this a lot lately, and don’t want to buy into any cliches or stereotypes about what people want or don’t want to create with their bodies.
But, if the idea of “building muscle” freaks you out, understand something:
At the start of coaching, most everyone’s goals are some form of “Get leaner, stronger, and more defined.”
For EVERYONE – men and women – this involves building some muscle, and losing some fat.
Also, know that muscle building is a VERY slow process. You won’t suddenly have a crazy amount of muscle on your body.
Getting to a “bulky” level of muscular is the metaphorical equivalent of getting run over by a giant turtle, that is currently several miles away (it’s a really big turtle), slowly plodding towards you. You’ll actively have to work towards it for a LONG time to make it happen.
A bit of muscle is what makes you look defined when you get lean – it’s necessary.
Plus, one of the BEST indicators of a faster metabolism is higher fat-free mass (which you can only increase through adding muscle).
You get the idea. A bit of muscle is a must to look lean and defined. You need to be consuming an adequate amount of the amino acids supplied by protein (these are the building blocks of muscle) to make this happen.
A solid mark for protein intake is .8-1g/lb body weight daily.
If eating 1 gram of protein per lb of body weight is a long ways from your current intake, it’s all good.
Instead of trying to make a massive increase in protein intake, with nutrition clients in this same boat, we simply focus on adding 15-20g per week to your intake, until we hit your intake goal.
The can be accomplished by:
a.) Adding another protein source to your day
– Chicken Breast
– Fillet Mignon
– Turkey Breast
– Ground Turkey
– Lean Ground Beef
– Greek Yogurt
– Cottage Cheese
– Protein Powder
– Pork Tenderloin
Any of these appeal to you? Add a palm-sized portion to your day, and you’re up 20-25g protein.
b.) Increasing portion sizes
Alternatively, you could divide your protein evenly among meals, identify your main protein source, and increase the serving-size slightly. This will be enough to add ~5-10g at each meal.
Again speaking from anecdote, a large percentage of the women who start nutrition coaching with me have been actively trying to avoid carbs for years.
A great example of this is my online nutrition and training client Julia, who had been attempting keto for months before finding an approach within coaching that fit HER much better.
Here’s another nutrition and training client that spent several months struggling with adherence and energy on a low-carb diet before starting nutrition coaching.
In both cases, the major change we made was simply a macro shift towards higher carb intake.
Needless to say, these ladies thrived on higher carbs.
Both found diet adherence easier, energy was higher, more fat loss was created, and lean definition was built.
Now, everyone is different (which is why having a nutrition strategy individualized to YOU is so important), but the majority of the women I work with feel much better on a diet higher in carbs.
One of the biggest potential reasons you could feel better on a higher carb intake?
(*Disclaimer: Hormones often take too much of the blame. The best way to “balance your hormones” is a smart nutrition and training strategy, paired with good sleep a stress management practices. None of this is “hormone vodoo magic” that will somehow make getting lean effortless.)
→ Cortisol – When you experience stress, cortisol (the stress hormone) rises and your nervous system enters “fight-or-flight mode”.
In this state, your brain slows or
stops all bodily processes but the most vital to either “fighting or
fleeing”. This means crucial processes – muscle repair, food digestion, hormone production – are slowed or essentially stopped.
Now, the devil is in the dose with cortisol. Some is beneficial. Stress is a necessary catalyst for changing your body.
Thing is, most of us experience an overabundance of stress. As a result, our cortisol levels are chronically high.
Since elevated cortisol levels and too much time in a fight or flight state directly inhibit hormone production, it’s clear that excess stress can lead to hormonal issues.
The cool thing is, consuming carbs has been shown to decrease cortisol levels. This allows your body more time in a rest and digest state, where functions like recovery and hormone production are prioritized.
→ Leptin – Leptin is a hormone produced by your fat cells. Your leptin levels essentially determine how hungry you are.
When leptin levels are high, hunger is generally low. (Generally, because it is thought that some that struggle with obesity have developed leptin-resistance.)
When leptin levels are low, hunger levels rise.
Now, leptin levels vary by your body fat percentage. (Higher body fat means higher leptin.)
Leptin also varies a lot depending on your food intake (especially carb intake.)
When you start dieting, leptin levels drop quickly – often 30-50% in the first 7 days of a diet. (1) This leads to a large increase in hunger. Your body doesn’t want to lose body fat – this is it’s way of maintaining homeostasis.
As I mentioned, leptin levels are directly impacted by carbohydrate intake. By increasing the amount of carbs in someone’s diet for 48 hours+, we can also see a clear increase in Leptin. This equates to less hunger, and an easier time sticking to your diet.
It’s also thought that women are more sensitive to changes in leptin than men. (2)
This is a big part of why my nutrition coaching clients have diet breaks and refeeds worked into their diet structure, designed to get them periods of higher carb intake.
This is also why it generally seems to make sense for women to eat more carbs.
Leptin WILL drop as you diet, and you’ll have to get a bit hungry – it’s inevitable. But all of this makes the job a bit easier.
Getting away from hormones now…
→ Fibrous carbs are the second most filling food – Like I mentioned earlier, actually feeling full is a HUGE part of being able to stick to a diet. I go super in-depth on how to manage your diet to optimize satiety in The Flexible, Lifestyle-Based Nutrition Protocol – but if you want to feel hungry less often, carbs help. For whatever reason, many of the female coaches that I start coaching have been following a high-fat, low-carb diet before I take over their nutrition. Switching to a higher-carb approach typically works wonders for helping them feel full on their diet – leading to better adherence, and better results.
→ Carbs are your body’s preferred fuel source – More carbs leads to increased energy, training performance, more glycogen stores, faster recovery, more protein sparing.
→ Out of the three macro-nutrients, carbs and protein are much harder for your body to store as fat, than fat is – The process to store carbs and protein as fat is MUCH longer and more complex than for fat.
Many of your hormonal processes are tied to energy availability.
If your body senses a scarcity of energy and body fat, it understands you’re in less than optimal conditions to reproduce. This can result in hormonal disruptions, as a properly functioning reproductive system isn’t as important to your body currently as simply staying alive.
The thing about fat loss is, you have to decrease energy availability (calories) to get leaner. It’s the only way to lose fat.
With this decrease in energy, some “metabolic adaptation” (the down-regulation of your metabolism and hormonal changes) is just part of the process. It’s inevitable.
That said, we can prevent some adaptation for occurring and get you to your end goal in a better place hormonally by taking diet breaks.
diet break is generally a 7 days – 4 weeks period with calories at maintenance levels (or even a slight surplus). This definitely doesn’t completely reverse the adaptations, but it does give your system a break from the chronic stress of dieting.
Think of it like this – you’re going on vacation, and have a 24 hour drive to your destination. You could either:
a.) Drive for 24 hours straight to your destination. Sure, you get there a bit quicker. But now, your body is exhausted and run down – you are in no condition to enjoy your vacation.
b.) You stop for a few power naps and snacks along the way. The trip takes a few extra hours, but when you arrive you feel great, and ready to enjoy the destination.
Diet breaks aren’t magic, but by taking intermittent breaks from dieting, your body is less likely to go through as severe negative adaptations as if you dieted straight through to your goal.
→ Most will do best with a diet break every 6-12 weeks.
→ During your diet break, increase calories to your estimated maintenance intake (or a very slight surplus).
→ Your increase in calories should come primarily from carbs (due to their leptin increasing properties).
→ This isn’t a cheat week – You still need to be conscious of your food intake. For most, a diet break goes off of the rails when they try to work in tons of calorie-dense foods constantly. A few are fine, but focus mostly on eating your normal foods, just in bigger quantities.
2. Resistance Training
Surprised by this?
Most people have this hierarchy flipped on its head. Something like…
1. Do a ton of cardio
2. Hit the gym occasionally
3. Attempt to diet for ~2 weeks every New Year
Why is that so wrong?
You just don’t burn very many calories when you exercise (about 5% of your total daily calorie burn comes from exercise). So it’s IMPOSSIBLE to “just burn it off”.
Fat loss comes down to eating fewer calories than you burn in a day.
Calories in < Calories out = fat loss.
This is called energy balance
Controlling the “calories in” side of the energy balance equation is much easier than trying to lose fat by ramping up the “calories out” side of the equation.
People waste years going hard in the gym for no results, simply because their diets suck.
So nutrition is very clearly the most important factor to pay attention to here.
2. Resistance Training
Lifting weights. When you start online coaching with me, you’ll do a lot of this.
Now, lifting weights doesn’t burn many calories… fewer than a cardio session actually.
Sooo if it’s all about calories in < calories out… Shouldn’t I be focusing on cardio, since it burns more calories?
In the big picture of your day, you don’t burn THAT MANY calories lifting weights or doing cardio.
But, resistance training has many more benefits than cardio:
→ Nutrient partitioning – Lifting weights shuttles calories towards the calorically expensive process of building muscle and maintaining lean, defined muscle. This leaves fewer calories for the energy efficient process of fat storage.
→ Metabolic benefits – The more lean body mass (LBM) you carry, the higher your metabolic rate will be (the more calories you’ll burn). More muscle means more LBM. Resistance training increases your LBM. Cardio does not.
→ Health – Resistance training builds functional strength, healthy tendons, and increases bone density. Resistance training properly will keep you strong, mobile, and capable your whole life.
→ Aesthetics – You’re reading this blog because you want to feel good and look good. You likely want to look some combination of lean/toned/defined/athletic.
The lean part comes from your diet.
But, if you lose a lot of body fat without any muscle underneath… most of us just end up looking like stick figures. Probably not the look you’re going for. A body that looks lean, strong, and defined requires building a bit of muscle.
→ Adherence and sustainability – When I talk about find a training routine you can adhere to, I mean finding a plan you can see yourself sticking to for a really long time.
In my experience, resistance training can be made fun for most anyone.
It’s rewarding – you can very clearly see yourself progressing as weights increase.
It’s a huge psychological boost – You were probably very intimidated when you first entered the weight room. Now, not only have you overcome that, but you’re suddenly lifting weights you never thought you would. You realize you’ve underestimated how much of a badass you can be if you really set your mind to it. It’s super empowering.
No other modalities of exercise have that effect. Lifting weights is just straight up fun for most people. You’re a lot more likely to stick to a resistance training routine for years than you are a cardio routine. Our goal here is sustainability.
Finally, we have cardio. Now, don’t get it twisted, cardio is still helpful.
Almost all of my clients do some form of cardio.
But the DON’T prioritize it nearly as much as nutrition or resistance training. It just doesn’t make near as much difference short-term OR long-term.
→ Cardiovascular health benefits – it’s good for your heart.
→ It’s good for increasing the “calories out” side of the energy balance equation.
→ Carryover to your weight lifting – It allows you to recover quicker… both between sets and between training sessions. You feel “more fit” when you work in a bit of cardio.
Super beneficial… But NOT as beneficial as resistance training.
The biggest issue with cardio – your body adapts to it very quickly.
When you adapt to something, you become more efficient at it. Becoming more efficient means you’re burning less fuel (calories).
You might burn 100 calories the first time you run a mile. As adaption occurs, the calorie burn decreases. (Fitbits, Apple watches, etc. don’t take adaptation into account when they give you total number of calories burned. Ignore that number.) This means the only way to get back to burning 100 calories, is by running MORE.
You very quickly run into a scale problem here. You can’t just keep adding miles forever.
THIS is the crux of why weight lifting is better for fat loss. You body also adapts to lifting, but there are TONS of ways to increase/change the stimulus to one you’re NOT adapted to and keep pushing progress forward without increasing total time in the gym (e.g. increase weight, increase the number of reps performed with the same weight, change exercises… it’s a long list.)
With cardio, the only solution is typically “do more”.
Shifting her focus from cardio to strength training was a HUGE part of what my nutrition and training client Abigail did. Again, the results speak for themselves.
So increasing your training volume (the number of hard sets you do) ISN’T just a way to help you build defined muscle. It’s a great tool to speed up your fat loss as well. And long-term, it’s much more effective to spend 80%+ of your time in the gym lifting weights, and keeping cardio to it’s minimum effective dose.
Most training programs marketed to women are usually based on a high-intensity, cardio-focused style training. (think: bootcamp classes, at home on-demand workouts). Sure, these programs make you sweat a lot – but the actual number of effective training sets is very low – it’s mostly just your cardiovascular system that is gassed.
These workouts are based entirely on the idea of burning more calories – but as you now know – you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns here as your body adapts to this style of training. When the only solution is to “do more bootcamps” things get pretty unrealistic, quickly.
Plus, this style of training is very taxing on your body and central nervous system. Again, we can very easily push your overall stress levels much too high when following this style of training, leading to hormonal issues, excessive fatigue, and a much harder time sticking to your diet.
→ Limit HIIT and moderate-intensity cardio to 1-2 sessions per week – I DO program so high-intensity work for the ladies I coach online, but it’s typically in the form of short 5-10 minute finishers. These are short, and intense but fun bouts that you finish your training sessions with. The goal is to jack up your heart rate and burn a lot of calories, without creating a massive amount of stress on your body or nervous system.
→ Weight train 3-5 times per week, 30-60 minutes per session – The ladies that I coach vary in how much they train depending on goals and experience levels. But they ALL focus the majority of their time on weight training. For more on setting up the perfect weight training regime to build a lean, strong body, check out Finding The Optimal Training Split For Your Goals And Lifestyle.
There used to be a stupid idea that women’s training should be entirely isolation exercises performed with tiny pink dumbbells.
Don’t buy into this. Your training should make you feel like a strong badass.
Train lots of compound movements. Things like:
Movements like lateral raises, and tricep kickbacks are fun. You can really feel the muscle working, which makes it seem you’re getting in a good workout.
But when it comes to changing your body composition, focusing on compound movements is much more effective.
Compound movements are exercises that get multiple joints and muscle groups working at once. You know… Squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, chin-ups… the stuff we tend to avoid.
Why are they more effective?
→ You’re working a lot more muscles at once – Implementing lots of compound movements make higher frequency easier, since you’re always training multiple muscles at once.
→ You create more mechanical tension –
Lean muscle comes from three mechanisms:
1. Mechanical tension – Created by lifting challening weight.
2. Metabolic stress – Think: the burn you get when you do a high-rep set.
3. Muscle damage – Pretty self-explanatory. Creating muscle soreness.
Out of these three factors, mechanical tension has been proven to be the most to be the most important for increasing lean muscle – in turn helping your fat loss. (This is also a major missing component from most bootcamp-style classes.)
Compound movements allow you to lift more challenging weight than isolation movements therefore creating a lot more mechanical tension.
→ You burn more calories – More muscles working at the same time also means more calories burned. Now, while calories burned shouldn’t be the focus here, this is a nice additional benefit to training like this for your fat loss.
Simply following a 3x/week full body training program based around the compound movements, plus a nutrition strategy individualized to YOU can make a CRAZY difference.
Examples from three of my online nutrition and training clients who have used this strategy:
Down 54 lbs January 2019 – July 2019.
Down 9 inches from the circumference of her waist (measured directly over belly button).
Down 20 lbs.
You get it. Heavy strength training + a smart nutrition protocol will change you body like nothng else can.
You know all of those cliche sayings that go something like…
“That which doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get improved.”
One of the BIGGEST mistakes I see people make in their mission to build a leaner, stronger body – they’re not tracking their progress, and thus have no idea if what they’re doing is actually working or not.
The scale should sometimes show a downward trend (depending on whether you’re losing or simply recomping), but you can’t always trust it as a true measure of progress. This is ESPECIALLY true for women, as hormonal fluctuations can cause drastic changes in water retention.
Let’s use on of my online nutrition clients as an example.
Here is her body stats tracker from the last 5 week:
If we were strictly watching her weight, we wouldn’t really think this client had made much progress yet, right?
Fortunately, we also know that despite staying near the same weight, in the last 5 weeks she’s lost…
→ 2.95 inches from her chest (note: she takes all her measurements in CM for increased accuracy)
→ 2.36 inches from the above navel mark
→ 1.57 inches from the navel
→ 1.77 inches from her thighs
…GREAT progress for 5 weeks.
On top of this, her strength is going up a lot in the gym (all online clients also track all the weights they lift), and she’s hitting the deadlift numbers of an absolute badass.
So, since we have her tracking multiple metrics, we have a clear picture of what’s really going on with her body. She’s definitely losing fat, even though the scale isn’t changing.
Track the following metrics for a clear picture of your progress:
→ Weight – You should be tracking your weight (at least 3x/week). Weigh
yourself at least three times per week. First thing in the morning,
before eating or drinking, and after using the bathroom.
For most, the ideal speed of weight loss when trying to get leaner is .5-1% of body weight per week.
Go much slower than this – You won’t see see much progress on a weekly basis. Your fat loss phase will drag on. You’ll get sick of dieting.
Go much faster than this – You’ll feel constant fatigue, mental performance will suffer, and you’ll create a bit higher risk of lean muscle loss.
The fatigue of extremely low calories also means you’ll want to move less. If you’re not careful, this can significantly decrease energy expenditure (calories out), and be counterproductive for fat loss.
All that said, scale weight can fluctuate pretty wildly, due to things like water retention from higher sodium intake, stress, and digestive issues. Don’t get caught up in weekly weight changes. Look at the trend over multiple weeks/the month.
You’re still aiming to lose .5-1% of body weight weekly, but don’t worry if this doesn’t show up on the scale every week.
Most SHOULD see a monthly trend of 2-4% of total body weight lost, but obviously there ARE exceptions here (like in the case study above).
→ Body measurements – Body measurements give a much more accurate picture of progress. They’re also a bit more time consuming, so don’t take them as often as weight. Online clients typically take these once per week.
Take the following measurement once per week, at the same time you weigh in. For accuracy, measure in centimeters with a soft tape measure.
1. Chest. Take a circumference measurement, with the tape at the level of the nipples.
2. Navel. Take a circumference measurement of your torso with the tape 2″ above the navel, at the navel, and 2″ below the navel.
3. Hips. Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of the hips.
4. Thigh. Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of the right thigh.
5. Arm. Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of your right bicep (flexed).
→ Progress Pictures – Your body at the start of a diet is like a full roll of paper towels.
If you pulled a single sheet off daily, would the roll ever look any different to you?
Nope. The daily changes are tiny.
But if you pulled a sheet off daily for three months, the paper towel roll would be a much different size.
Same concept with you. You’ll never look in the mirror and notice a big difference from the day before. This is why progress pictures are important – they give you a better view of the visual changes you’ve made.
1. Take progress pictures front/side/back in a lighting and time of day you can replicate easily.
2. Retake with similar lighting/time of day monthly.
→ Training Numbers – Like mentioned, every single online client that I write a training program for tracks their weights lifted in a tracked sheet I send them along with their fully-customized training program. We can both see this sheet 24/7.
This helps us be sure that your nutrition isn’t just getting you the fat loss results you want – it’s also fueling your performance in the gym to help you build a stronger version of yourself.
Don’t buy into all of the garbage and marketing scams out there targeting women. This is your roadmap to a leaner, stronger, and more confident version of yourself.