Strength Training for Fat Loss: Building a Bigger Engine

Strength Training for Fat Loss: Building a Bigger Engine

By James Chan, NSCA-CPT

When it comes to fat loss, most people embark on a program of cardio and dieting.  Strength training is just an afterthought.  Strength training, however, can burn just as much, if not more, fat than cardio.  Why is it that people focus on cardio as their primary fat burner?

For one thing cardio does shrink you down.  But it does just that: it shrinks down both your fat and muscle.  You end up skinny and soft.  Bodybuilders, however, want to retain or even build muscle while burning off fat.  Why?  A larger engine burns more fuel.  Larger muscles burn more calories and more fat.

While cardio burns calories and fat when you’re performing it, high rep strength training has what is known as high EPOC or “Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption.”  This is a fancy term for saying how long your metabolism is elevated after exercise.  Studies show that a well-designed strength program can elevate your EPOC or metabolism for up 38 hours after the workout.  In other words, you continue to burn calories long after strength training.  Whereas once you stop cardio, the calorie burning stops as well. 

Strength training coupled with diet and cardio burns fat far more than cardio and diet alone.  In bodybuilding terms, we call this “cutting up.”  Bodybuilders bulk up in the off-season, gaining as much weight and muscle as possible.  During pre-contest season, they strip away the fat through diet and training, which consists of weight training at higher reps with shorter rest periods.  This sort of training induces a large dump of growth hormone (GH) in your body.  GH is a potent fat loss hormone and a very mild anabolic.

Generations of bodybuilders have figured out through trial and error that high rep strength training coupled with cardio and low carb dieting gets them cut up.  Here’s what a conventional pre-contest bodybuilding program might look like:


Bench press – 5 sets, 8-10 reps
Incline dumbbell press – 5 sets, 8-10 reps
Cable crossovers – 4 sets, 10-12 reps


Lat pulldowns – 5 sets, 10-12 reps
Dumbbell rows – 4 sets, 8-10 reps
Seated cable rows – 4 sets, 8-10 reps
Hyperextensions – 3 sets, as many reps as possible



Dumbbell military press – 5 sets, 8 reps
Laterals – 5 sets, 12 reps
Bent over laterals – 4 sets, 10-12 reps
Cable laterals – 4 sets, 10-12 reps



Machine Hack squats – 4 sets, 10-12 reps
Lunges – 4 sets, 10-12 reps
Leg extensions – 4 sets, 10-12 reps
Leg curls – 4 sets, 10-12 reps



Standing machine calf raises – 4 sets, 10-12 reps
Donkey calf raises – 4 sets, 10-12 reps
Seated machine calf raises – 4 sets, 10-12 reps



Preacher curls – 4 sets, 8-10 reps
Incline curls – 4 sets, 10-12 reps
Concentration curls – 4 sets, 8-10 reps



Dumbbell French press – 4 sets, 8-10 reps
Triceps pressdowns – 4 sets, 10-12 reps
Dumbbell kickbacks – 4 sets, 10-12 reps

As you can see a typical pre-contest routine involves more machines, dumbbells and isolation movements.  Rest periods would start out at 1 minute and decrease by ten seconds from week to week until you hit 20 seconds of rest.  Each body part would be trained 3 times a week.

 Although bodybuilders have followed this type of training for decades, this doesn’t mean it’s the optimal cutting program.  Unless you bulked up to gigantic proportions during the off-season or are on a cycle of steroids, you would most likely overtrain from the high volume of sets and exercises on the above program.  This type of training coupled with dieting would make you lose muscle rather than retain it.

Rather than rely on high volume and drugs to burn fat, the natural bodybuilder should add some modern refinements to his or her strength training/fat loss strategy:

  • Superset between upper and lower body movements through “mini-circuits”
  • Focus on free weights, compound and multiple compound lifts, and use isolation movements only to bring up lagging parts
  • Train each body part 3 times a week, but lower the overall volume by spreading the sets and exercises throughout the week


Although circuit training is a great strength training routine for fat loss, logistically, it is not always feasible.  Anyone who has tried circuit training in the gym knows how pissed off people can be when you hog up multiple machines and stations.  Plus people will jump in on a machine, thinking that you’re done because you moved on to the next exercise in the circuit. 

To get around this, however, one can simply employ a “mini-circuit.”  This is where you alternate between an upper and lower body exercise.  Rather than hog up multiple machine and stations and be interrupted by interlopers, you can stay at one or two stations and use one or two pieces of equipment. 

Using mini-circuits gives you the powerful fat loss effect of circuit training without the logistical nightmare of procuring and securing multiple exercise stations and equipment. A typical exercise combination I use with my clients is a lower body exercise, such as the squat, coupled with pushups.

Focus on Higher Reps on the Big Lifts

Old-time bodybuilders relied heavily on machines, cables and isolation movements in their pre-season programs.  Compound movements (such as the power lifts) and multiple compound movements (such as the Olympic lifts), however, burn more calories.  The very fact that you have to use more muscles to stabilize the weight means that you stress and develop more muscle and burn more calories and fat as a result. 

Machines and isolation movements just don’t stress as much muscle and don’t burn as many calories or fat.  You should, however, include machine and isolation movements to bring up any lagging body parts.  For example, if you were lagging in rear deltoid hypertrophy, then you would include lying rear lateral raises in your program.

The Modern Strength Training/Fat Loss Program:

Below is a strength training/fat loss program that (coupled with diet and high intensity interval training) will get you big, lean and powerful.   Perform this program 3 times a week.

Kettlebell clean and press – 1 set, 20 reps, 60 seconds rest

OR Kettlebell swings – 1 set, 20 rep, 60 seconds rest

Hang cleans to front squats

  • 3 sets, 8-10 reps, 90 seconds rest
  • To perform this exercise, clean a barbell to your shoulders, perform a front squat, drop the bar to hang clean position and repeat till you achieve 8-10 reps

 Perform this superset in a power rack:

Back squats – 4 sets, 10-12 reps, no rest
Pullups – 4 sets, as many reps as possible, 60-90 seconds rest


Deadlifts – 3 sets, 10-12 reps, no rest
Pushups – 3 sets, as many reps as possible, 60-90 seconds rest


Preacher curls to standing curls – 3 sets, 10-12 reps*
Dips – 3 sets, as many reps as possible

*To perform preacher to standing curls, simply 5-6 reps of preacher curls, then stand up with the same weight and perform 5-6 reps of standing curls

Laterals – 4 sets, 15-20 reps, 45-60 seconds rest

Calf raises on the leg press machine – perform 50-100 reps in the fewest sets possible

The above program is very tough, but if you build a bigger engine, then you’ll burn more fuel.  Build bigger muscles: burn more fat.


About the Author:

James Chan is a DarkOPS Fitness advisor and contributor and a police officer for the University of California.  His book Strength and Physique: High Tension Exercises for Muscular Growth is available at  For more of his insights into strength training and bodybuilding, visit his blog:

May 03, 2016 by Mike Grubbs