A relative of mine recently asked me for some programming advice. She was coming off a long stint of Crossfit and her primary objective was fat loss. I wanted to share the programming ideas I threw at her simply because it might trigger some ideas for your own programming. It should be made very clear that this is FAR from gospel. I titled this “back of the napkin programming” for a reason… it’s just that.
In terms of physique there are only two variables that are in our control – fat and muscle. In pretty much all cases, we want to minimize the former and maximize the latter. Everything else is fixed by our genetics… so when it comes down to it, we’re just altering the quantity of these two tissues on top of a rigid frame.
On paper, only one goal – fat loss or muscle gain – can be achieved at a time. The reason’s simple…
In order to lose fat, you need to give your body a reason to rely on its stored energy to meet its daily needs. We accomplish this by controlling nutrition so that a calorie deficit is invoked.
On the flip side, growing muscle is a very intensive process, energetically speaking. Where fat loss requires an energy/calorie deficit… that same deficit renders muscle growth nearly impossible. If your body doesn’t have enough calories coming in the door to maintain itself, it sure as hell isn’t going to make matters worse by adding slabs of energy-hoggish tissue like muscle.
Now in practice we know that simultaneous body composition changes can and do happen. It doesn’t happens to any substantial degree though and it’s more likely in populations such as:
- Substantially overweight and obese
- Athletes and lifters coming off injury who had an extensive training program prior to injury
- Novices – namely those who have never really messed around with progressive resistance training
So where our bodies pull energy from during a deficit and where our bodies “choose” to store energy during a surplus is mostly dictated by our genetics. However, diet and training does play a role. You had asked what you should focus on – lifting or cardio.
For starters, it needn’t be an either/or proposition. Both tools have a place here.
That being said, I’m of the opinion that in most situations (definitely yours) resistance training should be prioritized ahead of cardio. The reason’s very simple. The primary benefit of cardio in the context of physique optimization – energy expenditure – can also be had by way of nutrition regulation. Put differently, you don’t exactly need cardio in order to create a deficit and lose fat. Just eat less food than your body needs and – presto – your body’s turning to its energy stores to make up the energy gap.
The same cannot be said for resistance training… you can’t derive the primary benefit of resistance training from solely nutrition. It’s pretty obvious that the benefit we’re talking about is increased strength/muscle.
Your primary goal is fat loss while preserving as much muscle as possible. Frankly, you don’t need 4-5 days of resistance training. Again, during a deficit, lifting is in place mostly to promote muscle preservation. And it takes substantially less work to preserve/maintain a particular physical quality than it does to build it. Something like 2-3 days of traditional strength training would work just fine in your case. The additional days that you have free to train can be comprised of calorie wasting, cardio-esque stuff… burn a little extra so, in turn, you can eat a little extra.
So let’s talk about setting up a lifting routine for you…
It can be sliced and diced a thousand ways. If I were to list out a few rules, it’d be a very short list:
- Pick loads that are heavy relative to your strength and the prescribed rep ranges.
- The rep ranges should be anywhere between 4-15 reps per set and they should vary across exercises or days.
- Utilize larger, compound movements for the majority of your work in order to promote economy of training per unit of time.
- Get in and get out. Again, preserving muscle just isn’t all that hard… and by not hard I mean it doesn’t require oodles of time and volume. And during a deficit, your body has a lower tolerance for handling volume… so it’s counterproductive to kill yourself.
- Train each muscle group or movement pattern at least twice per week.
That’s pretty much it. Obviously if I left you with solely that list, it’d be pretty frustrating. But my point is, don’t feel locked into the sample I’m about to give you. Again, you can structure things soooo many different ways.
For now, I’m going to suggest 3 days per week of total body training. However, since you’re not a client of mine and you need to be able to manage this thing on your own going forward, I’m going to make it template-fashion rather than basing it on individual exercises. This way you can plug and play whatever exercises you want to use for the given classifications.
How I tend to classify exercises is as follows:
- Knee dominant – think squat variations
- Hip dominant – think deadlift variations
- Horizontal Pressing – think bench press
- Horizontal Pulling – think rowing
- Vertical Pressing – think overhead pressing
- Vertical Pulling – think pull-ups and chin-ups
I’ll discuss exercises in more detail after the programming template… but first, let’s look at the actual template.
Day 1: Traditional
|1b. Horizontal Press||3||4-6|
|2b. Vertical Pull||3||10-12|
Day 2: Circuit-esque
|1a. Single Leg Knee-Dominant||2-4||8-10 ea|
|1b. Metabolic||2-4||30 sec|
|1d. Metabolic||2-4||30 sec|
|1e. Single Leg Hip-Dominant||2-4||8-10 ea|
|1f. Metabolic||2-4||30 sec|
|1h. Metabolic||2-4||30 sec|
With this circuit, you’re doing 2-4 times depending on how you’re feeling and your current level of conditioning.
Day 3: Traditional
|1b. Horizontal Pull||3||4-6|
|2b. Vertical Press||3||10-12|
So that’s the template. Essentially a circuit day sandwiched by two heavier, more traditional strength workouts.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the set nomenclature in front of the various exercises. These merely explain order and signify supersets or pairings/groupings. So if you have 1a, 1b, 2a, and 2b…. you know that you have two groupings. So you’d do 3 sets of 1a/1b before moving onto the next pairing of 2a/2b.
While doing 1a/1b… you’d do exercise 1a and then, with very little down time, move right into 1b. After 1b, you’d rest 30-120 seconds, or as long as it takes you to feel ready to go again next set, and then move onto the second set of the same pairing. Once you do all sets for a given pairing, that’s when you move onto the next pairing. Hopefully that makes sense.
Supersets can be challenging in crowded gyms where you can’t tie up 2-3 stations at one time. If this is the case with your gym, please feel free to separate things as needed. Why do I suggest them? Mostly for consolidation… more work in less time! They’re not critical but they certainly do make things run smoother.
These 3 training days are ideally spaced out as evenly as possible across the week.
Now’s it simply a matter of plugging in whatever exercises you’d like to use. Here are examples of movements in each category. Please keep in mind this is NOT an extensive list.
- Bilateral – back squats, front squats, overhead squats, leg press machine, hack squats, goblet squats, sumo squats
- Unilateral – RFESS (rear foot elevated split squats), forward lunges, reverse lunges, step-ups
- Bilateral – conventional deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, romanian deadlifts, barbell hip thrusts, cable pull throughs, barbell glute bridges, glute ham raises, good mornings, rack pulls
- Unilateral – single leg RDLs, single leg hip thrusts, single leg bridges
- BB or DB bench press at various angles and/or with various width grips, push-ups (resisted or not) at various angles, dips, DB hex presses, flies, BB or DB floor presses, single-arm DB bench
- Standing or seated BB or DB overhead press, push presses, hex bar overhead presses, Bradford presses, DB lateral raises, single-arm DB snatches, prone trap raises
- Bentover barbell rows, bentover DB rows, single arm rows, face pulls, inverted rows, t-bar rows, lat rows, chest-supported rows, cable rows
- Cable pulldowns, pull-ups and chin-ups (assisted or unassisted), DB pullovers, cable pullovers (seated or standing), rack chins
- Planks, side planks, pallof presses, crunches, reverse crunches, rollouts, stir-the-pots, cable or band wood chops, straight leg raises
- Whatever… if you’re not in the mood to include it just skip it.
- These are things done generally for time… so lighter weight and high volume. You’ll see these in the circuit day above… they increase the caloric expenditure of the session.
- There are A LOT of options here but some examples would include mountain climbers, jumping jacks, jump squats, alternating jump lunges, burpees, shadow boxing, bodyweight speed squats, dumbbell or kettlebell swings, jumping rope, etc
In terms of progressing, you could get by doing something as simple as plugging exercises into the template above and riding them out until your strength plateaus. When you plateau will vary from exercise to exercise. When you do plateau in a given movement, you can drop the load and start progressing again in that same movement or you could swap the movement for a new one in the same category. If you run out of ideas, just shoot me an email.
You could also be more deliberate with your progression… so you could setup training blocks where you’re ramping weights up over the course of 4-8 weeks. After the block is up, you’d either take a week or so off to allow for recovery, do a deload week where you’re still training but at much lower intensity, or you move to the next block with overhauled exercise selection.
Heck, you could even do 4 weeks with the prescribed rep ranges (3×4-6 and 3×10-12) and then follow it up with a 2-3 week peaking block where you shift these rep ranges to 6×3 and 3×6-8.
Again, the options are pretty much endless.
Speaking of progression… your objective should be to use loading that’s challenging enough to push you close to technical failure within the prescribed rep ranges. You’ve been lifting for a while so I’m sure you have that gut sense about when you’re a rep or two shy of having your form breakdown. That’s the point we want to flirt with in terms of how heavy we go.
If you reach this point at the low end of the prescribed rep range… that’s perfectly fine. You would simply keep the loading the same for the next workout. It’s when you’re comfortably hitting the high end of the rep ranges for each individual exercise that you want to increase loading by 5-10 lbs.
The remainder of your training can come from the calorie-wasting stuff. Quite frankly, since I’m not really supervising your training, I don’t really have a preference for how you structure this stuff. Since you come from Crossfit, I’d caution you to avoid relying solely on high intensity stuff. Beating your body into submission should NOT be the goal.
These calorie-wasting workouts can be traditional steady state cardio done however you like – track, road, trails, bike, pool, elliptical, treadmill, versaclimber, etc. It can be mixed intensity stuff such as classes, fartleks, hills, etc. Hell, you can even throw in more resistance training as long as you keep it high reps, minimal rest, circuit type stuff. This latter category can be made up of traditional circuits with external resistance and/or calisthenics. It can be made of BB or DB complexes. You can do ladders. The possibilities are endless.
And I realize I could be speaking about methods you’re not exactly clear about. If so, just ask and I’ll explain.
If you’d like to discuss this article, please head on over to the BI Facebook page and drop a comment here.