Burning fat and gaining muscle are two of the most common subjects in the fitness industry. Three clients out of 4 will come to me with the intention of improving their body composition. And even though they will tell me they are ready to be patient and diligent, everybody wants to reach their goal as fast as possible. Then, people will search for a fast response from their new diets and workouts, and often they will go too hard in the beginning and will screw up their fat loss project or lose hard earned muscle in the process.
Both fat loss and muscle gain can be reached if you plan things efficiently. But most people will fail to do both for different factors:
-Their genetics simply do not allow for such demands and they can’t be efficient at reaching both goals at the same time. Not everybody can grow into the show!
-If you are a natural athlete, you should always focus on one goal at a time. Your recovery capabilities are not the same as an enhanced athlete and you must consider this as one of the most important aspects of your improvement in both fat loss and muscle gains. The hormonal environment of a natural athlete is much more affected under severe dieting conditions and high volume/intensity workload.
-Chasing two rabbits requires that you split your strategies and may it be far longer to catch than if you put all your energy at chasing one prey! As most people are motivated by the results they can see in the mirror, I strongly suggest that you focus on one goal at a time.
-You should always choose to improve your body composition first. A lean individual always responds better to food and training. Internal health is often better and the process of adding mass is always improved after a fat loss phase. This makes it easier to pile on lean muscle and keep the fat off during the subsequent mass phase.
This being said, we will look into the first steps of our body composition goal: the fat loss phase.
Step 1: Increase your training frequency and volume
How can we implement a strategy that will induce fat loss and protect your hard-earned muscle at the same time? The answer is quite simple:
Don’t shoot yourself into a calorie deficit first. Instead, match a calorie deficit with high training volume and frequency.
Of course, you need to set up your nutrition first, but I never start to work with a client by putting them in a caloric deficit. I often increase their calories to the maximum we can take while improving their look. First, by cleaning up the diet and removing the bad stuff, positive cosmetic effects usually happen. Focusing on whole foods instead of supplements also seems to give a better metabolic boost. Often, I will increase proteins and even carbs to match the higher workload that we’ll be reaching in the weeks to come.
The only time I will cut on calories first is if the client is coming off a growth phase where their food consumption may have been a lot higher than their maintenance level. If this is the case, I usually start by cutting 10-15% of the total calories and observe how the body responds to it.
In both cases, the goal is to keep the calories high.
The key is to start with the things that have the overall largest impact on your body and the way it looks, which is weight training itself. You’ve been building your body in the weight room for so long, so what better way to start your fat loss than by improving this aspect. Slowly start to increase your training frequency to the maximum number of sessions you can complete in a week. Let’s say you were training 4 times a week, start by adding a 5th session, and then a 6th session if you can. This way, you can increase your workout time by up to 30% in a week, meaning you are also burning 30% more calories. Do the count any way you want, but it’s as simple as that.
Once frequency has been increased, try to slowly increase the volume of each session as well. Don’t go crazy one week to another. Go slow on the rise, add a working set here and there, gradually adding more calories burned into each session.
Do this until you reach the maximal amount of volume and frequency you can recover from. If you start to feel fatigued, un-rested or decreased performance, you may have gone too high. Step back a little and hold it there to see if you can improve. The best workouts are always the ones we recover from.
This phase can take up to 4 weeks before reaching the sweet spot.
Step 2: Improve metabolic rate and cardiovascular functions with HIIT
High intensity interval training is one of the best tools I know to improve body composition fast. If used appropriately, the effect on metabolic rate and EPOC will greatly enhance fat burning and will not impair with your ability to recover.
Tools I like to use are the ones that work only with a concentric resistance:
-sled/prowler push, spinning bike, elliptical, hill sprint, air dyne bike, etc.
This way, you can make sure to push as hard as you can on the equipment or exercises but will not exert force against you when you stop the high intensity interval.
I usually start clients on a pretty easy schedule. Something like 3 sessions of 12 minutes a week can work great. Of course, it also depends on the time available to reach the goal. If I’m working with a physique athlete who needs to be in their best condition in 12 weeks, chances are we will start a little more aggressive on the frequency of HIIT. But generally, 3 time per week is a good starting point. If you were already doing HIIT workouts, start from where you were and increase the work load by 10%.
The workload is then increased only if we need to obtain a better response, but this is largely based on many other variables such as recovery and performance and will greatly differ from one person to another.
The timing of the intervals is always up to the individual. If you rarely work with high intensity intervals, chances are you will want to die if you start with a 30/30 split. Start low to make sure you can push every all-out interval to the max. Usually most people will do well on 15/45 (15 seconds all-out intensity / 45 seconds moderate, recovery).
You can push this phase for another 3-4 weeks without any diet changes.
Step 3: Slowly decrease calories
Once you max out on the training frequency and volume and you’ve added HIIT to your routine, things are being maximized in terms of calories burned. We have then already established that you could not do more or recovery and performance would be affected. The next step is to increase the deficit by slowly reducing the amount of food you are consuming. Ideally, you’d start by removing small amounts of carbs from the diet. Don’t go too hard. I will usually cut 15% of the daily carbs consumption and wait to see the response.
One way to be efficient is to cut the carbs that are the farthest from the training session. This way, you not only keep fuel near the workout, but you also take advantage of the improved food repartition obtained from the training session. Insulin sensitivity is always better after a workout, so it goes well to stack more carbs there.
Take notes: there are a lot of people who think they absolutely need fast carbs post workout to recover and bring cortisol down. That is simply not true. Most people I work with consume stuff like oats, cream of wheat, cream of rice, pineapple, sweet potato or even rice right after their training session. Sometimes, I have them eat a mix of fast carbs like white potatoes, dates or figs if they are lean enough to eat sugar and will complete the remaining carbs with lower GI carbs. But I rarely put my clients on some high load fast sugary carbs powder or fruit juice post workout. Most people will only get fatter or slow fat loss progress from these post workout food choices.
From this point, you need to assess each week and see if the decrease in calories has created improvement in body composition. Variables such as weight and pictures are good, simple assessment tools and will help you compare week to week. Try to assess the same day, same moment every week.
Step 4: Introduce fasted morning cardio
After a couple of weeks of dieting adjustments, there will come a moment where you will be dieting near your maintenance level. THIS IS THE POINT WHRE YOU MUST BE CAREFUL. Going lower than this can put you at risk of losing muscle. Let me explain, you WILL eventually go lower than maintenance level, but the tricks is to try to stay there for the shortest time possible. So, you need to drop some other carbs before going into the severe deficit.
At this point, you should already be pretty lean and see your abs and some nice muscle definition. It should already look good (aka beach lean)! This is the best time to play an additional card with the morning fasted cardio. Start with something like 30 minutes of inclined walking. We’re talking low intensity cardio. Target a heart rate of no more than 110-120 BPM. The trick is to force your body to use fat as fuel while it is fasted. If you go too hard, you’ll automatically fall into your glycogen stores to compensate the effort.
I like walking as it is good for lower body blood circulation and will help strip off lower body fat in places like the hamstrings and glutes because of the increased blood flow in those areas.
You can increase the morning fasted cardio from 30 to 60 minutes maximum over the course of the next 3-4 weeks. Usually, this should be enough to get your conditioning to the next level.
Step 5: Time to jump into deficit and implement refeed days
One bad news, one good news! I don’t know if step 5 is nice or not, but this is where you should be and if shredded is what you want to look like, get your head down and bust your ass!
We need to tweak the diet in order to push fat loss one step further. Since we have already maxed out on many variables, it’s time we face the truth and put our hunger to the test. Start to cut the remaining calories from fat and carbs until you drop under maintenance level. Don’t start too crazy, think about 300 calories under to begin with, and see how you respond. Usually, at this point, your body composition should already be good and improvements are easy to see. Assess each week and if there is no improvement, cut another 300 calories. You’ll eventually find the sweet spot and it’s not very long due to the high workload and cardio.
On the other hand, falling into deficit with such a high regiment of training will put your recovery at risk. Therefore, we will start to introduce refeed days. What great news! By the way, you know that up to this day, no cheat days have been granted. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s the truth, you were supposed to have enough calories to get through this without any cheating or refeeds.
The best way to introduce a refeed day is to choose a day where you have time to eat more than usual. Take the actual amount of carbs you eat in a day and multiply it by 2.5 to give you the amount of carbs to eat on this refeed day. IMPORTANT: KEEP THIS DAY THE LOWEST FAT POSSIBLE – USE CLEAN CARBS, THIS IS NOT A CHEAT DAY! Ideally, use foods that are easily digestible. Since you will be used to a lower amount of food to process, foods like white rice, cream of wheat, cream of rice, white potato, rice pasta are perfect. Also, sushi can be a wonderful addition to get more carbs and still feel rewarded (for those who like sushi). I like to use nigiri as it is better to track down the macros (only fish and rice – no sauces, avocado and other fatty stuff mixed it). Dates, raisins, bananas and pineapple can contribute to the refeed and will feel fresh and different from the usual starchy foods. Use them in moderate amount.
At this point, insulin sensitivity should be really good and we can take advantage of it to boost metabolic functions and refill glycogen stores. This will give you more power and stamina for the upcoming week while improving fat loss and body composition. At this stage of the fat loss process, the refeed day will only help you reach another point of leanness.
Step 6: Reduce training volume and keep intensity high
Eventually, there will come a point where the caloric deficit will affect you to a point that you will not be able to complete the volume and frequency asked since the beginning of the fat loss phase. Fatigue will set in and performances will start to drop. Sleep can become disrupted and digestion can start to slow down and get disturbed. Don’t push through it, this is a sign that you have done enough and your body simply cannot support the recovery process. Cortisol will usually get higher easily at this point. What to do then?
Reduce the volume of each session and spread it over the weeks by keeping the frequency of muscle work high. For example, work more muscles in a training session using less sets and reach for 1-2 real hard sets per muscle. A good way is to switch for an upper/lower split or a full body split.
This last phase will usually be run up for 4 to 8 weeks depending on the starting level of conditioning of the athletes and how much metabolic functions are affected. Adding some supplements to help support thyroid function can help to some extent (iodine, selenium, vitamin d, zinc, omega-3, also make sure to support adrenal functions with adaptogen like Ashwaganda and rhodiola rosea can be of great help).
Overall, a fat loss phase like this can take from 14 weeks up to 20 weeks depending on the starting level of conditioning and how diligent et disciplined you were in the process.
Committing to these strategies will certainly make you a far better version of yourself and get you ready to hit the phase 2: the growth phase!
-Chase one rabbit at a time – focus on fat loss first, get conditioned then build muscle from this point
-Don’t put yourself in a calorie deficit too early in the process – instead, increase your calories!
-Maximize your training volume and frequency – take advantage of all the calories you have
-Start to introduce HIIT cardio and metabolic finishers – go hard for short time, but go hard!
-Tweak the diet slowly, decrease calories a little week by week until you find the sweet spot – look for improvements, not depletion!
-Introduce fasted morning cardio when you reach maintenance level on calories – at this point, you should already be in great shape – adding the morning cardio can only get your conditioning up a notch – don’t go over 60 minutes
-Get into a deficit when everything else has been maximized – cut 300 calories, block and assess if there is improvement in body composition – tweak diet only if nothing moves
-Add refeed days with clean carbs and the lowest fat possible – at this point, those refeed days will improve body composition and make you look way better
-Cut down on the volume if fatigue sets in and performances decrease – Lower daily volume and spread it over the week with more frequency and less sets per session – try to keep intensity high for minimal sets.