Many people I train come to me to help them lose body fat and improve their body composition. Through my education and professional experience I have learned a huge amount on the subject but until just over a year ago, I didn’t have first hand experience of training to lose body fat as the primary goal. Up until last year my primary reasons for training would have been to improve my physical strength, capacity, prepare for sports or for the pure enjoyment.
Let’s take a step back in time.
During the summer of 2015, I trained my good friend and FFS member Hugh Ward for the RTÉ television programme. When myself and Hugh first discussed the project, I decided that I was going to train to lose body fat with Hugh. My goal was to achieve a sub 10% body fat for the first time in my life. At the end of the 16 week period Hugh had made fantastic progress dropping 5 kilograms of body fat and increasing his muscle mass by more than 2 kilograms. In addition to these improvements in body composition, he also set personal bests in all measures of physical fitness: in power, strength and aerobic capacity. On a personal note I was a little disappointed.
Upon reviewing my summer training and nutrition in 2015, I concluded I had made the following mistakes:
Hugh was the main priority because we had the pressure of showing what we were doing on national television. I put a lot of pressure on myself to help Hugh to get in the best shape of his life, as I knew that he would give me 100%. I wanted to make sure I did everything in my power to help Hugh including training with him every session. This meant I was doing 3 strength sessions and three cardio sessions per week. I know this helped Hugh but in hindsight this wasn’t the best choice for me, as I was already lean. If I would have increased my muscle mass by another kilogram over the 16 weeks I would have achieved my goal of sub 10% body fat.
Read More: Why I Love to Lift
Too much food
Over the 16 weeks the majority of the food I ate was from unprocessed foods. I consumed protein, healthy fats, vegetables at most meals and carbohydrates first thing in the morning and around training. I cooked the vast majority of my foods and was always prepared in advance. These habits have allowed me to stay consistently lean over the past 3 years and still thoroughly enjoy my eating. I believed that if I could make a few small changes I would have been able to drop below the 10% mark. I worked out that I ate 35 meals per week and 30 of these were in line with my goal of sub 10% body fat. My mind-set was if I could increase this number to 33 meals I would achieve my goal.
The only problem was that I am an eating machine! I love food and have a little bit of a track record for the ability to put away extremely large portions of food in one sitting. Now this might be an impressive party trick (in certain company) or endear me to my friends mothers when I go for dinner. This habit is not ideal if your goal is to lose body fat as maintaining a calorie deficit on a daily basis is important.
I thought I was doing everything I could to achieve my goal and it would be difficult to say I wasn’t working hard. I was training 6 days per week, prepping all 95% of meals and staying consistent for the entire 16 weeks. That being said I was also trying to do a huge amount outside of my training and nutrition. I was allowing my other priorities such as running the gym, growing the business, studying and training other people to creep into my training and recovery time. For example; I would stay up an hour later to finish my emails or plan a program or I would do the same cardio session as Hugh because he was the main priority.
My fat loss experiment 2.0
This summer I had unfinished business and wanted to achieve my previous goal of a sub 10% body fat level. I had learned a huge amount the previous summer and this was the opportunity to achieve the goal, refine the process and learn even more.
Before starting I addressed the five following areas:
As I eluded to earlier, I had made mistakes the previous summer and I was determined to learn from them and do a better job this time.
Based on my learnings from the previous summer, I decided my goal was to reach 8% body fat by the start of August 2016. I decided I would take the following action steps:
4 strength sessions and 2-3 cardio sessions per week.
Eat 4-5 meals per day
Eat until satisfied and not full
Get 1 hour extra sleep per night
Check out my previous post on: Should I be getting stronger?
I wanted to make this goal one of top priorities and in order to do this I had my goal and daily action steps written on my phone, in my diary and on my alarm clock so I was constantly reminded of what I wanted to achieve and how I was going to do it. I even wrote my goal down on my alarm clock; every morning I would see ‘8%’ and this would keep me focused as I started the day.
This was a little daunting at first because part of me feared failure and the other part of me didn’t want to seem cocky telling everyone how lean I wanted to be. The benefit of sharing your goal with other people is that they know what you are trying to achieve and can remind you when your actions don’t match your goal. For example; if I was eating out with friends or family and if I ordered a food that didn’t match my goal someone would ask “What are you doing? I thought you wanted to be 8% body fat”.
I know that making changes can be difficult and it is important to surround yourself with people that will support and inspire you. This summer I wanted to really create an even better support system to help me achieve my goal. In order to do this, I challenged the other trainers in the gym to a 16 week body transformation competition. Rory, Mike, Brian, Craig and I agreed that we would make a bet. Everybody would put 200 euro into the pot and the person who could make the biggest improvement in their body composition would get half the money and give the other half to the charity of their choice.
This little competition led us all to push each other harder than ever in the gym. We were all trying to achieve the same goal and kept each other accountable both inside and outside the gym. In addition, my girlfriend Sarah and my family made offered constant support and cooked numerous healthy meals for me over the 16 weeks. For example cakes became fruit and burgers became steaks. All these little efforts made it easier for me to stick to my daily action steps.
Not only did I learn a huge amount again this summer but I am proud to say that for the first time in my life I managed to achieve a sub 10% body fat level. In fact I managed to surpass my goal and expectations.
As you can see from the image above I managed to reach 5.8% body fat while almost adding 4kg of muscle mass. I wasn’t the only one, all of the trainers decreased their body fat and increased their muscle mass from very good starting points.
The reason I wanted to write this article wasn’t to brag it was to inspire, educate and share what I learned through the experience.
Based on my experience, if you want to improve your body composition, I would recommend that you implement the following habits:
Lift more weights with the aim of getting stronger and increasing your muscle mass.
Eat until satisfied not full. For me this meant eating out of a bowl instead of plate.
Eat more green vegetables. With exception of breakfast, every meal for me included at least one serving of green vegetables. The reason for this was that they helped to fill me and the numerous health benefits. How do you think Popeye became so strong?!
Make your goal a high priority.
Steady state cardio can help you to be leaner and fitter. I added one day of steady state cardio to my weekly training routine. This helped to drop body fat, decreased my resting heart rate and increased my aerobic capacity.
Increase your daily movement. The more you can walk, stand or cycle throughout the day the better. This summer I used a fit bit to track my daily activity and noticed that when I moved more my body composition improved and I felt better.
Enjoy the process and constantly learn and adjust your approach based on your results and how you feel.
I hope this article has demonstrated that improving your body composition doesn’t have to be complicated but you do have to be consistent.
Ciaran is the Co-Founder of and Head of Strength and Conditioning at Fitter Faster Stronger Gyms. Ciaran holds an MSc. in Applied Sports Science and is a qualified personal trainer and certified Precision Nutrition Coach. If you would like to learn more about Ciaran's experience you can check out his profile here or follow him on social media here