If you’re not aware, I’ve been dieting since July. Why, you ask?
Because I got fat over several years of bulking and generally not caring what I ate. Now, to look at me, you wouldn’t necessarily think that. By “regular people” standards, I’m fine. It’s by fitness or bodybuilding standards that I’m fat. So I decided to do something about it.
Training for fat loss has become a hobby-horse of mine, because I think most people just do it inefficiently. For most folks, “fat loss” means “go run 10 miles a day while eating lettuce”. I’d like to think that’s been pretty much discredited in fitness circles, though the method of overemphasizing aerobic training and eating a starvation diet hasn’t totally vanished.
The would-be experts in the fitness community have kept up, to a point, although we can’t ever underestimate the power of humans to make something stupid. Even the “science-minded, evidence based” [sic] crowd tends to be a little dogmatic and uncritical with their suggestions.
This is why you have the people that want to aggressively strength-train and do a metric ton of HIIT, because low-intensity/steady-state (LISS) cardio makes you fat. Or the groups that want to rely almost exclusively on the “functional training” [sic] paradigm, with all the metabolic circuits and conditioning and whatever.
Nobody really seems to look at it from a rationalist standpoint. Big shock in this field, right?
The first step here, as with any problem-solving scenario, is figuring out exactly what we’re trying to accomplish. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised.
Obviously our major priority is the eponymous “fat loss”. To delve into it a little further, we’re trying to get the fat out of the fat cells (lipolysis) and then burn it up so it isn’t re-stored (oxidation).
The biggest influence on this process is going to be your diet. We can go on about the diet all day long, and there’s a million and one ways to put it together. Let it suffice to say that you’ve got to create a net energy deficit, using up more energy per day than you take in. If you’re doing that and providing adequate essential nutrients (which is an extremely important caveat, all you “insulin magic!!” readers), then you’re going to be creating the catabolic state required to mobilize and metabolize fat.
Sounds good. However, we’ve got a decision to make. This system-wide catabolism, unchecked, is also going to start eating into our precious LBM (muscle), too. This is an unfortunate consequence, but it’s really unavoidable; your body is going to cannibalize nutrients from both muscle and fat, in a ratio that is (largely) determined by genetics. While we can’t do that much about it, we can take some steps to mitigate muscle loss as much as possible. If we don’t want to start shrinking, then we have to take some kind of steps to preserve muscle mass.
The third factor – and this is going to be the most crucial of all, in my opinion – is system-wide recovery. Not only is this the most crucial, it’s also (conveniently) the one most often ignored.
Recovery is a function of two things: how much stress is imposed on your body, and how efficiently your body recovers from that stress.
The former is a result of your workouts and your lifestyle; the latter is influenced by lifestyle, but is mainly determined by established biological processes. It’s fair to say that you’ll always have more control over the amount of stress you create than you’ll have over your recovery ability. Recovery ability is limited; stress is not.
The analogy I’ve used in the past is a sink full of water. The water is your recovery ability; the faucet adds water to the sink, increasing your recovery, while the drain represents stress, taking water away.
It’s important to note that everything in your life can be a stress to some degree or another. We often recognize that exercise is a powerful stress, but gloss over the fact that a hard day at work, going through a messy divorce, or even being sick are also draining that water.
Your diet modulates recovery ability, but only to a point. You can think of calorie restriction as cutting off that faucet. If you don’t limit the amount of water draining out, then sooner or later the sink’s gonna go dry. On the other side of the equation, even turning on the faucet full-blast isn’t going to keep the sink full if you knock a hole in the side of it – some folks may think you can out-eat a massive training load, but that’s not always the case.
Now think about what happens if you cut off the faucet (low-calorie diet) AND knock a hole in the sink (lots and lots of training). You’re gonna run out of water pretty damn fast. So why is it that most people trying to diet do exactly that?
Training on a diet needs to be a fraction of what you’d do at your best. Note that this is a relative condition. If you’re very conditioned and very acclimated to high-volume weight training, then you’re going to be able to handle much more on a diet, compared to a person that does little cardio and trains HIT style. Dieting is always a reduction compared to your relative ability.
The result is that we have to carefully manage the amount and the difficulty of any exercise we do according to how much food we’re taking in. Obviously if the goal is to maximize fat loss, we’re going to have to make some concessions if we don’t want to end up a crippled, burned-out mess.
This gives us a quick and dirty list to check our priorities:
1. Increase lipolysis and fat oxidation
2. Maintain muscle mass
3. Do 1 & 2 without overworking ourselves.
Any decision we make as far as what to do in the gym should always stick to that list of priorities. If an action or behavior doesn’t fit, or it conflicts with one of the goals, then you’ll have to ask yourself why you’re doing it.
Training Intensity – How Heavy?
I’ve stated before that I see training stress as a sliding continuum of effects. Training hard, with very heavy weights and a fairly high workload, is necessary to trigger muscle gains. But the goal on a diet isn’t to build muscle; all we need is to hang on to it. And hanging on to muscle is easy, requiring only a small fraction of the total stimulus it takes to build.
This is why we need heavy training on a diet – it stimulates the muscles to hang on to protein, giving us that muscle-sparing effect we need.
Intensity is always the prime variable, the one thing we don’t have to futz with too much, so you’ll always want to keep something at least moderately heavy in your training. The problem is people seem to not understand what “heavy” means, so defining it is probably a good idea.
When I tell you to lift something heavy, I’m talking as a percentage of your 1RM. Heavy in this context is anything at or over 70% and right on up to 100% (give or take, since you’ll never be completely accurate). You always need to be training with weights in this range if you have a goal that involves being strong or being pretty.
Now, people read that and think “gee, he said I should be training heavy” and then they’ll go out and struggle with maximum weights each session, grinding themselves into paste trying to knock out set after set of heavy triples.
That’s not what I mean.
This is where I bring in the RPE scale. The Rating of Perceived Effort is a way to grade the relative difficulty of your sets. For dieting purposes, I think most of your time should be spent at 7-8, with an occasional 9, on a scale of 1-10.
To give a little more detail, I’ll refer to Mike Tuchscherer’s excellent RPE chart. I’ve used informal methods of grading effort for years, but I really like how Mike quantified it so I’ve been using his system for the last year or so. A 10 is your maximum effort; no further reps are possible. A 9 is still very hard, but you’ve got at least one more rep left in the tank. An 8 will be difficult, but there will easily be 2-4 reps left in you. A 7 will be “speed” work, meaning that the bar moves quickly if you apply maximum effort to it.
This means that a set of 10 and a set of 3 can both be “maximum” if you reach a 10 RPE – the point where you could not do another rep without assistance. These maximum “straining” or “grinding” reps are very taxing on your system, regardless of weight on the bar and regardless of the rep range.
I think people make the mistake of equating “train with heavy weights” and “train with an RPE of 10”. On a diet, I think this is probably the biggest mistake you can make. Regardless of the weight used, you should be working with weights and sets that aren’t absolute grinders. A weight can and should be heavy enough to present a challenge, but not so heavy that you can’t complete the rep without blowing a blood vessel in your eye.
To summarize, “training heavy” is different from training with high effort. Intensity is just the percentage of your maximum; it’s a high weight, not a high degree of effort.
Training Frequency and Volume – How Much and How Often?
Most people just do too much work on a diet. I don’t know how else to say it. Dieting is not the time to try and improve fitness; it’s the time to maintain what you’ve got.
Since we know that recovery ability is impaired and your ability to build new muscle is heavily impaired (to the point of nonexistence), there’s little rationale for doing high volume strength workouts while you’re dieting.
Volume is the first thing that should be scaled back. This means that you need to be doing less across the board; maximize your training economy. Do less sets, do less exercises. Focus on the lifts that will net you the greatest effect with the least amount of work.
As far as frequency goes, it’s often stated that hitting a muscle group three times per week provides the best stimulus, and I think this holds true even on a diet. If you’re training with an economical and minimalist routine, three days per week, along with some conditioning work, then you’re going to be doing just fine on most diets.
That said, I don’t think that even the number of workouts is sacred. It would be the last thing I’d cut back, but experience has shown me that some people just aren’t going to thrive on even three bona-fide strength workouts each week. If you can’t recover on three sessions, then cut back to two. I don’t necessarily think that two sessions is ideal, but we have to consider priorities: fat loss has to come first. If your diet isn’t sufficient to recover from three sessions, then cut it back.
I can’t see many instances where doing only one session per week would be a good idea; if you can’t recover from two weekly sessions then your diet is just screwed up, or you’re blowing your wad on your current workouts.
Now I know some of you are reading this and going “but I train 4/5/6/7 days per week and I lost 10 20 50 lbs!!!”. I’m not going to dispute that very high frequency training is effective, but here’s why I don’t often suggest it: most people can’t even get it into their heads that they don’t have to blast themselves to pieces in order to have a good workout.
Unfortunately that thought process is utterly incompatible with high-frequency lifting. If you’re going to weight-train more than four days per week, you have to drill it into your head that these will not be your typical workouts. You’ll only be doing 1-3 exercises, for lots of sets, generally low reps, and you won’t be getting anywhere near failure (on the RPE chart, these sessions would be 7-8, maybe one harder 9 each week).
I will say that if you can do such a thing, and combine it with conditioning stuff in some way, then I think you’d have a solid game plan. I just don’t think most of the neurotic folks that need to drop fat will do that; the meme “hard work equals results” is too powerful.
Conditioning Work Is Not Strength Work
One thing you will never see me do is suggesting “functional metabolic workouts” to someone interested in an improved physique. At least not exclusively.
This is all the rage these days, combining weights and conditioning into these “functional” [sic] circuits and metabolic conditioning workouts. This concept is based on the idea that you can just mix the two together and suddenly you’ll shred up and be in the best shape ever.
Not so fast. There’s one thing I always repeat to people: strength will always have the greatest effect on every other aspect of fitness.
Here’s a simple analogy to illustrate the point. Say you’ve got two guys talking trash about their squats. One guy maxes at 600 lbs, but never does more than 3 reps. The other guy only maxes at 450, but he regularly trains with very high reps and has done 15 reps with 400 lbs.
So they decide to have a contest to see who can do the most reps with 400 lbs. Who do you think will win?
If you went solely by specificity, you’d think it was the guy that trained for high-reps, right? To be completely fair, if you just took them out and put them in the rack to test it, the high-reps guy would probably win on that day.
But what happens if you give the stronger guy 3-4 weeks to work on high reps? Well, that 400 lb squat is only 67% of his 1RM. He might have tanked the first week because he’s out of shape, but here’s the confound: endurance trains up fast. Within 2-3 weeks, he’s gonna be capable of doing far more reps than his first try would suggest.
Why? It’s because strength improved his overall ability. Being strong doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll be able to knock off more reps with a given weight, but it does make it a lot easier to improve once you start training for it.
The lighter any given resistance (compared to your maximum ability), the easier it will be to improve your endurance with that resistance.
In contrast, focusing specifically on endurance only got that guy up to a 450 1RM – so not only is he weaker, but with just a few weeks of training his stronger friend managed to beat him on endurance too. It’s always easier to improve endurance than it is to improve muscle mass or strength.
So what happens when you do all these metabolic workouts in lieu of heavier, specific strength workouts? The net result is that you end up watering down both strength training and the conditioning sessions.
Does it save time? Probably. Does it make your clients sweat and feel like they did something useful? Almost certainly.
Unfortunately neither of those means it’s effective.
This is a mistake that even bodybuilders make, too. Going into a contest, what do old-school bodybuilders always do? They drop the heavy work and shift to high reps in order to “cut up”. In naturals, this is going to destroy your muscle mass.
To be fair, this is a case where individual goals come into the picture. If you’re training clients and the only goal they have is “drop some fat” and “have a hard fun workout”, then go hog-wild with the “functional” [sic] stuff. My advice is squarely aimed at people that want to drop fat while carrying an above-average amount of muscle and strength.
That last section now gives us some ideas on how to arrange things.
The biggest change I’d make from the current orthodoxy is to separate strength workouts and conditioning workouts. There’s absolutely no advantage to combining the two, beyond trying to save time. If you’re concerned about retaining muscle and strength on a diet, you need to separate the two.
I didn’t really touch much on how to incorporate HIIT and LISS methods, because I’ve written about that before here and here.
The only other things I have to say involve how to set up a routine that doesn’t overwork you, and to do that we can just invoke the old “high-low” approach. High-stress work should be concentrated on the same days, and separated by at least 48 hours. Low-stress work can be done on days in between.
For most purposes, a basic undulating periodization scheme is going to fit the bill. This is fancy jargon for saying “have some harder workouts and some lighter workouts each week”. An old standby, and what I used myself, is to have two days of strength work and two days of moderate conditioning work. If you want to do HIIT type stuff, do it on the strength days.
Normally I don’t think complex periodization schemes are necessary, but I think there’s a rationale for it in the context of trying to diet. The method I’ve been using during my recent dieting foray is based around a three-week cycle, moving from base percentages of 70%, 80%, and 90%, respectively, with goal reps of 5-6, 3-4, and 1-2 by week. There’s no fixed number of sets; instead I just set a brief time interval of 10-15 minutes and knock out as many as I can.
If the base starting weight feels too light, I can increase it. This is another case where the RPE scale comes in handy; if my starting weight is only a 7, then I can bump it up 5kg to get an 8-9. On the other hand, if I’m having a crappy day, I can also knock the weight back a little, too.
The third week cuts out the time limits and is more like a Max Effort session, where you can work up to a comfortable max. This creates a nice blend of heavy and light training, enough to keep gaining but not so much to burn you out; the auto-regulating stuff keeps you from overworking yourself.
Obviously I’m just using the bare minimum of exercises here, generally not much more than an overhead press + deadlift one day, then a squat + bench press the other, with a few sets of upper-back training thrown in afterward. Olympic lifts are recommended, but not mandatory; I used them both as a heavier strength exercise and as lighter conditioning work (though KB or DB versions would probably be better for this).
As mentioned, the weekly schedule is two “heavy” workouts (strength stuff, according to the cycle) and two conditioning workouts, which are basically just whatever. I’ve played around with weight circuits, kettlebells, Olympic lifts, and just plain-old cardio on the conditioning days.
If I wanted to do a three-day plan each week, I’d probably organize it by a heavy-light-medium schedule, with heaviest weights used Monday, 80% of Monday’s weights on Wednesday, and 90% of Monday’s weights on Friday. Do high-intensity conditioning on M/W/F, and then LISS cardio on T/Th/S if desired.
Now, there’s questions about doing four or more weight-sessions per week. I think with the proper diet this could be workable, as long as you kept each workout to a minimum. What I would not do is try to shoehorn a four-day upper/lower split in just because I felt the need to be doing something; unless you can scale back the volume and the effort of your sessions, more than three workouts is going to slap you down in a hurry.