The Fastest Way to See Progress

In our completely saturated market, there are endless options for changing your body composition. You can fast, carb cycle, calorie cycle, go keto, eat clean, do the Snake Diet (that’s not even a joke!) or go on one of the many juice/shake routines.

Frankly, it’s exhausting.

One extremely vital truth about body composition change is usually overlooked A. Because many people peddling products or systems don’t know jack about physiology or B. Know enough about physiology but choose to ignore that for money.

That truth is that in the end, all systems are manipulating changes in energy. Energy is not a physical thing I can show you on a display just like I can’t show you a calorie under a microscope. These are not physical objects the way that the food you eat is.

Cold Hard Truths about Calories

Instead, calories are simply a measure of heat energy. One calorie is the amount of energy required to heat one gram of water by one degree Celsius.

That’s it.

Every single item you can think of contains potential energy and if you had the ability to break it down through digestion, you could extract energy from it. In the case of food, we are breaking down proteins, carbohydrates, fats and even alcohol into their smallest constituents and then deriving ATP from those sources.

ATP is the energy transaction unit of the body; it takes ATP to break food down for ATP and breaking down food releases ATP. It’s kind of like making money off a business: you need to have expenses like employees, utilities and equipment that require money (ATP) to run the business which help to bring in more money (more ATP).

Most coaches and social media influencers don’t know this. It doesn’t mean they are wrong, malicious or shady, it just means they don’t understand the concept on a physiological level. Certainly not everyone needs to, most of us know that if we generally eat LESS that we’ll lose weight. That concept drives huge platforms like Weight Watchers which is really about total calorie consumption. They simply assign “points” in place of calorie counting but the idea is the same.

If you’re losing body fat on a program, you have successfully manipulated your calories to create enough of a deficit that you tap into fat stores to meet energy demands.

You can lose WEIGHT but that does not mean any changes in energy balance took place. For instance, replacing all of your carbohydrate calories with fat calories will result in a net calorie change of zero. However, every gram of carbohydrate stores 3-4 grams of water along with it so reducing carbohydrate intake means less water retention in the muscles and liver. Since water obviously weighs SOMETHING (a pint of water weighs a pound!), losing water from eating fewer carbohydrates means the scale will go down. But that can happen with ZERO changes in energy/calorie intake.

It’s one of the reasons as a coach you’d encourage people to weigh themselves, take pictures and measurements in the morning, after they use the bathroom and before they eat or drink anything. The weight of food and liquid in your stomach can make the scale read higher of course just like having urine in your bladder or poop in your intestinal tract can. All of those things register as WEIGHT. If you urinated out a pint of urine and saw the scale go down one pound, that doesn’t mean you lost a pound of fat or muscle, it’s just the weight of the liquid.

This is really basic and common sense. Yet the desire to only manipulate the scale leads many people to look past common sense and feed into what makes them feel good. Trust me, people selling programs that manipulate your weight through carbohydrate restriction, salt restriction or fasting know this, or at least they should.

You may recall from recent blogs that I discussed changes in total body energy stores. When you think about storing energy, fat is not the only tissue to do so. We store triglycerides (fat) in our muscle tissue as well to a small degree. We store glycogen in our muscles and liver. We don’t really store much protein, essentially our muscles are the storage sites of protein – we reserve some amino acids during digestion in the gut but that won’t register much on the scale.

In essence, if you store more protein (amino acids) in your muscles, you’ll have more muscle tissue. If you store more glycogen in your muscles, your muscles will look and feel fuller as glycogen takes up space and stores water along with it. Likewise, if you store more fat in your adipose tissue, you’ll have more body fat.

These are all changes in energy stores and they happen in various sites around the body. Naturally we’d like to optimize more energy (amino acids and glycogen) in our muscle tissue and less energy (tryglycerides) in our fat tissue.

Here’s where it’s easy to celebrate a change in energy storage that does not result in fat loss.

Glycogen depletion doesn't equal fat loss

If you go on a low-carb diet, the first few days (and potentially weeks), you’ll burn through a lot of your muscle glycogen stores, as that is the preferred fuel source for your muscles. If you’re in a calorie deficit, you’ll burn body fat too. If your calorie deficit isn’t that large however, you might spend most of that time simply burning through glycogen without tapping that much into fat stores. Sure, the scale will go down, but you didn’t manipulate the energy stores you really wanted to.

This is why you can go on a low-carb diet and overeat fat and not actually lose any body fat even though the scale might go down. Great, you successfully burned through glycogen but all that excess dietary fat is easily stored in your adipose tissue.

It’s kind of like paying off a loan – simply making a payment doesn’t mean the total loan amount goes down. If you pay too little you might only pay towards the interest, not the principle. If you go low carb without properly creating a calorie deficit, you’ll work off some of the interest (muscle glycogen) without tapping into the principle (fat stores). It’s a forced and clunky example but I think it helps to create a picture.

Now, I am certainly able to admit that if you deplete muscle glycogen quickly, you can give yourself a big head start on burning body fat. A low carb and low calorie diet paired with some glycogen-depleting training will get you tapping into fat stores pretty quickly. One reason is that, in an effort to spare muscle glycogen, when going through rapid depletion you’ll quickly upregulate the amount of body fat used for fuel instead. We have much more energy storage in our body as fat and with glycogen as the preferred and more precious fuel, it is spared in place of fat usage.

All good in terms of trying to get lean. Of course, huge depletions in glycogen (from a low carb and low calorie diet) can help burn a lot more fat. High rates of fatty acid oxidation spare glucose/glycogen as mentioned before but it also helps to spare amino acids. This leaves amino acids to be used towards muscle growth and repair. One of the reasons you can get away with lower protein on a ketogenic diet is that the fatty acid and ketone usage spares protein so you don’t need as much to get the same muscle repair and growth effects.

The kicker is that being on a very low carbohydrate diet (without being keto) sucks, at least from a training perspective. If you are doing any type of athletic/bodybuilding/crossfitting training that requires a decent amount of glycogen, you’re going to feel it. If you aren’t specifically adapting to ketosis then it can become this no man’s land of feeling under-fueled and flat during training, with less ability to kick into a higher gear. Glycolysis is the name of the game for most strength/bodybuilding/sport training and low glycogen obviously hinders this. Sure, you can get ATP to fuel muscular contractions through fatty acids, amino acids and lactate but these are all slower mechanisms.

Pair this with a low calorie diet and it probably won’t be long before you feel generally fatigued. Sleep might be interrupted, you might not feel focused, recovery can take longer and motivation to train can take a dive. A calorie deficit from any source brings muscle protein synthesis down by about 15%; you can of course try to off-set this by consuming more protein while dieting but if you are really restricting calories then you might not have much to work with.

I think these really aggressive low-cal/low-carb plans work best in a cyclical fashion or in short-term bursts to kick start fat loss. I wouldn’t plan on doing 12-16 weeks of training like this.

But, the fastest way to see progress is...?

This leads us back to the question of “what is the fastest way to see progress”? Unlike growing muscle, you can see faster results in fat loss with more extreme calorie changes. There are always trade-offs though. Training intensity and volume tolerance probably go down, recovery goes down and motivation takes a hit. OK, might be worth it if you want to blast off 5-7lbs in a month and then go back to maintenance but for many people with more weight to lose, this can derail them. It’s human nature to swing back the other way after an extreme diet and compensate with more calories, less training and poorer food choices. This is the classic yo-yo dieting that many fall victim to.

The other side of the coin is a moderate calorie deficit (from a mix of carbs and fat) with an appropriate training volume that still allows progress in terms of adding load and reps when possible. The higher your training volume the less of an aggressive cut you probably want to do. If you come in and do 3 sets of just 3 exercises you can most likely take a huge calorie hit. If you are doing 4-5 sets of 6-7 exercises then it’s a different story.

Remember, with a moderate calorie deficit and reasonable training volume you always have room to adjust. A few more sets if tolerated or a small cut in calories to boost progress. However, most people don’t respond well to a giant cut in calories followed by the introduction of more food when the coach realizes they were too aggressive. That feels like failure from the client’s perspective.

When you take into account that women have a large drop in leptin from large increases in training or large decreases in calorie consumption, you can prematurely drive some metabolic rate drop. Any calorie reduction will, over time, coincide with a decrease in metabolic rate. In women, you’ll see larger negative adaptations than in men.

Keep in mind that if you keep carbohydrates moderate for as long as possible, you’ll also see fewer swings in weight on the scale. Smaller changes in carbohydrate consumption mean less drastic muscle glycogen depletion which means fewer shifts in water weight. Large shifts in water weight can really mess with people’s heads and keeping this as consistent for as long as possible can help drive adherence.

Two roads, same destination

We can take the example of a low-cal/low-carb diet resulting in more glycogen depletion and thus faster utilization of body fat as fuel. Clearly lower calories, lower carbs and more training will net us larger changes in weight on the scale along with faster fat loss. Cool.

The other example, of a moderate calorie deficit combined with a moderate training program will bring about smaller, more incremental and more consistent changes in weight and fat loss.

Neither is better.

However,, lets follow the client from the first example 12 months later to the client from the second example 12 months later. Often, client #1 on the more drastic plan rebounds with food bingeing or maybe just slowly drops out of the program from feeling burned out. This client often feels guilty, convinces themselves they didn’t work hard enough and inevitably try another extreme program after a period of non-compliance.

Client #2 might see slower progress but can keep plugging along for months at a time making progress in both strength and hypertrophy because, even though in a calorie deficit, has enough energy coming from food and fat utilization to have good productive training. When you combine this with feeling fuller and more satiated for longer because of less drastic calorie changes, they can keep the program running longer.

A high compliance person might be able to crush a low-cal/low-carb plan and a high-volume program if they have all their ducks in a row. Awesome sleep, good stress management, hydration, lots of veggies, optimal protein and useful strategies to keep hunger at bay. But, it’s a lot to tackle and becomes increasingly difficult over time.

Calorie. Deficit.

Over the past year or two I have seen Jordan Syatt really beating home the idea of creating a calorie deficit and then just sticking to it as the “secret” so many people are looking for. I couldn’t agree more. We have advanced strategies at our disposal but if you do an audit of most people’s daily nutrition, habits, sleep, stress management and training, they can’t handle MORE. In fact, even with fasting, cutting carbs etc people still manage to NOT lose weight.

The issue is that weight loss that stays off is our white whale, our unicorn. It is probably the most elusive factor in all of our nutrition and training. Managing to create a simple calorie deficit and then doing that daily for months on end.

Many of the other things fall to the wayside; you can do more or less training, you can eat less fat or less carbs, you can skip breakfast and so on. These are all ways to arrive at the same destination: a calorie deficit. Or, as Jordan puts it, a “fucking calorie deficit”.

It’s the elephant in the room that so few of us will address and yet it is painfully obvious and staring us in the face. It’s also the lowest hanging fruit. It just so happens to also be the least exciting.

Arrive at your calorie deficit any way you want but remember, the thing you can stick to for the longest will produce the best results. Most bodybuilders getting ready for a contest where they’ll compete at 5% body fat start dieting 6 months away from the show. They’re also probably already more muscular and leaner than you before they ever start that fat loss cycle. Yet, those of us training at half their volume, with more body fat and less muscle think we can sneak all that into 6 weeks. Uh…not happening.

I’ve worked with plenty of clients who didn’t even formally exercise. I’d convince them more often than not to start walking every day but time and time again, these folks manage to lose body fat without strength training, carb depletion, calorie cycling or fasting. Any and all of those things can be useful of course (strength training especially as the benefits go way way beyond expending calories) but the point is that the calorie deficit is the freaking show and everyone else who is added to the production are supporting actors.

Don’t waste your time on who the lighting guy is or how many background extras there are if the star of the production hasn’t even shown up.