If you’re just starting out on the journey to change your health for the better – whether by shedding excess fat, gaining muscle or both – or have already begun but not found any success, the sheer volume of information out there on what to do can be staggering and contradictory. This is particularly frustrating when you don’t have any good way to sort out the good advice from the bad. We decided to help take some of that confusion away by condensing our tested and proven methods into one easy to digest guide.
This is a guide to our philosophy for attaining epic health and fitness. Everyone should be healthy and fit, and everyone can do it.
Fat loss is 80% diet, 20% exercise.
Which is why 80% of this article is about what you should focus on eating, and how you should eat it. Only a small portion is devoted to exercise. The how you should eat part of the guide is half our philosophy on what a healthy diet is followed by our interpretation of Leangains, a method of body recomposition we’ve found incredibly useful.
Who this guide is for: This guide is for beginners. This guide is for all the average people out there who want to be healthy and look good naked. This is for those who have tried so hard to get healthy and in the shape they want but have not found any success yet and are frustrated. This is for people who want to get to and maintain a healthy weight and reasonable level of fitness that will keep them healthy and enable them to do pretty much whatever they want.
This is a guide to the foundations of a healthy diet and how to successfully attain a healthy weight while getting stronger. Yes, having lean strong muscles is a basic part of being healthy and everyone should have a basic level of strength. Although we do provide a little bit of extra information for those looking to get larger muscles for aesthetic purposes as well.
We know this is is a lot of information, but we have tried to present it in a way that is simple, easy to understand and easy to follow so anyone can do it.
Who this guide is NOT for: If you are a professional athlete, this obviously is not for you – you’ll have needs and requirements well out of the scope of this article. If you generally don’t care about your health, looking good naked or being able to maintain physical activity this is also not for you.
We highly suggest you give this a read and if you are willing to try it, spend a little time doing the prep (figuring out what and how much to eat, making a grocery list, etc.) and then sticking to it for at least a month but ideally two. After the end of your first successful month, go over again and assess your progress and adjust as necessary. Remember that fat loss takes time, and health is a lifelong commitment. Starting out with small goals will help you get the ball rolling. Also, if something isn’t clear or you have a question or comment, please let us know below (or send us an email.)
Table of Contents:
Food should make you more healthy, not less. Sure, you can get lean eating twinkies all day – people have done this before – but what’s the point of attaining your ideal look if you’re risking a heart attack any day?
While the calories-in-calories-out philosophy works fairly well, it cannot account for health – things such as hormone balance, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. Food is for fuel – a car has a set amount that it needs in order to get from point A to point B. If it doesn’t have enough, it will burn up its energy and die part way. If it has too much, it stores the excess for the future.
The human body is similar, we burn up both what we eat and the stored fat on our bodies to have the energy to do our daily activities – and if we eat too much that excess will be stored away for later. However, whether or not you put in enough is just as important as the type of fuel you use. If you put the wrong kind of fuel in your engine it’ll have issues and break down eventually – the same goes for our bodies. Attaining health, looking good naked and being able to perform your favorite activities don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Another way to look at it is with money. If you have an excess then we tend to store it for use later. If you don’t have enough money, you’ll always be stressed out, struggling every day and generally miserable. Similarly, if we eat more calories than we need, it gets stored as fat. If we don’t eat enough, we’ll use up all that fat we have stored for energy.
How you spend your money can have a big effect on your happiness – if you first pay your bills and use the leftover for things you enjoy or like, you’ll be a debt-free happy person. If you spend too much on things you like and not enough to pay your bills, eventually you’ll wind up in a tough financial spot (and if you combine this with not having enough to begin with, then you are really in trouble!) If you spend your caloric budget on junk food, while you’ll be happy that happiness will soon be overshadowed by health problems. Having a treat once in a while certainly won’t hurt you – but it needs to not be the majority of your calories. I could make a connection between investing and building strength but I’ll spare you that one.
The basis of a healthy diet is simple – eat real food. Base the majority of your diet on quality, real, unprocessed foods like meats, vegetables and fruits along with some healthy fats. Keep in mind that foods higher in fats like nuts and oils are also higher calorie and really easy to over eat, so make sure you keep it in check.
Choosing whole foods that are nutrient dense and that were raised, fed and grown properly gives you a strong foundation from which to start – they’ll keep you healthy and satiated and support most basic activity. Using these as the basis of your diet you can then further tweak what and how much you eat to help you reach and maintain your goals. Eating quality ingredients from local, sustainable farms (think grassfed beef, sustainable farming practices, etc) is ideal but if your budget won’t allow, just do your best.
Also, eat more vegetables. Seriously. The majority of people don’t eat enough vegetables.
Now, you may have noticed that we left a lot of foods out – like processed foods, grains, legumes and dairy. In the case of grains, legumes and dairy we leave them out because they aren’t universally tolerable like lettuce and chicken are. Everyone is different – from metabolisms, preferences to evolution – there is no single perfect diet. Since some may have food intolerances we obviously aren’t going to tell those people to eat food they can’t handle.
If you suspect you may have a food intolerance or are just curious, at some point try going without a particular food for at least 30 days and then adding it back in (one at a time if you do multiple) about a week apart and seeing how you feel, along with the necessary tests from your doctor. If there don’t seem to be any negative effects like irritable gut, low energy, acne, etc. then keep on eating. If you do notice negative effects though simply limit your intake to whatever you are comfortable with.
Another big reason why we suggest people leave these things out is because we’ve seen too many who base their diets on bread, pasta, pizza, processed meats and cheeses while failing to know how to make healthy, vegetable-filled meals. Grains, dairy and legumes can be a part of a healthy diet, but they shouldn’t be the basis of your diet if you are trying to lose fat. Additionally, we give preference to lean proteins as they are have a high satiety level and we love vegetables as they are nutrient dense while not being calorie-dense, so you can eat a lot and by the end of the day feel full and well-fed. Oats, rice, beans and the like are tasty, but try to give yourself a bit more variety.
Know how food affects you. As I keep saying, we all have different needs and reactions to various foods, so how your diet is actually composed (how many fats, sugars, carbs, dairy, etc.) really needs to be based upon how they make you feel. For example, I absolutely love dairy-based foods like the sauces in many Indian foods, but it makes me feel bloated and horrible and I get acne – therefore I only eat it once in a while but I’m fully aware how I’ll feel later.
The same is true if you are trying to gain or lose weight – grains like bread and pasta, for example, just don’t fill me. They make me feel ravenously hungry and I wind up eating a lot of calories on that day. If I wanted to lose fat, eating this way every day probably isn’t a good idea. If I wanted to gain, then it would be a great idea. I’ve also known people who have the complete opposite reaction – bread and pasta fill them up completely and they don’t eat much all day. Again, we are all different so experiment.
Processed foods are a separate dirty little beast all of their own. They’re tasty, addictive and they are designed to be that way. Processed foods are not only unhealthy because of their ridiculously high caloric content and lack of nutritional content, but also because they’ve been designed by scientists who know how to make these processed foods addictive and how to trick your brain into thinking it’s not full and wanting more. They’re empty calories, plain and simple, and should be controlled.
Don’t drink your calories either. Things like sodas, shakes and smoothies make it really easy to consume excessive calories and de-rail your progress. Unless you’re trying to bulk or are having a protein shake to hit your macro-nutrient targets, just don’t do it. Choose foods that are nutrient-dense and that have high satiety factors (like steak or chicken) to stay full and happy. If you’re thirsty, drink water or unsweetened iced tea.
We’re not saying you need to eat perfect 100% of the time. As long as you eat healthy 80-90% of the time, the little bit of bad food that you eat won’t make a difference to your overall health. Experiment to find a sustainable balance that you are happy with.
Finally, remember that these are just some loose rules – there’s no single perfect diet for everyone. This will get you started and it is up to you to tailor it to your preferences, needs and lifestyle.
Say it with me: Fat is not evil. Carbohydrates are not evil. No food is evil. Except durian.
I kid, I kid.
Seriously though, you’ll hear us say this again and again: everyone is different. Some people are able to tolerate foods that others aren’t able to. Some people are able to eat more than others. Eating fat won’t make you fat, and eating carbohydrates won’t make you fat either. Eating too much of anything while also being inactive makes you fat and unhealthy. The goal here is to craft a diet that is tailored to your preferences and goals, one that is based primarily on healthy foods while also allowing the occasional treat. This is sensible, not extreme.
Your body needs fat. Your body also needs carbohydrates and protein. The key is eating the right amount for you and focusing first on getting them from good sources. Especially if losing fat is your goal, try to get your carbohydrates from primarily vegetables. It’ll be hard because many require that you eat a high volume – but this is wonderful because you’re guaranteed to feel full afterward. Don’t be afraid of fats either – butter, olive oil and fatty meats are delicious and can be beneficial in the right amounts.
Hormones also play an important part of fat loss and overall health, so by eating nutritious food, exercising and working to keep your stress down you are setting yourself up for success. Don’t forget to treat yourself once in a while.
Stress can be a huge problem when dieting – it not only makes you miserable but can negatively effect your waistline and health, so please try to avoid it however works best for you. If you have a day where you slip – don’t worry about it. Accept it and move on. Don’t let a bad day derail you from success.
Most importantly of all…
This is just plain good sense. If you want to lose weight eating a lot of high-calorie foods will have the opposite effect. If you want to gain strength, then eating everything but protein is going to slow you down.
Not everyone can or should eat the same way as anyone else, however there are some basic principles that can serve as great starting points to get you on the right track to losing fat, looking good naked, getting stronger or whatever your goal may be.
Our favorite method, and the one that we’ve personally had great success with, is Leangains. Leangains, the brainchild of Martin Berkhan, is made up of three main components: intermittent fasting, a diet protocol and training. The diet is tweaked to match and support training so you can get leaner, maintain or even bulk, while burning off any excess fat. It works by keeping protein high on all days, and cycling higher carb/higher fat days based upon whether it’s a training or rest day. Not only is Leangains simple and effective, but it’s also easily tailor-able for varying goals.
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a method of alternating periods of being in a fasted-state, and a fed-state. You could also call it Intermittent Feeding if you find that a more friendly term.
There are many IF protocols, the most famous likely being Brad Pilon’s Eat STOP Eat, all with varying fasting/non-fasting schedules. This doesn’t need to be complicated – Leangains is essentially just skipping breakfast.
The Leangains IF protocol is 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of feeding. During the fasting period, consume no calories or food. Coffee, tea and obviously water are fine, but no soda and nothing to eat. If you really must, a small spoon of milk in your coffee or a small amount of sugar free gum shouldn’t mess up your progress. During the feeding period, eat at whatever frequency you like (2-3 meals is most common.)
Pick an 8-hour window during the day of when you want to eat and don’t eat outside of that. How you set up your fasting schedule will ultimately be up to you and your lifestyle. For example, if you like to go out to eat on Friday nights with your friends you’d be better off skipping breakfast in order to allow your feeding window to be open later. Like with what you eat, don’t obsess over being perfect about your fasting schedule. As long as you stick to it 80-90% of the time, you’re on track.
A small note for women: Martin has noted that women tend to do better on a 14 hour fast than they do a 16 hour fast, so if you’re female feel free to play around with your fasting time.
An example: For us, we like to eat out and are more willing to skip breakfast than we are dinner, so our feeding window is usually around noon-8:00 p.m. Yes, you can sleep during your fasting phase (convenience FTW!)
Skipping a meal may sound odd but there are real benefits to doing this as opposed to only counting calories. We’ll devote a full post to the finer points of fasting and what it does, how and why it’s something you should consider doing and its many benefits beyond aiding fat loss. But for the purposes of this guide there are two big things fasting does that helps burn fat:
Hunger Regulation: Fasting and restricting your eating hours causes the hunger hormone Ghrelin to get used to the new schedule and reduces hunger and cravings throughout the day. This is particularly beneficial for those looking to lose fat since hunger and cravings can sabotage progress. Don’t confuse this with starving – you’ll still eat the same amount of calories in a day, just in a more controlled time frame.
Greater Time Spent Burning Fat: There are two things your body uses for energy; fat and glycogen. After a meal your body switches to using its glycogen stores from the carbohydrates you’ve eaten for energy. Gradually, your body will switch from glycogen to body fat for energy as the glycogen isn’t being replenished. So, by increasing the time you spend not eating you’ll be spending more time burning up that fat.
The second main portion of the Leangains method is the rules about how your diet is composed – or macro-nutrient portions. On Leangains you’ll be doing a workout (some type of resistance work, ideally barbell but bodyweight or dumbbell workouts are fine too) three days a week, so on those three days you’ll eat a higher number of calories than on your four rest days. Protein will be high throughout the week but on training days you’ll consume higher carbohydrates and less fat, while on rest days you’ll eat lower carb but higher fat.
Now, that’s just the basics of it. Martin gives some more specifics on the diet itself but not much – although you can hire him to guide you directly (which, if you can afford it and can get a hold of him, is almost assuredly worth it.) You could stop there but it’s extremely useful to go through the various numbers you’ll be targeting in your diet. Based upon pouring over pages of information on the topic along with our own experience following Leangains, we’ve put together this guide to help you figure out your target calories and macros.
Now we’ll have to break out some formulas to help you figure out your ideal starting point. First off we’ll need to get an estimation of your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), then adjust for activity, then finally figure out target intake based upon your goals.
We highly suggest you go through and do this yourself, for the sake of having more control and insight into how things work. However, if this proves to be a barrier to entry, open up 1percentedge.com/ifcalc in a new tab and go through both the rest of this and it together. Most calculators are really terrible, but this one is relatively accurate and easy to use.
First we figure out your BMR since that is how many calories you burn just being alive. The best way to have this tested is to go to a facility and run tests, but that can be expensive so we use a formula to get a rough estimate of your BMR.
Mifflin St. Jeor BMR Equation
Men: BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) + 5
Women: BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) – 161
Harris-Benedict BMR Equation
Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)
Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)
If you know roughly your body fat percentage then the Katch-McArdle BMR formula would work better, since the above two don’t take into account body fat % which, if you are on one of the two extremes, can cause problems in calculating.
Katch-McArdle BMR Equation
BMR (men and women) = 370 + (21.6 X lean mass in kg)
Curious to know more about how BMR equations work? Nerd out on the Wikipedia article for BMR estimation formulas – it’s really interesting if you are into that sort of thing.
Secondly, we need to adjust the calories you found with the BMR estimation to reflect activity levels. There’s a lot that can go wrong in this element, usually via activity multipliers being terrible setting calories too high. Our suggestion is to guess a little low and if you find you are low on energy then you can recalculate with a higher activity multiplier. So, use caution and adjust as necessary. Pick a conservative activity multiplier to find your estimated Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
To get you started, here’s a very general list of multipliers:
- Sedentary = BMR x 1.2
- Exercise 3x/week = BMR x 1.375
- Exercise 4x/week = BMR x 1.4187
- Exercise 5x/week = BMR x 1.4625
- Exercise 6x/week = BMR x 1.55
- Exercise Every Day = BMR x 1.6375
- Exercise Twice Daily or Intense Daily Exercise = BMR x 1.725
Third on the list is to match your eating with your goals. How you set up your calories and macros are highly dependent upon your goals. By now you should know how many calories you burn sitting around, along with your estimated TDEE. If you stick to eating just this number of calories per day, your weight should stay about the same. But if you’re still reading this, I’m willing to bet staying the same isn’t what you want to do. This is going to require a bit more math, but not much.
Now you need to choose between one of three main categories: Cutting, Recomposition or Bulking. These can certainly be further broken up, but for simplicity/beginner’s sake we’re going to just focus on these three.
Cutting: 90% of people will want to cut first. If you are somewhere from significant excess body fat to I-can-see-faint-ab-lines you will want to start with a cut. Keeping protein high while on the cut will ensure that you maintain (and often, gain) muscle while getting rid of the excess fat. You’ll want to maintain/gain as this will give you not only a significant hormonal advantage but having lean, strong muscles will keep you healthier overall (yes, ladies, you’ll get stronger. But don’t worry, you won’t become a body builder unless you set out to become one.)
To achieve a cut, you’ll need your calories overall for the week to be less than your maintenance calories. To achieve this you’ll want to consume between +10% to -10% calories on your workout days and between -20% to -35% on a rest day. If your maintenance is 2,000 kCalories per day then you are looking at 1,800-2,200 kCal on workout days and 1,600-1,300 on your rest days. Obviously, the lower you go the faster you’ll cut, but be careful doing this as going too low can damage your metabolism and cause unnecessary stress on your body, which will make you hold/gain fat, not lose. This is why it’s important to focus first on consuming nutrient-dense foods that have a high level of satiety since they will keep you feeling full longer.
If you are very overweight, as long as you keep your protein high on both days you can get away with eating at a deficit on both days, however leaner people will want to eat at least at maintenance on a workout day. If you feel tired on your workout days, you’re probably eating too little on your rest days and you’ll have to up your rest day calories a bit (make sure you are eating enough fats too.) Cutting within these ranges will ensure that you are strong and getting enough food. Do not cut more than -35%
Recomposition: If you can just see your abs but want to get into the really low body fat percent ranges, and to add strength and/or bulk while doing it, you’ll want to do a recomposition.
For the standard Martin-approved recomposition, go for +20%kCal on a workout day and -20%kCal on rest days. If your maintenance is 2,000 kCal/day then this would be 2,400 kCal you’d need to eat on a workout day and 1,600 kCal you can eat on a rest day.
Bulking: If you are lean and looking to add mass (aka make your muscles bigger) then you’d want to bulk. If you aren’t already lean, do a cut or recomposition for a bit to get down to visible abs first. Once you’re there, come back here.
There? Okay, to build muscle mass you need to combine a proper diet and training. For the purposes of this article, we’ll only focus on diet. Building muscle requires calories so on days that you exercise you will want to eat in excess up to 40%. On rest days, you’ll want to shoot for a -10% deficit, or just enough under to burn off any excess fat you may have gained from eating over on training days.
If you eat more carbohydrates than you use to replace your depleted glycogen, your body will store those excess carbs as fat. The key, as with the other two, will be to track your progress consistently and if necessary tweak your macros and percent over/under.
For anyone familiar with the bodybuilder/bulking type diet, you’ll notice that this is different from the common approach of cycling between “eat ALL THE THINGS!” for a season and then cutting later. Going about adding mass Leangains-style will go slower, undoubtedly, BUT you will look great and keep your visible muscle the entire time.
Next and fourth, is to figure out your macro-nutrient targets. Now we get to figure out how much protein, carbohydrates and fats you’ll be shooting for every day. You may have seen this before, such as in the Zone diet’s “magic” 40/30/30 split. The point is not to get too obsessive and to try out a few different splits to figure out what you do best at. Need I say it again – everyone is different.
These numbers will change as your body changes so it is good to take some time every 2-4 weeks to reassess where you are and adjust as necessary.
Protein: Protein needs to be kept high on both days not just for satiety but also to ensure that you don’t lose any muscle. All too commonly do people allow this to slip and it not only makes them weaker, but it makes fat loss much harder To maintain, you’ll need to have around 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass (LBM) or, in metric, around 2.2-3.3 grams of protein per kg of lean body mass.
Depending upon personal preference, how significant of a cut you’re going for and how much you need to feel full you can eat within this range but don’t go any lower so as to preserve your muscle. As far as your lean body mass goes – there are very few ways to accurately (much less afford-ably) measure your body fat percentage, so just take a guess and then subtract your estimated body fat percent from your total weight. To measure your body fat percent, there are ways to visually guess, scales that measure via electrical impedance, calipers and all sorts of other tools. Pick the one that you are able to do and use that, while keeping in mind that it’s not 100% accurate but that being perfect doesn’t really matter either.
Fats: Here’s where we get a bit more freedom – how much fats and carbs you eat will largely depend upon your lifestyle. As mentioned above, you’ll want to have your fats lower on a workout day and higher on a rest day. Low, most of the time, will be somewhere between 20-50 grams of fat. For your higher days, you can go up to double. Try it out for a while and adjust as necessary. If you are very active, doing double might restrict your carbs too much and you’ll want to lower it. However, for people who literally will only workout on the three workout days, double should be just fine (but, again, adjust as you feel necessary for satiety and performance.)
If ratios are more your thing, try going for somewhere around a 25/75-75/25 fat/carb split (doesn’t have to be exact) on workout and rest days respectively. Or, you can go 25/75 on a workout day and 50/50 on a rest day. Try it out for a few weeks then tweak as necessary.
Finally, please don’t be fat-phobic. Don’t be carb-phobic either, for that matter. Both macro-nutrients are necessary for hormonal regulation and for performance. Just make sure you are getting your fats primarily from good sources – olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, grassfed butter, steak, fish, etc. and you’ll be full, healthy and happy.
Carbohydrates: Again, you have a lot of room to play with how many carbohydrates you get. The more active you are, the more carbohydrates you should be getting. To begin, just fill up however many calories you have left with them and adjust after a few weeks if/as necessary.
To figure out how much this really means, you’ll have to figure out how much calories have been used up already by protein and fats, then how much the rest of those calories are in carbs. A single gram of protein is roughly 4 kCal, 1 gram of fat is roughly 9 kCal, and 1 gram of carbs is roughly 4 kCal.
I know this was a lot of information all at once, so I’ll give you two examples to illustrate.
Takeshi is at 190lbs and 18% body fat – so not really overweight but not super lean either – and burns 2,300 kCal. He chooses to recomp at +20/-20%. So his target calories are 2,760 on a workout day and 1,840 on a rest day.
His target protein, at 1.5/lb lbm, would be 234g/day. He goes easy and does 30g fat on a workout day and 60g fat on a rest day. After calculating the calories used up by protein and fats, then subtracting that number from his overall daily caloric allowance, he gets 1,553 calories he can use for carbs on a workout day and 363 calories he can spend on carbs on a rest day, or 388g and 90g carbs.
Workout Day: 2,760 kCal = 234g protein, 30g fat and 388g carbs
Rest Day: 1,840 kCal = 234g protein, 60g fat and 90g carbs
All he has to do next is pick foods that fit his macros, plan his workouts, and get to it.
Next we have Mary, a 5’7” 160lb girl at around 32% body fat – in other words she’s average height and has a spare tire around her belly. She needs to cut, first and foremost. We find from the equation that her BMR is around 1,867, and since she has a desk job her estimated TDEE is around 2,000. She wants to cut relatively quickly so she opts for a -35%/0% range: 1,300 kCal on a rest day and 2,000 kCal on a workout day.
She opts for a 1.5x lbm protein target as well, which comes out to around 165g of protein per day. She also takes the easy route of 30/60 grams of fat on workout and rest days respectively. This leaves her with 266 grams of carbs on a workout day and 24 grams on a rest day.
Workout Day: 2,000 kCal = 165g protein, 30g fat, 266g carbs
Rest Day: 1,300 kCal = 165g protein, 60g fat, 24g carbs
Like with Takeshi, all she has to do now is prepare her kitchen and fill it with foods that fit her macros. Within the Leangains community lots of people love to use the phrase “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) meaning that you can eat anything you like and still drop the body fat and build strength. This is completely true, however we caution against doing this too much – base the bulk of your meals on foods that will fill you and know that having something “bad” once in a while won’t hurt you so long as you can keep it within your macros, and if you know that you won’t still be hungry afterward.
To help you make your meal plan, play around on Swole.me and NutritionData.com in addition to finding a calorie/nutrition tracker that you like most. We like Daily Burn Tracker and MyFitnessPal personally. Play around adding in various different foods and see what kinds of combinations work for you. Keep your food simple for the first few weeks to a month to make tracking as easy as possible until you’ve gotten the hang of it.
Exercise is an important part of health and fat loss which, like your diet, will depend on your goals. Everyone should at least do some kind of resistance training. Both men and women should make lifting heavy things a part of their workout routine as the health benefits of doing so are numerous and ridiculously worth it. This is another reason why we like Leangains – a fundamental part of it is lifting heavy things 3 times a week, for no more than one hour per session.
Exactly how much and what kind of exercise you get depends on your goals and lifestyle, but at the very minimum you can do 3 sessions a week of lifting heavy things – they don’t even need to be an hour each. An easy walk on your rest days, preferably before your first meal, would greatly benefit you from a hormonal advantage but is not necessary. Just remember that the more active you are the more calories you’ll need to intake to sustain them.
For the lifting heavy things requirement – how you go about it depends on what equipment available to you such as barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or your own body weight. There are lots of programs out there that are excellent, but each are for different sets of goals.
The key feature of your workouts will be compound movements – or exercises that utilize multiple muscle groups to complete. Compound exercises can be though of as working the essential muscles to make you stronger and more capable. They’re also sometimes referred to as the “functional exercises” since they work what you need to do very basic movements: climbing, picking up things, moving things, carrying things, so on and so forth.
So, base your workouts on compound movements along with accessory exercises as needed/desired. If barbells are available to you do squats, bench presses, overhead presses, rows and deadlifts. If you can only do bodyweight exercises then do squats, push ups, dips, pull-ups (inverted rows if you cannot do pull-ups yet) and glute-ham raises. In the beginning you might do most of these exercises on the same day, but as you get stronger and the weights get heavier you will want to have an A/B routine where you switch between exercises each session.
Your resistance workout should take anywhere from 30-60 minutes, and you should only do it three times a week. That’s 1.5-3 hours per week, you can find that much time to devote to making yourself stronger, better and more awesome. Experiment and find a routine you enjoy.
If you can do barbell workouts, we highly recommend getting the book Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe as he is the master on form and technique. There’s also a Starting Strength Wiki which has videos and breakdowns of the program and exercises.
Pavel Tsatsouline is a big proponent of using kettlebells to get a full body workout and attain strong, lean muscles. If kettlebells are your thing we suggest checking out his book Enter The Kettlebell.
Bodyweight exercises are by far the most accessible – everyone has a body they can work with! Additionally, everyone should know some basic bodyweight exercises so that they can stay fit while traveling and not have to suffer the horrors that are hotel workout rooms. Some excellent bodyweight programs to get you started are You Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren, Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade, and The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline. Additionally, we’ve posted several great workouts here as well.
Now, you may have noticed that we didn’t separate these workouts by gender – this is because both genders should do compound movements! We’ve outline before why women should lift weights too, so we won’t get into that here. Just know that lifting gives both men and women metabolic and hormonal boosts, increases various health factors and builds the muscles many of us find oh-so-attractive. Wink, wink.
Again, we want to reiterate that this is a loose guide for beginners. This is your starting point.
For the first few months, keep everything as simple as possible. Stock up your kitchen with good food and buy a digital food scale (they are $15-$20 on Amazon.) Track your foods meticulously for the first month or so; by the end of the month you will be a pro at guesstimating and will be able to do so even when eating out.
Most importantly, don’t over-think this. This is not a perfect science and there are many variables here, so focus on trying to stick to it as much as you can, and don’t worry about the little things.
Again, here are your priorities:
- Eat only within an 8-hour window every day, try to keep it consistent.
- Resistance training at least 3 times a week.
- Eat more on workout days, less on non-workout days.
- Keep your protein consumption high every day.
- On a workout day, eat more carbs and keep your fat intake low.
- On a rest day, eat less carbs and more fats.
- Cardio is generally unnecessary, but a walk before you break your fast on rest days is beneficial.
- If you are very active and want to/must do cardio, make sure to up your food intake so your deficit is not too low.
Sticking to any diet and exercise plan can be a challenge, which is why we want to help you succeed. The best way to stick to a plan is to track smart, remove barriers and to have ambitious but realistic goals.
First of all, let’s stop saying “lose weight” because what you really want to do is lose fat, right? You can lose weight by dropping muscle and/or fat, and losing muscle can cause serious problems so you shouldn’t want to do that. If you stick to this plan, you will likely get stronger and thus will build some amount of muscle. Furthermore, your weight can fluctuate wildly day-to-day and even throughout the day depending on what you’ve eaten. Therefore, stop worrying about the number on the scale.
There is no perfect way to track your fat loss and muscle gain, but there are two ways you can easily do at home that should help immensely – the best part is that you likely won’t need to buy anything!
To track your progress, pick a day and time each week to take some pictures of yourself and measure various points on your body. Measure around the same place on your biceps, chest, waist, hips and thighs. Use these numbers to track total fat loss and to ensure that your muscles either stay the same or get larger (depending on your goals.)
Tracking your diet and workouts can be a huge pain in the butt, which is why we like to use apps to our advantage. The best apps are not only easy to use but are accessible everywhere – from smartphones to the Internet. Our favorite apps for logging food are Daily Burn Tracker and MyFitnessPal, but experiment to find the one that you find easiest to use. Once you start using it, log every single thing that goes in your mouth with the one possible exception being things like green vegetables, which pretty much have no calories. Apps like MyFitnessPal also track your measurements for you, so it’s a handy all-in-one app. One word of caution: these apps tend to ridiculously over-estimate calories burned through exercise so don’t track them there. Instead, use…
Fitocracy! Logging your workouts is beneficial not only to track progress, but also the fact that seeing this progress can help keep you motivated to continue. Fitocracy is our favorite app to log workouts as it has a fun gaming element to it (get ALL the achievements!) but also has a supportive community that has built up around it. There is also a handy timeline overview option to see how far you’ve come on your various exercises. Log your workouts, stay motived, learn from others and eventually help others learn.
Remove barriers to make it easier to stick to your plan and achieve your goals. A lot of this will be individual as barriers can vary widely between different lifestyles. Some of the most common barriers are not having a meal plan, not having a ready kitchen, and a lack of planning ahead when dining out.
Spend some time playing around on your diet tracker or, as we mentioned above, on websites like Swole.me. Taking half an hour to figure out how much chicken, potatoes, rice, oats, beef and fish it takes to hit your macros seems small in comparison to how much you have to gain by doing it and being able to stick to the plan.
You can prep your kitchen a couple of ways – first by filling it with the foods determined by your meal plan but also by having plenty of vegetables like lettuce and carrots to have on hand in case you get hungry but are at your limit on calories. Having these things on hand not only helps you eat more nutritiously, but also helps deal with hunger if you have trouble with it.
Make sure that the foods you choose to stock up on are limited and sustainable – or foods that you enjoy and won’t mind eating a lot of. From a nutritional standpoint variety is better, however the opposite is true from an adherence standpoint. Don’t give yourself too much to track, but don’t make yourself miserable.
Another way you can prepare is by having a proper food scale, as noted above. Unless you have a lot of experience in working with food, being able to guess how much you are actually eating can be difficult and very inaccurate. A good food scale is only $15-$20 – if you are serious about being lean and healthy you’ll find a way to get one. A good scale also has the dual benefit of being much more accurate than food scales when cooking (especially baking), however that’s a chemistry lesson for another day.
Generally you can get by as long as you stick to the basics of the diet – if you worked out that day pick a lean meat with a carbohydrate and vegetables. If a rest day, pick a fattier cut with vegetables and skip the carbs. Use your best judgment and don’t be afraid to politely ask your waiter or waitress questions or for substitutions.
If you know where you are going out in advance, Google the restaurant name plus “nutrition” and see if the venue has posted the nutritional information of their items (large chains are required to do this in the United States, however small restaurants are not and are less likely to have this information posted.) This takes the guesswork out and might actually surprise you as far as how high-calorie dining out can be.
Finally, by having realistic goals you are promoting your own success and by being ambitious about those goals you are challenging yourself to work harder to achieve them. Start by picking a smart deficit, eating primarily real, whole foods and plan for long-term success.
To lose a pound of fat, the average person needs to burn around 3,500 kCal. Using the Leangains style of calorie management, you can lose anywhere from .5 to 2 pounds a week safely while keeping your sanity. Some people may not be able to handle the lower calorie restrictions to lose faster, and trying to do it makes them crazy. That’s a diet that is unsustainable and bound to fail – so be realistic with yourself as far as how much you are really willing to cut.
I’ll say it as many times as I need to, choose first and foremost healthy foods and allow yourself a small amount of room for “everything else.” Unhealthy foods are more often than not high calorie and not very filling. While healthier foods like chicken and sweet potato are low calorie and very filling. Most of us aren’t really happy being hungry, so choose first foods that will fill you and if you can work in a treat that fits your macros and won’t make you break your diet out of hunger later – go for it.
Fat loss is a slow process. Getting stronger is a slow process. Getting bigger is an even slower process. You cannot realistically expect to lose 20 pounds in a month. Remember that you are in this for the long haul – you want sustainable, lasting results. On a good plan a much more realistic and sustainable goal is around 1.5 lbs per week. Everyone’s different though and it’s much more important to track measurements than weight.
As I mentioned it takes around a 3,500 kCalorie deficit to burn one pound of fat. Multiply your daily TDEE (estimated total calories burned in a day) by 7 to find how much you burn in a week. Now, figure out how many calories you will consume in a week on your plan ([workout day calories x 3] + [rest day calories x 4]) then subtract it from your estimated weekly calories burned. That will be able to tell you roughly how much you’ll lose in a week. Multiply that by how much you estimate you have to lose, and you should be able to figure out roughly how many weeks until you reach your goal. Mark that date down in a place you’ll see it every day.
The final part of planning for long-term success is to simply stick to it, and at the end of each month assess how you did. Tweak your diet and exercise as necessary to maintain your loss until you reach your goal, then reassess your goals and either work to maintain (much easier than losing!) or progress toward some other goal.
One last time, we’d like to reiterate that this is just the starting point. Take into consideration your goals and that everyone is different, and adjust accordingly. There’s too much genetic diversity for there to be a “one-size-fits-all” diet and eating plan that works for everyone, and different goals require different approaches.
So please just consider this a starting point: page one of your journey to being epic.
For the over-achiever and voracious reader, here’s some additional resources for you to read up on Leangains:
Was this guide clear and useful? Feel free to comment and let us know your thoughts or ask any questions you may have for us below – don’t forget to share what your goals are too!
Photo Credit: Caro Wallis