What built the muscle is what will keep the muscle...if that sounds confusing, this article gives you the lowdown.
07 Mar 2018
One question I get asked on an almost daily basis is the following:
‘Now that we’re switching from muscle building to fat loss, do we need to change the training program? If so, what’s the best fat loss workout?’
My answer? The best fat loss workout is your diet. That’s number one.
If you haven’t got that in check, nothing else will matter. This means setting your calories right, eating adequate amounts of protein, and making sure your fats and carbs fall in line with where they need to be.
Nothing else will have as strong an impact on your fat loss as your diet will.
To learn how to set this all up, check out our ‘setting up a diet for fat loss’ series here.
Training For Fat Loss vs. Muscle Growth
The common inclination when it comes to training for fat loss is to double your reps, cut your rest periods in half and switch to isolation exercises only. But all this is going to do is make you small and weak.
Instead, the best way to train for fat loss is exactly the same as the way you train for muscle growth.
The training really doesn’t change much at all.
Your number one focus should still be on getting stronger in the 5-12 rep range (up to 20 for lower body) using big, compound exercises.
What built the muscle is what will keep the muscle. Or, as bodybuilding coach Dr. Scott Stevenson likes to say, ‘dance with the one who brung ya’.
If you built your muscle focusing on progressive overload in the 5-12 rep range, training body parts twice a week and using a low to moderate volume, the absolute worst thing you can do is change this.
While in a calorie deficit, unless you’re a beginner or coming back from a lay off, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be building any new muscle tissue.
But that doesn’t mean you have to lose muscle or strength. In fact, besides the last few weeks (where calories are low and cardio is high), I always see people gain strength during a 12-16 week fat loss diet.
What’s The Take-Home Point Here?
No matter whether you’re training to build muscle or lose body fat, the one hour you spend in the gym should always be geared towards building muscle and strength.
Think of this as your ‘muscle building hour’, and let the remaining 23 hours of the day take care of your fat loss.
Approaching your training with this mindset will increase your training intensity and focus while ensuring you maintain all your muscle mass during the diet.
How to Maintain Muscle Mass When Dieting Hard
When dieting hard, we want to maximise fat loss and minimise muscle loss. To do this, we need to do everything possible to maintain all our strength in the gym.
If our strength takes a big hit, something isn’t right. Which is why keeping a log book is so critical, as it allows you to objectively audit how well your program is working for you.
While for the most part, you should train the same way as you would in a muscle building phase, there are a few subtle changes I like to make when extreme fat loss is the goal (think real stage or photoshoot condition).
1. Higher Frequency Of Training
During my most recent bodybuilding prep, I slowly increased my training frequency from four to six days a week.
While for muscle building phases I like four days (for the stress: recovery benefits), there is merit to bumping this up in some circumstances.
By increasing your training days, you can spread the volume out a little more during the week, which can help both mentally and physically when a hard diet kicks in.
If your volume per session is lower, you can focus more and apply greater attention to each muscle group. Anyone who’s got into really good condition knows how your training sessions can become a drag when calories get low.
Another reason is that can allow you to keep food higher as you’ll typically be more active and stimulating protein synthesis more often.
2. Lower Volume
In the last 3-4 weeks of a hard diet, I may also reduce volume further and focus entirely on maintaining the intensity of your lifts with minimal sets. This is for those who may be doing a lot of cardio, on low calories and at a real risk of losing muscle mass and strength.
By lowering volume by 20-30%, it can allow you to conserve energy for the sets that matter, and apply all your effort into maintaining your strength.
Fat Loss Finishers And Cardio
A strategy I like to use with many new clients is to add ‘fat loss finishers’ at the end of workouts.
This is especially useful for those of you who are busy, limited on time and need to maximise their time spent in the gym.
Once all the traditional heavy strength training is done, adding in 5-10 minutes of finishers can be a great way to jack up the metabolism, burn extra calories and increase fitness.
This can be in the form of farmer’s walks, strongman circuits, or HIIT on various cardio machines. The key is to push yourself hard and get out of your comfort zone.
Dance With The One Who Brung Ya
Training for muscle building and fat loss is the same.
Your intentions in the gym should always be to build muscle and strength, whether or not it may happen.
If you’re in a fat loss phase, chances are you won’t be laying down any new muscle tissue. But if you train with the intent of doing so, you’ll maximise your chances of maintaining your hard-earned muscle.
The only difference between muscle building and fat loss is whether you’re in a calorie deficit or surplus, which is driven by your diet and general activity levels.
What never changes is your training. If in doubt, dance with the one who brung ya. That means, progressive overload with perfect form in a wide variety of rep ranges using exercises that work for your body.