There many reasons to train your body. Some want to be stronger. Others want to run faster, be more flexible, feel better, or recover from an injury. Most of us though, just want weight loss, or more accurately described, fat loss. Without a doubt fat loss is the most common goal brought to myself and the collective of personal trainers and health coaches the world over.
What you see and feel while you stand in front of your bathroom mirror in the mornings is often what pushes you towards your fitness goals. For far too many people – fat loss stands out as a goal that they need to achieve. So, day after day people trek to their local fitness facility and work their tails off to lose the stubborn fat that holds them down physically and mentally.
Many hopefuls navigate to their favorite piece of cardio equipment and proceed to hammer out an hour of long, steady, distance exercise. They will burn hundreds of calories and feel as though they’ve done plenty. Sadly, this alone won’t be enough.
Others retrace their favorite routine that they got from fitness paraphernalia, or from their friend who is “in better shape”. They’ll lift all the weights, do countless crunches, and wear down their body. Again, they didn’t really spark the metabolic effect that they are after.
But, then there are the ones who have it right. They lift heavy, sprint fast, slam medicine balls and wave battle ropes. Some might box, row, or hammer out some power cleans. No, I’m not talking about a CrossFit box – I’m just talking about the group of fitness enthusiasts that know how to burn fat off their bodies and realize the physique most admire.
They approach fitness with a different mentality; complete with a specific program that sends them in the direction they desire. Knowing that some people are nailing it might leave you with a few questions…
What are they doing different?
Why are they successful in their endeavors?
What should be doing instead of your current plan?
These same questions have permeated your mind as you’ve contemplated your own fat loss. By the end of this article it is my hope you’ll understand what you need to do going forward. Before we dive into the methods and approaches of successful fat loss workouts though, let’s establish something first.
A Note on Nutrition and Recovery
You can’t outwork a horrible diet. Very seriously, you cannot burn off bad eating habits and sleepless nights by blasting yourself in the gym. Your exercise habits do not justify your food binges and your food choices should not drive your actions in the gym. This unhealthy relationship with your body leads to more problems than I could discuss in this text, but I assure you – exercise because you want to improve yourself and not because you feel guilty.
To continue the thoughts on nutrition though, high calorie, but low nutrient-density foods chock full of sugar, saturated fats, salts, and God-knows-what-chemicals are not going to just disappear because you burnt the equivalent in calories during your workout. To the contrary, the effect of horrible food on your hormones, body composition, and your happiness levels will impact your workouts, your sleep, and your attitude towards staying on track for long after you’ve consumed the meal.
Ok, so what should you aim for?
So, know that you need to eat mostly vegetables, a minimum of half your bodyweight in protein (grams per pound/2), half your bodyweight in ounces of water, a few servings of fruit, and fats from natural sources such as animal products, nuts, and oils. You should also aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, minimize your exposure to late night electronics, and lower the time you spend with those who have bad eating habits.
It may be a shock at first but emphasizing a healthy nutrition regimen is paramount to what you do in the gym for achieving true, long-lasting fat loss. With that said, let’s dive into the reason you clicked on this article – the workouts that drive fat loss.
The Problem with traditional bodybuilding for fat loss
The human body is exceptionally complex. You’ve heard this before for sure, but allow me a moment to really pound this point home…
In 2017 a group of personal training friends and I traveled to Pittsburgh, PA to take part in a cadaver lab. For those unsure what that is – We spent about eight hours with dead bodies that had been dissected enough for us to truly examine the layout of the muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments, and nervous system.
I’ll save you the gory details of the actual examinations, but know this:
Your body is one continuous system of muscles, fascial tissue, bone, and nervous tissue. There is no segmentation and there sure as hell is no isolation.
The body operates as a continuous system of integrated tissues that function best when utilized with integrated movements – those that cross multiple joints, involve your legs and your upper body, demand effort from your core, and demand a higher level of coordination. These are characteristics of your compound lifts – the squat, deadlift, and bench press as well as advanced movements such as the Olympic lifts, dynamic power and speed work, and interval sprints, climbs, and crawls.
Sorry, no one gets lean doing biceps curls – at least not as a foundation of their program.
You have hundreds of muscles in your body and your metabolism wants to utilize as many of them as possible. So, an exercise program fixated on isolation and hypertrophy will certainly develop the size of your muscles, but won’t necessarily contribute to better fat loss. The workouts better designed for fat loss include the movements listed above, involve recovery work such as yoga or pilates, and are built on great nutrition and sleep.
Now, I know many of you are thinking, “Well, all these competitive bodybuilders do body-part splits and end up on stage looking shredded, so what is this guy talking about?”
To that I’ll tell you that you are right. The fitness scene is full of people who do these body part splits, emphasize hypertrophy and muscle development, and end up on stage looking like a deity. They are different than most of us though due to their absolute commitment, or obsession, with their sport. They’ll eat the boiled chicken and broccoli at every meal for sixteen weeks to look shredded on stage. The application of extreme structure ensures they’ll achieve the fat loss needed in the absence of more proficient workouts.
If you want to lead a rather normal life, then apply the tactics and protocols at the end of this article and you’ll be happy to know that you’ll be alright.
A look at Steady State Cardio
Steady state cardio (SSC) is not an effective measure for burning fat from your body for most people. In the beginning it will appear to be superior to anything else because your body isn’t used to such a high caloric output for a sustained period. Yet, in time this effect will diminish unless you begin doing more distance or a longer time. At this point you’ll find your body beginning to go catabolic – an undesired state for your body in which it burns tissue (fat, proteins, blood sugar) indiscriminately.
Those who perform only steady state cardio for their exercise, namely those that get on the same elliptical or treadmill every day for forty-five minutes or more, are typically very disappointed with the results. Their body tends to get even softer as muscle is consumed to fuel the effort in place of body fat. Moreover, the high caloric output drives them towards more satiating foods to refuel – the same foods that are often brimming with sugars and fats.
As a stand alone method SSC is an extremely underwhelming exercise method.
This doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be included in your program however. In fact, everyone should do one session of at least forty-five minutes of sustained cardio each week. Anyone who tells you otherwise is unqualified, a Charlatan, or a polarizer – that is someone who says things just to get attention. Why am I comfortable telling you that these people are wrong and that I’m right?
Because sustained cardio isn’t used for fat loss in great exercise programs. It is used for recovery purposes and for the general health and wellness of the body, specifically the heart and lungs. Some studies have shown that people who perform just the minimum effective dose of SSC are helping themselves live longer, more disease-resistant lives.
What is the recovery benefit? Well, that comes from the increased oxygenation of the blood due to an elevated heart rate/ventilatory rate, which drives nutrients, enzymes, and hormones into damaged tissue for repair purposes.
The point here is this: Don’t do cardio because you want to burn fat or lose weight. Do it because you want to take care of your heart, lungs, blood vessels, and brain.
The Perfect Week for Fat Loss
So, here we are – 1500 words into an article and I’ve mostly told you what you are doing wrong. Well, that isn’t very helpful if I don’t provide you with options going forward. No worries, we’re here now.
A perfect week for fat loss is going to comprise heavy lifting, a bit of volume training (like bodybuilding), some hardcore intervals, a day for sustained cardio, and a day for some stretching, mobility, and Yoga. This level of balance will ensure you utilize the 3 major energy systems – ATP/CP, Glycolytic, and Aerobic. It is also going to tax all ranges of your muscle fibers (type I, type IIa, and type IIb) which has a downrange effect of increasing muscle-building and fat-burning hormones.
The recovery work will help bring you back to a rested state so that you may dive head first into the intensity again, just as nightly sleep helps you prepare the following day.
What would it look in terms of a week?
Monday – Heavy Lower and Upper Body Volume*
Tuesday – Low Load Power/Cardio Circuits and Intervals
Wednesday – Heavy Upper Body and Lower Body Volume*
Thursday – Yoga, Stretch, and mobility
Friday – High Intensity Intervals
Saturday – Full Body Volume*
Sunday – Sustained Cardiovascular Exercise
*Use of the BFR bands can cut down on total work needed by radically driving up the intensity of the exercises and contributing to better long term results
Now, you’ll look at that schedule and notice you are working every day – a feat that most people wouldn’t imagine. Even popular fitness media recommends that you go hard for four or five days and recover for two. To the contrary, the most successful fat loss programs involve daily exercise – even if the intensity is low.
It’s Newton’s Law of Inertia: A body in motion stays in motion.
You should too.
You may also have a few questions. What counts as heavy? What is volume? How long should my intervals be? What is a cardio circuit?
Let’s answer them.
- Heavy indicates a focus on the major lifts – deadlift, squat, and press in a repetition range of 4 to 6, which would be done for 4 to 5 sets in total. This challenges those type IIa and type IIb fibers.
- Volume is the idea of doing higher repetitions of moderate load in an effort tax muscles to fatigue. 3 sets of 12 to 15 or 4 sets of 10 to 12 is a great way to accomplish this. You’ll fatigue the IIa fibers with this method.
- Cardio Circuits are loops of four to six exercises done with low loads for moderate repetitions for a series of rounds. You should aim to perform a full body workout that allows you to stay in motion as long as possible. You will fatigue the Type I fibers that link to endurance.
- Intervals should be done on rowers, treadmills, stair climbers, and air bikes. Look at things as work to rest ratios. The most challenging should be a 1:1 ratio – a situation which allows only as much rest as you are working. Most people should begin 3:1, which means 3 minutes of rest for 1 minute of work (or whatever time frame you choose). Your intensity should be near maximal.
- Sustained Cardio is exercise done with a steady heart rate for at least forty-five minutes.
- Yoga/Mobility/Stretching are recovery methods to boost flexibility, increase blood flow, and prevent negative postural adaptions from occurring.
So, there you have it – the perfect work week for burning fat and building your body. You’ll lift heavy, sprint fast, eat your vegetables, enjoy lean proteins and water in moderation, and recover your body with yoga, sustained cardio and quality sleep. You can do it for certain, but you need to be willing to change your approach.
It’s possible to maintain a lean body year around while still enjoying some of the foods you enjoy and not spending hours on end at the gym. Life is meant to be complimented by fitness, not consumed by it.
Let’s see you be great!
If you’d like to learn more about elite programming tactics so that you may better design your own workouts, your client’s workouts, or have better ammunition in your next exercise debate – check out my digital book on exercise programming.
Elite Program Design Concepts (kevinmullinsfitness.com/shop)
Kevin Mullins, CSCS
Master Instructor, Equinox Sports Club Washington DC