This is a topic that I could, and likely should, write a book on.
If you are a beginner to strength training, or are coming back from an injury, I cannot overstate the importance of this principle.
You need to separate your strength training plan from your fat loss goals.
It’s counter-intuitive and flies in the face of what most fitness media will tell you.
Yes, that’s right. I’m telling you to NOT do HIIT circuits, bootcamp workouts, kettlebell workouts, Crossfit, and whatever else workout is being called “crazy”, “killer”, “brutal”, “fat-torching”, etc.
Because what you NEED is different from what you think you need to do.
When you’re a beginner, your body needs a few key things.
- Your soft tissues need time to adapt to the stresses of strength training.
This process, which can take 4-6 weeks, is key for preventing injuries to your muscles, tendons, and ligaments. So if you don’t want to tear a muscle, and then lose months of progress, start slow.
- Your brain needs time to learn and understand the techniques.
This is my BIG gripe with Crossfit – they lack a structured training plan for beginners. Instead, you’ll see beginners learning Olympic lifts on day 3. I’d prefer you spend 2-3 months mastering the deadlift before learning a clean, personally.
- You likely need to improve your core stability, muscle flexibility, and joint mobility
I use the Functional Movement Screen with all my clients and athletes. It’s the world’s most trusted injury prevention screening tool.
And let me tell you – most new clients I work with perform poorly. Most people that walk through my door are not ready to sprint fast or lift heavy.
They need some time to work on their athleticism. The first month of a 3-4 month training plan for a new client focuses on building an athletic foundation. Improve muscle imbalances, increase core strength, and perfecting technique.
Now, I understand everybody’s big fear when it comes to slowing their workouts down.
Everybody wants to lose 20 pounds, and they wanted it yesterday. I get it!
Here’s why you need to separate your strength training from your fat loss goals:
Your fat loss results will come from your nutrition. 100%.
Ask any fitness expert in the world, and they’ll tell you the truth:
You can be strong, fit, but still fat if you don’t eat properly.
And, you can be overweight if you eat too many calories of healthy food.
When you understand how important nutrition is, it is the most freeing feeling in fitness.
It gives you the freedom to pursue physical fitness as a skill set.
Your strength training becomes a new hobby that you’ve dedicated yourself to.
You get to take the time to master and understand strength training.
You can pursue new skills and disciplines, like kettlebell lifting, bodybuilding, gymnastics, or powerlifting, all at your leisure.
Learn to see your strength training as a discipline and as a hobby. It’s a part of your self improvement, self investment, and self mastery.
And be honest, isn’t that so much more rewarding and enjoyable than: “I have to workout today because I have to lose fat?”
My greatest motivation has always come from training for a specific performance goal. My goal of performing a chin up with my full bodyweight hanging from my waist drove me for years.
Your nutrition is always where your biggest fat loss results will come from.
Earn the right to specialize in fat loss workouts
When you have mastered the fundamentals, when you are strong enough, then specialize. And there’s no harm, at all, in taking 1-2 days a week to focus on interval workouts and hard conditioning in the meantime.
I love low-skill, high-effort exercises for this purpose.
Exercises like: sled pushes, sprinting, jump rope, airdyne bikes, battling ropes, and rowing machines.
Just stay away from Crossfit, bootcamps, Insanity, endless HIIT circuits with light weights, and other methods that place intensity over mastery. They all have a place, but they’re not for novices.
As an example, consider the kettlebell swing. It’s one of the best fat-burning, gut-busting exercises. It builds muscle and burns fat simultaneously. Hell, it lifts and tightens your butt while making your abs tighter AND it makes your waist smaller – all at the same time!
And that’s not hyperbole. But most kettlebell workouts are not appropriate for beginners. And kettlebell swings need to be heavy, very heavy in fact, to be effective.
Pavel, the godfather of kettlebells in the USA, wrote a simple training program for beginners. Perform 100 swings, in 10 sets of 10, followed by 5 turkish get ups on each arm. Practice 5-6 days a week, gradually increasing the weight.
When a man can perform 100 swings and 5 get ups with 70lbs, he’s strong enough to learn new skills. Likewise for a woman with 53lbs. It’s as simple as it could be – and tremendously effective. Much more effective than throwing that same beginner into a class with kettlebell cleans, snatches, and circuits that they’ll use too-light weight with.
For strength training:
- Get a Functional Movement Screen from a FMS-certified strength coach or physical therapist as your starting point. Spend your first month or so of training focusing on improving your score, if need be.
- During your first month, focus on lifting light weights for moderate to high repetitions to build soft tissue strength. This translates to muscle and joint durability. What we call “body armor”. Focus on learning the technique. I like my clients to perform 2-4 sets of 10-20 repetitions for lower body exercises and 12-15 repetitions for upper body exercises.
- For your second month, focus on building lean muscle mass. 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps works well.
- For your third month, begin lifting heavier. You might be ready for a conventional 3x5 or 5x5 program here. I prefer to use a mixed approach, where my clients will train for 3-5 sets of 5 reps with one or two exercises and then continue working on lean muscle mass (6-10 reps) elsewhere.
- After that, you should be good to move into more difficult and more interesting routines. Even then, your best bet is to continue to master the barbell lifts – squats, deadlifts, and presses – until you reach an intermediate level of strength. Dan John’s “Strength Standards” are excellent here as a reference.
((Confused? I don’t blame you. Hey, I’d be confused if you explained financial markets to me. I’ll make it easy for you by writing you a customized fitness plan. Book your free phone consultation here: http://www.optimizefp.com/apply-for-coaching/))
- Once a week, focus on building your cardiovascular base. 40-60 minutes of general exercise, keeping your heart rate between 120-140 beats per minute, is excellent for improving general fitness and heart health.
- You can perform intervals twice a week to speed up your fat loss results. 20-60 seconds of hard work, paired with 3x that length as active recovery. For example, if you work hard for 20 seconds, rest for 60 seconds. Fit as many intervals as you can into 20 minutes. Add a 5 minute warmup and a 5 minute cooldown.Or just get really damn good at jumping rope.
- To keep things simple, walk for 30 minutes a day. It’s underrated and highly effective at improving your health and fitness. It’s easy to add onto any program, since you don’t need to concern yourself with overdoing it with walking.
- Eat healthy. Lean protein and veggies will form the bulk of your meals. Healthy fats, legumes, and whole grains in moderation.
- Eat mindfully and slowly. Learn the difference between hungry, satisfied, stuffed, and bored. This cannot be overstated. If you struggle, I recommend the book “Normal Eating”.
- Track your calories for 1 week and make the necessary changes. Whenever you stop seeing results, track again and adjust your calories.
Meet the Author: Devin Gray
Founder, Head Coach
NSCA-CSCS, FMSC, Pn1 Certified
B.S. in Exercise Science – Texas A&M University
Devin is the owner & head coach of Optimize Fitness & Performance. He helps people become stronger and perform their best. Devin is especially focused on helping people with injuries learn to workout safely after they finish physical therapy.
You can book a free 15 minute coaching call with Devin by clicking here.