The 3 Keys To Fat Loss

Fine tune your nutrition and exercise to maximize fat loss. This fat loss guide provides a wealth of information and tips to help you reach your goals.

Ripped Six PackMany people have the desire to lose weight. More specifically, many people desire to lose bodyfat (BF). However, most of those people do NOT know how to go about it. They see conflicting messages everywhere, from one fad diet to another, one person telling them one thing about training and someone else telling them differently.

Those who are successful at fat loss know their body well and how it responds to different aspects of nutrition and training manipulation. Those who do not know look to those who ARE successful and try to emulate their methods. What everyone needs to remember is that everything is individual. What works for one person may not work for another.

However, there are three keys to fat loss that apply to everyone:

  1. Goal Setting
  2. Nutrition
  3. Exercise

Each key is important, and without one of those keys, whilst one may lose weight/body fat for a time, they are less likely to keep that weight/body fat off.

This article is going to discuss each key, and make suggestions on how to utilize them effectively for fat loss.

Fat Loss Key #1: Goal Setting

The first thing that you need to do, before you look at diet and exercise, is to set goals. Look at where you are now, and what you want to be. Your end goal can be whatever you want, because as long as you give yourself a realistic timeframe to achieve it in, you can achieve anything that you want! Once you have set your long-term goal, then you need to set smaller goals – these are your short-term goals that will help you get to your long-term goal.

Goals made should be SMART goals.

  • S = Specific – You must be specific in what your goals is - i.e. I want to lose 4% BF in 8 weeks.
  • M = Measurable – You must be able to measure your progress towards achieving your goal - i.e. % body fat can be measured doing a 6-8 skin fold body composition test every week.
  • A = Adjustable – Your goals must be able to be adjusted if for whatever reason something happens and they no longer become realistic for the period that you have set yourself.
  • R = Realistic – Your goals must be realistic - i.e. losing 4% body fat in 8 weeks is realistic; losing 4% body fat in 2 weeks is NOT.
  • T = Time-Based – You must set a time frame over which you want to achieve your goal; have specific start and finish dates- i.e. I want to lose 4% body fat in the period 13 July to 6 September.

Drink Water

Fat Loss Key #2: Nutrition

Once you have set your goal(s), the second thing you need to look at is your diet. Diet is the most IMPORTANT component to fat loss, comprising 80-90% of your success.

When you look at your nutrition you should think “diet”, as defined by a diet plan that can only be sustained for short periods of time (i.e. low calorie or low carbohydrate diets). When you think “diet”, you should think lifestyle eating (i.e. your diet should be something that you can easily maintain all year round, with the only thing you change about it being the amount of calories consumed, based upon your body goal).

Your diet plan should incorporate 6 principles:

  1. Adequacy – Your diet provides enough energy and nutrients to meet your needs (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007).
  2. Balance – Not over consuming any single type of food (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007).
  3. Energy Control – You need to know what your energy needs are (i.e. maintenance), and allow for that; to ensure that you get the nutrients that you require without going in excess of your required calories, use foods that have a high nutrient density (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007).
  4. Nutrient Density – Select foods that deliver the most nutrients for the least energy (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007).
  5. Moderation – Moderating portion sizes; and consuming foods that contain high fat and sugar in moderation (Wardlaw & Hampl. 2007).
  6. Variety – Eating a variety of foods day-to-day (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007).

Diet Tips for Fat Loss

Here are some tips on diet for fat loss:

First, you need to work out what your maintenance calories are (There are various methods and equations that you can use to calculate this; most take into account current body mass, height, and activity level). For fat loss you need to make sure that you are having up to 500 calories LESS than maintenance. Depending on how fast or slow you lose the fat you can adjust and tweak your calorie intake each week.

Eat Frequently. Eat every 2-3 hours after waking. This helps keep the metabolism going throughout the day, as well as keeping insulin levels stable (you can see that 3 meals is simply NOT enough, even if they are in small portions).

Complex Carbohydrates. Every meal should have complex carbohydrates [CHO] (i.e. kumara, rice, oats, etc.), quality lean protein (i.e. chicken breast, fish, tuna, salmon, lean beef, egg whites, etc.), and fibrous complex carbohydrates (i.e. vegetables, green ones in particular).

Fat LossDo NOT avoid fat (except Saturated fat and Trans fats). You need fat in your diet, as fat plays major roles in energy metabolism and other parts of your body (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007). Make sure to have at least 30-60 grams of good fats (i.e. flaxseeds or flax seed oil, fish oils, peanut butter, nuts - especially almonds and walnuts, hemp seed oil, olive oil, etc.) per day (i.e. this is ~2 tbsp of flaxseed oil or peanut butter) or 15-30% of your daily energy intake (Lambert, Frank & Evans, 2004).

Do NOT avoid complex carbohydrates. You NEED at least 50-100 grams of complex carbohydrates per day for your body to burn fat effectively and to provide the energy requirements of your brain and central nervous system (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007). A good guideline is to have at least 1 gram of CHO per kg of body mass per day as a MINIMUM (Burke, 2006).

No Extra Sugar. The only sugar needed on a regular basis is the natural sugar found in food; these are mostly found in fruit. Too much sugar plays havoc with insulin levels; you want these as stable as possible throughout the day. The best time to be having sugar is straight after a resistance workout, when the body is trying to replenish muscle glycogen stores (Burke, 2006).

Therefore, make sure that you have a protein shake with some simple sugar (i.e. fruit smoothie with ice and protein powder is great here) as soon as possible after your resistance training (Lambert, et al., 2004; Tarnopolsky, 2006), and then a proper meal (i.e. including ~50 grams of complex CHO, ~30 grams of protein, fibrous CHO) about 30 minutes after your post-workout shake.

Eat Enough Protein. Consume adequate protein, to prevent muscle loss and maintain a relatively high thermic effect (Lambert, et al., 2004). Depending on your level of activity and sex, it is recommended to have between 0.8-1.7 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight per day, with females requiring ~15% less protein than their male counterparts (Tarnopolsky, 2006), or 25-30% of your daily energy intake provided by protein for muscle sparing effects (Farnsworth, Luscombe & Noakes, Wittert, Argyiou & Clifton, 2003).

2 Servings of Dairy. It has been proven that two servings of dairy per day help you lose more fat than if you avoid it altogether (DiSilvestro, 2007).

Drink Enough Water. At a minimum your body requires 2.2-3.0 liters of water per day to cover its water needs. For those with higher energy outputs (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007), good recommendation is to drink 4.5 liters (i.e. a gallon) of water per day. This will help keep your system clean.

Do not drink tea or coffee. Try drinking GREEN tea instead; it helps with thermogenesis, and is especially good if you take it one hour before doing cardio first thing in the morning.

Do not drink alcohol. Alcohol has no nutritional value and is full of calories (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007).

Cut Down on Salt. Minimize salt addition to food. Instead, flavor meals with herbs and spices (i.e. ginger, cumin, cayenne pepper, curry powder, chili powder, and garlic all help thermogenesis).

Eat Natural. Eat most food as 'natural' as possible. This means fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, grains, etc. Try not to eat too much packaged food, as it is full of extra calories and sugar (Wardlaw & Hampl, 2007).

It's OK to Cheat. Most importantly, remember that it is ok to cheat every now and then. Actually the body needs cheat meals. By throwing all the guidelines just mentioned out of the way and having a day where you eat what you want it helps not only your mind,  but also in preventing your body from going into starvation mode (i.e. where the body battles you to hold onto the fat as much as it can).

If you prefer not to ‘cheat’, then add in 1-2 higher calorie days (i.e. go up to just above Maintenance, or Bulking, or even slightly higher), with the extra calories coming from quality complex carbohydrates.

Supplements and Fat Loss

Supplements should not be a big deal, as most fat loss can be done through simply eating the right food at the right time; and unless everything that you are doing is already done to ensure the maximum results in the timeframe that you want to achieve it in, and then supplementation should not be the focus. However, there are a few supplements that I think are important to any regime:

  • A multivitamin (although you should be eating as much of a variety of food as possible, in order to meet the RDI/AI of most nutrients from actual food).
  • Creatine monohydrate. Creatine helps the body to recover faster, as well as indirectly aiding in increasing strength levels and lean body mass (Burke, et al., 2006; McArdle, Katch & Katch, 2007).
  • Flax seed/Hemp seed/Fish Oil. This is the GOOD fats. Flax seed or Hemp seed oil is great with breakfast or in protein shakes.
  • Protein Powder. This just helps for the in-between meals, or after the gym, and to make sure that you get enough protein in.

Apart from these four ‘staple’ supplements, you do not need much else. You especially do not need fat-burners or thermogenics; they are a waste of time unless you are already lean and are looking for that ‘extra edge’ to lose the last 1-2% BF (i.e. like a fitness competitor, etc.)

Fat Loss Key #3: Exercise

You will lose fat by dieting alone, but not as effectively as you would using a calorie controlled diet and exercise plan. If you just dieted, you would end up as a smaller version of yourself. Exercise helps you to build muscle (which helps you to burn more calories and lose more fat in the process), as well as helping you feel good about yourself, and providing a way to distress.

Fat LossThe FITT and SOAP principles should be applied to your exercise program:

  • F = Frequency – “The number of training sessions completed in a given time period” (Baechle, Earle & Wathen, 2000, p. 401).
  • I = Intensity - The level of exertion that you are training at (Baechle, et al., 2000) - i.e. if you are training for basic strength you will be using 80-90% of your one repetition maximum (Wathen, Baechle & Earle, 2000).
  • T = Time – How long the session lasts for (Baechle, et al., 2000) - i.e. resistance training should last no longer than 45-50 minutes.
  • T = Type – What mode of exercise is being performed (Baechle, et al., 2000) - i.e. aerobic, anaerobic, strength, power, etc.
  • S = Specificity – Training you in a manner specific to producing the training adaptation or goal achievement desired (Baechle, et al., 2000) – i.e. you must be training for fat loss. “Specificity also relates to the athlete’s sport season. As an athlete progresses through the pre-season, in-season, and postseason, all forms of training should gradually progress in an organized manner from generalized to sport specific” (Baechle & Earle, 2000, p. 394) – i.e. if you are an athlete your off-season would be general conditioning, progressing to strength and power work, then speed, and eventually to sports specific exercises. “The more similar the training activity is to the sport movement, the greater the likelihood that there will be a positive transfer to that sport” (Baechle, et al., 2000, p. 400).
  • O = Overload - “Refers to assigning a workout or training regime of greater intensity than the athlete is accustomed to. Without the stimulus of overload, even an otherwise well-designed program greatly limits the athlete’s ability to make improvements... Overload training principles ensure that the muscles involved in the selected exercises are those that the sport relies on and that the loads are sufficient to challenge the athlete to become stronger, larger, faster, and more resistant to fatigue” (Baechle, et al., 2000, p. 394) i.e. if you are training for strength, then if you do not consistently increase weights lifted during resistance training, then you are not overloading the muscles enough to get stronger. It is only when the body is consistently pushed that gains are made (McArdle, et al., 2007).
  • A = Adaptation - Training must be continually progressing via overload; otherwise [positive] adaptations can be lost quickly and performance can begin to decline, with fitness and conditioning sometimes returning to its initial state (Baechle, et al., 2000) – i.e. if there was no periodization to your training and you perpetually did the same thing, then either your body would stop making adaptations and progressing.
  • P = Progression - “The intensity of the training must become progressively greater. Progression, when applied properly, promotes long-term training benefits” (Baechle, et al., 2000, p.394) – i.e. this is why you must change your training program every 4-6 weeks, to ensure that you are providing new challenges and continually getting results.

The best exercise program for losing fat is one that includes weights, cardio (mostly in the form of high intensity training), and flexibility (to help your muscle flexibility and joints).

Resistance Training

If you are a beginner, you can start off with 2 days per week (Faigenbaum & McInnis, 2003). Otherwise, I would recommend a 3 or 4 day split. Each body part should be trained once a week; this gives it plenty of time to recover before the next training session. For example, Monday = Legs & Abs, Tuesday = Chest & Back, Thursday = Shoulders & Traps, Friday = Arms & Abs. (You only need to do Abs twice a week; it works the same as any other body part).

Exercises that you should be doing are multi-joint, compound exercises, as they use more than one muscle, and are the most effective for not only building muscle, but also in burning fat, because they are recruiting more of your body to perform the exercise (Heyward, 2006) than isolation exercises (these are a waste of time unless you are looking for a pump close to competition).

Fat Loss

The best compound exercises that you can do are the squat and the deadlift, as they use pretty much every muscle in your body (Baechle, et al., 2000). Other compound exercises that are good to include are the power clean, bench press, shoulder press, pull-ups, dips, and calf raises (the only isolation exercise that’s really good).

You should be doing at least 2 exercises for each muscle group, with 4 sets of 6-10 (even up to 12) reps per exercise, with 1-2 minutes recovery in between (the shorter the recovery, the lighter your weights will possibly be, which will give you a ‘cardio’ workout as well).

Be sure that you always use good form for every exercise; otherwise you are putting yourself at risk for injury. All reps should be controlled and with good form. It is not about how much you can lift, but how well you lift. You will get stronger as you keep at it (although maybe not so much when trying to lose fat, but this depends on the individual).

You should never spend longer than 45-50 minutes in total lifting (i.e. your session should take that long from the time you walk in to the time you walk out, excluding if you do a warm-up – and this is strictly your own preference); otherwise you become too catabolic and can end up losing muscle.

You also need to change your weights program around slightly every 4-6 weeks, just so that your body does not get used to it and stop adapting (Epley, 2004). This can be as little as changing the order of exercises in a session or the number of sets and/or reps that you do for an exercise (and it only needs to be one exercise changed at a time, small adjustments over the weeks).

Here’s a sample circuit plan for a beginner:

This is a very basic routine, designed to get you 'used' to resistance training and condition your body for it, building a base to work on, whilst also targeting your goals (Aaberg, 1999). After 4-6 weeks you will need to change your program.

Instructions: Do an easy 10 minute warm-up. Select weights that you can do for said reps on each exercise (but not too much more), and use these for the entire session. Complete exercises in order from 1-8, with minimal recovery (ideally it should be moving from one exercise to another; but since you are a beginner 30-60 seconds will be ok). At the end of one set (i.e. 1-10) rest for 1-2 minutes, and then repeat.

Fat LossYou can increase to 3 sets after 2-4 weeks (or as you see fit). Stretch full-body for 5 minutes after session. This should take ~45 minutes in total. Every week your weights should increase (i.e. not on all sessions, but keep weights the same for a week, and increase as you can for the next week's sessions), so that you keep challenging your body.

  1. Dumbbell/Barbell Squats 2 x 12 (changing stance can change which muscle are targeted more: narrow stance hits quadriceps more, wide stance hits gluteals and hamstrings more; sumo stance hits gluteal and adductors more, etc.)
  2. Dumbbell/Barbell Romanian Deadlifts 2 x 10
  3. Calf Raises (on a step) 2 x 15-25
  4. Pull-Ups 2 x as many as possible (with a minimum of 6 reps; when you've done what you can then go to the Lat Pull-Down, and finish the set there)
  5. Push-Ups 2 x as many as possible
  6. Dumbbell Shoulder Press - 2 x 12-15
  7. Dips 2 x 12-15 (do as many as possible as you can with your bodyweight; when you've done what you can then go doing Bench Dips, and finish the set there)
  8. Crunches 2 x 50

I highly recommend getting a personal trainer if you are a beginner, so that you can be shown the correct technique (very important) for each exercise. Personal trainers can be there with you for your first few sessions, to determine starting weights, as you get acquainted with resistance training. They also provide motivation, support, and a source for accountability.

Here’s a sample resistance plan for a more experienced lifter:

This is just a basic sample program. You may want to do a different split – i.e. push/pull, or upper body/lower body etc.; whatever suits you.

Legs & Abs:

  1. Barbell Squat 4 x 8-10 (can do this either front or back)
  2. Barbell Deadlift 4 x 6-8
  3. Standing Calf Raises 6 x 6 (This set-rep combination has given me the best development and definition in my calves).
  4. Abs – ~100 reps total of any abdominal exercises (stick to the basics, like crunches, weighted crunches, rope crunches, knee raises, hanging knee raises, etc.) – i.e. 3-4 exercises of 10-15 reps per exercise, done as a superset, with 30-60 seconds recovery in between.

Chest & Back:

  1. Flat Barbell Bench Press 4 x 8-10
  2. Close-Grip Pull-Ups 4 x as many as possible (this is a VERY hard exercise, and if you can only do 1-2 to start with by yourself, put a bench under your feet, so that you can start yourself up at the top, and then lower yourself slowly for a negative rep; this still works the muscle big-time!) – i.e. aim for 6-8 reps, and do whatever you can by yourself and then do negative reps to make it up to 6-8.
  3. Incline Barbell Bench Press 4 x 8-10
  4. Bent Over Barbell Row 4 x 8-10

Note: You may want to use dumbbells instead of the barbell for the bench press; this is personal preference.

Shoulders & Traps:

  1. Seated Barbell/Dumbbell Shoulder Press 4 x 10
  2. Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raises 4 x 10-12
  3. Lying Dumbbell Rear Raises 4 x 10-12
  4. Dumbbell Shrugs or Barbell Upright Row 4 x 8-10

Arms & Abs:

  1. Dips 4 x as many as possible (you can do bench dips if you want instead, where you put your hands shoulder-width apart on a bench and your feet on the floor, knees bent at 90 degrees, thighs parallel to the floor, and lower yourself until your elbows are at 90 degrees flexion) – this is a very hard exercise.
  2. Close-Grip Flat Barbell Bench Press 4 x 6-8
  3. Standing Close-Grip Barbell Bicep Curl  4 x 8-10
  4. Incline Dumbbell Bicep Curl 4 x 8-10
  5. Abs - ~100 reps total

Fat Loss


Whilst long, slow cardio burns calories, you require long periods of time to do it. Some even recommend doing two hours of cardio a day, or double cardio sessions, to lose fat, but it simply not necessary.

The most effective way to burn fat through cardio is to do either:

  • Interval training (i.e. efforts); or
  • Cardio at a HIGHER intensity (i.e. just going out and running as fast as you can over a certain distance, instead of 45 minutes at a 60% HRmax).

Layne Norton (2005) explains why high intensity cardio is better than low intensity cardio here.

Forget about the ‘Fat Burning Zone’; it does not matter what fuel you use during cardio, as your body will burn other substrates during the rest of the day (i.e. if you burn fat during cardio it will use CHO the rest of the day, and vice versa) (Norton, 2005).

When I first attempted to lose fat (and I still do this NOW) I used ‘Guerrilla Cardio’ (GC) (Kennedy, 2001): This is tabata intervals done sprinting (instead of on a bike). You jog lightly for 4 minutes as a ‘warm-up’; then you do 8 x 20 seconds hard-out-as-fast-as-you-can sprints/efforts, and jog easy for 10 seconds after each one; finishing with a 4 minutes easy jog ‘cool-down’.

I do GC (or variations of it; now I increase how many efforts I do, and sometimes do up to 3 days a week, with a rest day between each one, as it is very hard and takes a lot out of you. If you do this, and you are doing weights and eating to lose fat, then you will most definitely see results.

If you feel that you need to do more cardio, then you can do brisk walks every other day, or perhaps a run (but no more than 30 minutes; after 30 minutes of running you are very catabolic and are likely to lose muscle, which you do not want happening). Skipping, stair sprinting/running, or rowing, are the next highest calorie burners after sprinting.


Stretch for 10-20 minutes per day, preferably after you have done either cardio or weights, while your muscles are still warm, as this decreases the risk of injury. Stretching makes sure that you can move more freely and easily and helps elongate the muscles, ligaments, and tendons (Aaberg, 1999; Liemohn, 2003).

Remember that when it comes to exercise more is not always best! You want maximal results for minimal time. You also need to remember that some of this is experimental, and about finding what works best for you, since everyone is different and responds differently to different exercise programs.


The first step to successful fat loss is to set a goal. Your goal should follow the principles of smart goal-setting.

Once you have set your goal, then you need to look at your nutrition. Your diet should be individualized for you, to ensure that you get the results that you want in the timeframe that you want them. Your diet should follow the principles of adequacy, balance, energy control, nutrient density, moderation, and variety.

The last piece of the fat loss puzzle is exercise. Your exercise program should follow the FITT and SOAP principles; and include resistance training (2-4 times weekly), cardio (predominantly in the form of high intensity sessions), and flexibility (to aid your joints and muscles).

As long as you are eating right for you for fat loss, doing weights 2-4 times per week, doing cardio 3 or more times per week for 12-30 minutes per day (depending on the intensity; the higher the intensity the shorter you do it for!), and allowing your body to recover (this is very important; if you do too much, then your body will not be able to recover properly and you will not get the results you want, since your body only adapts and gets results in the recovery time!), then you will successfully lose fat!

Reference List

  • Aaberg, E. (1999). Resistance training instruction: Advanced principles and techniques for fitness professionals. United States of America: Human Kinetics.
  • Baechle, T. R., Earle, R. W. & Wathen, D. (2000). Resistance Training. In T. R. Baechle & R. W. Earle (Eds.).  Essentials of strength training and conditioning (2nd ed.) (p. 395-421). Hong Kong: Human Kinetics.
  • Burke, L. (2006). Nutrition for recovery after training and competition. In L. Burke & V. Deakin. (Eds.). Clinical sports nutrition (3rd ed.). (p. 415-453). NSW, Australia: McGraw Hill.
  • Burke, L., Cort, M., Cox, G., Crawford, R., Desbrow, B., Farthing, L., Minehan, M., Shaw, N. & Warnes, O. (2006). Supplements and sports foods. In L. Burke & V. Deakin. (Eds.). Clinical sports nutrition (3rd ed.). (p. 485-579). NSW, Australia: McGraw Hill.
  • Epley, B. (2004). The path to athletic power: The model conditioning program for championship performance. United States of America: Human Kinetics.
  • Farnsworth, E., Luscombe, N. D., Noakes, M., Wittert, G., Argyiou, E. & Clifton, P. M. (2003). Effect of a protein, energy-restricted diet on body composition, glycemic control, and lipid concentrations in overweight and obese hyperinsulinemic men and women. Am J Clin Nutr, 78(1), 31-39.
  • Heyward, V. H. (2006). Advanced fitness assessment and exercise prescription (5th ed.). United States of America: Human Kinetics.
  • Kennedy, D. (October, 2001). Guerilla cardio: Wage war on that ornery abdominal fat with this militant 4-minute aerobics alternative! Muscle Media, 55-61.
  • Lambert, C. P., Frank, L. L. & Evans, W. J. (2004). Macronutrient considerations for the sport of bodybuilding. Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(5). (p. 317-327).
  • Liemohn, W. (2003). Flexibility and low back function. In E. D. Howley & B. D. Franks (Eds.).  Health fitness instructor’s handbook (4th ed.) (p. 145-160). Hong Kong: Human Kinetics.
  • McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I. & Katch, V. L. (2007). Exercise physiology: Energy, nutrition, and human performance (6th ed.). USA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  • McInnis, K. J. & Faigenbaum, A. (2003). Assessment of muscular fitness. In E. D. Howley & B. D. Franks (Eds.).  Health fitness instructor’s handbook (4th ed.) (p. 129-143). Hong Kong: Human Kinetics.
  • Norton, L. (2005). A unique combination of science & experiment-based pre-contest advice. Retrieved 16 June, 2009, from
  • Tarnopolsky, M. (2006). Protein and amino needs for training and bulking up. In L. Burke & V. Deakin. (Eds.). Clinical sports nutrition (3rd ed.). (p. 73-111). NSW, Australia: McGraw Hill.
  • Wardlaw, G. M. & Hampl, J. S. (2007). Perspectives in nutrition (7th ed.). Mc-Graw Hill: New York, New York, USA.
  • Wathen, D., Baechle, T. R. & Earle, R. W. (2000). Training variation: Periodization. In T. R. Baechle & R. W. Earle (Eds.).  Essentials of strength training and conditioning (2nd ed.) (p. 395-421). Hong Kong: Human Kinetics.