1. Calories still count

Calorie-count has forever been the gold standard of fat loss “accounting.” Ask anyone on the street what a calorie is and most will know at least something.“Umm...it’s something you don’t want a lot of.” However, most have a far dimmer understanding of macronutrients, which are the carbohydrates, fats and proteins that make up those calories. In the bodybuilding world, we’re much smarter than that. We know that different macronutrient profiles have different effects on hormones and ultimately, whether we lose (or gain) fat or muscle.

Although, many of us “smarties” have lost sight that CALORIES STILL COUNT. This applies to both gaining muscle and losing fat. If you’re not eating more than you expend, regardless of how the macronutrients are set up, you will not gain muscle optimally. And by the same token, if you’re not eating LESS than you expend or burning off more than you consume, via cardiovascular exercise and weight training, regardless of the macro breakdown, you won't lose fat optimally. So, remember to not only pay attention to the fancy carb/protein/fat percentages and meal profiles, but also total energy intake – it still makes a difference.

2. Train Hard and Heavy

If I get asked one more time about changing training while dieting, I’m going to tear my hair out.

When you diet for fat loss, it’s IMPERATIVE that you do everything you can to maintain (and possibly build) muscle. If you lose muscle, you not only look like shit, you also slow your metabolism, making it even harder to lose fat. So don’t switch squats to leg extensions, deadlifts to seated rows, and bench presses to cable crossovers. Don’t go from 6 to 10 reps, to 30 to 50 reps. Don’t go from what built the muscle, to some nonsense that you think will “etch in more detail.” It’s diet and cardio that will whittle away the fat and give you a harder, denser look. It’s your training that will keep your muscle while you get there.

3. Ok, Hormones Do Count Too

Though calorie control is necessary for progress, you won't see optimal results unless you marry that with a proper macronutrient setup to support an optimal hormonal environment. A low calorie diet of 90 percent carbs, 5 percent protein, and 5 percent fat will do a terrible job of maintaining muscle and stripping off fat. You’ll lose weight for sure, but it won’t be the weight you want to lose. Setting up your diet so you take advantage of hormones, rather than having them take advantage of you, will make a huge world of difference in terms of results. Keeping carbs low most of the day is a perfect example. When you keep insulin levels low, you facilitate fat burning. Post workout is the time when carbs are desired for anabolic and anti-catabolic purposes, so add them in there. Protein and fat can be manipulated similarly, to take advantage of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone.

4. Take Baby Steps

All too often I see people getting really aggressive with dieting right from the get-go. They jump right into lots of cardio twice a day, they reduce carbs to the bare minimum, and do all sorts of things to get in shape, as if they were stepping on stage this weekend. While I respect their motivation, it’s certainly not the smartest way to diet by any means. Not only will it send your metabolism into the shitter very quickly, and put you at a huge risk for muscle catabolism, it also doesn’t leave you with any “tricks up your sleeve” to implement when you hit the inevitable plateau. If you start right off with zero carbs and two hours of cardio per day, where are you going to go when you get stuck? Three or four hours of cardio per day? No thanks! So, make your changes slowly and incrementally to maximize muscle retention and ensure that you can keep progress continuing for the duration of your diet.

5. Don’t Dig Yourself Into a Ditch

Even the best-constructed diet will eventually lead to metabolic slowdown, not to mention mental stagnation. Who likes dieting forever? To avoid “digging yourself into a ditch” with prolonged dieting, make sure you schedule periodic breaks to relieve some of the physical and mental pressures of a diet. For some, just a cheat meal or refeed /carb-up meal once every week or two works fine to replenish glycogen levels, stimulate metabolism and leptin a bit, and stave off catabolism (not to mention satisfy cravings and give the dieter a feeling of “fullness” that is often missed on a diet). Others might want to schedule longer periods of time of upwards of a couple weeks to raise their calories a bit, so as to avoid metabolic slowdown and the mental drudgery of a continuously hypo-caloric diet.

Dieting success comes down to working smarter, not working harder. Taking one step back can mean two steps forward, when done properly.

To wrap up, we have the following:

  • Eat the right stuff, but not too much.
  • Slow and steady (and SMART) wins the race.
  • Still train like you’re building muscle.