When it comes to losing fat, there are primarily two different categories of workouts a person might consider doing… cardio and weight training.
Now in the cardio category, we can break it down even further into stuff like steady state or interval training. And while this is all wonderful stuff that I get asked about approximately 30 billion times a day, we’re going to skip right over it for now and focus on the weight training workouts.
But I swear, I will cover all kinds of cardio topics eventually.
Now in terms of weight training and losing fat, there are primarily two different types of workouts you can do. Or, more accurately, two different purposes your workouts can have.
The Two Purposes Of Weight Training During Fat Loss
When we’re trying to lose fat, we really have 2 different goals. The first is to actually lose that fat. Obvious, I know. The second however is to avoid losing muscle while we’re losing fat.
As I’ve explained before, we may call it weight loss, but it’s body fat we want to lose here… not muscle. However, your body doesn’t really give a crap about what you want. It’s just going to see that a caloric deficit (the primary requirement of weight loss) is present and a fuel source is needed. So, it will look to burn fat and muscle whether you like it or not.
This of course can be prevented (more about that here: How To Lose Fat WITHOUT Losing Muscle). But, due to the improper way most people go about fat loss (e.g. eating and training like idiots), the average person ends up losing plenty of pretty muscle right along with their ugly body fat.
Been there and done that myself, actually. I don’t recommend it.
So with all of this in mind, there are two forms of weight training workouts you’ll be interested in when you’re trying to lose fat.
- Workouts that cause fat loss.
- Workouts that prevent muscle loss.
Unfortunately, what’s optimal for one is not optimal for the other. So a workout designed specifically for muscle maintenance will mostly suck for burning fat. And workouts designed specifically for burning fat will mostly suck for maintaining muscle. At least comparatively speaking.
Such a lovely combination of ironic and annoying, ain’t it?
In my opinion though, one of those workouts is extremely important, highly beneficial and really just flat out required. The other, while certainly useful, is purely optional. It’s also potentially detrimental and, if you ask me… a bit overrated.
So which is which? Why do I feel that way? Let’s find out.
Weight Training To Cause Fat Loss Version 1: The Myth
When the average person thinks of using weight training to burn fat, their first thought will often be one of the worst training myths of all time. In fact, I’ll go right ahead and appoint it THE WORST of them all.
Which myth, you ask? The one claiming that you lift heavy weights for low reps when your goal is to build muscle, but then switch to lifting light weights for high reps when you’re trying to lose fat and get lean, toned, defined, ripped, cut and blah blah blah.
Not only is this NOT true, but it’s the absolute worst thing you can do if you want to avoid losing muscle while in a deficit. Why? Please allow me to quote myself from a previous article…
You know how gradually getting stronger (aka the progressive overload principle) is what signals your body to begin the muscle building process? Well, on a fat loss diet, just maintaining your current levels of strength (aka intensity, aka the weight on the bar) is what now signals your body to maintain muscle.
If that signal goes away, your body’s need to keep your pretty muscle tissue around goes away right along with it.
That’s why the insanely stupid myth of lifting heavier weights to build muscle but then lifting lighter weights (for higher reps) when you want to lose fat, get lean and get toned is the absolute WORST thing you could possibly believe when you’re trying to avoid losing muscle.
In reality, you lift heavy weight to build muscle, and then lift that same heavy weight if you want to actually maintain that muscle.
In fact, the typical version of this light weight/high reps nonsense is also borderline useless for actually building muscle in the first place (hi ladies, I’m looking at you… Why Workouts For Women SUCK!). And while we’re on the subject, the answer is no, this form of training won’t make you “toned” either.
As you can see, this one myth is single-handedly responsible for quite a lot of crap.
Weight Training To Cause Fat Loss Version 2: Metabolic Training
Now with all of that cleared up, it’s time to get to the type of weight training that is actually, you know… useful. And that is something known as metabolic training.
This form of training usually involves higher reps, very short rest periods, lots of supersets, tri-sets and/or circuits, lots of big compound free weight and body weight exercises (ideally ones that don’t involve much sitting but do involve as many muscle groups as possible), barbell complexes, all sorts of kettlebell stuff and other similar components with the primary goal being to promote fat loss and maximize the amount of calories being burned both during and after your workout.
Basically, metabolic training sort of aims to turn intelligent weight training into a form of high intensity cardio.
And in this regard, it’s definitely a useful fat loss tool. The hormonal response to this type of training is legit. It burns more calories than traditional weight training, and it also burns more calories than traditional cardio (and it’s waaaaay less boring than traditional cardio).
So, if you’re interested in using weight training to cause fat loss, metabolic training can certainly be beneficial.
Remember that tiny problem I mentioned earlier? The one that was both ironic and annoying? Yeah, it’s time to bring that back up.
You see, while metabolic training can be great for burning fat, it’s not-so-great for maintaining muscle.
As I explained before, the key to maintaining muscle while in a deficit is maintaining that same heavy strength training stimulus that allowed you to actually build that muscle in the first place. But with the way metabolic training is designed, it makes this nearly impossible to do.
In order to go higher in reps and very low in rest periods and do all of the other cardio-like stuff that goes along with getting the fat burning benefits of this type of training, you’re just not going to be capable of lifting as heavy as you need to for that muscle maintenance signal to be there (at least not for anyone past the beginner stage, and that may be the one exception here).
Or to put it another way, what makes metabolic training “good” for burning fat is also what makes it “bad” for maintaining muscle. On the other hand…
Weight Training To Prevent Muscle Loss: Strength Training
On the other side of this spectrum, we have workouts aimed at preserving muscle while fat is lost. And the best name I can think of for it is plain old strength training.
Whereas metabolic training was primarily about burning calories/fat, this type of training is primarily about strength. Or more specifically, maintaining (or increasing) your current levels of strength. Why?
Because doing so is the primary stimulus that tells your body to keep (or increase) your current levels of muscle.
To make that even clearer, if you’re looking to avoid losing muscle while you lose fat, this type of training isn’t just useful and beneficial. It’s required.
So what are these types of workouts like? Well, you know the type of weight training that is optimal for building muscle in the first place? That’s also what’s optimal for maintaining it (with one possible adjustment being a small reduction in volume and/or frequency to compensate for the reduced recovery that comes from being in a deficit… more on that in a minute).
So lifting fairly heavy, in low-moderate rep ranges, with longer rest periods between sets, with a large focus on big compound exercises and, above all else, working your ass off to (at the very least) maintain your strength on every exercise.
This is the type of training that maintains muscle during fat loss.
Remember how metabolic training was great for burning fat but mostly crap for maintaining muscle? Well, this type of training is the complete opposite. It’s great (and required) for maintaining muscle, but it mostly sucks for actually burning fat.
Again… ironic and annoying.
Sure, it will still burn some calories and that’s always nice. But, this type of training isn’t about that at all. This type of training couldn’t care less about calories burned. Metabolic training does, and it’s designed specifically to allow you to burn as many calories as possible in a given period of time.
This type of training however is designed solely to allow you to maintain (and/or increase) strength as best as possible. Why? Because maintaining strength is what maintains muscle, and that’s the fundamental purpose of strength training in a deficit.
So… Which Type Of Workout Is Best?
That depends. For burning fat, it’s clearly metabolic training. For maintaining muscle, it’s clearly strength training. So um… it’s a tie, I guess?
But which is “best” is really the wrong question to ask. A better one would be…
Which Type Of Workout Is More Important?
And in that case, assuming your goal is to lose fat without losing muscle, I’d say strength training 100% of the time.
Why? Because of the two, it’s the only form of weight training (or really the only form of exercise in general) that is actually required for this goal.
What I mean is, unless you’re significantly overweight (in which case muscle loss is much less of an issue or concern), you will lose muscle and strength in a deficit if the type of strength training described above isn’t there. However, you can VERY easily lose fat without ever doing a second of metabolic training.
So, one is required and the other is purely optional. For this reason alone, strength training wins the battle of the workouts.
Now that’s not to say metabolic training can’t also be important or highly beneficial. It most definitely can be if it’s your preferred way of creating your caloric deficit. But, if you’re only going to be doing one or the other, the clear choice here would be to skip the metabolic stuff in favor of strength training and use your diet to create your deficit.
Fat still gets lost, muscle and strength get maintained… you win.
What About Doing Both?
This of course brings us to the next question: what if it’s not one or the other? What if you want to do both?
The good news is that this is certainly doable and really the ultimate solution for getting the benefits of both forms of weight training (maintaining muscle AND burning fat). In this case, it’s just a matter of having both metabolic and strength training workouts in your overall program over the course of the week.
The details of exactly how this should be set up is a good topic for another day. But for right now I want to focus instead on the potential bad news…
That Other Problem: Recovery
As I briefly alluded to earlier, one of the things that sucks about losing fat is that overall recovery (along with work capacity, performance, etc.) is reduced to some extent, especially when compared to being at maintenance or in a surplus. That’s just one of the things that come with being in the energy deficient state needed for fat loss to take place.
Which means, while you always need to be careful not to exceed what your body is capable of recovering from, you need to be a little extra careful during this time because recovery is already lower than it usually is.
Plus, if you do exceed your capacity to recover, the first thing that will often start to go is your strength. And if strength isn’t being maintained while you’re in a deficit, that means muscle mass isn’t going to be maintained either.
For this reason, all forms of exercise (not just metabolic training, but HIIT, steady state cardio, etc.) have the potential to become detrimental to this goal by cutting into your ability to optimally recover from and perform during those muscle-preserving strength training workouts.
Again, this isn’t to say that these “fat burning” forms of exercise can’t or shouldn’t be done.
It’s just to say that doing them increases the total amount of additional work your body needs to recover from…
which increases the potential for you to be doing more than your body is capable of recovering from…
which increases the potential for strength loss…
which increases the potential for muscle loss.
And if you care about maintaining muscle as much as I do, you can understand why my preferred method of causing fat loss is through diet alone, with the ideal use of weight training being to build and/or maintain strength and muscle… not cause fat loss.
This of course is what my recommended fat loss routine (The Fat Loss + Muscle Maintenance Solution) is specifically designed to do.
Speaking of what I recommend…
My Opinion, And What I Recommend
I’m generally not much of a fan of using exercise (be it metabolic training or more traditional forms of cardio) as a means of creating a deficit and causing fat loss in the first place.
To me, eating slightly fewer calories each day just seems like a much more efficient and sustainable way of doing that than trying to burn that same amount of calories daily. And in terms of recovery and muscle maintenance… it’s often much less problematic, too. (More about all of this here: How To Lose Weight Without Exercise)
And regarding weight training specifically, I like it even less as a fat burning tool than I do cardio. I think it’s best suited as a muscle and strength building (and maintaining) tool, and for many people… ONLY that.
Again, for the 438th time, that’s not to say it can’t be used for fat loss, or isn’t effective when used for fat loss. It can and it is. I just don’t love it, because I think there’s a better way to do it.
If anything, I like to view “fat burning” forms of exercise (which again includes all forms of cardio as well) as a “wait-until-it’s-truly-needed” fat loss tool.
Meaning, start by creating your deficit through diet alone and save that type of exercise for when/if you reach a point where you still want to get leaner but would rather burn more calories than eat less calories.
Granted, some people feel this way right from day #1. And that’s fine. By all means feel free to do whatever you feel is most ideal for you. If you will fail to lose fat without using metabolic training, then definitely use metabolic training. The same goes for cardio.
But in my opinion, it’s a much harder way to create (and consistently sustain) a deficit day in and day out, fairly inefficient when compared to just eating slightly less as a means of creating the deficit… and a bit overrated in general (yes it burns a nice amount of calories, but it still takes a good bit of time, effort and energy, and it’s not TONS and TONS of calories being burned).
Add on the fact that all of this fat burning exercise requires more recovery during a time when recovery is already reduced (thus increasing the potential for it to hinder your ability to maintain strength and muscle while fat is being lost), and the CONS just outnumber the PROS in my opinion.
Which is why my default recommendation for losing fat is simply this:
Use your diet to cause fat loss, and use weight training to maintain (or increase) strength and muscle. Metabolic training and/or cardio are completely optional.
Use them only when/if needed (or just preferred) to create or help create your deficit. But if you do, and you care about maintaining muscle, do so in a way that ensures this type of training doesn’t interfere with the other type of training.
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