6 Major Diet and Exercise Mistakes That Sabotage Fat Loss
Learn why and what to do instead.
Fat loss is not easy, but the formula to achieve it is simple. The problem is that we live in an age where there is so much information, much of it conflicting.
In my experience, learning and mastering the basics is all that is required to get results in 99.9% of the population.
The following article looks at the six mistakes that I see most often in my role as a fitness trainer.
Mistake Number 1: You're not strength training.
If you are not strength training, then you are missing out on a powerful fat loss tool. However, strength training does more than build muscle.
Strength Training and Healthy Hormones.
Strength training stimulates the release of human growth hormone, which aids in building muscle and burning fat. It also increases insulin sensitivity, which helps control blood sugar and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Strength training has also been shown to help regulate sex hormones — testosterone and estrogen — especially as men and women get older.
As men age, their testosterone level often drops relative to their estrogen level, which can affect muscle growth, energy, and sexual function.
Women commonly produce less estrogen as they grow older, which can increase the risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, and general hormone dysregulation.
Strength training has been shown to stimulate the production of these sex hormones and help rebalance them for both men and women.
If we ignore fat loss for a moment, I think we can agree that a healthy hormonal profile is critical. Healthy hormones mean that you will have more energy and experience less illness, which is fantastic whether your goal is fat loss or not.
Another bonus is that you’ll be able to open pickle jars more easily.
Strength Training is like compound interest for your metabolism.
A typical strength training session doesn’t burn many calories. According to websites like Calorie Counter, you can expect to burn in the vicinity of 200-250 calories during a 45-minute weight session.
Where strength training shines for fat loss is the effect it has after the workout has finished. I like to think of it as compound interest for your metabolism.
Compound interest in financial terms is interest earned on interest already paid. You don’t add anything extra, yet your saving grow.
Your body is the bank account, your current level of strength is the deposit, and strength training is like the interest which multiplies on the deposit.
Here is how strength training multiplies your fat loss efforts.
Multiplier 1: Calorie expenditure increases post workout.
Repairing existing and building new muscle is an expensive metabolic process. The repair and building process goes on for hours after you leave the gym.
Until this process is complete, your resting metabolic rate will be higher. In layman’s terms, this means you burn more calories than usual even though exercise may have taken place hours before.
Multiplier 2: More Muscle = More Calories (kcals) Burned at Rest
An increase in muscle mass will increase your resting metabolic rate. Your resting metabolic rate refers to how many calories your body needs per day to exist. More muscle means more calories are required to keep you alive and well.
More calories burned at rest means that your calorie deficit just got larger even though you’re eating the same amount.
Before strength training for 3-months person, “X” had a resting metabolic rate of 2014 kcals.
3-months later they have managed to increase their muscle mass by 3 kilos and have a new resting metabolic rate of 2059 kcals.
I used https://www.omnicalculator.com/health/rmr to work this out.
That is an extra 45 calories per day which are required to maintain life.
That might not seem like much, but over a year it adds up to 16380 kcals.
That’s a lot of extra Tim Tams you could eat (204 in fact) without fear of weight gain.
Multiplier 3: The Compound Interest Effect
If strength increases, you can work your muscles harder, and this will increase energy expenditure both during and after exercise.
When muscle mass increases so does metabolic rate. Increased muscle mass will improve work capacity.
Improved work capacity means you can do more work in a given timeframe, which leads to increased energy expenditure and further strength gains.
It’s compound interest for your metabolism because it keeps adding to the progress you’ve already made.
Over weeks, months and years, the cycle will continue to pay interest on interest. Providing you with a body that is built to burn fat.
Right! Let’s get physical!
Here are two examples of simple strength routines that will put you into a fat burning mode and keep you there for hours afterwards.
Option 1: Escalating Density Circuits
These are a fantastic way to gain strength and lose fat simultaneously.
Density = number of repetitions performed within a timeframe.
Escalating Density refers to trying to increase this number from workout to workout.
Do a short bodyweight warm-up, then try this:
Pick one lower body exercise, one upper body push, and one upper body pull.
- Lower body: Goblet Squat
- Upper Body Push: Push-ups
- Upper Body Pull: TRX Row
Select a weight, or set yourself up at an angle, that you think you could perform no more than ten reps.
Trial and error is the best method to figure this out if you’re not sure.
Now set your timer for 20 minutes and start moving through the exercises circuit style.
You will begin by doing sets of 5 reps (remember this is a weight you could lift no more than ten times), then as you fatigue, reduced the reps down to 4,3,2,1 as necessary to keep the quality high.
Keep a workout journal handy and record your total reps for each exercise. The number you write down will become your baseline density.
You may have written down the following:
- Goblet Squats: 5/5/5/4/3/3/2 = 27
- Pushups: 5/5/3/3/1/1/1 = 19
- TRX Row: 5/5/5/5/4/4/4 = 32
- Total Density: 78 reps
Next time you do the workout, your goal is to get 79 reps or more.
The great thing about this type of circuit is that keeping the weight light (10 rep max) relative to the reps performed (5 or less), we keep the work quality very high throughout the 20 minutes.
Option 2: Just Lift
Do a short warm-up and then move onto this:
1) Deadlift: 3 sets of 5 reps using a weight you can lift about 7 times. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.
Complete all deadlift sets before moving on to the press/chin-up superset.
2a) Double Kettlebell Press x 3 sets of a 1/2/3 ladder
2b) Chin-ups x 3 sets of a 2/3/5 ladder
Alternate presses and chin-ups taking about 1 minute of rest between rungs and 2 minutes between ladders. See below:
1 press + 2 chin-ups: rest 1 minute
2 press + 3 chin-ups: rest 1 minute
3 press + 5 chin-ups: rest 2 minutes and repeat sequence two more times.
Make each of these even more effective by doing 10-minutes of farmers walks afterwards. Keep it simple, pick up two heavy kettlebells or dumbbells and walk 20 metres. Put them down, turn around, pick them up and walk back and repeat.
Pick option one if you want to get your heart rate up a little. Pick option two if you like a more relaxed pace.
Both options will increase strength, and your potential to burn fat day and night.
Mistake Number 2: You're doing too much long, steady state cardio.
Have you ever heard of the term “skinny fat”?
We all know this person, they train a lot, it seems like they live at the gym, but can’t seem to lose the gut no matter what they do. They do pump, spin, yoga, they run and are quite fit, yet they still look soft and carry a podge.
Can you picture them in your mind?
Doing too much cardio and not enough weights did that to them.
If strength training is like compound interest, then cardio is like bank fees.
While cardio may burn more calories during the session compared to strength, that is where it ends. The kicker is that you risk sabotaging your ability to burn more calories overall.
Cardio sessions that last longer than 45-60 mins cause an increase in a stress hormone called cortisol, which can start to break down your muscles if nutrition isn’t in check.
If you’re on a calorie restricted plan (i.e. you’re trying to lose fat), this will significantly increase the chance you will be one of the people that suffer from this muscle break down.
If you’re scratching your head wondering if muscle loss is a good thing or not, let me assure you it’s not.
More muscle = more calories burned; therefore, less muscle = fewer calories burned. Make sense?
Bank fees, cardio, and the law of diminishing returns.
Let’s take a look at jogging.
You decide to get fit and lose weight by taking up running. In the beginning, because you are unfit, have poor technique, even a short run takes a real toll on your body. You subsequently burn a tonne of calories and lose weight quite quickly.
You’re encouraged and continue to run and soon build up to easy 5K runs. They’ve become more comfortable because you’ve become more efficient.
Efficiency is great because it means you can do more exercise while expending the same amount or less energy.
Hang on! More exercise and less energy burn? That doesn’t sound, right?
In the case of the 5K, it might mean that the 600 calories you burned on day one have reduced to only 200 calories a couple of months later.
Cardio paid you $1 of interest then deducted $5 in bank fees
Now you need to do one of two things to maintain your progress, run faster or run further.
You decide to increase your distance to 10K, and the fat loss returns for a while. Soon though 10K is more comfortable, and this vicious cycle of diminishing returns for your effort continues.
Don’t forget these long runs are potentially leading to muscle tissue being broken down and a slower metabolic rate. Which is why even though you are very active, your weight seems to stack on if you look sideways at a pizza.
Cardio has its place, but it doesn’t deserve a spot at the top of the fat loss food chain. While it can be beneficial, I don’t believe it’s even necessary if you are strength training and walking in combination with a sensible diet.
If you do choose to keep it in your routine, this is my suggestion to ensure you don’t run into a fat loss plateau.
Limit cardio sessions to 10-30 minutes (once or twice per week):
More is not always better; it’s just more. In the case of cardio, though more can lead to fewer results due to the negative hormonal environment 45+ minute session can create.
Limit your sessions to 30 minutes or less and increase the intensity by doing some interval training instead of steady state training.
Strength train before cardio:
Strength training builds muscle, so it makes sense to do it before cardio while you are fresh and have the highest potential to lift more weight. I’ll add that heavy lifting loads while fresh is far safer than if you are fatigued. If there is one thing that will stall your progress faster than anything else, it’s an injury.
Slot your cardio in afterwards, keep it short and intense then get the hell out of the gym.
Here are a couple of options that would work well after your strength training that don’t involve hours on the treadmill.
Option 1: Leopard Crawl for 10 (cumulative) minutes.
Get down on all fours, lift your knees off the ground and start your stopwatch and start crawling. Each time you have to rest, stop the clock, then restart it when you start crawling again. Stop when you achieve ten cumulative minutes.
Option 2: 1-arm KB Swings for 10 minutes.
Set an interval timer up for rounds of 15 seconds work and 15 seconds rest. Twenty rounds will give you 10 minutes.
Now alternate arms as described below for the required timeframe.
- 15 seconds of swings (left arm)
- 15 seconds of rest
- 15 seconds of swing (right arm)
- 15 seconds of rest
Continue this until all rounds are complete.
Supercharge this option by doing snatches instead of swings.
These little workouts will do more for your body composition goals in 10 minutes than an hour on the treadmill any day.
I’ve linked leopard crawl and1-arm swing tutorials above. By the way, if you’re interested in the Original Strength System or want to know more about Strongfirst and kettlebell training I have a beginner workshop coming up this next Saturday the 22nd of June. Link is here if you’re interested.
Mistake Number 3: Not enough NEAT
NEAT is short for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
“Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting. Even trivial physical activities increase metabolic rate substantially, and it is the cumulative impact of a multitude of exothermic actions that culminate in an individual’s daily NEAT. It is, therefore, not surprising that NEAT explains a vast majority of an individual’s non-resting energy needs.”
During periods of higher activity, your body will burn more calories than when you are at rest. So when it comes to fat loss, NEAT can have more of an impact than strength training and cardio combined.
Let’s break it down into one week’s worth of hours so you can see what I’m talking about.
There are 168 hours in a week. If you train seven days per week for 1 hour per session, you have clocked up 7 hours of activity. That’s a lot of gym time, but it leaves another 161 hours to fill.
I argue that what you do with the other 161 hours is far more critical. If we take 40 hours away for sleep, another 40 hours for work, and 28 hours (4 hours per day) for general life stuff, we are still left 53 hours to can make a strong contribution to fat loss.
161 hours – 40 hours sleep = 121 hours.
121 hours – 40 hours work = 81
81 – 28 hours life stuff = 53 hours.
What are you doing with your 53 hours?
A theoretical case study:
Take a set of identical twins that work in the same sedentary job and have them follow the same exercise and diet regimen.
You give twin A the following instructions:
- Drive to work each day and use the staff carpark
- Take the lift to the office.
- Eat lunch in the tearoom and watch television
- Drive home and cook dinner, watch TV and go to bed.
You give twin B the following instructions:
- Park their car 1km from the office and walk the rest of the way.
- On alternate days ride their pushbike to work instead
- Take the stairs at work
- Take a 30-minute walk during their lunch break
- Walk the dog and or take the kids to the park before dinner.
Twin B is going to have more success with fat loss goals than twin A no matter how hard twin A goes at the gym.
Where do you sit on the spectrum? Are you closer to twin A or twin B?
If you’re more like twin A, and you’re struggling to lose those kilos, this could be the reason.
You don’t have to park 1km from the office, and you may not have a dog.
Here are some other ways that you can increase NEAT.
Cycle or walk instead of driving.
If you live close to your workplace, this is a great way to get in some extra NEAT.
Think about the geographic circle that you travel within.
If Google Maps gave you a printout of your daily movements, it’s most likely within a small perimeter of your house and workplace. Switch the furry tractor for your legs or bike on some of these trips. The way traffic and parking are these days you might save time, and you’ll burn extra calories as well.
Daily steps add up.
Ten thousand steps are a great goal, but it’s not a magic number. If you’re currently doing 3000 steps per day, then try and increase that to 4000. You can clock up steps by parking further away from your workplace, getting off the bus a few stops early, take a walk in your lunch break. It all adds up without taking over your day.
Standing can make a difference.
A growing body of evidence shows that sitting still for too long can be hazardous to your health. Simply standing is one form of NEAT that can help increase your daily caloric expenditure.
Make your house “NEAT.”
I made a funny there.
Did you pick up on it? You see, I replaced the word “Clean” with the word “NEAT.”
A comedic double entendre of the highest order wouldn’t you say?
Oh boy, that’s a knee slapper.
Where was I?
Oh yes! Clean your house you grub. Clean it like your mother in law is about to come for a surprise visit and your life depends on it.
While you’re at it, clean the car (feel free to come around and wash mine) and do some gardening instead of watching Ellen.
Play with the kids and walk the dog.
You complain the kids never get off their computers from behind your iPhone screen.
I wonder where they learned that behaviour? Ditch the screens, get outside and muck around. You’ll be glad you did in more ways than one.
Mistake Number 4: You’re not tracking calories.
A Swimming Pool Analogy to ponder.
I’ve got a swimming pool in my back yard, but I’m unsure of how many litres of water it holds. It’s currently empty because we cleaned it due to an unfortunate event involving a packet of sugar-free gummy bears and a toilet dash left just a little too late.
There’s a picture for you.
NB: If you want to save money on buying an expensive cleanse, just buy a packet of these death bears. Then buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Anyway, because I’m Mr Excitement, I decided to order a helicopter water bomber to fill my pool from the sky.
I figured that the pool needed about 30 000 litres, so I ordered the 30 000-litre helicopter to do the drop in one go.
It turns out that my pool only needs 20 000 litres, so I now have a pool inside my house as well. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had taken the time to measure how many litres I needed.
Now you’re thinking. “This idiot is crazy? WTF does this have to do with fat loss?”
Let me enlighten you!
You see, if you’re guessing how much you’re eating, you’re more than likely going to get it wrong. If you get in wrong, it’s going to result in spillover, in the case of dieting that spillover will be weight gain.
Are you still confounded as to why you’re not losing weight? Even though you can eyeball the shit out of a calorie.
I’ve got some bad news for you.
You’re eating too damn much, and now you have a swimming pool in your loungeroom.
If you are serious about fat loss, you absolutely should think about tracking your calories for a while.
Does this hypothetical conversation resonate with you?
Mrs Denial: I can’t understand why I’m not losing weight? I don’t eat any junk, I’ve limited my portion sizes, I don’t get it. I must have a thyroid issue.
Me: Yes, that must be frustrating. Are you tracking your calories?
Mrs Denial: No, but I know how much I’m eating. I can eyeball the shit out of a calorie.
Me: Okay, cool. Can you outline what a typical day of eating is for you?
Mrs Denial: Sure. For breakfast, I have an omelette and a coffee. At lunch, I have a chicken salad wrap and another coffee. Sometimes I might have one or two biscuits and a cup of tea before I head home. Dinner is usually a piece of salmon, with vegetables and a glass of wine.
Me: That sounds quite reasonable. We could make some improvements, but overall, it doesn’t seem like it should be contributing to weight gain.
Mrs Denial: Exactly, I can’t understand it?
Me: Without more detailed information though I can only give you general advice. Get plenty of protein and colourful vegetable at ever meal. Drink plenty of water, that type of thing.
Mrs Denial: I do all that!
Me: Unfortunately, the advice I would give you would be to eat the way you are already eating so I can’t help you.
And that’s the truth, without numbers we are just guessing. I have a swimming pool in my lounge room because I guessed. You have a waistline that is expanding because you won’t track calories. I understand that tracking can be a real drag, but so is being unhappily overweight — your choice.
Mrs Denial: Do you think I should try Keto?
Me: (I begin rubbing forehead and eyes vigorously, and five strands of hair on my head turn grey) Sure? Can’t hurt. I’d advise you to track calories though if you do.
Mrs Denial: I told you, I can eyeball the shit out of calories. I might add some diet tea and see how that goes.
Take the one-day tracking challenge
Here is what I recommend making the whole tracking process easier. Just track one day. Only one. Be meticulous and don’t get all self-righteous and become a goody two shoes for the day. Eat everything you would typically eat and get a baseline of how many calories you eat.
Now that you have a calorie total compare it against what you need to eat to lose weight.
A simple equation to figure this out is this:
Take your body weight in kgs and multiply it by 2.2 to convert it to lbs. Then multiply that number by 10-12.
If you train less than three times per week and have a sedentary job, use 10 as the multiplier.
If you train more than three times per week, use 12 as the multiplier.
I weigh 85kg my equation would look like this > 85kg x 2.2 = 170lbs
17 x 12 = 2040 calories per day to lose fat (as I’m quite active and train often I’d use 12 as the multiplier).
Now compare that figure to your one-day diet log. How does it compare? Is it on point or way off?
If you complete a day of logging and find that your world didn’t end, try for two days. Imagine if you committed to doing that for one week. That would give a much more realistic view of how you eat, wouldn’t it?
Take the challenge. Log your food for a week, don’t cheat, eat like you always have and compare it to what you need to eat for fat loss. If you’re overweight, I’ll bet you it’s over.
Now you have factual information as to why you are gaining weight and can make calculated steps to turn that around.
Mistake Number 5: Magical Calories
“When it comes to fat loss, it’s not what you eat, it’s what you ate.” – Dan John
What you say you eat, and what goes into your mouth is often very different.
Magical calories are the ones that make you jump and say.
“Holy Rainbow Unicorn Shit!”
How did they get there?
Not because you’re a liar, or because you’re in denial. It’s because of mindless eating, forgotten items and lacklustre calorie eyeballing skills.
We are going to revisit Mrs Denials situation from a different perspective.
Let’s go back and look at her day of eating (as she remembers it).
Breakfast: 2 egg omelette and white coffee with one sugar = 318 kcals
Lunch: Chicken Salad Wrap and another coffee = 552 kcals
Tea and biscuits: 204 Cals
Dinner: Piece of salmon, vegetables and one glass of wine = 676 kcals
Total estimated calories (remember she didn’t log her food) is: 1750 calories
Mrs Denial currently weighs 75kg. She trains two days per week and has a sedentary job.
Using the equation from the previous point, I’ll figure out how much she needs to eat to lose weight.
75kg x 2.2 = 165
165 x (multiplier of 10) = 1650 Cals to lose weight.
Based on what she’s told me she is eating quite well.
The 100 calorie surplus explains the lack of fat loss, but not why she’s gaining weight so quickly.
Let’s go back to this quote again:
Here are the magic calories:
- The omelette cooked in 30 grams of butter: 114 kcals
- She had it on a slice of toast: 84 kcals
- The coffee contained a caramel sweetener: 165 kcals
Total extra at breakfast: 363 kcals
- The coffee contained caramel sweetener again: 165 kcals
- Oh and I forgot I bought one of those charity Carmelo Koalas: 175 kcals
Total extra at lunch: 340 kcals
Tea and biscuits:
- I may have had two Scotchies (Scotch Fingers) not one: 87 kcals
Total extra: 87 kcals
- Ate three handfuls of kettle chips while preparing salmon: 300 kcals
- Salmon piece was 200g, not 140g: 138 kcals
- Half a bottle of wine consumed (not one glass): 150 kcals
- Oh and I always have three pieces of dark chocolate and an apple before I brush my teeth: 120 kcals
Total extra at dinner: 708 kcals
Total Additional Calories: 1498 extra magic calories on top of 1750 already accounted for previously.
Grand Total: 3248 calories!
Here is the thing. I wasn’t even unrealistic about the additional calories. Mrs Denial is eating an extra 1598 calories just on that one day. Calories that in her mind, did not exist.
If she ate that way every day for a week, she would eat an additional 11186 calories.
In case you’re wondering, that’s a lot and will lead to fast weight gain.
How do we fix this?
Stop guessing and track your damn calories. Magic calories only appear when you’re not logging.
You don’t have to do it forever, but you should do it for a while if you’re serious about weight loss.
Mistake Number 6: Fancy Pants Syndrome
Are you trying to get too fancy with diet and exercise?
So often we get caught up on the fancy stuff that we forget about the basics. The thing about the basics is they work, but we humans insist on making things complicated.
The basics are this:
- Strength train 3-4 times per week
- Get sweaty once or twice per week with some higher intensity training
- Walk every day
- Track your calories
- Eat three solid meals per day that consist of protein and colourful vegetables
- Drink plenty of water
- Get plenty of sleep
I believe that if you do get these right, you won’t need to do anything else to get the body of your dreams.
Forget which crazy exercise protocol to follow. Forget about keto or whichever diet is “on trend” at the moment.
Save your money go to the fruit and veg shop instead of the supplement store.
Stop majoring in the minors. Embrace the basics. They work.
Final Note: It’s all about balance
Losing fat does not have to be a miserable process. Striking a balance is key to getting results without the suffering.
Too much exercise and you’ll either burn out or get injured, particularly on a low-calorie diet. If you don’t exercise enough, or do the wrong type of exercise, or do it at the wrong intensity, it could lead to slow or no results.
Diet is the same. Cut everything out and drop your calorie intake to a little number, and you’ll give up within a week.
If you don’t give up, you will probably get fantastic results, until you don’t.
If weight loss stalls and you’ve cut calories too hard, where do you go now?
Lower calories, or do even more exercise?
Something will have to give.
When I start working with a client, I want to figure out the least amount of change required to start the ball rolling.
It could be as simple as adding a 20-minute walk and increasing water intake.
This way, when progress stalls (it always does) we have wiggle room, and by that time the client is most likely ready to add new positive habits to their routine.
So there we have six ways people sabotage their fat loss. I hope you found this article helpful. If you try the workouts please let me know how they go.
All the best in fat loss.