Pretty much all gym enthusiasts, from the fruity spandex-wearing Stairmaster addict right up to the most badass bodybuilder in the room, happen to share something: sooner or later they'll want to improve their look by losing some fat.
Of course some value that goal more than others and are willing to go to more extreme means to reach it, but anybody who lifts weights will eventually think to himself "Hmm...I think that I'd look better if I get leaner."
Even powerlifters sometimes go there (although for some it might be a rather rare and unexpected occurrence). The thing is, and that's where us ironheads differ from the cardio bunnies...we want to get that fat off as fast as possible while preserving or even gaining muscle mass.
Granted, we all know a well designed nutritional plan will be responsible for the biggest part of our fat loss. We are also(we should at least!) aware that physical activity can contribute to speed up the process. However, what should we do about our beloved weights? How should we train when attempting to lose fat? Can we put to good use use weight training to turbocharge our fat loss efforts?
DIFFERENT SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
When it comes to training strategy during a fat loss phase, there are three major schools of thought. Two are pretty smart and solid while one is downright retarded and even counterproductive.
-High volume training to "cut up" muscles.
If you're familiar with my articles you probably guessed right off the bat that this is the retarded theory of lifting for fat loss. Sadly, for 95% of the population you see in gyms all around the world, this is still the prevailing notion: if you want to "get cut," you should increase your repetitions per set. Facepalm.
A trainer schooled in this "philosophy" will say something like "Do sets of 6-10 for size and 15-20 for cuts". He obviously disregards the simple physiological fact that you cannot "define" a muscle with strength training. Doing high reps will not "add detail" or "sculpt" a goddamn thing.
Simply bumping up the reps per set will do nothing but VERY slightly increase energy expenditure and burn off more muscle glycogen. This is in no way enough to speed up the fat loss process. Not only will it not help you protect your muscle mass, it may actually lead to muscle loss.
In a deprived caloric state your body needs a real good reason to keep its energy-costly muscle mass. Going from a heavy lifting regimen to an easier (as far as muscle tension production goes) high reps/lighter weights approach will not force it to preserve its muscle mass. The muscle used to need its mass to move heavy shit, now you're only asking it to move light weights so there is no need for that big engine anymore.
There's a direct correlation between the amount of lactate produced and the output of growth hormone. GH is a highly lypolitic (stimulates the release of fatty acids) and anti-catabolic (muscle defender) hormone.
It's also one of the reasons why 200 and 400m runners are so lean: these distances lead to a giant lactate production spanning over the whole body (a maximum 400m race has often been described as hell on earth in terms of outta this world burning).
Somehow, applying this concept to weight training does have something in common with the preceding "retarded" approach: it generally relies on slightly higher rep ranges. Why? Because lactate production is at its highest in sets lasting around 50-70 seconds. So if each repetition lasts 4 seconds hitting the ideal time under tension for lactate production requires about 12-15reps per set.
BUT (a huge but) the differences between this approach and the first one are that you drastically reduce the rest intervals (shoot for 30-40 seconds), normally alternate exercises for muscle groups that are "far away" from each other or antagonists (to increase overall whole-body lactate production), and don't use too much volume per muscle group (in a typical bodybuilding "cutting program" you might do 20+ high reps sets per body part).
The short rest intervals and use of multiple muscles per session jack up lactate levels, which increase GH production. So compared to the traditional "cutting" approach, this second method is FAR more effective at stimulating fat loss and preserving muscle mass.
-Heavy lifting to protect muscle mass
This is the philosophy adopted by many top coaches. It is now (finally!) catching up in the bodybuilding circles since more and more elite bodybuilders keep lifting as heavy as they can during their pre-contest period.
We've all seen Ronnie's 800lbs deadlift 2-3 weeks out from the Mr. Olympia or Johnny Jackson competing in powerlifting a few weeks prior to the Toronto pro (bodybuilding) show. Many other big names are also proponents of lifting heavy year-round to keep their muscle mass: they don't change their training between the off-season and pre-contest periods.
They let the cardio and diet drop the fat and simply lift weights to preserve muscle mass. It makes sense, too. Muscle tissue is energy-expensive and when there's a shortage of energy (calories and nutrients) your body needs a damn good reason to keep it there!
Lifting heavy weights requires a lot of muscle tension, and that needs the muscle to be strong. To keep up with the demand, your body will have no choice but to keep its muscle mass.
So as you can see we have two viable options when it comes to selecting a lifting approach during our fat loss phase: lifting heavy and lifting to maximize lactate production.
Another player comes into the game...
This little something almost never mentioned Is called the G-Flux phenomenon.
Try looking at athletes engaging in several different types of training: they're leaner despite a pretty high caloric intake.
Elite hockey players are lean and muscular despite a less than spectacular diet. I use them as an example because on average, hockey players aren't as genetically gifted as sprinters or football players. Why are they so lean? Well, first because they do a lot of work in the anaerobic lactic zone: but also because they must train using several completely different methods (they need strength, power, endurance, lactate tolerance, agility, etc.).
The varied physical demands they must face lead to what we may call "hypermetabolism".
We all know that several things contribute to our daily energy expenditure (the amount of calories we burn during a day):
-Our basal metabolic rate which is the amount of calories our body uses during a 24 hour period, even at complete rest.
-Our activity level: more activity equals more fuel used up.
-The thermic effect of feeding: digestion requires calories – eating more often increases caloric expenditure, and protein also needs more energy to be digested and absorbed than carbs and fats
-Our body's maintenance of thermal homeostasis: for example, when it's cold outside your body must produce more heat to maintain its temperature. This requires calories.
However, one thing that we rarely, if ever, factor in is the adaptive response of our body. Simply put, your body needs energy and nutrients to adapt to a physiological stress. Every time your body needs to repair and build-up a structure (muscle for example), it needs energy to fuel the process and nutrients for raw material.
Need to repair muscle after a gruelling lifting session? That's gonna cost you some fuel and protein. Your nervous system and cell membranes also need restoration? Again, more calories, plus some lipids and protein. Need to make that amazing brain of yours function properly? You need carbs (or ketones); in other words, energy.
As you can see, adaptation requires energy and nutrients. So the more your body needs to adapt to physical stress, the more nutrients and energy it requires. So having to adapt more frequently and to a greater extent will jack up your daily energy expenditure.
Alrite, so what? Only using one type of training quickly leads to a decrease in the adaptive demand. If you always train the same way, your body will rapidly become efficient at that type of work and as a result, each session won't represent much stress, which also means that you don't need to adapt as much. Less adaptive demand equals a lower caloric expenditure.
By using several types of training you prevent, at least to some degree, an excessive efficiency (a bad thing in this context) that would decrease the need to adapt. In other words I'm saying that to lose fat it's best to include several different types of physical activity in your weekly schedule.
In brief, we don't absolutely need all of them, but the more you include in your own schedule, the more results you'll have. These four aspects of our fat loss training approach are, to recap:
Anaerobic alactic work
The objective of the heavy lifting portion of our training is maintenance or even an increase in muscle mass while in a fat loss phase. In the approach I recommend, you should have two heavy lifting sessions per week.
Needless to say, only compound movements are used on that day. Since you'll be using caloric restriction, you'll need to minimize overall training volume to avoid overstressing your structures. For this reason you don't need (and should not do) any direct heavy work for the biceps, triceps, and shoulders. These muscles will get hit sufficiently from the other heavy exercises to accomplish our main objective (maintain overall muscle mass). It's not a time to work on your weaknesses or balance/symmetry, but simply to hold on to as much mass as you can.
The aim of a lactate-inducing session is to stimulate growth hormone release (as well as burn a lot of calories for fuel) via a whole-body lactate production. The more the number of muscles are involved in the process, the more effective the session will be. So in that regard we should respect these guidelines:
Work the whole body
Minimize rest-intervals (or maximize the work-to-rest ratio)
Use sets lasting 50-70 seconds (12-15 reps)
Alternate exercises for muscle groups that are far away from each or antagonists
The lactate-inducing sessions are performed twice a week as well; they should not be performed before a heavy lifting session to avoid a decrease in performance. Limit strength is something that cannot be trained efficiently in a fatigued state.
Sure, steady-state aerobic work is overrated, but it can still contribute to the fat loss process, especially in view of the hypermetabolic aspect of caloric expenditure. That having been said, doing too much steady-state cardio is indeed a sure-fire way to lose muscle mass so we don't want to turn into gerbils by running on the wheel 4-5 times per week.
Aerobic work by itself is pretty ineffective, but doing it for a relatively short period of time (20-30 minutes) at the end of the lactate-inducing sessions can enhance the efficacy of that day: the LIS drastically increases fatty-acids mobilization in this scenario. Adding a short steady-state aerobic session at that point will help you use up more of these released fatty acids. This approach will make each 20-30 minutes session as effective as aerobic workouts 2-3 times as long, without the risk of leading to muscle loss.
Anaerobic Alactic Energy Systems Work
Think "sprint". Alactic means "without an accumulation of lactate". As we saw earlier, lactate is maximized by intense efforts lasting 50-70 seconds. However, there's still a good amount of lactate being produced in those lasting 30-40 seconds.
So when training in the alactic energy system, you should shoot for energy system work lasting 20 seconds or even a bit less. I personally like 30 and 60m sprints for that purpose. Speed/alactic work is much like strength work in that it's all but impossible to efficiently train that capacity in a fatigued state. It's also pretty metabolically and neurally draining. So for that reason you can't perform the alactic session...
-The day before a strength workout (as it will drain your CNS too much to maximise strength)
-The day after a strength workout (for the same reason)
-The day after a lactate-inducing workout (because of residual fatigue)
So the only solution is to perform the alactic session on the same day as another workout. Since we are already doing steady-state cardio on the lactate-inducing days, we can only put the alactic work on the same day as a strength workout.
True, there will be some CNS drainage taking place, but it's still the best solution to fit our needs. The only real option is to use one alactic session per week and to do it on the same day as the upper body strength work (like morning and late afternoon).
It's actually less complex than it seems at first sight, trust me.
This training approach, IF combined with an intelligent nutrition program and adequate rest will allow you to maximise fat loss while keeping all of your muscle mass. Not only that, but it will also allow you to develop several physical skills, making you a more functional and athletic human being overall. Look good naked, and possibly also perform good naked 😳