I’ve worked with hundreds of fat loss clients over the past six years in my coaching programs, and doing anything for six years is enough to pick up on trends and patterns.
With fat loss, there’s generally three phases when you first begin a training and nutrition program designed to help you drop some pounds.
The first week or two are usually easy. Way too easy. I’m talking, wake-up-five-pounds-lighter easy. You’re probably dropping a lot of water weight initially, as well as losing some fat, but obviously, this isn’t sustainable for the long-term. Enjoy the momentum from this first phase, but just know that it won’t last long.
Phase two is the “cruising” phase. If you have twenty or more pounds to lose, this is the phase when you need to tighten up your diet, but it’s generally pretty easy to lose a pound or two a week. You may feel a little hungry, and you’ll have to be consistent with your nutrition and work hard in the gym, but overall, this phase won’t be too bad.
Finally, we reach phase three, something I lovingly call the grind phase. This is when you get down to your last 15-20 pounds, and you have to fight for every ounce of fat lost. You’ll be hungry, you’ll be pushing your body past it’s comfortable limits, and you’ll need to be very tight with your diet and nutrition.
The grind is what gets you from sort of lean and muscular, to offensively shredded abs. Or, close anyway.
It’s in this phase, the grind, that every little detail counts. The grind is where everything can be going right, at least on the surface, yet progress slows to a crawl.
During the grind, every little detail counts, even the ones that would normally seem insignificant. In this phase, there are five very common mistakes you may be making, mistakes that slow your progress. These mistakes may not have had any negative impact until this point, but now is when you need to address them.
The Five Mistakes
Mistake #1 Not measuring condiments
Nobody likes bland, tasteless food, especially when you’re hungry all day long and deep into your diet. You want foods that are going to fill you up, and actually taste good.
Using condiments is an excellent way to make your food taste better, but it’s very important to measure what you’re using. While hot sauces and mustards usually contain less than 5 calories per serving, just about anything else is going to have some sugar in there.
Ketchup, BBQ sauce, salad dressings, jelly, peanut butter… all of these are perfectly fine and acceptable to enjoy in your diet, but you need to account for the calories they contain. The issue isn’t the sauces themselves, it’s the calories. Until you’ve used a food scale to measure out the serving size in grams, rather than using whatever spoon you come across to eyeball a tablespoon, you really don’t know what you’re getting.
It’s super easy to over pour your condiments, and while one meal may not be enough to slow you down, if you’re consistently adding 100-200 calories extra per day without knowing it, those calories add up over the course of the week.
Solution: Measure your condiments for a week, using a food scale or measuring spoon, being as accurate as possible. This way you’ll learn how big serving sizes are, and how much you’re using in a day.
Mistake #2: Stealing bites
If you a family or significant other, this one is probably very tempting. You can’t expect the world you around to stop enjoying their lives just because you want to get shredded, so odds are, you’re going to be exposed to a lot of food throughout the day.
A bite here and there isn’t the end of the world. However, just like the condiments, these bites can add up. When every detail matters, you need to be careful.
If you take a small bite of a cookie here, take a bite of your girlfriend’s burger the next day, maybe have “just a couple” of potato chips on the weekend… those can also add up.
Just like the condiments, this really isn’t a huge deal for most people, but when you need extreme precision, these little bits can start to add up over time.
Solution: If you haven’t accounted for it in your meal plan or macros, don’t eat it. It’s that simple.
Mistake #3: Eating out too often
This is the one that’s going to get a lot of you guys in trouble. Look, I love Chipotle burrito bowls as much as everyone else, but you have no idea how much food you’re actually getting.
You can go online and find macros for anything from Chipotle, Chik-Fil-A, Cheesecake Factory, or nearly any other chain restaurant you can think, which is awesome. This doesn’t mean that’s what you’re actually getting.
Human error gets in the way, and the person assembling your bowl of wonder at your local Chipotle probably isn’t concerned with giving you exactly four ounces of steak; if anything, you’re hoping he gives you some extra. This is a perfectly fine and healthy food choice, but if you’re prepping for the stage or a photo shoot, you don’t want someone’s best guess at what you’re eating; you want accuracy.
I know plenty of people who eat their lunch out 5 days a week, and while you can definitely do this in a healthy way, there’s no way you’re getting the exact macros you plan for with that meal. If you want optimal results, it’s best to limit those meals as much as you can, and prepare your food yourself.
Solution: Only eat out 1-2 times per week if you’re deep into a diet phase, and prepare the rest of your meals yourself, or eat pre-packaged food with precise nutrition labeling.
Mistake #4: Trying to eat your “burned” calories
Calculating how many calories you burn during a workout is virtually impossible for most people. The most accurate way to measure involves lots of equipment in a lab, and even then, it’s not perfect.
Using the heart rate monitors on treadmills, or whatever your FitBit tells you is fine to look at, but by no means is it 100% accurate, or even close to accurate if we’re being honest. I like to use calorie tracking to figure out how much total work someone is doing, but calories burned from exercise should be considered a bonus.
Exercise is meant to strengthen your body and turn it into a healthy, powerful, fat-burning machine. It should not be used as punishment to burn some extra calories.
If your treadmill tells you that you’ve burned 300 calories, this doesn’t mean you can go eat 300 calories to cancel it out, because you probably burned significantly less than the estimate, and eating those calories back just puts you over your limit.
Solution: Don’t worry about tracking your calories during working out; just try to get strong, push your body hard, and focus on being consistent with your nutrition.
Mistake #5: Guessing portion sizes
This applies mostly to meal prep, but it’s important. One of my favorite tricks to staying on track is always having cooked food ready. At any given time, I usually have at least 8-12 ounces of cooked ground turkey in the fridge, as well as cooked rice, and lots of fruit and veggies to go with it.
When throwing together a pre-made meal, it’s easy to just scoop a bunch of stuff into a bowl and heat it up, but you need accuracy. This goes for measuring pre-cooked meats, oatmeal, rice, pasta, or anything else that will make up the bulk of your meal. Make sure you’re eating the amount you’re actually supposed to, not guessing.
Ever notice how professional bodybuilders meal plans say things like “6oz chicken, 8oz sweet potato, 2 cups veggies?” It’s specific; it doesn’t tell them to just grab a handful of everything and go to town. Be like them, and save the guesswork for the person giving you double-meat at Chipotle.
Solution: When working with food you’ve cooked in bulk, use a measuring cup or scale to figure out your portions, rather than just guessing.
Fat loss is pretty straightforward, at least for most people. The work is hard, but actually planning it out isn’t too bad. Hit your calories, hit your protein, work out a few times a week, and you should be good.
However, when you’re trying to shed those last 10 pounds, and every ounce is a fight, you need to have things as optimized as possible. Any of the mistakes above can take you from 100% efficiency to 80% efficiency, so assess what you’re doing, and change anything you need to do.