A workout is a workout right?
You hit the gym, lift a few weights, do some cardio and eat healthily and you get that cover model body.
If only it was that simple though.
The old notion in many peoples’ minds is that the only difference between training for fat loss and training for muscle gain is how you eat, but this is far from the case. Sure, you can lose fat with a strength-based routine, provided you’re eating in a calorie deficit, and you can build muscle and strength doing exactly the same workout, eating a bit more and saving those precious calories by sitting on your butt instead of getting out and doing some cardio to.
This might get you okay results, but it won’t get you optimal results. To truly reach your potential, you need a workout plan tailored exactly to your goals.
For this article, we’ll split training down into three different goals — fat loss, muscle growth and strength.
Frequency refers to how often you train and for all three goals, it makes perfect sense to train as often as possible while still getting adequate recovery.
For fat loss the more often you train, the more calories you’ll burn and the more times during the week you’ll raise your metabolic rate, forcing your body to burn more calories and shed more fat. Clearly though, in a calorie deficit, you won’t recover quite as well as if you’re eating a mountain of food, so the key is to balance frequent training with enough rest so you can perform optimally every session.
When it comes to building muscle, muscle protein synthesis is stimulated when you train and returns to baseline level in around 48 hours, meaning you can train each muscle group once every two to three days, and get the maximum amount of protein synthesis elevation without compromising recovery.
Strength training is very similar, and as strength is very much skill-based, a relatively frequent training schedule of one body-part or exercise once every three days gives you sufficient practice to get stronger, stimulates your muscular and nervous systems to adapt to the demands of training, but won’t lead to over-training.
Experiment with full-body training, upper-lower splits, and three-way training splits, such as a push/pull/legs routine to find what suits you best.
Sets and Reps
Sets and reps are where things get a little more interesting.
Strength training is probably the easiest to work with. Maximal strength can be defined as anything between one and three reps, and general strength as one to six reps. On a strength training plan, the majority of your exercises, and particularly your competition lifts — the squat, bench press and deadlift for powerlifting, and the clean and jerk and snatch for Olympic lifting should be performed in these rep ranges. Going for higher reps won’t be detrimental, but will work a different type of muscle fiber, and will have little carryover to your strength performance.
Going off this principle of muscle fiber type leads nicely into bodybuilding-style training.
Low-rep strength work builds type 2 muscle fibers, also known as fast-twitch fibers. These are responsible for explosive muscle contractions. You also have type 1 muscle fibers that are more endurance-based and respond best to lighter weights and extended time under tension.
Growth of type 2 fibers is generally known as myofibrilar hypertrophy and refers to an increase in muscle cell density, while type 1 fiber growth is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and is due to an increase in fluid levels in the muscle cell. Both types of hypertrophy are vital for optimal muscle growth, so to build muscle you should split your training between heavy, low-rep work in the one to six rep range and lighter, higher-rep work with sets of six to 12 and the odd extra high rep set of 12 to 20.
While you may be familiar with the “high reps with light weights” notion of training for fat loss and muscle toning, this theory is completely false. You can make a muscle bigger or smaller — you can’t make it appear more defined without losing body fat.
High rep training can help with the release of lactic acid and growth hormone though, both of which aid fat loss. Yet heavy training aids in preserving muscle mass. Surprisingly the set and rep guidelines for fat loss are exactly the same as for building muscle. You may wish to consider making your weight training more circuits-based, or add in supersets to aid with keeping your heart rate and calorie burn higher in your fat loss sessions however.
The premise here is surprisingly simple again.
The more muscle groups you work, the better your results.
For all three goals, multi-joint compound exercises should be the foundation of your routine.
For strength training, working more muscle groups means your nervous system is working harder, leading to positive neuromuscular strength adaptations. You can also lift more on compound exercises, and your joints are under less stress.
Single-joint isolations can be useful, but should be reserved for working on weaker body parts. If for instance you know that your triceps are the weak link in your bench press, a few sets of pushdowns or extensions won’t go amiss. Likewise, extra hamstring curls can help bolster a lingering deadlift if you think your hammies are holding you back.
For building muscle, compounds work more body parts, so you’re breaking down more muscle tissue, preparing it to rebuild and grow bigger and stronger. Compounds also stimulate a greater release of muscle building hormones like testosterone.
Isolations again have a place, but mainly for those pesky lagging muscle groups. It can be tough to get adequate stimulation for muscles like your calves, medial deltoids or traps for a bodybuilding-style physique purely from compound lifts, so one to two isolations at the end of a compound-based session is a good idea.
As for fat loss, compounds work more muscle groups, and the more muscle groups you work, the more calories you burn. Isolations aren’t a complete waste of time, but as you won’t be building any substantial muscle mass on a fat loss plan, there’s little point in targeting weaker body parts when you could spend your time maximising calorie burn with compounds instead.
Workout Routines – Progress
For all three goals, progressing is critical.
Many lifters, from newbie level right through to advanced trainers suffer from training ADD and are constantly looking for the perfect program. Unfortunately though, the perfect program doesn’t exist. The program that will get you the best results is the one you can stick to.
Building muscle, increasing strength and burning fat are all about consistency and effort. If you work hard and aim to get better in every workout, you’ll see results.
The best way to ensure this is to keep a workout journal. Log everything you do, from your warm-up sets, mobility drills, main sets, rest times, how tough each set was and how you felt afterwards. Use this log to decide whether your program is working for you or not. You’ll have to accept the odd off session, but aim for consistent progress in terms of the weights you lift, the quality of your training, rest times and performance.
Give one workout at least six weeks before you change. Ideally, a well-constructed workout should last you a lifetime if you progress correctly.
Diet and cardio are the other two key components in creating your ultimate workout routine.
Cardio isn’t just for fat loss training. It certainly helps burn calories, but it can be useful year-round. Weight training should always be your bread and butter, but you shouldn’t underestimate cardio.
In a fat loss phase, try two to three 20 to 30 minute high intensity cardio sessions each week to increase your calorie burn and metabolism. You shouldn’t need much more than this, as too much cardio can negatively impact your strength and rate of recovery. When training for strength and bodybuilding, keep one of these sessions in. Being cardiovascularly fitter will help your lifting performance and mean that you won’t feel seriously unfit when you come back to upping your cardio in your next fat loss phase.
Your diet needs to match your goals too. Keep things simple — high protein and moderate fat,year-round with a carb intake tailored to your needs — low carbs if you have a hard time losing weight, high carbs if you’re a skinny guy with a fast metabolism looking to build muscle, and somewhere in the middle if you’re an average joe.