Essential elements for fat loss

For clients to achieve long term fat loss you need to help them embrace daily activity, sustainable healthy eating, and restorative sleep, says Tony Boutagy.

Helping a client achieve their fat loss goals is one of the most common responsibilities of the personal trainer. Being an incremental part of the journey for a client who loses weight and improves their health can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the role. However, working in the fat loss field can also be frustrating when a training regime doesn't lead to the anticipated results.

When working with a fat loss client, you must ensure that no hidden roadblocks jeopardise the journey. For example, if you implement three one-on-one training sessions with the client in the week, but they fail to do any more exercise during the week or have a poor comprehension of the term 'moderate alcohol consumption', then fat loss will come slowly, if at all.

When working through the checklist of all the areas that should be addressed with fat loss clients, the '3 Ms' – Menus, Movement and Motivation – top the list as the most important to get right from the outset. Without nutritional advice that is easily understood and implemented, enjoyable, sustainable and brings in fewer calories than is expended, the fat loss battle is lost before it begins.

Without the addition of energy-expending exercise, daily incidental movement and muscle building sessions, fat loss will happen slowly or end up becoming weight loss (loss of the all-important muscle tissue with only mediocre reductions in fat mass due to reduction in calories). And without the motivation to exercise and move daily, to eat better and to do whatever else it takes, week in and week out, fat loss may plateau within weeks of the client starting the program. I'll leave the motivation aspect to those more qualified in the field of exercise psychology, and will focus here on exercise and lifestyle.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is a potent weapon in the war against fat. It expends large amounts of energy during the session, another 30 to 40 per cent extra energy after the session, and improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity for a few days after the training has finished. Continuous, fartlek and interval sessions should be used in the client's programs over the long-term, using sensible progression based on the client's ever improving fitness levels and ability.

For continuous sessions, I recommend three sessions a week of between 60 and 90 minutes each. I work a client up to performing these sessions at around 140 to 155 beats per minute (180 minus age) after 10 minutes of a gently progressive warm-up. Another 10 minutes should also be spent cooling down once the session is complete.

For interval training, I use a 10-minute warm up and cool down and alternate programs (typically performed twice a week for six sessions/three weeks); one program uses interval durations of between 30 to 90 seconds repeated eight to 12 times with a two to three-minute rest between intervals, and the other program uses interval durations of between three and five minutes, with 60 to 90 seconds rest between intervals. Because this style of training is so taxing on the body, I do not use it with fat loss clients more than twice per week.

Resistance training

Performing two sessions a week in the weights room is an important component of the fat loss program. Lifting weights increases daily resting metabolic rate, improves insulin sensitivity and increases daily energy expenditure. Once a client has established a degree of baseline fitness, strength, muscle balance and range of motion, I favour the prescription of compound, free weight exercises performed as a circuit or giant set. Table 1 (over page) shows a typical two day per week, high volume resistance training program designed to achieve fat loss.


Without addressing food intake and meal plans, a fat loss program is doomed to failure because the nature of our fast food and convenience culture makes it all too easy for a client to consume more calories than they expend.
The three key words when it comes to nutrition are: sustainability (will a client be able to maintain the behaviour in the long term?); enjoyment (are the meals tasty and enjoyed by the client?); and healthy (are the meals low glycaemic index, high in fibre, rich in phytochemical diversity and low in calories?).

It is important to work closely with the client to uncover what they consider healthy eating to be, and to make gradual adjustments to remove refined and processed carbohydrate sources, foods rich in calories and salt and devoid of plant chemicals and fibre, and to replace them with low GI and phytochemically diverse foods and meal plans that contain fewer calories than are expended each day, and which clients enjoy eating. The better your fat loss client is at adopting sensible nutritional habits, the better the results you will help them achieve.

Improving sleep

Encouraging a client to improve the quality and quantity of their sleep is another way to help them reach their fat loss goals. Deep, restorative sleep improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity the following day. It also lowers cortisol, increases growth hormone, and improves thyroid function and satiety hormones. The following simple tips will help improve sleep quality:

1. Aim for eight to 8.5 hours of sleep a night. If performing hard training, then 8.5 to 9 hours may be needed. If taken before 4pm, daytime naps of no longer than 20 minutes are allowable. Napping beyond 20 minutes is not recommended as it will disturb night-time sleep.

2. Set the circadian rhythm. Going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning should be encouraged as best the client can manage with their work and family responsibilities. The more consistent the client's sleep/wake cycle, the better the results will be.

3. Create the ideal sleeping environment. The bedroom should be for sleeping and intimacy only. No TV watching, no fighting, no working, no stressing, no worrying. The room should also be pitch black with no light or radio wave-emitting TVs, computers or alarm clocks with flashing red time displays. The darker the room and the freer it is from electronic gadgets, the better the results.

Exercise must become a daily habit for clients wanting to lose fat, and both resistance and aerobic exercise are important elements. You must drill into fat loss clients, however, that their program does not only consist of a twice-weekly session with you, their personal trainer: calories must be expended daily, via a mix of hard and not-so-hard sessions. The next critical component for sustainable fat loss is giving a client food options that are: a) high in fibre, have a low glycaemic response, and are rich in phytochemical diversity, and; b) tasty, enjoyable and easy to prepare. And finally, optimising sleep habits by improving sleep duration and quality will also help clients reach their fat loss goals. The better able a client is to embrace these habits, the more impressive the fat loss they will achieve


Tony Boutagy, PhD (Sports Science)
Tony is the director of the Boutagy Fitness Institute, a strength training gym and educational facility for personal trainers in Cremorne, NSW. The recipient of Network's 2004 Author of the Year award, Tony is also a member of the Australian Institute of Fitness Personal Training Advisory Panel and an adjunct at the University of the Sunshine Coast. For more information visit