Reducing Body Fat

There is one experience besides getting injured that signals to mature bodybuilders that we are getting older and losing our youthful physiques. That experience is clothes shopping and, more specifically, trying on pants! Much to our chagrin we may find that “they seem to be shrinking the sizes.”

This happened to me recently. I knew I had put on a few pounds, and I also knew that I had been emphasizing strength and endurance in my training for about a year, paying less attention to my waistline. Even with the added weight and bodyfat, however, I figured I could squeeze into 30-inch pants. They’d be snug, but I’d have an incentive to trim down. To make a long story short, I ended up buying 32s.

That was the final straw. I decided that very day to lose weight and body-fat. This month I will tell you about some of my first efforts; the successes and failures and what I learned that might help you.

The Diet and Goals

The diet I chose to follow was quite similar to the way I always eat except that I further reduced the calories, decreased the percentage of calories from fat and increased my protein supplementation. For close to three months I consumed a diet of about 2,600 calories per day, with approximatly 10 percent coming from fat, 20 percent from protein and 70 percent from carbohydrates. Grains, breads, fruits, vegetables and low fat proteins dominated my reasonably normal diet. It was very easy to follow, since there were no special foods involved, and except for two instances, I was never hungry.

My goals were to lose about a pound every 10 days, to keep losing until I had reduced my waist by three inches, to lose slowly in order to maintain strength and muscle mass and to become much more ripped. I knew from past experience that if I continued to train I could expect to lose about half an inch from my waist for every two pounds of weight lost.

To keep myself motivated and on target, I decided to measure and record my waist each morning before eating anything, weigh myself after breakfast, keep track of all the calories and grams of protein I consumed each day and take readings with a portable bodyfat meter every morning and evening. This equipment uses light in the near-infrared portion of the spectrum that can differentiate fat levels.

One thing I did not want to do was increase my activity level. Training sometimes twice a day and at least one hour every day was enough for me.

Good and Bad Points

Using a normal diet and trying to lose slowly were the two big pluses of my plan. It helped that I had a specific waist measurement as a goal and also that I knew from past experience the kind of weight loss it would take to reach that goal. Monitoring and recording calories, protein and waist and bodyfat measurements proved helpful and provided a good match for my compulsive nature.

With regard to calorie reduction and weight loss, I made one big mistake. I incorrectly estimated my maintenance calorie level. I figured at the outset that I needed about 3,000 calories a day to maintain my current weight. By dropping to 2,600 calories, therefore, I would lose a pound every nine days or so. While there was nothing wrong with the math (1 pound = 3,500 calories), I underestimated my caloric requirements. As my own data later showed, I actually need about 3,400 calories for weight maintenance. I created too large of a caloric deficit and lost weight too quickly.

Here is a sound piece of advice: Take a week to 10 days before starting your diet to establish a baseline for your usual caloric input (assuming you are currently maintaining your weight and not gaining). Once you have the average daily caloric intake for the baseline, reduce the calories by 250 to 400 per day; for example, from 3,000 to between 2,750 and 2,600. This way you’ll lose one pound in nine to 14 days. The large initial weight loss of more radical caloric restriction is very reinforcing at first, but in the long run, losing slowly works best.

Body fat meters are tricky. They seem like a dream come true, but they are not. The reliability of measurement, which means repeated measurements taken in the same way during the same day, is marginal. Readings can differ by as much as 3 percent, which, in fact, may realistically be the most you can reduce your body fat percentage in two to three months. Then, too, for a number of reasons, there can be moment-to-moment variations in readings, as well as differences among the various methods of measurement; for example, hydrostatic vs. calipers.

The final clincher is that bodybuilders, who are physiologically not “normal” when compared to the general public, tend to show up on the high end with the method I used, as the lower-cost instrument is not programmable for activity level and bone density. If, however, you can keep yourself from attaching too much importance to the absolute number you see on the instrument (something that is not easy to do) and instead look at the week-to-week trends, the instrument can be helpful.

As far as losing body fat and becoming ripped, I do not think I was that realistic at the outset. Before you start your diet, make an honest appraisal in the mirror and do some simple math. Let’s take my own case.

From body fat readings (and some prior measurements using calipers) I determined that my body fat level was about 14 percent. While that probably sounds very high to many readers, to put it into perspective, 14 percent is considered excellent for a middle-aged male. My initial weight was 157 pounds, which means that I was carrying about 22 pounds of fat and had a lean body weight of 135 pounds. To reach my goal of losing three inches from my waist, I would probably need to lose 12 pounds and continue to train hard.

Here’s the catch: Even under optimal circumstances only about two-thirds of weight loss can be fat; in my case, that was eight pounds. The other one-third (four pounds) will be lean bodyweight. So the best I could hope for at 145 pounds was to carry 14 pounds of body fat (22-8= 14), which equals about 10 percent body fat. That’s a big improvement, but it’s not going to make me absolutely ripped. Even if I continued all the way down to 140 pounds and lost body fat at the same rate, I would still have about 7 percent body fat. Presumably, I could change this fat/lean weight-loss ratio by introducing more intensive training; but if you’re already training hard, that’s not easy to do.

The reality is that if you’re in decent shape prior to your diet, you cannot expect a magical transformation. And keep in mind that for good health and almost any other purpose in life except for bodybuilding competition, being reasonably lean and defined is enough.

Good and Bad Results

Clearly, the best outcome of my diet was that I easily reached my goal of losing three inches from my waist while largely retaining my upper body and leg measurements. I also lost 1 1/2 inches from my hips. I lost the three inches at exactly the weight I had predicted at the outset 145 pounds, or about a 12-pound loss. I also lost about 4 percent bodyfat, meaning that I dropped about eight pounds of fat. As previously mentioned, these results are about the best anyone can realistically expect.

There were three other important results:

  1. By losing too quickly, I passed a threshold (at about 150 pounds) where I was losing strength, not having great workouts and starting to become overtrained. This process sets up a vicious circle, in which ineffective training leads to more losses, more ineffective training and so on. You can avoid, or at least delay, strength loss by losing weight more slowly.
  2. I feel I can maintain a lower weight by increasing my calories to about 3,400 per day. At that level I will stay lean, have better workouts, gain muscle mass and lose fat.
  3. There was one tremendous health gain achieved by reducing the fat in my diet and losing weight. My total cholesterol went from 180 mg/dl to 135 mg/dl. For a 45-year-old male that is a very low figure.

Overall, losing bodyfat proved to be a learning experience and created a new challenge, to regain strength and muscular size at a much reduced bodyweight. And there was one other interesting development. Over the weekend I returned to the same store. I still need the same size sports jacket, but now the 29-inch pants fit. I guess the sizes aren’t shrinking after all.

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