This article will discuss training for fat loss and what you should be prioritizing to lose weight while maintaining lean muscle.
What’s important when it comes to losing weight is to ensure that you’re in a calorie deficit. This means that you need to be eating fewer calories than your body uses, for an ongoing period of time. If you haven’t already then I highly suggest that you read my guide to setting up your diet for fat loss. It will teach you the basics of nutrition for weight loss. These two articles complement each other and should be used in tandem.
There are two ways to create a caloric deficit:
- Eat fewer calories
- Burn more calories through activity
A combination of both is a great choice. But let me point out that burning 500 extra calories is much more time-consuming than eating 500 fewer calories.
When it comes to looking lean and toned then cardio, contrary to popular belief, isn’t where you should prioritize your training. That is unless you absolutely love it or you compete in an endurance sport. Now I’m not by any means suggesting that you should do no cardio, I think we can all agree that it’s good for your health, but your focus should primarily be elsewhere if you really want to maximize your chances of maintaining muscle mass.
On my last fat loss phase of training, I was able to go from the dude on the left to the dude on the right with zero cardio. The only “cardio” I did was cycle a 10-minute commute to and from work.
When it comes to weight loss you have to understand that weight loss doesn’t necessarily mean fat loss.
To be a lean and toned individual requires you to have muscle, and just hammering cardio will neither build nor maintain muscle when you’re in a caloric deficit. This means that if you do a large amount of it, it will likely break down lean tissue to fuel the body. This is especially the case if you’re not doing resistance training and focusing on your daily protein intake.
So where should you be focussing your training?
Unless you’re a complete beginner, you will find it very difficult to build any substantial muscle while in a calorie deficit. You’re just not giving your body the environment it needs to grow. If you’ve been training a while then you know how hard it can be to build muscle. You don’t want to lose that hard-earned muscle when trying to lose weight.
Well if you lose both muscle and fat then not only are you going to be weaker but your body composition (lean body mass to fat body mass ratio) will not be as good as it could have been.
Also note that as you age, especially 40+, your muscle mass starts to decrease as you age. It’s so important you go into your older ages with the strength to do everyday tasks.
Here’s a true recipe for success when it comes to losing fat and maintaining muscle while on a diet.
To maintain your muscle while energy coming into the body is scarce, you need to do resistance training.
Ideally, you will do this 3-5 times per week. You should aim to hit each body part twice per week and do most of your reps in the 6-12 rep range for 3-4 sets per exercise, and 3-5 exercises per session. If you download my free calorie calculator then you will also get access to a training plan to follow.
Your training should be difficult and you should be training close to failure. In the first set, you should be around 3 reps away from failure. This means that if you do 3×10 back squat, in your first set potentially you could have done 13 had you not stopped at 10. This will ensure that your body is getting the stimulus to maintain muscle.
If you’re new to resistance training then you might just see an increase in muscle size and strength. However, for an intermediate, you will unlikely be hitting PRs while you’re in a fat loss phase.
Although this is a plan to “Build Muscle”, it is the same training needed when in a caloric deficit.
This is something that I implemented when I was on the weight cut pictured above; I set myself a realistic daily step count target.
This is great because as mentioned in the metabolism article as time goes on and you get further into your weight-loss journey, your body’s metabolism will start to adapt to conserve energy. Subconsciously you will be moving and fidgeting less. Having a step count will give you something to measure this by. You may still experience some metabolic adaptation to dieting, however, most metabolic adaptation comes from non-purposeful exercises like walking and daily activities. So if you can keep to your daily step count then you’re really setting yourself up for success. I suggest building up to between 8,000-10,000 steps per day.
Walking and other similar low-impact activities are great for fat loss because they don’t require much recovery, if at all. This means that you can really use your energy in the gym with your resistance training.
Some Cardio for Good Measure
Ok, as I said, cardio is good for you. So it’s fine to add some cardio in just so long as you’re doing your resistance training and low-impact activities as a priority. Cardio will help you burn extra calories, however, unlike walking, it does take a toll on the body and will require some recovery. This will potentially have negative implications on your resistance training which is your number 1 priority, along with a modest calorie deficit.
HIIT or LISS?
HIIT – High-Intensity Interval Training
This can be a great tool if you’re lacking time and want to get a sweat on. This could be intervals on the bike, rower or sprints at the track. Generally speaking, it is a short burst of intensity for 10-60 seconds followed by a rest period and repeats. This style of training can leave your body in an oxygen deficit and will keep burning calories after you finish training to replace that oxygen. This is known as EPOC – Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption.
Although this sounds great, doing this kind of training is usually uncomfortable and will leave you feeling tired and will increase the need for recovery. This can lead to a reduction in energy for your resistance training for a few days after. It’s also a worry that after doing this style of training, you will either consciously or subconsciously move less for the rest of the day. This could result in you burning fewer calories overall in comparison to if you just hadn’t done any HIIT training and just kept active throughout the day. This in turn could take you out of the calorie deficit which is needed to lose fat.
The other thing to note is that as you get further into your diet, you will probably start to get lazier. So unless you love doing this style of training adherence to it can diminish, and that will also impact your rate of weight loss.
LISS – Low-Intensity Steady State Training
This is low-intensity cardio-style training. It could be as simple as a walk on an incline treadmill, or a steady cycle or row. Although this style of training only burns calories during exercise as it doesn’t stimulate any EPOC, it can be nice to burn some extra calories, get a sweat on, without the need to recover. This style of training shouldn’t have any negative impact on your ability to do resistance training.
Unlike HIIT training, usually, LISS is quite time-consuming. Although calorie output calculators are vastly inaccurate, it can be depressing to see how slowly you burn calories doing this style of training. Going back to what I said earlier, it’s much easier and quicker to eat 500 calories less than it is to clock up 500 calories burned on a treadmill or a rower.
What about fasted cardio? Will that not burn fat?
Yes, correct. It will burn fat. However, there’s a difference between burning fat and losing fat. Fat is generally the source of energy for low-intensity activity. Glycogen or carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for higher-intensity training. This doesn’t mean that you need to prioritize burning fat because it comes down to your energy and calorie balance at the end of the day.
Here’s a video from BioLayne Norton Ph.D. explaining this concept.
If you watched the video you will note that he mentions that although there’s no scientific data backing up fasted training as more beneficial for fat loss, you can still do this if you like to train on an empty stomach.
What do you want?
If you read the nutrition for weight-loss article you will note that a healthy rate of loss is between 0.5-1% of total body weight loss per week. I often find people’s idea of a healthy rate of loss is skewed by either impatience or the fitness industry trying to sell quick fixes. You don’t have to look far to find someone selling you on the idea of 10+ lbs of weight loss per week, this is generally not a healthy amount to lose within a month, let alone 1 week!
For someone that is 200lb, at a 0.5% rate of weight loss would be 1lb per week. This only requires a deficit of 500 calories per day!
My point is, that this often leads people to go ham on the cardio to burn as many calories as possible. Of course, it will burn calories but it will not only burn fat but the muscle that you’ve worked so hard for. All for what? What happens when you’re at the body weight you set out to achieve? Your body composition won’t be as good because you have burned away muscle mass and you will probably stop doing so much training which vastly increases the risk of rebounding back to your original weight.
If you prioritize resistance training, hitting your daily step count, with some added cardio for physical and mental health, all while hitting your protein target, this will significantly reduce the chances of you burning lean muscle. Like I said if you’re a beginner at resistance training then perhaps you will be lucky enough to burn fat while simultaneously building muscle.
Please feel free to ask questions in the comments and I shall reply to you.