Whether you’re walking into the gym for the first time in your life, or you’re recommitting to your annual goal to lose 20lbs, the key to sticking to your goal is taking the right approach—and not expecting to have abs like a fitness model right from the start.

If you’re at 25% body fat (or above), your goal is to get down to 20%. Set a goal to start seeing progress three months down the line. We know that seems like a lifetime when you want to see changes now—we, too, understand the allure of 7% body fat—but your new mantra is “baby steps”.

Here’s a guide to losing weight and getting down to 20% body fat.

Priority 1: Give yourself time

“A lot of guys want to go and lose huge amounts of weight right away, so they cut everything at once and hit the gym hard, which is effective for short-term weight loss—but there’s about a 50% fallout rate in the first month of a diet,” says Jim White, R.D., an ACSM exercise physiologist and the owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, VA.

Small changes are sustainable and keep your motivation from crashing. “With the right efforts, guys can make a major transformation in 12 weeks,” White says. “Thirty pounds in three months is feasible.”

Speaking of working out, don’t start a crazy-hard workout plan that’s hard to follow through. “It’s tempting to push yourself and ‘suck it up,’ but you really want to start off slow and make the game winnable,” says Marc Perry, C.S.C.S., ACE-CPT, and founder of Built Lean. “When you’re not ready, those very intense workout plans will just delay your progress.”

Priority 2: Focus your efforts on healthy nutrition

“Studies show exercise and nutrition together have the best results, but if you’re going to focus your energies, nutrition is what’s going to change your body the most here,” says White. Plus, you’ll see results faster from eating well than working out, White adds. There’s definitely a workout component to getting down to 20% body fat, but the majority of your energy should go to cleaning up your eating habits.

1. Cut sugar-drink intake in half

Cutting back on your liquid calories can help you shave 500 calories off your weekly intake with minimal effort, White says. Soda, alcohol, juices, fancy coffees that more closely resemble milkshakes—these are all prime culprits that prevent people from losing weight.

Don’t go cold turkey, though. At this point, totally depriving yourself of routine comfort foods will push you right off the wagon. Instead, aim to trade half these indulgences for water (hydrating will also help you lose weight quicker, by the way) and upgrade the other half to healthier options.

“Replace your high-calorie coffee with a coffee with skim milk, switch sugary juices for one with more vegetables and less fruit, and swap high-calorie energy drinks for sugar-free drinks,” White advises. Eventually, you’ll lose your taste for the stuff and it’ll be easier to cut back even more.

2. Get a food scale

This may seem hardcore, but measuring out your food is one of the easiest and fastest ways to really understand proper portion size.

“It’s eye-opening to see how many calories you’re actually consuming in one meal,” White says. Your new goal: 4-6oz of protein (chicken, turkey, beef, fish, tofu), 1 cup cooked starch (rice, pasta, bread, potatoes), and 2 cups of nonstarchy vegetables (anything you like).

High-fiber foods will help you feel full as you manage your intake.

3. Track your food intake

Sure, dropping 1,000 calories a day would help you lose weight, but you need a baseline idea of what you’re eating already.

“The best thing you can do is write it down,” says White. “Seeing how many calories you’re eating, or where your sodium is coming from, can be really eye-opening.” 

Use an app like MyFitnessPal or Lose It. Plus, tracking your diet will help keep you accountable, White adds. When you look at your weekly food log and have to confront that break-room donut from Wednesday afternoon, it’ll remind you of your long-term goal and help you stay on track.

4. Eat five meals a day

One of the biggest roadblocks at this stage is late-night eating, White says. Adding more structure to your eating routine can help.

“Skipping real meals throughout the day makes your body call for tons of food later on, but if you eat five meals a day, it’ll help curb your appetite,” White says. With three main meals and two snacks in-between, you’ll be less likely to pop in a frozen pizza or demolish a bag of Doritos once you’re home.

Do allow yourself a small, high-protein snack before bed, like Greek yogurt or a frozen yogurt snack. “With a small, 200-calorie snack, you won’t see weight gain, but it will help your cravings,” he explains.

5. Upgrade half your snacks

One of the hardest habits to kick is absent-minded eating. “Cookies, crackers, most anything in a box really, are all high in calories, salt, and fat. Plus they’re addicting and not filling, which leads to absent-minded eating and a lot of unnecessary calories,” White says. Eating structured meals will help, but so will trading out your snacks. Don’t clean out your whole snack drawer though—remember, baby steps. Aim to trade half your chips and crackers for raw nuts, a banana, air-popped popcorn.

6. Skip the salad

Great news: You shouldn’t limit yourself to quintessential diet foods. “If you’re over 200lbs, a salad for lunch isn’t going to satiate you,” White says. If you’re used to downing a bag of salty, greasy chips every day, switching over to rice cakes is just asking for cravings to win. Instead, just eat smaller amounts of the foods you love. “I wouldn’t negate the potatoes and steak or chicken and pasta. You just have to make sure your portion sizes are on point,” White says. “Then, when you hit 20% body fat, you can start narrowing it in.”

How to design your workout to get down to 20% body fat

1. Set small goals
Create specific workout goals that are motivating and achievable; ones that get you excited,” says Perry. Maybe it’s doing five pullups, or dropping below 200lbs. Creating a specific, tangible goal and connecting with it daily will help you break through to consistently exercise, he adds.

2. Go slow
This may seem counterintuitive to losing weight, but when you’re out of shape, it’s critical to take your time ramping up the workouts. “So many guys new to the gym work out really, really hard, and then really, really sore, and then lose their motivation to go to the gym,” White says.

Plus, this ups your chances for injuries. Long, hard workouts when you’re unconditioned can be plain old demoralizing, Perry adds. Start easy, find your threshold, and ramp up the workouts in a few weeks, he advises. “Maybe you start with one set of each exercise, then two the next wee, then three the next week, and so on.”

The ideal training plan to start losing weight

Focus on both cardio and resistance training, and opt for total-body workouts rather than targeting specific muscle groups. Leave the biceps curls for later.

“Hitting all of your muscles every workout will have a larger metabolic effect, help you burn more calories, and help prevent unnecessary soreness,” Perry adds.

At this point, your primary goal is to develop a strong foundation, says Joe Holder, a performance trainer at S10 gym (named for sub-10% body fat), Nike trainer/run coach, and founder of The Ocho System. Specifically, you want to:

  • Develop a quality cardiovascular base to lower your resting heart rate;
  • Speed your heart rate recovery (which will be crucial as you continue your fitness journey);
  • Boost your coordination on base movements so that once you’re ready for more intensity, you can handle it.

The first two weeks, aim to work out three days a week: one day each of strength training, bodyweight training, and cardio conditioning. After two weeks, add a fourth day. Your goal is to work up to five days a week, but three times a week should be your base goal, even weeks where you’re pressed for time. And if you do three workouts per week for longer than that, don’t worry. “If you’re doing what you should be doing outside of the gym with your nutrition, you should see improvements even if you work out less frequently,” Holder says.

Your goal is for the week to look something like:

Day 1: Conditioning work

Work with battle ropes, which will build strength and skyrocket your heart rate, Holder says. Try 15 seconds of rope slams and 45 seconds of jump rope, five times. Rest for three minutes after each set. Do three sets.

Day 2: Bodyweight training

Focus on base movement patterns that move you in multiple directions, Holder says. Try one of these six muscle-building bodyweight workouts or the best bodyweight workout of all time.

Day 3: Rest

Day 4: Conditioning work

Day 5: Mobility work

Check out three ways to test your mobility—and bulletproof your joints and the bodyweight routine to improve mobility and athleticism.

Day 6:  Strength training with weights

Aim for complex movements that work more than one muscle at once, using dumbbells or barbells, Holder says. Work with a light-to-moderate weight you can use for 10-15 reps, for five sets, and rest for 90 seconds to 2 minutes between sets, he adds. Some of Holder’s favorite moves: deadlifts, bentover rows, shoulder press, squats, and alternating lunges.

Day 7: Rest