Strength training for fat loss is a controversial topic. Lots of people out there believe that lifting weights is only useful if your goal is to build muscle and gain strength. And if you don’t want to be ‘big’ and ‘bulky’ you’d be much better off doing cardio instead.
To be clear, cardio can help with fat loss, but using it as a stand-alone tool for the job won’t deliver desirable results.
Weight training, on the other hand, is much more useful for fat loss, even for individuals who aren’t interested in being muscular or ‘big,’ but only want to look good.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty of strength training for fat loss, there is something I want to say.
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All Weight Loss is Not Created Equal
When most people decide to lose some fat, cardio immediately comes to mind. They slash their calories severely and increase their physical activity. Of course, this creates a deficit for them, and they lose a lot of weight in no time. But that’s not necessarily good.
A big part of the issue is the idea of ‘weight loss.’ People only want to see the scale go down and couldn’t care less what that means. Weight loss can result from various things - fat loss, muscle loss, water loss, glycogen depletion, etc. You can’t know how productive your weight loss journey is if you fixate on the number your scale shows you.
A simple mindset shift can help you a lot here. Instead of aiming for ‘weight loss,’ you should care about losing fat - there’s a massive difference between the two.
Fat loss is concrete. We aim to lose fat tissue while preserving as much muscle as we can. We care about scale weight, sure, but visual changes are much more critical. Plus, maintaining our strength in the gym is a good measure of how effective our regimen is.
The Fat Loss Trap: Cardio
We need to get this out of the way first and get on the same page. Cardio is a very popular method for fat loss, and there are tons of people who consider it mandatory if they ever hope to shed a few pounds.
But we don’t need cardio for fat loss. It can do more harm than good for some folks.
1.Overweight people using high impact cardio to start their fat loss journey
Individuals who have a lot of fat to lose shouldn’t start with high impact cardio such as running because it puts too much stress on their knees and ankles.
The type of cardio done, if any, should be something less impactful, such as swimming or riding a bike.
2.People whose hunger levels rise when they perform cardio and end up overeating.We share lots of similarities, but there are also individual differences. For example, in this post, Bret Contreras looked at cardio and appetite, among other things, and how individuals differ. To quote him:
Take a look at THIS study where researchers looked at people’s calorie intake responses to a 50-min low-intensity cardio session at 50% of max heart rate. The researchers looked at the compensatory response to the exercise session. In other words, if you burned 100 calories in a workout, would you then make up for it by consuming 100 calories later?
A couple of people ended up with 300-600 calorie deficits after the exercise session, yet several people ended up with 300-600 calorie surpluses! The former group saw amplified results on account of their decreased caloric intake following the cardio session, whereas the latter group sabotaged their fat loss efforts by consuming more calories than they burned during the cardio session.
How does this apply to you? Are you a person who feels extremely hungry after low-intensity cardio? Then perhaps it’s not for you. Or maybe you’re a person who doesn’t get hungry, or even loses appetite, in response to low-intensity cardio. If that’s the case, low-intensity cardio might be a good way to help you establish an energy deficit to lose fat.
Read the full post here.
Also, when comparing cardio and resistance training for fat loss, many studies (a recent one) have shown that lifting weights is much more efficient and better at preserving muscle mass than cardio is. And when you’re trying to lose fat, one of your biggest priorities should be to keep the muscle mass you already have. This is because muscle mass is metabolically costly.
If we were to compare two people of the same age, gender, height, and weight, but one had 33kg./73lbs. of muscle mass and the other had 50kg./110lbs., the person with more muscle mass would burn more calories throughout the day.
This means that this person would be able to eat more calories each day and maintain the same weight. How much more? Research has come up with a calculation of roughly 13 kcals/1kg. of muscle.
Hardly stunning, but these calculations are for muscles at rest. Meaning, the more muscle mass you have:
Also, due to the nature of low-intensity cardio, solely relying on it leads to a lot of muscle loss alongside the fat. There isn’t a strong stimulus on your muscles, and your body doesn’t have a good reason to keep them around. As you diet, your body is going to burn off more muscle and less fat to meet its energy needs. The approach often leads to the famous ‘skinny-fat’ look.
Sure, you’ll get thinner over time, but you’ll still have considerable amounts of fat left to lose.
On the other hand, if you provide your body with a strong stimulus through weight training, you are signaling it that, “Hey dude, I know calories are tight right now, but we need that muscle. Don’t touch it!”
By doing so, you end up losing much more fat and very little muscle mass, and your results are much more appealing.
What’s the bottom line?
Focus on fat loss and muscle maintenance. You’ll be able to eat more food during and after the diet, you’ll be stronger, and you’ll look better than if you were to aim for “weight loss.”
Strength Training for Fat Loss: The Better Option for Everyone
Let’s face it: training can be complicated. There are a lot of moving parts. Periodization, training volume, frequency, exercise selection, weekly training design, and more. The list goes on and on and dialing in these things is even more critical when you are in a caloric deficit.
When your body is short on energy, your training needs to be tightly tuned. Your muscles need just enough stimulus to stick around but not too much that you fatigue yourself and are unable to recover for days.
You can get away with sub-optimal training and still make at least some progress when you’re eating more food. But the energy deficit needed for fat loss is much less forgiving.
Now, before we go on:
Why I don’t like the “keep your training the same” advice that is thrown around.
This advice is thrown around by people with good intentions. You see, a few years ago, everyone who wanted to lose fat and get ripped believed in the “toning” stuff (i.e., doing high rep, low-intensity training to burn fat and bring out definition).
This often led people to follow these dumb and ineffective “fat loss programs” that promised “ripped arms,” or “ripped abs,” or “ripped <insert body part here>.”
But, after a few weeks of training that way and eating in a deficit, most people (except, maybe, the beginners) start losing tons of muscle mass and strength because one of the critical factors for muscle preservation during fat loss is missing: mechanical tension.
In other words, there is no heavy weight training relative to your absolute strength.
So, while your body is still going to need some training volume, the stimulus of heavy compound lifting is going to be much more critical for muscle retention.
In simpler terms, you need to give your body a reason to hold on to the muscle mass.
So, while people found it logical, or more effective to do five sets of 25 reps on the bench to get “ripped pecs,” all they needed was a few heavy sets of 4 to 8 repetitions per week.
Since we know that spot reducing fat is a myth and the human body doesn’t work that way, we can conclude that hammering a certain muscle group with hundreds of repetitions every week won’t make it more “ripped”.
This type of training is going to exhaust you and make your training sessions tough to recover from — the perfect recipe for muscle loss.
So what does this have to do with the “Keep your training the same” advice?
I’m glad I asked.
As time passed and we got more and more educated on why lifting heavy is crucial for muscle maintenance during fat loss, this common advice began to pop up:
This advice is better, but it’s not very accurate.
First of all, most people asking this question don’t post their training routines. We have to assume that their programs are solid, hence the progress they’ve made. (I don’t know how to quantify “ton of strength and muscle mass,” but whatever.)
So, telling that dude “keep your training the same” is dumb.
Second, even if he didn’t post his routine, 9 times out of 10, I can guess it. It’s either a push/pull/legs split or a bro/split with an average of 4.5 training days per week and somewhere between 12 and 25 working sets for each muscle group.
Do you think it’s wise to do 20 sets for chest every week while in a caloric deficit? I don’t.
So you can see how giving him the advice to keep his training the same can do more harm than good.
As we already discussed above, when eating in a caloric surplus, you can get away with a lot more sub-optimal training and way too high of a training volume. But, when you cut the caloric supply short for fat loss, you need to get your training sorted out. Otherwise, you’ll risk burning yourself out and losing lots of muscle and strength in the process.
Sure, keeping your training the same for the first few weeks could work, especially if you have lots of fat to lose. But after a while, the high volume is going to catch up, and you’ll be in trouble. Your performance will deteriorate, you won’t recover, and you’ll risk injuring yourself.
Lower Training Volume, Maintain the Intensity
Maintaining a proper balance between training intensity and volume is very important for muscle growth, but is even more crucial for fat loss.
For muscle growth, more volume is going to produce more results, to a point. But, for fat loss, more volume is often not needed, but also counterproductive. To avoid that, you should increase your training intensity (the weight you lift relative to your 1 RM) but reduce the number of sets you perform.
For example, say you followed a standard push-pull-legs split during your gaining phase, where you alternated between 4 and 5 training days per week:
Monday: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Tuesday: Back & Biceps
Thursday: Legs & Abs
Saturday: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Sunday: Back & Biceps
Tuesday: Legs & Abs
Thursday: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Friday: Back & Biceps
Sunday: Legs & Abs
You can keep following that same configuration during the first few weeks of fat loss if you wish. But, my recommendation is to immediately drop the 9th training day and train 4 days per week. For example, by switching to an upper-lower split:
Monday: Upper Body
Tuesday: Lower Body
Thursday: Upper Body
Friday: Lower Body
Saturday & Sunday: Off
You would keep the total sets for each workout the same, but with one less workout. After a few weeks in a caloric deficit, it’s advisable to lower the total sets you are doing. You can do that either by:
If you go with the third option, keep the training sets for compound lifts the same and cut out isolation exercises instead.
Maintaining your performance on the deadlift, overhead press, bench press, and squat is going to help you retain much more muscle mass than doing three extra sets of bicep curls every week.
3 training days/week split:
Monday: Legs & Abs
Wednesday: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Friday: Back & Biceps
Saturday & Sunday: Off
The goal here is to do the most important and useful work (maintaining your strength) and cut out the non-essential (doing tons of isolation work for each muscle).
As the diet progresses, you can keep cutting out a set here and there, every other week and maintain the intensity of lifting. The stimulus is going to help you preserve your muscle mass and strength, and because you’ll control your volume, you’ll be able to recover and train more productively.
Ideally, at the end of your diet, you should be as strong as when you begin, with the only difference being in the total volume you do each week. For example, if you can squat 140kg./310lbs. for 8 in the beginning, there is no reason not to be able to do it at the end, if you do things correctly. If you’re relatively weak, to begin with, you may even get stronger by the end.
Not only will this state that you’ve done an excellent job at keeping your muscle mass, but also that your relative strength has improved.Squatting 140kg./310lbs. when you weigh 100kg./220lbs. is one thing. Squatting the same poundage when you weigh 85kg./187lbs. means you’ve improved.
And the best part is, by maintaining your strength during the caloric deficit, you can go into your next off-season leaner, ramp up the training volume again, and make significant muscle gains.
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Shayne Hinkle says
I’m from the “old school” of thought that you have to lift heavy all the time. Now I’m almost 50, overweight, and getting back into the gym. Does going heavy at my age still work for fat loss?
Philip Stefanov says
Some heavy training can be beneficial but you have to ease into your training. I recommend doing at least 7-8 reps on your heavier sets and listening to your body. Don’t push too hard, especially if you feel achy.
I hope that helps!