TIME 4 FAT LOSS SERIES – PART 8 – How can we use resistance training to maximise fat loss?

3 May 2019


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This is the Eighth in a series of original articles we will be publishing looking at the science behind fat loss. Join our mailing list to be informed when we have added the latest article.


Part 8 – How can we use resistance training to maximise fat loss?

Specific guidelines have been developed by the American College of Sports Medicine (1) to help us to create the most effective resistance training programmes for fat loss.

How often should we perform resistance training?

We should train each muscle group 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days to allow at least 48 hours recovery between sessions. If you perform a whole body routine, in which all of the major muscle groups are trained in a single session, this would require 2-3 sessions per week. If you use a split routine, in which different muscle groups are trained on different days, the frequency may be increased, but each muscle group should be rested for at least 48 hours between sessions (1).

How many exercises should we perform?

If you perform a whole-body routine we should select 8-10 exercises that train all of the major muscle groups (legs, chest, back, shoulders, etc) If you are using a split routine, you may perform more exercises per muscle group (1).

What type of exercises should we perform?

Compound or structural exercises (e.g., bench press) are preferable to isolation exercises (e.g., pec flyes) because the involvement of several muscle groups makes them time efficient and they tend to expend more energy than isolation exercises (2).

Ideally, a different exercise should be performed for each muscle group every 2-3 sessions to ensure even development and reduce the chances of overuse injury. You can use machines, free-weights or a mixture. It depends on your preference and the equipment available to you (1).

How many sets and reps should we perform?

Remember that each pound of muscle expends 7 to 10 kcal per day. Therefore, the focus of the programme should be to increase our muscle mass and so increase our daily energy expenditure. To this end, we should perform 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps per muscle group to the point of momentary muscular fatigue (1). A repetition range of 8-12 repetitions is recommended as this appears to be the optimal for increasing muscle mass (3).

Older individuals (those over 50 years) and those who are unfit should perform one or more sets of 10-15 reps at a moderate intensity. They can progress up to the 8-12 rep range after a period of adaptation (1).

How fast should we perform each repetition?

A relatively slow to moderate tempo is typically recommended for increasing muscle mass (4). For example, when performing the bench press, you may take approximately four seconds to lower the bar, pause for a couple of seconds and then take two seconds to raise the bar back to the start position. This slow speed of contraction can be very demanding and cause considerable muscle soreness if you’re not accustomed to it. Therefore, it is advisable to progress to it gradually.

How long should we rest between sets?

We should have sufficient rest between sets to allow the next set to be performed with correct form. As a guide, 1-2 minutes is generally recommended when aiming to increase muscle (3), but you may require a little longer initially, particularly when performing ‘big exercises’ such as squats and dead-lifts.

Short recovery periods of approximately one minute in combination with multiple sets have been shown to increase the levels of growth hormone and testosterone levels, These are the primary anabolic hormones involved in muscle growth (3).


Example programme

Here’s an example of a programme based on the ACSM’s guidelines, which predominately uses free-weights

Exercise sets reps

Squats 2-4 x 8-12

Romanian dead-lift 2-4 x 8-12

Bench press 2-4 x 8-12

Standing cable row 2-4 x 8-12

Dumbbell Shoulder press 2-4 x 8-12

Bicep curl 2-4 x 8-12

Triceps dips 2-4 x 8-12

Calf raise 2-4 x 8-12

Plus core exercises to suit


How can we progress a resistance training programme?

There are various methods that can be used to progress a resistance training programme, such as increasing sets, reps, or decreasing recovery between sets. However, as our aim is to increase muscle mass, we should increase the resistance as our strength improves.

A conservative method for achieving this is the two-for-two rule: If you can perform two or more repetitions over your repetition goal in the last set, in two consecutive workouts, you should increase the resistance in the next training session. For example, if you are able to perform 14 repetitions in your last set for two consecutive workouts you should then increase the resistance for that exercise in the next session (5).


How can we maximise expenditure?

There are a number of approaches we can employ to increase the energy expenditure of a resistance training programme.

These include:

  • Varying the training programme. As the body adapts to a training stimulus it no longer expends the same amount of energy to perform the same amount of work. Therefore, by changing a training programme regularly, e.g., by using different exercises, varying the intensity, exercise order, etc, we can increase energy expenditure (6).
  • Reducing the rest periods between sets increases the intensity of the workout, which results in greater energy expenditure (6).
  • Performing single limb exercises when practical, as these require greater energy expenditure than double limb exercises. For example, performing a set of single leg squats for each leg will expend more energy than a set of regular squats (6).

Using a circuit training format: While standard resistance training methods are not an efficient method for expending energy (1), circuit type resistance training has been shown to expend 9 kcal per minute, with the energy cost of a 60-90 minute session being comparable to a CV session (7). You may even choose to include CV in the same session to further increase your energy expenditure. For example,

  • 5 minute aerobic warm up
  • 10 minutes circuit resistance training
  • 10 minutes moderate-high intensity aerobic exercise
  • 10 minutes circuit resistance training
  • 10 minutes moderate-high intensity aerobic exercise
  • 10 minutes circuit resistance training
  • 5 minute aerobic cool down


What sort of progress can we expect?

Participants in a study which involved 12 weeks of resistance training had an average reduction in body fat of 2.4kg and gained an average of 2.4kg of muscle (7). As a general guide, if you are new to resistance training you can expect to gain on average 3 lbs (1.36kg) of muscle after approximately 3 months of training, which can result in a 7% increase in resting metabolic rate (8).



In conclusion, a well designed resistance training programme can help us to not only gain muscle but to also reduce our levels of body fat, regardless of our age and ability. The term ‘muscle building’ can be off putting for some people, particularly women, as they have visions of becoming bulky. Ask any bodybuilder and they will tell you how difficult it is gain large amounts of muscle. So be assured that you’re not going to turn into the ‘Hulk’ overnight. Also as muscle is more dense than fat, you may lose several pounds of fat and gain several pounds of muscle but look slimmer. If you’re uncomfortable with ‘building muscle’, think of it as body sculpting.

CLICK HERE TO READ: Part 9 – What is metabolic training and is it an effective means for reducing body fat?