Email Number 54 – More of the Same

"Hey Roman. I want to get cut, and I know that's your department. I'm doing 5/3/1 and seeing pretty decent strength gains. I want to drop about 25 pounds in about eight weeks, though. How can I modify the program and what diet should I use?"

My mouse pointer hovered over the "delete" button for a second, but only as a momentary joke at my own expense. (I answer every e-mail I receive.) And so I typed the same response I'd typed 53 times before:

"If you do nearly everything right, get your diet perfect, and do cardio both frequently and intensely, you can lose fat on nearly any sensible weight training plan."

Then I gave him some specific instructions.

And although I've had a lot of practice answering the question, I just wish I understood it better.

Why on earth would someone want to lose fat that way?

Sure, it's possible, but certainly not optimal. And I'm all about optimal.

I have five principles for fat loss programming–which I'll share with you below–and none are really that complicated. Even less complicated is the over-arching theory of how I design plans for extreme fat loss. It's the Big Idea, if you will. Here it is:

All facets of the program must be geared toward fat loss.

Now, we're talking radical fat loss, none of this namby-pamby I-just-want-to-lose-a-few-pounds stuff. If you want rapid results, it isn't enough to modify your diet and throw in some extra cardio. Heck, if it were that simple there'd be a lot more people walking around with appreciable muscle and visible abs.

Extreme fat loss is what I deal with every day. My clients want to get lean in the shortest time possible, so my programs are designed to do just that. For this to be possible, a complete approach is important. In keeping with the Big Idea I mentioned above, this means all aspects of programming–diet, cardiovascular training, supplementation, and weight training–need to be geared toward that specific goal.

Finding the exact balance of macronutrients that'll help you be successful is tricky. Not only are things highly individual, it's important to recognize that no calorie formula is perfect. That being said, in order to achieve radical fat loss with my clients I need to start somewhere. To that end, I give general recommendations to set calories below maintenance.

To determine maintenance caloric intake, I use the following formula:

Current Body Fat Caloric Intake
6%-12% 17Kcal per pound of LBM
12%-15% 16Kcal per pound of LBM
15.1%-19% 15Kcal per pound of LBM
19.1%-22% 14Kcal per pound of LBM
22.1% or above 13Kcal per pound of LBM

The obvious reason for the structure is rate of fat loss. The more fat you have on your body, the faster you can lose it, and the more of it you can lose without sacrificing LBM (lean body mass). Therefore, you can consume fewer calories and still have a pretty decent rate of fat loss without really affecting the metabolic processes responsible for fat loss and muscle gain.

As for macronutrients, protein is set at between 1.15 and 1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. There really is no magic number. As long as you're getting a little bit above one gram per pound of LBM, you'll be fine. The purpose of having a range is to allow for some individual customization, the determining factor for which will be satiety. Simply put, if you start low and find that you're still hungry, increase protein intake up to as high as 1.5g per pound of LBM. This allows you flexibility with meal size and food choices.

In terms of carbs, I limit intake to .5 grams per pound of LBM if you're "carb intolerant" or insulin resistant. On the other hand, you can go as high as .75 grams per pound of LBM if you handle carbs well.

The difference in your total caloric intake is to be made up by fat. Of that fat, I recommend that you take one gram of fish oil per body fat percentage point. That is, if you are 10 percent body fat, take 10 grams. I stole this recommendation from T NATION Bodybuilding expert Christian Thibaudeau a while back, and it's been working out phenomenally.

The main thing here is you don't need a radical reduction of calories to allow for radical reduction of body fat. While starting 400 calories in the hole is not unnoticeable as far as satiety and energy levels, neither is it extreme. For fat loss without sacrificing muscle, it is by far more efficacious to create (or expand) a deficit via increased activity level.

High Intensity Interval Training (preferably sprints or jump rope work) or complexes at least once per week. In most cases, I have clients do one HIIT session and one complex session. I consider complexes cardio, not weight training. (For a detailed article about smart complexes, check out this article.)

Supplementation: Flameout® and Hot-Rox® Extreme.

Weight Training: First, why is weight training imperative for fat loss results? I've got three reasons:

  1. Greater caloric expenditure than most cardio over the same time frame
  2. Longer elevation of metabolic processes involved with fat loss
  3. Better for retaining your muscle, which keeps the basal metabolic rate higher

So with the basics covered, let's get more specific about how to set up the perfect fat loss weight training routine.

If you want to lose fat fast, you need to do work and you need to do it often. In almost all cases, it's more effective to spread your activity over a greater period of time (while still allowing for rest). For fat loss I like training twice per day, splitting it between weight training and cardio.

Of course, training twice per day is not possible for some people, in which case I allow them to do the weight training and cardio back-to-back, as long as they ensure the weights come first.

The high level of frequency ensures a consistently elevated metabolic rate, a tremendous and constant surge of EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) and the resultant boost in the rate of energy expenditure that accompanies those things.

For the sake of demonstration, here's an actual 3-week schedule for one of my online coaching clients, whose goal was to lose 18 pounds of fat in eight weeks (it wound up taking six weeks).

Week A

Monday Sprint HIIT Workout Weight Workout 1 followed by 15 min. Jump Rope
Tuesday 20 min. steady Jump Rope Work Weight Workout 2 followed by 10 min. Treadmill Walk
Wednesday Complexes No Weights OFF
Thursday OFF Weight Workout 3
Friday Weight Workout 1 followed by 15 min. Jump Rope OFF
Saturday Anytime - Bodyweight Training  
Sunday OFF OFF

Week B

Monday Weight Workout 2 20 min. HIIT Jump Rope Work
Tuesday OFF Complexes
Wednesday Weight Workout 3 Treadmill Walk
Thursday OFF OFF
Friday Weight Workout 1 immediately followed by HIIT Sprint Workout OFF
Saturday OFF OFF
Sunday Anytime - Bodyweight Training followed by 15 min. Treadmill Walk  

Week C

Monday OFF OFF
Tuesday Any style of HIIT Cardio Weight Workout 3
Wednesday Complexes Weight Workout 1
Thursday OFF 20 min. Steady Jump Rope Work
Friday Weight Workout 2  
Saturday Bodyweight Training followed by 10 min. Jump Rope Work HIIT Sprint Workout
Sunday OFF OFF

All told, this client is training 23 times in 21 days, or an average of 7.6 times per week.

In fact, this client is working out as often as five times in a 60-hour period! It sounds crazy, but when you look closely at the schedule you'll see that stretches of back-to-back training are followed up by adequate rest time.

If that still seems like too much, read on.

When designing weight training programs for fat loss, it's important to remember that you'll be starting each workout while in a moderate energy deficit created by your diet. Each workout is intended to increase that deficit to the greatest degree possible without killing you.

Long training sessions (anything over 45 minutes) are unsuitable to radical fat loss programs. Given the reduced calories and the structure of the workouts, you'd create a recipe for overtraining, injury, and stagnation. I'm certainly a proponent of pushing hard, but there's a fine line between well-intentioned intensity and stupidity, and that line can be defined by how long you train while on a fat loss program.

In addition, based on what I've seen with hundreds of clients, the level of performance drop-off is high enough toward the end of 45-minute sessions that adding in extra time is essentially pointless. Unless you have an extraordinarily high work capacity (in which case, why the hell are you fat and in need of radical programming?), 35-40 minutes is enough.

Don't believe me? Wait till you try the workout I designed for you a little later.

As I mentioned earlier, since the frequency of training sessions is high, short sessions will still provide enough stimulus to get the job done.

One of the least talked about aspects of training is workout density, which is the amount of work you do in a given time frame. The greater your density, the greater your caloric expenditure.

To that end, the simplest way to increase density is to shorten rest periods. I generally dislike rest periods, and certainly don't ever prescribe long ones even for most of my hypertrophy programs, but for fat loss it's absolutely necessary to keep rest periods short and sweet, which will make the session itself short and miserable.

Here's how to set it up:

Exercise Types Examples Rest (sec.)
Between Competing Upper Body Muscle Groups Chest and Shoulders 20 or less
Between Non-Competing "Large" Upper Body Muscle Groups Chest and Back 15 or less
Between Non-Competing "Small" Upper Body Muscle Groups Biceps and Triceps 5 or less
Between Non-Competing "Mixed-Size" Upper Body Muscle Groups Chest and Biceps 10 or less
Between Straight Sets of Squats or Deadlifts Squats, Deadlift (bilateral only) 45-60
Between Squats or Deadlifts Alternated with Lower Body Exercise Squat and Reverse Lunges 30 or less
Between Squats or Deadlifts Alternated with Upper Body Exercise Deadlift and Bench Press 25 or less
Between Non-Competing Lower Body Exercises Lunges and Calf Raises 20 or less
Between Lower Body Exercise Alternated with "Small" Upper Body Muscle Groups Lunges and Biceps 10 or less
Between Lower Body Exercise Alternated with "Large" Upper Body Muscle Groups Romanian Deadlift and Chest 25 or less
Between Straight Sets of Explosive Exercises Cleans, Jump Squats, Push Press 35-45
Between Explosive Exercises Alternated with "Small" Movements Cleans and Curls 15 or less
Between Explosive Exercises Alternated with "Large" Movements Push Press and Lunge 25 or less

These guidelines are both broad and advanced. Use them as a starting point and try to cut down where you can. If your conditioning sucks, you'll probably have to add some time to all of the above. It also goes without saying you'll need to drop the weight in a lot of your exercises.

Additionally, I'll say that even for my advanced clients, these numbers are really only applicable for the first half of the workout. After that, we generally need to add a few seconds.

Not all exercises are created equal. Just as a deadlift is better than a leg curl for building overall mass in the hamstrings, some exercises are wholly superior for fat loss.

In my programs, we base all of our fat loss workouts around A-list exercises, and then add on to those. Speaking generally, my fat loss workouts consist of two to four circuits, with each one of those circuits being comprised of four to six exercises. At least two of those exercises will be from the A-list.

Without question, the top exercises for fat loss are:

  • Lunge (all variations)
  • Step-up
  • Push Press
  • Clean
  • Single-leg Squat variations
  • Full Body Pulling (Pull-up, Chin-up, Inverted Row)

These exercises serve as the foundation of each circuit, with two or more A-list exercises making an appearance. The remaining exercises are ancillary compound movements, the occasional isolation movement, and usually at least one anterior or posterior core exercise.

Here's an example of a single day of training in one of my fat loss programs:

Note: In keeping with the above schedule, this would constitute "Weight Workout 1." There would be two other unique sessions in a given training week.

Circuit A

Set Up: Perform A1, A2, A3, A4 and A5 sequentially, resting as prescribed between exercises and 30 seconds between circuits. Perform this circuit twice. After your second circuit, rest 60 seconds and proceed to Circuit B.

  Exercise Reps/Time Rest (sec.)
A1 Push Press 12 25 or less
A2 Alternating Forward Lunges 15 / side 15 or less
A3 Narrow Grip Pull-up 10-12 25 or less
A4 Side Plank 25 sec. / side 5 or less
A5 Swiss Ball Rollouts 15 N/A

Circuit B

Set Up: Perform B1, B2, B3 and B4 sequentially, resting as prescribed between exercises. Perform this circuit once, rest 90 seconds, and proceed to Circuit C.

  Exercise Reps/Time Rest (sec.)
B1 Bent-over Barbell Row 8-10 25 or less
B2 Stiff Legged Deadlift 6-10 15 or less
B3 Jumping Lunges 15 / side 5 or less
B4 Bulgarian Split Squat 10-12 / side N/A

Circuit C

Set Up: Perform C1, C2, C3, C4 and C5 sequentially, resting as prescribed between exercises and 45 seconds rest between circuits. Perform this circuit 3 times.

  Exercise Reps/Time Rest (sec.)
C1 Step-up onto Bench 12 / side 15 or less
C2 Dips on Bench 6-10 10 or less
C3 Jumping Jacks 15 5 or less
C4 Bent-over Lateral Raises 10-12 / side 10 or less
C5 Superman Hold 20-30 sec. N/A

Now, what you'll see is that each circuit is short, fast-paced, and intense. The key is to move through it as quickly as possible with good form, all while using weight that you'd find challenging in terms of both strength and strength endurance.

This is the twist that makes my programs for radical fat loss a bit more fun than any others I've tried. And, to be honest, I think it makes them more effective. The reason for the difference is a long view of training from the perspective of someone who has pretty much done it all ways.

Most fat loss gurus will say the goal of the programming isn't to increase strength, or endurance, or how many pushups you can do. That's all minor stuff, and I agree.

The primary goal is to lose fat fast. However, it's important to me that the trainee finishes the program better than they started. Getting lean is primary, and I insist that all thoughts of strength and hypertrophy be placed firmly on the back burner.

However, I make damn sure I don't send anyone away weaker than they came to me, or with less lean body mass.

Rotating training styles – assuming they're all designed with the same ideas about overall programming kept in mind – has two purposes.

First, it allows you to lose fat faster because you're just getting hit with multiple types of stimulus all the time; it's hard to really adapt to that. The lack of adaptation is what increases the rate of fat loss over other programs.

I hate to call on training clichés and bodybuilding colloquialisms like "keep the body guessing," but the reality of the situation is that staying ahead of the adaptation curve is better for progress. For that reason, I usually add in a secondary lifting protocol into the program. In the above example, it was bodyweight training. By doing this, we keep the training fresh and the client motivated, while concurrently speeding up progress.

Secondly, I like rotating styles during a week because it allows me the opportunity to keep an eye on factors that will be important at the conclusion of the program. Conventional fat loss programs are usually a bit in line with what I've listed above, at least in theory if not in actual style and execution. The problem with such programs is that they fail to address strength in any real way. More specifically, the fast-paced training inherent in fat loss workouts typically dictates use of light weight in order to be effective.

Do you know what lifting only light weight while in a caloric deficit for six weeks does? It makes you really good at lifting light weight, and pretty awful at lifting heavy. And to me, that's unacceptable.

Given that, at least one day per week is dedicated to lifting heavy (85-95 percent of 5RM) loads. This workout will still be fast-paced, intense and horrendously miserable, but it will keep you strong. As just about every gym rat worth his salt knows, heavy training is also vastly superior for holding on to lean body mass while dieting.

I've had discussions about this with a few other coaches who specialize in fat loss, and one argument I hear is that taking time off from the heavy weight during fat loss programs is actually good. They give me the same speech about how it'll de-condition you, so you'll experience more growth when you return to heavy lifting They dress this nonsense up with terms like super-compensation and over-reaching.

I call bullshit. To me, there is no benefit to getting weaker.

To stay strong while on a fat loss plan, lift heavy one day per week. Acceptable programs would include an abbreviated 5x5 workout or something with low reps and heavy weight using the Perfect Rep method.

Forgive me for repeating myself, but I just gotta say it again:

All facets of the program must be geared toward fat loss.

I honestly begin each and every day hoping this message has gotten through to the world.

So let's get your head right. If you're going to go on a fat loss program, really go on a fat loss program.

That means for the next six weeks, you're going to stop worrying about gaining muscle. You're going to stop caring about the amount of weight you lift.

You're going to focus on fat loss, but with the most comprehensive attention to your ultimate goal.

Will you gain muscle? Probably not. Will you get stronger? It's possible, but unlikely. However, you'll get extremely lean, extremely quickly. On top of that, you'll walk away with exceptional conditioning, strength endurance, and some increased work capacity. When you resume training for size and strength, those increases will be of inestimable value for bringing your training–and your physique–to the next level.

If you follow my lead, I promise you'll get lean without losing any muscle, and without turning into a weakened shadow of your former self.