How I prepare for a cut, step 4: Meal planning and progress tracking.
This is the fourth article in my new “How I prepare for a cut” series. Previous articles can be found here:
There are still more than three weeks to go before my cut starts, but I’ve already committed to my goals and set a start date, roughed out my diet, locked in my supplement intake and have my training plan in place. Now it’s time to focus on how I’m going to track my diet and progress.
When you’re cutting body fat it’s imperative that you track your caloric intake. If you don’t know how many calories you’re consuming (and, to a lesser extent, the macronutrient ratios of your daily caloric intake), it makes adjustments to your diet needlessly difficult and imprecise. Sometimes the difference between continued progress and frustrating stalls is a matter of a couple hundred calories per day. That’s not a great deal of wiggle room, so precision is important when you make dietary adjustments.
It’s also extremely important that you track your progress, and not just your scale weight. I recommend that all dieters track three things: scale weight, body fat percentage and various soft tape measurements.
Today’s article will explain exactly what you need to do to plan your meals, track your calories/macros, and keep close tabs on your fat loss progress. None of these things are particularly difficult, but it’s important that you have the fat loss tracking tools on hand, have your meal planning software set up and are familiar with how everything works well in advance of your start date.
Let’s get to it!
Back in 2003 when I performed my initial transformation, there was really no such thing as meal planning software. I wound up rolling my own crude (by today’s standards), but effective, spreadsheet to track my diet. Entering meals was fairly cumbersome and time-consuming, but it got the job done. These days things are much, much easier–so I don’t want to hear any whining. 😉
Last year I started using MyFitnessPal to track my diet and exercise when cutting. The service is free, easy to use and fairly powerful. MyFitnessPal not perfect, but I’ve been able to work around its shortcomings and I find it to be quite effective (great mobile app, too). I recommend that you create a free account, and start logging your meals and workouts now to get a feel for it.
I only use MyFitnessPal to log my meals when I’m actively cutting, so you won’t find any recent meal plans, but I’ll be dusting off my account and using it daily when my cut starts on January 5th. You can also check out my meals from my 2014 cut (which ran from mid-January to mid-March 2014). Feel free to friend me, my account is here.
If you’re familiar with my Sunday blogs, then you already know how I keep track of my body composition. For the rest of you, I’m going to detail the equipment I use and my process below. I recommend that you do the same once per week.
The equipment you need is not expensive, and the small investment is well worth it (and this stuff will last a long, long time). This is the exact equipment I use to track my progress every week:
I do not recommend Bio-Electrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) body fat scales: they are notoriously inaccurate, and will frustrate you with their wild fluctuations. Body fat calipers are a much better at-home choice for measuring your body fat, but they do require practice. Also, performing a 7-site or 9-site test (which is what I recommend over the less accurate 3-site test) requires a partner for a couple of the pinch locations.
The FatTrack PRO Digital Body Fat Caliper has served me well, but I’ll come right out and say that the user interface sucks. I’ve had mine for many years, and so I’m used to it, but the UI is wretched. If you can get past the terrible UI, the FatTrack PRO does its job well, and performs all the calculations for you.
If you don’t mind doing your own calculations (which can be done using one of the many free calculators on the Internet), you can pick up a manual caliper like the Accu-Measure Fitness 3000 for very little money.
When it comes to tracking your progress, consistency is paramount! These are the methodologies I adhere to:
- My body fat, tape measurements and scale weight are all performed while fasted (first thing in the morning before eating or drinking).
- All measurements are taken on the same day each week.
- All measurements are taken “cold” (no pump), and flexed. Take care to measure at the exact same locations from one week to the next.
Note that a 7-point or 9-point body fat caliper pinch test is the most accurate “at-home” method of determining one’s body fat percentage, but even in the most skilled hands calipers have a margin of error up to +/-3%. In my case, I believe the caliper is consistently low by about 1.5% – 2%. So, if my caliper reports, for example, 8.1% body fat, I believe my actual body fat percentage is probably closer to 10%.
The key to getting useful data from your body fat measurements is consistent readings from one week to the next: unless you’re a bodybuilder the actual number is not that important. If you want the most accurate body fat percentage reading possible (or a baseline to which you can compare your pinch tests), go have a DEXA test done.
The soft tape measurements I track are waist, hips, thighs, chest, forearms, upper arms and calves. The inexpensive and accurate MyoTape makes taking these measurements very simple and easy.
All of your data can easily be tracked with your MyFitnessPal account.
I can’t overstate just how important it is to track all of this stuff. It’s nearly impossible to make intelligent adjustments to your diet and training if you don’t properly track your progress. Scale weight alone is not enough!
Don’t wait until your cut starts to set up all this stuff. You need to get your MyFitnessPal (or whatever service you choose to utilize) account live, and get familiar with it now. Same goes for the progress tracking tools. None of this stuff is overly-difficult to learn or use, but it will require a little time and effort on your part.
Okay, I think the past four articles have given you plenty of homework for now. I’m going to write one more article in this series, and that’s going to cover one of the most important, but often overlooked, aspects of a successful cut: the mental and physiological rigors of sticking to a fat loss diet. That article will appear the week before my cut starts, shortly after I return from vacation.