(The following is a modified, shorter version of Alwyn Cosgrove’s original article. To view his original piece, click on the following link http://www.alwyncosgrove.com/hierarchy-of-fat-loss.html.) 1. Correct Nutrition

There’s pretty much nothing that can be done to out-train a crappy diet. You quite simply have to create a caloric deficit while eating enough protein and essential fats. There’s no way around this.

2. See #1

Yep. It really is that important. Several trainers have espoused that the only difference between training for muscle gain and training for fat loss is your diet. I think that’s a massive oversimplification, but it does reinforce how important and effective correct nutrition is towards your ultimate goal.

3. Activities that burn calories, maintain/promote muscle mass, and elevate metabolism

I think it’s fairly obvious that the bulk of calories burned are determined by our resting metabolic rate or RMR. The amount of calories burned outside of our resting metabolism (through exercise, thermic effect of feeding, etc.) is a smaller contributor to overall calories burned per day.

We can also accept that RMR is largely a function of how much muscle you have on your body – and how hard it works. Therefore, adding activities that promote or maintain muscle mass will make that muscle mass work harder and elevate the metabolic rate. This will become our number one training priority when developing fat loss programs.

4. Activities that burn calories and elevate metabolism

The next level of fat loss programming would be a similar activity. We’re still looking at activities that eat up calories and increase EPOC.

EPOC (Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption) is defined scientifically as the “recovery of metabolic rate back to pre-exercise levels” and “can require several minutes for light exercise and several hours for hard intervals.”

Essentially, we’re looking for activities that keep us burning more calories after the exercise session.

5. Activities that burn calories but don’t necessarily maintain muscle or elevate metabolism

This is the “icing on the cake” – adding in activities that’ll burn up additional calories but don’t necessarily contribute to increasing metabolism. This is the least effective tool in your arsenal as it doesn’t burn much outside of the primary exercise session.

Let’s put this fat loss continuum together in terms of our progressive training hierarchy.

Five Factors for Fat Loss Training

EPOC Chart

1. Metabolic Resistance Training

Basically we’re using resistance training as the cornerstone of our fat loss programming. Our goal is to work every muscle group hard, frequently, and with an intensity that creates a massive “metabolic disturbance” or “afterburn” that leaves the metabolism elevated for several hours post-workout.

In my experience, full body training in a superset, tri-set, or circuit format (with non-competing exercises) in a rep range that generates lactic acid (and pushes the lactic acid threshold or LAT) seems to create the biggest metabolic demand. It makes sense: training legs, back, and chest will burn more calories and elevate metabolism more than an isolated approach training one of them.

The rep range that seems to work best is the 8-12 hypertrophy range, although going higher will work just as well with a less trained population.

2. High Intensity Anaerobic Interval Training

The second key “ingredient” in fat loss programming is high intensity interval training (HIIT). It burns more calories than steady state and elevates metabolism significantly more than other forms of cardio. The downside is that it isn’t a lot of fun!

3. High Intensity Aerobic Interval Training

The next tool we’ll pull out is essentially a lower intensity interval method where we use aerobic intervals.

A study done by Talanian, Galloway et al (Journal of Applied Physiology 12/14/06) looked at high-intensity aerobic interval training and its influence on fat oxidation. In summary, seven sessions of HIIT over two weeks induced marked increases in whole body and skeletal muscle capacity for fatty acid oxidation during exercise in moderately active women. In layman’s terms, the interval work appeared to “upregulate” fat burning enzymes. Basically this means we can burn more fat in other activities as a result of this inclusion. In other words, we get some more bang for our buck.

A quick disclaimer: my colleague Alan Aragon once said, “Caring about how much fat is burned during exercise is equivalent to worrying about how much muscle is built during exercise.” In other words, substrate utilization during exercise isn’t really an important variable in the big picture of fat loss – total calories burned overall is.

4. Steady State High Intensity Aerobic Training

Tool number four is just hard cardio work. This time we’re burning calories – we aren’t working hard enough to increase EPOC significantly or to do anything beyond the session itself. But calories do count. Burning another 300 or so calories per day will add up.

5. Steady State Low Intensity Aerobic Training

This is just activity, going for a walk in the park, etc. It won’t burn a lot of calories; it won’t increase muscle or EPOC.

There isn’t much research showing that low intensity aerobic training actually results in very much additional fat loss, but you’re going to have to really work to convince me that moving more is going to hurt you when you’re in fat attack mode.

Putting It All Together: Time Management

You’ll notice that this is perhaps the opposite recommendations from what you typically read in the mainstream media. Usually fat loss recommendations start with low intensity aerobics, progress to high intensity aerobics, then intervals. Finally, when you’re “in shape” they recommend resistance training.

My approach to massive fat loss is attacking from the complete opposite of the norm. If you’re a professional bodybuilder, then you typically have extra time to add in cardio and do extra work to get lean. A “real world” client with a job and a family can rarely afford additional time; therefore, we need to look at our training in a more efficient manner and focus on our time available first, then design our programming based on that.

If you have 3 hours per week, use only #1 above: metabolic resistance training.

This can be three, one-hour training sessions, or four 45-minute training sessions. It doesn’t seem to matter.
However, once you’re getting three hours per week of total body resistance training, in my experience I haven’t seen an additional effect in terms of fat loss by doing more. My guess is that, at that point, recovery starts to become a concern and intensity is impaired.

This type of training involves barbell complexes, supersets, tri-sets, circuits, EDT work, kettlebell combos, etc.

If you have 3-5 hours, use #1 and # 2: weight training plus high intensity interval work.

At this point, any additional work is usually in the form of high intensity interval training. I’m looking to burn up more calories and continue to elevate EPOC.

Interval training is like putting your savings into a high return investment account. Low intensity aerobics is like hiding it under your mattress. Both will work, but the return you get is radically different.

If you have 5-6 hours available, add #3: aerobic interval training.

Aerobic intervals win out at this point because it’s still higher intensity overall than steady state work so it burns more calories. There appears to be a fat oxidation benefit and will still be easier to recover from than additional anaerobic work.

If you have 6-8 hours available, add #4.

If you’re not losing a lot of fat with six hours of training already, then I’d be taking a very close look at your diet. If everything is in place, but we just need to ramp up fat loss some more (e.g. for a special event: a photo shoot, high school reunion, etc.) then we’ll add in some hard cardio – a long run or bike ride with heart rate at 75% of max or higher.

Why not do as much of this as possible then? Well, the goal is to burn as many calories as we can without negatively impacting the intensity of our higher priority activities.

If I have more time than that, I’ll add # 5.

I think I’m getting into fairytale land at this point. I don’t think most of us have more than eight hours of training time available per week. But if we do, this is when any additional activity will help to burn up calories, which is never a bad thing.

A lot of fighters have used this activity to help make weight. This works because it burns up calories but doesn’t leave you tired for your strength training, sparring, or technical work.

That’s the key with the addition of this activity: just to move, get your body moving, and burn up some additional calories – but not to work so hard that it inhibits recovery and negatively affects our other training.

The research and the real world don’t really show massive changes from the inclusion of this type of activity; however, I think everything has its place. Remember, this is a hierarchy of training, and this is fifth on the list for a reason.

Smart guys call this NEAT – Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. I call it moving a wee bit more than normal.


Keep in mind that all I’ve said here is that harder training works better than easier training. It really is that simple.

To conclude, I agree with coach Dan John. Attack body fat with a passion and a single minded goal. The best way to do this is with an all-out assault implementing the hierarchy I described above.

– Alwyn Cosgrove

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