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Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 2

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On Tuesday, in Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 1, I looked at a few basic concepts in terms of the role of weight training while dieting for fat loss.  First I looked at the basic goal of dieting which, with one possible exception, is generally aimed at losing fat while maintaining muscle mass (or at least minimizing its loss).

Then I took a quick look at the two major ‘types’ of resistance training that are often recommended during dieting: metabolic type weight training (higher rep/short rest interval) and heavy weight training (lower repetition/longer rest interval).  While both have their pros and cons in terms of how they can impact on the overall goal of dieting, my basic conclusion was that if you had to pick one type of training to perform on a diet, it should be heavy training.  I won’t repeat the reasons here, go read Part 1.

I finished that article by asking why it had to be one type of training or another.  As I noted, clearly there is no reason why weight training while dieting must be solely one type of training or the other. More accurately, there’s no reason that metabolic type work can’t be added in some fashion to properly performed heavy weight training.  This can give the pros of each while eliminating the cons of each at the same time.

The question then becomes how to go about combining them which is what I’m going to look at today.


What Not to Do

First I want to talk about how folks should absolutely not try to combine the two types of training.  As I mentioned in Part 1, a common idea during fat loss dieting is that training volume and/or frequency should go UP (compared to where it was when more food was being eaten).

This is, simply, idiotic.  Recovery will always be impaired when calories are restricted and trying to add more and more training to an already heavy load may explain why so many people end up so severely overtrained at the end of extended diets: the combination of too much training and too few calories is a bad, bad thing.

So what’s the implication of this: something has to be cut back.  And in this case, again assuming that someone wants to add some type of metabolic weight training to their heavy weight training, what has to be cut back is the volume and possibly frequency of heavy training.

By doing this, there will be more ‘room’ in the weekly training schedule for the performance of the metabolic type work without destrying the dieter.  Which makes a nice transition into a discussion of maintenance training.


Maintaining Training Adaptations

Both research and practical experience over the years has pointed out one very important thing with regards to training: the amount of training that it takes to maintain a given adaptation is much much less than it took to develop it in the first place.  That is to say, while it may take a significant amount of work to develop something (strength, size, aerobic capacity), you can generally maintain that level of adaptation with much less work.

This is actually a tenet of some types of periodization schemes: acknowledging that it becomes progressively more difficult to develop everything at once as folks get more advanced, many approaches to periodiziation of training will alternate periods where something is being focused (being trained at full volume) with periods of it simply being maintained (while something else is developed).

I’ve actually written about this on the site in the article series Periodization for Bodybuilders and I’ll be repeating some of those ideas here.  When I use specialization routines with folks (something I’ll write about eventually), I will move non-specialized bodyparts to maintenance using the recommendations that I outlined in that article series and will repeat below.

The basic conclusion, again from both research and practical experience is that both volume and frequency of training can usually be cut by up to 2/3rds (that is, to 1/3rd of what you did to improve it) but with one massively important caveat: the intensity of that training must be maintained.

Put another way, you could maintain volume and frequency at the same level but if you cut intensity, you will lose the adaptation.  Basically any combination that’s ever been looked at only works if intensity is maintained.

That last one is the key and goes to a lot of what I mentioned in Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 1, if you reduce the intensity of your weight training (and here I’m using intensity to indicate weight on the bar), you will lose the adaptations that you worked so hard to develop (strength or size).

Let me put this into more practical terms.  Let’s say you’ve just finished a hypertrophy phase where you were training to gain muscle.  On average let’s say that you were performing 6 heavy sets of 6-8 repetitions per muscle group twice per week (say an upper/lower split as discussed in my article on Training Frequency for Mass Gains).

Based on the 2/3rds rule, you could conceivably cut back to 2 heavy sets of 6-8 reps (maintaining the same weights you finished the cycle with to the best of your ability) once per week and maintain your strength and size.   That is, both volume (6 sets becomes 2 sets) and frequency (2 workouts becomes 1 workout) can be reduce by 2/3rds but ONLY if intensity (weight on the bar) is maintained.

Yes, 2 heavy sets.

I should mention that there is clearly a limit to this.  If someone is only doing 2 work sets for an exercise, clearly they can’t cut back to zero sets.  I’m hoping that nobody reading this would make that kind of silly assumption in the first place.

I’d note in this context that many athletes use a similar approach when they move from more general preparation to their competition periods.  As the volume of specific event work goes up, something has to give and that something is usually general weight training.

Athletes found years ago (and research backed it up later), that strength training volume and/or frequency could be cut back significantly while maintaining strength for extended periods but only if the intensity of training was maintained.  The same thing applies here, just looking at muscle size as much as strength.

Now, I still tend to keep training frequency a bit higher even while dieting but, at the very least, this is one place where I wouldn’t get quite as worried about only having someone training a bodypart one time per week.

But as you might imagine, this ends up being a pretty major cut back in overall training volume.  A lower body workout with 20-24 work sets that took 1-1.5 hours to complete at full volume is going to be finished in a fraction of that time.  Six to eight total work sets might be hammered out in 30-40 minutes depending on how many warmups you do and how much you dawdle between sets.  Leaving time and energy to do other things.

As one final comment, this is actually my approach to lifting during a diet even if metabolic work isn’t being added to the training.  On a diet, usually folks find that while their top end may not suffer much, their endurance and work capacity often goes down.  They can get through a couple of heavy sets but then everything drops off in a big way. I’d rather them just get the couple of quality heavy sets done and move on.

Trying to maintain the same heavy volume they were doing prior to the diet is usually a mistake so heavy training volume goes down.    Again, most of the fat loss will come from the diet and/or cardio anyhow, heavy weight training should be performed to maintain muscle mass and the same maintenance rules apply regardless of what else is being done.

But the point of this article was the assumption that a trainee wants to combine metabolic type weight training with their heavy weight training so let’s look at that.


Metabolic Weight Training Parameters

As I noted in Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 1, metabolic weight training is generally described by the performance of higher repetitions with shorter rest periods.  Frequently large muscle group exercises are often advocated for an increased calorie burn or what have you.  Various types of barbell complexes, often using a mixture of strength and Olympic lifting movements are often advocated as are kettlebell movements.

I’d note that it’s usually better to avoid high skill exercises since form often breaks down badly with fatigue and even with light weights this can cause injury.  Only folks with extremely well developed technique can do high skill movements in this fashion without killing themselves.

I often actually advocate machine training (yes, I know, blasphemy) for this reason, I think it tends to be safer while accomplishing essentially the same goals; it also makes moving quickly through the gym to keep rest intervals short a bit easier.  You can still pick compound movements (e.g. leg press, chest press, row) with the dreaded machines.

Rather than focus on the specific modality or exercise, I just want to take a quick look at some loading parameters.  Again, they tend to vary depending on the underlying philosophy of the coach in question but generally speaking anywhere from 2-4 sets of 15-20 repetitions of anywhere from 5-7 exercises done with short rest intervals (60 seconds or less) would be fairly common for this type of training. As you might imagine, this doesn’t make for terribly long workouts (20-40 minutes or so) but they can be exceedingly fatiguing.  Which is part of the point.

Frequency for metabolic weight training can vary from perhaps 2-4 workouts per week.  Of course, this will always depend on the volume of training being done and what else is being done workout wise.  You’ll see this reflected in the sequencing examples below.



So now we have the parameters to set up a week of training for fat loss for both heavy (low volume/high intensity) and metabolic (higher volume/lower intensity) work.  How do we combine them in a weekly schedule?

Fundamentally, of course, there are two basic approaches that can be taken: you can do the workouts on the same day or on different days.  Yeah, duh.

Some of that choice will have to be decided on individually although I’d note that in my experience most people try to train too damn much on a diet in the first place.  When in doubt, please err on the side of a little less training than too much.  In the long-run, it will pay off.

Some of it will also depend on how you divide up the heavy weight training.   Some like to move to simply 3 short heavy workouts per week.  Or even two, training full body at each.  With only a couple of work sets per bodypart, this is eminently doable and might take an hour start to finish.  You probably wouldn’t want to put metabolic work after that, they could go on two other days of training.

Another option would be a more traditional split routine, if someone wanted to stick with a 4 day/week upper/lower workout, they would probably be best off combining the two types of workouts together.  So go to the gym, warm up, perform your heavy work (30-40 minutes or possibly less) and then follow it up with metabolic work (done at the lower end of the volume recommendations to keep the workout length manageable).

Someone with less recovery ability might do better with the 3 day/week upper/lower I described in the Training Frequency for Mass Gains article again combining the heavy and metabolic work but only being in the weight room three times per week.

Of course, as I noted above, dieting is one place where I don’t have as much of an issue with a once/week bodypart training frequency and this can also be done by combining the heavy and metabolic work together since each individual heavy workout is likely to be pretty short since only a couple of bodyparts are being worked.

I’ve tried to show some of these options below.  H is heavy weight training, Met is metabolic weight training.  For no particular reason, I’m going to assume no weekend training sessions although folks who can train weekends can separate things out a bit more.


Day Option 1 Option 2 Option 3 Option 4 Option 5: UD2
Monday Full Body H Upper H + Met Upper H + Met Chest/Delts/Tris H + Met Depletion
Tuesday Met Lower H + Met     Depletion
Wednesday     Lower H + Met Legs/Abs + Met  
Thursday Full Body H Upper H + Met     Full Body Tension
Friday Met Lower H + Met Upper H + Met Back/Bis + Met  
Saturday         Full Body Power
Monday Full Body H Upper H + Met Lower H + Met Chest/Delts/Tris H + Met Depletion
Tuesday Met Lower H + Met     Depletion
Wednesday     Upper H + Met Legs/Abs + Met  
Thursday Full Body H Upper H + Met     Full Body Tension
Friday Met Lower H + Met Lower H + Met Back/Bis + Met  
Saturday         Full Body Power


Options 1 and 2 are folks who can recover from 4 days/week in the weight room, which they do depends on how much they like or dislike full body workouts.  Option 3 is for folks who can’t and need more total days of recovery. Option 4 would be just one of a zillion different ways to use a traditional bodybuilding split routine.

One problem that does arise with this type of thing is that metabolic weight training tends to be full body in nature and this doesn’t always synch well with split routines.  If metabolic work on Monday for legs leaves you too exhausted to go heavy on Wednesday on the heavy leg day, this won’t be a good option.

Finally, since no Internet article is complete without an appropriate product plug, Option 5 is the weekly schedule for my Ultimate Diet 2.0. In that book, rather than referring to it as metabolic work, I called the high rep/short rest period work depletion work since the primary goal was glycogen depletion to set up the cycle.  That diet also used two different types of heavy training noted as Tension (heavy sets of 6-8) and Power (sets of 3-6).  I’d note that it also incorporates a massive carb-load on Friday and eating at maintenance or slightly above on Saturday and Sunday.  But it’s a very specific diet (for advanced dieters looking to get extremely lean while maintaining or even gaining muscle mass) and that schedule wouldn’t be an appropriate training schedule outside of the specifics of the diet set up.

I’d note that the above chart doesn’t even begin to exhaust the possibilities.  I’m sure some reading this are wondering about doing heavy work three days/week and metabolic work on the alternate three days per week.  Well…can it be done?  Maybe.  Should it be done?  For most I would tend to say not.

What about two heavy days and three metabolic days per week with two days off?  That would be at least more workable.  Three heavy days and two metabolic days on the in-between days?  Again more workable.  Just watch out for feelings of malaise, fatigue, inflammation, and the rest that tends to signal that you’re overtraining.

And of course the above doesn’t deal with other aspects of training.  What about cardio? What about intervals?  What about skills work for athletes who do more than just lift weights to get jacked?  Well, that would have to be the topic for another article.

I’d only note that there is simply a limit to how much high intensity work can be performed under any circumstances, and that amount tends to go down when folks are dieting.  I find that too many people, in their quest for EXTREME results have a tendency to try and throw together every different type of high-intensity training without paying attention to the overall loading or the interaction of the different components.  And they pay the price.

Simply, if you want to bring in one high intensity modality, something else has to be dropped out to compensate.  But that’s another topic for another day to cover in any kind of detail.


Summing Up

So that’s that, a look at weight training for fat loss.  As I noted in Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 1, there are both pros and cons to the different types of weight training while dieting for fat loss.   Assuming that maintenance of muscle mass is the goal, some form of heavy weight training must be kept in the program.  In fact, if only one kind of weight training were to be performed, that’s what I’d pick (with the possible exception of complete beginners).

However, the volume and frequency can (and generally, should) be brought down when maintenance is the goal.  Recovery always goes down on a diet (unless you’re taking drugs) and that means that training must be reduced to avoid killing the dieter.

So long as intensity (in this case, weight on the bar) is maintained, volume and frequency can be reduced by up to 2/3rds each without significant loss of strength or muscle mass.  Basically, from the standpoint of strength and muscle maintenance, it’s far better to get 2 high quality sets than 6 half-assed ones.

If desired, that will allow other types of training, in this specific case metabolic work, to be added to the training program.  Sequencing will depend on the individual, how well or poorly they recover and the specifics of the diet but hopefully I’ve given enough information for folks to set things up for themselves.


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