**Disclaimer: Nutrition is our driver of fat loss. We need to get that out of the way first and foremost. Our philosophy is that our caloric deficit and our macronutrient consumption are going to determine what happens to the fat which is on our bodies. Our clients train hard for muscular preservation in the most efficient way possible. We do not attempt to “lose fat” via activity.
Nearly all of the posts on this site focus on the dieting or fitness mental mindset – as this is the most important part of the equation. Training has taken a backseat as far as subject material goes. Part of the reason this was as stated – diet is arguably more important than training for long-term health benefits.
But there was another reason as well. I hadn’t coached enough people to fully understand training to the point where I was comfortable writing extensively about it. I had been rather marred in a few ideologies I had been exposed to, and I continued to re-iterate those ideologies.
In this article, we are going to discuss a few training philosophies, as well as give you parameters and options which most of our clients utilize. Unless the client has a highly individualized training plan and/or limiting equipment or injury situation, the information contained in this article is what we do to achieve such amazing results.
Here’s what you’re getting yourself into:
-Approximate reading time: 15-20 minutes
Before we discuss actual training parameters, we need to discuss a few training philosophies we should adhere to, regardless of program set-up.
Training principle #1: Progressive Overload
The principle of progressive overload is straightforward. If you apply sufficient stress/load to your body, your body be forced into creating the necessary adaptation to handle that stress/load. As you recover, your body will rebuild itself – and you will be stronger at your next session than you were at your previous session.
There are 3 applications to progressive overload you see being utilized most frequently:
1. Lifting more weight with the same number of repetitions.
2. Lifting the same weight with more repetitions.
3. Lifting the same weight and repetitions with shorter rest periods.
The second and third options have some finite limitations.
In the second scenario, if we are to lift the same weight with more repetitions, we can run into problems quickly. We want to keep our training sessions within a certain time frame. Repetitions over 12-15 aren’t optimal for recovery purposes while trying to shed fat, either. These repetition ranges are more suited for mass building.
In the third scenario, we will eventually run into a time-constraint issue. There’s only so much time we can shave off of our rest periods before they will be non-existent.
For a beginner, it clearly makes the most sense to utilize the first method – lifting more weight with the same number of repetitions. The other methods have their place and benefit, but most recreational trainees make the best progress using this method.
Training Principle #2: Training for optimal fat loss
The characteristics of fat-loss training plans are very simple:
1. Train using nearly all compound movements.
Compound movements use two joints as opposed to isolation movements, which only use one joint.
Compound – pull-ups, which utilize the elbow and shoulder.
Isolation – bicep curls, which only utilize the elbow.
Compound movements hit large muscle groups, and will easily provide a taxing workout to your whole body. Our recovery is compromised when in a caloric deficit. We must maximize our time spent in the gym.
2. 6-15 total sets completed.
The 15 sets are for beginners or for those who recovery optimally and have a higher work capacity due to experience. The “sweet spot” appears to be around 8-10 total sets per session once the lifter has a bit of experience. Most of our clients have their sets in this range and do quite well.
There is no reason to “train” for fat loss, with circuits and multiple sets performed with little rest. Our fat loss is a function of our diet – not our training. It’s not uncommon for new members to claim they aren’t working out “hard enough” to lose fat.
They are always shocked by their results at the first checkpoint.
3. Keep repetition numbers below 12. (Below 8 for deadlifts.)
When you begin to creep past 12 repetitions with any lift, you start to get into training for size and/or endurance.
There’s a bit of trail and error involved here. There is no reason to be married to a particular rep range. Unless a certain rep range has been better for you than any other. Programs don’t work due to their use of optimal repetition ranges. They work due to creating the necessary stress required to create strength adaptations.
Personally, I gain strength quickest using 4-6 reps for all upper body movements, 3-5 reps for deadlifts, and 8-10 reps for squats/leg movements. But that’s just my own experience. Your experience may differ.
It’s not recommended to go over 8 for deadlifts due to the demands on the central nervous system (CNS) and the possibility of injury from doing high-rep deadlifts.
4. Train with sufficient intensity.
When training for fat loss, you should be training with lowered frequency and volume. But your intensity should be very high.
When we lose weight, it can come from a few places – water, glycogen, shit, etc. – but actual, physical body changes take the form of losing muscle or fat. We want to lose fat – and nothing else. If you had two scenarios, a 40 pound weight loss with 50/50 muscle and fat, or a 20 pound weight loss of pure fat, you want to choose the latter. You will be healthier, stronger, and more aesthetic if you preserve your muscle.
Keeping our protein high and our caloric deficit manageable is our first step in muscular preservation. Our second step is pushing our bodies significantly when training. This is in order to remind our muscles why they are there, so they stick around.
Your workouts should be quick, but taxing. Hit the weights hard. Then leave the gym and go rest.
Training Principle #3: Less is more
Our training programs are written with sustainability in mind. The programs are written by busy people, and for busy people.
Keeping to this fact, we are going to train around 45 minutes to 1 hour, 3 times per week. For advanced trainees, there might be a benefit to training with more duration or frequency. The argument can be made, however, that when training specifically for fat loss, 3 times per week for an hour will suffice for muscular retention, regardless of experience.
Using these principles, and having a correct application of intensity, one can build a body to be proud of. We all have very busy lives outside of our fitness regimes. We believe in doing the least amount required to make forward progress. This will provide long term sustainability and fitness enjoyment.
Training Principle #4: Cutting (Fat-Loss) vs. Bulking (Muscle-Gain)
While the purpose of this post is to give the reader insight as to our training philosophies and methodologies during fat loss protocols and stages, you might be interested in hearing how we train when we are bulking or attempting to add size/mass.
First things first – these training programs will put size on you if the linear progressions are followed closely and you eat in a caloric surplus. But they do have their limitations.
If you are going to attempt to add size using a minimalist approach, your intensity *must* be through the roof. When you go into the gym, if your goal is to add size and mass, you must be progressively overloading the bar at every session. You must be performing more repetitions and/or more weight with every session. If you aren’t, your overall volume isn’t increasing – and training volume is your driving factor (along with adequate calories and rest) when training for size.
If you have the ability to get “there” – to get to sky-high training intensities and add pounds and/or reps to the bar at every session, then so be it. These routines will work for you. But not everybody has that “extra level” and can push their bodies that far.
Working at lower weights with more repetitions and sets would likely be less taxing on you mentally as well as physically when bulking. You can also incorporate those isolation moves as well. Feel free to mix in the curls, the tricep extensions, the calf raises, etc. You should have more recovery capacity due to the increased caloric intake.
The Anyman Fitness Fat-Loss Training Program
When a beginner comes to us, they are given one of two popular formats. Both of these formats are known as “total body” programs. Meaning, each session trains the entire body.
Beginner program option 1: “SS” or “Starting Strength” workouts.
The Starting Strength routines are meant to build strength rather rapidly for a novice trainee. We use a *slight* variation to the routine as originally written by Mark Rippetoe. We keep things as basic as humanly possible.
Our Phase One – or “SS” routines – look like this:
-Deadlifts – (sumo, conventional, or rack pulls) 3 sets of 5
-Bench Press – (regular or incline), 3 sets of 5
-Squats – (back or front), 3 sets of 5
-Bench Press, 3 sets of 5
-Squats, 3 sets of 5
-Deadlifts, 3 sets of 5
-Squats, 3 sets of 5
-Deadlifts, 3 sets of 5
-Bench Press, 3 sets of 5
The parameters for progression are quite simple. Members perform the movements in the order in which they appear. This way, they will get a “fresh shot” at each move once per week. All users begin with the bar (45 pounds) for bench presses and squats, and 65 pounds on deadlifts. Each time all reps are achieved, the trainee will move up 5 pounds in weight. Weight should be straight across sets.
Meaning, your first session might look like this:
-Deadlifts, 3 sets of 5 at 65 pounds
-Bench Press, 3 sets of 5 at 45 pounds
-Squats, 3 sets of 5 at 45 pounds
Assuming this lifter completed all repetitions, the next workout, the trainee would add 5 pounds to each lift.
Often times, especially at the beginning, we will hear the “complaint” that the session is too easy. And when you begin with just the bar, this might be the case. A trainee has no clue what they are capable of – and the weights being used are much lighter than what is physically possible.
However, it’s crucial to long-term development to get good practice on the barbell movements, and focus intently on performing the moves the correct way. Even though it’s possible to lift heavier and/or do more, there is more to keep in mind than just strength/ability. You need to gain the understanding of the proper bar path. You need to learn to trust your body. You need to make neural adaptations. Your tendons and joints need to strengthen. And this is done best when starting very light, dropping your ego, and slowly working your way upwards.
If a trainee just “has” to do a bit more, we sometimes will perform 5 sets of 5 instead of 3 sets of 5. But only at the very start when the weight is light.
Beginner program option 2: “Stronglifts 5 x 5” workouts.
A vast majority of our trainees use the Starting Strength routines to start. However, we do occasionally utilize this option – the “5 x 5” option. This is sometimes used if the lifter requests a bit more variation, or asks for this workout program by name, as it is very popular.
The 5 x 5 workouts look like this. Again, this is a *slight* variation of the original “Stronglifts 5 x 5” routine as written by Medhi:
-Squat – 5 sets of 5
-Bench Press – 5 sets of 5
-Barbell Row – 5 sets of 5
-Squat – 5 sets of 5
-Overhead Press – 5 sets of 5
-Deadlift – 5 sets of 5
These workouts are meant to be alternated A/B/A one week, and then B/A/B the next. So, each workout will be performed 3 times in two weeks.
The same progression parameters apply to these routines as applied to the Starting Strength routines. The beginning trainee begins with just the bar on all but deadlifts, and starts with 65 pounds on deadlifts. Each time all reps are achieved, the trainee moves up 5 pounds.
You will notice on both beginners’ routines, there is a good amount of deadlift volume. This is a change from these programs as originally written. For this reason, these workouts are only recommended for someone who has never trained using basic, linear progressions before. These workouts are also designed to be for “ramping up” strength, and preparing you for the intensity required to make continual progress.
For an intermediate trainee, one option would be to cut the deadlift volume to 1 set of 5 reps instead of 5 sets of 5 reps. But it may make even more sense to move directly to “Phase Two” – which utilizes reverse pyramid training.
We tell our beginners to use these programs to start, and to follow the progression parameters closely, even if it feels “too easy” at first. The 5 pound increases at each session will add up quickly. In just one, short month, the trainee will be putting 60 pounds (3 sessions x 4 weeks x 5 pounds) on the bar. There is no need to rush the process at all.
Eventually, your 5 pound weight increases will become difficult. You will not be able to linearly add 5 pounds to the bar at every session in perpetuity.
Your bench press progress will slow down first in nearly all cases. Your chest isn’t as strong as your legs and/or back. When your bench press slows down, fight like hell for extra reps. Be sure you have a spotter. And each time you get all your repetitions, go up another 5 pounds. But you will need to accept the slower progress of the bench press as part of the process.
Your squat is most likely to slow down next. For some, it may be the deadlift, but for most it will be the squat. It just depends, really, on which movement is more natural to you. When you stop getting all of your reps in either squats or deadlifts, this is your cue to move on to “Phase Two” and begin to utilize RPT, or “reverse pyramid training”.
Intermediate Program – “Reverse Pyramid Training” or “RPT”
Reverse pyramid training is a minimalist “split” as opposed to a full-body program. The trainee has a deadlift day (Monday), a bench press day (Wednesday), and a squat day (Friday).
The program is still a linear progression. Meaning, when the trainee hits a predetermined number of repetitions, they will move up in weight. And since the trainee only has one day per week to perform each move, the most weight you can increase per week in any movement is 5 pounds.
Because of this, we often tell our clients it’s best to “ride out Phase One” as long as they can handle it. Be safe, use proper form, and if the weight/volume become too much, move on to the Phase Two split. Phase One is faster strength progress.
Phase Two – Reverse Pyramid Training – is based on the philosophy that it makes sense to perform your heaviest set FIRST when you are freshest, as opposed to many training programs which have your “AMRAP” set (as many reps as possible) performed last.
Our Phase Two workouts:
Barbell overhead press
Pull-ups (palms facing away)
Incline Bench Press
Chin-ups (palms facing you)
**Acceptable substitutions/additions are barbell bicep curls for chin-ups and/or tricep extensions for dips.
**Acceptable substitutions/additions are hip thrusts for RDLs, abdominal work, or calf work.
For rep ranges, as previously stated, some personal preference will need to prevail. We generally set users up around 5-8 reps for upper body moves/pushes, 3-5 reps for deadlifts, and 5-10 reps on squats. Just pick a number you would prefer and see how you respond.
All moves except for RDLs and walking lunges (both on Fridays) are performed for two sets. The trainee will warm-up thoroughly, and perform one set at “max effort” – as many reps as they can manage while keeping form and safety in tact.
After completion of the first set, the trainee will make note of how many reps they achieved. For the second set, they will put 90% of the first set’s weight on the bar. Then, they will perform ONE MORE repetition in the second set than they did for the first set. They will stop there – and will not go any further. The trainee will always be able to get all of the repetitions in the second set. If they didn’t, they weren’t applying enough intensity and/or they weren’t “ready” for the set.
If this description is slightly confusing, it’s spelled out very clearly in this article on reverse pyramid training, if you’d like to take a look.
For the Romanian deadlifts, performing repetitions to failure makes no sense and would risk a potential injury. 2 sets of 10 is used for these. For walking lunges, 3 sets of 20 steps with each leg is used. This would mean 40 total steps per set. Trainees use bodyweight for a good amount of time. After the trainee gets used to this, dumbbells can be added for additional load.
-What about 3-set RPT training, where the 3rd set is 80% + 2 more reps? Wouldn’t that be better?
Define “better”. As long as the basic principles of progressive overload are in tact, there is no “better” or “worse”.
In our practice, 2-set RPT provides better results. But this isn’t due to 2 sets being a “magical” number of exercise sets. This is more due to the “do-or-die” mentality and attitude which often accompanies knowing you only have two sets with which to force adaptation.
With a sense of urgency, intensity is often sky-high, which always relates to better strength gains over time.
If you would prefer 3-set RPT style, simply be sure your overall number of sets doesn’t get too high, and you will likely be just fine assuming you show proper intensity.
-What should I do if I am not gaining strength?
If you find yourself stagnant, the first thing you need to do is assess the situation. Are you maintaining your strength and losing weight? Are you showing enough intensity? Are you focused in the weightroom?
For an article on stalls and assessments, please look here.
That being said, a very simple application is to “microload” in order to force progression.
5 pounds can be a difficult jump to make when working very close to your optimal levels. You may also find yourself stuck at a certain weight/rep number, unable to achieve the desired outcome.
You are trying to get 5 reps on bench press. When you get 5 reps, you will be going up 5 pounds. And for 3 consecutive sessions, you get 4 reps of 150 pounds. You’re frustrated. You’re just killing yourself to get that 5th rep, but you just can’t do it.
It’s often MUCH more difficult to add an extra rep to these situations than it is to just add an extra pound or two. Get a set of microplates (1.25 pound plates – or smaller). And if you find yourself in these situations, add a pound of two to the bar, and go for 4 reps. You should be able to. An extra pound or two isn’t as big of a jump as another repetition. The next week, do the same. Add another pound or two and go for 4-5 reps again.
Utilize this enough times, and you’ll find yourself gaining strength once again, even though you’re “stalled”. This strategy can be particularly useful for “pushes” – bench presses and overhead presses.
-Shouldn’t I “mix it up”?
No. You shouldn’t.
We are looking to maximize our ROI – and utilizing compound, barbell movements consistently over time will give us everything we desire. This holds true from a strength standpoint and from an aesthetics standpoint. The most impressive physiques on the planet have been built on a steady diet of these moves.
But the catch is being able to “weather the storm”. And remain consistent in your application of these philosophies and techniques. Until a trainee gets to the latter stages of the intermediate level, nothing fancy is necessary. And unless the trainee has a desire to be highly advanced (which is not necessary for a very nice “look” and physique), these workouts executed as written will be more than adequate.
Remember this – when using a basic, linear progression, and attempting to put more weight on the bar at regular intervals, the weight might appear like it’s increasing very slowly.
But let’s say you add 5 pounds to the bar every 3 MONTHS – which seems like a snail’s pace – on bench press. This means that you are going to add those 5 pounds to the bar (on your 6 rep-max, let’s say), four times per year. That’s a 20 pound increase every year. (5 pounds x 4 times per year)
In 3 years, with consistent application, you will have put 60 pounds (20 pounds x 3 years) on your 6-rep max.
Do you think your body might look different with that sort of strength accumulation?
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for bearing with us. This post is very information-rich and contains loads of items to consider when creating your own programming. Of course, there are variations and tinkers to be made, totally. If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to put them in the comment section. I will be happy to address them.