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I have heard that weight training can be a good strategy for reducing body fat. If one's goal is to reduce total body fat, should one's weight training program be aimed at muscle hypertrophy or building muscle strength?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

It would have to be a multi-pronged approach, but to cut to the chase the answer is "neither". I'll get in to why in a bit. First, you'll need to attack the problem from multiple areas:

  1. Get your diet in order: at least get the total calories and macros where they need to be
  2. Prioritize weight-loss: your goal is to preserve lean mass not increase strength, power, size, etc.
  3. Make conditioning a big part of your plan.
  4. Pick a reasonable start and end time for the weight loss--preferably somewhere between 1-2 months, but no more than 3 at a time.

There's a reason for all of this. Two things will happen when you are on an energy deficit, which is what you need to lose weight:

  • You won't be able to demonstrate your strength, so it will feel like you are losing strength.
  • You will not have a ton of energy to do long sets or high volume

The main thing is that you set your expectations properly before you begin. If you have a solid start and end date, it makes it easier to plan and easier to resist temptation knowing that you have a relative reprieve when you are done. If you didn't lose everything you wanted to lose, give yourself a month to maintain the weight before you go at it again.

Here's what the program would need to look like:

  • Weight lifting 3x a week, focus on big compound lifts.
  • Alternate Squat, Overhead press, Deadlift, Bench
  • Choose a weight you can easily do 10 with, and stick with it the entire time. Warm up and do as many reps as you can. For Deadlifts do 3 sets of 3 with as fast a bar speed as you can muster
  • Keep assistance work to a minimum--just enough to keep your joints happy or keep from being bored.
  • Do conditioning 6x a week: heavy work (hill sprints, heavy bag, sledgehammer, etc) on weight lifting days, and a light jog or even walking for active recovery on the off days.

Here's the trade-offs, and the exception:

Doing the volume work that bodybuilders do would build size, but what happens if you are reasonably trained is that you do well to maintain weight while the muscles get bigger. Yes, you are losing fat and replacing it with muscle, but if your goal is to reduce fat as quickly as possible you need to focus on losing fat. That means, do enough to preserve your muscle, but focus on burning fat. When you get to maintenance, go for the bodybuilding work, or whatever type of training you prefer.

Focusing on intensity will leave you beat down and broken feeling the entire time. You'll be angry and frustrated, and put your body under more stress than it would have otherwise. This increases cortisol levels, and ends up working against the fat loss. It's a lot harder to recover from heavy weights when you have less food to do it with, and you can't really induce enough of a stimulus to burn calories--which is part of the equation for losing weight.

The goal behind the weight training as outlined above, is merely to preserve your strength in a way that is easy to recover from... even with the calorie deficit. Now, in order to pull a program like this off, don't go below 10 Calories per pound total body weight. The conditioning work and strength training will make up whatever balance is needed to lose the fat. In fact, 10 Calories/pound on light days and 12 Calories/pound on heavy days is a reasonable target during the fat loss program.

The exception to all of this is the brand new lifter. A brand new lifter is so far away from truly taxing themselves that they really don't require as much recovery so they can train however they like on a deficit. Just know that you very well may see no movement on the scale even though clothes fit better. For a while. When that no longer works, or you have done all you can as a new lifter, you'll have to change things up.

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