Diet vs. Exercise for Weight Loss

“There are no classes in life for beginners; right away you are always asked to deal with what is most difficult.” -Rainer Maria Rilke

I made a big mistake when I first started out trying to change my physique.

That mistake was focusing primarily on exercise. Don’t get me wrong, going out and exercising is much better than doing nothing. But if you have excess body fat, training will not improve your shape in the way you want it to. Even if you aren’t really overweight, but maybe around 15 or 16% body fat for a guy, and you want to look better, putting on muscle mass probably won’t do the trick. First of all, if you’ve been training for a while, you’re already in the land of incremental gains and so it won’t be that easy to put on, let’s say 5 lbs of muscle. Doable? Yes, but probably not something you’ll accomplish in a week or two. And most people don’t have the patience to keep putting time and effort into something if they aren’t seeing results.  When faced between choosing diet vs. exercise for weight loss, beginners often choose exercise which is the path to failure.

If you are overweight, doing bicep curls WILL NOT help you improve your shape.

If you are overweight, doing bicep curls WILL NOT help you improve your shape.

Here’s why…

Let’s say you do accomplish that goal of gaining 5 lbs of muscle. If you are still carrying excess fat, you probably won’t even notice that hard-earned muscle. You may notice some strength gains, but you will not have changed your shape, which is what you were going for in the first place. Think about how frustrating this can be. You worked really hard on your training to gain 5 lbs of muscle thinking it will transform your physique and in the end, it’s rarely noticeable. At this point, many people would give up and quit training altogether. They’ll feel totally discouraged like there is nothing they can do to change their shape. But that’s not the case. What happened was that they simply focused on the wrong thing first.

The right thing to focus on is getting lean.

Instead of trying to put on 5 lbs of muscle, if that same person had instead focused on losing 5 lbs of fat and putting on 2 lbs of muscle, the experience would be totally different. As the fat comes off, they would start to look way better and way more muscular even if they were just maintaining their current state of lean mass. And if they were making some strength gains in the process, the transformation would be even better! What’s more, it’s way easier to lose 5 lbs of fat than it is to gain 5 lbs of muscle for an experienced trainee who’s carrying some excess fat. So if it’s an easier path with actual positive reinforcement along the way and noticeable rewarding results at the end, why don’t people take this path?

No one likes the idea of dieting.  This is why so many beginners try to tiptoe around it.

No one likes the idea of dieting. This is why so many beginners try to tiptoe around it.

The reason is that getting lean involves dieting, which isn’t an exciting and enjoyable thing.

Think about it. Especially the guys out there. If a guy wants to “get in shape” and is starting from ground zero, he’s probably thinking “man, I need to get in the gym, workout every day, maybe buy some supplements”. This is much more of an exciting endeavor than “man, I gotta cut some calories”. Let’s be honest, people can get pumped up to start a new workout routine but no one gets pumped up to diet. The thing is that if you want to take the path of least resistance that I mentioned above, then dieting is the only way to get you there. You’re not going to drop body fat by strength training. I don’t care how many times you’ve heard “adding muscle mass will help you burn off fat”. If you’re not in a calorie deficit to begin with, this whole mantra will do nothing for your physique.

And if you’re thinking about doing cardio…

You’ll have to run for hours just to burn off a single pound. If you make cardio your one-trick pony for losing weight, you’re probably staring overtraining right in the face. Plus, excessive cardio will not help you from a hormonal standpoint or from a muscle retention standpoint. Once again, don’t get the wrong idea. I do both strength training and cardio several times per week. Physical activity is important. All I’m saying is that when you consider diet vs. exercise for weight loss, exercise should not be the main thing you focus on. Now that I’m already lean, strength training can help change my physique in a noticeable way. As for cardio, I play soccer a couple times a week because I enjoy it. I try to walk daily because it’s better for me than sitting around. I don’t overtrain, though. These activities play a part in my overall calorie deficit in that they allow me to eat a little more than I normally would. But they aren’t the primary drivers of fat loss.

I believe in the 80/20 principle when it comes to fat loss.  In fact, it may be skewed even more heavily towards nutrition.

I believe in the 80/20 principle when it comes to fat loss. In fact, it may be skewed even more heavily towards nutrition.

So by now, you’re probably thinking “great… so I actually do need to diet if I want to get anywhere”.

Basically, yes. But what if I told you that dieting doesn’t have to suck. That it can be as enjoyable as taking on a new training program. Because in a way, it is a training program in itself. And it can be a very rewarding one if you go about it the right way. What if I told you that skipping a couple of meals during the week would have the same effect on weight loss as three hours of running and that it would actually help repair your body instead of break it down? Would I have your attention? The key to a successful diet is making it sustainable and the key to making it sustainable is making it enjoyable. How agonizing is it trying to grind out your crappy diet? You may be able to suck it up for a week or two. Maybe even a month or two. You may even experience some pretty good results.

But how long can you sustain it?

How much diet willpower are you burning through on a daily basis? Willpower is a limited resource and my belief is that it’s best NOT spent on something that’s supposed to give you enjoyment. I mean, how effective can your diet be when it’s this huge burden? The same stress can be felt when you are in a burdensome relationship. Your diet is nothing more than your relationship with food. It can be a really positive or really negative thing in your life. I have just written an ebook on my approach to dieting and how I structure my eating so that it is both extremely effective for fat loss and remarkably enjoyable. The delightfulness of it is what will keep you hooked long enough to see results. If this sounds like something you’re interested in, I’d love for you to subscribe to access my free diet ebook download. In case you’re not quite convinced, the video trailer is below. Enjoy!


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I'm an introvert, number nerd, food junkie, personal finance enthusiast, and fitness blogger. I specialize in fat loss and stress-free fitness for busy people.


  1. Great wisdom here.
    And great job at making it easy to understand.

  2. @ Joe,

    Thanks! Fitness doesn’t need to be super complicated. I try to simplify whenever I can. Also, just wanted to say I really enjoyed your interview on the Road to Ripped podcast. I’ve been trying the nasal breathing technique over the last week during workouts, at work, while driving, etc. and it really helps me feel more relaxed and calm. Keep up the good work, you’re inspiring a lot of people!

  3. Great! That’s it! Just the true! My trainer said me at the beginning: “Training is just 20%, Dieting is 80% of the process!” Congratulations for the nice info in your website!!!
    Ana Gaze´s last blog post ..Fort Max Diet Composição

  4. @ Ana,

    Thanks! Glad your trainer and I are on the same page lol!

  5. I’m a firm believer that it’s possible to lose weight with diet alone so that settles which should be a priority for me. Glad to see the mention of how inefficient cardio is. It’s a shame that I still see (mostly women) hammering their bodies on the treadmill for hours at my local gym.
    Anthony´s last blog post ..Lean Like a Caveman! The Paleo Diet

  6. @ Anthony,

    Yeah it takes a long, long time to burn significant energy doing slow cardio. In terms of weight loss, it’s way more efficient to focus on diet. Thanks for the comment!

  7. Diet should still be the main focus if one wanted to lose weight. It’s really nice to read a blog by an expert fitness guru.

  8. @ Tiffany,

    Thanks for the comment!

  9. Hi Alykhan

    Great post! Wow it is rare that I read information that makes sense about fitness!

    I’m glade I found your blog!

    Even from running, which is probably the best “fat burning” exercise according to everyone in the fitness world never gave me any result! I never lost any pound of fat from it.

    On the other side I get really precise result from dieting. By counting calories and manipulating macro nutriment, I’m able to lose 1 or 2 pound a week steady until I reach any goal. Same thing for bulking…

    Personally, I think that for a natural athlete, at least 80% of the result come from diet.

    New reader here!
    Chuck Freeman´s last blog post ..5 Reasons why you should get ready to leave your job and become an entrepreneur.

  10. Hey Chuck,

    Thanks for the kind words! It’s funny how people can get so focused on an inefficient method just because it’s mainstream. I’ve found that a lot of running increases my appetite so it makes it even harder to hit my calories required for weight loss.

    I agree that 80% of results, maybe more come from diet.

    I appreciate you checking out my site, man. I no longer post on this blog, though, so I’d like to invite you to check out my new fitness site:

    By the way, I really dig the vibe on your site as well. I’m all about bettering myself without worrying about being PC. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff!


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