After I talked in lengths about the role of cardio in weight loss in my last post, let’s now look at weight training and how it can help you. If you have taken any of my fitness courses you know that I am a huge fan of weight training and believe pretty much everyone should do some sort of it. If not in the gym then at least through bodyweight exercises.
That said there is something you have to know about weight training and its role in weight loss. It’s not an absolute requirement. That means you can lose weight only through a calorie deficit (which could be achieved with your diet alone). So in this context weight training is completely optional.
BUT, in addition to its calorie burning effects (and thus its ability to help you be in that deficit) and a long list of health benefits, weight training is an absolute requirement for building muscle while losing fat, and an absolute requirement for maintaining muscle while losing fat.
For these reasons, it is a requirement for optimal weight loss and looking and feeling as good as possible. With this in mind, there are two different ways that we can use weight training during a period of fat loss:
1. To build muscle while also losing fat
2. To maintain muscle while losing fat
Weight Training For Building Muscle & Losing Fat At The Same Time
First of all let’s answer a simple question: Why would anyone want to lose fat AND build muscle?
Most people that want to lose fat do so to improve their body composition, meaning the not just want to lose fat but also increase their overall leanness and get the famous Hollywood / athletic look.
So the reason why you would want to lose fat AND build muscle is simply that this combination is a lot healthier and looks better than just losing fat. After all, you probably know someone who lost a bunch of weight but simply ended up looking skinnier and maybe even weaker.
This is often called skinny fat, something that we want to avoid at all costs. The big difference between someone lean and athletic and someone who is skinny fat is usually not their body fat percentage but the amount of muscle they have.
So how do you build muscle and lose fat at the same time?
This is a difficult question because it doesn’t have a one size fits all answer, but let’s take this one step at a time. First, there are two different energy requirements when it comes to weight loss and muscle gains.
1. If you want to lose fat you have to be in a calorie deficit, which means consuming fewer calories than your body expends so that it burns stored body fat for energy instead.
2. If you want to build muscle you have to be in a calorie surplus, which means consuming more calories than your body expends so that it has the building blocks to create new muscle tissue.
This situation creates a problem: losing fat and building muscle have completely different energy requirements. Once you understand this, you will probably wonder how building muscle AND losing fat at the same time is even possible.
So can it be done?
Yes, but only under certain conditions.
What are these conditions?
Well, if you exclude steroid use and amazing genetics then the only time where you will be able to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously is when you are a complete beginner and slightly overweight.
The body of an untrained beginner reacts extremely well to the stimulus of strength training and will signal muscle growth a lot faster than in experienced lifters. If you combine this ability for fast muscle growth with some extra body fat your body can build muscle even in a calorie deficit because the extra body fat will provide additional energy.
Let’s suppose you fit this profile. What would you have to do then to achieve both fat loss and muscle gains?
In terms of your diet, you want to follow the guidelines I lay out in my dieting for weight loss course. If you are not a student of that course here is a short summary.
First of all, keep your calorie deficit moderate rather than too large. This means maximum 20% below your maintenance level. Next, set your protein intake to around 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day. Fat intake should be around 20% of your daily calories and the rest can come from carbs. If you are not exactly sure how to do all this I recommend you check out my dieting course where it’s all explained in more detail.
Great, but what about your workout?
What should that look like when you want to lose weight and build muscle?
In theory, you can build muscle with just about any resistance exercise but of course, you want the best possible results and for that, there are some requirements that a good beginner workout needs to fulfill:
– It should be easy to learn, meaning the exercises and the setup shouldn’t be too complicated.
– It should have a medium to high frequency of how often a muscle is trained.
– It should be a full body split with low volume
– And it should be comprised of basic compound exercises and very little isolation exercises.
The workout routine I’m about to show you fulfill all these criteria. But first a disclaimer:
If you are completely new to bodybuilding or haven’t worked out in a long time, your first month will consist of learning the correct exercise form while building a base of strength and stability. This can either be done using machines or free weights. Normally free weight exercises should always be preferred over machines because they not only target your main muscles but also all the small ones needed to stabilize the barbell/dumbbell.
However, over the years I’ve seen many beginners who had a hard time balancing the bar (e.g. during the bench press), even when there was no weight added to it. This is nothing to be embarrassed about and shouldn’t stop you from doing free weight exercises, but if you really feel uncomfortable switch to a machine or guided press instead (only for the first few weeks, afterwards it’s back to the free weights again!).
Ok, with this in mind here’s what your workout schedule will look like:
Schedule Week 1:
Monday – Full Body Workout 1
Tuesday – Rest
Wednesday – Full Body Workout 2
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Full Body Workout 1
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
Schedule Week 2:
Monday – Full Body Workout 2
Tuesday – Rest
Wednesday – Full Body Workout 1
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Full Body Workout 2
Saturday – Rest
Schedule Week 3: Repeat Week 1
As you can see, while there are three workout days each week, there are just two actual workouts. The first is the full body workout 1 and the second is the full body workout 2. Then you just alternate between them so that it’s 121 one week and 212 the next. And so on.
Of course, you can also start at any other day of the week, as long as you stick to the same every-other-day format with two days off at the end. I just started on Monday, because most people prefer to have the weekend off.
Now to the actual workout, which might seem simplistic for many people. You might think it’s WAY too little, or WAY too simple and basic.
The problem is that the beginner routines you will see in magazines include way too many exercises and focus on isolation exercises like dumbbell curls instead of compound exercises like the bench press, which will get you results a lot faster.
Full Body Workout 1:
Squats: 3 Sets of 8 – 10 Reps
Bench Press: 3 Sets of 8 – 10 Reps
Bent Over Barbell Row: 3 Sets of 8 – 10 Reps
Full Body Workout 2:
Deadlift: 3 Sets of 8 – 10 Reps
Pull-Ups or Lat Pulldown: 3 Sets of 8 – 10 Reps
Military Press: 3 Sets of 8 – 10 Reps
Rest: 2 minutes between sets
These two workouts combine the most important and effective compound lifts. They are split in a way that makes sure you don’t over- or undertrain a muscle, but instead targets your entire body with each workout while ensuring low volume.
This is pretty much all you need as a beginner, and this is what will allow for the fastest progression and ideal overall results.
About the exercises:
– Barbell squats are definitely the best leg/lower body exercise, but hack squats or the leg presses will also do.
– Go with a normal bench press. If you don’t have access to one, dumbbell bench press can work, too.
– My favorite for the row is either the bent over barbell row or the seated cable rows. Try them out and see which one you like best.
– Pull-ups and lat pulldowns entail the same movement, but the lat pulldown machine is generally better for beginners because you don’t have to start with your bodyweight.
As for weight, use the same weight for all three sets of an exercise. Choose enough weight for you to (almost) reach muscle failure on the last set. This should be around 75% of your one-rep max (= 1RM; calculate it here).
The last important aspect of your workout is progression. As a beginner, you should be able to increase the weight from workout to workout, while maintaining perfect form.
Why is this important?
Because progressive overload is what will force your body to grow bigger muscle fibers. What this means is that for a muscle to grow, it must be forced to adapt to a stimulus that is more than what it has previously experienced. This is very important, because if you lift the same weights, for the same number of reps, the same way for the next 20 years… nothing will ever happen.
Your body will never change or improve in any way. No new muscle will be built. But, if you increase the demands on your body by increasing the weight being lifted, you automatically force your body to adapt and it will have no other choice but to make the changes and improvements necessary for it to survive in this environment. The result then is muscle growth.
Weight Training To Maintain Muscle
Now that you know how to lose fat and build muscle, let’s look at how to maintain muscle while losing fat. As I explained before not everyone will be able to lose fat and build muscle at the same time. Unfortunately, If you are an intermediate or advanced trainee, the reality is that muscle growth in a deficit either doesn’t happen at all or happens so slow that it’s barely noticeable.
In this case, your priorities will be to maintain muscle while dieting for weight loss. Over the next few paragraphs, I will teach you how to do this.
As I explained earlier, “weight loss” can mean a lot of different things. Not just fat loss but also muscle or water loss. What we want is pure fat loss so we have to find a way to show our bodies that it should burn fat but maintain muscle mass.
This can be tricky. When you put your body in a calorie deficit it will automatically seek out the best fuel source to burn. So if you don’t train, and only diet what usually ends up happening your body burns a combination of both fat and muscle. This sucks, I know.
But fortunately, there is something we can do in both our diets and our workouts to prevent this. In terms of your diet, the same principles apply as if you wanted to build muscle and lose weight.
1. Keep your calorie deficit moderate rather than too large. so maximum 20% below your maintenance level.
2. Set your protein intake to around 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day.
3. Fat intake should be around 20% of your daily calories and the rest can come from carbs.
Again everything is explained in more detail in my dieting course.
Now for your workout, you want to give your body a muscle maintenance signal.
But what does this signal look like?
Remember everything I said about progressive overload in the previous section?
How increasing the demands being placed on your body by gradually getting stronger over time (meaning lifting progressively heavier weight,) is the primary training stimulus that signals your body to build muscle? the same logic applies when you want to maintain muscle mass.
Here the primary training stimulus is maintaining your current levels of strength. In doing so, you’re showing your body that the muscle it previously built in response to the increasing demands that were being placed on it (aka progressive overload) is STILL needed for your survival and function.
Basically, your #1 training goal during fat loss is to maintain whatever amount of weight you’re currently able to lift and whatever number of reps you’re currently able to lift it for during each set of each exercise in each workout.
Now, does that mean that you shouldn’t or can’t get any stronger during phases of fat loss?
No. It is certainly possible to gain some degree of strength while in a deficit, even for non-beginners. This is especially true when you’re using a good diet and workout program.
But, compared to being at a calorie surplus, it’s going to be a lot harder to make progress happen. In fact, most bodybuilders and athletes training close to their genetic limit will have to fight hard to keep their strength during a calorie deficit.
Now that we know what it takes to maintain muscle, what does a workout look like that provides this stimulus?
The short answer is that any good workout program designed to build muscle can also be used to maintain muscle. This means if you are and intermediate or advanced trainee and usually follow a certain workout schedule to build muscle when you are in a calorie surplus, you can use the same workout plan to maintain muscle mass when dieting.
Depending on how intense your workout routine is you might want to make a few adjustments to compensate for the reduction in performance and recovery that comes with being in a deficit.
What you have to understand is that one of the problems that come with being in a calorie deficit is literally an energy deficit. Basically, you provide your body with less energy than it needs. This means anything that requires energy will become more difficult. This, of course, also include weight training.
– You will feel weaker
– Your recovery will take longer
– You get tired more quickly during your workouts
– And you generally don’t feel as sharp (mentally and physically)
This can make maintaining strength in the gym a whole lot harder than we’d like it to be. So to compensate for lower energy levels you can make the following adjustments to our workout:
1. Reduce frequency
Reducing frequency would mean fewer total workouts per week and/or fewer times working the same muscle groups per week. Exactly how much of a reduction is needed is hard to say, as it will vary by person based on everything from age, genetics and strength levels, to stress levels, sleep quality and how much frequency your chosen workout program initially called for.
Generally speaking, though, three total workouts per week is a good idea. Four can also work, but five or six is really pushing the limit. So, if your current muscle building program involves 4 or more workouts per week, you might want to switch to one that involves 3 instead. If your program already calls for 3 workouts per week, you’re good.
2. Reduce volume
Reduced volume means less total work (so sets and exercises) being done in a given workout or perhaps throughout the entire week combined. Just like with frequency, reducing volume from what’s optimal for muscle growth in a surplus to what’s sufficient for maintenance in a deficit is often the right idea.
Also just like with frequency, the degree of reduction needed will vary by person for the exact same reasons I mentioned before. Usually, you will only have to make minor reductions to volume, though (for example, one less set here and there). Now, in some cases, only one of these adjustments (frequency or volume) is already enough. In other cases, both adjustments will be needed.
And in others, it’s possible that neither adjustment will truly be needed, but it’s important that you yourself watch your workout performance and stress levels. If you feel your old workout is getting too difficult during a diet then that’s a clear sign you want to make these adjustments.