Physiologically, the higher your number, the easier it is to lose body fat. “You have a bigger load on your muscles during a workout so you’ll burn more calories compared to someone more fit,” explains celebrity trainer Lalo Fuentes, C.S.C.S. “Plus, a drastic change of a diet will impact your health and bodyweight considerably more than those who already have a healthier diet.”
But psychologically, it’s not so easy. “At a lower body fat, you’ve already broken a lot of bad habits and formed most of the key healthy ones,” explains Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach. “At 20%, you’re more likely to indulge in emotional eating or overeating—so your biggest focus is accountability and routine.”
Like we said, 20% body-fat average. So what does average look like day-to-day? To maintain 20%, you’re probably eating and drinking in moderation and working out two times per week—less than you should be, Fuentes says.
Want to be more disciplined—and more cut—than average? Here’s what you need to do.
Setting goals and tracking your progress is crucial, especially at the higher body-fat percentages. “When you’ve been focused on eating and working out for a while, progression and change becomes intuitive, but before then it’s helpful to see progress reflected in numbers,” White says. Set micro, meso, and macro goals—one week, three months, and six to 12 months out. Micro goals are your meal and workout plans for the week. “A good meso goal for a guy at 20% body fat would be to lose 5% in 90 days,” White suggests. Macro goals can be to maintain that 15% six to 12 months down the road, or to be down to that full six-pack range of 10-12%.
Make food your priority
Exercise is very important, but diets yield the fastest results—and you need to reel that percentage in ASAP to jump-start your motivation, White says. “At 20% body fat, you’re not eating and drinking all the bad stuff, but we need to bring your eating habits closer to the middle of the road,” he adds.
Plan and track your meals
“Planning and organizing can be the biggest difference in accountability in getting you down to your goal,” White says. Aim for three major meals a day with two snacks in-between, Fuentes advises. And plan everything down the to snacks—this will help you avoid overeating, White adds. Since two-thirds of people underestimate the calorie content of their meals, according to a 2013 study in BMJ, consider a tool like MyFitnessPal. In fact, guys who used calorie-tracking apps lost more weight—and kept it off—than those who just tried to eat healthy sans tracker, reports a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
We all know that sticking to a diet 100% will yield the best results—but is it realistic? “At 20% body fat, you’re probably already having three to four cheat meals a week, so jumping down to zero is just too restrictive,” White says. Give yourself one to two indulgent meals a week—just don’t let them turn into cheat days. And don’t write these off as calories that don’t count. In the same 2013 study in BMJ, about 25% of people underestimated the calorie content of indulgences by at least 500 calories, so track your cheat meals to build your knowledge of the real cost of greasy french fries.
Focus on calories over diet types
“Right now we’re just trying to lose body fat, and that’s something simple to grasp. When you get technical and start shooting for high-protein diets or intermittent fasting, it’s so much easier to get discouraged,” White explains. Plus, studies have shown that it doesn’t matter much whether you go high-protein or low-fat—when it comes to how bodies burn fat, a calorie is a calorie (the exception: highly processed foods).
High-intensity interval training is the best way to blast calories and save time—but it’s also really effing hard, which can be intimidating if you aren’t at peak fitness and increases the likelihood of you falling off the workout wagon, White points out. “You can do low-intensity workouts for longer, which will help you feel more accomplished while still burning calories and fat,” he adds. Shoot to sweat three to five times a week. Don’t skip cardio, but since more muscle equals more calorie burn, work strength training into your routine as well. Focus on full-body workouts to initiate overall strengthening vs. individual body parts, White adds (that part comes later).
Focus on portions
When it comes to losing weight, it’s calories in, calories out, White explains. Portion size goes back to the basics—every meal should be 4-6oz of protein, half to one cup of starch, and a couple cups of vegetables. Look at what you can trade to save calories—light beer instead of stouts, 96% lean meats instead of 85%, brown rice for white. Your portion sizes are going down, which means your hunger is going to skyrocket, so counteract it by focusing on high-volumizing food, like those filled with fiber, White suggests.
Cut liquid calories
Liquids are caloric quicksand. Orange juice has 112 calories compared to just 45 in the fruit, craft beer can run you 350-400 calories in just one pint—and don’t even get us started on soda. “Chipping away at the little areas can keep your diet from feeling so extreme that you’ll fall off the wagon, and liquid calories are a great place to start,” White says.