What type of training should I do to lose fat?
Everyone’s favourite fitness subject: how to lose fat and be lean.
Number one, like building muscle, fat loss has its foundation in the kitchen: you could hire the most expensive personal trainers with the most cutting-edge gym and you wouldn’t lose fat if you were still eating cheeseburgers everyday.
As everyone by now already knows, you accumulate fat from not expending the energy you get from what you eat.
Your body needs calories to run: your brain, your muscles, organs all need energy to function. This is what the recommended daily allowance (RDA) calorie intake is based on: an average, healthy person’s energy requirement each day.
Obviously, if you are bigger or have more muscle, you’ll need more calories than a smaller person to function, which is why women have a lower calorie RDA than men.
Similarly if you expend a lot more energy than most through exercise or a manual job, then you will also have a higher calorie requirement than more sedentary people.
So how do you get fat? Simply put if you take in more calories than you expend, your body will convert the excess energy into fat and store it for use later. This is something that was useful back in the Stone Age when you didn’t know where the next meal was coming from.
Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately for our waistlines) most of us these days don’t need to worry about where our next feed is coming from.
So eating healthily is obviously the most important factor. But then there is how you expend more energy to use those fat stores.
What is the best way to train to lose fat?
This can be quite a complicated subject, because it really depends on your training experience, training goals and what your current training looks like.
However you can broadly break it down into two types of exercise: steady-state cardio and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Interval Training vs Steady-state cardio
What is the difference? Steady state cardio, or just cardio, is the more ‘traditional’ form of burning calories: low to moderate intensity movement such as running or cycling performed continuously over a long period of time, like an hour or more.
It’s what everyone knows and what everyone has been doing since forever.
Interval training has seen an explosion in popularity over the past decade, with most new fitness fads like Crossfit and circuit training favouring the idea that you can burn more calories and get fitter faster with short, high intensity bursts of exercises interspaced with recovery periods.
So which one is best for you? Let’s run through a spectrum of exercisers and see what they should be doing to help them in their performance and body composition goals.
1. Complete Beginner
The important thing for beginners to training is to take it slow. I don’t mean go slowly I mean gradually adapt to taking on an exercise workload. If you’re completely new to training and are keen to get in shape high-intensity training might seem appealing in that it seems the quickest way to get lean.
However the problem is in the label: high-intensity. For HIIT to be effective, you need to be able to push yourself hard for the short time you’re working.
For beginners this throws up two problems.
One, with no background in training it will be difficult to work at the required intensity for HIIT to be effective, because your body isn’t used to exercise even in a moderate or low intensity state. Put simply, as a beginner you’re not ready for high-intensity effort.
It would be like trying to ride a stage of the Tour de France just after you learned to ride a bike without stabilisers.
This kind of shock treatment may also be detrimental to your view of exercise and thus your motivation to continue- HIIT by necessity needs you to be in a state where your legs are burning and the lactic acid is building up. It’s pretty uncomfortable, even for experienced trainers who ‘enjoy’ this sort of torture.
If you are just starting and feel terrible during and after each session, the danger is that you will start to dread your new regime. And then you’ll give up.
Ease yourself into it by building up your endurance at your own pace. There’s plenty of time to get more intense once you have a base level of fitness.
Recommendation: Steady-state cardio
2. Intermediate Trainer
If you can handle it, the main benefit of HIIT is that you can burn more calories in a shorter amount of time: great if you prefer short and sharp sessions or are extremely busy.
Also studies have shown that HIIT increases metabolism for the 24 hours after the session, meaning you will continue to burn more calories once you’re done.
So if you’ve been training for a couple of years and have a foundation of fitness, HIIT can be a good way to change-up your workouts and be an effective method of burning more calories faster.
The one major drawback of HIIT is that when done properly it is taxing on your Central Nervous System (CNS), meaning you need time to recover- unlike steady state cardio you can’t do a HIIT session everyday.
So if you’re an intermediate trainer it is still good to keep your sessions of cardio while incorporating HIIT sessions a couple of times a week.
Recommendation: Steady-state cardio with sessions of HIIT
3. Serious Weight Trainer
As noted above, HIIT is taxing on your CNS. If you’re seriously into weight training then you are already putting a lot of stress on your muscles and CNS through heavy lifting. Additional HIIT sessions could put you into overtraining, and as a result your strength training will suffer.
Therefore if your main focus is strength and muscle it’s probably best to avoid too much high-intensity cardio.
Stick to steady-state cardio but keep the duration and distance down: long sessions of cardio (such as running half or full marathons) are going to be detrimental to your goals of strength and muscle.
Recommendation: Steady-state cardio
As you can see, it depends on your personal circumstances to whether HIIT or steady-state cardio is going to produce better long-term results.
For most people they both have their place in your regime, and both will help you in different ways.
For example steady state cardio should never be discarded because of the endurance element it provides- good aerobic capacity is beneficial for you anyway but in also has good carry-over to other activities like cycling and walking.
It’s my firm belief that even those who seriously weight train should be able to run 10 km in a reasonable time without too much strain, because having that aerobic capacity will help you when you are pushing through high rep squats and stop you from getting winded when deadlifting.
It also means you’re a more rounded athlete, which unless you’re specialising to the point of trying to break records, can only be a good thing.
Steady state cardio has also been used for decades by athletes to lose fat or get lean for a contest (see the programs boxers and bodybuilders go on to get lean before competition). It definitely works well.
However it can also be quite tedious and long, because running at a moderate pace for an hour doesn’t actually burn that many calories.
This is where most can benefit from HIIT. Not only will it fire up your metabolism and burn more calories in a much shorter time but it can also provide a welcome change to keep things interesting.
So if you are looking to get lean you could go with doing 2 steady state cardio sessions with one HIIT session, for the best balance of both.
Don’t forget the benefits of lifting weights
It is however important to remember that muscle uses more calories than fat, even when not being used. So your best strategy for getting lean or losing fat is to do your cardio and weight-train.
The more of your bodyweight that is muscle, the more calories you burn just sitting still. Which translates to being able to stay lean whilst eating more.
And don’t forget, ladies, weight training is probably the shortest way to having the toned look you want: bulkiness will NEVER happen.
Related article: Women and weight training
Ultimately, it is important to make exercising enjoyable: we can sit here and debate the finer scientific points of cardio, HIIT and weight training but fundamentally if you do any of them consistently with drive, you will get results.
If steady state cardio bores you, then by all means hit up HIIT three times a week. If you want to run marathons then weight training is not required or advised.
But by knowing the options you have and trying them out you can find the best blend for your own goals.
What type of training should you do to lose fat?
I would suggest a mix of weight-training, steady state cardio and HIIT.
I’ll leave you to work out how much of each.
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