To transform your brain as well as your body, we’ve compiled a guide to everything you need to know to build a lean, defined body.
1. Think Process, Not Outcome
According to the science of habit change, goals should be quantifiable. That means “Lose weight” or “Look good with my shirt off” is less likely to pay off than “Lose 3kg by June”.
But even the latter isn’t ideal: it’s an example of an outcome goal – like “Make a million pounds over the next 12 months” – that you don’t have direct control over. If things get stressful at work, your hormones start to fluctuate or you get a flare-up from an old injury or the flu, your progress will be derailed and the downward spiral starts.
What you can control is your behaviour. “If you want to lose weight, the best approach is to start by understanding what behaviours will lead to doing it,” says trainer and Precision Nutrition coach Jess Wolny. “Examples might include drinking a glass of water with every hot drink you take on board, avoiding alcohol for at least three days out of seven, or learning to cook one new healthy meal every week.” If you focus on the process – which is under your control – the outcomes will come on their own.
The plan: “Write down the outcome you want, then write down some of the skills you need to get there,” says Wolny. “For instance, if you want to lose fat but don’t know which foods have the highest protein content, that’s something you should work on. Next, come up with a specific behaviour you can practise today – learning to cook scrambled eggs, say – and do it. Keep working on your food skills the next day, and the next, and don’t freak out if you miss a day – just carry on.”
The bonus: weight loss comes and goes, but skills stay forever. Once you’ve learned to julienne a red pepper, you’ll never have to learn it again.
2. Calories Do Count (Sort Of)
In the strictest sense, it’s true that if you take in more calories than you burn through activity or exercise, you’ll put on weight – and if you burn more than you eat, you’ll lose it. But calorie counting isn’t as simple as that.
First, it’s an imprecise science, since methods of counting them vary, while the amount of calories we absorb from food changes based on everything from the way it’s prepared (cooking typically makes more calories available for absorption) to our individual gut bacteria (people with the highest proportion of firmicutes bacteria absorb around 150 calories a day more than those with the lowest).
Besides, it’s tricky to calculate calories accurately without carrying a scale or a measuring spoon: one teaspoon of peanut butter has around 100 calories, but was that blob you just gobbled more or less than a teaspoon?
It’s also tough to be sure how much you’re burning – everything from your genetics and weight loss history to your body’s brown fat levels and sleep habits can influence your burn rate.
Finally, there’s overwhelming evidence that calorie restriction alone won’t get it done. In one of the most famous studies, published in the Archives Of Internal Medicine (and admittedly conducted in 1959), only 12% of patients treated for obesity via calorie restriction lost weight, and only 2% maintained their weight loss for two years after treatment.
So should you even worry about calories at all? One thing they can do is indicate where you’re going seriously wrong.
The plan: If you aren’t keeping track, it’s easy to overlook the latte and croissant on your commute (a 500-calorie gut punch) or the half-dozen biscuits you mainline during the 11am meeting. Spend three or four days noting everything you eat (treats included) to get an idea of where you can make easy savings, then focus on making good food choices rather than slavishly recording every strawberry you ever eat.
3. Nutrients Are Key
Not all food is created equal. Hopefully, you realise that 100 calories of energy from broccoli is nutritionally different from 100 calories from Ben & Jerry’s. So it’s worth considering the macronutrient and micronutrient make-up of your diet.
When it comes to macros – carbs, protein and fats – it might be worth reducing the former if you want to lose body fat: a 2012 study published by the Journal Of The American Medical Association found that volunteers on a low-carb diet had the highest everyday calorie expenditure after the diet was over, which researchers suggested came from better insulin control leading to fewer calories being stored as fat.
The plan: Replace carbs by upping your protein. A 2004 review of studies concluded that higher protein intake increases satiety (probably by reducing levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin) and also boosts your body’s propensity to burn fat.
Take stock of your fat intake too. Several studies suggest that eating monounsaturated fats can help optimise the way your body processes carbohydrates, directing them to muscle tissue rather than fat stores. Cook with olive oil, eat avocados or flaxseeds, and – if you’re having trouble getting enough healthy fat elsewhere – supplement with fish oil.
Macros sorted? Time to turn to micronutrients. “Aim to eat vegetables with every meal,” says trainer Adam Wakefield. “Not only do they satisfy carb cravings, but they have beneficial effects that range from tissue repair to immunity. As a rule, you can have as much leafy or cruciferous veg as you like, but take it easier on starchy carbs like sweet potatoes.”
And consider supplements: vitamin D, for instance, works with other nutrients to sustain the body’s metabolic rate, but it’s hard to get enough from sunlight in Britain. A fish oil tablet can help too – there’s evidence that it helps to regulate insulin sensitivity.
4. Strategy Beats Willpower
You’re planning to eat healthy, but something comes up at work and you end up staying too late for cooking to be an option. So it’s a dash through the ready-meal aisle, then a bag of crisps on the way home to keep your blood sugar levels up. Might as well write today off, right?
There’s a better way. The science of willpower is a hot topic: until recently, it was accepted that it was a finite resource, drained by everything you do. Now, some scientists argue that it’s based on self-perception, so if you see yourself as a strong-willed individual, you’ll act accordingly.
The good news is it doesn’t actually matter – if you opt for strategic thinking over get-it-done grit, life gets easier anyway.
The plan: “Don’t rely on making good food decisions on the go – make planning a key part of your training week,” says Wolny. “Treat it like learning new gym moves: start with basic, big-bang-for-your-buck stuff like learning how to shop or prep better, then move on to fine-tuning specific recipes or habits. If you have to cut down from four workouts to three to fit that in, it’s worth it.”
Plan your meals for the week on Sunday, then prep what you can – chopped vegetables, cooked meat – on Sunday or Monday. “Make one new meal a week, then next week cook it again – with tweaks if necessary – and add something new to the repertoire,” says Wolny. “Your ultimate aim is to be able to throw together a meal out of almost anything.”
If it works for you, do your food shopping online: you’ll avoid impulse buys and create a list of basics that’s easy to re-order. And keep your spice rack well stocked – almost everything in it, from cayenne pepper and cumin to turmeric, has fat-burning properties. The most important thing? Focus on a food schedule you can stick to for the long term.
5. Not All Fat Is Equal
Having some subcutaneous fat – the type under your skin – is essential, and possibly even desirable. The problem? As you age (or eat badly) your body loses this “good” fat and stores more visceral fat around your belly, between your organs and streaked through your muscles.
And there’s evidence that when this fat builds up, it releases substances that interfere with your body’s ability to process glucose, leading to insulin resistance and hampering your body’s ability to burn fat.
Basically, the bigger you are, the less able your body is to burn fat.
It’s also known to cause inflammation in the colon and artery walls, and may affect mood by messing with your endorphins and the stress hormone cortisol.
And the news gets worse: in a 2015 study that tracked 15,000 people, researchers found that otherwise slim adults with an above-average waist-to-hip ratio – a key indicator of visceral fat – had an higher risk of death than people with a similar bodyweight but smaller waist.
To find out if you’re in the high-risk category, measure the circumference of your hips at their widest point and your waist, then divide the waist number by the hip number. A result higher than 1 means you’re carrying too much weight around your middle, putting you at increased risk of obesity-linked problems including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The plan: The good news? According to several studies, visceral fat may be the easiest type to lose via lifestyle changes (because it’s the stuff your body stores for emergencies).
First, get more exercise. In 2012, researchers at Harvard Medical School identified a hormone called irisin, secreted during exercise, that improves blood sugar regulation and led to weight loss in mice. Studies suggest that it works by tricking visceral fat into acting like brown fat, the form that burns energy.
Second, stay off the booze – there’s evidence that even moderate intake can increase abdominal fat, so your two-pints-after-work habit could be causing internal havoc.
6. Lift Weight To Lose Weight
Shifting iron isn’t everyone’s first choice when it’s time to trim the fat – but it should be. “Weight training with reasonably heavy weights and rest periods of 60 seconds or less is ideal for fat loss,” says trainer James Adamson. “First, it produces metabolic stress, which forces your body to burn calories for recovery. Second, it builds muscle, which raises your resting metabolic rate so you’re burning calories even when you aren’t training. Training for fat loss is about maximising the all-day burn.”
If you want to speed things up and are prepared for some unpleasantness, there’s an even faster way: high-intensity resistance training, also known as HIRT.
In a 2013 study published in the ever-popular journal Lipids In Health And Disease, people who did a HIRT workout of three exercises for three sets of six reps each lost more fat in around 30 minutes a session than a control group lifting more weight, over more exercises, in 60 minutes.
The plan: To bring the HIRT to your training, split your workout into three or four big compound moves and use a technique known as “rest-pause”. After your final set of each move, take a 15-second break, go to failure again, and repeat. Ideally, you’ll get around ten reps on your initial set, six on your first rest-pause set, and three on your final, horrible one.
Alternatively, finish with a cluster set. For your final set, do as many sets of three reps as possible, taking 20 seconds of rest between each mini-set.
For a bonus fat-burn, pair up your moves. Twinning a deadlift with a bench press, or a front squat with a pull-up, will keep your workrate high and turn your body into a fat-burning furnace.
7. Be Smart With Cardio
For high-speed fat loss, the evidence is clear: fast or slow cardio is best, with moderate a distant third.
In one of the best-designed studies on exercise intensity, published in the journal Metabolism, subjects were put on a 20-week “traditional” endurance programme or a 15-week high-intensity plan. The HIIT group lost nine times as much fat (tested via skinfold measuring) as the traditional group. The scientists concluded that interval training improves metabolic rate so you continue to burn fat after exercise.
But slow exercise? Yes, walking works too. “It’ll stress your system less and is easier to recover from than jogging,” says Adamson. “So it’ll spare your hard-earned muscle while giving you a gentle fat loss boost.”
It’ll also avoid spikes in cortisol, the stress hormone which, among other things, puts your metabolism on pause and can lead to a build-up in body fat. Experts call exercise that fits into this category low-intensity steady state (LISS).
The plan: Aim for three or four weights-based workouts a week, with cardio included via either one or two separate high-intensity sessions, or a short “finisher” after your main workout.
You don’t even need kit: in a 2015 study that compared 15 high-intensity exercises, burpees beat everything but battle ropes for causing a fat-burning response.
“If you’re an experienced trainer, do sprints outside or using cardio kit,” says Adamson. “The rower and bike actually work better than the treadmill, since you don’t have to worry about timing your jump onto the belt.”
Aim for a 1:3 work/rest ratio, so 15 seconds on, 45 seconds resting. And do as much LISS as possible: walking the dog or taking a lunchtime stroll will give you a fat loss boost without affecting appetite or recovery.