Reality Check: Is Your Workout Plan Designed to Actually Burn Fat?

William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, Joan of Arc. Classical figures who have changed our modern approach to the world. In our fast-paced, trend-driven fitness world, a decade can equate to centuries in other fields. In 2007, Alwyn Cosgrove wrote an article called, The Hierarchy of Fat Loss, and it’s one of the strongest pieces of work that we have.

Today we’re going to review Alywn’s time-tested approach, and share the strategies that we use at Mark Fisher Fitness to get the most out of every training session.

Before we start, here are few simple facts about body recomposition and fat loss:

  • Calories matter.
  • Developing strength will universally improve both health and hotness.
  • You don’t need to work out for hours a day to lose weight.
  • Recovery is underrated.

Tick Tock, Bitches

Let’s face it, time is an invaluable resource. Every single one of us has 24 hours in a day, or 525,600 minutes in a year. As our friend Gandalf said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Our ability to choose can feel like freedom, but it often feels like handcuffs. Before we go over these time-tested methods for burning off the fat, know this: The most efficient system possible doesn’t matter if you don’t do it.

Alywn’s hierarchy is all about how to use the time that you have as efficiently as possible. If for some reason you can’t follow the system, don’t sweat it. Move on to the next level and keep kicking ass. Let’s begin.

Priorities Matter

By 2017 we’ve learned all about the problem of multi-tasking, or trying to do two things at the same time. We send emails while listening to podcasts, watch shows while cooking dinner; we’re constantly doing two things at once. We’re prone to the same approach in fitness, but what Alwyn said in the original article still holds true:

“Chasing two goals at once will always compromise results.”

If your goal is to lose fat, then your training plan should be focused on helping you lose fat. Is it possible to develop strength, muscular size, or aerobic fitness at the same time?

It is possible, but it’s not the best idea.

If you’re training for something else, say running a marathon or trying to build muscle, trying to burn fat at the same time will both interfere with your performance goals and also slow everything down. You’ll spend more time working on less noticeable results.

Focus on one goal for a set period of time, like during Snatched in Six Weeks, then switch to goals with a program that prioritizes a single thing at a time.

Here It Is: The Hierarchy of Fat Loss

The whole point of this list is that, if you want to actually burn fat, you should incorporate the first items on this list into your life before you add the subsequent ones.

  1. Correct nutrition
  2. Activities that burn calories, promote muscle mass, and elevate metabolism
  3. Activities that burn calories and elevate metabolism
  4. Activities that burn calories but don’t necessarily maintain muscle or elevate metabolism

Correct Nutrition

If there’s one adage about food that you’ll hear at MFF, it’s that “You can’t out train your diet.”

We say it over and over again because we fucking mean it.

Efforts to lose fat without accounting for the food we’re eating are largely exercises in futility. It’s very challenging to lose fat without changing your diet, and that’s simply because it’s a lot easier to eat calories than it is to burn calories.

For example, in college I could eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream in five minutes. To burn those 1,100 calories in a single workout, I’d likely have to be on my bike for two hours without stopping. 5 minutes versus 120 minutes. That doesn’t seem very efficient, does it?

We often recommend that those seeking fat loss be in a caloric deficit, but the degree of deficit is very relatively individualized. If you’re training with higher intensities, eating too few calories may make it harder for you to keep those workouts consistent. So, while we want to control our nutrition so we’re in a deficit, it’s about finding the deficit that’s appropriate for you.

In Cosgrove’s original article, he wrote:

“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.”

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

The majority of the calories that we eat over the course of a day go to our resting metabolic rate and activities of daily living. When you’re sitting at work, walking to the subway, or driving home, that’s when we burn the majority of our calories over the course of the day.

If there’s more muscle on your body, then this resting metabolic rate will be higher. When it comes to exercise while in a calorie deficit, workouts that centralize on resistance training and promoting muscular work will help maintain or promote muscle mass while you’re burning fat.

Strength training is the second step when it comes to fat loss. You’ve already calculated the caloric need that’s appropriate for you, so now it’s time to focus on strengthening all of your muscles.

You can dive into the deep end on our strength training workouts at MFF by checking out The 4 Crucial Components of Massively Effective Strength Training Programs from yours truly.

Here’s a cursory overview of how we program our semi-private training workouts:

At MFF, there’s a similar structure with four major sections of each workout. The sections vary in length based on goals, and we’ll adjust time accordingly for an hour-long workout. Here’s how we organize an hour of semi-private training:

  • Warm-Up (8-10 minutes)

This helps us dial in our breath and get calm before we focus on loosening up our ankles, hips, and upper back, while making sure our glutes, abs, and shoulders are ready to keep us steady and strong.

  • Core / Power Development (5 minutes)

We’ll spend this time focusing on exercises such as planks, deadbugs, swings, or slams, to make sure that we can keep our core engaged while our arms and legs create explosive speed.

  • Strength Training (~35 minutes)

The bulk of our workout, the strength section is focused on exercises of the big, basic movement patterns that allow us to control as much of our body as possible. These are hinges, squats, pushing, pulling, single leg work, and more core training.

  • Finisher (5-10 minutes)

The finisher is the time when we drop it like it’s hot, a fast and furious combination of exercises such as rope slams, kettlebell swings, burpees, ball slams, or carries. We tend to use self-limiting exercises that allow you to keep great technique while challenging your fitness levels. You can also think of this as cardio with weights.

We use this approach because it lets us challenge our muscles as much as possible in an environment that’s exciting yet easy to focus in, and we can focus on progressing the weight we lift, the number of repetitions we do, or the number of sets we do. Strength training focuses on progressive overload, and these are just several of the variables we follow to make sure we’re consistently getting stronger.

Activities that burn calories and elevate metabolism

In our description of semi-private training above, you’ll note that in the Finisher section I used the phrase “cardio with weights.” That’s the practical way of saying Metabolic Resistance Training.

Our classes at MFF fit this function, when we’re using exercises and loads that are challenging enough for our muscles, in a format that becomes very demanding on the cardiovascular system. Cosgrove describes this style of training as one that:

“Work[s] 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.”

Within our class structure, our Ninja Essentials and Superhero Strength classes tend to have a more obvious anaerobic interval structure, while our Kick-Ass Conditioning and Circuit Party classes tend to have a more obvious aerobic interval structure. (Wanna take a deep dive into why this difference matters? Re-read my article about how to make energy system-based training work for you!)

In our classes, we’ll focus on a relatively equal balance of resistance training and cardiovascular training. You’ll pay as much attention to your strength and endurance over time as you will to your elevated heart rate. The focus on intervals is because we know that there’s disproportionately more work done in recovering from the unsustainable intensities, so your body spends more energy on recovery during and after the workout.

A quick note: Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption, or EPOC, is a measure of how hard your metabolism is working to recover after a workout. When EPOC research first came out, the fitness industry largely championed strength training for its ability to have you burn calories while recovering for 24-48 hours post workout.

We now know that EPOC isn’t as potent as those initial claims made it seem, but that doesn’t change this fundamental fact: Training that challenges as many muscles as possible is going to be more effective than training that challenges fewer muscles.

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

By now you know that the fat loss priorities are to focus on strength training and high-intensity interval training for fat loss. While that’s true, it’s still important to include a focus on flexibility and low-intensity exercise as well.

While this category of activities is lowest on the priority list, it offers a range of options that are infinitely satisfying. Why? Because basically everything else that’s not dedicated strength or conditioning can fit into this category. My personal preference for this category is for when you’re using this lower-intensity exercise for recovery and rejuvenation.

Do you thrive on high-intensity bodyweight exercise classes? Do you live for spin class or Zumba? Love your yoga class, hiking Runyon Canyon, or strolling through Central Park?

Great, all of that can count.

I typically consider these days “active recovery days” which means you’re not sitting on the couch all day, but it’s a lower intensity than your other training days. For some, this is a brisk walk or a low-intensity yoga class, while for others it’s a few hours of hiking. More often than not, these workouts are more about satisfaction than sweat, and more about fun than fitness in the traditional sense.

That’s not to downplay the importance of these low-intensity workouts; I think they’re one of the best things that you can do for your mental health and well-being, not to mention your cardiovascular system and overall flexibility. These are truly the days I think most of us in NYC are missing.

Fat Loss Time Management: How to Make it Happen

If you’re interested in streamlining your approach to fitness, following this hierarchy in order is important. It doesn’t make sense to start using the less efficient strategies first, especially if time is of the essence. Here’s how to organize your time to make the most of it.

If You Have 2 Hours Per Week, Start with Resistance Training

This means following a plan that focuses on getting stronger with full-body exercises. Your full-body strength training becomes the majority of your workout, and sessions may end with high-intensity interval training.

“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.”

At MFF, this means that if you only have two hours per week, you’d start with semi-private training.

If You Have 2-4 Hours Per Week, Add High Intensity Interval Training

When adding additional work, make it high-intensity interval training. The “cardio with weights” style of workouts are perfect for allowing you chances to get stronger while doing cardio at the same time.

According to Alwyn, “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.”

At MFF, this means you’d add classes like Ninja Essentials or Superhero Strength to your schedule.

If You Have 4-6 Hours Per Week, Add Aerobic Interval Training

Aerobic intervals aren’t quite as challenging as high-intensity interval training, but they’re still more demanding than steady state work. These can often feel like they’re more demanding than the resistance training and high-intensity work, but that’s because the work is more continuous than other workouts.

At MFF, this means you’d add Circuit Party or Kickass Conditioning to your schedule.

If You Have 6-8 Hours Per Week, Add Steady State High Intensity Aerobic Training.

For most of us, this is the upper limit of time that we have to dedicate to exercise, but it’s a great place to get in extra feel-good aerobic exercise like a long run, a hard dance class, or a bike ride. At this point in the week, you’ve spent a lot of time inside and my preference is to enjoy the outdoors and see what nature has to offer.

If You Have 8+ Hours Per Week, Add Steady State Low Intensity Activity

You have more than 8 hours per week to exercise? How many times have you read The 4-Hour Work Week?!? If you’re including additional for the sake of burning calories, it’s because you have everything else dialed in and under control. Add a long walk or a slow-paced yoga class to your schedule so you can improve overall health and burn calories.

*Remember, when you’re adding more aerobic exercise, it’s possible to do too much. These strategies should enhance your ability to recover, so if you find yourself struggling during strength or resistance training workouts, cut back on the aerobic work. Work smarter before you work harder.

In Conclusion: Fat Loss, Simplified

When it comes to fat loss, the hierarchy is simple. Eat appropriately for your goals, train to be strong, train to be fit, and enjoy appropriate recovery. It’s always beneficial to focus on a single goal at a time, and if fat loss is truly your goal, then it should be the biggest priority.

Alwyn Cosgrove wrote this hierarchy in 2007 and, having used these strategies with thousands of Ninjas, we know that it works. It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Got questions? Let us know in the comments below!


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Harold Gibbons is the Steward of Strength at MFF, where he teaches classes & semi-privates, manages the program design team for semi-private training, is the director of the Trainer-in-Residence program, and the founder of the Motivation and Movement LAB. When not teaching, he loves cuddling up on the couch with his fiancée Katie, sliding through the woods on his mountain bike, and considering why Thestrals are the best.

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