Ripped to the Bone

In the dawn of the bodybuilding era, back in the 1940's, 50's and 60's, muscularity was basically only a matter of having a lot of size and mass. Little attention was given to being "ripped" or "shredded." In fact, during that period, guys like Vince Gironda (who basically pioneered the ripped look) were actually frowned upon by judges when they competed. Simply put, that look wasn't "in."

Vince Gironda
Vince Gironda was one of the pioneers of the "ripped look."

Past champions like John Grimek, Steve Reeves, Steve Stanko and other such names indeed carried a lot of muscle mass, and some even had good definition. But none of them were "ripped." If you had some abs showing, you were okay.

Fast forward to our own time. It's now all about being ripped, peeled, shredded, chiselled or whatever you want to call it. You have muscle? Fine, but you must be able to show it! As a result, in every gym in the world you'll find patrons doing everything in their power to lose every single bit of body fat covering their hard earned muscle.

You'll see people spend hour after hour on the treadmill or stationary bike or punishing their bodies with high training volume and basically no rest at all. Some might even go as far as risking their freedom by utilizing illegal fat loss drugs. So, we should see countless perfect bodies in every gym in North America, right? Well, we should, but we don't!

How could that be? The problem is certainly not in the lack of effort. However, most people go about it the wrong way. By making unwise decisions they're actually hurting their fat loss effort by wasting away precious muscle mass. So they might lose weight, but only to become a smaller and weaker version of their former selves.

One of the biggest problem areas lies in the realm of strength training. For years we've been told that to get defined we need to increase the number of reps we perform, reduce rest intervals, and rely exclusively on supersets. The reasoning behind this method is that high volume training will "burn" more calories thus increasing fat loss. And a more recent twist to that reasoning is that short rest intervals will increase the release of growth hormone (GH), a hormone that plays an important role in fat loss.

The problem is that in the real world this method is far from the best to use, unless you use anabolic aides which will counter the negative effects of this method (which we'll cover later on). Some people go on a good "cutting diet" for the first time in their lives (after basically living on fast food and junk food) and adopt a high volume training program. They get fantastic results and figure that the training program is the main reason behind their success. Of course, it's the drastic dietary changes that caused the transformation, not the poorly designed training program.

Listen up, this might be one of the most important things you'll ever hear: Nutrition is the most important factor when it comes to losing fat. Energy system work (cardio) comes in second place and weight training actually does little to directly stimulate fat loss. Tattoo that on your forehead!

I'll say it once and for all: The purpose of strength-training while dieting is primarily to prevent muscle loss or even stimulate muscle gain while on a reduced calorie diet. A lot of "gurus" these days like to use strength training exercises to burn fat by using a long series of reps (15 to 20-plus) and short rest intervals (30 to 60 seconds).

Their logic, as we saw earlier, is that this form of training increases growth hormone output. Since GH is a lipolytic (increases fat usage) hormone, they argue that a training method leading to an increase in growth hormone production will naturally lead to a significantly higher fat utilization.

This theory is interesting, however, in the real world it's just not that effective. Why? Consider that when a bodybuilder injects human growth hormone, a minimum dose of 2 to 4 IU's per day for at least three months is required to produce noticeable changes. Many bodybuilders even argue that below 4 IU per day is useless for body composition purposes.

The medical dose recommended for growth hormone is around 0.20 to 0.5 IU/kg per day, so for a 90kg individual (200 pounds) this equates to a daily dose of 2.6 to 6.5 IU. And this is for medical use, which is often too low to cause any "bodybuilding" results.

As a comparison, the body's natural production of GH varies from 1 IU to 2 IU per day (so maybe 0.25 to 0.5 IU during exercise). So it's unlikely that the slight, transient increase in growth hormone levels from strength training would cause any significant short term improvements in body composition.

High-intensity strength exercises (in the 70-100% range) are better than low intensity strength exercises (in the 40-70% range) while dieting. The higher training loads help you preserve strength and muscle while on a hypocaloric (reduced calorie) diet much better than super-high volume/low intensity workouts.

You've been training hard and heavy on basic movements while trying to gain as much muscle as possible; now that you're on a diet you must give your body a reason to hold on to this new muscle tissue. Believe it or not, the human body is more interested in survival than being a hulking hunk of manhood (or a chiselled wonder woman). So energy reserves such as body fat are more precious than muscle tissue since the latter actually consumes energy. When calories are dropped, we enter a survival mode and the unnecessary/energy costly muscle mass goes away, broken down into amino acids and then transformed into glucose for energy.

To keep your hard-earned muscle mass you must give the body a reason to do so. Will lifting light weights do it? No. You need to continue to lift heavy, otherwise some muscle will go to waste!

We've been brainwashed by the various muscle magazines to believe that you should do high rep training for definition. This is absolutely ridiculous! Sure, you use a little more energy during your session, but think about it: the higher the training volume you perform, the more energy you need to recover from your workout. The more glycogen you burn while strength training, the more carbs you'll need to recover and progress. If you're on any kind of cutting diet, chances are that you've lowered your carb intake quite a bit. So you need more carbs, but you're actually giving less to your body!

Furthermore, while on a hypocaloric diet your body has a lowered anabolic drive, meaning that it can't synthesize as much protein into muscle as it does when you're eating a ton. A super-high volume of work leads to a lot of microtrauma to the muscle structures; a lot of microtrauma requires a great protein synthesis increase, which your body can't do at this point. Of course, using Maximum Strength HOT-ROX will allow you to maintain or even build muscle while on a hypocaloric diet, in addition to helping you burn away fat.

So if you use high-volume/low-intensity training while dieting, you'll break down more muscle and build up less. Not exactly good news! Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of high-rep training is an increase in blood and nutrient flow to the muscles, but if you have a reduced amount of nutrients available in your body, this benefit is pretty much wasted!

Repeat after me: I will use my diet and energy system work to stimulate fat loss. I will use strength training to maintain or gain muscle.

That's the bottom line.

So exactly what type of training are we talking about? The following rules apply:

1 Use mostly compound (multi-joint and multi-muscle) exercises.

When consuming a hypocaloric diet, you can't use a very large training volume, so you should use exercises that'll get you the biggest bang for your buck. Isolation exercises can be used at the end of a workout to work on a specific weakness, but only do the bare minimum.

A good rule of thumb is to use lifts that will allow you to use the most weight. These will have a systemic effect on your body that'll help maintain or increase your muscle mass in this time of need. So focus on squats, deadlifts, various presses, rows and even some Olympic lifts if you know how to perform them.

2 Use a low volume of training.

During a fat loss diet your body has a lowered capacity to recover from physical work. This can't adapt very well to a high volume of training. Your sessions shouldn't last more than an hour, 30 to 45 minutes being best. Try to use only three to five exercises per session (three if you train only one muscle group on that day, four or five if you train two muscle groups) for three or four work sets each.

3 Train at a high level of intensity.

Your training load should be between 4 to 8 RM (reps max). You're basically performing sets of 4 to 8 reps, working close to failure (one rep short) on the first two work sets and to failure on the last one. I don't suggest working to failure on all three sets in this particular situation.

4 Rest long enough to perform at your best.

You're training to build muscle. If you have to lower the weights you use from set to set, you're not resting long enough!

A good way to estimate when you should start your next set is your heart rate. When you feel that it's slowing down to where it was before the first set, you can go. Normally we're talking around two to three minutes. Some might be able to handle as little as 60 to 90 seconds, but it's better to start higher and decrease the rest period, provided that you can maintain performance level.

5 Control the negative and explode with the positive.

The eccentric (lowering) phase should be performed in a controlled manner (3-4 seconds) while the concentric (lifting) portion should be performed explosively. This will maximize force production and place a larger adaptive stimulus on the fast-twitch motor units, which have a more important growth potential.

6 Training frequency should be three or four times per week.

If you're trying to lose fat, chances are that you'll be performing some form of energy systems work (ESW) or "cardio." Simply put, when you're dieting down you should try to avoid doing both ESW and strength training on the same day (except for a ten minute, slow pace warm-up before your strength session if needed).

Remember that your body has a lowered adaptive capacity when on a fat loss diet, so doing too much physical work will lead to some muscle loss.

7 Limit advanced techniques.

You can use some advanced techniques such as tempo contrast and iso-dynamic contrast as long as the intensity (training weight) is high enough. But don't perform too much of this type of work as it's very demanding on the body.

8 Supersets are okay.

Supersets can also be used as long as the intensity is high enough. But if you perform a superset, don't forget to count it as two exercises, not just one.

9 Go heavier.

Try to increase the weights you use at all costs (but not at the expense of proper form). Increasing the training load is the best way to tell your body to keep its muscles!

10 Use Brain Candy®

Since we're using big weights, I feel that using the time-proven Brain Candy® before workout can do wonders for you. It'll help you keep your strength up by revving up the nervous system and it'll help elevate your mood so that you can better handle the rigors of a fat loss regimen.

Hopefully at this point you understand the message of this article: During a fat loss diet, strength training is used to prevent muscle loss and even stimulate muscle gain. It shouldn't be used as a fat loss agent! The bulk of your fat loss will come from your diet and energy systems work.

It's true that performing a high rep/low rest training program will get you "pumped" and you'll sweat a lot, so it's quite normal to have the feeling that you're working harder and thus losing more fat. But you simply can't judge the efficacy of a program by how tired you are! Efficacy is measured by progress, and I've just given you the best way to achieve it.

Apply this info and you'll lose the fat and retain or build muscle. It doesn't get any better than that!

Christian Thibaudeau specializes in building bodies that perform as well as they look. He is one of the most sought-after coaches by the world's top athletes and bodybuilders. Check out the Christian Thibaudeau Coaching Forum.