The Hierarchy of Fat Loss

by Alwyn Cosgrove

Strapped for time? That doesn't mean you can't lose fat. Prioritize your training to burn fat rapidly. Here's how.

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. Even when time is a limiting factor, you can still attack fat and maintain muscle mass.
  2. The hierarchy of fat loss starts with diet. The next step is exercise that raises the metabolism, preserves muscle, and torches fat.
  3. There are five levels of exercise. The most effective level includes weight lifting, circuits, full body workouts, and training in the hypertrophy rep ranges.
  4. The less time you have available to train the more important it will be for you to prioritize your fat loss efforts. As your time increases your training can expand.

Time: The Limiting Factor

Chasing two goals at once will always compromise results. Especially when it comes to muscle growth and fat loss. Often it comes down to one limited resource: time.

If your goal is to lose fat, then a periodized training approach with a specific fat loss phase (four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks) where you focus exclusively on fat loss will always yield better results in the long run than trying to juggle two competing goals.

A powerlifter trying to lean out will be better served by not powerlifting for a period of time. By focusing on getting lean and then going back to powerlifting training, he won’t fall into the ineffective downward spiral of trying to maintain his strength and get lean at the same time.

For the powerlifter, a 16-week program that includes 8 weeks of hardcore fat loss work, followed by 8 weeks of powerlifting, will yield better results than 16 weeks of trying to do both simultaneously.

Time is limited. Most of us can only train a few sessions a week. With time being our limiting factor, how do we maximize leanness? By paying attention to the hierarchy of fat loss.

The Hierarchy of Fat Loss

1. Correct nutrition.

There’s nothing that can be done training-wise to undo a poor diet. You have to create a caloric deficit and get enough protein and essential fats. There’s no way around this. Some say that the only difference between training for muscle gain and training for fat loss is your diet. That’s a massive oversimplification, but it does reinforce how important nutrition is.

2. Activities that burn calories, promote muscle mass, and elevate metabolism.

It’s fairly obvious that the bulk of calories burned are determined by our resting metabolic rate or RMR. The amount of calories burned outside of our resting metabolism (through exercise and the thermic effect of feeding) is a smaller contributor to overall calories burned per day. We can also accept that RMR is largely a function of how much muscle you have on your body – and how hard it works. Therefore, adding activities that promote or maintain muscle mass will make that muscle mass work harder and elevate the metabolic rate.

3. Activities that burn calories and elevate metabolism.

The next level of fat loss programming would be a similar activity. We’re still looking at activities that eat up calories and increase EPOC (Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption). EPOC is the metabolic rate’s recovery back to pre-exercise levels, which can require several minutes if you do light exercise, and several hours if you do hard intervals. Look for activities that keep you burning more calories after the workout.

4. Activities that burn calories but don’t necessarily maintain muscle or elevate metabolism.

This is the icing on the cake – adding activities that’ll burn up additional calories but don’t contribute much to an increased metabolism. This is the least effective tool in your arsenal because it doesn’t burn much outside of the primary exercise session. Once diet is in place, the kind of training you do makes all the difference in the world. Don’t spend your limited time doing the least effective work. Start with the training that will do the most for you, then expand from there if you have more time.

The Top Five Fat Loss Training Methods

1. Metabolic Resistance Training

Use resistance training as the cornerstone of your fat loss programming. Work every muscle group hard, frequently, and with an intensity that creates a massive metabolic disturbance that leaves the metabolism elevated for several hours post-workout.

Numerous studies support this. Here are three:

Study #1: Researchers used a circuit training protocol of 12 sets in 31 minutes. EPOC was elevated significantly for 38 hours post-workout.

That’s a significant timeframe for metabolism to be elevated. If you trained for one hour on Monday morning, you’d still be burning more calories (without training) at midnight on Tuesday.

Study #2: Researchers assigned overweight subjects to three groups: diet-only, diet plus aerobics, diet plus aerobics plus weights.

The diet group lost 14.6 pounds of fat in 12 weeks. The aerobic group lost only one more pound than the diet group. Their training was three times a week starting at 30 minutes and progressing to 50 minutes over the 12 weeks. Nothing special.

But the weight training group lost 21.1 pounds of fat. That’s 44% and 35% more than diet and aerobic-only groups respectively. The addition of aerobic training didn’t result in significant fat loss over dieting alone.

Thirty-six sessions of up to 50 minutes is a lot of work for one additional pound of fat loss. But the addition of resistance training greatly accelerated fat loss results.

Study #3: Researchers had one group of people do four hours of aerobics per week and another group weight train three times per week. The second group’s weight training program was 10 exercises made up of 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps.

Both groups lost weight but the resistance training group lost significantly more fat and didn’t lose any lean body mass, even at only 800 calories per day.

Note: Researchers made the calories extremely low to take dietary variables out of the equation and compare the effects of the exercise variations on lean body mass and metabolism.

The resistance training group actually increased their metabolism compared to the aerobic group, which decreased theirs. Resistance training is a more productive stress to the body than a starvation diet.

What do you do for metabolic resistance training?

Full body workouts in a superset, tri-set, or circuit format with non-competing exercises create the biggest metabolic demand. But it must be done in a rep range that generates lactic acid and pushes the lactic acid threshold.

Training legs, back, and chest will burn more calories and elevate metabolism more than an isolated approach training one of them.

The rep range that works the best is the 8-12 hypertrophy range, although going higher will work just as well with a less-trained population.

For a powerlifter or an advanced bodybuilder, doing one max effort exercise or heavy, low-rep lift is more than enough to maintain your current strength levels.

Workout Examples for Maintaining Strength


  • A. Max Effort Squat Work up to a 3RM
  • B. Transition into metabolic work.


  • A1. Bench press 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps
  • A2. Row 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps
  • B. Transition into metabolic work.

2. High Intensity Anaerobic Interval Training

The second key in fat loss programming is high intensity interval training (HIIT). It burns more calories than steady state and elevates metabolism significantly more than other forms of cardio.

One study pitted 20 weeks of endurance training against 15 weeks of interval training:

Energy cost of interval training = 28,661 calories.
Energy cost of endurance training = 13,614 calories (less than half)

The interval training group showed a nine times greater loss in subcutaneous fat than the endurance group (when corrected for energy cost).

Calorie for calorie, the interval training group lost nine times more fat overall. Maybe it’s EPOC, an upregulation of fat burning hormones, or straight up G-Flux.

Even if the interval training group had lost the same amount of fat as the endurance group, we’d get the same results in less time. That means interval training is a better tool in your fat loss arsenal.

3. High Intensity Aerobic Interval Training

Don’t discount a lower intensity interval method with aerobic intervals.

One study looked at high-intensity aerobic interval training and its influence on fat oxidation. Seven sessions of HIIT over two weeks produced marked increases in whole body and skeletal muscle capacity for fatty acid oxidation during exercise in moderately active women.

In layman’s terms, interval work appeared to “upregulate” fat burning enzymes. This means we can burn more fat in other activities as a result of this inclusion.

4. Steady State High Intensity Aerobic Training

Tool number four is just hard cardio work: burning calories. You aren’t working hard enough to increase EPOC significantly or to do anything beyond the session itself. But calories do count. Burning a few hundred calories a day will add up.

5. Steady State Low Intensity Activity

Going for a walk in the park won’t burn a lot of calories, it won’t increase muscle, or EPOC. But it adds up too.

There isn’t very much research showing that low intensity aerobic training actually results in very much additional fat loss, but you’d have to work to convince me that moving more is going to hurt you when you’re in fat attack mode.

Fat Loss Time Management

If you’re out of shape, don’t listen to anyone who says to wait till you’re “in shape” before you start resistance training. And if you’re lacking time, then you’ll need to organize your training in the most efficient way possible.

If you have 3 hours per week, use only #1: Metabolic resistance training.

This type of training involves barbell complexes, supersets, tri-sets, circuits, kettlebell combos, etc. You could do three, one-hour training sessions, or you could do four, 45-minute sessions.

Once you’re able to do three hours per week of total body resistance training, mix in other forms of exercise. At that point, recovery starts to become a concern and intensity is impaired.

If you have 3-5 hours use #1 and #2: Weight training plus high intensity interval work.

At this point, any additional work is usually in the form of high intensity interval training. I’m looking to burn up more calories and continue to elevate EPOC.

Interval training is like putting your savings into a high-return investment account. Low intensity aerobics are like hiding it under your mattress. Both will work, but the return you get is radically different.

If you have 5-6 hours add #3: Aerobic interval training.

Aerobic intervals win out at this point because it’s still higher intensity overall than steady state work so it burns more calories. There appears to be a fat oxidation benefit and will still be easier to recover from than additional anaerobic work.

If you have 6-8 hours add #4: Steady state high intensity aerobic training.

If you’re not losing a lot of fat with six hours of training already, then I’d be taking a very close look at your diet. If everything is in place, but you just need to ramp up fat loss for a special event, then add in hard cardio, like a long run or bike ride with heart rate at 75% of max or higher.

Why not do as much of this as possible then? Well, the goal is to burn as many calories as you can without negatively impacting the intensity of our higher priority activities.

If I have more time than that add # 5: Steady state low intensity activity.

Most of us don’t have more than eight hours of training time available per week. But if we do, this is when any additional activity will help to burn up calories, which is never a bad thing.

Smart guys call this NEAT, non-exercise activity thermogenesis. I call it moving a wee bit more than normal. It works because it burns calories but doesn’t leave you tired for your strength training.

Get your body moving, but don’t work so hard that it inhibits recovery and negatively affects our other training.

The Fat Loss Paradox

Harder, shorter training works better than easier, longer training. Attack body fat with a passion and a single-minded goal. The best way to do this is with an all-out assault implementing the hierarchy I described. It really is that simple.




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