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The Hierarchy of Fat

Posted on Thu, 23 Apr 2009 05:00:00 -07:00

The Hierarchy of Fat

The Hierarchy of Fat

"Fat loss is an all-out war. Give it 28 days. Only 28 days. Attack it with all you have. It's not a lifestyle choice, it's a battle. Lose fat and then get back into moderation. There's another one for you: moderation. Revelation says it best: you are lukewarm and I shall spit you out. Moderation is for sissies." — Dan John, Legend

I've been training people for a long time. We own a gym that has several trainers training several people. We work with many women, and by far, the single biggest request has been fat loss. I figured out that in the nine years our gym has been open, we have seen over 1,000 women come in and transform their bodies.

We have made more money from the fat loss market than any other single client group. Over the years, our methods have evolved and been refined by what we see in the gym with our clients.

Simply put, if we can get 20 pounds of fat off a client faster than our competition, we have a higher demand for our services.

With our clients, we're usually extremely limited with time. Many are moms with busy schedules or career women and have a limited window of time they can dedicate to their fitness each week. Most can only train three to four times per week at most. With that in mind, with time being our limiting factor, how do we maximize fat loss?

Is there a hierarchy of fat loss techniques? Yes. Here it is:

1. Proper nutrition
Face it: you just can't out-train a crappy diet. You must create a caloric deficit while eating enough protein and essential fats. There's no way around this.

2. See number 1 above
Yep. It really is that important. Several trainers have espoused that the only difference between training for muscle gain and training for fat loss is your diet. I think that's a massive oversimplification, but it does reinforce how important and effective correct nutrition is toward your ultimate goal.

3. Activities that burn calories, promote and maintain muscle mass and elevate metabolism
The bulk of calories burned are determined by our resting metabolic rate or RMR. The amount of calories burned outside of our resting metabolism (through exercise, thermic effect of feeding, etc.) is a smaller contributor to overall calories burned per day.

RMR is largely a function of how much muscle you have on your body and how hard it works. Therefore, adding activities that promote or maintain muscle mass will make that muscle mass work harder and elevate the metabolic rate. This will become our number one training priority when developing fat loss programs.

4. Activities that burn calories and elevate metabolism
The next level of fat loss programming would be a similar activity. We're still looking at activities that eat up calories and increase EPOC.

EPOC (Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption) is defined scientifically as the "recovery of metabolic rate back to pre-exercise levels" and "can require several minutes for light exercise and several hours for hard intervals." Essentially, we're looking for activities that keep us burning more calories after the exercise session.

5. Activities that burn calories, but don't necessarily maintain muscle or elevate metabolism
This is the least effective tool in your arsenal, as it doesn't burn much outside of the primary exercise session.

Now let's put this fat loss continuum together in terms of our progressive training hierarchy.

The Five Factors of Fat Loss Training

Metabolic Resistance Training

We're using resistance training as the cornerstone of our fat loss programming. Our goal is to work every muscle group hard, frequently, and with intensity that creates a massive "metabolic disturbance" or "afterburn," leaving the metabolism elevated for several hours post-workout.

Here are a few studies to support this:

Schuenke MD, Mikat RP, McBride JM. Effect of an acute period of resistance exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: implications for body mass management.
European Journal of Applied Physiology. March 2002, Vol 86 (5): 411-7. Epub 2002 Jan 29.

This study used a circuit training protocol of 12 sets in 31 minutes. EPOC was elevated significantly for thirty-eight hours post-workout.

Thirty-eight hours is a pretty significant timeframe for metabolism to be elevated. If you trained from 9 to 10 a.m. on Monday morning, you're still burning more calories (without training) at midnight on Tuesday!

Can we compound this with additional training within that 38 hours? No research has been done, but I have enough case studies to believe that you can.

Another study: Kramer, Volek et al. Influence of exercise training on physiological and performance changes with weight loss in men.

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 1999, Vol. 31, No. 9: 1320-1329

Overweight subjects were assigned to three groups: Diet-only, diet plus aerobics, diet plus aerobics plus weights. The diet group lost 14.6 pounds of fat in 12 weeks. The aerobic group lost only one more pound (15.6 pounds) than the diet group (training was three times a week starting at 30 minutes and progressing to 50 minutes over the 12 weeks).

Now, the weight training group lost 21.1 pounds of fat (44% and 35% more than diet- and aerobics-only groups respectively). The addition of aerobic training didn't result in any real worldsignificant fat loss over dieting alone.

Thirty-six sessions of up to 50 minutes is a lot of work for one additional pound of fat loss. However, the addition of resistance training greatly accelerated fat loss results.

One more:

Bryner RW, Ullrich IH, Sauers J, Donley D, Hornsby G, Kolar M, Yeater R.
Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800-calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate.

Journal of the American College of Nutrition, April 1999, 18 (2): 115-21.

The aerobic group performed four hours of aerobics per week. The resistance training group performed 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps, 10 exercises, three times per week. VO2 max increased equally in both groups. Both groups lost weight.

1) High Intensity Resistance Training

The resistance training group lost significantly more fat and didn't lose any lean body mass, even at only 800 calories per day. The reason the calories were so low was to really take any dietary variables completely out of the equation and compare the effects of the exercise regime on LBM and metabolism.

The resistance training group actually increased metabolism compared to the aerobic group, which decreased metabolism. It seems that aerobic training is a more significant stress to the body than a starvation diet.

In my experience, full body training in a superset, tri-set, or circuit format (with non-competing exercises) in a rep range that generates lactic acid (and pushes the lactic acid threshold or LAT) seems to create the biggest metabolic demand. It makes sense; training legs, back, and chest will burn more calories and elevate metabolism more than an isolated approach training one of them.

The rep range that seems to work best is the eight to 12 hypertrophy range, although going higher will work just as well with a less-trained population.

Transitioning into Metabolic Work

2. High Intensity Anaerobic Interval Training

The second key "ingredient" in fat loss programming is high intensity interval training (HIIT). I think most readers are well aware of the benefits of interval work. It burns more calories than steady state and elevates metabolism significantly more than other forms of cardio.
The only downside is that it flat-out sucks to do!

"Interval training works. Too bad it isn't more fun to perform!."

The landmark study in interval training was from Tremblay:

Tremblay A, Simoneau JA, Bouchard C. Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism.
Metabolism, July 1994, 43 (7): 814-8

This study pitted 20 weeks of endurance training against 15 weeks of interval training:
• Energy cost of endurance training = 28,661 calories.
• Energy cost of interval training = 13,614 calories (less than half)

The interval training group showed a nine times greater loss in subcutaneous fat than the endurance group (when corrected for energy cost).
Read that again. Calorie for calorie, the interval training group lost nine times more fat overall. Why? Maybe it's EPOC, an up-regulation of fat burning enzyme activity, or straight up G-Flux.

I don't care.

I'm a real world guy. If the interval training group had lost the same amount of fat as the endurance group, we'd get the same results in less time. That means interval training is a better tool in your fat loss arsenal.

3. High Intensity Aerobic Interval Training

The next tool we'll pull out is essentially a lower intensity interval method where we use aerobic intervals.

Here's the study we'll be referring to:

Talanian, Galloway et al. Two weeks of High-Intensity Aerobic Interval Training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women.
Journal of Applied Physiology, April 2007, 102 (4):1439-47. Epub 2006 Dec 14.

This study looked at high-intensity aerobic interval training and its influence on fat oxidation. In summary, seven sessions of HIIT over two weeks induced marked increases in whole body and skeletal muscle capacity for fatty acid oxidation during exercise in moderately active women.

In layman's terms, the interval work appeared to "up-regulate" fat burning enzymes.

This means we can burn more fat in other activities as a result of this inclusion. In other words, we get a bit more bang for our buck.

A quick disclaimer, though: My colleague Alan Aragon once said, "Caring about how much fat is burned during exercise is equivalent to worrying about how much muscle is built during exercise."

In other words, substrate utilization during exercise isn't really an important variable in the big picture of fat loss. Total calories burned overall is.

4. Steady State High Intensity Aerobic Training
Tool number four is just hard cardio work. This time we're burning calories. We aren't working hard enough to increase EPOC significantly or to do anything beyond the session itself. But calories do count. Burning another 300 or so calories per day will add up.

5. Steady State Low Intensity Aerobic Training
This is just random activity, such as going for a walk in the park. It won't burn a lot of calories or increase muscle or EPOC.

There isn't very much research showing that low intensity aerobic training actually results in very much additional fat loss, but you're gonna have to really work to convince me that moving more is going to hurt you when you're in fat attack mode.

Putting It All Together: Time Management

You'll probably notice that these are the opposite recommendations from what you typically read in the mainstream media. Usually, fat loss recommendations start with low intensity aerobics, progress to high intensity aerobics, then intervals. Finally, when you're "in shape," they recommend resistance training.

My approach to massive fat loss is attacking from the complete opposite of the norm. If you're a professional bodybuilder, then you typically have extra time to add in cardio and do extra work to get lean.

A real world client with a job and a family can rarely afford additional time. Therefore, we need to look at our training in a more efficient manner and focus on our time available first, then design our programming based on that.

If you have just 3 hours per week, use only #1 above: Metabolic Resistance Training.

This can be three, one-hour training sessions, or four 45-minute training sessions. It doesn't seem to matter.

This type of training involves such things as barbell complexes, supersets, tri-sets, circuits, EDT work, and kettlebell combos.

Once you're getting three hours per week of total body resistance training, in my experience I haven't seen an additional effect in terms of fat loss by doing more. My guess is that, at that point, recovery starts to become a concern and intensity is impaired.

If time is an issue, stick to weight training.

If you have 3-5 hours, use #1 and # 2: Weight Training plus HIIT work.

At this point, any additional work is usually in the form of high intensity interval training. I'm looking to burn up more calories and continue to elevate EPOC.

Interval training is like putting your savings into a high return investment account. Low intensity aerobics is like hiding it under your mattress. Both will work, but the return you get is radically different.

If you have 5-6 hours available, add #3: Aerobic Interval Training.

Aerobic interval training wins out at this point because it's still higher intensity overall than steady state work, so it burns more calories. There appears to be a fat oxidation benefit and will still be easier to recover from than additional anaerobic work.

If you have 6-8 hours available, add #4.

If you're not losing a lot of fat with six hours of training already, then I'd be taking a very close look at your diet. If everything is in place, but we just need to ramp up fat loss some more, then we'll add in some hard cardio — a long run or bike ride with heart rate at 75% of max or higher.

Why not do as much of this as possible then? Well, the goal is to burn as many calories as we can without negatively impacting the intensity of our higher priority activities.
If you have even more time than that, add # 5.

Of course, I'm getting into fairy tale land at this point. I don't think most of us have more than eight hours of training time available per week. But if we do, this is when any additional activity will help to burn up calories, which is never a bad thing.

A lot of fighters have used this activity to help make weight. This works because it burns up calories but doesn't leave you tired for your strength training, sparring, or technical work.
That's the key with the addition of this activity; just to move, get your body moving, and burn up some additional calories — but not to work so hard that it inhibits recovery and negatively affects our other training.

The research and the real world don't really show massive changes from the inclusion of this type of activity. However, I think everything has its place. Remember, this is a hierarchy of training, and this is fifth on the list for a reason.

Smart guys call this NEAT: Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. I call it "moving a wee bit more than normal."

Keep in mind that all I've said here is that harder training works better than easier training. It really is that simple.

To conclude, I agree with Coach Dan John: Attack body fat with a passion and a single-minded goal. The best way to do this is with an all-out assault implementing the hierarchy I described above.

Attack your body fat with a massive action plan for the next eight weeks and get a head start on your New Year's resolutions!

Alwyn Cosgrove ( is one of the most in-demand coaches, writers and speakers in the fitness industry today. He currently spends his time lecturing, teaching, training and writing and as the owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California. For the past 17 years, Alwyn has been committed to achieving excellence in the field of fitness training and athletic preparation.  Specializing in performance enhancement, Alwyn has helped countless individuals and athletes reach their goals through sound scientific training. Alwyn has been a featured presenter at several national conferences in the fitness industry and has produced several training manuals and educational DVDs. In addition to being a featured in several national magazines, Alwyn is a columnist for Men’s Health magazine and has authored two books, "The New Rules of Lifting" and "The New Rules of Lifting for Women."

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