Whilst much is made of the ultimate requirement to consume fewer calories than you expend in regards to weight loss, how you train will determine in large part, where that weight comes from. The right training will help you retain muscle and burn fat, whereas the wrong training could actually cause you to burn valuable muscle and reduce your metabolism.

When programming for fat loss, the following are the main criteria for ensuring optimal results:

  1. Minimal to non-existent rest periods
  2. Sufficient loads to stimulate protein turnover and muscle retention
  3. Sufficient density to stimulate the metabolism
  4. Sufficient effort to stimulate cardiovascular adaptations
  5. Elevated growth hormone levels

So how do you achieve all of the above and are any of them mutually exclusive?

Minimal Rest Periods

The important thing to do here is distinguish between rest and recovery. Rest means inactivity, recovery does not. Whilst recovery can involve inactivity, when it comes to fat loss, active recovery is king. This may vary in nature from one person to another, i.e. walking around to step-ups to skipping. Regardless of the client, if the goal is fat-loss, then rest periods should almost never be any longer than 60 seconds (occasionally there are physiological or psychological reasons that warrant longer rest periods).

Sufficient Loads to Stimulate Protein Turnover and Muscle Retention

If strength isn’t pursued at best or maintained at worst, the body can cannibalise lean tissue to provide fuel. The easiest way to prevent this is to ensure that each muscle group is subjected to a load representing at least 70% of the 1 Rep Maximum (1RM) for a given exercise. This means that regardless of which exercise is chosen, at some point during a workout, at least one exercise should be performed with relatively heavy weights.

Sufficient Density to Stimulate the Metabolism

Manipulating, or more specifically escalating, density is one of the best ways of promoting fat-loss when programming.

Essentially, all that is required to escalate density is to complete a given amount of work in a progressively shorter and shorter time frame or complete a progressively greater amount of work in the same time frame.

A great example of this would be to perform the following:

  • 9 Deadlifts
  • 6 Bent Over Rows
  • 3 Power Cleans
  • 3 Military/Push Presses
  • 6 Reverse Lunges
  • 9 Back Squats

The goal would be to complete 1-2 rounds of the circuit in as short a time as possible with a weight equal to the 5RM for the weakest of either the Power Clean of the Military/Push press. Rest 30-60 seconds and then repeat a further 2-4 times. On each subsequent workout, the goal would be to complete the same amount of work in a shorter overall time. It’s important not too focus too much on individual sets as a measure of progress, as the times for these can sometimes be misleading.

Sufficient Effort to Stimulate Cardiovascular Adaptations

Possibly the easiest to monitor and evaluate, this is clearly evidenced by an increase in heart rate and respiration beyond comfortable.

Depending on the level of the individual this may be seen in a sudden drop in work rate or a sudden quickening of breath. The more trained an individual is, the more they are able to push themselves, whereas more sedentary people will get the same results at a much lower level of effort.

Elevated Growth Hormone Levels

Whilst this is something you’ll rarely, if ever, be able to measure, it’s actually quite easy to produce.

The body will increase its production of growth hormone in response to elevated levels of lactic acid. Therefore, exercise selection, sequencing and programming should include a bias towards this where possible.

Ultimately there are two main ways to elevate lactic acid production:

  • Train anaerobically
  • Increase concentric muscle activity

Whilst the shift into anaerobic status is often simply achieved by adjusting the intensity or speed of the activity, it is not necessarily suitable for everyone, particularly beginners.

For this reason, biasing concentric contractions may be a more effective option.


There are two ways of increasing concentric muscle activity, exercise tempo and exercise selection.

In regards to tempo, the typical recommendation is to focus on slowing the eccentric portion of an exercise with a tempos such as 3010, whereas taking longer on the concentric with a tempo such as 1030 could actually be more effective for fat-loss.

In terms of exercise selection, some exercises have inherently higher levels of concentric activity. The following are all examples of exercises that bias the concentric portion of the relevant movement:

  • Box Jumps
  • Sled Drags
  • Stair Climbing
  • Medicine Ball Throws
  • Rowing

The main thing to remember when seeking to elevate lactic acid levels is that past a certain point, people will usually begin to experience e some degree of nausea. For this reason alone, it’s probably wise to remain just below the tolerance threshold.

So are any of these mutually exclusive? In short, no. The workout detailed above would achieve all of the five criteria detailed here for an optimal fat loss workout. That said, it’s not the only way of doing it. The following are three of the most common ways to modify programmes:

  • If traditional supersets are a preference, reduce the rest periods each week to increase density
  • Use a concentric dominant exercise as the last exercise in a complex to boost lactic acid
  • Use a lower body concentric dominant activity such as stair climbing as active recovery during an upper body workout

Whichever option you choose, make sure that it’s just enough of a change to stimulate progress and avoid pushing too hard unnecessarily.