Acquiring the physique you crave will likely, at some point, require a fat loss phase. Sadly, a lot of people actually end up sacrificing some muscle in their attempt to get lean, which makes them fall short of the awesomeness they could otherwise have revealed to the world.
How can you avoid that and show your muscles in all of their glory? Read on.
Lifting Mistakes During a Fat-Loss Phase
Invariably, people on a fat loss phase start to lift more. They either significantly increase their training volume or frequency. Others turn their workouts into a high-lactate metabolic conditioning program.
I get it. Instinctively, it makes sense.
They want to burn more calories, but when they eat less (especially fewer carbs), their muscles get flat. Some start adding more volume and chasing ever more elusive pumps to psychologically reassure themselves they’re not shrinking.
Others fear more than just flatness – they fear the actual loss of muscle. Either way, their instinctive response is to do too much work. Ironically, this is the main cause of muscle loss while dieting.
What’s the Problem With This Approach?
Being in a caloric deficit reduces anabolism (your capacity to repair and build muscle). It leads to lower production of mTOR (which plays a key role in increasing protein synthesis), IGF-1 (especially when you cut carbs), and insulin (which is both anabolic and anti-catabolic).
But that’s not all. Other bad things happen when you’re in a caloric deficit, especially when carb intake is low:
- You potentially lose muscle because you break down more of it through increased muscle damage, slower repair, and higher cortisol levels.
- You begin to suffer from training burnout. Cortisol increases adrenaline. Too much cortisol means too much adrenaline. This can down-regulate the beta-adrenergic receptors which results in decreased motivation, drive, muscle tone, strength, power, speed, coordination, and endurance.
- You develop sleep issues. Too much cortisol leads to high adrenaline, which makes it really hard to sleep. Poor sleep impairs muscle growth and fat loss.
- You end up slowing down fat loss. In the short-term, doing “too much” can lead to some fat loss, but once metabolic adaptation sets in, fat loss becomes harder. Chronically elevated cortisol will reduce the conversion of the T4 thyroid hormone (fairly inactive when it comes to metabolic rate) into T3 (the one that regulates metabolic rate). When that happens, it becomes harder to lose fat.
Doing more work is tempting and it actually works for two or three weeks. This can reinforce your belief that you’re doing the right thing. However, continue doing more work past the three-week mark and you’ll start to spiral downward.
How Should I Lift When Trying to Lose Fat?
In most cases, the type of program you do when trying to lose fat should be similar to what you’d normally do in a mass-gaining phase. Don’t try to “cut up” by doing high reps or “shape” the muscles by doing tons of different exercises for each muscle group.
If anything, your training volume should be lower during a fat loss phase. Remember, when calorie intake is reduced your capacity to recover from training, repair muscle damage, and build new muscle decreases.
However, you should push your sets harder. Basically, try to get the desired stimulation with as few sets and exercises as possible. When dieting down, you’re in more of a “muscle-preservation mode” than a muscle-gaining mode.
I’m NOT saying it’s impossible to build muscle during a diet. If you actually train properly, with a lower but harder volume, you could build muscle, even a decent amount of it. But the problem starts when you want to build muscle so badly while dieting that your training becomes excessive.
Let’s look at specifics.
Training Splits & Exercises
Another mistake people make while dieting is doing too many lifting workouts. You need days off, especially when your body isn’t in an optimal state to recover.
I like 4 weekly lifting workouts where each muscle is hit to some extent at least twice per week. The three best training splits are:
1. Whole-Body 3 Times a Week, Plus a “Gap” Workout
The whole-body workouts should use 4 exercises, all compound movements: a squat, a press, a pull, and a hinge.
The gap workout is a lower stress session where you only do isolation exercises for the muscles that might have been neglected by the big basic lifts on the other three days.
I recommend a Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday schedule to avoid as much negative carryover as possible. The whole-body session uses four multi-joint movements (squat, press, pull, hinge) and the other workouts should include two multi-joint exercises and two to three isolation movements.
3. Push + Quads, Pull + Hams
A Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday set-up works well. Alternate quads/pecs/delts/triceps with hams/lats/mid-upper back/biceps/traps).
Use 4-5 exercises per workout (one for each body part). Use more multi-joint exercises on the first two days (Monday and Wednesday) and more isolation exercises or less stressful movements like multi-joint exercises on machines or pulleys on the last two days.
The upper/lower split is also good but I find that when dieting, most lifters need to feel the upper body working more often to avoid freaking out about losing muscle.
The first priority is to keep pushing the multi-joint movements hard. The goal should be to at least maintain strength and ideally add some.
Now, you will find it hard to keep strength up on some exercises while dieting. Most of these will be upper-body pressing movements (bench, incline bench, military press). This isn’t because you’re losing muscle, but because dieting causes the loss of fat, water, and glycogen in and around the shoulder joint, leading to a loss of passive stability (what some call “joint packing”).
When the body feels unstable, it protects itself by not allowing you to use all of your strength potential. That is why I like using fairly slow eccentrics/negatives and even stato-dynamic lifting (isometric holds in the reps). These improve active stability, which can compensate for the drop in passive stability.
For reps and sets, keep the reps between 5 and 8 on the big compound movements for 3-4 work sets.
The goal should be to try to increase the weight you lift over time. For the smaller movements, focus more on adding reps over time. For example, start lateral raises with 10 reps per set and gradually build up to sets of 20 with the same weight. If you get there, increase the weight. Do 3 work sets for the isolation exercises.
For the less stressful movements (machine, pulley exercises), use sets of 10 to 20. These higher reps don’t “cut up” the muscles, of course, but they do stimulate growth via growth-factor release. Higher reps (thus lighter weights) on these minor movements cause much less muscle damage, which is a good thing while dieting when your muscle repair capacity is lower.
When lifting during a fat loss phase, the natural tendency is to shorten the rest intervals. You can easily make an argument to back that up: Shorter rest intervals will keep your heart rate up and lead to a bit more calorie expenditure (not as much as you think, though).
While there’s a place for that, most of your lifting during a fat loss phase should NOT use short rest intervals. Short rest periods lead to more adrenaline release and when your carbs are low, you produce more cortisol and adrenaline.
Too much adrenaline can lead to a down-regulation of the beta-adrenergic receptors, causing a drop in motivation, drive, strength, speed, mental acuity, muscle tone, and endurance, or at the very least make it harder to sleep.
Too much cortisol/adrenaline is the main cause of what we call “overtraining,” or what I call “training burnout.” The last thing you want when trying to lose fat is to be burned out.
It’s best to take 2-3 minutes between sets of smaller exercises and 3-4 minutes on multi-joint movements. This will also allow you to use more weight on your sets, which will make it easier to maintain or increase muscle and strength.
How Can I Get Lean Lifting Like That?
Simply put, you DON’T get lean from lifting like that! You use lifting to maintain or increase your muscle mass while dieting. Instead, you use diet and energy systems work (cardio/metcon) to lose fat.
Now, I understand the instinct to use the kitchen-sink approach to fat loss. You want to make everything about losing fat. I’ve been there. You don’t like what you see in the mirror and you want a lean body NOW! So you’re willing to turn everything into a fat-loss workout.
It won’t work. It’s not sustainable and you’ll most likely lose muscle (unless you’re on anabolic drugs).
Again, lift to maintain or build muscle and use diet and energy systems work to get lean. Period.
What Are Some Fat Loss Tools I Can Use?
Here are my favorites:
Wow. How soft! Okay, but it works. Walking is the best way to increase fat mobilization and caloric expenditure without raising cortisol. In fact, it might even lower cortisol because it’s an anti-stress activity.
To prepare for my last two photo shoots, I’d start my day with a 60-minute walk and then follow it up by walking my dogs for 30 minutes in the afternoon. Walking won’t blowtorch the fat away, but it can certainly help.
2. Long carries
My favorite approach. At home I have several Wreck Bags ranging from 25 to 50 pounds. They’re cool because they have handles and you can actually do exercises with them, but more importantly, the handles allow me to use the bags in several ways: Zercher holds, front delt holds, bear hugs, single-shoulder carries, or double-shoulder carries.
Walking 30-40 minutes with the bag held in various positions is an awesome way to lose fat and will actually help you build the traps, back, and arms!
If you don’t have a bag, try a loaded backpack or even walk with two dumbbells. You could also walk with a lightly loaded sled (around 25% body weight). The key is to not turn this into a strength workout. The load shouldn’t be so heavy that you’re trashed afterwards.
Here are some videos of the type of carries I use. I normally walk continuously for 30-40 minutes, changing the way I hold the bag when my arms (or other body parts) are tired.
I won’t try to sell you on the notion that jumping will burn a lot of calories or fat. It won’t. This type of exercise uses mostly phosphagens and glucose for fuel, and not a lot.
The reason to include them in a fat loss phase is to improve insulin sensitivity, which they do better than almost any other type of exercise. Doing so will make it a bit easier to lose fat and will preferentially shuttle nutrients toward muscles instead of fat.
I also find that jumps help maintain muscle and strength by improving the nervous system’s capacity to recruit muscle fibers, mostly fast-twitch.
A side benefit is that even a few reps of jumps or a sprint or two will amp up your nervous system and give you more drive and energy, which can help when you’re running on fumes. Regardless of whether or not you’re in caloric deficit, pre-workout jumping will make every workout better.
During a fat loss phase I like to use jumping as part of the workout prep. Normally we do sets of 5 reps focusing on maximum power output on each rep. Keep in mind, this is not a Crossfit workout: Do not use jumps to get winded or as an endurance activity. Jumps should be qualitative. Each rep needs to be powerful and technically solid. Lastly, focus as much on the landing as on the jumping.
I like to use two jumping exercises per workout, sometimes three, normally preceded by one or two lower-intensity sets where we jump at only 50-75% of our capacity.
The workout looks like this:
1. Three sets of a vertical jump variation
2. Three sets of a horizontal jump variation
3. Three sets of a single-limb jump (if the person has worked up to that level)
Do 3-5 reps per set.
Don’t Let Emotions Win
The biggest enemy of a productive fat loss phase is your emotions. They can lead to excesses that might feel logical but can be counterproductive. The key is to make objective decisions, leave your emotions at the door, and just trust the process.
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