When it comes to Program Design for fat loss, there are many ways we can approach it!
Think about when you’re at the gym or talking to someone from the general population. When it comes to fat loss program design, they’ll say something along the lines of:
“Do high reps when you want fat loss and lower reps when you want to build muscle.”, or “Do weights when building muscle but then do cardio focused or circuit focused work for fat loss.”.
Both of these come from well intentioned people but they’re not quite on point when it comes to program design in a fat loss phase. Let me explain why!
Firstly, let’s get the obvious out of the way: to lose fat you have to be in a calorie deficit. It doesn’t really matter the type of training you’re doing as long as you are eating less calories than you are burning, you will lose fat. It’s science!
Now, assuming both a calorie deficit and client adherence is in order, we then focus on program design for optimisation!
One of the issues you commonly see when people lose weight is that they say and believe that they lost all their muscle. Firstly, no. You would not have lost all of your muscle. But, if you do stop resistance training whilst dieting, yes, you will be more prone to losing muscle mass comparatively to someone who keeps lifting.
One of my favourite sayings about retaining muscle when dieting is, “The best way to keep your muscle mass in a calorie deficit is the same way you build your muscle out of a calorie deficit.”
All it means is that you need to keep lifting in your dieting phase and continue to get strong!
When it comes to program design for fat loss, there are a few strategies and many variables you can look at for complete optimisation:
- A powerlifter can do very low reps, combined with a calorie deficit, to make weight for their weight class to compete. They do not need high reps to get leaner.
- A body builder will tend to focus on a broader range of reps when in a fat loss phase. Commonly associated with cardio to increase energy output.
- Then, you routinely see people do circuit classes like f45 and lose weight doing very high reps and short rest periods… not my preferred method but it can work as well for people.
Basically, there are many options but ideally, when it comes to program design, I want to choose the strategy which will be most optimal for the client.
Variables I look for when creating a program range from:
- Total sets in the week – How much work can the client do in a week which will keep performance and volume high but also allow them to recover well each week in a deficit.
- Number of training days – An advanced lifter with all the time in the world can more easily disperse training volume over 4-6 days a week. A busy general population client may only have 2-3 days a week to make the gym.
- Calorie calculations and limits – How low are their calories? How high are their carbohydrates? The lower the calories the more it can impact weekly training volume. The lower the carbohydrates the harder potentially it will be to do higher rep sets which require more glycogen to fuel the sessions.
- Activity levels outside of the gym – Do they have a daily step target they are comfortably hitting? Do they work in an office and a busy mum or dad who are lucky to achieve 4000 steps each day? This impacts obviously their daily calorie expenditure.
- Cardio – How much cardio are they utilising? Someone who has all the time in the world can make time to focus on cardio outside their resistance training. Someone who can only get in the gym a few times a week won’t have the luxury of weights in the morning and cardio at night. This again, impacts their ‘calories out’ equation of energy balance.
All these variables matter and need to be taken into account.
Someone who trains weights 5-6 days a week has plenty of time to do cardio and a large step target. This means we won’t have to focus on resistance training as their main source of fat loss work.
But, this is where it depends.
A client who is a busy person and can only go to the gym 2-3 times a week, has zero time for cardio outside and struggles to get any real steps in probably may need to see their resistance training as a blend of getting stronger and building mass, but also to increase calorie expenditure.
This is where a resistance program like an Antagonist Supersets Method or an Upper/Lower Supersets Method can work well. This will allow for a more efficient workout from a time point of view, while also allowing them to work a lot of muscle tissue in the session. I also like how we can manipulate rest periods where we can keep the heart rate more elevated to increase calorie expenditure.
Although, I’m not trying to say that we have to do high reps to achieve this. We can still program lower rep ranges but by using an Upper/Lower Partnership or Antagonist Supersets, we can achieve a more blended approach of resistance training while also still increasing aerobic fitness to some degree.
An example of an Upper/Lower workout for a busy client can look like this:
A1) DB Front Foot Elevated Split Squats: 3 x 8-10 Reps – 2010 Tempo – 60 Seconds Rest
A2) Lat Pulldown – Neutral Grip: 3 x 8-10 Reps – 2010 Tempo – 60 Seconds Rest
B1) DB Romanian Deadlift: 3 x 8-10 Reps – 2010 Tempo – 60 Seconds Rest
B2) 45* Incline DB Press – Neutral: 3 x 8-10 Reps – 2010 Tempo – 60 Seconds Rest
C1) Standing Rope Face Pull: 3 x 10-12 Reps – 2012 Tempo – 45 Seconds Rest
C2) Rope Crunches: 3 x 10-12 Reps – 2010 Tempo – 45 Seconds Rest
In this workout, I utilise an Upper/Lower superset method. Notice also the rest periods are only 60 seconds! BUT, in reality, we are allowed over 2 minute of rest when going back to the same muscle in the exercise.
This allows for more work to be done in the session whilst still utilising longer rest periods for that muscle group. While you rest from your set of split squats, you perform a lat pulldown and train the back. While you recover from your pulldowns, the legs are being trained again with the split squats.
This is a great, time efficient strategy to program design for fat loss for busy people limited with time in the gym.
Your typical advanced lifter? Primarily lift the same way you did in a build phase. There’s a lot more to it, but we will save that for another time.
If you’re interested in learning more about fat loss program design, or just program design in general you’re in luck! Our Program Design Course dives into more information in regards to all things program design for clients or yourself, including fat loss, building, maintenance and even comp prep!
Let’s get learning,