Most gym enthusiasts, from the spandex-wearing Stairmaster addict right up to the biggest bodybuilder in the room, have something in common: at some point they'll want to improve their appearance by losing some fat.

Obviously some value that goal more than others and are willing to go to more extreme means to reach that goal, but anybody who lifts weights will eventually think to himself "Hey, I think that I'd look better if I drop the fat."

Yes, even powerlifters sometimes go there (although for some it might be a rather rare an unexpected occurrence). The thing is, and that's where us ironheads (and I'm including both guys and vixens here) differ from the cardio bunnies (again girls and"guys"): we want to get that fat off as fast as possible while preserving or even gainingmuscle mass.

Yes we know a nutritional plan will be responsible for the biggest chunk of our fat loss. We are also aware that energy system work/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 use weight training to turbocharge our fat loss efforts?

Can we preserve or even ... gulp... ADD muscle while dieting? These are the things I want to talk about in this article.

Three 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 valid while one is downright idiotic and even counterproductive.

1. High volume training to "cut up" a muscle.

If you've been reading Testosterone for more than a week you probably guessed right off the bat that this is the idiotic theory of lifting for fat loss. Yet, for 90% 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.

A trainer schooled in this philosophy will say something like, "Do sets of 8-12 for size and 15-20 for cuts". He obviously disregards the simple physiological fact that you cannot "cut" or "define" a muscle with strength training. Doing high reps will not "add detail", "carve" or "sculpt" anything.

Simply bumping up the reps per set will do nothing but slightly increase energy expenditure and use up more muscle glycogen. This is not sufficient to speed up the fat loss process. Plus, not only will it not help you protect your muscle mass, it can actually lead to muscle loss!

In a deprived caloric state your body will need 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.

2. Lactate-inducing training

Coach Poliquin was the first one to bring to light the physiological fact that there's a direct correlation between the amount of lactate produced and the output of growth hormone. This is the basis of his German Body Composition I and II programs as growth hormone 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). Other athletes who do a lot of anaerobic lactic work include basketball and hockey players, who are also quite lean.

In some regards, applying this concept to weight training does have something in common with the preceding "idiotic" 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 (let's say a 3 seconds eccentric and 1 second concentric), hitting the ideal time under tension for lactate production requires 12-18 reps per set.

However, the differences between this approach and the first one are that you drastically reduce the rest intervals (shoot for 30 seconds), normally alternate exercises for muscle groups that are "far away" from each other (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+ 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 more effective at stimulating fat loss and protecting muscle mass.

3. Heavy lifting to protect muscle mass

This is the philosophy championed by many top coaches. Even I've written an article detailing this approach in depth. It is now 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 3-4 weeks prior to the Toronto pro (bodybuilding) show. Dorian Yates, Marc Dugdale, Lee Priest, and several others 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. When in a calories-restricted state, your body will look to drop some muscle tissue to alleviate its daily energy needs. Simply put, muscle is energy-expensive and when there's a shortage of energy (calories and nutrients) it needs a darn good reason to keep it there!

The best way to maintain muscle mass is to give your body a good reason to keep it, and that reason is to lift heavy. 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 maintain (or even increase) 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.

A third player comes into the game...

But that isn't all there is to it. I picked up a little something from Dr. John Berardi that can maximize fat loss even more. This little something came to me when reading his excellent piece on the G-Flux phenomenon. JB noted, rightfully so, that athletes engaging in several different types of training were leaner despite a pretty high caloric intake.

I've seen this myself with elite hockey players who 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: on the ice, on the track and in the gym, 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 I've called "hypermetabolism".

We all know that several things contribute to our daily energy expenditure (the amount of calories we burn during a day):

  1. Our basal metabolic rate which is the amount of calories our body uses during a 24 hour period, even at complete rest.
  2. Our activity level: more activity equals more fuel used up.
  3. 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 (JB has written a lot on this subject).
  4. 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 don't 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? Yep, more calories, plus some lipids and protein. Need to make that big brain of yours function? You need carbs (or ketones); in other words energy!

As you can see, adaptation requires energy and nutrients. So it stands to reason that 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. Furthermore it will jack it up for a relatively long period of time because most adaptations aren't instantaneous... hence the term hypermetabolism.

Okay, so what am I getting at? 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 in your week (or even day) you prevent, at least to some degree, an excessive efficiency that would decrease the need to adapt. The more different the types of training are, the more effective at preventing super-efficiency your program will be.

So what I'm saying is that to lose fat it's best to include several different types of physical activity in your weekly schedule.

The four horsemen of the fat apocalypse

Okay, so I could have done better with that subtitle! But the message I'm about to convey is that to maximize fat loss we'll need four different types of training. Well, we don't absolutely need all four, but the more of them you include in your own schedule, the more results you'll have. These four aspects of our fat loss training approach are:

  1. Heavy lifting
  2. Lactate-inducing lifting
  3. Aerobic work
  4. Anaerobic alactic energy systems work

Heavy lifting

As we saw earlier, 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 one or two heavy lifting sessions per week.

Obviously, 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).

During a caloric restriction phase, it doesn't make much sense to use a ton of exercises since your body isn't likely to add a lot of muscle mass anyway. 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.

If you're using two weekly heavy sessions I suggest dividing the body in two:

Day 1: Chest and Back
Day 2: Quads and Hamstrings

These workouts should look like this:

A1.Main chest exercise (DB press, incline DB press, wide grip bench press, etc.) – 4-6 reps
No rest (or 10 sec. to change exercises, as coach Poliquin would say)

A2.Chest secondary exercise (DB flies, cross-over, etc.) - 6-8 reps
Take 2 minutes of rest, then move on to...

B1.Main back exercise (weighted chins or pull-ups, chest-supported row, 1-arm row, etc.) - 4-6 reps
No rest

B2.Secondary back exercise (any back exercise described in my Torso Solution article) - 6-8 reps
Take 2 minutes of rest then get back to A1. Perform each superset 5-6 times.

The same logic (main + secondary exercise superset) applies for the quads and hams.

Now, I'm not one of those "you don't need direct arms work" guys. I do believe that to maximize your arm size you do need at least some direct biceps and triceps work. However, keep in mind that this type of program is used during a fat loss phase.

You're not going to maximize anything; all you can accomplish is to minimize muscle loss. So in that regard adding a ton of direct upper arm work isn't necessary. However, you can still add a few sets of curls or triceps work at the end of the chest/back workout.

Lactate-inducing lifting

The objective 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:

  1. Work the whole body
  2. Minimize rest-intervals (or maximize the work-to-rest ratio)
  3. Use sets lasting 50-70 seconds (12-20 reps)
  4. Alternate exercises for muscle groups that are far away from each other and "unrelated"

The approach I recommend is a derivative of Bob Gajda's Peripheral Heart Action training (PHA), which is an early form of circuit training that Gajda used to win the 1966 Mr. America bodybuilding title. You'll perform two or three different circuits of 5 exercises per day, each circuit being performed three times. There's no rest between the exercises within the same circuit and you can rest for 1-2 minutes once all three sets of a circuit have been completed.

Circuit A (12-15 reps per set)

A1. Horizontal pushing exercise
A2. Quads-dominant exercise
A3. Horizontal pulling exercise
A4. Hamstrings-dominant exercise
A5. Abdominal exercise

No rest between exercises within the circuit (or as little as possible). Perform the circuit three times.

Circuit B (15-20 reps per set)

B1. Vertical pushing exercise
B2. Quads-dominant exercise
B3. Vertical pulling exercise
B4. Hamstrings-dominant exercise
B5. Abdominal exercise

No rest between exercises within the circuit (or as little as possible). Perform the circuit three times.

Circuit C – OPTIONAL (15-20 reps per set)

C1. Biceps exercise
C2. Calves exercise
C3. Triceps exercise
C4. Abdominal exercise
C5. Shoulder isolation exercise

No rest between exercises within the circuit (or as little as possible). Perform the circuit three times.

The lactate-inducing sessions are performed twice a week; 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. So far a weekly schedule would look like this:

  • Day 1: Heavy lifting chest/back
  • Day 2: Lactate-inducing workout 1
  • Day 3: OFF
  • Day 4: Heavy lifting quads/hams
  • Day 5: OFF
  • Day 6: Lactate-inducing workout 2
  • Day 7: OFF

Aerobic work

Yes, 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 (especially in the lower body) 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 because of the increase in growth hormone.

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.

We can now update our weekly schedule to:

  • Day 1: Heavy lifting chest/back
  • Day 2: Lactate-inducing workout 1 + 20-30 minutes of steady-state aerobic work
  • Day 3: OFF
  • Day 4: Heavy lifting quads/hams
  • Day 5: OFF
  • Day 6: Lactate-inducing workout 2 + 20-30 minutes of steady-state aerobic work
  • Day 7: OFF

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 (preferably) less. I personally like 30 and 60m sprints for that purpose, in other words "speed work". 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...

  1. The day before a strength workout (as it will drain your CNS too much to maximise strength)
  2. The day after a strength workout (for the same reason)
  3. 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.

Yes, 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.

I personally prefer to do the strength session in the AM (because Testosterone levels are at their highest) and the alactic session between 4 and 6PM (because naural activation is at its highest). However, I understand that this schedule isn't always ideal because of work. You can remedy this situation by starting your training week on Sunday (so day 1 becomes a Sunday) or on whatever day is the easiest to schedule for you. So now the complete weekly schedule becomes:

  • Day 1: Heavy lifting chest/back + alactic work
  • Day 2: Lactate-inducing workout 1 + 20-30 minutes of steady-state aerobic work
  • Day 3: OFF
  • Day 4: Heavy lifting quads/hams
  • Day 5: OFF
  • Day 6: Lactate-inducing workout 2 + 20-30 minutes of steady-state aerobic work
  • Day 7: OFF

Now, for the alactic session I do suggest sprinting. However sprint cycling can also be an option.

If you select sprints as an option I suggest keeping the total distance for the session at around 300-400m at the maximum. For example you could perform:

4 x 30m (120m total) + 3 x 60m (180m total) = 300m

or...

6 x 30m (180m total) + 2 x 60m (120m total) = 300m

or ...

5 x 60m = 300m

or...

1 x 30m, 1 x 60m, 2 x 100m = 290m

etc.

The rest intervals should be pretty similar to that used during a limit strength session. For example, in this program you have around 5 minutes between sets of the same main exercise.

For example, after your chest superset you have 2 minutes of rest before you hit the back. Then the chest continues to rest for the 1 minute or so of the back set. Then you have another 2 minutes of rest before getting back to the chest. So for our sprints, 3-5 minutes of rest should be used. The key is to be totally rested before hitting the next sprint.

Lean mean machine

This training approach, when combined with an intelligent nutrition program will allow you to maximise fat loss while keeping all of your muscle mass (even add some). Not only that, but it will also allow you to develop several physical capacities, making you a more functional and athletic human being. You'll look good nekkid, but will also perform good nekkid, if you catch my drift!