Here's what you need to know...

  1. Training with light weights while on a fat-loss diet makes you really good at lifting light and pretty awful at lifting heavy. That's unacceptable.
  2. Heavy training, even while in a caloric deficit, is vastly superior for holding on to lean body mass.
  3. Unless you want to end your diet as a weak (albeit lean) little man, then you must include some heavy strength training in your plan.

Old School Bulk 'n Cuts

Bodybuilding-style bulking and cutting periods both have drawbacks. With bulking periods, you tend to put on a fair amount of fat as you seek to gain muscle size.

With cutting periods, you run the risk of losing lean body mass in your quest to reduce body fat. This is bad for a number of reasons. It sets you up for a series of two-steps-forward, one-step-back situations. It's painfully frustrating, and it also compromises progress in the long run.

Remember, your lean body mass is one of the main things that determines your metabolic rate. Sacrificing LBM to get lean is counterproductive because you certainly won't stay lean for very long – especially once you go back to trying to gain mass.

At best, if you're able to hang on to your mass, there will be the problem of losing strength. Now, if you're lean, you'll be placed in the unenviable position of trying to play catch-up with your strength levels for a few weeks. That's another unacceptable tradeoff.

The New Way

We seem to be getting away from the old bulk-and-cut practices of bodybuilding. That's a good thing. Instead, we should always be trying to achieve consistent body recomposition and lean gains.

Make no mistake: it's possible to stay lean while gaining mass. Similarly, with intelligent programming, it's possible to maintain and even gain strength and muscle while losing fat.

Go Heavy, Get Lean

Successful competitive bodybuilders already know this. To maintain muscle mass while dieting down into the single digits, you gotta train heavy.

In fact (drug use aside), one of the main things these guys do in the final stages of contest prep is train with heavy weight, which, coincidentally, also increases both neurogenic and myogenic muscle tone – a necessary weapon on a competition stage.

When I first started incorporating heavy strength training into my fat loss programs, I used a 5x5 protocol because this is what many bodybuilders used. It worked. My clients lost fat and maintained lean body mass with relative ease. However, it always nagged at me that this method wasn't creating a solution, just addressing a problem.

Here's the deal: every training session should be used to make you better, not just prevent you from getting worse. The 5x5 protocol was fine, but I knew there was an even better way to keep the lean mass while accelerating fat loss.

Strength circuits were the solution.

The Set-Up

Strength circuits take three or four exercises and set them up into circuits. Circuit training, done correctly, is one of the most effective weightlifting methodologies there is when fat loss is the goal, and strength circuits are no different.

You'll move from one exercise to another with minimal rest in between, and then repeat as necessary. However, there's a twist here that makes this type of training a lot more interesting.

A traditional set-up would have you doing a predetermined number of sets, with each of those having a predetermined number of reps. We've seen that for decades. It works, but it's not perfect. (Chad Waterbury came up with a better plan of action, and you'll see his influence below.)

The goal of performing strength circuits is to help build muscle and shred fat while gaining strength, and part of that is going to be neurological. Instead of just "lifting" the weights, I want you to focus on lifting explosively, and perfectly.

Each rep should be performed in the most explosive way possible. This helps to create greater stimulation for your nervous system, which will allow for the greatest recruitment of muscle fibers.

In order to make this effective, and in order to ensure that each set is challenging and stimulating without draining you, we're going to disregard traditional set and rep schemes. Rather than focus on a conventionally structured workout of sets and reps, the focus is only on the total number of reps.

If this sounds a bit familiar, it should. Strength circuits draw inspiration from both Chad Waterbury and Christian Thibaudeau. To quote Chad, "Focus on the reps and let the sets take care of themselves."

What you'll do here is rotate through the chosen exercises until you've completed the desired number of reps.

Let's break it down.

Workout Set-Up

Each workout will consist of two circuits, each comprised of 3-4 exercises. Between these two circuits will be something called the dynamic interrupt, which is a metabolic enhancement circuit (more on that below).

First, let's talk about how to create individual strength circuits, as well as a complete workout.

Exercise Selection

This method is best suited to using big, compound, multi-joint movements. This is especially true for the first circuit. For the second circuit, if you'd like to throw in one isolation movement, that's fine.

Individual Workouts

Every workout will ideally have one of each:

  • Hip/hamstring dominant leg exercise
  • Quad dominant leg exercise
  • Horizontal pushing movement
  • Horizontal pulling movement
  • Vertical pulling movement
  • Vertical pushing movement

Individual Circuits

Each circuit should have at least one lower body movement, at least one upper-body pulling movement, and at least one upper-body pressing movement. As long as those three are covered, you can be creative as to which movement planes you work in what order.


The Details

Let's say that you've chosen to set up a circuit with dumbbell push presses, bentover rows, front squats, and weighted pull-ups.

You'd first perform as many reps as you could on the dumbbell push press. After that, perform as many bentover rows as you can. Then perform as many front squats as you can. Finally, you'd perform as many weighted pull-ups as possible.

You simply cycle through the exercises until you've completed all of the prescribed reps, regardless of how many sets it takes.

You'll probably complete the total prescribed reps for one of the exercises before the others. That's fine. Just alternate the remaining exercises back and forth.

Once you've completed all of the total reps for each exercise in the circuit, move on to the next segment of the workout.

Total Training Volume

Instead of thinking about the sets, simply focus on a total number of workout reps to gauge your volume. Ideally, a workout will have between 210 and 250 total reps.

If you're going over that, you're either using weight that's too light (and therefore setting your total reps too high), or doing too many exercises. As a rule of thumb, 250 total reps is the upper limit.

Parameters for Selecting Rep Goals

Selecting the total reps on an exercise is a personal thing. Some people like to go very heavy on squats, so they'll adjust the reps to be lower. Or perhaps you find that your chest generally responds better to higher reps. You might set your total reps to allow for that, and therefore use less weight.

The main thing is that your rep range for any given movement is between 20-35. Any less and you simply aren't getting enough stimulation; any more and you're going too light for this to be a "strength circuit."

Parameters for Selecting Load

The idea is for this to be strength training; the weight must be heavy. This requires us to have some guidelines for selecting a work-set weight and knowing when to increase it.

The chart below will give you some guidelines for selecting a starting weight based on how manytotal reps you've chosen for a given exercise (not the set – the exercise.)

Reps Load
20 Begin with a weight you think you can lift 3-5 times. If you can complete 6 or more reps on your first set, go a little heavier. If you can only complete 2 or fewer reps on your first set, go lighter.
25 Begin with a weight you can lift 4-6 times. If you can get 6 or more reps your first set, increase the weight. If you complete only 3 or fewer reps on your first set, reduce the weight a little.
30 Begin with a weight you think you can lift 6-8 times. If you can get 9 or more reps your first set, increase the weight. If you complete 4 reps or fewer on your first set, reduce the weight.
35 Begin with a weight you can lift 7-9 times. If you can complete 10 reps or more on your first set, increase the weight. If you can complete only 8 reps or fewer, reduce the weight.

Enter the Dynamic Interrupt

The Dynamic Interrupt was originally intended as a way to increase conditioning with athletes. The side effect? Rapid fat loss! I particularly like dynamic interrupts for strength circuits.

After your last set of a prescribed circuit (i.e. when you've finished every rep for every exercise), try the Dynamic Interrupt. It's a series of bodyweight exercises that helps to increase heart rate and burn additional fat by making the workout more metabolic.

The lower rep range of the strength training is offset by the activity of the Dynamic Interrupt, and the fat-burning effect becomes even more profound.

Exercises are done for as many reps as possible in a given timeframe. The total work time of your Dynamic Interrupt should be 180 seconds or less.

Exercise Selection for the Dynamic Interrupt

Exercises for the DI can really be anything from jumping rope to jumping jacks to pushing a Prowler. The only real consideration is that you don't want to choose exercises that will inhibit performance on the second circuit.

For example, if you've selected the bench press as one of your exercises on the second circuit, don't select 75 seconds of as many push-ups as you can complete. Just choose movements that won't interfere with what's to come.

Sample Workout

Try this workout and see your results – and your strength – increase drastically.

  Exercise Type of Movement Plane, Dominance Sets Reps
A1 Dumbbell Push Press Upper Body Push Vertical Vary 30
A2 Bentover Barbell Row Upper Body Pull Horizontal Vary 25
A3 Front Squat Lower Body Quad Dominant Vary 35
A4 Weighted Pull-Up Upper Body Pull Vertical Vary 20
Rest 15-30 seconds between exercises. When you finish your circuit, rest 45-60 seconds. Cycle through until you complete all reps for all exercises. Then, without rest, proceed immediately to the Dynamic Interrupt.

Dynamic Interrupt

  Exercise Reps
A1 Burpees As many as possible in 75 seconds
A2 Mountain Climbers As many as possible in 45 seconds
Perform burpees, then mountain climbers, with minimal rest in between. When you've finished the mountain climbers, rest 2 minutes and proceed to circuit B.
  Exercise Type of Movement Plane, Dominance Sets Reps
B1 Deadlift Lower Body Hip/Ham Dominant Vary 20
B2 Low-Incline DB Bench Press Upper Body Push Horizontal Vary 35
B3 High Pull Upper Body Pull Vertical Vary 30
B4 Alternating Barbell Lunges Lower Body Quad Dominant Vary 15/leg
Rest 15-30 seconds between exercises. When you finish your circuit, rest 45-60 seconds. Cycle through until you complete all reps for all exercises.

Spend Calories, Save Mass

Lifting heavy weight requires a great deal of energy, so strength training is generally calorically expensive. In addition, because we've set things up in a circuit, the pace of the workout is much faster and fat loss increases.

Try this method one day a week during your diet program and watch your fat loss accelerate as you hold on to strength and mass!