9 Mistakes to Avoid When Getting Lean
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Make no mistakes. When you’re looking to shape up and shed pounds, it can be tempting to overhaul your entire lifestyle — yet, that might do more harm than good. Here’s why: Working on body recomposition requires discipline, patience, and establishing healthier habits that are attainable and sustainable for long term success.
Simply put, body recomposition is just that: The process of improving body composition. Body recomposition aims to level out the ratio of fat and muscle by increasing the proportion of lean body mass (LBM) to fat mass. LBM is your overall weight minus the weight from body fat. And, it’s more than likely that the belly is the most common trouble spot for those looking to lean out and gain muscle. (Writer's note~ should I add more about belly fat here?)
Why does that matter? According to the CDC, a high amount of body fat can potentially lead to diseases and increase the risk of weight-related issues. Fortunately, by reading this, you’re taking the first key steps on the path to prevention. Better yet, the journey to a lean, strong body and improved overall health doesn’t have to be complicated, time-consuming or leave you feeling depleted.
Here, experts debunk the most common mistakes to avoid making when getting lean. Plus, explore actionable tips to get you started — and sustain — healthier fitness, nutrition and lifestyle habits.
Mistake 1: Fad Diets
First, start small: Steer clear from making any dramatic shifts, which ultimately may lead to feeling overwhelmed and being unable to maintain over time.
“The biggest mistake people make when trying to lose weight is trying to make drastic changes to their diet or exercise routine. This can be overwhelming and unsustainable in the long term,” said certified personal trainer Daury Dross.
What to Do: Take a Balanced, Holistic Approach
As in life, the road to getting lean begins with balance. Opt for a diet that includes nutrition-dense, whole foods that fuel your body — and your workouts.
“Stay away from fad diets (which are not good for you in the long run), excessive cardio, and extreme calorie deficits as these can all do more harm than good,” explained Dross. “Instead, try building your muscles with some weight training, fuel your body with healthy, nutritious foods, and take a balanced approach to both your diet and workout.”
Mistake 2: Consuming Too Many or Too Little Calories and Protein
Weight loss and building lean muscle are a numbers game, in which making errors can be costly and derail your progress.
“Nutrition is a big part of getting lean or losing weight,” explained Dross. “If someone is intaking too many calories or not enough protein, for example, it may be difficult for them to build lean muscle mass, and lose body fat."
What to Do: Create a Balanced, Well-Rounded Calorie Deficit
You are what you eat, so be sure to include a healthy range of key nutrients in your day-to-day meal plan, even as you work with a caloric deficit.
“To get lean safely, you should focus on a healthy diet and regular exercise. Make sure to eat a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains,” said Dross. “Try to create a calorie deficit by consuming fewer calories than you burn each day. This can be achieved through reducing portion sizes or increasing physical activity.”
Mistake 3: Dehydration
Dehydration can cause a slew of unwanted issues, and, as our bodies are composed primarily of water, remaining well-hydrated is a health essential.
“Avoid dehydration when getting lean, which can happen when you are in an elimination phase,” said Denise Chakoian, Owner + Founder of CORE Cycle.Fitness.Lagree, Personal Trainer, Cancer Exercise Specialist, and Boutique Fitness Consultant.
What to Do: Fuel Your Body by Staying Hydrated
Prioritize these daily diet must-do's: Drink plenty of water, power up with protein and keep calories in check each day.
“Monitor your caloric and protein intake to avoid losing muscle rather than fat. This is a common mistake when someone decides to eliminate foods, or go for a much less caloric intake,” explained Chakoian. “They will initially lose water first; then, we want there to be a fat loss vs. a muscle loss. There are multiple reasons why someone might not be able to get lean such as not eating correctly for their body weight, their exercise regime, or they could be on medication that might be hindering fluid retention.”
Mistake 4: You're Not Maximizing Time at the Gym
Time is money and if you're not making the most of your fitness routine (read: doing the same-old routine, inefficient workout), this mistake can cost you when it comes to losing fat while bolstering lean muscle gains.
“If someone is not performing effective workouts, they may not be stimulating their muscles enough to promote growth and fat loss,” said Dross.
What to Do: Work With Your Body — Not Against It
Forget focusing on mind-numbing cardio alone - the secret to sculpted, lean muscle mass likely lies in adapting your routine to address your body and its unique needs.
“In terms of exercise, a combination of cardio and strength training is important for getting a lean physique. Cardiovascular exercise will help you burn calories and fat, while strength training will build muscle mass and increase your metabolism,” explained Dross. “Everyone has a different level of tolerance. I always tell my clients to go at their own pace and that ‘progress is a process’. It's important to start slow and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts to avoid injury.”
Mistake 5: Skipping Strength Training
Sculpting lean muscle, and shedding excess fat, comes from an efficient exercise routine that combines both cardio and strength activities.
“The type of workouts also play a big role,” said Chakoian. “As we tend to do higher repetitions with lower weight to get lean and cut the muscle.”
What to Do: Focus on Form
Don't be worried if you see numbers creeping up on the scale - in fact, the most effective methods for increased lean muscle mass are reliant on due diligence to proper form and function.
“Muscle will burn fat essentially, however, it is how you do it that is important,” said Chakoian. “Using very heavy weights, with low repetitions, tends to build muscle, so keeping this in mind is important.”
Mistake 6: Excessive Cardio
Drastic caloric cuts paired with going overboard on cardio can be a recipe for disaster.
“When wanting to lean out, I see clients making these two common mistakes: Cutting calories and excessive cardio,” said Marissa West, Founder of West Kept Secret, CPT + Nutrition Therapist. “Both of these ‘quick fixes’ lead to a depressed metabolism and a sluggish central nervous system output, which means less fat is burned and is counteractive to the goal of leaning out.”
What to Do: Maintain a Manageable Exercise Routine
Be realistic when determining your end goals, schedule, and cultivate an effective, safe fitness routine that will work both now, along with remaining manageable for the long haul.
“To begin leaning out safely, start slow! Create a habit of something that is attainable, such as walking 30 minutes daily for 3-4 weeks,” explained West. “Once this habit is formed, begin adding other habits into your weekly routine, such as increasing your water intake and prioritizing a high protein diet.”
Mistake 7: Fixating on the Scale
Stop staring at the scale - and don't let it derail you. Muscle weighs more than fat, so you may actually see the numbers fluctuate even as you lose fat while building muscle mass.
“A big mistake I see clients make when trying to lose weight is only focusing on the scale,” said West.
What to Do: Measure Success by the Way Your Clothes Fit, Not the Numbers on the Scale
Remember that the numbers on the scale aren’t necessarily reflective of what is happening within your body. Instead, consider measuring progress by how you look, and feel, each on a daily basis.
“The scale can fluctuate several pounds (up or down) in a day. Seeing these fluctuations can be damaging to motivation and derail progress,” explained West. “To measure progress more accurately, take progress pictures monthly and go by the way your clothes fit.”
Mistake 8: Not Getting Enough Sleep
Our bodies are a system of constantly moving parts that require sleep in order to reset, reboot and renew.
“Sleep is so important for recovery and optimal hormone levels,” said Dross.
What to Do: Get Adequate Rest to Fuel Your Body
Stress from sleep deprivation activates the sympathetic nervous system, putting the physical body in “fight-or-flight” mode and causing an increase in cortisol, the catalyst for pro-inflammatory cytokines; getting enough sleep may help to combat those effects.
“If someone is not getting enough sleep, it can create difficulties with their progress and getting lean,” explained Dross.
Mistake 9: Focusing on Quick Fixes
Nix the quick fixes. Instead, focus on habits that can help you establish patterns to achieve long-term goals.
“People want a quick fix. Most times, they do lose weight quickly with elimination diets, or fasting diets; however, it does not last,” said Chaokian. “Therefore, you put your body into a ‘yo -yo’ effect and the metabolism cannot get under control as it does not know what is happening.”
What to Do: Be Patient for Long-term Health
Your body is a system of constantly moving parts; maintaining equilibrium is essential in building habits that work to cultivate change that will last over time.
“As we get older it is imperative that we increase the metabolism and that is done through exercise, eating well, and hydration,” said Chaokian. “It might take a few weeks versus 2 weeks, but in the long run, you are damaging your body more by doing a quicker fix, rather than training your body for the long haul!”
The Takeaway: Think Big Picture
“Instead, it's important to focus on making small changes to your lifestyle that you can maintain over time,” said Dross. “It's also important to remember that weight loss is a gradual process and that it's important to be patient and consistent in your journey.”
If your ultimate goal is getting lean, your best bet is to forgo the fast fixes and focus on the steps you can take to achieve — and maintain — your goals. Try integrating these ideas into your regular routine, be consistent and if you need more advice, opt to consult with an expert and platform such as Kickoff to help keep on-track and accountable.