Your complete guide to training for fat loss. Build muscle and lose fat quickly, efficiently and healthily
Shedding stubborn fat isn’t easy.
It requires diet, exercise and - of course - motivation.
But if you’ve got the will, we’ve got the way.
There are no secrets in this guide. No miracle systems, or voodoo training systems pushed by Instagram celebrities. Just pure, honest and science-led advice.
Giving you all the tools you need to build the lean, strong, athletic physique you want.
Read on to uncover the best training methods to lose body fat, maintain muscle and boost your fitness levels.
- The importance of exercise during fat loss phases
- Training for calorie burning
- How to preserve muscle mass with heavy, full-body workouts
- Using NEAT to boost energy expenditure
Calories in v calories out: it all comes down to energy balance
The human body acts in accordance with the laws on thermodynamics.
Yes, we’re all individual, complex organisms with our own wants and needs. But at the heart of it all we’re governed by simple physics.
Your body needs fuel to support everything it does. From the basics of breathing and temperature regulation to high-performance functions of running and lifting weights. This fuel comes from food.
Measured in kilocalories (kcal) or kilojoules (kJ), food energy is essential for survival.
Your body works hard to convert the nutrients in your food into usable energy. Making it accessible to your cells so you can go about your day.
The only way you get the energy you need to function correctly is from food.
Specifically, macronutrients: carbohydrate, fat and protein.
Energy in, energy out: the basis of calorie requirements
Energy balance is the relationship between energy coming into your body from food v energy being burned off from basic functions and physical activity.
If you imagine Energy In v Energy Out on a set of scales, what happens to body fat is simply down to which side ‘weighs’ more.
- Energy In = Energy Out: Your body mass will remain constant
- Energy In > Energy Out: You’ll store excess calories in fat cells
- Energy In < Energy Out: You’ll use stored fat to make up for the deficit in energy
The key to fat loss is achieving what is called a calorie deficit. Or negative energy balance.
Without doing this you’ll never trigger fat cells to open up and release their fatty goodness to be used by your cells.
While Energy In comes from food alone, Energy Out is provided by many factors. Including:
- Basal metabolic rate – that is, calories used each day to support basic, vital functions (this includes preservation of lean mass)
- Structured exercise
- Unstructured physical activity
- Energy used to digest food
Burning calories is the combination of all these factors added together. If you hold more muscle mass (or mass in general), you’ll burn more calories.
Likewise if you’re more active, you’ll burn more calories.
The more active you are, the more fuel you need to sustain and support your daily requirements. And the more lean mass you have, the more energy you need to maintain it.
In order to understand fat loss (and fat gain for that matter), the most important thing to get your head around is energy balance.
Energy gets into your body from food and activity burns it off. What you don’t burn off gets stored as fat. It really is that simple
The importance of exercise during fat loss phases
There’s an argument that you don’t really need to exercise to achieve fat loss. And that working out is in fact an inefficient way of burning excess pounds.
If energy balance is the physiological key to fat loss, all you need to do is consume fewer calories than you burn off, right? No need for exercise, just eat less.
It does make sense. After all, it would be far less effort to avoid eating that 500 kcal donut than it would be to burn 500 kcal in the gym.
But research shows that exercise is hugely important for the overall approach to fat loss. Not only does it increase daily energy expenditure, it also boosts health and reduces the risk of modifiable disease too.1
And that's not all.
Exercise also increases overall fitness so you can train harder for longer. That means more calories burned as your ability to tolerate harder workouts increases.
Exercise is an important component of energy expenditure. Supporting fitness, health and allowing you to eat more but still achieve your calorie deficit
Muscle mass is a big determinant of energy expenditure. Training with a focus on building (or maintaining) muscle mass helps to preserve your metabolism during sustained dieting. Meaning you don’t just develop a great physique; you maintain your calorie output too.
Lastly - and best of all - the more active you are, the more calories you can eat and still be in a calorie deficit.
Low energy intakes can lead to nutrient deficiencies, ill health and developing poor relationships with food. Exercise might not be essential for fat loss, but it’s a very important tool to have in your box.
Training to burn calories
Over the past few years we’ve seen more and more studies suggesting that exercise alone isn’t a great way to lose fat. There’s no disputing that.
You can run for miles or perform high-intensity classes on a daily basis. But if you continue to eat more than you’re burning off, you’ll just never trigger significant fat burning.
Training to burn calories is there to support your diet. Not replace it.
When it comes to exercise, enjoyment is important. There’s no ‘best’ workout for fat loss. It comes down to what you’re motivated enough to do regularly enough and build into your daily habits. Consistency is key.
HIIT and LISS cardio for burning fat
Low-Intensity Steady-State (LISS) exercise is characterized by long periods of a low to moderate intensity of around 55-70% of maximum heart rate. It doesn't burn many calories on a minute-by-minute basis, but over a period of time can soon mount up.
Several studies have shown that achieving government guidelines of 20-60 minutes, 3 workouts per week lead to significant improvements in body composition.2
There’s a lot of flexibility in approach too. You can walk, jog, swim, cycle, whatever works for you.
Any activity you take part in where the intensity is low and you can reach a minimum of 20-minutes without a break fits the bill.
And if you can’t manage 20-minutes, you can always work up to it.
Okay, LISS might not be the most efficient way of burning calories if you use time as a metric. It’s far easier to just skip a meal than it is to exercise your way through hundreds of access calories.
But if you’re not a fan of getting hot and sweaty. Or your current health doesn’t support intense workouts, LISS is a great tool for building foundational fitness and racking up more daily energy expenditure.
Advantages of LISS training
- Not too challenging to perform and easy to recovery from
- You can exercise daily without feeling burnt out
- It will help you build an aerobic base of fitness
- It can get you outdoors and enjoying the local scenery
- It’s very versatile and can be performed using different exercises
- It’s great for health, stress relief and decreasing risk of long-term illness
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the aggressive, angry twin of LISS.
It focuses less on duration and more on intensity. As the name suggests, HIIT consists of punchy, intense periods of exercise followed by recovery periods.
There are multiple ways to structure HIIT workouts, but many of them work around the basis of 5 or more intervals at 80+% maximum heart rate using a 1:2 (or sometimes 1:3) work: recovery ratio.
When it comes to time efficiency, HIIT provides a great tool for ramping up energy expenditure. And a huge bank of studies3 show that integrating the approach into your lifestyle leads to significant improvements in body composition.
If you’re short on time, HIIT wins every time. But if your health isn’t great, you’re new to exercise or you don’t enjoy training to near maximum, LISS is the best choice.
Look online and you’ll see hundreds of articles pitching LISS and HIIT head-to-head. But it’s not a black or white choice. Both can support your fat loss journey as long as they fit into your lifestyle.
It will come down to personal preference and how it fits into your overall plan.
Advantages of HIIT training
- It increases work capacity and anaerobic capacity
- It’s time efficient and suits people with a busy schedule
- It improves your cardiometabolic profile
- You will burn through a lot of calories per minute
Both low and high-intensity exercise can be used to support a fat loss program. It all comes down to your starting point, preference and secondary goals
Training to preserve muscle mass
A common issue with dieting for fat loss, particularly over a sustained period of time is muscle loss.
When you’re in a deficit, your body will turn to stored fat as a way to make up the difference. But it can also break down muscle proteins for fuel too.
Over time, this can have a negative impact on your metabolism. Making it harder for you to continue losing excess fat as you get nearer and nearer your goal.
It can also lead to a huge rebound if you come away from your diet too, as your daily calorie intake will be relatively lower.
Remember, the more muscle you have the more energy you need to maintain it.
Let’s say you’re underway with your calorie deficit and want to integrate some workouts to preserve muscle mass*. You’re not exactly bursting with energy, so you need methods that are efficient and provide the most bang for your buck.
That’s where strength training comes in.
Not only does lifting weights help you cling onto that precious muscle mass while you shred body fat, the right workout can even help with exercise performance and functional capacity too.
*NOTE: It’s possible for inexperienced lifters to build muscle during a calorie deficit.
This isn’t the time to perform metabolic work with super high reps. You’ll just exhaust your muscle glycogen stores and feel fatigued and empty for the rest of the day.
Research shows that including heavy strength training in your muscle preservation routine reduces the loss of fat-free mass during dieting.4
In other words, it plugs the hole that’s allowing muscle proteins to be swallowed up for fuel.
Similarly, research has shown that a weight loss diet in conjunction with both aerobic and resistance exercise prevents the normal decline in fat-free mass5 and muscular power.
It will augment body composition, support muscle strength and optimum oxygen consumption compared with a weight loss program by diet alone.
Additionally, fatigue is a huge factor here. While isolation exercises and huge amounts of volume might have worked well during your bulking attempt, it’s all about being clever with your training.
Focus on compound exercises
Focusing on large compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, presses and pulls will stimulate greater overall muscle recruitment compared to bicep curls and leg extensions.
So base your training around compound exercises and pepper in the occasional isolation lift where you want to.
Doing a full body workout 2-3 times per week will provide great results.
Performing 6-10 exercises per workout, covering all major muscle groups will help you balance regular, enough muscle preservation – and keep unnecessary fatigue at bay.
Hitting the gym every day for grueling split workouts however, will no doubt lead to an accumulation of fatigue within weeks.
Lifting in the 5-10 rep range is heavy enough to trigger muscle mass preservation during dieting.
As with muscle building, volume is an important determinant of results when lifting weights. But with less available energy you shouldn’t be aiming to hit set after set and expect to recover in time for the next workout.
It’s a trade-off. So aim for 2-4 sets per exercise and adapt from there if you need to.
Boost your NEAT and cheat your way to fat loss
So far in this guide we’ve looked at low and high-intensity cardio exercise to support fat loss, as well as strength training. The last part of the jigsaw is not so much exercise as it is unstructured physical activity.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT) refers to anything that isn’t exercise but still involved movement. This includes walking, gardening, carrying groceries, etc. But also things like fidgeting, foot tapping or typing.
When it comes to general activity levels, studies have shown that NEAT can vary by as much as 2,000 kcal from person to person6 - that’s a huge amount of energy expenditure in just one day.
Being more active is one of the main tools you have to fight excess body fat.
Physical activity levels have gradually declined in recent years. Unstructured movement is a highly modifiable way to ramp up energy expenditure and be more active
The great thing about NEAT is that because it’s below your fatigue threshold - i.e. it’s such a low intensity that it doesn’t tire you out. You can fit it into your daily schedule without having to worry about accumulated fatigue or it impacting your workouts.
Evidence suggests that NEAT is a highly modifiable part of energy expenditure. And that overweight adults tend to subconsciously reduce their activity levels.
There is also some suggestion that reductions in NEAT might actually contribute to being overweight.
Research shows that NEAT can account for as much as 66% in increased total daily energy expenditure7 during dieting.
By walking more, doing housework, working in the garden or just generally being on your feet, you’re cranking up energy expenditure.
Much like LISS, you don’t burn many calories minute by minute, but it definitely adds up each day.
If you’re looking to shed access pounds, you need the right balance of both diet and exercise.
It’s no good following beast mode in the gym by hitting feast mode in the kitchen.
A calorie deficit is key to burning fat. But can lead to low energy, so your training has to be smart.
Choose a program to suit you. Go heavy and HIIT for quick results. Or take your time with a LISS approach. Or mix and match both.
And don’t underestimate the incremental impact of a bit more walking, taking the stairs and generally being on your feet.
If you want to learn more about strength training for fat loss, check out my Training for Muscle Mass guide.