If you’re reading this, then somewhere in your mind you’ve already made the decision to change your life for the better. That’s great! Making the decision to improve your life in a healthy and positive way is half the battle.
Many people start off with a simple weight loss goal like: “I want to lose 10 pounds.” That’s a great goal, but unfortunately, it’s a little too vague. 10 pounds…of what? Fat? If yes, how will you know when you’ve hit that goal? By standing on a scale? Even if you see your weight decrease by 10 pounds, how can you be sure that 10 pounds is all fat? The truth is: you can’t.
Instead of focusing on trying to change your weight, focus on changing your body composition. This is a different way of thinking about getting fit or losing weight, but it’s a much better way. It will free you from worrying about your weight on the scale, make you clothes fit better, and have you looking fitter faster than you thought possible.
To change your body composition, you won’t have one goal (like “lose weight” or “gain muscle”). You will have two:
If you’re a bit unclear on terms like “Fat Mass” and “Lean Body Mass,” check out this guide to body composition to help you get up to speed.
By working towards these goals, you’re setting yourself up for long-term success. You’ll be on the path to changing your body for the future, which means you’ll keep the weight off and the muscle on.
To start changing your body composition today, follow these 5 steps. You’ll be glad you did.
This is the most important step. You must get your body composition tested, and you must commit to judging your progress by your body composition results – not what your weight is on the scale. This means focusing on your body fat percentage instead of your weight. By determining your progress with useful metrics like this and lean body mass, you will be equipped with the knowledge you need to get the results you want faster and smarter.
One of the quickest and easiest methods to determine body composition and find numbers like body fat percentage is to use a device that uses BIA technology. For many years, these devices weren’t accurate enough to give reliable body fat percentage results, but that has changed in recent years.
Depending on how you determine body fat, you may get a complete readout of your body with muscle mass, fat mass, body water, etc., or you may just get a body fat percentage. Try to get as much information as possible using the best tests available so you can plan out your goals properly.
Now that you’re working with two goals instead of one, it’s best to target them one at a time. Although building Lean Body Mass can go hand in hand with reducing Fat Mass to a certain degree, to reach your goals faster, it’s usually best to target one goal at a time. This is because your body responds differently to programs that target fat and to those that are designed to build lean muscle.
Here’s how to decide which goal to begin with:
This goal is best for people whose body compositions have two characteristics: high body fat percentage and high overall weight. For men, this means body fat percentages in the upper 20s, 30s, and above; for women, body fat percentages in mid 30s and above. Here’s what this can look like (male test subject):
You may want to start by increasing your Lean Body Mass if you are skinny fat. You may be skinny fat if you aren’t overweight but have low amounts of Lean Body Mass and high amounts of Fat Mass. Here’s an example of what that can look like (female test subject):
Notice how the overall weight, 132.3, does not fall in the overweight range (up arrow), but that the Skeletal Muscle Mass falls under it (down arrow) while the Body Fat Mass is over. Because someone with a body composition like this has less than the recommended levels of Skeletal Muscle Mass, it’s a good idea to start with increasing Lean Body Mass before targeting Fat Mass.
Fortunately, if you start resistance training to build muscle, this will likely bring down your Fat Mass as well. Increasing your Lean Body Mass will increase the calorie need your body will have in order to maintain itself, and this increased caloric need can lead to your body getting energy by burning some of that extra fat. The calories you burn in resistance training will also speed up fat loss.
Having enough Lean Body Mass is important for many reasons, including increased strength and increased function of your immune system. Skeletal Muscle Mass composes the majority of your Lean Body Mass, so increased LBM will also improve your musculature and make you look stronger and more toned.
Once you’ve decided which goal to work on first, you will need to choose a plan to help you meet that goal. Although everyone’s individual needs will be different, you can use the following to help build a general plan that you can modify later once you understand how your own body responds to diet and exercise.
The basic principle behind fat loss is deceptively simple: according to the Center for Disease Control, it’s all about burning more calories in a day than you take in. This is referred to as maintaining a “caloric deficit.”
You can achieve a caloric deficit in two ways: calorie restriction and exercise. By taking in less calories than you typically do, your body will respond by finding the calories it needs from your fat mass since it no longer is getting those calories from food and drink. Many products today are marketed as “fat-free” in order to help people trying to lose weight to make healthy choices. But as it turns out, overall calorie reduction can be more effective than just cutting fat out of your diet, particularly since fat plays a significant role in cell health and metabolism.
You can further increase your caloric deficit through exercise. Both resistance training and cardiovascular exercise will cause your body to use more calories than you did before beginning training. Both types of training will play different roles in meeting your goal.
Although some people might discount the importance of resistance training or weightlifting in a fat burning program, to completely ignore this type of exercise is misguided. Resistance training is very important because it can help you maintain your existing Lean Body Mass and ensure that it doesn’t decrease along with your fat. Increased Lean Body Mass is linked to higher overall calorie needs, and the more calories you require, the more you weight you stand to lose.
It is true, however, that cardio is important for creating a caloric deficit. How many calories you stand to burn depend on the type of exercise, duration, and intensity and you may need to find an intersection of the three that works best for you.
It’s helpful to understand what Lean Body Mass is so you can understand how you can go about developing it.
Lean Body Mass is your total weight minus your fat. This includes all the weight due to your muscles, organs, and total body water. You can’t develop your organs, but you can develop your muscles. The best way to develop your muscles – and thereby your Lean Body Mass – is to adopt a resistance training program.
As you develop stronger muscles, the size and amount of your muscle cells will increase. Your muscles will require more water – more intracellular water, to be specific – which will allow them to function properly. As your muscles grow and take in more water, your Lean Body Mass will increase.
After a month or two, it will be time to get your body composition tested again. Resist the temptation to measure yourself for at least a month; it is going to take some time for your body to respond to the diet and exercise changes that you’ve made.
Since you will be measuring your body composition, you should be less interested in your overall weight and more about your body fat percentage and Lean Body Mass. These will become the most important numbers you will use to determine the success of your program by.
After a month, you should begin to see changes in your body fat percentage regardless if you decided to focus on fat or lean mass. If your weight drops due to fat loss while you maintain your Lean Body Mass, your body fat percentage will drop.
Conversely, if your weight stays the same or even increases due to Lean Body Mass, this means that you’ve gained Skeletal Muscle Mass and potentially lost some fat mass too.
If you see a rise in your BMI, that is not a bad thing. BMI is just a mathematical ratio of your height to weight, and remember, you if your thinking in terms of body composition, simple weight measurements aren't important anymore. What's important is seeing drops in body fat percentage and increases in Lean Body Mass.
If you are hitting your goals after a month, great! If not, you may need to adjust the diet and exercise plans you have set for yourself. If you aren’t seeing any drops in fat mass after a month, you may need to consider increasing your caloric deficit. If you aren’t gaining lean mass at the rate you would like, you may need to adjust your calorie intake, your protein intake, or modify resistance training program you’ve adopted. Then, after another month or two, retest.
Changing your body composition is going to take time, and it is going to take some serious effort. However, the rewards will be great because the changes you make will last.
While you are putting in the hard work, something to avoid is weighing yourself every day. Because you’re tracking your body composition/body fat percentage, weighing yourself on a normal scale is going to be less and less useful for you – particularly if you started changing your body composition by building Lean Body Mass. In that situation, because you’re trying to gain weight due to muscle, you may not register any weight gain at all as the weight due to muscle gain will replace the weight due the fat you’re losing.
You may find that you even gain overall weight, but as long as that weight is due to muscle, you’ll actually appear thinner. This is because muscle is much denser than fat.
As you continue to see results, you may find that your goals change over time. You may find that you have lost a significant amount of fat and would like to rebuild yourself with more muscle. Conversely, you may become satisfied with the amount of Lean Body Mass you have and start focusing on losing fat to build a lean physique.
Whatever your goals are, the key is to make smart decisions. By committing to assessing yourself by testing your body composition, you will have the tools and the information to make those smart decisions. If you are gaining Lean Body Mass, you’ll know. If you’re losing fat, you’ll know. Body composition assessments take the guesswork out of getting healthy. So go out, be smarter, and start building a better you today.