My mission today is to set the record straight about real training for real fat loss. After working with hundreds of professional athletes and physique competitors, I have become extremely opinionated about this topic.
However, my incredibly strong opinion doesn’t come from research, studies or even the latest trend. It comes from having made mistakes. Let me explain.
Although I have made plenty of mistakes in my career, the one that taught me the most is trying to burn fat by relying exclusively on high volume circuit training.
There was a time when I thought that this type of circuit training was the Holy Grail when it comes to fat loss and conditioning training. This wasn’t difficult to buy into, since there seems to be endless research to substantiate this.
In fact, you’ll have a difficult time finding any experts (yes even some of the best, most well-respected coaches out there) who don’t recommend this style of training exclusively when fat loss is the goal.
Now, here’s what I learned the hard way — the good, the bad and the ugly — from experimenting with fat loss circuit training:
1) Most clients perceive these workouts to be incredibly effective. This is the case because the workouts can be some of the most difficult physical activities that you could possibly perform. Thus, people think, “Something this hard MUST be working wonders!”
Although it is great to have clients believe in what they’re doing, this cannot come at the expense of sound programming.
2) Due to the high volume, your joints can take a beating. Overuse injuries can result from this type of training, and this can put you on the sideline where no fat burning will take place. And even if you weren’t just training for fat loss, who wants to be injured? ‘Nuff said.
3) Your strength will diminish quickly and dramatically. You can kiss your strength goodbye after following this type of training routine. The only exception to this rule would be those who never developed any strength in the first place, i.e. beginners. That’s because it’s hard to lose something that you never had.
4) Muscle loss is common. How can this be an effective way to train if it causes muscle loss? Since your muscle dictates your metabolic rate, this training protocol can actually lead to a slower metabolism. This, in turn, will make losing additional fat more difficult than ever.
5) Your cortisol levels will increase. High cortisol levels help lock fatty acids in the fat cells. If fatty acids are not released, they will not be transported and burned in the body. In other words, you will burn less fat if you have elevated cortisol.
You can see that this is clearly not the best way to train for fat loss. But what is the best way? Well, there are some key factors that need to be integrated into an effective routine. They include:
1) Nervous system work- This is 50% of the muscle/metabolism maintenance battle. You see, your nervous system is responsible for synchronizing and activating your motor units. For those of you who don’t know, a motor unit is basically a bunch of muscle fibers and a motor nerve cell.
Increased activation and synchronization means you will be able to utilize more muscle fibers per contraction. This is crucial for optimal strength. Increased strength will allow you to handle greater resistance, which will in turn help to build muscle and burn fat.
How do you work the nervous system? Well, you can effectively train the nervous system in two different ways.
The first is to move heavy resistance. In traditional exercises, this means lifting heavy weights (at or above 85% of your max weight).
In nontraditional bodyweight exercises, this means using advanced variations or positions that put your body in a position of poor mechanical leverage, thus making a simple exercise quite difficult.
And the second way is to train at high speeds. For high speed movements, I typically recommend a variety of jumping drills, plyo pushups and various throws.
2) Hypertrophy work- You must include some hypertrophy sets in your training routine. Hypertrophy sets involve using a weight or body position which allows you to get 6-10 repetitions. The key is to keep the volume low on these sets.
In fact, do not exceed more than 4 total hypertrophy sets for each movement pattern. More than that can result in overtraining and/or muscle loss.
Additionally, these sets should always FOLLOW your heavier neural sets, and never come before them.
3) Sprint- After years of experimentation, I have found that sprints still give you the most bang for your buck. They lean you out like crazy while developing awesome hamstring strength, power and shape.
4) Moving your body through space- This is another great trick in regards to your exercise selection. Simply choose exercises that require you to move your entire body through space, instead of exercises that just move your limbs.
Let me give you an example. Let’s compare the lat pulldown with the chin up. In the lat pulldown, your body is stationary and you pull the bar down to your chest.
On the other hand, while performing a chin up, you pull your entire body up to a fixed object. This activates a significantly greater amount of muscle, stimulates your metabolism and burns more calories. Add in its ability to improve general physical function, and your choice of exercises is a no brainer.
So there you have it. That’s the real way to workout to maximize fat loss. Now, don’t get me wrong; careful and calculated use of circuit training can be beneficial, but it need to NOT be the sole focus of your workout.
For instance, I will often take my clients through different variations of workouts using the methods described above, and then follow this with a short but intense circuit.
So, for instance, I might have a client train his nervous system, move into some hypertrophy work, and then finish off with a few minutes of circuit training.
Notice that this is very different from doing a solid hour of circuits 3-4 times a week. The results are dramatically different too. Give this style of training a try, and see for yourself!