You may not have gone complete bear this winter, but you’ve no doubt been in a mini-hibernation: spending more time on the couch under a blanket, eating and drinking your way to an impressive layer of warm fat. If so, you may have felt a twinge of panic at the first sign of warmer weather. Summer is indeed coming and with it, tank tops, shorts, and shirtless days at the beach.
The good news is you have time to shed the winter weight. Assuming, that is, you haven’t gone all-out bear. Leaning out is a matter of choosing healthier habits consistently, day-in and day-out, until your goals are met.
But first, let’s get real. If you think you can lose 20+ pounds in a month or two, prepare to be disappointed. Quick, dramatic weight loss is not only rare but rarely sustainable. It’s just not healthy. You can certainly get started on your weight loss goals and make good progress in a few months’ time, but have a realistic outlook.
What is realistic: Dropping 1-2 pounds per week or an inch or two on your waist over the next few months. You can create habits that lead to a buffer bod, starting today.
The Basics of Getting Lean
There are three main levers in changing your body composition and losing weight:
- adjusting your diet
- burning calories through exercise
- increasing muscle mass
How you use these levers is not only dependent on what your goals are, but what works best with your lifestyle and motivations. Most folks will find dietary adjustments, applied consistently, can carry them towards modest fat loss goals. Others, particularly those who already eat well, may need to add in some cardio to increase their caloric deficit. And for everyone, increasing your body’s metabolism by putting on muscle mass, is a solution that can provide long-term results.
Clean Out Your Fridge, Clean Up Your Diet
The most powerful lever in losing weight, and more specifically, losing fat, is your diet. If your diet were perfect (and barring any health conditions), you wouldn’t be seeking help losing that winter pudge. In other words, there’s likely some room for improvement here. If you’ve spent the last several months eating nothing but garbage, there’s a good chance you’ll see some pretty fast progress in the beginning.
Here are some quick and dirty beginner tips for cleaning up your diet.
- Increase your fruit and vegetable consumption. Not only will these foods deliver crucial vitamins and minerals, they’ll help fill you up on fewer calories. Forget the advice that fruits have too much sugar. If you’ve been feasting on donuts, a banana will hardly derail your progress.
- Drink more water. When you’re not fully hydrated, thirst can be misinterpreted as food cravings. Also, your body just works better when it’s primed with water. “Fluids” are the first thing they give everyone that shows up sick at the hospital — water is a health problem-solver. Get with it.
- Eat the right carbs. We’re not going to tell you to cut out carbohydrates — your body needs them for energy, among other things. But you can eliminate some sources, namely the processed ones. Opt for things like oatmeal, brown rice, potatoes, and whole, unprocessed grains. Skip white pastas and breads, sugary cereals, and baked goods.
- Eat the right fats. Fat gets a bad rap. Good fats like those in fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds should be part of your diet. Keep in mind, fats have more calories than carbs and proteins (nine calories per gram versus four), so you don’t need much. But including an ounce or two with your meals isn’t only good for your heart, it slows digestion and keeps you satisfied longer. Limit (don’t necessarily eliminate) fats from animal proteins, and eliminate trans fats and those found in packaged snack foods.
- Eat more lean protein. Fish, chicken breasts, egg whites, and, if you’re lifting weights in the gym, a protein shake or two, can help you build and maintain muscle mass. This isn’t only important for gym rats, but anyone trying to lose weight — as the goal is to lose fat, not muscle. These sources are also relatively low in calories.
Intermediate tips: If you’ve cleaned up your diet and your progress stalls out, it may be time to count calories. Not fun, but effective, counting calories can be made easier with one of several available apps like MyFitnessPal. Estimate out how many you burn on a daily basis (use a total daily energy expenditure or TDEE calculator online) and how many you’re currently consuming. Then, shave 200-400 calories off your current intake. Maintain that for a few weeks or until progress stalls again, then shave more.
If you’re lethargic or struggle through gym sessions that were once easy, you may have gone too low. Remember, the goal here is healthy weight loss, not torture, so never decrease your calories too drastically all at once.
Advanced tips: Calories are a lever you can only adjust so much. The next step, and one particularly worthwhile for folks who spend a lot of time in the gym, is counting macros, or macronutrients. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats make up all of the foods we eat. Adjusting how many grams of each you get and how you time their consumption can help you finely tune your body composition while making progress in your workouts. There’s a ton of meathead advice out there on how exactly to calculate your macros, but look for sources with legitimate credentials, not just someone with big muscles.
Incorporate Cardio, If You Enjoy That Sort of Thing
Cardiovascular exercise, or that which raises your heart rate for an extended period, is great for the health of your heart and lungs. It also burns calories, which is a perk for those wanting to lose weight. If you enjoy running, cycling, rowing, or interval training — by all means, use it. Aim for 3-5 cardio sessions each week, as this will make it easier to reach the caloric deficit needed for weight loss. It’ll also help you manage water weight, by making you sweat.
But, if cardio work is torture for you — and it is for many people — don’t beat yourself up over it. Why not? We’re looking for sustainable results. Too often we convince ourselves we can do something we hate in order to achieve our goals. But this is rarely the case. What’s more likely is you’ll hit the trail or treadmill hard for a week, skip a session the next, and go full-on couch mode the third — don’t set yourself up for failure. Find something you enjoy, even if it’s walking the dog every night, and set reasonable, achievable goals.
Add Resistance Training to Stoke Your Metabolism
If you’re hiding an Adonis body underneath that insulation, you’re golden — more muscle mass means a higher metabolism, and you’re muscles will become more visible as you slowly whittle away the fat. But if you’ve slacked on lifting weights, using cables, or doing other forms of resistance training, now’s the time to put in some work.
Resistance training can impart some cardiovascular benefits, but it’s great for sculpting your body. If you’re eating at a caloric deficit, you won’t be able to build new muscle tissue, but, resistance training while in a deficit will help you maintain what you have.
If you’re new to lifting, aim for three sessions a week. How you split those workouts, as a beginner, is up to you. You could work on legs one day, your back and biceps the second, and chest, shoulders, and triceps the final day. That’s a typical gym “bro” split and is just one of many ways to plan out your week. As a beginner, your training split (or how you break down various body parts in the gym) is less important than it is for someone who’s been bodybuilding or powerlifting for months. The important thing is that you’re training every muscle group.
By the way, skipping leg day doesn’t just make for good memes, it can impact your fitness goals considerably. Your legs and glutes are some of the largest and most powerful muscles in your body. Working them, as opposed to your biceps, for example, gives you bigger returns for every minute invested.
Aim for 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps, especially if you’re interested in getting your heart rate up while lifting. If not, the rep range is less important than your consistent effort, despite what the bro science may say. But above all: be safe. If you’re unsure how to safely complete a move or use a machine, ask a trainer or look it up on your phone. You don’t want to end up hurt or going viral as a gym fail.
Parting Words About Getting Lean
Losing weight isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would be at an ideal body weight. But the hard part isn’t knowing what to do; it’s the execution. Setting mini-goals, checking in with a friend or trainer, and charting your progress will all help you stay the course. And once summer is over, not falling too far off the wagon will mean an easier time when spring hits again.