A Discussion: Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss

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Today I’m throwing everyone a bit of a curve ball, and doing something a little differently compared to what I normally do. To be as succinct as possible, I had an interesting email exchange with one of my female clients last weekend about the difference between weight loss and fat loss, and I thought I’d share the dialogue both she and I exchanged here as I felt it would make for some decent blog fodder.

I think this is a topic that leaves a lot of trainees flummoxed, and it’s something that unfortunately, despite our best efforts, is a message that gets lost in translation – especially within the mainstream media.

If nothing else, I thought my insight would serve two purposes:

1.  I think it’s a topic that a lot trainees (especially women) need to hear more often, and is something I feel pretty strongly about.

2.  Hopefully help turn the tides and help people realize that it’s not necessarily an “education thing” (we all know that pounding beer isn’t the answer), but rather a BEHAVIORAL issue that we need to address.

With that said, below is the email exchange between her and I, which has been edited slightly so that it would “flow” more easily in blog format.

On that note: Bagels suck!

Female Client:  Hey Tony, it’s been several weeks since I’ve seen you and I’m excited to get back to CP to train!  Having said that, while I still have some things I’d like to work on in terms of some aches and pains, and I definitely want to get my strength back,  I would like to work on weight loss, do you have any good suggestions for me in that area?

Me: Hey Kate Beckinsale (name has been changed to protect the identity of the actual client)!  Great to hear from you. With the weight loss issue, I think it’s important to understand that there’s a huge difference between weight loss and fat loss.

Far too often – at least in my experience, and this may or may not pertain to you – women get overly caught up on what the scale tells them. Weight loss can be completely subjective, and the truth of matter is the scale really doesn’t tell you anything.

If I told you to not eat for eight hours, you would weigh less.

If I told you to not drink water for a day, you would weigh less.

If I told you to cut off you right arm, you would weigh less.

In all three scenarios you weigh less, but does that really mean you made any significant progress?

Answer:  Um, no.

Sure, you weigh less……….but all you’ve really accomplished is to make yourself a smaller, weaker, armless, version of your original self.  There’s no shape, form, or contour to the body. What’s more:  now you have to do everything with your left arm.  And that just sucks!

How most women (and I’ll throw a lot of men under the bus here, too) approach weight loss is wrong.  Many would bode well by changing their mindset altogether and start thinking in terms of FAT loss.

More to the point:  to MAINTAIN as much muscle as possible (even better, build some muscle) and focus on fat loss.

One lb of muscle weighs the EXACT same as one lb of fat – well, DUH!! –  the difference, however, is that muscle is more dense than fat and takes up less space.

Stealing a little thunder from my good friend, Nia Shanks, here’s a great example of why it’s often a VERY good idea for women to not only toss their scale into the trash, but to not be skeered of adding a little muscle to their frame as well:

Muscle is more dense than fat, and that’s why a woman who’s been training hard and, despite losing body fat, hasn’t seen the number on the scale change much, if any, because she’s built muscle, too.

This is one reason why building muscle is a very good thing for women.

Here’s a picture to show that you can look better even if you gain weight. This is one of Jason Ferruggia’s clients.

As you can see, she gained 9 pounds but looks leaner, more “toned”, and more athletic because she lost body fat and built muscle. Good thing she didn’t let the number on the scale upset her!

I could write an entire book on what type of training one should follow in order to elicit similar results (Note to Self:  write a book), but I don’t really want to get into that here with you.

This might come across as beating a dead horse, but when it DOES come to fat loss, almost always, nutrition is going to be the biggest determining factor.

So, with that said, we need to come up with some “system” that starts to change your behaviors. I’m sure we can sit here and figure out a multitude of things that you need to change from a nutrition standpoint (eating more veggies, stressing protein with every meal, increasing healthy fats, food prep, etc), but that’s not going to help you.

Instead, and this is a concept I “stole” from another buddy of mine, Mark Young, who has a lot of experience in these sort of things,  we need to figure out a way to fix/change your behaviors one at a time. As an example, on a scale of 1-10 (one being “I’d rather swallow a live grenade and ten being “I could do that in my sleep”) how confident do you feel about omitting fast food or weekend brunches out of the mix?

If it’s not at least an eight or above, then we need to take a step back and figure out a better approach.  It’s only when we can figure out a way for you to be successful and to carry that over into a CONSISTENT behavior that things are going to really make a difference.

If you don’t feel overly confident about eating protein with every meal (using another example), then what about two meals?  Once you start making two meals a day a habit, then we can push the envelop to four meals per day, so on and so forth until it becomes standard procedure.

You go girl!


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ In case you were wondering, I used capital letters so that you’d understand that this is kind of an important point

You. Can. Not. Out-Train. A. Poor. Diet.

It’s just not going to happen.  I can write you the most kick-ass fat loss plan in the history of the human race – training 4-5 times per week, throwing in any combination of circuits, finishers, or anything else we can think of that will make you hate life – but it’s not going to matter if we don’t tackle the nutritional side of things.

Using an analogy I’ve used in the past, if we KNOW that fat loss is (more or less) determined by calories in vs. calories out, which seems to be a more efficient use of our time:

A) Spending upwards of 45-60 minutes (maybe) burning off 350-500 calories (depending on the mode, intensity, duration) exercising ?

Note to Everyone Reading: trust me when I say this, despite the machine telling you otherwise, you DID NOT just burn 700 kcals walking on the treadmill for 30 minutes at a 5% grade.  Those machines are WOEFULLY off and not remotely accurate.

Seriously, think about it. Unless you’re walking with Volkswagon on your back, you’re not burning that many calories.


B) Electing not to eat that bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios before bed?

Ding, ding, ding, ding.

If we were to take the simple equation that a lb of fat equals 350o of excess kcals (which I know can be argued, but bare with me, I’m trying to make a point), we can surmise that subtracting 500 kcals per day (whether through diet or exercise, or both!) leads to a lb of fat loss per week. Give or take.

Again, from a time efficiency standpoint, and with FAT LOSS as the goal, nutrition is going to trump exercise in terms of better use of our time no matter what.

Here’s the rub though:  as I noted above, it’s not an education thing.  You know that it’s not the best idea to crush Doritos (or whatever) or to forego preparing a home cooked meal in lieu of hitting up McDonald’s on your way home from work.

You know that eating a boatload of highly processed carbohydrates on a day where you’re less active probably isn’t the best idea.  You know ALL of this. So what’s holding you back?

It’s all about behavior change.

We need to have some sort of default “path” to help you succeed.  So,  instead of McDonald’s, maybe you hit up Chipolte Grill and order a meat salad with a heaping pile of guacamole on top?

While still not the best option, it’s a heckuva lot more conducive to your goals, and a step in the right direction.

The same can be said for trying to include more veggies, healthy fats etc.  We need to find a “spot” where you feel confident you can be successful. Going back to the scale suggested earlier: how confident are you that you can include five servings of vegetables per day?  Is it an 8 or above?

If not, then what about three servings? Two?

Hopefully this all makes some sense, and more importantly sheds some light on why I feel weight loss is not where your head should be at at the moment.

Still think cutting off that arm is a good idea?…..;o)

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.

Comments for This Entry

  • Barath

    The simple reason why people find it hard to change eating habits (and this includes me) is that the changes to your body are small everyday, and it is hard to stop eating that one bagel every other day just because you gain 2 lbs of fat at the end of a fortnight. If our body chemistry worked so the bagel and cream cheese showed an immediate increase in our body fat percentage, I bet you there'd be more people willing to change. That said, honestly, there's not many (popular) resources out there that teach about fat loss the right way (in spite of blogs like yours). Mainstream media still tends to preach treadmills. On the other hand, BB sites tend to tell you things like not to drink milk (baloney, I drink a liter everyday and am leaner than ever). It's hard for the men and women not following fitness blogs to land in someone like Aragon's website. This is the real pity.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tim

    Barath, try reading "The Theory of Fat Loss." It's small and ugly, but it's a great resource.

    July 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Roland Denzel

    Barath,  That's very true, but the key is to have confidence in the process, and decide that food isn't going to rule your life.  If you "know" that you will lose the weight by the end of the process, you are more likely to stick to it, day by day.  If you no longer feel like food "will complete you," or fill some emotional void, then you now just need food for energy, not the pleasure of a bagel. There are many resources about fat loss, but you haven't found one that resonates with you yet. The key to fat loss can be physiological, emotional, scientific, process oriented, goal oriented, health oriented, and more. The key is to identify the weakness(es) and turn them around. I don't mean this to sound trite, because it's not easy for anybody (if it was, we'd all be fit, lean, and trim). My personal solution was to get happy with myself, and after that, the science and processes (which I'd tried many times before) suddenly worked wonders for me. 10 years later, I'm still 75lbs of fat lighter. Roland

    July 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Roland Denzel

    Oops. I didn't see the "show more" button on your comment, so your second paragraph was cut off and I missed it. Some of what I wrote is probably a little "wtf?" Sorry for the confusion... Roland

    July 3, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Barath

    Tim and Roland: I enjoyed your comments (Tim, I'll check out that book). Just so my post isn't misconstrued, I was never fat - it's just that I never trained till about two/three years ago. I am not going to lie and claim I am "ripped", but I am leaner and stronger now than I was ever before. They key was realizing heavy lifting helps (and it so happens that I love to deadlift and hate to bench :) ), and that possessing a good physique is a long-term process and doesn't happen in any 4-week programs. I give a lot of credit to people like Tony.

    July 3, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Mitchell Wright

    Tony, well put. This kinda goes with the "skinny vs lean" topic. Weight loss and Fat Loss are two completely different realities. I've noticed with a lot of beginners they interchange the terms and don't realize there is a distinct difference. Thanks for sharing your exchange with your client, and the tips you offered her are great reminders to us all.  -Mitchell P.S. Also, I'm rooting for you on landing Kate Beckinsale as a client. 

    July 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Rebecca Slosberg

    I could do it if someone just told me what to eat, that's my problem. I get overwhelmed with food options, i just want someone to give me a food plan, and not a fad diet food plan or jenny craig. But something actually sustainable and healthy. I probably need a nutritionist for that..... 

    July 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply to this comment

    • James

      So what you're after is, perhaps, something like this...  http://www.tonygentilcore.com/services/ ;-)

      July 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      You know, people ALWAYS say that Rebecca, and it ALWAYS fails. There are a million and one dieting books out there that do exactly that - tell you what to eat - and then after 12 weeks of dieting, people go right back to old eating habits and put the weight back on. And then some. I have a hard time believing you don't know what to eat. Eat REAL food. Do yourself a favor and read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. Hopefully that will help shed some light on the matter. And, maybe look into the Lean Eating program sponsored by Precision Nutrition. Roland - one of the coaches - chimed in on this thread above and he's an awesome guy (as are ALL the other coaches) and I think that would be an excellent fit for you.

      July 4, 2012 at 9:29 am | Reply to this comment

      • Revecca Showerman

        Let me rephrase that, because you are right. But I got to the store and there are so many choices, I need ideas and stuff. I am overwhelmed and don't know where to begin. Do you have any good suggestions for these cookbooks?

        July 4, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Donovan M.

    I work with a lot of at home/career moms and the biggest issue is thinking fat loss and weight loss are the same thing. I have some that L.O.V.E. the treadmill and can't seem to get off of it. Whether it be for 30 minutes or how ever long it takes to run 4 miles, they (men and women actually) need it. Sounds like an escape from the crazy life and that's totally cool. You have to work with them on their own level and chip away at the mindset that the treadmill won't help fat loss like they think they do. Sometimes you have to tell them what to do or how many times they have to do it, but that's why you're there; you're their "coach", their Obi Wan, their leader to the Pursuit of Sexyness (see what I did there). From this point on, it's a mind game. If you have this problem with people, not just moms, you're already doing well. Otherwise, they wouldn't be at your gym sitting in front of you asking for help. Now that you have their attention, you have to start incorporating things one at a time; whether it's adding fish oil in their diets, more protein. It's a work in progress and they have to understand that. As soon as that happens, you're as good as (Au).

    July 3, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Cort the Sport

    Best line: "You cannot out-train a poor diet" That absolutely sums it up!! Bravo!! I'm thankful to have worked with a trainer who hammered that into my head for months and months till I finally "got it"

    July 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply to this comment

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    July 3, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Allie

    LOVE this.  you're fricking hilarious in the way you explain it.  :)

    July 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Sbarker78

    Stellar post Tony!  That was post was delicious with much needed info for every BODY!

    July 4, 2012 at 5:55 am | Reply to this comment

  • RS

    Tony, One of your most important posts in the...ever. Sadly, I--someone who has read more nutrition and strength training info than an entire country of folks--had to realize this as well: I lose WEIGHT very easily. All I have to do is stop training for a while, and my appetite goes away with it. But the results are not pretty.  I've found that lift heavy/eat like you mean it works wonders, but it's a tough sell for folks who don't "really want it." They want to look better, yes, and they know they should eat better. But they don't want any of that bad enough to deadlift, squat, lunge, row and push heavy a few times a week. I keep waiting to see a t-shirt with "They Don't Want It" in big letters. RS

    July 4, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      So true Ronell. Sadly, people want the quick "fix," and aren't willing to take the actual time to do it the right way (if there's such a thing).

      July 4, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply to this comment

    • Heather

      I think a lot of them do "want it". It's just that the reasons they want it are temporary, like, looking good in a bikini. Wanting to look good in a bikini only comes around in the summer time though. When I started 'workin on my fitness' I wrote a long list of reasons to be healthy (note: NOT get skinny) so that I could stay motivated for a lifetime, not just a season. Reasons like: To have more energy; Because lifting weights actually makes my skin glow; So that I'll be able to run around with my great-grandchildren; Because I sleep better; Because cancer HATES oxygen and LOVES sugar.  Focusing on the big picture makes it easier to stay motivated. But you have to know what that big picture is. 

      July 6, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply to this comment

  • Kay Ashaolu

    What really sunk the difference between weight loss and fat loss in my head is when I started to weigh myself every day at the same time. I first found that it wasn't for the faint of heart, when you see yourself suddenly "gain 3 pounds in one day." However as time passed I saw how variable the weight measurements can be, and how when I feel like I ate like a pig and didn't work out for a week I could weigh less, and then when I get back to my training regimen I would weigh more.  I also started to see some of the patterns like if I don't work out for an extended period of time (2+ weeks) and I'm not eating well, my weight would go down 5 pounds, and then start rising 5, 10 pounds and beyond. I know that's when the amount of fat that I'm gaining is outpacing the muscle that I'm losing (and it is usually a great indicator that I need to workout and eat better).

    July 4, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Julia Buckley

    Excellent post Tony. But I just wanted to add that it isn't always processed or restaurant food that makes people fat. I've had clients come to me completely mystified as to why they have excess fat because they eat mainly home cooked meals. I've found them very resistant to the idea that just because they made something themselves from scratch, doesn't mean it isn't fattening. That said, once they do get the message, I think their cooking skills are a great asset in keeping them on track in the long term.

    July 5, 2012 at 3:16 am | Reply to this comment

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    July 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Srdjan

    What would you consider the best way of measuring or tracking fat loss in comparison to weight loss if you don't have a personal trainer who knows how to use a caliper? BIE devices are simply inaccurate. What would your recommend?

    July 8, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      You can always use Myotape and take measurements on several parts of the body. Namely: hips, waist, chest, thighs, etc. But also, the mirror doesn't lie. This would entail having an objective viewpoint on YOURSELF, but if we're going to be honest with ourselves, you can tell whether or not you've lost fat based off what the mirror says. On that note, I'd HIGHLY suggest taking progress pictures as you go.

      July 10, 2012 at 7:40 am | Reply to this comment

  • Leah C. Morgan

    Finally makes sense why after working out several days a week at a gym for 9 months I lost no weight, but dropped several inches.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Reply to this comment

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  • Nicole

    Nutrition is absolutely where I struggle. I honestly love veggies and am in no way opposed to meat or eggs or dairy, so protein is easy too. The challenge comes in the form of time management and planning/preparedness. I cannot spend hours planning meals for the week or more then 30-45 minutes in the kitchen in the evening after work. So when you say its not about education, you are very right, but it is about behaviors and that is really hard to change when you're living a really hectic, family-oriented life. If someone wants to write me a budget friendly shopping list and family friendly meal plan that is time managed then I'd be shedding pounds of fat without a problem.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      You're exactly right Nicole! Planning is definitely the monkey wrench for most people. We're all busy, but you have to try to stop making excuses at some point. Neither my girlfriend (nor me) want to get up early on Sunday morning to do the grocery shopping and then food prep. We want to sleep in! And we do! BUT - we also feel it's enough of a priority to make sure it gets done. No matter what. It's become enough of a habit and "routine" now, that it's not a big deal anymore. Just of this: we have all of our grocery shopping and meal prep done for the week by 11 AM on Sunday. Two hours (combined) for a week's worth of meals. Sure, there's some incidental things that happen throughout the week (I make my morning omelet for example). But in the grand scheme of things, it gets done because WE HAVE MADE IT A PRIORITY. You need to do the same....;o)

      January 1, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Timothy Coral Mair

    These are good points. For myself the key is how I think about food. just like you mentioned I can only change one thing at a time. The first for me is changing how I think about food. When I am exercising regularly I stop eating randomly to curb an appetite feeling. I begin to think of food as fuel. at this point i can begin to keep track of what and when I eat. a food journal. After a day or two of that being habit I begin to identify things to change. within a few weeks I am fueling my body correctly I have a good plan to curb a craving etc. For many people they look at dieting or weight loss or fat loss and they see the whole picture at once and try to do it all at once. They become overwhelmed from the start and even though they make changes they quickly decide that they can't follow it. For me the starting point is activity, then looking at what I eat and so on. For someone else their starting point will be scheduling WHEN they eat and going from there. For another it will be calories in calories out. The key is finding a good place to start and I think this article addresses that so well. it was just what I needed since the last 2 weeks even though I've exercised rather well for a performing musician during the holidays, that busy schedule led to many poor decisions about food and also putting off exercise due to disruption of routine. Great article. Thank you.

    January 3, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Marcy

    For some people it's not so simple as calories in calories out. If there are as many unaware diabetics and pre-diabetics out there as they say, some people will never get healthy by smart exercise and sensible eating of fruit (along with good protein 3x daily and vegetables). Those people have to eliminate the fruit (and obviously grains) and reduce the number on the scale. I agree the scale doesn't tell the whole story, but it can be a tool. The size woman in the picture doesn't need to think about the scale, but a 300 pound person can use the scale as well as taping for feedback. I did p90x and ate clean for 10 months (lots of protein & vegetables & fruit & no junk). Progress according to tape and scale was painfully slow. I knew there was something wrong. I found out that I was t2 diabetic and the fruit was my problem. Once I cut that out, I started dropping weight and inches like crazy - 19 # the 1st month, 6 3/4 inches (boobs, waist, butt, thighs) the 2nd. The best part is that I'm not diabetic any more (blood sugar normalized the first month) and I didn't take medicine. So, sometimes calories in / calories out doesn't work, and the scale can be a tool for really obese people.

    January 31, 2013 at 11:00 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Agreed Marcy. This wasn't meant to be an ALL inclusive argument on what applies to everyone. But in general, I feel people place waaaaaay too much emphasis on the scale. This obviously did not apply to you, and I'm glad you found something that works!

      February 1, 2013 at 6:31 am | Reply to this comment

      • Marcy

        Thanks, Tony. I understand what you're saying. If we believe the numbers, there are supposed to be 79 million people in the US that are prediabetic and don't know it. I really hope that more and more really obese, morbidly obese, people will search out exercise and trainers like I did. There's hardly anything available addressing the blood sugar connection. I was really speaking up in the hopes that if someone like me came along they might get a jumpstart in the right direction for their own weight loss journey. Best wishes!

        February 1, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Reply to this comment

        • TonyGentilcore

          Oh, no worries Marcy. It sounds like we're both on the same page either way. Thanks again for chiming in and for the awesome insight. I really appreciate it (as well as my readers I'm sure).

          February 3, 2013 at 9:33 am | Reply to this comment

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  • Daniel

    Great Post! The distinction between weight loss and fat loss is something almost no one talks about and I myself wasn't aware of that! So learned something again. Thanks for sharing!

    June 18, 2013 at 10:21 am | Reply to this comment

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    October 30, 2014 at 4:01 am | Reply to this comment

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  • Ladies Man Up and Lift… Please!: Part 1

    […] LSD, if done for a long time will in fact burn many calories, but it will also breakdown the lean muscle, and could lead to overuse injuries.  If lean muscle is decreased, than our RMR can decrease as well. But, because the number on the scales are going down women are happy. This is where the idea of fat loss vs weight loss comes in. There is a need for both, but the focus has been put on weight loss and number on the scale way too much. If your goal is to feel better and look better than fat loss, not weight loss should be the priority. Note the image below, while 5lbs is still 5lbs, muscle is more dense than fat and muscle will always look better. Also, check out this article by Tony Gentilcore Weight Loss vs Fat Loss. […]

    March 6, 2015 at 1:15 pm | Reply to this comment

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  • Weight Loss Fat Vs Muscle | Best Diet To Burn Fat

    […] Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss – Tony Gentilcore – A Discussion: Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss. Share This: Today I’m throwing everyone a bit of a curve ball, and doing something a little differently compared to what I … […]

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  • Maria

    well, let me say it, I think it’s a topic that a lot trainees (especially women) need to hear more often, and is something I feel pretty strongly about.

    September 27, 2017 at 8:42 am | Reply to this comment

  • Maria

    Well, for me - There’s no shape, form, or contour to the body. What’s more: now you have to do everything with your left arm. And that just sucks!

    September 27, 2017 at 8:57 am | Reply to this comment

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