When people are trying to lose fat or change their body composition, they often ask how they should weight train while dieting. Should they continue lifting heavy or switch it up to lighter weights and higher repetitions as is so often recommended by pro bodybuilders? Or is some other approach better.
In this article, I want to look first at the primary goal of dieting along with the two primarily “types” of weight training that might be done on a diet. Finally I’ll give specific recommendations for how to optimally weight train while dieting and show some sequencing examples.
The Goal of Dieting
So what is the goal of dieting? For some people it’s simply to see their weight on the scale go down, to see the numbers drop. But while the scale has its uses (and always will), this isn’t or rather shouldn’t be the actual goal of dieting. Because weight loss per shouldn’t be the goal.
Rather, as I’ve talked about in every book I’ve ever written and discussed elsewhere on the site, while many are still fixated only on changes in scale weight, the goal of dieting should primarily be focused on fat loss. Implicit in that, and this is especially true for folks who toil away in the weight room, is that there should be a maintenance of muscle mass (in an ideal world muscle would be gained but that is an entirely separate article) .
The basic goal while dieting is to lose fat while maintaining or at least minimizing the loss of muscle mass as this will improve body composition the most.
Let me mention that there is one potential exception to the above. In cases of extreme obesity, a large amount of what is termed “non-essential” lean-body mass (LBM) is often gained. Some of this is muscle but a lot of it is connective tissue and non-muscle tissue.
Many researchers feel that this can be safely lost during a diet. Quite in fact, many feel that it should or may need to be lost for people to reach a “normal” body weight (whatever that means). Training overweight individuals is an entirely separate topic and going forwards I’ll work from the assumption that the goal of dieting is to maximize fat loss while minimizing or eliminating muscle loss.
Classical Weight Training While Dieting
For decades, it’s been believed that a weight training on a diet should differ fundamentally from what is done when training to gain muscle mass. While training for mass is usually based around lower repetitions, heavier weights and longer rest intervals, training for fat loss is usually geared around higher repetitions, lighter weights and shorter rest intervals. And you will routinely see people recommend distinctly different types of training depending on whether they want to gain muscle mass or lose fat and just “tone up” whatever that actually means.
The above is not only prevalent in the general training subculture but has been part of the bodybuilding/physique sport culture since at least the 70’s. Traditionally what you would see there would be a wholesale change in the type of training as bodybuilders moved from their off-season “mass” training to their pre-contest “diet” training. You still see people write about using high reps to burn in the cuts or etch in the separations (or is it etch in the cuts and burn in the separations).
So the typical off-season diet of “mass building” exercises such as squats and bench press are often replaced with “cutting exercises” such as leg extensions and cable crossovers. Some authors would talk about focusing on the “showy” muscles, usually the smaller muscle groups that made a physique “pop” during the diet. Not that most will gain much muscle wile dieting to begin with. Others would talk about working on muscle shape rather than just mass. Ok.
Increasing Volume and Frequency While Dieting
An additional idea that seems to have come straight out of professional bodybuilding in the 70’s and 80’s is that training frequency and volume should INCREASE on a diet. There are some today that still propagate this nonsensical idea and I want to address it first.
The reality is that when calories are reduced on a diet, the body’s ability to recover from training is reduced. The mere idea of training more often or doing more work under conditions of reduced recovery is simply ass-backwards on a tremendous number of levels. When recovery is reduced, you should train less, not more to account for that.
To which I’d point out that these ideas came out of professional bodybuilding, developing at a time when steroid use was becoming particularly prevalent. Not only were the athletes using steroids during their contest prep (rumors are that some only used during prep although this seems hard to believe) but they often changed what drugs they were using.
And, honestly, in addition to everything else that they do, the steroids allowed pro bodybuilders to get away with this. Their recovery wasn’t as impaired on the diet as it would have otherwise been and they were absolutely able to train more frequently and with more volume (that higher volume was also accompanied by a switch to lighter weights and high repetitions). The steroids let them get away with it.
And natural physique athletes usually found out the hard way that this is a disastrous way to train during their diet. Yes, fine, some make it to stage. And those same people usually report severe burnout and overtraining assuming they don’t crack before they get there. And no, a general fat loss diet is not an extreme contest prep diet but the same concepts hold. Recovery is always reduced when someone is restricting calories. High-intensity forms of training must be reduced along with it.
Types of Weight Training on a Diet
As I’ve discussed elsewhere on the website, there are a number of different types of weight training that can be done. Each differs in its goal and implementation. For the sake of this article, however, I’m only going to differentiate two types of weight training: tension oriented weight training and metabolic weight training. These correspond roughly to the “mass training” and “fat loss training” described above.
First some definitions:
- Metabolic weight training refers to what many think of as “fat loss training” in that it involves higher repetitions (12-15 up to 20-25) with short rest intervals of 30-60 seconds. Any given exercise might be worked for 4 sets of 12-15+ repetitions with a 30-60 second rest interval. The depletion work I describe in The Ultimate Diet 2.0 falls into this category and had as a goal glycogen depletion and the maximization of fat burning. The hormonal response to this type of training also helped to mobilize fatty acids to burn for fuel.
- Tension style weight training refers to traditional “mass training” in that it involves lower repetitions, 5-8 with a relatively long rest interval of 1.5-3 minutes or so. It can include both compound movements such as the squat, leg press, bench, row, etc. or isolation work. It’s just your basic training done in the hypertrophy zone.
Now, in the context of fat loss, each type of training has its pros and cons.
Metabolic Training: Pros and Cons
In terms of pros, metabolic training does burn more calories than typical weight training although the effect isn’t enormous. Honestly, the calorie burn of most forms of weight training is pretty small regardless of what’s done. Despite claims to the contrary, the calorie burn afterwards is also relatively meaningless.
Of more importance is that this type of training will deplete muscle glycogen which enhances whole body fat oxidation. The hormonal response is also quite similar to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) which works to mobilize fatty acids. In The Stubborn Fat Solution, this type of training can be used to kick off the more intense Stubborn Fat Protocols 1.0 and 2.0.
During a fat loss diet, many find that their top end strength falls to one degree or another which means that attempting to keep the weights heavy can become an issue (note: this depends on the person, the diet and the exercise in question).
When people start to get very lean, their leverages change and their joints can get a little bit wonky under heavy loads. The lighter loads used in metabolic type training can be beneficial in that regards (and the hormonal response and increased blood flow can be good for connective tissue health).
So there are definitely benefits to this type of training on a diet.
However, there is one major negative, which has to do with muscle loss. As I’ve discussed repeatedly on the website, the primary stimulus for muscle growth is progressive high tension overload. And without getting into a super detailed discussion of the topic, I’ll simply say that the same stimulus that BUILDS muscle is the stimulus that MAINTAINS it.
Which means that if a lifter removes all of their previous heavy lifting from their training program and replaces it with higher repetition, lighter weight metabolic work, the stimulus that built their muscle in the first place is no longer present. And muscle will invariably be lost.
Many natural bodybuilders find this out the hard way when they try to copy the pre-contest training of drug-using bodybuilders. Without the drugs, which maintain protein synthesis and spare muscle loss in a deficit, natural bodybuilders watched their muscle mass shrink when they started training lighter with higher repetitions.
Without the high tension stimulus of heavy training, the body simply has no reason to maintain muscle mass.
I should note that recent research suggests that lighter weight training taken to failure results in similar levels of tension in the muscles at the point of failure. In premise, this suggests that it would be just as effective for maintaining muscle mass on a diet. In practice that never seems to be the case.
And that’s the bad of metabolic weight training in terms of the goal of dieting: maximizing fat loss while sparing muscle loss. Used by itself, it provides an insufficient/sub-optimal stimulus to maintain muscle mass. Please note the first three words of that sentence: used by itself
There is an exception to the above and that is people who are new to weight training. In that they have not built any muscle mass to begin with, they don’t have to worry about muscle loss on a diet. As well, just about any type of training in a beginning trainee dieter will maintain muscle mass. In that regard, using higher repetitions explicitly to deplete glycogen and enhance fat burning is a good strategy.
Tension Training: Pros and Cons
And you can probably imagine what I’m going to write in this section since it’s essentially the reverse of what I wrote above. Lower repetition tension training probably burns slightly less calories than metabolic training but the differences never amount to much. It also generally doesn’t deplete as much glycogen. Nor does it generate the hormonal response that helps to mobilize fatty acids to burn for fuel.
But what it does do, and again I am focusing on trained individuals, is maintain the high tension stimulus that maintains muscle when dieting. And in the big picture, this is far more important. Fat loss is primarily an effect of the diet (and cardio) to begin with. If weight training is performed while dieting for one goal and one goal only it should be to maintain muscle. Any other benefits are secondary. Put differently:
If someone had to choose ONE type of weight training to perform
on a diet, it would be tension training.
In fact, that’s exactly what I recommended in my Rapid Fat Loss Handbook, 2-3 short heavy workouts per week to maintain muscle mass while letting the extreme calorie deficit generate the fat loss. And it works. Dieters can also combine a more moderate deficit with more cardio and the same short heavy workouts and that works too.
What doesn’t work is to start dieting and completely remove the high tension stimulus that both BIULT muscle mass in the first place but which, more importantly, MAINTAINS it during a diet. Well it doesn’t work unless you define “work” as losing hard earned muscle mass.
The above raises the fairly obvious question of whether weight training during dieting has to be one type or the other. Certainly if you have to pick one for some reason, pick tension training (unless you’re a beginner). But if you don’t have to do that, there’s no reason both can’t be done to one degree or another.
More accurately, there’s no reason that metabolic type work can’t be added in some fashion to properly performed heavy weight training. Quite in fact this arguably gives the best of all worlds since the combination provides the pros of both types of training while eliminating the cons.
Performing at least some amount of heavy tension training will work to maintain muscle mass, a primary goal of dieting. The additional metabolic work will increase calorie burn (slightly), deplete muscle glycogen to enhance fat burning, generate a fat mobilizing hormonal response and give the joints a break. It is the best of both worlds.
Which raises the next logical question.
Combining Tension and Metabolic Training while Dieting?
So how do you go about combining tension and metabolic work while dieting. First and foremost here is what NOT to do: do not try to add metabolic work to your current volume of heavy training. Remember what I said above, the idea of doing more training on a diet is nonsensical. Recovery is down and doing more is simply a great way to get burnt out or overtrain.
The real world implication being that something must be cut back. Again assuming that a dieter is looking to add metabolic work to their tension training, this means that the amount of tension training being done must be reduced. Doing this allows for more “room” in the weekly training schedule to do the metabolic work without destroying the dieter completely.
Maintenance Training Loads
This brings me to the topic of maintenance training loads, something I’ve discussed previously on the site. Because recall from above that the primary goal during a diet is to at least maintain muscle mass. And this can be done with maintenance training loads. What does that mean?
Both research and practical experience has found that the amount of training needed to maintain a current aspect of fitness is far less than the amount that was necessary to develop it to begin with. Some periodization models work on this principle at the more advanced levels. They acknowledge that it becomes progressively more difficult to develop all aspects of fitness at once so they alternate blocks where one or two fitness components are emphasized while everything else is trained at maintenance.
I wrote about this in my series on Periodization for Bodybuilders and use the same approach to my specialization cycles (which I’ll eventually write up). Those are structured to let bodybuilders focus on one or two bodyparts while working everything else at maintenance loads. The same thing applies here.
In general, both research and real-world experience shows that both the volume and frequency of training can be reduced by up to 2/3rds from their original level but only if training intensity is maintained. Any other combination, meaning any approach that reduces training intensity, always results in a loss of training adaptations.
In this context, maintaining intensity means maintaining the weight on the bar as this is what maintains the high muscular tension that both build and maintain muscle mass.
In practical terms this means that someone who had been performing 6-8 heavy sets per muscle group twice per week could reduce their volume to roughly 2-3 sets (a 2/3rd reduction) done once/week. Quite in fact, this is one of the very few times I think training a muscle group once per week is optimal: when the goal is maintenance.
And no that is not a typo, a mere 2-3 heavy sets done as little as once per week can maintain both strength and muscle mass for fairly extended periods of time. Does it seem like too little to most trainees? Yes. Does it work? Also yes.
An Important Caveat
I should probably mention that there is clearly a limit to how much training can be reduced. Someone who is only doing 2 sets per muscle group once/week clearly can’t cut back both to zero and maintain. I hate that I even have to make this qualification but someone will invariably misread what I wrote.
Back to Maintenance Loading
As you can imagine, for a trainee doing a moderate to high volume of training at a high frequency before their diet, this represents an extremely large reduction in volume. A lower body workout that was 20-24 sets across multiple muscle groups and took 1.5 hours to complete will be done in a fraction of that time. Six to eight total work sets might take 30-40 minutes depending on how many warmups are done and how long you dawdle between sets.
But that huge reduction in time allows time for other things to be done. In this case those other things is metabolic weight training.
As one final comment, this is actually my approach/recommendation 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 than grind themselves through 8 mediocre sets.
I’d also note that some coaches advocate keeping the amount of heavy training the same during a diet. In the very early stages, this might be workable but my experience is that people invariably get into trouble. They start to burn out, get overtrained and unless they are being coached in person or online don’t make the volume reductions when they should. I’m more conservative and would rather just have people cut volume from the get go. They can either replace that volume with aerobic work to burn more calories or metabolic training. Or just diet harder. It all works.
Putting it All Together: Combining Tension and Metabolic Training on a Diet
Ok, so you’ve decided to do both types of weight training during your diet. How do we set it up? First let me further detail how each type of training might be set up.
I’ve said most of what I have to say here. I’m defining this as your typically heavier training aimed at building muscle mass. This generally means sets of 5-12 (up to perhaps 15) with rest intervals lasting from 2-3 minutes for heavier work to 60-90 seconds for higher rep work. Generally some mixture of compound exercises whether done with free weights or machines is done with added isolation work. Do your heavy work on the compound stuff and lighter work on the isolation stuff.
More to the point, whatever you were doing prior to your diet, just reduce it to maintenance. So if you were doing 8 heavy sets per bodypart twice/weekly before the diet cut that back to 2-4 sets as little as once/week. Hit a couple of heavy compound sets in the 6-8 rep range and then a couple of lighter isolation sets in the 10-12 range. Boom, your maintenance work is done.
As I described above, metabolic weight training is generally done with higher repetitions, 15-25 (sets lasting 45-60 seconds) with a rest period of 30-60 seconds between sets. Frequently large muscle group exercises, things such as barbell complexes or what have you, are recommended for an increased calorie burn. Let me reiterate that the calorie burn from weight training, no matter how it’s done isn’t usually that big to begin with.
I am of the strongly held opinion that metabolic training and high skill activities are a bad combination and you can find endless Crossfit fail videos (or injured individuals) that attest to that. As fatigue builds, technique breaks. And when technique breaks, the athlete often does as well. Only trainees with the most well developed technical skills can do those movement for high reps and not kill themselves.
Even movements such as squats, deadlifts, and most of the “big” compound barbell movements are murderous for metabolic work. Yes, I know people who have done it, multiple high rep sets of squats on a short rest interval with submaximal weights. Most would have form break or die doing it.
Despite the blasphem of it, I generally recommend doing metabolic work on machines for a number of reasons. First, it’s usually safer. When technique breaks down, you don’t get hurt or drop a loaded bar on your head. It also makes it easier to keep up a faster pace in the gym. Moving a plate pin is a lot faster than loading a barbell although you can still use plate loaded machines for this as needed. You can also do compound machine movement (i.e. leg press, chest press, row) if desired.
Rather than focus on the specific exercise chosen, let’s just talk loading parameters. Generally speaking, 3-4 sets of 15-25 repetitions per exercise with 50-60% of maximum and a 45-60 second rest interval would be appropriate. A maximum of 2 exercises per muscle group would be done, if that. Some of this depends on how the metabolic work is sequenced with the tension training. Typically metabolic work would be done 2-4 times/week, depending again on how it’s sequenced with other training.
Sequencing Tension and Metabolic Weight Training
Fundamentally there are two primary ways to combine tension and metabolic weight training during a week of dieting: you can do the workouts on the same day or on different days. Well, duh. Some of that choice will have to be decided on by the individual. However let me note that I think most people train too much on a diet and end up burning out because of it. When in doubt, I recommend erring on the side of too little than too much. In the long-run, it pays off.
Some of the choice will depend on how the trainee divides up the heavy weight training. Some people like to move to two to three short full body tension workouts. With no more than 2-3 sets per muscle group this is eminently doable but you probably wouldn’t want to tack on metabolic work after that. Instead do it on different days. Others may choose one of endless split routines. I’ve shown this approach for two full body workouts as Option 1 below.
I tend to default to an upper/lower workout and in this case I’d suggest doing metabolic work after the tension work. So you go perform 2-3 heavy exercises per muscle group for upper lower and then follow it up with perhaps 3-4 sets of metabolic work for each muscle group. This is shown as option 2 below.
Someone with poorer recovery might do the same upper/lower split across three days/week alternating. The same approach would work here: follow up a few heavy sets per muscle group with metabolic work afterwards. This is option 3 below.
As I noted above, dieting is one of the few situations I am relatively more ok with someone training each muscle group heavily only once/week. It’s plenty for maintenance and many people simply like split routines. In option 4 below, I’ve shown a chest/delts/tris, legs/abs, back/bis split done across three training days/week. In this case, up to 4 heavy sets would be done per workout with as many as 8 metabolic sets for that muscle group. This is shown in Option 4 below.
Finally, just for comparison, I’ve shown the structure of my own Ultimate Diet 2.0 as option 5. Here, the week is started with two full body metabolic/depletion workouts to maximize fat loss. A short tension workout is done on Thursday to set up a heavy “power” workout on Saturday. The workout structure is specific to the diet structure and I present it only for comparison.
In all cases I’ve assumed no weekend training but there is no specific day of the week that a given workout must fall on.
Clearly 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. 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 on a diet. That’s a good time for a diet break.
Of course the above doesn’t deal with other aspects of training. What about cardio or High-Intensity Interval Training? What about skills work for athletes who do more than just lift weights to get jacked. Well, fat loss for athletes is a separate issue.
A Final Note on Training While Dieting
I’ll only note here that there is a limit to how much truly high-intensity work can be performed under any circumstances. That amount is limited enough when calories are sufficient and goes down when people are dieting.
Many people, in their quest for EXTREME results tends to adopt EXTREME approaches such as throwing together every high-intensity training modality and diet approach they can without paying any attention to the overall loading or interaction. Eventually something gives and it’s usually the dieter.
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.
Quite simply, if you want to increase the amount of a given type of high-intensity training, something else has to be reduced. If you want to add metabolic work, cut back the heavy weight training. If you want to do more HIIT, you might need to reduce both. Or instead just add more low intensity cardio or NEAT type activities to burn the extra calories without burning yourself out.