In work-life balance, there is a popular concept called the four burners theory. I first learned about it back in 2016 from an article James Clear wrote on the topic.
The idea goes that one burner represents your family, one is for your friends, the third burner represents your work, and the fourth goes for your health.
The basic argument here is that, if you want to be successful, you need to cut off one burner. If you want to be really successful, you need to cut off two.
The idea here is pretty good and makes a lot of sense - we only have so much time and energy we could dedicate to these four burners, and we can’t possibly crank all four to the max. At least, not for long.
But, I’ve been thinking lately:
The four burners theory doesn’t just apply to work-life balance, it also applies to lifting.
The Four Burners Theory in Fitness
Fitness is a broad term and there are many ways to define it. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll be talking about weight training and the most common goals surrounding it. The majority of people who lift weights generally have the following goals:
Each of these goals can represent its own burner. Like so:
Much like the original theory, we can make a similar argument about lifting. If you want to have moderate success with muscle growth, you’d have to cut one burner off temporarily - fat loss. If you want to have significant success with muscle growth, you’d have to cut off two - fat loss and strength gain.
Fat loss is pretty clear, but why strength? Because while training for strength and training for muscle might not be mutually exclusive, they are different. Both goals require different approaches, and if you truly want to make good progress in one, the other would have to take the back seat for a while.
If you want to have moderate success with strength gain, you’d have to temporarily cut one burner - again, the most likely one being fat loss. If you want to make significant strength gains, you’d have to cut off two burners - fat loss and muscle gain (the same argument from above applies).
If you want to have moderate success with fat loss, the most likely burner to be cut off temporarily is muscle gain - you can’t chase both goals simultaneously. If you want to have significant success with fat loss, both muscle and strength gain would need to take the back seat.
Finally, if you want to be healthy, you can chase all three other goals separately - they are by no means unhealthy for us. But take any to the extreme, and your health can take a hit.
Muscle growth is healthy, but doing everything in your power to get as jacked as possible (drugs, incredibly high training volume, etc.) can be harmful. Same goes for fat loss - to a point, it’s good for us. But get yourself to 4-7% body fat and your health will take a temporary hit. The pursuit of strength is also a fantastic thing. But if you want to be a world champion weightlifter or powerlifter, don’t expect it to come without injuries.
And yes, I am fully aware that beginners can have great success with all four burners at the same time - fat loss, muscle and strength gain, and good health. But after that, you need to prioritize if you want to make significant progress in a given area.
Also, I’m fully aware that larger muscles have greater strength potential, so it’s in one’s best interest to gradually get more jacked if they want to be as strong as possible in the long-run. Heavier powerlifters tend to be stronger, and that’s no coincidence.
But we are talking about simultaneously chasing the two goals at once - a significant difference.
Finally, this theory applies mainly to natural lifters. If you introduce drugs into the equation, everything changes.
How I See The Four Burners Theory With Regards to Lifting
It would be great if we could keep all four burners at full blast. But we can’t.
And I’d lie if I told you I haven’t tried to keep all four burners running with full force in the past. I’ve been stubborn enough to chase multiple goals at once, with no much to show for.
I’d try to do a body recomposition (even though I knew it wouldn’t work for me) only to realize a couple of months later that I wasn’t leaner, more muscular, or stronger.
I’d set a goal of increasing my strength on the main lifts while also adding plenty of accessory work for hypertrophy, only to later realize that my ‘strength block’ had turned into a hybrid one and that I hadn’t made significant progress for my initial goal.
In my first years of lifting, every time I tried to lose fat, I would do absurd amounts of volume because I thought that anything less wouldn’t spark new muscle growth, or worse - that I would lose the muscle I had. Yes, I later realized that doing 16+ weekly sets for my chest on a deficit wasn’t exactly the smartest thing I could do.
Life is full of trade-offs and things aren’t different in lifting. Sure, you can take a balanced approach and work on all areas equally, but you’ll have to accept that you won’t make the best progress in either.
Here is one possible solution.
Dedicate Specific Periods to Individual Goals
For many people, simply being consistent with their workouts and staying active is enough. This is a good way to stay healthy.
But if you are past that stage and you want to maximize your progress in the gym, you need to be specific about your goals and dedicate your energy to fewer things.
For example, if you’re feeling fluffy, you can dedicate the next few months to fat loss - crank up that burner. Do lower training volume with an emphasis on strength, fewer isolation exercises, have fewer workouts, and eat in a caloric deficit. But you’d have to accept the trade-off of not building muscle during that time. And if you want to lose a lot of fat quickly, you’ll also have to accept strength loss.
If you want to get more jacked, you should dedicate yourself to that goal for a while. Do more volume, more total sets, more repetitions, more workouts through the week, and eat in a small surplus. But accept that strength gains will be much slower and you won’t be able to lose fat during that period.
If your main goal is to increase your strength in the next few months, practice the core lifts a few times per week, use more weight for fewer repetitions, have longer rest periods, and cut the fluff from your training (i.e., most isolation exercises). But accept that you won’t build muscle optimally and you won’t be able to lose much (if any) fat.
Focusing on one thing now doesn’t mean you’ll never get around to your other goals, it just means that you are making good progress in one area now - an improvement that will later set you up for success for another goal.
Losing fat now means you can later dedicate yourself to longer gaining phases and build more muscle. Building muscle now means you then have a greater potential to build strength and you’ll look great once you cut the fat. Getting stronger now means you can later use larger training volumes and potentially build more muscle.
You see, everything is connected, but you have to prioritize and accept the trade-offs if you want to make good progress in the long run.
Personally, I’ve spent the last four months exclusively doing hypertrophy work and I’m pleased with the results. Granted, I’m not leaner, and my maxes haven’t shot through the roof, but I’m definitely more muscular.
After a few more months of this, I’ll probably do a couple of strength blocks where my calories are around maintenance, my volume is much lower, and my focus is on lifting heavy things for fewer repetitions, having longer rest periods, and doing less isolation work. I’ll be able to gain strength faster, but I won’t be able to build as much muscle. Again, it’s a necessary trade-off for long-term progress.
Granted, what I wrote about just now isn’t anything new or revolutionary. Intuitively, most of us know that trying to improve too many areas at once dissipates our efforts and wastes our time.
The four burners theory is just another way of looking at the same concept - focus on one thing until you get your desired result.
We all want to be jacked, strong, healthy, and lean. But few people accept that we can’t achieve all four at once. So many people refuse to accept trade-offs and try to reach multiple goals at once, only to later realize (as I have in the past) that they aren’t closer to ANY goal.
FOOTNOTE1. Special thanks to James Clear for initially writing about the idea as it applies to work-life balance on his blog.