“Fat Loss Training” is Not Training

by Robert Santana, PhD, RD, SSC | February 23, 2022

lifter at the top of a squat

If I had a nickel (hell, even a penny) for every time someone asked me how to “train” for fat loss I would be a wealthy man. Even wealthier if dishonesty agreed with me enough to conjure up the new secret weapon to “torch the fat away.” Unfortunately, I prefer to work myself out of a job by Telling The Truth. There is no question that I receive more often than: “How should I train to lose fat and get/stay strong/build/hold onto muscle?”

The answer to this question is not an entirely complicated one. Unless you are a rank novice, especially an obese rank novice, achieving these two objectives simultaneously is analogous to simultaneously acquiring more money and more time than you currently have. There are outliers, but generally there is an inverse relationship between that which is necessary to build muscle and that which is necessary to lose fat, much like there is often an inverse relationship between time and money.

Training for fat loss is not actually training for the vast majority of experienced lifters. To review some fundamental concepts, training is a cumulative process that consists of a series of workouts designed for the purpose of acquiring more muscular strength. Training takes a squat from 135 for 3 sets of 5 to 405 for 3 sets of 5, 10 pounds at a time at first, and then 5 pounds at a time. This requires the application of stress through a carefully planned training program along with technical lifting proficiency. That stress is followed by recovery, which takes place outside of the gym. Recovery is influenced by an array of variables, with dietary manipulations being near the top of the list.

The basic laws of thermodynamics dictate that gaining bodyweight requires a caloric surplus (calories in > calories out) and losing bodyweight requires a caloric deficit (calories in < calories out). This is well established and when applied consistently it is quite effective. To get stronger those calories must be distributed in a manner that supports the energy systems required for barbell training sessions and the recovery processes that follow. This inevitably produces a caloric surplus for most lifters trying to increase muscle mass, and the extent of that surplus depends on total bodyweight and adiposity – the tendency to deposit bodyfat easily.

I hesitate to use the terms “body composition” or “bodyfat percentage” because you can have a high bodyfat percentage with low muscle mass. Referencing both body mass index (BMI) and bodyfat percentage, or waist-to-hip ratio, is a more efficient method of evaluating a lifter’s muscularity or adiposity. Assuming you are a novice or otherwise not very strong, if your BMI or waist-to-hip ratio and bodyfat percentage are in the obese category, it is safe to say you can afford to lose some bodyfat. If your BMI is normal, or even slightly overweight, and your fat percentage is high, then you are likely under-muscled. The former can make progress on a weight-maintaining diet or even on a slight deficit. The latter needs to train and focus on addressing the low lean mass, while ignoring the high fat mass. More on this below.

A high-protein, high carbohydrate diet has been a staple in sport performance diets for decades, if not centuries, for this reason. However, dietary fat has anti-inflammatory properties and facilitates absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and typically constitutes 25-30% of total calories. The resulting anabolic environment leads to profound increases in muscular bodyweight and muscular strength. This is straightforward and covered in many articles and books that span decades.

The confusion arises when “The Belly” starts to distract the lifter from the goal of getting stronger. “The belly” may be 34” or 54” depending on who is complaining about it. The standards for The Belly have frankly gotten quite ridiculous recently, with anything less than visible abs being considered “fat.” In fact, most of the guys asking me about fat loss do not actually have “The Belly” – they just lack visible abs, which is completely normal and expected for humans. Guys with naturally visible abs are outliers, attaining that level of leanness is unnatural for most, and those who have done it remember their bodies complaining about it. For practical purposes, I defer to John Musser’s definition of acceptable adiposity: If your chest leads you into the room, you are probably fine – but I digress.

To address fatness in regards to strength training, trade-offs are inevitable and managing those trade-offs becomes the focus of your time. Training becomes exercise in the sense that you are trying to stave off the loss of your hard-earned strength and muscle mass. Calories typically follow intensity and, therefore, higher training intensities will require higher calories and lower training intensities can be performed at nearly any calorie level. In other words, it is obvious that you can practically starve and lift something light, but not do the same with something heavy. Therefore, programming considerations need to account for this.

The bodybuilders figured this out on their starvation diets, and coupled them with high-volume assistance exercises done for a high number of sets and reps with lighter loads and typically less time under the bar. We aren’t bodybuilders, so this approach is neither necessary nor does it make any sense for a trainee looking to get stronger. The problem with high repetitions under a heavy barbell, specifically squats and deadlifts, is that after ~rep number 6-7, the smaller muscles of the back and waist start to fatigue earlier than the larger muscles of the hips and knees. This leads to the development of inefficient and unsafe movement patterns that may follow the lifter into subsequent training sessions, with injuries or chronic pain.

Ideally, a large weight loss that requires more than a couple of months should be avoided at all costs unless you are legitimately obese. Most competitive lifters choose a weight class that enhances their ability to train and stay within a reasonable weight range within that weight class to avoid training interruptions leading into a meet. A similar approach to bodyweight is appropriate for a non-competitor, and this involves making a decision between having either visible abs or PRs under the barbell, and the muscle mass that comes with each. That is not the same choice between a Gut and visible abs, and should not be viewed as such. If you value visible abs you are going to unnecessarily put yourself on a hamster wheel, losing valuable training time trying to balance that which cannot be balanced. A decision must be made, and since I am a strength coach the recommendations will be given within the context of maximizing overall strength.

If the lifter has sufficient time availability, additional sets done for fewer reps (~3-5) are the safer and more ideal approach in the presence of caloric restriction. This should be timed during an “off season” or a time that is sufficiently far out from a meet or equivalent PR attempt. This approach can be very time consuming and training sessions may need to be spread across 4 or 5 days to keep this logistically feasible. Being adherent to the calorie restriction is critical here to ensure that you are not “on a cut” for several months more than you need be. Ideally, you lose a few pounds in a couple of months before the loads progress to an Actually Heavy Weight, and then carry on with higher calories as the intensity approaches 1RM.

If you are legitimately obese and need to lose bodyweight – what would be equivalent to dropping multiple weight classes – then plan on dropping weight off the bar beyond a certain point. Large weight losses that are legitimately needed not only reduce resources for barbell exercises, but also result in changes in leverage (e.g. less abdominal body fat), which also contribute to weight lost off the bar. If you are a legitimately obese lifter that needs to lose large amounts of bodyweight, plan for a minimum of one year of cycling between fat loss and weight maintaining diets to minimize long-term muscle loss. Once you settle into a reasonable bodyweight that works for your health and time under the bar, progress can be restored by increasing calories and continuing to train.

Fat loss is something many people can benefit from for a variety of health and performance reasons. It is obviously not my goal to advocate for morbid obesity, but it is also not my goal to foster mental illness and encourage the pursuit of unrealistically lean physiques. Somewhere in between morbid obesity and single digit body fat is the sweet spot for all of us. That sweet spot differs between individuals, and many of you reading this know at which point it becomes difficult to lose additional weight without notable life disruption. Notate those ranges and keep them in the back of your mind when you think about “doing a cut” and are worried about losing your hard-earned PRs. Then make the right call and replace the visible abs standard with a more realistic and more aesthetically-viable high chest/waist ratio.  

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