After my six-pack in three months experiment, I’ve had quite a few people come to me asking for advice on how to burn fat. Rather than send a list of tips and suggestions to people individually, I figured it would be more efficient to direct people to this article that you are reading now.
Before we begin, a few things to note:
- The overall focus here is on getting results with the least amount of time and effort. Burning fat doesn’t have to be so hard.
- Some recommendations may require fundamental changes in the way you view diet and exercise, so be prepared to throw conventional wisdom out the window and keep an open mind.
- My recommendations are primarily based on personal experimentation, so keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you.
- It bugs me when people tell me what to do without being able to explain why, so I do my best to explain my interpretation of the Why’s (the “science”) behind most of my recommendations. I’m not a doctor. I just read (and question) a lot.
Now let me show you how to become a fat-burning machine.
How To Burn Fat Part 1: Adjust Your Diet
1.) Fear carbs NOT calories.
After we eat food that contains carbohydrates, the “carbs” get broken down into glucose (or "blood sugar") to be used as fuel for the body. The body relies on glucose as a key source of energy, but it isn’t the only source. Fat stored in the body is constantly being broken down throughout the day to provide yet another source of energy (in the form of fatty acids and ketones).
But the problem is that if you are someone who eats a conventional, high-carb diet, you typically have plenty of glucose already running through your veins, and as a result, the body has less need to break down fat tissue for fuel.
So in order to condition your body to burn fat, you need to reduce the amount of glucose in your bloodstream by eating fewer carbohydrates.
If you are serious about getting results fast, my recommendation is to use the MyFitnessPal app to track your meals and keep total carbohydrate intake to less than 50 grams per day. Start at 50 grams and go lower if you can take it, but I find that 50 grams is where I typically end up around when eating all the leafy, green vegetables that I want.
If you are super serious (and OCD), you can weigh your food like I often do, but I can understand how weighing everything you eat probably isn’t for everyone.
But in general, aim to keep things simple and don't worry about calories, fat or protein. Just focus on restricting carbs.
Restricting carbs helps to lower glucose levels, which then leads to lower levels of the hormone insulin. Low insulin levels signal to the body that glucose is low, and therefore it is OK to burn more fat for fuel. High insulin levels, on the other hand, tell the body to store fat for later use since there is already an abundance of glucose in the bloodstream that the body must deal with first.
Just remember this:
Low carb => Low glucose => Low insulin => Burn fat
High carb => High glucose => High insulin => Store fat
- Sugars = Carbs
- Develop a routine to keep decisions on what to eat to a minimum. Experiment with a few basic meals that you enjoy and just alternate between them.
- Keep in mind that carbs aren’t all equally fattening. The worse offenders are the ones that are digested easily/quickly including sugars, bread, pasta, liquid carbs (soda, beer, fruit juice), and starches (potatoes, rice, corn).
- Save the majority of your daily allowance of carbs for green, leafy veggies — and lots of them.
- Save fruit for cheat days. Fruit contains lots of sugar and doesn’t contain any essential nutrients that you can’t get from vegetables.
- If it tastes sweet, it probably has sugar in it.
- Thirsty? Stick to water, coffee and tea. No fruit juice.
2.) Eat natural, unprocessed (“whole”) foods.
The general idea is to avoid processed foods that have been stripped of their nutritional value (“empty calories”), and instead focus on nutrient-dense foods that provide the body with the raw materials it needs to thrive and fix itself from within.
Natural, unprocessed foods also tend to be more difficult to digest and thus burn more calories during the digestion process (referred to as the “thermic cost of digestion”). The other benefit of slower digestion is that blood sugar levels remain stable and insulin doesn’t get spiked.
- Learn to cook at home more often so that you are in control of what you put into your body.
- If it is difficult to find decent lunch options around the office, consider preparing meals on the weekend and then freezing them.
- If a food comes in packaging, read the ingredients label. The more ingredients there are that you can barely pronounce, the more reasons you have to stay away.
- Eat more vegetables than you are used to eating. Consider stocking up on frozen vegetables as they are convenient (no need to prep) and supposedly retain most of their nutritional value after being flash frozen.
- Animals (yes that includes humans) are what they eat so try to go with wild fish, grass-fed beef, organic chicken, etc. Basically try to eat healthier animals that grow up eating more natural, unprocessed foods.
3.) It’s OK to eat fat.
When you initially switch from a conventional diet to a low-carb diet, you will find that you are suddenly left with a huge calorie deficit that used to be filled with foods like bread, rice and pasta.
The challenge then is to learn how to fill this deficit so that you have enough energy to make it through the day. You really only have three options to fill the void: eat more fat, eat more protein or eat more of both.
Dietary fat (the fat we eat) packs more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrate (9 calories per gram of fat vs. 4 calories per gram of protein/carbohydrate). Thus try to think of dietary fat as a more efficient source of energy than protein or carbohydrate — just a little bit of tasty fat can go a long way in making you feel satisfied.
And don’t worry, the fat you eat doesn't automatically attach itself to your waist.
Constantly eating excess calories that the body isn’t able to put to better use is what leads to more fat storage, and this holds true regardless of whether the calories were originally from fat, protein or carbohydrate. As long as you are eating right and keeping insulin in check, the fat you eat will be used to fuel the body in between meals.
- Eat chicken with the skin, eat the fatty parts of the steak, and enjoy those fatty pieces of bacon (but be careful with the packaged bacon you find at the supermarket as carbs are usually added as part of the curing process).
Fatty fish/meats, eggs, avocados, nuts, butter, coconut oil, and olive oil are great sources of fat.
- If you track your meals, don’t freak out when you see that 50-70% of your daily calories come from fat. This is a fairly typical range for low-carb diets and represents your shift away from carbohydrates as your primary source of calories.
- If you are a coffee drinker, try Shanghai Bulletproof Coffee.
- If you have cholesterol issues, you may want to check out my Want Cholesterol With Your Six Pack? article.
4.) Don't starve yourself.
Maintaining a large calorie deficit for prolonged periods of time can put your body into "starvation mode" and release stress hormones (such as cortisol) that cause the body to slow down its metabolism and preserve body fat.
We don’t want that.
Eat until you feel satisfied/full but don’t overdo it by stuffing yourself. If you get hungry in between meals, go ahead and grab a snack.
Learn to listen to your body and eat when hungry. This keeps your stress hormones at bay and let’s your body know that all is well and that it has a green light to continue burning fat.
- Not starving yourself does not mean that you must eat three meals a day. If you aren’t hungry in the morning then skip breakfast.
- If you find yourself getting hungry in between meals, it likely means you aren't eating enough fat calories.
- My favorite snacks to munch on are nuts, cold cuts, smoked salmon and canned tuna.
5.) Embrace the cheat day.
Choose one day out of the week to be your "cheat day". On this cheat day, feel free to eat whatever you want. You don’t have to go nuts, but do eat a lot more calories than you would otherwise.
There are two important reasons why you should take cheat days seriously. One is psychological and the other biological.
From a psychological standpoint, a cheat day adds to the sustainability of the diet since it gives you something to look forward to each week.
From a biological standpoint, the sudden spike in calories can help prevent your metabolism from slowing down and getting complacent — this point is particularly important if you are maintaining a significant calorie deficit on a daily basis.
- It is easy to gain several pounds after a cheat day. Don’t be discouraged by this as most of the weight gained will be food/water weight, not fat. Assuming you jump right back to eating right and exercising effectively, you should be able to bounce back within 2-3 days. My cheat days are typically on Saturdays, and by Tuesday mornings at the latest, my body fat percentage is usually back down to pre-cheat day levels.
- If you have been craving a food all week, make a mental (or even physical) note to eat it on your cheat day. Don’t deprive yourself. But after a while, you may be surprised to find that many of your cravings will go away and you no longer want to eat certain foods because of the way they make your body feel.
How To Burn Fat Part 2: Adjust Your Workout
After you have adjusted your diet and created an environment within your body that is conducive to burning fat, the next step is to learn how to workout in a more sustainable, efficient and effective manner.
- Sustainable — be able to workout anytime/anywhere.
- Efficient — only 30-45 minutes per week.
- Effective — focus on high-intensity, compound exercises that work as many muscles as possible.
Before we move on to the actual workout regimen, it’s important to first understand why building muscle is important to becoming a fat-burning machine.
As you begin to shed excess weight by following my diet recommendations, the weight that is lost will be a combination of fat and muscle mass. Since the ultimate goal is to get rid of fat, you ideally want to train your body to prefer to break down fat tissue instead of muscle tissue for fuel.
You do this by working out as many of your muscle fibers as possible. This not only signals to the body that you want to keep those muscle fibers (i.e. they are not excess baggage like fat is), it also tells the body to channel more resources to feed those muscles. In other words, by working out your muscles, your body knows to look elsewhere for fuel before it decides to break down active muscle tissue.
Now let’s say you are someone who is focused solely on losing weight and it doesn’t matter to you if the weight loss is from fat or muscle. Here’s why you might want to reconsider:
Muscles burn more calories.
As we put on more muscle, we increase our basal metabolic rate, which is the rate at which the body uses energy while at rest to keep vital functions going. We are talking anywhere between 50 and 100 calories a day to maintain one pound of muscle. So put on just five pounds of additional muscle and you could be burning an additional 250-500 calories per day!
How many calories a day does it take to maintain a pound of fat? Just two.
Focus on high-intensity
The key to an efficient and effective workout is high-intensity exercise, which I'll define as exercise that pushes your muscles to the limit. In other words, the exercise should push your muscles until they eventually give out, and you can’t do anymore.
Popular “cardio” exercises such as jogging would fall under the low or moderate-intensity category and are not particularly effective in promoting fat loss. They also simply take up too much time.
The higher the intensity of the workout:
- the less time is needed;
- the more muscles are put to work; and
- the more fat is mobilized out of storage and into the bloodstream to be burned as fuel.
More specifically, only high-intensity exercise can cause the body to release enough adrenaline to empty out glycogen stores in muscle tissue.
What are glycogen stores? Glycogen stores are stores of glucose that are reserved as fuel for highly intense, fight-or-flight type situations. The reason why emptying glycogen stores has a positive impact on fat loss is because glucose can then be taken out of the bloodstream to refill those glycogen stores rather than going into your fat cells and making you fatter.
By following this simple workout regimen, nearly 100% of the 17 pounds that I lost during my six-pack in three months experiment came from fat.
Keep in mind that you won’t get buff on this workout. To gain serious muscle mass, you will need to lift heavy weights and eat a lot more.
But the goal here isn’t for you to become Arnold Schwarzenegger. The goal is to figure out the most sustainable, efficient, and effective workout for burning fat.
1.) Do 1 set each of the following exercises until you literally can't do anymore (don’t lie to yourself!). There is no need to count how many reps you do — just focus on making your muscles burn!
- Bodyweight squats
- Push exercise e.g. push ups
- Pull exercise e.g. pull ups or dumbbell rows with makeshift dumbbells (e.g. fill a bag with books and lift)
2.) Each workout should last no more than 15 minutes (assuming you don’t rest too long between exercises).
3.) Allow 2-3 days of rest in between workouts. If your body is still sore from a previous workout, give your body another day to recover. If you aren't sore at all the next day after a workout, then it means you need to push harder! I typically workout twice a week and usually on Tuesdays and Saturdays (before/after a big cheat meal).
- Be creative with your exercises. If you want to do pull-ups but don’t have access to a pull-up bar, a great way is to pull yourself up while lying underneath a sturdy table.
- For extra burn: on the down movement of an exercise, try to count 5-10 seconds before you come back up to do another rep.
- If you prefer to workout at a gym, look for high-intensity workouts like CrossFit.
- If you feel like running, try sprinting up and down several flights of stairs for 1-2 minutes. You’ll save a ton of time and will likely end up burning more calories than you would have burned on a treadmill.
- Don't waste time doing targeted ab exercises until you get below 12-15% body fat.
SOME FINAL WORDS BEFORE YOU BEGIN
If you’ve gotten this far, I’ll assume that I’ve piqued your interest. But before you begin your transformation into a fat-burning machine, there are a few final things to keep in mind.
1.) Define precise goals that are objective and quantifiable.
Goals like “I want to lose weight” or “I want to get in shape” are too subjective. Instead try to set more precise goals like "I want to lose 20 pounds before December 31” or “I want to get below 12% body fat before December 31”. By the time December 31 rolls around, there will be no wiggle room to convince yourself that you succeeded in reaching your goals when you really didn’t. Either you lost 20 pounds or you didn’t.
2.) Pick at least one day per week to be "measurements day” and schedule it on your calendar.
When taking measurements, it’s important to keep things consistent so that you are comparing apples to apples. I’ve found that taking measurements first thing in the morning after waking is the most sustainable since it is easy to schedule into anyone’s routine.
Also, pick a day that is at least 3 days after your cheat day so that the more extreme cheat day binges don’t cause abnormal fluctuations in your data.
Given the focus here is fat loss, be sure to track the following:
- Sexy selfie photo for visual progress
- Body fat percentage — buy a scale that can measure body fat percentage. It may not be the most accurate, but it is the most convenient. I use an Omron body composition scale.
You can keep track of all of your measurements in MyFitnessPal. To add custom measurements, go to the "Check-In" tab on MyFitnessPal.com and choose “Track Additional Measurements”.