Putting on a few pounds of weight over the winter or vacation season is nothing to be ashamed of – it happens to even the most dedicated fitness freaks around. But when warmer weather knocks, it’s nice to feel like you’re in the best shape possible when it’s time to pop off that shirt for a game of ultimate frisbee at a sunny picnic in the park.
Losing those last few pounds to really show off your hard-earned muscle this season may seem impossible – especially to those new to fitness. The fact that the weight-loss industry is a whirlwind of unnecessary products, useless fad diets, and blatant misinformation doesn’t help either. And no, diets are never fun, but with the proper information and diet structuring, you can make revealing a leaner body much less painful.
This may not be the news you want to hear, but the only thing that will cause your body to lose fat and reveal the muscle underneath is maintaining a calorie deficit. This means that you need to ensure that your body is spending more energy than it's consuming.
The first step to figuring this out is to use an online calorie calculator to pinpoint your maintenance calories, or how many calories your body needs each day to maintain its current weight without losing or gaining a pound.
The calculator will take into account how active you are during your day, as well as how many times per week you exercise, so no need to stress about these things day to day. As long as you have your magic number, you’re golden.
Now that that’s settled, to lose any weight, you’ll need to ensure that you’re eating below maintenance whenever you can, ideally every day. Since a pound of body fat amounts to about 3500 calories, if you spend seven days, or one full week in a 500-calorie daily deficit, you’ll be one pound lighter at the end of that week.
If you've got a big beach trip coming up and want to lean out more quickly, you can increase the daily deficit to, say, 800 calories, but it'll be harder for you maintain mentally, and you risk losing muscle along with the fat.
So, a daily deficit of about 500 calories is about the sweet spot for keeping yourself satisfied while leaning out. If you want to be more extreme, go for it (within reason), but utilizing a more moderate calorie deficit will make it easier to stick to the diet as long as possible. And that's what will give you real results.
When it comes to what you’ll actually be eating, you’ll want to view your diet as broken down into three food groups: proteins, carbs, and fats. For maintaining muscle while on a diet, lean protein is the most important group because it feeds and repairs your muscles and will keep them from losing any strength or size on a diet.
This doesn't mean, though, that you should skimp on fats and carbs for protein's sake. Why? Healthy fats found in nuts, seeds, avocados, cheese, fish, and even red meat are incredibly important for keeping your brain functioning at peak performance. They're also essential in keeping your testosterone production high, which aids in fat loss.
And before you consider cutting out carbs like those 90s diet fads told you to, remember that they’re essential to maintaining peak physical performance and promoting restful sleep, in addition to keeping testosterone high.
So, build yourself a diet that prioritizes both protein and fiber-rich vegetables to keep you full, but don't sacrifice fats and carbs entirely in the process. If you have a general idea about how many calories are in the foods you’re eating, you can feel safe eating sufficient fats and carbs without going over your calorie goal for the day. Packing your own lunch instead of ordering out daily is an easy way to ensure you know roughly how many calories are in the food you're eating each day. If you do decide eat out, many restaurants list their nutrition info online, so you won't be clueless about what you're eating.
Keep Your Stomach Happy
With all that technical info out of the way, I’d like to remind you that dieting for a photoshoot, vacation, or summer does not need to mean grilled chicken, rice, and broccoli for dinner every night. Knowing your daily calorie limit to promote weight loss means that you can eat whatever you want (within reason) as long as it doesn’t force you over that limit.
While you may feel encouraged to skip them, I can’t stress enough how important it is to fit in a few snacks here and there while you’re dieting as long as they don’t completely derail your day of careful eating. A few bites of chocolate or a small serving of your favorite fro-yo or gelato each day can be what you need to stay happy and satisfied while maintaining a diet for several weeks.
Even more importantly, don’t completely deprive yourself of alcohol if you like a drink every now and then – that's a one-way ticket to being miserable for however long your diet needs to last. While it’s advisable to avoid heavy beers and sugary mixed stuff, a low-calorie drink or two when you're out with your friends is just fine, assuming you've budgeted the calories for them in your day's plan. Go with low ABV beers, like session IPAs or witbiers, or spirit-forward drinks that don't rely too heavily on sugary mixers, like vodka soda or a tried-and-true Old Fashioned.
This subject is one of the most hotly debated in the fitness community, though the actual research isn't cause for anything of the sort. You may have been told that eating several small meals throughout the day is the only way to keep your metabolism running as quickly as it can to guarantee quick weight loss. While staying full all day by eating small meals works for many dieters, it is by no means the only way to go about things.
Much recent research has shown that meal timing and frequency have very little to do with actual fat loss, and what does is simply maintaining your calorie deficit. This means that if it’s convenient for you, don’t be afraid to eat most, or even all your day’s calories in a couple of big meals. It won’t hurt your progress as long as you don’t go over your daily limit, and can actually help you if eating larger meals keeps you full and satisfied for longer.
Another piece of misinformation to throw away is the hackneyed “avoid eating before bed” advice. Since we now know that meal timing doesn't affect weight loss, it's worth noting that eating before bed, especially meals rich in carbs, can be helpful on diets because they help put you to sleep and can prevent any middle-of-the-night hunger pangs. Once again, if you’re not going above your limit for the day, when you consume your calories is irrelevant.
A helpful (but controversial) tip that I've found extremely useful is to skip breakfast. Now, before you rise out of your chair in anger or assault your laptop screen, humor me for a moment. Skipping breakfast does absolutely nothing to slow down your metabolism for the day, and leaves room for more calories later at night, which is when many of us are at our hungriest. If you’ve been eating breakfast all your life, and feel it’s necessary for your daytime productivity, you can skip this tip, but if you don’t wake up with your stomach growling, don’t feel like you’re doing yourself a disservice by skipping “the most important meal of the day.”
This doesn’t directly involve diet, but exercising is a must when you’re trying to lean down for beach season. Follow these tips to make sure your workout routine coincides with your diet plan:
1. Lift Heavy
If you’d like to maintain the muscle that you’ve gained at the gym over the winter and spring, it’s important to keep lifting with the same intensity you're now used to.
Make use of big, compound movements and keep lifting heavy with low rep schemes (four to six reps per set always does the trick) to avoid losing strength. And forget what you’ve heard about using high reps for weight loss. You’re already taking care of that with your diet, and lifting.
2. Stop Doing Hundreds of Crunches
Since leaning down means more defined abs, you may take it upon yourself to do a ton of extra crunches to expedite the process. While this can’t hurt, it isn’t necessary, and quite frankly, isn’t worth the effort since you can’t “spot reduce” fat in a specific area. Doing crunches, or ab wheel rollouts, or leg raises, or whatever will build and strengthen your abdominal muscles (so they might be a little more visible through your stomach fat), but becoming leaner is the only thing that will really reveal them to the level you want.
Again: doing crunches won’t burn any extra fat around your midsection. Just focus on your heavy lifting while you're in the gym, and calorie watching when you're at home. The abs will come in time.
3. If You Hate Cardio, Skip It
Most people believe dieting and cardio go together like peanut butter and jelly – er... celery. And sure, if you enjoy running, go for it. But if your diet’s as thought-out as it should be, and you’re maintaining a solid calorie deficit, it isn’t as necessary as you might think.
Many studies even show that though extended cardio burns calories, it actually makes you hungrier, which can negate the progress it brings about very quickly when you’re refueling. This could be why your morning run isn't amounting to any progress as of late.
Keeping daily activity high is always a must on a diet, but try to stick to fun activities like playing sports or bike riding, which are enjoyable and allow your body a moderate amount of cardio without breaking your spirits or causing too much extra hunger.
And above all else, remember: simplicity and convenience are always key. So follow these as closely as you can until they're second nature, don't sweat the gimmicky stuff, and go conquer the beach.