Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 3

Having talked generally about fat loss and defined some terms in Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 1, along with examining issues of diet in Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 2, I want to finish out this article series by examining how training can or should be modified. Finally, I want to make a few comments about when in their training year athletes should attempt to lose fat.

5. Training and Fat Loss

The final issue I want to discuss regarding fat loss for athletes is how training can or should be modified while dieting. Again, this is a place where a lot of people make mistakes and where (especially given the role of anabolics in bodybuilding preparation since about the 80’s) following bodybuilders can be problematic. I’ll come back to this below.

Once again, I’m going to address the three different general categories of athletes that I described in Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 1. Additionally, I’m going to look at training in terms of both weight room work (of any sort) and metabolic work (this includes both standard aerobic training along with intervals).

Weight training can, of course, be subdivided into several different categories. From very heavy, low-repetition strength or power work (5’s or less) to more bodybuilding oriented hypertrophy work (generally 6-15 reps) to higher rep, metabolic-style depletion work (15-20 reps or more, usually with short rest periods), weight training covers a lot of ground.

Is one best for fat loss? Of course not, they each have their pros and cons. One approach that is all too commonplace in the weight room (and this is an idea that came out of bodybuilding in the 80’s) is that heavy weights should be replaced by higher reps for cuts. While this certainly works when anabolics are present to protect muscle mass, it’s absolutely the worst thing that a natural athlete can do to maintain muscle mass.

Tension builds muscle, removing heavy tension overload causes muscle and strength to go away; not what most athletes want when they diet. Simply, if an athlete can only do one type of weight training while dieting, it should be a lowered volume (see comments below) of heavy work to maintain muscle. The caloric deficit and any metabolic work can take care of fat loss.

However, that doesn’t mean that higher rep/metabolic style weight training of various sorts (think barbell complexes, KB circuits, sled dragging might even fit here, and stuff like that) can’t have a use as well. Between the hormonal response, glycogen depletion (which increases whole body fat usage), and a somewhat larger calorie burn, these types of training can certainly enhance fat loss. But they should only be done in conjunction with a maintenance volume of heavy work. I’ll come back to this below.

In terms of other types of metabolic training (e.g. steady state cardio and intervals), the world seems to have subdivided itself into two distinct camps of late. As the idea that interval training is not only the best way to lose fat but (seemingly) the only way, the idea that low intensity steady state cardio can have any use for fat loss has more or less disappeared. Some are even claiming (wrongly I’d add) that steady state cardio can make dieters fatter. Apparently the four decades of bodybuilders who got contest lean doing nothing but low-intensity steady state didn’t realize that all of that cardio was detrimental. You can read more about this in the extended series of articles on Steady State vs. Interval Training here on the site.

Frankly, addressing this topic in detail is beyond the scope of this article. Within the context of the room I have here, I will only say that both intervals and steady state cardio can have their role depending on the specifics. The simple fact is that athletes can’t do high intensity training daily and most athletes will be training daily for fat loss. If every workout is high intensity, especially when calories are reduced, only bad things can happen.

A Quick Comment on Volume and Frequency of Training for Fat Loss

Another idea that appears to have come out of 80’s era (read: steroid fueled) bodybuilding dieting is that volume and frequency of training should go UP while dieting. This is, of course, completely ass-backwards. Recovery is always hampered when calories are restricted, trying to increase the frequency of high-intensity training (e.g. weight training or intervals) is a recipe for disaster. If anything, the frequency (and especially the volume) of high-intensity work should be reduced somewhat when calories are restricted to avoid over training in the long-run.

Strength/Power Athletes

The grand majority of training done by strength/power athletes is, of course, strength power training. Yes, some type of general prep/work capacity work is often done (sled dragging for powerlifters, extensive tempo running for sprinters, etc) but anybody who doesn’t have their head up their ass knows that long-duration endurance training is about the worst choice for these types of athletes because it stimulates adaptations in the muscle that are not conducive to maximal performance.

Put a bit differently, you show me a powerlifter or shotputter that runs and I’ll show you a guy who is not performing optimally. Show me one of those athletes who decides to start running for fat loss and I’ll show you one who just destroyed his performance.

Training for these athletes, therefore, must revolve around the same types of training that they are doing for their sport. As noted above, at least some volume of heavy training should be done while dieting to maintain current strength and muscle mass levels. However, research clearly shows that the volume and frequency of training can be cut back rather significantly.

Reductions in both of up to 2/3rds (so total sets and/or days of training can be reduced) are fine but ONLY if the intensity (weight on the bar) is maintained. So an athlete who was doing 6 sets of 3 in the back squat could conceivably cut back to 2 sets of 3 as long as he keeps the weight on the bar the same. If the intensity is cut back, strength and muscle mass will suffer. Again, some volume of heavy work must be kept in.

To that, other types of work to facilitate fat loss can be added. Barbell complexes or KB circuits could be used in the weight room to increase caloric expenditure, etc. (the complexes would replace the volume of heavy work that had been reduced) for example. Other types of GPP, sled dragging (with lighter weights and shorter rest intervals) and such would be another way of increasing caloric expenditure to hasten fat loss as well.

As mentioned above, strength/power athletes wouldn’t generally want to add a bunch of steady state endurance training as this will tend to harm leg strength. About the only exception to this is steady state ‘cardio’ that is so low intensity that it won’t cut into strength. I’m talking about things like brisk walking here, just very low intensity activity to burn a few calories. Big guys can burn a few hundred calories with nothing but that level of work which will add up over time without cutting into leg strength or recovery.

Interval training is a possibility here although I’d strongly suggest that a non-impact exercise method be used. Three hundred pound athletes plus sprinting equal joint injuries. As well, interval workouts of this type should be counted as a high-intensity leg workout. Trying to add a day or two of heavy lower body intervals to a weekly training schedule that already includes a significant amount of lower body weight room work is another recipe for disaster. Something has to give.

As noted above, weight training frequency can realistically be cut much further back than most think, one heavy leg workout per week will maintain leg strength for quite some time (athletes shouldn’t generally have to diet that long in the first place), allowing other lower body work to be done. Frankly, metabolic weight work of the barbell complex/KB/etc. kind may be a better fit for pure strength/power athletes.

Endurance Athletes

In modern endurance sports training, there is not a massive amount of weight training done for the most part (although this can depend on the sport). However, for those endurance athletes who are lifting, the same suggestions as above apply. At least some volume of heavy work should be maintained but the volume and frequency should be reduced. This could conceivably be replaced by complexes, etc. but, in general, this probably isn’t hugely necessary as I’ll explain below.

As expected, the majority of training of pure endurance athletes is of the endurance type. And this actually gives them a fairly big advantage for fat loss. A trained endurance athlete can usually burn a significant number of calories without working very hard. Simply adding an extra 30 minutes of easy training per day can burn a significant number of calories without heavily cutting into recovery; this also allows the reduction in food intake to be less (e.g. burn 300 extra calories with low intensity activity and reduce food intake by a couple hundred to get about a pound of fat loss per week). Used properly, these types of easy aerobic workouts can have an active recovery effect as well.

As far as interval training goes, most endurance athletes do intervals at some time during the season. How much can be added to that when calories are restricted is pretty debatable. I’d expect most endurance athletes to be focusing on fat loss during a general preparation phase (when interval training is usually pretty low) and adding a bunch of high intensity training when the goal is lots of low-intensity volume is backwards. As noted above, simply adding a bit of volume daily with a slight reduction in calories should do most of the work for a typical endurance athlete.

Mixed Sports

And finally we come again to the mixed sports, the athletes whose training invariably has to cover all of the bases in terms of both a fairly large amount of strength/power work along with a good bit of metabolic work.

In the same way that strength/power athletes can and should reduce their heavy training, mixed sports athletes looking for fat loss should do the same. Total volume and/or frequency of heavy work can be reduced significantly. This can be replaced by some metabolic type stuff of the barbell complex, KB, GPP variety.

Metabolic work for these athletes can vary massively but, depending on where they are in their season, some type of interval training or slightly increased volume of low-intensity work could reasonably be done to increase caloric expenditure. Like endurance athletes above, the likelihood of adding yet more interval training to an already heavy training load are pretty slim. Rather, adding slightly to the volume of work already being done may be the best approach.

When to Lose Fat

Although I didn’t list this topic in the original list in Part 1 of this series, a final issue of importance for athletes is when to lose body fat during the year. Bodybuilders and physique athletes have it somewhat simpler in this regards since they aren’t so performance oriented. And most don’t use any type of periodization in the first place. The simply focus on gaining muscle until a contest is chosen and then move into dieting at that time.

Athletes usually have an annual plan of some sort and may have specific competitions that they need to be prepared for. This means that fat loss and dieting periods can’t be chosen at random as it could potentially hurt their ability train or peak effectively.

In general, I think that losing fat should be the focus of any type of general physical preparation (GPP) phase. Yes, I know that they have gone the way of the dodo in modern sports training but most athletes still do some period of training when the volume is relatively higher and the intensity lower. Since maximum performance isn’t the goal, a small reduction in calories with a slight shift in training to facilitate fat loss is possible during this time.

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