Basic Bodybuilding 101: Fat Loss Workouts

I think that the fat loss industry is deceptive. On one side we have the current crop of gurus pushing ‘metcons’ (metabolic conditioning workouts) and claiming that aerobic exercise makes you fatter.

Once you’re done laughing at that, you can see that there are major flaws in that concept. ‘Metcons’ make you feel like you’re working hard and they make you sweat; but this is right up there with bodybuilders telling you that the pump is making you grow. The feel you get from exercise is no indicator of its effectiveness.

On the other side we have bodybuilders, who are easily the leanest of all and have for years relied on aerobic exercise almost exclusively. Bodybuilders aren’t exempt from stupid things, though, with many (if not most) prep coaches advocating starvation diets of chicken and broccoli, along with high volumes of high-rep weight training and hours of daily aerobics. This is okay if you’re using chemical help to maintain muscle mass and help burn the fat up, but honestly this is a case of taking a sledgehammer to a problem that needs a more elegant solution.

I think both of these approaches have some merit, and both can ‘work’, in the sense that if you’re willing to follow the single-minded track of beating your head against the wall as you fight your body every step of the way, you’ll get results.

I’m not a fan of excessive exercise for the goal of getting exceptionally lean; I think it’s a mistake to rely on exercise to burn fat off, and that realistically the bulk of your results are going to come down to what you eat. In fact, you can actually screw yourself up pretty bad by creating large calorie deficits, either with food, exercise, or both.

I think that a more moderate approach based on appropriate exercise, including well-rounded weights and cardio training, and more importantly, stress management, is the best idea for those seeking exceptional leanness. In the scheme of things your workout is not creating results – your fat-loss workout is mitigating the negative side-effects of your diet.

As I’ve said before in my article on training for fat loss, a well-designed fat-loss workout will do three things:

  • Maintain muscle mass.
  • Increase lipolysis and fat oxidation.
  • Do 1 & 2 without overworking you.

Since I don’t believe in the idea of trying to out-work a calorie surplus, doing exercise to compensate for eating too much, realistically the focus of your routine will be maintaining muscle mass. When you lift weights with conservative volume and the goal of maintenance, you’re keeping a light stimulus on the muscle; this keeps protein synthesis rates high (giving your muscles a ‘signal’ to hang around even on lowered calories), and in turn helps with calorie partitioning by driving nutrients to your muscles.

The second goal is at best a small consideration. Yes, you will burn calories with cardio workouts and with activity in general; but it’s also a fine line to walk between just enough and too much.

Which of course ties in with my third, and perhaps most important goal: not overworking yourself. There’s only so much recovery potential to go around, and dieting limits the supply even more, so we have to be careful not to push ourselves over the edge with a lot of high-stress workouts.

Note that all of these are templates; the exact details, such as exercises, sets, and reps, will largely be filled in by you.

In these three variations, I’m using the following definitions:

Strength Training

Heavy workouts – these are going to be oriented towards neuromuscular training – strength, in other words. The default suggestion is 3-5 sets of 2-3 reps at roughly 80-85% of your 1RM. Depending on your recovery ability, you may reduce the volume of these sessions as low as 3-5×1 (3-5 singles).

Medium workouts – these are your ‘muscle’ workouts, targeted at muscle hypertrophy and maintenance. The default suggestion is 2-3 sets of 5 reps, then one set of 8-10 as a back-off. As recovery demands, you may reduce this to as little as 1-2×5, and you may lighten the back-off set to 12-15 reps.

Assistance work – since these routines are fat-loss oriented, assistance work will be adjusted accordingly. The default suggestion is 4-5 sets of 10 with 60 second rests; there’s no weight suggestions other than whatever’s light enough to get the work done. This is done for the goal of adding to calorie burn.

Conditioning

Low-intensity Cardio – Traditional aerobic exercise. This should be very easy and low-key; something like a walk, light jog, or easy bike ride for 20-40 minutes.

Tempo Training – A compromise between high-intensity intervals and LI cardio. Tempo training can be thought of as ‘moderate-intensity interval training’ to distinguish it from HIIT. This involves doing longer work intervals and more intervals clustered together.

Example: 60 seconds at an RPE of 8-9 (meaning a hard pace, but you can complete the work interval without exhaustion) alternated with 60 seconds at an RPE of 7-8 (lighter, but not quite enough to fully recover) for three rounds, followed by a 1-2 minute recovery interval (to catch your breath and lower your HR).

Tempo Training focuses more on doing a lot of work and a higher amount of average work. You can follow this strategy with any method you choose: bike, sprints, elliptical, treadmill, Prowler, sled-dragging, what have you. As long as you keep up a fairly constant pace of work, broken up by short recovery intervals, you’re in the right spot.

High-Intensity Methods – This is usually associated with HIIT, where you do all-out sprints of brief activity, then recover. Usually this is done for work intervals of 10-30 seconds, followed by 30-90 seconds of recovery time.

I don’t discount this method, but you do have to be very careful slotting it in so that it doesn’t interfere with strength training and otherwise burn you out. I’ve been moving towards tempo training as a replacement for this method, but if you can fit it in with your diet and other workouts, I don’t see any problem with it.

Option 1

This option is for those of you that are eating a little more calories and can handle four sessions per week.

(Monday) Day 1 – Upper Body Heavy
Barbell Row – heavy
Bench Press – heavy
Upper back – assistance

Conditioning: Low intensity cardio

(Wednesday) Day 3 – Lower Body Heavy *
Full Squat or Deadlift – heavy
Single-leg exercise – assistance
Calves – assistance

Conditioning: Moderate-intensity cardio (Tempo training, barbell complexes, sled dragging, bodyweight circuits, etc.; pick one)

* One option here would be to drop the heavy leg training and instead do an interval training workout or the stubborn fat protocol.

(Friday) Day 5 – Upper Body Medium
Bench Press – medium
Chinup (or pulldown) – medium

Conditioning: Low intensity cardio

(Saturday) Day 6 – Lower Body Medium
Full Squat – medium
Hip-extension exercise (glute-ham raise, 45-degree back raise) – assistance
Calves – assistance

Conditioning: Moderate-intensity cardio (Tempo training, barbell complexes, sled dragging, bodyweight circuits, etc.; pick one)

Days 2, 4, and 7 are active-rest days (low-intensity cardio/mobility/regeneration work).

Option 2a

This option cuts back the strength sessions to just two per week, and gives you two dedicated conditioning workouts.

(Sunday) Day 1 – Heavy Upper Body
Barbell Row – heavy
Bench Press – heavy

Conditioning: Low intensity cardio

(Monday) Day 2 – Conditioning *
High intensity

(Tuesday) Day 3 – Off/Active Rest

(Wednesday) Day 4 – Heavy Lower Body
Squat or Deadlift – heavy
Hip extension exercise (glute-ham raise, 45-degree back raise) – assistance
Calves – assistance

Conditioning: Low intensity cardio

(Thursday) Day 5 – Off/Active Rest

(Friday) Day 6 – Conditioning
Moderate to high intensity

(Thursday) Day 7 – Off

  • Day 1 is optional high-intensity cardio, contingent on your recovery. Days 4 and 7 are active-rest days (low-intensity cardio/mobility/regeneration work).

Option 2b

This is a variation on the same, only with different strength workouts.

(Sunday) Day 1 – Strength A
Overhead Press – heavy
Deadlift – heavy

Conditioning: Low intensity cardio

(Monday) Day 2 – Conditioning *
High intensity

(Tuesday) Day 3 – Off/Active Rest

(Wednesday) Day 4 – Strength B
Squat – heavy
Bench Press – heavy

Conditioning: Low intensity cardio

(Thursday) Day 5 – Off/Active Rest

(Friday) Day 6 – Conditioning
Moderate to high intensity

(Thursday) Day 7 – Off

Alternatives

For improved recovery times, we just migrate the schedule from Option 1 to a rotating M/W/F schedule.

Week One

(Monday) Day 1 – Upper Body Heavy
(Wednesday) Day 3 – Lower Body Heavy
(Friday) Day 5 – Upper Body Medium

Week Two

(Monday) Day 1 – Lower Body Medium
(Wednesday) Day 3 – Upper Body Heavy
(Friday) Day 5 – Lower Body Heavy

And so on. Just train three days a week and run through the sequence Upper Heavy, Lower Heavy, Upper Medium, Lower Medium. As per the other workouts, consider your off days to be either active-rest or complete rest, as recovery allows.

For something even simpler, you can migrate a basic-strength workout to that same three-day schedule:

Week One

(Mon) Day 1 – Bench + Squat + Conditioning
(Wed) Day 2 – OHP + Deadlift + Conditioning
(Fri) Day 3 – Bench + Squat + Conditioning

Week Two

(Mon) Day 1 – OHP + Deadlift + Conditioning
(Wed) Day 2 – Bench + Squat + Conditioning
(Fri) Day 3 – OHP + Deadlift + Conditioning

The conditioning work you’d just fill in as you go. I’d focus mainly on short 20-30 minute tempo or moderate-intensity sessions, reserving HIIT for days you feel really good, and if you feel like shit, scale it back to low-intensity work or just cut it out entirely.

If you want to throw some cleans and snatches in there, you can do them heavier on the strength days and then lighter on the conditioning days. I don’t mean using them like a lame-o CrossFit WOD where you do cleans for ten shitty reps and then do 5 other exercises and a 400m sprint before coming back to do more. That stupid shit is how you get hurt. If you want to use the OLifts for conditioning, then do them as timed interval sets – something like a single every 30 seconds with a moderately-challenging weight.

A lot of people have been using Wendler’s 5-3-1 numbers to program each day, or just doing the “North of Vag” template he outlines in the book to combine strength and conditioning.

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