The Most Efficient Way to Burn Fat and Build Strength
by Dave Thomas
Originally Published: December, 2015
Edited: June, 2017
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 a brain dump of my past six years of Performance360 programming, and the formula I believe to be the most productive for efficiently building strength, stamina and burning fat.
I believe that strength training and moderate to high intensity circuit 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 for your efforts.
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).
Today, I am going to shed some light on diet and exercise, and which you should do to get great results and not spend more than an hour in the gym when you go.
Let’s first jump into your exercise routine.
Exercise: Strength + Conditioning
Here are training elements I believe you should incorporate to burn fat and build strength.
1. Strength Training
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? Yes, you likely will and it should be embraced.
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 stories 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 metabolic 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.
2. Moderate-to-High Intensity Circuit Training
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 mixed modal, fast paced weight training with fluctuating periods of rest.
Within this realm, there exists a few different types of circuit. For a detailed breakdown of the science of Anaerobic vs. Aerobic conditioning, go here, but today we are going to take a quick look at the four main types of circuit training that we prescribe at Performance360, moving from lowest intensity to highest intensity, and the quick benefits of each.
The 4 Types of Circuit Training
- Low Intensity Circuit
- High Intensity Interval Training
- Density Circuits
- Interval Weight Training
Let’s take a quick look at each.
Low Intensity Circuit
Energy System: Aerobic.
Keep in mind the terminology “low” is completely relative. When compared to going all out for a six minute challenge, this would be the opposite end of the spectrum, but we are referring to a much higher intensity than simply going for a run. Here, we are looking at a workout intensity that is repeatable for 20-30 minutes. It does not mean we are not working hard, we are just working long. It’s important to understand that. Less of a focus on intensity and more of a focus on volume and accumulating work.
This can at times be boring for the advanced athlete but very productive for the beginner, who needs to build volume and prevents them from overreaching. This kind of training is excellent to improve cardiovascular health, build a proper fitness foundation, develop muscle endurance, and burn body fat.
Energy System: Typically Anaerobic, often shifts into some aerobic training is the amount of work sets is high enough.
True HIIT is characterized by prescribed work to rest ratios under a minute and maintains work bouts performed at the exact same level of intensity throughout the workout duration. It is regimented with the purpose of consistency.
Energy System: It depends on the length. Shorter circuits will be more anaerobic while longer work bouts will enter some aerobic work. Density Circuits typically combine all three energy systems in one format: Phosphagen, glycolysis and aerobic system.
Usually short, 5 – 12 minute circuit of high volume, challenging pace, often (but not required) centered around a barbell movement and usually no more than a couple of movements. The idea is focused density, not variety. The athlete does not have prescribed rest and tries to get through as many rounds as possible.
Energy System: Anaerobic,
Interval Weight Training 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 and are almost purely glycolytic.
12 Push Jerk (95/65)
300m Row Sprint
@ Max Effort
They are all highly effective in their own way, but think of it like this.
Anaerobic System (Higher Intensities)
Performance. Shorter in duration, higher in intensity. Not sustainable past a few minutes of intense effort. Helps to improve our ability to go as hard as we can for as long we can. Necessity for all around fitness is debatable, but very needed training for certain high-level athletes who have competitive goals.
Aerobic System (Lower Intensities)
Fitness. Longer in duration, lower in intensity. Very sustainable past a few minutes of moderate effort. Less targeted than anaerobic training, helps to improve our all around fitness and longer term endurance. Typically a higher caloric expenditure and more positive health markers.
A good weekly dose of all four is ideal for well rounded fitness and performance.
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. We train a number of very elite long distance runners at Performance360 to some great results. Go for a run if it pleases you, but not with the expectation it’s going to do much for your body other build your aerobic running capacity. 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 if you are not a competitive running athlete, 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 nutrition 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 three years.
I saw great results on Intermittent Fasting for three months.
I have seen great results on a macro-based, low fat approach for two years.
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.