Raise your hand if your past New Year’s resolution went something like:
“This year, I’m finally going to lose weight!”
If you did, you’re not alone. Sadly, according to Statistics Brain Institute, only 8% of people reported achieving their resolution by the end of that year.
But forget past failures! This new decade will be the starting point for you to achieve your fitness/weight loss goal. It’s completely possible; you just need to go about it the right way.
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 are all fat? The truth is: you can’t.
Instead of focusing on trying to change your weight, focus on changing your body composition.
Not having specific detailed insights into your personal body composition may lead to critical oversight which can hinder your ability to reach your fitness goal. In some cases, it may even result in serious misassumptions about your health. Before you get started, take a step back and consider the bigger picture, and then set personalized goals that are right for you.
How to Set Your Body Composition Goals
Getting the Big Picture On Your Health
The first step to setting goals is to have a clear picture of where you are right now and where you want to be. This means focusing on your body fat percentage and lean body mass instead of your weight. You can get these results from a body composition test. Depending on the test, 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 your body fat percentage and your lean body mass measurements using the best tests available so you can plan out your goals properly. By determining your progress by these metrics, you’ll be able to set smart goals and develop habits that will help you achieve lasting success while enjoying the process along the way.
Now that you know your body composition, let’s take a look at three body fat percent ranges and what they tell you.
Category 1: Body Fat Percentage Over 25% for Men; Over 32% for Women
People with high body fat percentages tend to have a lot of existing muscles – developed naturally to allow body movement – and preserving this should be a priority. More muscle means a higher metabolism and more strength, which you’ll want to preserve as you lose body fat.
To start losing body fat, consume less processed foods and reduce your caloric intake. You can experiment with different types of diet plans and begin planning your day to day fitness regimen. One study revealed that adults with high body fat percentage can quickly improve their body composition through the following:
- Reduce daily calorie intake by 500-1000 calories
- Consume a low-fat (20-25% of calories) and moderately high protein (20-25% of calories) diet
- Aerobic training 3 to 5 times a week, plus resistance exercise 2 days a week
Category 2: Body Fat Percentage between 21- 25% for Men; 29-33% for Women
Men and women who fall within this body fat percentage range may not have as much excess body weight as those in Category 1, but still, have excess body fat.
Again, the focus is to reduce your caloric intake by changing your diet. You can experiment with different types of diets and begin a consistent exercise regimen.
It’s also possible to have a normal or average body weight but still have too much body fat. That’s a condition called sarcopenic obesity, commonly known as “skinny fat.” If you’re skinny fat, depending on your existing muscle mass, you may opt to work on gaining Lean Body Mass first because:
- If you increase your muscle mass and maintain your caloric intake, you will increase your Basal Metabolic Rate (i.e. your metabolism) and lose body fat while you build muscle.
- The effort you put into lifting weights can increase your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, causing you to burn more calories.
Category 3. Average Fitness Level: Body Fat Percentage of 15-20% for Men; 23-28% (Women)
Despite general good health, it is easy for individuals with an average body fat percentage to fall into bad diet habits and become sedentary due to the lack of adherence to a strict regimen.
Since this is considered a healthy range to be in, slight tweaks to your existing fitness and eating habits may help you improve your physique and further improve your overall health. As a whole, build habits that are geared towards gaining Lean Body Mass. Focus more on eating less processed carbs and aim for a slightly higher protein intake after resistance training sessions.
Regardless of which category you fall in, to change your body composition you will have two main goals:
- Reduce Fat Mass
- Increase or Maintain Lean Body Mass
Now that you understand what you should focus on and where you should set your goals, you need a plan to get you there.
Understanding Catabolism and Anabolism
You might be thinking great, now that I understand the importance of body composition, I just need to focus on losing weight and gaining muscle at the same time so I can reach my goal.
Not so fast.
If you’re like most people struggling in the gym, trying to do both at the same time is extremely difficult. That’s because your metabolism is made up of two different processes: catabolism and anabolism.
Catabolism is focused on the breakdown of cells for energy while anabolism is the process of building simple cells into more complex cells. Note that we didn’t specify between fat or muscle cells. Your body will either be in a catabolic state in which you are burning fat and calories or an anabolic state where you are building muscle mass.
From what we understand about metabolism, we should look at losing fat and gaining muscle as two separate fitness goals. It sounds pretty complicated, but if you’re measuring your weight loss/weight gain and tracking your progress with your body composition results, you can fine-tune your fitness program and nutrition to avoid unwanted fat gain and muscle loss depending on what state you are in
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 than to those that are designed to build lean muscle.
Your Plan For Fat Loss
This goal is best for people whose body compositions have two characteristics: high body fat percentage and overall weight. If your goal is fat loss, you will need to put your body in a caloric deficit (burning more calories than you take in) in order to help your body to enter a catabolic state.
This can be achieved with a combination of caloric restriction, consuming healthy nutrient-dense foods, and increased energy expenditure with some combination of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. This is commonly referred to as “cutting.”
If you weren’t working out at all before, simply increasing your activity level by starting an exercise program while maintaining your caloric intake may be enough to trigger fat loss. If this sounds like you, simply beginning any exercise program is a good way to get started.
Catabolic Exercises: Think Long Moderate-Intensity Workouts
- Long Distance Running
Your Plan For Muscle Gain
You may want to start by increasing your Lean Body Mass if you aren’t overweight but have low amounts of Lean Body Mass and higher amounts of Fat Mass.
Lean Body Mass is your total weight minus your fat. This includes all the weight due to your muscles, organs, and total body water. The best way to develop your muscles – and thereby your Lean Body Mass – is to adopt a resistance training program.
Unlike fat loss, you will need to be in a caloric surplus (consuming more calories than you use over the course of one day) in order to be in an anabolic state. More on that later.
Anabolic Exercises: Strength Building Workouts
- Isometric Resistance
- Free Weight Exercises
- Functional Workouts
Nutritional Plan For Your Body Composition Goal
In addition to a tailored exercise program, you need to count calories. Fortunately, keeping track of calories isn’t that hard, and depending on what your goals are, you may be able to eat more than you think. But first, here are some basic truths on calories.
First: It doesn’t matter all that much how often/when you eat.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
The time of day isn’t what affects how your body uses calories. It’s the overall number of calories you eat and the calories you burn over the course of 24 hours that affects your weight.
It helps to think of your caloric needs like a daily budget. If your needs are 2,400 calories and you “spend” a 1,000 calories on breakfast, that’s fine – it’s just that you only get 1,400 calories until breakfast the next day.
Second: everyone’s caloric needs are different; so that 2,000 daily recommended calorie intake on the nutrition label? Consider that to be the most general, the vaguest set of guidelines. To find your individual caloric needs, you need to estimate something called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure – the number of calories that you burn in a 24-hour period. Generally speaking, your TDEE has two major components:
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): the total number of calories your body requires to “stay on” and power bodily processes like brain activity, pumping blood, breathing, digesting, etc. You can get this number from a body composition analysis.
- Activity Rate: an estimated index of how active you are over 24 hours
To get TDEE, multiply BMR with Activity Rate. For example, someone with a BMR of 1600 calories and is moderately active (exercises 3-5x a week) would have a total caloric need of around 2,480 calories, nearly 500 calories more than the traditional 2,000 calorie diet.
Use your TDEE as the baseline from how you create your diet. Based on what your goals are, designing a diet and knowing what’s an appropriate caloric intake does get a little more complicated. This is because the nutritional and caloric needs your body requires to gain muscle effectively are different from those when you want your body to lose fat.
Nutrition For Fat Loss
If you want to lose fat, you need to encourage your body to enter a catabolic state – a state when your body breaks down body tissue instead of building it. This requires you to take in fewer calories than you bring in. But remember: your TDEE is made of two parts, BMR and Activity Level, so taking in fewer calories doesn’t necessarily (and shouldn’t) mean you have to cut out breakfast completely or something equally drastic.
However, most people will need a combination of caloric reduction and exercise to achieve consistent and healthy fat loss. How many calories you need to reduce will vary based on your individual body composition and goals. Generally, it is recommended to reduce daily calorie intake by 500-1000 calories but you will want to consult with your doctor or nutritionist.
Nutrition for Muscle Gain.
To build muscle, your body needs resources to get into an anabolic state. This means proper nutrition – sufficient protein intake is critical when trying to increase muscle mass – but equally as important is eating enough calories. There is a popular misconception that taking in excessive amounts of protein is the key to muscle gain, but in a Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition publication, high-performance athletes who failed to meet their caloric needs were found to have limited lean body mass gains, despite increasing their protein beyond their daily recommended needs.
So what is a good estimate of your caloric needs for this goal? Although nutrition plays a large role in determining diet, from a caloric standpoint, research suggests that maintaining an energy surplus of about 15% is appropriate for developing musculature. This means, all else being equal, the moderately active person with a BMR of 1,600 calories would want to shoot for around 2,852 calories a day.
Rotate Between Fat Loss and Muscle Gain
Hopefully, by now you have a basic understanding of how to set a body composition goal and how to use exercise and nutrition to get there. As you get used to these lifestyle changes, you want to start tracking your progress and making adjustments to help you stay on track.
Whether you are in a catabolic state or an anabolic state, it is natural to lose lean body mass or gain fat mass. If you’re happy with your Fat loss, then it will be time to develop Lean Body Mass and regain what you lost during your cut. If you are happy with your gains in Lean Body Mass but picked up too much Fat Mass along the way, it will be time to cut out some of that unnecessary fat mass.
By tracking your body composition results and seeing where your key measurements are at (skeletal muscle mass and body fat mass), you will know how to adjust your fitness programs. This knowledge will help empower and motivate you to achieve your goals.
How to Track Your Progress
When you get started, resist the temptation to measure yourself for the first month; it is going to take some time for your body to respond to the diet and exercise adjustments that you’ve made.
After a month, you should begin to see changes in your body fat percentage regardless of 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. 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! But don’t worry if you aren’t seeing results. You just need to adjust your diet and exercise plans. 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 the resistance training program you’ve adopted. Then, after another week or two, retest.
Remember that fitness is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will take time to make meaningful changes that last.
In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, participants were divided into two groups that created a 25% energy gap between what they ate and what they burned. The first group did this by only dieting (25% caloric reduction) and the second achieving it by splitting the energy deficit by both diet and exercise (12.5% caloric reduction + 12.5% increase in energy use due to increased exercise).
The results were interesting: both groups were able to reduce their body weight by about 10% and their total fat mass by 24%, indicating that for fat/weight reduction, caloric reduction by any means is critical, regardless of how it is achieved. For a 180 pound person, a 10% reduction comes out to 3 pounds of loss per month, which is less than a pound a week.
To not see any measurable changes on the scale after a week of diet/diet+exercise is challenging for anyone. Just remember that when you lose (or gain weight), the actual changes in your body that your scale registers as weight changes are actually changes in one or more parts of your body composition – changes in muscle, changes in fat, etc. This is why you need to focus on improving your body composition – not weight loss.
As you look into the New Year…
Remember that fitness is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will take time to make meaningful changes that last.
Whatever your goals are for this new decade, the key is to make smart decisions. Body Composition testing will give you 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 healthier, fitter you.
If you are interested in getting your InBody test, check out our Interactive Nearest InBody Testing Location map!