A few days ago, I answered a Q&A on Around Workout Nutrition While Dieting and, mentioned in an offhand way that I would talk about the issue of weight training for fat loss at some later date. Well, apparently today is that later date. Or, more accurately today and Friday since, as this is going to be long, I’m going to divide it into two parts.
Weight Training for Fat Loss – Part 1
Today, in Part 1, I’m going to look at some basic concepts and look at the impact of two different ‘types’ of weight training on fat loss while dieting. As usual, I’ll look at the pros and cons of each and you’ll even get an almost practical recommendation by the end of it.
In Part 2, which I’ll put up on Friday, I’ll address practical issues of how to put together a weight training program during dieting in terms of volumes, frequencies, scheduling, etc.
The Fundamental Goal of Dieting
First it may be helpful to look at what the actual goal of dieting is. As I’ve discussed in every book I’ve written, and in the article What Does Body Composition Mean?, while many are still fixated only on changes in scale weight, the goal of dieting should primarily be focused on fat loss. Implicit in that, and this is especially true for folks who toil in the weight room, is that there should be a maintenance of muscle mass.
So that’s the basic goal of a diet: losing fat while maintaining (or at least minimizing the loss of) muscle mass. Simple enough in premise but often more difficult to achieve in practice.
I’d note that there is actually one potential exception to the above: in the cases of extreme obesity, many researchers feel that allowing up to 25% of the total weight loss to be lean body mass is not only beneficial but may be necessary to achieve anything approximating a ‘normal’ body weight (whatever ‘normal’ means in this context).
The reason is that, while becoming obese, a portion of the weight gained is lean body mass. A good bit of this is connective tissue and other ‘support’ tissue for the increased weight but some of it is actual muscle mass as well. Some researchers differentiate between inessential lean body mass (connective tissue, etc.) and essential lean body mass (organs, muscle) for this reason.
But outside of that exception, let’s start from the assumption that the primary goal of dieting is to lose fat while maintaining muscle mass (or at least minimizing the loss of muscle that often occurs).
Classic Fat Loss Training
An idea that has been prevalent for quite some time (going on at least four decades and probably more) is that the fundamental nature of weight training should change when the goal moves from mass or strength gains to fat loss. The idea of using high-repetitions with short-rest intervals to ‘get cut’ has been part of the bodybuilding subculture for years and shows up in the training ideas of the general public as well.
Personal trainers talk about training for definition or tone (versus size or mass) and I assume anybody reading this is familiar with many of the popular metabolic type weight training workouts (e.g. Turbulence Training, Afterburn, etc.) that are often suggested when fat loss is the goal.
This is often accompanied by wholesale changes in exercise selection: ‘mass building’ exercises such as squats and bench press are often replaced with ‘cutting exercises’ such as leg extensions (burn in the cuts, bro) and cable crossovers.
An additional idea that most likely came out of the drug use of late 70′s and early 80′s bodybuilding practices is that training frequency and volume should go UP while dieting. Before addressing anything else I want to address that. The basic idea of increasing either training frequency or volume in the weight room while dieting is completely ass-backwards on a tremendous number of levels. If there is a single time when overall recovery is going to be reduced (unless you are using steroids), it’s when calories have been reduced. Trying to train more frequently in the weight room on a diet makes no sense.
Metabolic Weight Training vs. Tension Oriented Weight Training
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to divide training rather simply into two different categories: metabolic weight training and tension oriented weight training. First some definitions.
By metabolic type weight training, I’m referring again to the higher rep/short rest types of training that are often suggested for fat loss on a diet. Loading might be something like 4 sets of 12-15 repetitions (or more) with 30-60 seconds rest or less between sets. I’ve described this type of training before, for example, The Ultimate Diet 2.0 uses exactly that type of training at the start of the cycle to deplete muscle glycogen and maximize fat burning.
Tension type weight training refers to more traditional heavy weight training. Lower repetitions with longer rest intervals: this might be sets of 5-8 repetitions with 1.5-3 minutes rest between sets or what have you. Just your stock standard traditional type of heavy weight work.
Now, as you’ll see, each of these two types of weight training has certain pros and cons in terms of their effects while dieting. Let’s look at each.
Metabolic type weight training tends to generate a higher calorie burn than traditional low rep training, the glycogen depletion that occurs increases whole body fat oxidation, and the hormonal response is actually quite similar to interval training (in The Stubborn Fat Solution, this type of training can be used to kick off the more intense Stubborn Fat Protocols 1.0 and 2.0).
Of course, many find that their top end strength falls somewhat while dieting; as well, when people get very lean, joints often get a little bit wonky under heavy loads. The lighter loads used in metabolic type work can be beneficial in that regards as well.
So those are the pros for this type of training: increased calorie burn, a nice hormonal response, easier on the joints, depleting muscle glycogen enhances fat oxidation.
Here’s the bad.
As I’ve mentioned repeatedly on the site, the primary stimulus for muscle growth is progressive high tension overload (e.g. adding more weight to the bar over time). Without getting into a big old technical discussion of protein synthesis and breakdown here (you can read The Protein Book if you’re interested); I’ll simply say here that the high tension stimulus that builds muscle is the exact same high tension stimulus that will maintain muscle mass when you’re dieting.
So perhaps you can guess what happens to muscle mass when you reduce weight on the bar to use higher reps and shorter rest intervals. When you remove the high tension stimulus, you remove the signal to build (or in the case of dieting, maintain) muscle mass. What do you think happens next? Right, muscles get smaller.
Many natural bodybuilders have found this out the exceedingly hard way by trying to copy the pre-contest training of drug-using bodybuilders. Without the drugs (to maintain muscle mass and protein synthesis even in the face of the diet), natural bodybuilders watched their muscle mass shrink when they started training lighter with higher reps. Without the high tension stimulus of heavy training, the body simply has no reason to maintain muscle mass.
And that’s the bad of metabolic type weight training: while it has certain benefits that I listed above, it is an insufficient stimulus, for maintaining muscle mass (with one exception). At least if used by itself.
That exception is beginners. Complete beginners, who haven’t built any real muscle mass in the first place don’t have to worry much about muscle loss while dieting (just about any training will maintain it).
But for trained individuals beyond the beginner stage, using metabolic type weight training exclusively on a diet is a recipe for disaster. Please note the use of the word ‘exclusively’ in that previous sentence. I’ll come back to this in a second.
I imagine you can see where this is leading: outside of any other pro or con of heavy weight training, the biggest pro of all of heavy weight training on a diet is that it best maintains muscle mass. And since that’s one of the explicit goals of dieting…
Of course, the cons are basically the opposite of what I listed for metabolic type weight training: the calorie burn is generally lower (I’d note that the calorie burn from weight training is rarely massive in the first place), you don’t get much glycogen depletion, you don’t get the hormonal response.
But in this case, at least within the context of the primary goal of a diet (lose fat/maintain muscle), none of that matters. Put simply, if someone had to choose ONE type of weight training to perform on a diet, it would be heavy tension oriented training while letting the diet/cardio type work handle the fat loss. I’ll cover loading parameters in Part 2.
In fact, that’s exactly what I recommended in The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook: 2-3 short heavy weight workouts per week (to maintain muscle mass) while allowing the big caloric deficit of the diet generate fat loss. And it works.
Alternately, you could combine 2-3 short heavy weight workouts with cardio and use a smaller dietary deficit. And that works too. What won’t work (for anyone not using drugs) is to remove the heavy tension stimulus completely and move to nothing but higher reps and lighter weights.
Well, not unless you define ‘work’ as losing muscle mass.
But, you say, why does it have to be one type of training or the other? And clearly, it doesn’t. There’s no fundamental reason why both kinds of training can’t be done while dieting. More accurately, there’s no reason that metabolic type work can’t be added in some fashion to properly performed heavy weight training. This can give the pros of each while eliminating the cons of each at the same time.
So how do you do this, how do you combine the two types of training? That’s in Part 2.
Weight Training for Fat Loss – Part 2
In Part 1, I looked at a few basic concepts in terms of the role of weight training while dieting for fat loss. First I looked at the basic goal of dieting which, with one possible exception, is generally aimed at losing fat while maintaining muscle mass (or at least minimizing its loss).Then I took a quick look at the two major ‘types’ of resistance training that are often recommended during dieting: metabolic type weight training (higher rep/short rest interval) and heavy weight training (lower repetition/longer rest interval). While both have their pros and cons in terms of how they can impact on the overall goal of dieting, my basic conclusion was that if you had to pick one type of training to perform on a diet, it should be heavy training. I won’t repeat the reasons here, go read Part 1.
I finished that article by asking why it had to be one type of training or another. As I noted, clearly there is no reason why weight training while dieting must be solely one type of training or the other. More accurately, there’s no reason that metabolic type work can’t be added in some fashion to properly performed heavy weight training. This can give the pros of each while eliminating the cons of each at the same time.
The question then becomes how to go about combining them which is what I’m going to look at today.
What Not to Do
First I want to talk about how folks should absolutely not try to combine the two types of training. As I mentioned in Part 1, a common idea during fat loss dieting is that training volume and/or frequency should go UP (compared to where it was when more food was being eaten).
This is, simply, idiotic. Recovery will always be impaired when calories are restricted and trying to add more and more training to an already heavy load may explain why so many people end up so severely overtrained at the end of extended diets: the combination of too much training and too few calories is a bad, bad thing.
So what’s the implication of this: something has to be cut back. And in this case, again assuming that someone wants to add some type of metabolic weight training to their heavy weight training, what has to be cut back is the volume and possibly frequency of heavy training.
By doing this, there will be more ‘room’ in the weekly training schedule for the performance of the metabolic type work without destrying the dieter. Which makes a nice transition into a discussion of maintenance training.
Maintaining Training Adaptations
Both research and practical experience over the years has pointed out one very important thing with regards to training: the amount of training that it takes to maintain a given adaptation is much much less than it took to develop it in the first place. That is to say, while it may take a significant amount of work to develop something (strength, size, aerobic capacity), you can generally maintain that level of adaptation with much less work.
This is actually a tenet of some types of periodization schemes: acknowledging that it becomes progressively more difficult to develop everything at once as folks get more advanced, many approaches to periodiziation of training will alternate periods where something is being focused (being trained at full volume) with periods of it simply being maintained (while something else is developed).
I’ve actually written about this on the site in the article series Periodization for Bodybuilders and I’ll be repeating some of those ideas here. When I use specialization routines with folks (something I’ll write about eventually), I will move non-specialized bodyparts to maintenance using the recommendations that I outlined in that article series and will repeat below.
The basic conclusion, again from both research and practical experience is that both volume and frequency of training can usually be cut by up to 2/3rds (that is, to 1/3rd of what you did to improve it) but with one massively important caveat: the intensity of that training must be maintained.
Put another way, you could maintain volume and frequency at the same level but if you cut intensity, you will lose the adaptation. Basically any combination that’s ever been looked at only works if intensity is maintained.
That last one is the key and goes to a lot of what I mentioned in Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 1, if you reduce the intensity of your weight training (and here I’m using intensity to indicate weight on the bar), you will lose the adaptations that you worked so hard to develop (strength or size).
Let me put this into more practical terms. Let’s say you’ve just finished a hypertrophy phase where you were training to gain muscle. On average let’s say that you were performing 6 heavy sets of 6-8 repetitions per muscle group twice per week (say an upper/lower split as discussed in my article on Training Frequency for Mass Gains).
Based on the 2/3rds rule, you could conceivably cut back to 2 heavy sets of 6-8 reps (maintaining the same weights you finished the cycle with to the best of your ability) once per week and maintain your strength and size. That is, both volume (6 sets becomes 2 sets) and frequency (2 workouts becomes 1 workout) can be reduce by 2/3rds but ONLY if intensity (weight on the bar) is maintained.
Yes, 2 heavy sets.
I should mention that there is clearly a limit to this. If someone is only doing 2 work sets for an exercise, clearly they can’t cut back to zero sets. I’m hoping that nobody reading this would make that kind of silly assumption in the first place.
I’d note in this context that many athletes use a similar approach when they move from more general preparation to their competition periods. As the volume of specific event work goes up, something has to give and that something is usually general weight training.
Athletes found years ago (and research backed it up later), that strength training volume and/or frequency could be cut back significantly while maintaining strength for extended periods but only if the intensity of training was maintained. The same thing applies here, just looking at muscle size as much as strength.
Now, I still tend to keep training frequency a bit higher even while dieting but, at the very least, this is one place where I wouldn’t get quite as worried about only having someone training a bodypart one time per week.
But as you might imagine, this ends up being a pretty major cut back in overall training volume. A lower body workout with 20-24 work sets that took 1-1.5 hours to complete at full volume is going to be finished in a fraction of that time. Six to eight total work sets might be hammered out in 30-40 minutes depending on how many warmups you do and how much you dawdle between sets. Leaving time and energy to do other things.
As one final comment, this is actually my approach to lifting during a diet even if metabolic work isn’t being added to the training. On a diet, usually folks find that while their top end may not suffer much, their endurance and work capacity often goes down. They can get through a couple of heavy sets but then everything drops off in a big way. I’d rather them just get the couple of quality heavy sets done and move on.
Trying to maintain the same heavy volume they were doing prior to the diet is usually a mistake so heavy training volume goes down. Again, most of the fat loss will come from the diet and/or cardio anyhow, heavy weight training should be performed to maintain muscle mass and the same maintenance rules apply regardless of what else is being done.
But the point of this article was the assumption that a trainee wants to combine metabolic type weight training with their heavy weight training so let’s look at that.
Metabolic Weight Training Parameters
As I noted in Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 1, metabolic weight training is generally described by the performance of higher repetitions with shorter rest periods. Frequently large muscle group exercises are often advocated for an increased calorie burn or what have you. Various types of barbell complexes, often using a mixture of strength and Olympic lifting movements are often advocated as are kettlebell movements.
I’d note that it’s usually better to avoid high skill exercises since form often breaks down badly with fatigue and even with light weights this can cause injury. Only folks with extremely well developed technique can do high skill movements in this fashion without killing themselves.
I often actually advocate machine training (yes, I know, blasphemy) for this reason, I think it tends to be safer while accomplishing essentially the same goals; it also makes moving quickly through the gym to keep rest intervals short a bit easier. You can still pick compound movements (e.g. leg press, chest press, row) with the dreaded machines.
Rather than focus on the specific modality or exercise, I just want to take a quick look at some loading parameters. Again, they tend to vary depending on the underlying philosophy of the coach in question but generally speaking anywhere from 2-4 sets of 15-20 repetitions of anywhere from 5-7 exercises done with short rest intervals (60 seconds or less) would be fairly common for this type of training. As you might imagine, this doesn’t make for terribly long workouts (20-40 minutes or so) but they can be exceedingly fatiguing. Which is part of the point.
Frequency for metabolic weight training can vary from perhaps 2-4 workouts per week. Of course, this will always depend on the volume of training being done and what else is being done workout wise. You’ll see this reflected in the sequencing examples below.
So now we have the parameters to set up a week of training for fat loss for both heavy (low volume/high intensity) and metabolic (higher volume/lower intensity) work. How do we combine them in a weekly schedule?
Fundamentally, of course, there are two basic approaches that can be taken: you can do the workouts on the same day or on different days. Yeah, duh.
Some of that choice will have to be decided on individually although I’d note that in my experience most people try to train too damn much on a diet in the first place. When in doubt, please err on the side of a little less training than too much. In the long-run, it will pay off.
Some of it will also depend on how you divide up the heavy weight training. Some like to move to simply 3 short heavy workouts per week. Or even two, training full body at each. With only a couple of work sets per bodypart, this is eminently doable and might take an hour start to finish. You probably wouldn’t want to put metabolic work after that, they could go on two other days of training.
Another option would be a more traditional split routine, if someone wanted to stick with a 4 day/week upper/lower workout, they would probably be best off combining the two types of workouts together. So go to the gym, warm up, perform your heavy work (30-40 minutes or possibly less) and then follow it up with metabolic work (done at the lower end of the volume recommendations to keep the workout length manageable).
Someone with less recovery ability might do better with the 3 day/week upper/lower I described in the Training Frequency for Mass Gains article again combining the heavy and metabolic work but only being in the weight room three times per week.
Of course, as I noted above, dieting is one place where I don’t have as much of an issue with a once/week bodypart training frequency and this can also be done by combining the heavy and metabolic work together since each individual heavy workout is likely to be pretty short since only a couple of bodyparts are being worked.
I’ve tried to show some of these options below. H is heavy weight training, Met is metabolic weight training. For no particular reason, I’m going to assume no weekend training sessions although folks who can train weekends can separate things out a bit more.
Author: Lyle McDonald