The Most Efficient Way to Burn Fat and Build Strength
by Dave Thomas
Originally Published: December, 2015
Ultimately, what you’ll read today is my answer to the question of what is the best way to burn fat and increase strength? It’s basically a brain dump of my past five years running our gyms and what formula I believe to be the most productive for efficiently building strength, stamina and burning fat.
I believe that strength training and interval-based training are the most effective forms of exercise.
I believe that traditional steady state cardio offers the lowest efficiency and the least amount of benefit.
I believe Pop Tarts are indisputably better than Toaster Strudel.
While body changes will always boil down to diet, what’s even more important than what diet protocol you pick is your ability to stick with it (assuming it’s not bat shit crazy).
Let’s first jump into your exercise routine.
Exercise: Diversify Yo’ Bonds
Let me just clearly state that I think there are many great forms of exercise. Lots of protocols out there work for different people. There are also fat CrossFitters, ripped yogis, strong runners and lots of other people that bust the stereotype, and of the nearly 600 members at our gym we certainly represent all makes and models.
We all carry physiological and metabolic differences, we all train for different reasons and a movement that may feel great for you could feel like a bag of ass for me.
I’ve never been part of the “show me the science or bust” crowd. I have read just as many comically awful, manipulated studies as I have legitimate ones, so a publication in a journal is not the be all, end all for me.
I want to test, and I want to observe.
I can also tell you that for every study out there that supports an opinion, there’s an opposing one that discredits it.
I don’t mind studies and will cite one or two here today to make me look smarter and support my argument, but I am very aware and you should be too, that there’s also research on the other side of what you’ll read.
Ultimately, I believe if you pay close attention to a large enough population of people over time, you’ll be provided with more than enough answers on what is effective training protocol.
Here are training elements I believe you should incorporate to burn fat and build strength.
People define strength training differently but for me it’s pretty cut and dry.
- It is a compound lift (multi-joint).
- It is 1 – 5 reps.
- It exceeds 70% of your maximum output.
These movements include and are not limited to squats, deadlifts, rows, cleans, jerks, snatches, presses, and loaded carries.
Now, as a hashtag fitfam we’re well advanced from where we were ten, even five years ago. Men wear capris. Women strength train. Actresses deadlift. I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but these things are cool now and it’s not the uphill battle it once was with convincing the general public to get under something heavy.
However, a lot of folks remain confused as to why they should do it.
First, it’s important you embrace that you will add some muscle when strength training. You won’t add twenty pounds of it (that’s literally not naturally possible for most human beings), but a few pounds spread across your body in a few months? Yeah.
Why is this good?
Metabolically, adding muscle is very advantageous because the amount of muscle we have on our body is directly proportionate to how many calories we are able to burn. Muscle is a very metabolically active tissue, so the more we have of it the more calories we burn.
Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of calories your body burns at rest, daily. With more muscle comes an increased BMR and greater caloric expenditure while we’re sitting around doing nothing. Playing Arnold Schwarzenegger in Mobile Strike, posting about the death of which celebrity you didn’t know, scrolling Insta for the 82nd time today. Just kickin’ back burnin’ cals.
Now, there is no such thing as trading fat for muscle. One does not turn into the other. But over time, a focus on building your strength will have a favorable effect on both your ability to build muscle and burn fat.
A 135 pound woman comprised of 25% body fat will have a slower metabolism than a 135 pound woman with 18% body fat.
Strength training helps accomplish this kind of re-composition.
The aesthetic aspect of muscle growth that comes with a strength training protocol is much more proportionate than targeted hypertrophy training. Because the squat is a multi-joint, total body movement it will build muscle across your entire body, whereas something isolated like a hamstring curl will target just the hamstring.
There is no comparison to the metabolic and physiological effect that a loaded back squat has in comparison to holding a warrior pose, going for a run or even a light weight goblet squat.
Too many hear “strength training” and they think that means prematurely putting 200 pounds on the bar your first week and blowing out your back.
It simply means taking your body to a straining stimulus of 70% or higher across total body, compound movements.
You really don’t even need to care about your strength to receive the physiological benefit of training it. It’s very safe, very beneficial and very smart of you to do if you want to have less fat and a more active metabolism. Not to mention becoming a stronger and more capable human.
Many of us have tried to re-brand circuit training and pass this off as a unique system different than everyone else, but we’re all doing the exact same shit at the end of the day.
10 – 20 minutes of fast paced weight training with fluctuating periods of rest.
Within this realm, there does exist a few different types of intensity levels.
Most commonly, we have High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and Interval Weight Training (IWT).
The best way that I can describe the different between IWT and HIIT is that IWT would be a fifth of Old Granddad and HIIT would would be a six pack of Coors Light. Both get you drunk. One will just get you more drunk and leave you feeling a little worse.
HIIT typically can consist of randomized movements of relatively equal rep count and rest throughout the workout.
IWT typically consists of a major power-based movement of a higher rep count to challenge, not fry, with enough left in the tank to immediately follow that with a held rate of output (short distance run or row). They are typically shorter.
There is of course just Boring Ass Circuit Training, as well. Movements performed in succession at a non break-neck pace for up to half an hour, maybe even forty minutes. Boring, and one of my favorite forms of effective training. This is also a great way to get hypertrophy training accomplished.
Early IWT advocate Dr. Pat O’Shea in 1969:
“During strenuous exercise, the rate of metabolism rises, going to about 15 times the resting metabolic rate (RMR) and even higher during intense interval work. For example, running 5 mi/hr the oxygen uptake required is 28 ml 02/min/kg of body weight with 3.7 cal/hr./lb burned, while a short burst of intense interval work may require 100 ml 02/min/kg with 13.8 cal/hr/lb burned. By maintaining the high level of training over a 5 or 6 week period one would expect a significant increase in the ratio of lean body mass to fat.
Intense interval work utilizes a greater percent of the body’s muscles, both slow and fast twitch. Also, performing high intensity work places added energy demands on the respiratory system, cardiovascular system and nervous system. Thus more fat and glycogen are burned to support the expanding energy demands of the body during – and after – intense exercise. In other words, the cost of short intense interval exercise is very high in terms of energy demands in comparison to low intensity aerobic exercise.
What’s more, while at rest trained active muscles burn more fat night and day, contributing to further fat loss.”
The difference between the three don’t really matter.
They are all highly effective in their own way.
Just don’t go murdering yourself. Over pacing and over conditioning every single workout can cause metabolic disruption and potentially make you catabolic. The promotion of plastering oneself to the mat every workout is an ugly face of fitness that needs to go stand in the corner and face the wall.
It’s important to remember that your exertion level should mirror your pace, typically meaning that the shorter the duration, the higher the output and vice versa. If something is ten minutes, yeah, go HAM on that mother fucker. If something is 30 minutes, dial it back to a very moderate pace.
So, why do they work?
Enter the Controversial EPOC
The main benefit is in the Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) effect, our body’s ability to burn calories long after exercise has ended.
Explained simply, EPOC is the rate at which our body consumes oxygen after we’ve exercised in an attempt to get us back to a normal state. Reproduction of adenosine triphosphate burned in the workout, returning our body to its resting temperature, protein reparation to muscles to name a few.
This is a calorie burning activity for our body, so in theory, the more prolonged the EPOC state the more calories we are burning.
Some consider EPOC to be proven science, others just a hypothesis without much merit. I am not a scientist. I don’t ultimately know for certain whether it’s the post oxygen consumption, merely the total calories burned during the workout, the metabolic effect of training the total body or Jack’s magic fucking beans and frankly, I don’t really care.
I just know that it is extremely beneficial when it comes to efficiently burning fat, increasing strength and building stamina in a short amount of time.
The Limitations of Traditional Cardio
There are two main reasons why traditional cardio is limited when it comes to body recomposition.
First reason, it provides little to no post oxygen effect. When we’re done running, we’ve burned all of the calories we are going to burn. The thermic effect is acute to just the duration of the workout and does not carry over to effect our basal metabolic rate in any meaningful way (unless you’re sprinting).
But I’ve lost weight with running, Dave.
No doubt. It can certainly work to shed a little bit of weight, especially for untrained folks at the onset of a program (much like Johnny finding porn for the first time, where any stimulus is good stimulus.)
If you burn 300 calories on a run and that puts you into caloric deficit for the day, chances are it can cause you to lose some weight, just not much. And you will plateau rapidly.
Second reason, the weight may occur in a way that will not favor your body composition since it provides no meaningful work on our muscle tissue, and in fact can potentially burn it.
When in an aerobic state such as running, our body has the option to pull fuel from glycogen, fat…and muscle if underfed or performed for too long.
A lot of times people think they’ve lost fat running, but when it comes to getting analysis performed it’s often muscle tissue.
Recently, Ashley began incorporating weekly long runs into her routine in preparation for a half marathon. Since she began this long distance cardio approach, she has not burned ounce of body fat and has in fact decreased her lean muscle mass by nearly 1%.
Now, body re-composition was not her goal with running and she’s done a great job of feeding herself on cardio days to ensure she maintains her physique and strength. Just something to consider, since a lot of people don’t pay as close of attention to the details as she does and they hammer out long distance mileage in hopes it will change their body.
Running is good for getting better at running. Go for a run if it pleases you, but not with the expectation it’s going to do much for your body. If you must run consistently, do your best to keep it in an anaerobic state and perform sprint intervals. Go all out for thirty seconds then walk for ninety seconds. Do this for up to a couple of miles.
The bottom line is that I do not believe the risk of developing long term running injuries like stress fractures, shin splints, plantar fascitis and IT band syndrome to be worth the squeeze of consistent pavement pounding.
Diet: Follow Something…Anything
A part of my soul has died over the years when it comes to nutrition. It’s dead. It’s gone, and it’s never coming back.
Talking about it is like talking about religion. Only three hundred time worse. People lose their damn minds over winning debates and I just found remaining quiet on the topic was more productive than engaging passionate psychopaths jacked up on yams.
Here’s what I know.
I saw great results on a Paleo Diet for two years.
I saw great results on Intermittent Fasting for three months.
I have seen great results on a macro-based, low fat approach for seven months.
Well wouldn’t ya gosh darn know it! Three strategies, all of ’em worked. I am not going to endorse any one of them today, you’ll need to find something that is most applicable to your goals but I can tell you that all three work for recomposing the body and burning fat and all had their drawbacks, as well.
Here are some general thoughts.
My digestion functions most optimally on a Paleo diet. I have acid reflux disease and a family history of esophageal cancer, so I take this very seriously. I got to 9% body fat on a Paleo diet and got to what I consider to be reasonably strong.
On the flip side, over three years I got puffy and ultimately, fatter (up to 14% body fat). I was undershooting my performance and I believe a long term caloric deprivation damaged my metabolism. I was getting “full” on fats and proteins, but that satiety was a mirage and wasn’t ultimately providing me enough calories to sustain activity. This is simply my personal experience.
The Paleo Diet is great for overall health and if performance is a secondary goal. I’d also want to provide the caveat that you find a way to ensure you consume enough calories for long term metabolic health, something that I failed to do.
I did this for a few months and really liked it from a body composition perspective, but my performance went to dog shit. Waiting until 2 pm to eat was easy on some days, a nightmare on others. It was not sustainable long term for me and I care too much about how much I can squat to stick with this.
Macro Based Dieting
I am currently eating this way and I have to be honest. I love it. The results happen much slower, but they are significant and have a more permanent feel to them. I’m able to consume a lot of carbohydrates and still lean out, and I just feel “better”. I started at 14% body fat and a damaged metabolism and am now back down to 10%.
The downside is my digestion is not very good as I’m constantly hissing and releasing burps.
I also miss my high egg, bacon, butter, coconut oil and red meat content.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line with any diet, the science, data, studies, results…they all arrive at the same technique.
Manipulation of fuel intake (carbs or fat) in order to produce favorable change in body composition.
Paleo restricts carbs. Macro-based dieting restricts fat. Intermittent Fasting restricts your food window.
It’s not magic. It’s just fuel deprivation to match your training with the outcome of burning fat. Pick one that works for you and for Crissakes, just stick with it. That is the aspect of diet that is of the utmost importance.
If you’re educated enough on food choices to not need to follow a plan, then even better.
This concludes my formula and what I recommend for my members, and for you.
Find something that works for you and adhere.