I got the following Facebook message a while back, and I thought it would make for a great blog post as it’s a situation that people often ask me about.
Let’s start with this: training is training is training, regardless of the big goal. Lifting weights is for building strength and muscle (or at least maintaining those things if you’re in a significant caloric deficit), “cardio” is for heart health and/or recovery, conditioning is for building a gas tank specific to the task you want to excel at, and nutrition is for getting leaner or adding mass. The goal you have just decides how much time is spent utilizing each tool.
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”-Harrington Emerson
In this case, as fat loss is the primary goal, nutrition has to take center stage. Calories in vs. calories out is still king: if you eat more than you burn, then you’re going to gain, and vice versa. The quality of your food, your ability to absorb nutrients effectively, and all that stuff is really important in the big picture, but ultimately if you want to get leaner, then you have to eat less than you put out. Spend more time prepping veggies and lean meats, packing lunches so you don’t eat out, and write down what you eat. After a week or 2, see what happened to your weight. If it stayed consistent, then look back at your food log and understand that that’s what it takes to maintain your weight, so cut back a bit. If you gained, then you’re eating above your necessary requirements, and you’ll have to cut back further. If you are already losing 1-2 pounds a week, keep it going as is, until you’re not.
In terms of strength training, it shouldn’t change whether fat loss or hypertrophy is the primary goal. Focus on the big movements: presses, rows, chin ups, squat and deadlift variations. Don’t turn this into some kind of death circuit to get more “cardio,” in. The goal is to build or at least maintain strength and muscle! Strive to improve your 5, 8, and 10 rep maxes on the big movements and you’ll be surprised at how your body starts to look and respond. I’d keep these full body in nature, or if you have a very high training age, then maybe alternate upper and lower body focused days or push/pull type splits.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing steady state cardiovascular work, whether it’s an elliptical, bike, or walking, but you have to understand that it’s not going to be such a caloric expenditure that it makes a giant difference in the rate that you lose fat. The screen on the elliptical may say you burned 250 calories after a 20 minute session, but these machines are the most inaccurate and have been found to overestimate expenditure by 42%! Don’t believe me? Turn a treadmill on and walk away-when you come back an hour later it’ll say you burned 600 calories!
I’m all for doing some cardiovascular work to get some fresh, oxygenated blood pumping through your body, but, if possible, get outside and get some vitamin D while you do it, and don’t focus on cardio for calorie burn, just do active stuff that you like.
Conditioning on the other hand, is the ball busting, “I don’t want to do this today,” type of high intensity intervals that build your tank for whatever task you want to kick ass at. High Intensity Interval Training burns twice as many calories as steady state cardio, but that’s just an added bonus, not the reason we’re doing it. Do it to be a bad ass, and the leanness will follow. Try 6 rounds of 15 second sprints on an Airdyne bike, letting your heart rate come down to about 120-130 beats per minute in between. After each interval, it’ll take longer for your heart rate to drop, which is normal if you’re really getting after it.
Next week, do 7, then 8. Build up slowly, and when you get to 10 or 12, then increase the work time and decrease the total number back to 6 again, building up each week.
Training doesn’t have to be rocket science, and we don’t have to be obsessive about it, but we do have to be consistent. If we are constantly doing the next “new” thing, then we are constantly adding a new stimulus, which will make you sore as shit but not allow you to actually improve at anything.
Remember, as Dan John says, “the goal is to keep the goal, the goal.” Eat real food, just don’t eat too much. Squat, push stuff, pull stuff, and lift stuff off the floor, working to move heavier stuff over time. Mix in some hard intervals after lifting stuff.
And make time to do stuff that you like. It can really be that simple..