The internet is absolutely rife with lies, myths, and marketing. Misinformation probably accounts for more than half the internet. That certainly seems to be the case when you look at the fitness industry.
There are hundreds of websites, magazines, blogs and forums out there all vying for your attention. To win and keep that attention, many use the tried and true method of telling you lies. They either tell you what you want to hear, or they tell you something that is completely unique and interesting, even if it isn’t necessarily true.
After all, people are usually more interested in being the source of new knowledge than they are in knowing the truth. Why spend the time learning what really drives muscle growth when you can tell your buddies at the water cooler that it’s actually all down to rest-pause training? Right?
The fitness industry knows this.
It knows that if you really understood the basics of what drives muscle growth, fat loss, and strength increases, you wont need them anymore.
You wont need to buy Flex, you won’t need a personal trainer, and you wont need fancy gym equipment.
They’ll lose product sales, ad revenue, and most importantly, the ability to influence you.
So they keep coming up with ever more complicated techniques, tips and tricks for getting a good physique. One week you’re told that one set of heavy benching to failure is enough to grow your chest, the next week you’re told that this only works for genetic freaks – it’s really all about German Volume Training. One week exercise selection doesn’t matter; by the next month, it’s everything.
It’s no surprise then that people have trouble cutting through the fat to find the advice that will really help them get the physique they want.
We’re going to try to change that with this comprehensive training FAQ. We are going to list the most common questions we get asked by visitors, friends, clients, and so on. We’ll go through the questions we see coming up time and again on the main bodybuilding forums.
Hopefully, what we’ll end up with is everything you really need to know about training for fat loss and muscle gain.
Training Frequently Asked Questions
Should You Change Your Training When Cutting?
Yes. Your training during a cut should be different than during a bulk. This isn’t because a certain way of training builds muscle while another builds fat – you can build muscle doing high volume calisthenics and you can burn fat doing dumbbell bench presses for sets of 8-12. The difference is that you need to adjust your training schedule to both put yourself in a caloric deficit (which usually means upping cardio) and to accommodate for a decrease in your ability to recover (because of the reduced food intake). Training should become less intense but more demanding of calories.
Is There An Ideal Way To Train To Build Muscle?
Yes and no. Is there a fundamental way to train to stimulate muscle growth? Absolutely; you need to put an increasing amount of strain on a given muscle over time while giving it plenty of opportunity to recover. Is there a magic set and rep range for muscle growth? No, of course there isn’t.
If you think you can go and do 10 heavy deadlift singles, putting 2.5kg on the bar each and every week, and eat properly without gaining any muscle, you’re crazy. If you think you can go and do 10 sets of 10 on deadlifts – doing push-ups in between sets – while in a caloric surplus without gaining any muscle mass, you’re just as crazy.
The set and rep scheme is largely irrelevant. What matters is that the work done gradually increases over time, causing a progressive overload and an adaptive response.
Is There An Ideal Way To Train To Burn Fat?
Like training to build muscle, it is fundamental principles that matter here more than any kind of specific training set-up. So long as you’re in a caloric deficit, and you are still stimulating your muscles on a regular basis, then you are going to preferentially lose fat over muscle. In practice, that means being in a caloric deficit relative to an intense training schedule conducive to muscle maintenance. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a traditional bro split, strongman style training, or calisthenics; you will preferentially lose fat over muscle if you’re still training and eating right.
However, it is a little more complicated than training to burn muscle because you need to factor in a decrease in your ability to recover from your workouts and a decline in strength. If you’re dropping weight, you aren’t going to be able to add weight to the bar every week for pretty much any big lift. It’s almost certain that your bench and your squat will go down as you drop in weight – weight moves weight.
Is There Such A Thing As A “Fat Burning Workout”?
Not really, no. Some workouts are more suitable for people who are dieting because they are less intense, they focus less on adding more weight to the bar, and they are extremely expensive in terms of calories. But there isn’t really any such thing as a “fat burning” workout – there’s no magical difference between bench presses and kettlebell swings that makes one great for gaining weight and the other great for losing fat. A good “fat burning workout” is simply one that gets you working your muscles in a way that is stressful on the body, demanding of calories, yet still conducive to recovery while you’re in a caloric deficit.
Should You Do Compound Lifts While Cutting?
Absolutely! Of course you should! Compound lifts should form the backbone of all your weight training, regardless of your specific goals.
Think about it; both stiff legged deadlifts and lying leg curls work your hamstrings. The difference between them is that stiff legged deadlifts allow for more weight to be used, and therefore more total stimulus to be placed on the hamstrings. They also work other parts of the body like the lower back, the upper back and the glutes. They are more metabolically demanding, and they burn more calories than isolation movements as a result. We therefore think you are better off doing stiff legged deadlifts than lying leg curls during a cut. Sadly, most people get this backwards!
Try it as an experiment. Try 6 weeks of doing leg extensions, hack squats, lunges, and burpees. Then try 6 weeks of doing suicide squats; take your 10RM on squats, and do 20 reps taking as much time as you need between reps to get it done. See which you think takes more out of you and leads to more fat loss over time!
Should You Lift Heavy While Cutting?
You should lift heavy enough to act as a stimulus on your muscles, but you shouldn’t be looking to hit PRs during a serious cut. We don’t think you should actually be looking to put weight on the bar during a proper dieting phase; that’s not what cuts are for! You should be looking to drop weight while maintaining your lifts as much as you can.
Lifts like heavy squats, deadlifts, clean and jerks, and bench presses give you the most bang for your buck in the gym. To stimulate muscle growth, you need to put your muscles under increasing amounts of strain. You simply can’t get the same kind of muscle stimulation from cable flies and lateral raises that you can from heavy incline pressing – we challenge anyone to do cable flies with 60% of the load their chest can move.
When cutting, you are going to be more at risk of injury and your strength will decrease. You need to factor this in while training, but that doesn’t mean that you need to drop compound lifts altogether. Just program your progression intelligently. Focus on intensity and reps rather than putting weight on the bar!
Should You Train For Longer While Cutting?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but in our experience, most people get better results extending their training during a cut. This is because you will usually need to pull back on the intensity while you diet, so to make up for a slight decrease in activity levels, you need to train for longer. Most people get good results from simply adding sets or reps, and maybe throwing in an extra exercise – a full body lift like a clean and jerk at the end of your workouts will help put you into a deeper caloric deficit without taking too much extra time. Of course, adding in some extra cardio is always advisable while dieting.
Should You Do Cardio While Dieting?
People will always find excuses to not do cardio. They’ll come up with extremely convoluted explanations as to why it’s not necessary, maybe even pointless. But at the end of the day, if your goal is to maximize muscle mass and accelerate fat loss, cardio is your best friend. To maintain the maximum amount of muscle mass, you need to be eating plenty of food and doing lots of strenuous physical activity. We therefore always recommend increasing activity levels rather than cutting back too heavily on food. Your physique will always look better if you are overly active rather than under-fed.
We’ve never seen anybody who looks genuinely fantastic who hasn’t been doing a lot of cardio. That doesn’t necessarily mean plodding along on the treadmill. People like Arnold and Franco claim that they didn’t do cardio, but they did train for 3 hours at a time, super-setting everything and finishing off their workouts with sprints on the beach. Cardio basically means activity that is mainly aerobic in nature – how you do that is up to you!
Doesn’t Cardio Burn Muscle Mass?
We have no idea where this myth has come from, but we suspect it’s the fault of the supplement industry in some way. Maybe if they convince people that cardio burns muscle mass, they ca convince them that they need to keep downing protein shakes all day long. Wherever it’s come from, it’s not true. Doing lots of cardio and having a big, muscular, powerful-looking physique are not only compatible with one another – we think they go together perfectly.
How Often Should You Train While Cutting?
Frequency is one of the main variables that you can manipulate with regards to your training. To stimulate muscle growth – or in your case, to ensure maximum muscle preservation – you need to put your muscles under a certain amount of strain on a regular basis. In other words, you need to accumulate a certain amount of training volume each week. Some people prefer to get all of their volume in on a single day, while others prefer to stretch it out over multiple sessions.
For most of you – assuming you are experienced athletes with a lot of discipline – training less intensely but more frequently is going to produce the best results while dieting. In a caloric deficit, your strength is going to dwindle, and your energy levels will be down. Chances are, you’re not going to be able to complete a Dorian Yates-style session multiple times per week. You’re more likely to hit your numbers if you stretch your sets out over 3 separate sessions. You’ll still accumulate a lot of volume but it will be less intense and taxing on a single body part.
Do I Need To Do Isolation Exercises To Look Ripped?
No. You can achieve an incredibly muscular, lean, powerful-looking physique without doing any isolation exercises. If your diet is right and you are recovering fine, you can build plenty of muscle doing dips, chins, squats, overhead presses, and deadlifts. Chiseled, striated chests aren’t built with dummbell flies; they’re built with the bench press and dips. You should incorporate isolation exercises into your workouts to accumulate more volume and to continue to stress a body part when other, smaller muscles are too fatigued to continue with compound movements (e.g when your tris are friend but you can still move weight with your chest).
Do High Rep Isolation Exercises “Tone” Muscles?
This is the biggest myth in fitness. It is probably one of the most widespread pieces of BS we’ve ever come across, and it is now taken as solid fact. But the truth is, there is absolutely no reason why high reps would “tone” a muscle and low reps would “build”. If enough strain is placed on a muscle, it will grow. If you are losing body fat faster than muscle mass, your musculature will appear more “ripped”, and you’ll look more “toned”. Most people find that higher reps help them during a cut simply because it keeps them in the gym for longer and because it’s mentally easier to do another easy set of 15 preacher curls than it is to do 5 more heavy weighted chin ups. Neither exercise is better for “toning” – people just find the former easier to complete while dieting.
Do I Need To Train Abs During A Cut?
The reason why bodybuilders have such defined abs isn’t because they’ve done millions of crunches. It’s primarily because they have reasonably developed abs and insanely low body fat levels. What most people define as a ripped 6 pack isn’t something that you really need to work your abs to achieve. You just need to hit body fat levels that are – unfortunately – unhealthy for people to maintain long-term. Believe it or not, but ab models and bodybuilders who have visible abs year round don’t do so because it’s healthy or easy to maintain!
That said, if you want to have abs that look awesome when you do shred down, then training them directly is a good idea. You don’t need to go overboard; some leg raises, crunches, and compound movements like squats will be plenty. Doing 40 sets of Russian twists followed by 10 sets of 20 leg raises isn’t necessary. Don’t believe us? Here’s Lee Priest talking about ab training:
Should You Follow A Powerlifting Routine While Cutting?
No! Definitely not! That is a one way ticket to an injury. Depending on the program in question, it could be a serious injury. Powerlifting programs like Smolov’s squat routine should only be carried out while in a hefty caloric surplus. These programs are designed to have you putting weight on the bar every single week. They will inflict damage that is almost impossible to recover form week to week. If you attempt to do them while dieting, you’ll not only fail miserably, but you’ll probably hurt yourself trying. Save pushing weight for another time. A cut is for getting lean, not setting new PRs.
How Long Should I Rest Between Sets?
The research here is pretty clear cut. The amount of time you take in between sets is an incredibly important and often overlooked training variable. It can have a dramatic effect on your results.
If training for maximum strength gains, then longer rest periods between sets are the way to go. Generally speaking, taking 5 minutes in between heavy sets of deadlifts or bench presses is ideal for making strength gains. After all, if you want to be putting weight on the bar then you want to hit every set with everything you have.
If muscular hypertrophy is what you’re after, then shorter rest periods are optimal. Anything from 30 seconds to 2 minutes is fine, and certainly preferable to 5 minutes. This is true for a number of reasons: greater lactate build up, more blood forced into the muscle, greater growth hormone release, and the fact that you are relying more on your glycolytic energy system than the ATP system (which is primarily involved in very short bursts of muscle contraction).
For fat loss, the answer is equally clear. You want to maximize lactic acid build up and growth hormone production. You also want to be primarily using the glycolytic energy system rather than the ATP system or aerobic energy metabolism. The best way to do all of these things at once is to take short rest periods between sets; as short as possible. Rather than trying to push weight and hit numbers on every set, aim for 15 to 45 seconds rest between sets and try to burn out.
Should You Do Drop Sets?
You don’t have to do drop sets to lose fat. But drop sets are an excellent way to keep rest periods short and build up lactic acid in the fastest possible time. You should definitely consider incorporating these into your training if your primary goal is to maintain muscle mass while losing body fat. Drop sets are not optimal if your primary concern is gaining strength – you don’t want to be wasting valuable energy on sets of 55% of your max. But during a cut, drop sets serve as a great burn out at the end of your last set.
Should You Implement Rest-Pause?
In our opinion, this is not a training method that you should implement during a significant caloric deficit. Nor should it be implemented alongside things like short-rest periods, drop sets, and higher volume training.
Rest-pause is when you choose a weight that is, say, 85% of your max. You’d un-rack this weight, do two or three reps, then re-rack it. You’d take a very short rest period – just enough to get your breath back – then go again for 2-3 reps. You would keep doing this until you hit 8-10 reps, or until you fail the lift. The idea is that you are essentially doing a prolonged set of 6-10 reps with 85-95% of your 1RM. This is classic rest-pause training, and it is clearly not suitable for someone who is trying to lose fat while preserving as much muscle as possible.
Some people employ a kind of hypertrophy-focused rest-pause style of training. They might take their 8 rep max, hit 6 reps, rest for 10 second, then get another 4 reps, rest for 10 seconds, then get another 2. This gives them a total of 12 reps on their 8RM. This is essentially just an extreme form of “taking shorter rest periods”, but with one complication – people are terrible at gauging things like their 8RM!