Training Strategies for Fat Loss
The vast majority of people who exercise want to lose body fat and to look better, this is not revolutionary information. But the best way to achieve to goal is a confusing and controversial topic. There is so much different and often miss-informed information about health and fitness, it is easy to see why people get it wrong. Everyone is different as well, some people will have amazing abs even though they have a terrible diet (the buggers!), whereas others will eat clean and train hard for years and never see their abs. Be aware that many of the self-proclaimed ‘experts’ in fitness promote messages not supported by any evidence or research. And any one trying to sell a product or programme as the ‘ultimate way’ to lose fat, or reach any training goal for that matter, should be given a wide berth.
During exercise the body will utilise mainly fats and carbohydrates for energy. 1 gram of fat provides the body with 9Kcal of energy, compared to 4Kcal from the same amount of carbohydrates. Therefore it is possible to get more available energy from fat oxidation. However, carbohydrate oxidation is faster and therefore predominates over fats as the exercise intensity starts to increase. If longer durations of lower intensity exercise rely more on fats and shorter high intensity exercise more on carbohydrates, then surely this is how we should train for fat loss? But then why do sprinters have one of the lowest body fats of all athletes? Clearly the situation is more complex than most people would have you presume.
High Intensity Exercise - Although high-intensity exercise is predominantly carbohydrate fuelled, it has shown to be greater at reducing body-skin fold measurements than low intensity exercise(1). This is attributed to increased Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), which is a increase in energy consumption during the recovery from training(2). The rise in metabolic rate is seen mostly when training at very high intensities. So although this mode of training is predominantly carbohydrate fuelled, Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) can be increased, causing more fat oxidation and daily energy expenditure(3).
Submaximal Exercise - Longer bouts of exercise at lower intensities will increase your energy expenditure and the relative proportion of energy that is derived from fat(4). Endurance training also helps your body adapt to make it more effective at utilising fats(5)and decreasing the bodies reliance on carbohydrate oxidation at a given training intensity(6). Therefore, exercise at submaximal intensities plays an important role in fat loss.
Resistance Training - Unless you are trying to make a certain weight for a fight or competition your goal should be to lose body fat rather than to lose weight (this will be explained in another blog). Gaining lean mass can help to reduce body fat. BMR is increased by having more lean mass(7), therefore the energetic costs of exercise and even resting is increased with hypertrophy. As well as the benefits of a higher BMR, resistance training itself can also help to reach your goals. During resistance training heart rate is elevated to a range that stimulates fat loss and it also produces a large EPOC demand, increasing energy consumption for many hours after training has finished.
Fasted Training (A.K.A. depleted state training) - Not necessary if you are new to training, or currently detrained. Training whilst fasted has been shown to maximise the proportion of body fat being oxidised(8). This mode of training can also help the body to adapt and cope with low carbohydrate and low energy environments, so can be a good addition for all people training to improve performance. As carbohydrates aren’t as prominent during low intensity training, regular fasted endurance can be an effective way to burn fat and to induce adaptations to optimise fat loss(9). The danger of fasted training are the increased risks of catabolism and gluconeogenesis; so make sure you increase your protein intake during these periods to prevent losses of lean muscle (9). Around 1.8g of protein per Kg of body weight should be the target.
When I do fasted training I do it first thing in the morning, make sure I take some amino acids tablets prior (these are proteins with no calories, doesn’t work in a sugary amino acid drink), the training needs to be low intensity, so normally a 30 minute jog (can be any mode of exercise) and I have a good food source immediately afterwards (including healthy fats and proteins).
In summary – if you adopt an integrated training programme using all the method mentioned you can adapt your body to utilise fats more effectively, increase your BMR and utilise the EPOC response. This should incorporate both high intensity exercise and longer duration sub maximal training (sometimes fasted if that works for you). Ideally resistance training should also be included, if done correctly this has the added benefits of reducing your chances of injury and improving your endurance economy.
So when someone tells you this is the single best way, they are probably miss informed…or trying to sell a product or service.
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1 – Tremblay, A., Simoneau, J. A., & Bouchard, C. (1994). Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Metabolism, 43(7), 814-818.
2 – Børsheim, E., & Bahr, R. (2003). Effect of exercise intensity, duration and mode on post-exercise oxygen consumption. Sports medicine, 33(14), 1037-1060.
3 – Lovell, M. (2010). Fat burning strategies considering integrated approaches with Exercise and Nutrition.
4 – Frayn, K. N. (2009). Metabolic regulation: a human perspective. John Wiley & Sons.
5 – Kiens, B., Essen-Gustavsson, B., Christensen, N. J., & Saltin, B. (1993). Skeletal muscle substrate utilization during submaximal exercise in man: effect of endurance training. The Journal of Physiology, 469(1), 459-478.
6 – Hawley, J. A., Brouns, F., & Jeukendrup, A. (1998). Strategies to enhance fat utilisation during exercise. Sports Medicine, 25(4), 241-257.
7 – Cunningham, J. J. (1980). A reanalysis of the factors influencing basal metabolic rate in normal adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 33(11), 2372-2374.
8 - de Bruijne, J. J., Altszuler, N., Hampshire, J., Visser, T. J., & Hackeng, W. H. (1981). Fat mobilization and plasma hormone levels in fasted dogs. Metabolism, 30(2), 190-194.