In this article, we have a simple goal: help you win your fitness challenge. Bold promise? Perhaps. But we have science on our side–our approach and recommendations have been tested, measured, and validated in peer-reviewed clinical trials.
We’re going to cover several important topics around fitness challenges: goal setting, how much to eat, losing fat, building muscle, and one of the most important-yet-neglected components: tracking and measuring your progress.
This is the difference between winning and losing any fitness challenge.
Let’s jump in …
Fitness Challenge Goal Setting
Setting a goal for your fitness challenge might sound like an obvious step but many people skimp over it and just pick an arbitrary number (e.g., “I want to lose 20 pounds”).
Don’t do this.
Not taking the time to properly and methodically choose your goals can set you up for frustration down the road. Nobody likes frustration. So let’s talk about a slightly different approach to goal setting …
What Types of Goals to Set
Let’s say to win your fitness challenge, you think you need to lose 20 pounds. Most people would set a vague goal like “I want to lose 20 pounds.”
This is where you need to dig a little deeper.
20 pounds of fat and 20 pounds of muscle are very different and yield much different results in the long-run (after all, you want to keep your new physique, right?).
So now you’ve narrowed your focused and decided you want to lose 20 pounds of body fat.
That’s a much better goal … but how will you know that the weight you’re losing is body fat and not muscle? Not by standing on the scale. Even home scales that claim to measure body fat are woefully inaccurate.
That’s where measuring your body composition comes into play.
This is a different way of thinking about getting fit or losing weight, but it allows you to objectively measure the number that matters most: the amount of fat you have lost.
Most people do the opposite and associate all weight loss as “good.” However, protecting your lean body mass can help set you up for success long after the fitness challenge is over. We’ll expand on this below.
How to Set a Body Composition Goal
This article is a great place to start for setting body composition goals. Here’s the gist: before you do anything, you need to know where you’re currently at. That means getting your body composition tested. Once you know your current body composition, you can set the best goals specific to your body type.
For example, if your body type is “skinny fat,” depending on your existing muscle mass, you may opt to work on gaining Lean Body Mass first. Here’s why: as you increase your lean body mass, you will also increase your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which may help you lose body fat while building muscle too.
Once you have the right goal set for your body type, it’s time to focus on another important factor: your diet.
Your diet can make or break your fitness challenge. We’re not going to tell you what to eat, because there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition and weight loss. Instead, we’ll focus on how much to eat because that’s how you can “hack” your diet and win your fitness challenge.
Use the Cunningham Equation to Calculate Your BMR
Your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR, is the amount of calories your body needs each day to perform its basic, life-sustaining functions (this is also known as your “metabolism”).
To find your BMR, there are plenty of online resources and apps available. However, because BMR is strongly associated with your lean body mass, we recommend using the J.J. Cunningham equation, which takes Lean Body Mass into account. Measuring your BMR using this equation has a couple advantages:
- Your results won’t be influenced by estimations derived from the typical representative member of your age and gender
- As you increase Lean Body Mass by developing your Skeletal Muscle Mass, the amount of calories your body needs will increase. The Cunningham equation will account for this (other equations won’t)
Once you know your BMR, you can estimate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). Unless you are already consistently working out, you can multiply your BMR by 1.2 (the activity estimate for sedentary adults), which will give you a near-estimate of how many calories your body uses in a day. From there, your next steps will be optimizing your diet.
Optimize Your Diet for Fat Loss
If you want to lose fat, you need to create a caloric deficit. In other words, you need to consistently consume less than your TDEE.
The safest way to handle a caloric reduction is to reduce your intake in small doses (200-300 calories, for example). After a week or two, have your body composition analyzed. If you see your Fat Mass numbers begin to drop (or not drop), you can adjust your caloric needs accordingly.
Although restricting calories in a diet is the most common way to create a deficit, it’s also possible to create a deficit by going the alternate route – increasing your caloric need through exercise. This is a little tougher to maintain over time, however, because most people find it easier to modify their food intake over 7 days as opposed to going to the gym or doing other moderate exercise for 7 days a week.
Optimize Your Diet for Lean Body Mass Gain
If your goal is to build Lean Body Mass, you need to exceed your daily caloric needs.
By how much though?
Research shows eating approximately 15% more calories per day than what is required to maintain your body weight (your TDEE) is optimal for improving your lean body mass.
You do not need to go on an extreme diet where you skip meals or cut an entire macronutrient group out of your diet (fats, carbs, etc.) to win your fitness challenge.
Trying to lose fat by purely cutting calories can be very difficult … especially if you have a smaller metabolism.
Instead, it’s best to strike a balance between diet and exercise.
Exercise: Determine the Best Type for You
As you’ve probably ascertained by this point in the article, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions around fat loss. The same holds true for exercise.
What’s the “Best Type” of Exercise? It Depends …
Most studies show that high intensity interval training (HIIT) is equal to or better than cardio for overall health. Does that mean if you want to crush your fitness challenge, you need to do HIIT because it’s the most “efficient” type?
You need to find the best type of exercise for you. Again, this is why understanding your body composition and setting your goals based on that is so important. Here’s a good example: if you’re sedentary, HIIT may actually not be any more effective and efficient than traditional steady-state cardio for losing weight quickly.
For many body types, the amount of exercise is more important than the type (unless the prize in your fitness challenge goes to “best transformation,” in which case you’re going to want to pick up the weights and put on a little lean body mass and make sure you’re training often enough).
How to Build Lean Body Mass
Again, the “best” approach is the one that aligns best with your body composition goal. If your focus is on building visible muscle while keeping a low body fat percentage, bodybuilding is a proven method.
If your main goal is to lose some serious body fat and you’re not as concerned about building muscle, HIIT is a great approach. (side benefit: studies show HIIT is good for your heart).
So by this point you should have a plan: you know your current body composition and have set a goal based on that, you know how much to eat, and you know what exercises you’re going to do.
There’s one final step to winning that fitness challenge, and it’s arguably the most important.
Track Your Progress, Get Results
Tracking your progress is one of the most underlooked things you can do to achieve your goals and win your fitness challenge.
Scale and mirrors only give you subjective feedback … they’re for amateurs.
Tracking progress with your body composition gives you objective, measurable feedback that translates into physical results.
Once you can track your progress objectively instead of guessing, you gain a huge advantage over the competition! You’ll be able to measure what’s working, what’s not, and make data-driven adjustments and tweaks that can help you achieve your goal.
Wrap-up: Ready to Win Your Fitness Challenge?
Hopefully you’ve come away with a better understanding of the 4 “pillars” of winning a fitness challenge:
Remember, accomplishing any fitness goal and improving your body starts with understanding where you’re currently at body composition-wise. Once you know this, then you can set your goals accordingly and ensure your diet and exercise regimens are tailored specifically to those goals.
The “X Factor” most people just don’t think about when starting a fitness challenge is tracking your progress. One of the few objective ways to do this is with body composition analysis.
Finally, winning your fitness challenge is great but it’s all for naught if you just gain the weight back. That’s another reason why a data-driven, body composition approach is so important.
We wish you luck with your challenge and welcome any questions you may have.
Scott Christ is a health and wellness entrepreneur, writer, and website strategy consultant. He’s also the creator of the world’s healthiest plant-based protein powder.