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Hong Kong’s top personal trainers tell us exactly why you’re not losing weight

The looming onset of summer makes people do the wildest of things — like signing up to a new gym, in hopes to cut and chisel out the svelte silhouette of their dreams. But as often as we hear of successful fitness stories, it’s also not uncommon to hear people dejectedly lament that they’re not getting the results they wanted: “Why is my body stubbornly not losing weight? Why am I still not getting my summer body?”

The simple answer might just be that you’re not working hard enough. But we wanted to find out exactly what people were missing when they’re struggling to lose that last bit of unrelenting flab. So, we reached out to three eminent Hong Kong personal trainers for their expert advice. During our chat, we dug into the truth about successful weight loss, explored the myths that need to be busted, and got a few handy tips and tricks on how to work out and how to eat clean in Hong Kong.

The Experts
HK personal trainers on losing weight
(Left to right)

Erik Cato
Hailing from Sweden, Erik Cato has been a personal trainer for more than five years, including the past two and a half years working as a freelance trainer in Hong Kong. He specialises in CrossFit and hypertrophy strength training (or in layman’s terms, bodybuilding), as well as weight loss training.

Louis Doctrove
Louis is coming up to 10 years now in Hong Kong, and is the former head trainer at TopFit. A keen body sculptor and personal trainer, Doctrove started out by teaching outdoor bootcamp classes before focusing on bodybuilding, strength training and weight loss training in a gym. To him, there’s nothing more effective than clean nutrition and heavy weights.

Jefferson Basso
Head trainer and director of Sheung Wan’s recently opened Maximus Studio Hong Kong, Jefferson (Jeff) Basso has spent 18 years in the fitness industry, and 17 of them as a personal trainer. Dedication to an effective diet is key for results.

Let’s take it down to the basics: why do people store extra stubborn fat in different places, and why are different spots so hard to burn off?

Jeff Basso: Everyone will store fat in different areas. Usually around the waist, that’s related to how sensitive you are to insulin. That’s to do with the refined carbohydrates you eat, too. If you get a guy who’s naturally very tall and skinny — what we call an ectomorph — usually they can handle a lot of carbohydrates without storing much fat. If you get a person whose structure is a bit bigger, they’re not suited to that amount of carbs. They will probably store fat very quick.

Louis Doctrove: When it comes to storing fat, it’s usually the same pattern for everyone: around the waist, the thighs; for women, the triceps. But genetics is probably the main thing when it comes to “stubborn fat.”

What’s a common misconception about eating right?

JB: What people are getting wrong is that they eat way too much food. Even if you think you’re eating healthy, doesn’t mean you’re going to lose fat. If you don’t control what you’re eating every single day, then it doesn’t happen. The biggest mistake most people do is that they diet during the week, then Saturday and Sunday, it’s “oh I went out, I had a drink.”

Erik Cato: People are doing too much on the weekend — they’re doing well during the week and then dropping off again. I would say alcohol is the biggest culprit. It slows down recovery, the fat burning process, and with alcohol comes everything else: eating naughty food, not eating regularly, not getting enough sleep. That’s another part as well, sleep is supremely important.

LD: In terms of losing fat, what I’ve found over the years with my clients is that the majority of them just don’t stick to it for long enough. They think three weeks is a long time to diet, but most bodybuilders — who are already relatively in-shape in the off season — it takes them 8-12 weeks. And that’s doing it perfectly. For the average person, their time frame is too narrow. They need to be doing it for three, four months. People do Monday to Friday and then think, “Wow I was good for five days, I get to reward myself.” Five days is nothing. Do that for two, three months, then reward yourself.

Usually, it just comes down to counting calories. Simple maths. Most people think they’re getting a certain number of calories or macros every day, but unless you’re getting out the scale and weighing out your food, most of us are overestimating. It will take time… It’s a bit boring at first, but that’s what works.

HK personal trainers on losing weight
Image credit: p_ponomareva/iStock

EC: You also learn your body pretty fast. I don’t have time to cook all my meals, so at night I do it, but during the daytime I gotta go and grab what you find outside. That’s also another thing: people think they’re eating healthy but it’s not actually healthy. They think they’re eating good chicken, but it’s mixed with all these oils and that’s not what you want.

You mentioned ‘ectomorph.’ What are the other body types?

JB: Ectomorph is skinny and tall; mesomorphs usually have a bit more bone structure, a little more muscular, but they’re still lean; and endomorphs usually have a lot of muscle mass but a lot of fat as well. They store fat more easily.

So is it a basic truth that people belong to different body types and to be optimally healthy, you should be eating according to your body type?

EC: I’ve got to agree with that — looking at the body type first when you meet a client makes a big difference. It comes again to this idea where you just have to stick to just greens and protein — in some cases, yes. But in some cases, you’re offered more allowance. As Jeff mentioned, ectomorph bodies can enjoy some carbs. If someone comes in and they’re an apple shape, well alright, they’re going to have to eat greens for a while. That’s the truth.

In Hong Kong, there’s a lot of carbs found in the food here, and there’s increased insulin resistance from people — they don’t move around, they sit every day in the office. Carbs are important as energy for the body, but people are eating way too much of it. I’ve also seen that females in general are less responsive to [burning] carbs, whereas guys in general can use it as muscular fuel more readily than women.

HK personal trainers on losing weight
Image credit: RossHelen/iStock

LD: As long as you get the amounts right, it’s just a numbers game. You can have rice and noodles and all that stuff, it’s just, are you going to take out the scale and weigh it before you eat? If not, you’re playing quite a dangerous game of “am I eating too many carbs?” Most people don’t know what it’s like to be hungry: if you’re trying to lose weight or drop body fat, you’re going to have to be comfortable feeling hungry after every meal.

Erik, you also mentioned sleep earlier. Is having not enough sleep actually detrimental when it comes to weight loss?

EC: Sleep is incredibly important. The body needs to be able to come down and recover. People are working loads of hours, which is something that also adds to your waistline: high levels of stress hormone, cortisol — that’s something you have to be able to regulate, by getting your hours of sleep every night. Eight hours every night, and I take magnesium to get better sleep in general and better recovery of the body.

LD: I go a different route with my clients: I’d just say that sleep is important, so that the next day you’re motivated to work out again. I’ve got a bunch of clients who travel ridiculous amounts during the week — they’re probably averaging 5-6 hours a night on a good week, and they still come in every day and train hard.

What’s the deal with the pre- or post-workout meal? What should people be eating?

EC: I usually recommend to my clients to have some sort of slow-digesting carbs in the system around two hours before the workout — let’s say some oats. After the workout, have faster-digesting carbs, like white rice. Your body after a workout is also more sensitive to accept carbs as a muscular fuel, and it’s not just going to spike the insulin and store as fat instead. The body will use it to recover and rebuild the muscles.

JB: But this also depends on how fat the person is. You have to deserve those carbs. You have to really control the amount.

LD: Every time people eat, the star of the show has to be protein. The amount depends on your goal, whether you’re trying to build muscle or if you’re trying to lean out. Protein should be 50% of the plate, and the rest is your carbs and your fats.

HK personal trainers on losing weight
Image credit: a_namenko/iStock
How important is it really to get your protein, and how much should we be eating?

EC: I introduce my clients to a high amount of protein. That’s the most important part, to be able to build muscle. Increasing lean mass in the body will help you to burn more fat as well. There are a lot of people who come into the gym who might not be ready to commit to a full nutrition plan. A very easy alternative is to stick to a high amount of lean protein sources, and rather choose good fats — nuts, seeds, avocado — instead of the worst things like bread and pasta and so on.

LD: I would say the majority of people aren’t eating enough protein. Guys usually, but definitely most women. Most women come in and their muscle mass is way under. Just getting them to understand that, if they eat more protein it doesn’t turn into these huge muscles. Just to put on 1-2 lbs of lean muscle takes weeks.

Building muscle mass at TopFit.

Week one, aim for about 100g per day; week two, get up to about 120g. The recommended number of meals per day is three to five, so if you break it down that’s about 20g of protein each meal. Protein shakes are one of the easiest ways, but not everyone can sit them in the stomach. You can Google it: A cup of Greek yogurt is about 10g of protein. A whole chicken breast is about 20g. A salmon fillet is about 20g. That’s a rough ballpark way to think of it.

One thing I hear from people struggling to lose weight is that their metabolism drops, because restricting calorie intake causes their body to go on survival mode. Is this true?

JB: No, once you get the diet going properly, your metabolism is supposed to go up. It works like a clock: if you eat the same food at the same time, every day, your body will work more efficiently. The timing aspect is more advanced, but the first thing the client needs to learn is to eat properly. If you reduce the food instantly, you’ll reduce a little bit of fat, but it’s easy to get stuck. So you have to eat right first, and then reduce the amount. Usually they end up having to eat more food.

LD: 1,500 calories of crap food, you could eat that in three bites. But in healthy food, it’s actually a lot. People struggle to eat even low amounts of calories when it’s healthy food.

EC: If you’re eating way not enough when you start training, your metabolism can crash. That’s why some people get stuck, because they think they eat enough, they think it’s healthy, good stuff. Then obviously their body is stressed from this because it’s not getting enough food, that’s when the metabolism slows down. So, you need to eat a lot of healthy stuff.

People say you can’t spot reduce, so what’s the deal when people say “today’s arm day” or “leg day”?

LD: That’s when you’re sculpting your muscles. But the one thing you should stay away from is something like an “ab class” or “ab fat burn” — run away if you see it — you can’t target one area to lose fat, it’s the type of training that you need to do. If you work a lot of muscle groups in one session, it creates growth hormone, which helps with the body’s fat loss. But just doing sit-ups does absolutely nothing — you have to train the whole body. Those “ab classes” will only strengthen those abs, but if you don’t drop the body fat, you’ll never see ‘em.

Workout Wednesdays at Maximus Studio.
Ok, so what’s the best kind of workout to burn fat?

EC: I would say that diet is number one, but weight training is super important. With my clients, I do a weights session three times a week, and on top of that a cardio session. In that, I try to bring in say 15 rounds of high intensity work, 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. After that, you can keep yourself on slow and steady cardio — such as a power walk. The “stubborn fat” such as in the midline, butt and thighs, these fat cells don’t release as quickly compared with, for instance, in your arms. The blood flow through these areas is also lower. You need to work out the whole body — hitting all the muscle groups — that’s the most effective workout.

If you’re looking for a short workout — focus on the legs, I would say. For women, they tend to store more in the lower body as well. Bring on some resistance training and work your ass off in your legs. Then, you can work on more definition in single muscle groups with isolated exercises. The legs burns off the fat — it’s a bigger muscle group — and then at the same time, the definition comes where you want it, such as in the arms. Don’t just stand and do jumping jacks and air squats… destroy your legs — in a good way. Lift heavy weights with good technique and form. For example, squats followed by split squats or lunges.

Maximus targets a full-body workout. 

LD: I would say the most effective thing if you want to drop body fat is still the food. Count your food. You do that, it will work. All the stuff you do extra on the treadmill is just going to speed up the process. I’ve had clients who I only see twice a week and they haven’t done anything else, they’ve done great just because of dieting and meal planning.

There are those 7-minute workouts or 30-minute workouts that people can do at home or on the go. Would you recommend these?

LD: I would say, if they’re looking to do something for just in 30 minutes, they already messed up. There’s no 30-minute workout that’s going to “kickstart your fat loss.” It’s all bullsh*t. Our sessions are an hour, minimum. That’s the problem: People looking for the 30-minute workout are just looking for the shortcut all the time. What they need to do is make sure that for the whole day, they’re eating right.

JB: People think that just because they step into a gym, they’ll lose fat. But the reality is the opposite — it happens outside the gym.

HK personal trainers on losing weight
Image credit: Caymia/iStock
In conclusion, discipline is key.

LD: I’ve never met anyone who trained four times a week, counted all their food, and then after three months didn’t get the results they wanted — it’s just discipline. It’s short attention spans: Most people can only see one or two weeks in advance. Also, you can’t let your job dictate what your body looks like. If you finish at 10pm, you gotta do something at 11pm or wake up early the next day. Otherwise your job is deciding your fate.

JB: The biggest problem is mental discipline. Because in the end it’s all about how you can handle the diet. For beginners, they usually cannot handle dieting for more than five, six days. If you look at the leanest guys, they are always carrying their lunch boxes so they never skip a meal, and they’re doing this consistently day after day, week after week. If you want to get ripped, there’s a price you have to pay.

EC: Now obviously I don’t run around with my lunch boxes any more, I stick to what I eat, but I did it once in my time when I wanted to peak my physique. I recommend everyone to do it because if you’ve seen yourself [at that level], you say “wow, I’m made to do this,” and you will always find it easier and understand the concept of what it takes to get back there.

Hong Kong’s top personal trainers tell us exactly why you’re not losing weight

Evelyn Lok

Managing Editor

When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. At Lifestyle Asia she covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.

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