A Realistic Look at Goal Setting: Fat Loss


I am starting with fat loss because this is what the majority of people are battling and why they matriculated to my part of the interwebz. You can find the introduction to goal setting here.

A Truthful Assessment

When setting a goal, you have to be realistic about where you are starting. This means stepping back and taking a deep and honest look at yourself. This is not the time for flattering light and proportionate clothing choices. If you want to achieve anything in life, you have to work from a place of honesty and self-awareness. Cheating yourself right off the bat is the start of failed results. You have to come to terms with what you want to change about who you are.



©Exodus Photography

From my experience working with clients, I have found the following information vital for an accurate assessment.

Scale Weight
Estimated Body Fat Percentage
Clothing Size
Full Body Pictures (Front, Side, Back)
Performance (Cardio, Flexibility, Strength)
Lifestyle Questionnaire (Happiness, Food Relationships, Goals)

The combination of these usually elicit strong emotional responses from my clients. It is these responses that provide me with the opportunity to figure out what they truly want. The kicker is you can do this for yourself with a little bit of personal honesty. Even if you don’t know how to solve the problem, at least you will be asking the right questions.

Why the Scale Matters

I am one of the few professionals that will tell you the scale matters. It doesn’t tell you everything, but it matters. Previously, I discussed how to read the effects of scale weight, but now I want to explain why the numbers are important.

The majority of people lack an understanding of how low in physical scale weight they need to get in order to achieve their desired look. This industry is extremely obsessed with discussing how much lean mass one can put on while also removing body fat. You might see things like, “They lost 10 lbs of body fat and gained 10 lbs of muscle in 4 weeks!” Often, this just isn’t the case on the level it is claimed to be. If you are stuck at a zero pound change in eight weeks, then you simply aren’t doing it right.

Even with the blessings of youth and aggressive training, you can only accumulate so much lean mass. I will talk about this in another goal setting post, but the point is most people aren’t getting results. There isn’t magical muscle mass keeping them from seeing scale drops over the long term. Eventually it does have to move. I will say that the lower in body fat you are, the slower the pace will be. So when you enter the 10 pound remaining range, trading out is more likely to occur on small levels and you enter into body recomposition.

When you begin a fat loss program, you need to be realistic about how much fat you need to lose in order to achieve your results. It is often much lower than you might anticipate at first. The majority of females I work with are usually over by 15-20 pounds when they tell me what they think their final weight should be. And estimates that men give are often worse; the majority of them overestimate what they should weigh by roughly 30 pounds. The average 5’5″ woman I train usually has an ideal body with moderate muscle gains of around 115 pounds. For the average 5’10” man I train, their “six pack” point usually clocks in at 160 pounds given an intermediate training level. If they are at a lower training and conditioning level with little muscle, it could be as low as 140 pounds before they see abs, and even then there would not be much definition. A lean bulking program would be required to help them achieve the look they want. You have to be willing to admit that this round of fat loss is just the first phase.

Those numbers are shocking to most people when I discuss them. Even the biggest pro level, steroid using competitors barely break the 200s if male and the 140s if female. Females are notorious for competing at too high of a body fat level as well.

Sustainable Loss

For those who end up achieving the loss they desire, a new issue arises in the area of sustainable loss. Sustainable loss means the body fat level you can carry and keep, and the main issue with keeping lower body fat levels has to do with hormones.

Lower body fat levels can present health issues in different ways. I should caveat this by saying that it isn’t only low body fat levels that can present issues, it can also be a steady state of overstressing the body with a caloric deficit and overtraining. The combination of these can cause issues with everything from how hungry you are to the sexual hormone levels in your body. It can affect bone health, libido, thyroid function, wound healing, etc. You name it and it can play a role in how you feel. Your body doesn’t generally like to be starved without the aid of nutrition, so it forces you to do something about it. You can call it “set point” or just common sense; but whatever the reason, you have to make a realistic goal for what you can maintain.

The Role of Training for Fat Loss

Training in a fat loss state serves different purposes for different people. Not everyone has the same body composition desires and not everyone has the ability to achieve them even if they did. It is safe to say that a “one size fits all” training philosophy for fat loss makes about as much sense as the same diet for everyone. The majority of people’s focus leads more toward increasing intensity while decreasing calories. When you think about it logically, it doesn’t make sense. The idea comes from a place of good intentions; it focuses on change and shock to the system of life. The epic fail comes when that shock leaves you sprawled out on a couch with injuries, screwed up hormones, and hunger to rival that of the Ethiopians on South Park.

It’s important to properly gauge your conditioning before entering into a cut, and then to adjust as needed based on your response. Many find that at a maintenance or surplus caloric level, they can train very aggressively with fast recovery, but this can downgrade quickly once caloric intake is restricted. Most don’t have to trade intensity, just volume. Reducing the volume of your training can be the simple answer to this problem. For some, even that isn’t enough, and it is possible you may need to downgrade to general activity and mobility drills.

Wherever your line falls, you may need to realize that this isn’t the time for a Rocky montage; that may come later when you can actually eat something while training in the mountains of Russia. Your goals should be in line with your need, not with your ego or youthful day dreams. Don’t sacrifice results because of stubbornness or pride; doing that will only leave you with regret.

The After Effect

The end is the beginning. More often than not, people don’t understand how to come out of fat loss. It is common to assume the amount of caloric intake for fat loss is the same amount you have to eat for maintenance. It is not. This is why I am not really a fan of phrases like, “This is a diet for life.” The intent is to drive home the point that eating is healthy and should be practiced for good. What is not usually stated is that the deficit should not be. The afterlife of your diet shouldn’t be one of gluttony either, so remember how you got there in the first place.

On a different note, it is important to tackle changes in your lifestyle as well. When you achieve change you should live it; if you don’t, then change isn’t change at all, it is a blip. When determining your goals, you need to include personal ones that may have previously been inhibited because of insecurity or a lack of confidence.


  • Give a realistic assessment of where you are. Brutal honesty is key.
  • Be realistic about how long it is going to take to achieve your loss and where it might land.
  • Set a sustainable goal.
  • Adjust training for need, not pride or movie montage glory.
  • Realize that the deficit should end and life should begin.


  1. etana finkler
    September 9, 2009 at 10:06 am

    One of your best posts, Leigh….

    You wrote:
    >Your goals should be in line for the need…

    Since I rarely feel hunger signals, is that “need” from your body’s chemistry needs, or your emotional/physical endurance needs? As a turtle slow loser, I could probably eat 600-800 cal / day without feeling hungry or lack of energy, especially if I do two 2000 cal refeeds on the weekend. It is weird, but it seems to be true that I still have energy.

    So I am staying at 900-1000cal x 5 because I am assuming dropping lower will be detrimental in ways I cannot see immediately day to day. Could you explain if there is an absolute “need” number that every BODY should not go below, and why?

    thanks again, Etana who is NOT doing Jazzercise ;>

  2. Amanda
    September 9, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Great post, Leigh. 🙂 I’m feeling more confident that I will indeed need to hit around 125 or a couple of pounds lower to account for bloat to achieve my goal look (I’m 5′ 8.5″). Now to decide how quickly I want to get there…

  3. Jamie
    September 9, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Will the next post in the series tell you how to figure out the scale weight you need to be at to achieve your desired look? I’m really lost on this…

    I’m 5’10” female at 189, 30% body fat, and would like to get to 20%. I was thinking 170. Perhaps that is too high.

  4. Pierre - Shape Journey
    September 9, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    “When you achieve change you should live it, if you don’t then change isn’t a change at all, it is a blip.” That sentence is so important. That’s why I always say that the change as to be done over a long period of time so you can develop a habit of it.
    Setting goals that are too short in time will, say for instance lose xx lbs in a month, will not create a habit. It will only result in that you gain it all back shortly. A habit is created by many repetitions over long period of time. But change gradually.
    I think changing the way you eat is more difficult than starting to workout out more frequently. A soon as you start to workout on a regular basis you tend to think about eating more healthy automatically (if you got the knowledge what’s healthy). Then I think it’s time to slowly implement some kind of diet. But not both “more workout” and ” a strict diet” to start your shape journey with. It’s too overwhelming.
    Simplified I see I like this

    long term goal, 4-6 month at least, ie lose xx(x) lbs
    regular workouts
    start to eat more healthy
    eat even more healthy (if you just got the knowledge this will happen by it self)
    6 month later, and xx(x)lbs lighter,  be proud to have achieved your goal
    Live the the rest of you life with two new habits, regular workouts and healthy eating.


  5. AnnetteW
    September 9, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    I’m kinda blown away by the 115lb at 5’5″ though.  I know it’s not for everyone, but dang, that was me in H.S. (even lighter) and I thought I was skinny at 120 (age 35) and am aiming for 130 now in my later 40’s.  I can’t help but feel I have more lean body mass than that….but I really don’t know.  I guess I just keep losing till the mirror tells me enough already, or I feel okay about things.  Scary thing is, I’m feeling okay right now, and I have a lot of body fat still to loose.

    • Monica
      August 30, 2012 at 10:38 am

      I agree, I was thinking 115 at 5’5” sounds extremely low, at least in reference to my personal experience. I was about 115-117 at 5’2″ in high school and was very thin. At 5’4″, I got down to 120 and couldn’t imagine going lower. What I’m thinking is that I just have more muscular build than others?

      Now I’m at 127 lbs and about 20-21% body fat percentage (with semi-visible abs and muscle definition). I was trying to figure how much fat I would have to lose to get to 18%, accounting for possible muscle loss too. I figure if I’m at 127 and have visible abs, I MUST have more muscle than I thought. Also, the person who tested me said my fat was evenly distributed, which I think greatly contributes to how someone looks at different weights. I.e. some people gain more fat in the stomach than lower body, etc.

  6. Lynda
    September 9, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Wow, great post! Funny on the timing too, because I am just recently coming to terms with the self realization that I need to keep my scale weight to about 120 (I’m 5’5) to achieve the look I’m happy with. You are so spot on in your observations, thank you for sharing them with us.
    I also truly enjoyed the embraced the idea of when you achieve change you need to live it. I recently started to gain weight after a substantial loss, and had to come to terms with my life-long learned habits of dealing with stress (overeating) and that while I needed a mental break from dieting, I still have work to do. Now I am ready to tackle the diet part again, but I also had to get over the anxiety stage of approaching maintenance for the first time. As with fat loss, I had to get used to the idea of maintenance to a point where I had to work on not being afraid of actually accomplishing it. I think this is how I interpreted your comments regarding having the confidence needed to reach our goals. We need confidence in our achievements AND confidence to just “be” in our new bodies in order to stay on top of them so to speak. I still feel like I have what I call ‘fat eyes’ as in, right before I am about to look in the mirror I anticipate I will see my old, fatter self. And then I’m still surprised by my new size of clothes, and my newer, slimmer shape. Getting accustomed to these changes requires a different kind of honesty, and the ability to not let fear and old habits catapult us back to where we started.  As in my fat loss journey, I know this too will take time, practice, and patience.
    Well said Leigh, and I look forward to your next post! 🙂

  7. Leigh Peele
    September 9, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Etana – A need number would be dependent on essential body mass and health function. If because of low body fat you started to see issue with the things I mentioned above it may be time to up your body weight. Also as I stated the other issue is that of training and caloric intake for need. Sustainable loss will become a factor. If you find even if dieting down below the weight you need allowing for regain adjustments that you still can’t fight off regain then it means you might have to be 3-5 pounds above where you desire to be. It is then where you have to deal with look based on mass and and other factors like posture etc.

    Amanda – Good luck and thanks for the feedback. A lot of people still neglect the “go lower” point.

    Jamie – This would be a very involved chart to detail. The simple truth is that everyone has a different ideal. The point is not that there is a one set number for all women at 5’5. The point is that it is usually lower than you think. When muscle mass comes into play it throw the “standards” out of loop.




  8. Leigh Peele
    September 9, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Pierre – I agree. Most people think that exercise is the answer or blame to their problems never realizing how important it is to change things in their diet or thinking that eating clean is the answer. That is another rant for another day for me though 😉  Also i enjoyed your Overslept post, good stuff.

    Annette – For the record I stated “For the average 5′5 woman I train.” If I was to say “For the average 5’5 woman on JP” the answer would be a 10lbs difference do to a general desire for more muscle mass.  Still most wouldn’t think 125 is as low as they might need to go.

    The average female I work with desires more soft looks, less muscle overall. More “tone” if you will. There is always a need to adjust upwards. I will say that in general I believe that 115 for a 5’5 women to be the bottom level of sustainable and a base level of muscle mass. Below that point I think there is more of a chance for health and set point issues to set in. This may even be higher for someone women. It should also be noted that different body types are going to have a slight variation in low standard, but it wont be THAT big of a difference, just a mater of 5-10 lbs.

  9. Leigh Peele
    September 9, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Lynda – Fat eyes can be brutal and confidence is key. Most people think that when the fat loss happens life is going to magically change. I do believe it can actually, but only if you realize you have to work for it. You  can’t expect it to just happen.

    Take dating. A large amount of men and women think  dating will be be better for them after weight loss. I believe this to be true but only if they adjust their previous insecurities first and get out there to do it. This is where most people fall back into weight gain because it is a lot easier to blame your fat than failing personality and insecurity with social behavior.

  10. julie
    September 9, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    I’m 5’4.5″, currently a solid size 10, 157 pounds.  My BMI Range is about 112-148.  There’s no way in hell I’ll ever be 110, nor am I going to try.  I’m also not going to change my eating habits when I get to 148, or wherever I end up when I’m done.   I’m not trying to be size 0, I’ll be happy at size 6.
    Maybe this info isn’t very pertinent to me, though I do strength training, I’m not looking to be considered a bodybuilder, athlete, or anything else, I’m just a formerly obese middle aged woman.

  11. Sarah
    September 9, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Great article again Leigh. I thank you for your honesty about the weight and the scale. I was stuck forever because I was listening to all that “trading out muscle” bullshit. Now I am losing fat and see my muscles better. I appreciate what you do, keep it up!

  12. James
    September 9, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Julie: I don’t think you get the point. Leigh isn’t saying you have to get that low, she is saying the scale should move if losing fat and you may need to lose more than you think to be where you are at. Leigh works with a lot of models and actresses so I you might want to pay attention to the “average client I train” phrase.

    Leigh: Great article. I think this one needs to be seen by a lot of guys complaining about not being able to see their abs yet *rolls eyes*

  13. Cassie
    September 9, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Hi Leigh – I’m 5’3 and 127 but my weight does jump from 127-132 week to week. How much can I account for water/waste?

    I would say I feel “bloated” (i.e. cannot go to the bathroom) at least 3-4 days out of the week.

    Random question…but if we are talking about the scale I thought it was an important consideration.


  14. Sinead
    September 9, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    hmmm…I need to break down that list for myself and get back on the train. Great post; I can feel some inspiration digging through for me. Thanks. 🙂

  15. Amanda
    September 10, 2009 at 11:25 am

    An addendum for my post–I said “goal look” but in truth 125ish is probably the point at which I would then work on body recomp. Having never been that low as an adult I don’t have a true idea what I’ll look like. Maybe I’ll be happy, or maybe I’ll want to build more muscle. Either way,  I think I need to get that low before bulking would add more muscle than fat.
    Not that this affects anyone but me, but still. 🙂

  16. Mike
    September 10, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Leigh… hmmm… please don’t tell me I need to drop another 70lbs to be reasonably lean.. I’m OK with another 30,40.. *crosses fingers hoping he’s not average* 🙂

  17. Incindium
    September 10, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Something people also need to be honest about it the amount of time it will take to reach those goals after taking that step back and figuring what the goal scale weight should be.  For example I’ve lost 88lbs over the last year but still have another 40lbs to reach my end goal weight. I’m fully expecting those 40lbs to take another full year to reach. On top of that it is very likely that I’ll still need to do some recomposition at that goal weight or adjust my end goal lower still to get my BF under 20%.

  18. Jason
    September 10, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    I am so pleased to see so many posts discussing “expectations”.  I too am a trainer and this is where all fitness related goal setting discussions should begin.

    I believe the body can achieve amazing results when treated properly.  This is true even after a person has mistreated their body for many years.

    Way, way too many times irresponsible trainers, coupled with irresponsible marketers,  feed unrealistic expectations.   The result is almost always angry frustrated people who walk away believing “exercise and diet did not work for me”.  It’s tragic!

    So kudos to you if you are working toward realistic, optimistc goals.  Kudos to you if you see weight loss, improved strength, better health and improved quality of life as a journey not a destination.

    Thanks for your hard work Leigh!

    Jason Chiero

  19. Amy
    September 11, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    I am loving these goal setting articles!
    As a formerly obese, middle-aged mom of two, I’m here to tell you that diet is almost everything. What I put in my mouth is going to show up on the scale…eventually. And trying to compensate overeating with exercise doesn’t work either–the more I exercise, the more I want to eat!
    I lost 53 pounds about 12 years ago, and have kept most of it off through constant vigilance. I went up a bit last year when I threw all my knowledge, goals, and achievements aside (first born off to college), but have gotten back on track in the last few months.
    I am now down 17 pounds, and hope to lose 10 more pounds of fat so I can show off my pretty li’l biceps and quads. Abs? Never! I think I was born without a waist! For the record, I’m 5’1″ and currently 116 pounds.
    Anyway, love the blog, love the podcasts, and–at the end of the day–Leigh always nails it!

  20. Sue
    September 12, 2009 at 2:32 am

    Is 1kg (2.2 pounds) loss per week unrealistic?  I alway think that is achievable.

  21. Hannah
    September 12, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    I really appreciate the focus on realistic goals. And the fact that there’s no hiding the fact that it takes hard work and patience. It’s just a tad disheartening when as you lose more fat you find that you have more to lose than you thought to achieve the look you want!!! 🙂

  22. Judy
    September 13, 2009 at 7:29 am

    I agree with you Hannah- I thought for the longest time when I got to 125 that would be so great. Now that I’ve hit that, and recently a  few pounds lower, I’m still thinking “Damn! This still isn’t what I want to look like!” And I know that I need to go even lower…it can be so frustrating and feel like I will never “get there” or “be done.” And then I think “Who am I when I’m not trying to lose weight?” I’ve been bouncing around most of my life. I have gotten lower with Leigh’s awesomeness than I have ever before, and I have discovered that I had to get really lean and bony from my waist up before any of the truly hated fatty crap on my lower body started to budge-and that stuff is still hanging on for dear life and taking so much more time and effort to ditch.

  23. […] I have discussed the introduction to goal setting and fat loss. The next logical step in body composition is muscle gain. Before you scan over this article […]

  24. Michael
    October 10, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    three months ago I saw a picture of myself at the beach wieghing in at 245lbs. I am 6′-2″ tall and seem to have carried that weight well until I actually saw the picture. Since then I have lost 26lbs, and waist went from 38 to 34! mostly by doing bodyweight exercises and cutting out processed foods. I now am very interested in getting the last bit of fat off. Being that I’m not your average client in height, and believe that I am not in the “hardgainer” section(biceps have grown 1″ and thighs have grown 1″) what Scale weight would you think is ideal? thanks

  25. Kristin
    November 10, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Hi Leigh,
    LOVE your podcast and blog!
    I find this a very interesting topic. I’m 5’11” and I currently weigh 165 (down from 215!) and my goal was 145-150 but now I wonder, should I be aiming for 135-140 instead? I don’t really see how I could lose another 30 pounds and not be emaciated though because of my height. What would you say is an ideal weight for someone of my height?
    Thanks in advance,

  26. […] this topic a lot actually. You can see previous posts where I discuss what realistic goals for fat loss or muscle gain are. Today, I want to talk more about the emotional and socialization aspects of […]

  27. […] what your goals really are. If you need more help, this article is a great […]

  28. Guillermo Chussir
    February 25, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    What would you considerate “moderate muscle gains” for a female?
    This would happen at an intermediate training level?

  29. Leena
    July 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    At 5’6 I weigh 115 pounds (lowest I’ve been in 20 years: I am 48 yr old female.) My stomach is flat but jiggly. Your post says 5’5 should be about 115 but 115 is too heavy for me. Do you think me getting down to 110 is too extreme? I tend to be ectomorphic.

    • Leigh
      July 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm

      Those are general standards. It all depends on your muscle and frame size. It could be you would like your body more with extra muscle. The best determining factor is the mirror, not the scale. If you are at a fed 115 and don’t like your look, you might want to think about either a) adding more muscle or b) lowering body fat.

  30. Leena
    August 2, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    I’m concerned about something. My scale says my body fat is 19-20%. Using the mathematical ratio of 20% to 115 pounds, that means that to get to 15% body fat I have to get down to 86 pounds???

    • Marcello Teofilatto
      November 2, 2012 at 11:37 am

      To Leena: if your weight is 115 pounds and your BF is 20%, your LBM is 92 pounds.
      You want those 92 pounds to be 85% of your total weight (100-15). So: 92:85 = x:100.
      x= 108 lbs. You just have to lose 7 pounds, if you keep the muscle mass :-).

  31. Emma
    September 17, 2012 at 1:16 am

    I am around 140 now, down from 190. I take it slow, doing 10 lb “sprints” basically, taking breaks in between and doing maintenance. So I’m pretty comfortable with how maintenance works. I think taking this approach has helped me get really familiar with how much I need to eat to lose weight vs maintain it, and be comfortable with the difference. And also it helps psychologically to take breaks, calorie deprivation is hard work. I use IF (reduced meal window), so I don’t suffer from hunger much, but it still affects me to have a deficit over time, and it’s always a nice break to maintain for awhile.

    I also don’t have a set schedule as to when I want to lose weight by…that puts too much pressure on it. I stay in touch with my psychological needs. If I am too forceful with myself, it backfires, so there is no point. Sometimes I just need a break and to not think about food except for maintenance.

    I also weigh myself every day, which people say you shouldn’t, but I don’t know why not. I know my body really closely now. It’s not this big mystery at the end of a week as to how I got there — I can tell day by day where by body is. I think it just makes more sense. It works for me anyway.

    At 140 I am at size 8 and I could stop here (142 was my first goal, but I didn’t know what it would look like). People say oh you look great–but I really just look “average”. Which is great in comparison to where I was…but I want to look “lean”. I still have flabby bits I’d rather not, so I’m going to go for 132, and then see how that is, and then maybe 125. If I look at all the flab there is still quite a lot so I can see 125 being a good goal, and then work on recomp for more tone.

    I don’t know how people do muscle gain at the same time as fat loss, that seems crazy to me. I think it is so much easier to do one and then the other. I think if I tried to train while being on a deficit, I would be murderously hungry. I couldn’t do it. I know I’m losing some muscle mass from dieting, but I gain muscle pretty easily so I would rather just wait. It is maybe not the healthiest way to do it, I dunno. It’s what is working for me. For me changing the diet is waaaay easier than exercising more, so I think also that being thinner, I will see the effects of training faster, and that will be more motivating. That’s what I’m hoping anyway, LOL. 🙂

    Thanks for your post, I found it validating!

  32. […] with injuries, screwed hormones, and hunger to rival that of Ethiopians on South Park,” says Leigh Peele, my favoritest diet guru ever. If you want to know more read her stuff, she’s no nonsense, […]

  33. […] has written about it before, in fact I’m sure many times, but the post I came up with was this one on goal setting for fat loss. Lyle McDonald wrote a whole (excellent) book about […]

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