You’re likely wondering how often you should strength train when you’re in a fat loss phase.
For best results, you should strength train 3-4 times a week while ensuring a daily calorie deficit.
To help you retain as much muscle and strength during a fat loss phase, I have provided you with a sample 4-day workout routine (below).
If you are looking to improve your strength, let Fitbod help.
On average, a new Fitbod user who trains three times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after three months. Try Fitbod for free.
Fat Loss Explained
Let’s briefly cover the difference between weight loss and fat loss.
Some individuals may use them interchangeably, but it is essential to understand that while they can be correlated, they are not the same.
Related Article: How To Plan Your Strength Training While Cutting (Ultimate Guide)
What is Weight Loss?
Weight loss refers to the total amount lost, which is the value you see when you step on a scale, and it’s lower than it was previously.
Total weight lost is a sum of fat, muscle, water, and food weight within the gut, so it can fluctuate drastically based on hydration status, food weight, etc.
The potential downside to weight loss is that it can result in muscle loss. If you’re losing muscle mass, you won’t look as toned, you’ll slow down your metabolism, and it will be harder to maintain this loss.
Weight loss occurs when you implement an aggressive calorie deficit and prioritize cardio over strength training.
What is Fat Loss?
Fat loss is a process of losing while maintaining muscle (also does not include any losses in hydration or food weight).
Fat loss is more difficult to quantify using a scale because it does not tell you the specific amount of fat you lost week to week (despite many people thinking if they lose 5 lbs on the scale, they lost 5 lbs of fat… which is not true).
However, we know that a conservative-to-moderate calorie deficit paired with strength training encourages you to retain muscle and lose fat, so changes you see over time while implementing these methods will result from fat loss.
Most people who claim they want to lose weight are seeking the results of fat loss. Losing fat while retaining muscle allows you to look more toned, maintain or increase your fitness level, and is easier to maintain long-term.
How Strength Training Helps With Fat Loss
Strength training helps you lose fat by increasing your energy expenditure in two different ways:
- While you’re doing it, it costs your body energy to lift weights.
- By maintaining/building muscle because the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn daily (even while at rest).
An increase in energy expenditure encourages fat loss because it helps you achieve a calorie deficit more easily, and a calorie deficit is required for your body to use fat for fuel.
Strength training is key for helping you lose fat while retaining muscle because when you lift weights, you’re telling your body that you still need this muscle which prevents your body from burning it off for energy while in a deficit.
Strength Training Frequency For Fat Loss
Your strength training plan for fat loss should be very similar to your strength training routine when you’re not actively trying to lose weight; the main differences will be related to your nutrition and energy levels.
However, it will be more challenging to recover from strenuous training sessions when eating in a calorie deficit because energy (calorie intake) is limited.
For this reason, you may want to increase your training frequency but decrease the overall work and intensity in your sessions, especially if you struggle with fatigue and cannot train for longer periods.
This is often more of an issue with advanced lifters moving heavier, more demanding absolute loads rather than beginner to intermediate lifters.
Whether a beginner or advanced lifter, you should strength train at least three days a week during a fat loss phase.
Training three days a week would be enough for beginners to retain muscle and strength; however, more advanced lifters should aim to strength train 4-6 days a week.
You can choose from the splits below based on your overall training frequency.
- Push, Pull, Legs (5-6 days): This program allows you to train the upper body 3-4 times a week and the lower body twice per week. By training 5-6 days a week, you can keep your workouts shorter in duration to help combat low energy and fatigue as you are dieting.
- Upper – Lower Split (4-6 days): This allows you to train your upper and lower body 2-3 times weekly. Since you’re working them each a few times a week, you can do less each day, which can help you improve recovery time and the quality of your workouts.
- Arnold Split (6 days): This six-day program trains all muscle groups twice per week. You can train each muscle group hard yet still recover between sessions.
- Full Body Split (3-4 days): This is the best split for those training 3-4 days a week to get enough stimulus to maintain or build muscle. With this split, you can get enough work done over the week by training them in smaller amounts without getting too sore or beat up.
Ultimately, training 3-6 days a week is suggested, the best being 4-6, depending on your experience level, how hard each workout is, and your ability to recover.
6 Training Considerations For Fat Loss
Below are six training considerations for a fat-loss phase:
When in a calorie deficit, especially the longer into the diet you are, you may notice that your energy levels and recovery between sessions may be negatively impacted.
If you find some movements you normally do are creating too much fatigue (not muscular, but entire body) or joint pain, you can switch those out for other movements that allow you to push the muscle to failure without having other muscles be a limiting factor.
For example, high-rep back squats can be tiring for the entire body, so you could do hack squats or leg presses instead to not stress the back or torso as much and allow yourself to emphasize the legs.
If you have no issues with fatigue or joint pain, then you can follow your regular training program; which should be a combination of compound movements (i.e. squats, deadlifts, bench press) and accessory movements (i.e. rows, leg extensions, tricep pushdowns).
The total number of sets you do in a workout goes towards your total weekly volume. The more sets you do over the week, the more volume.
High-volume training can be a perfect way to build muscle; however, when you are low on calories (due to eating less for fat loss), your ability to recover from higher volumes can be diminished.
Aim to get 2-4 high-quality sets per exercise, then move on.
If you are doing 5+ sets of an exercise, there is a good chance that the quality of your sets will be poor and you’ll simply be accumulating more fatigue (muscular and total body tiredness) and increasing your risk of injury.
Aim to train in the 5-10 rep range for general strength and muscle retention, or in the 10-20 rep range to increase muscle retention and endurance.
More advanced lifters can also do one exercise a day in the 3-5 rep range for a few sets, particularly if they are a more competitive athlete looking to maintain a certain level of strength during a fat loss phase.
Keep loading between 30-85% of your maximums. This means using light-to-moderate loads and avoiding maximal loads while your recovery is diminished.
Lifting lighter than 30% will often mean doing very high rep sets that are more tiring out your entire body than the muscle tissue. This will result in less than optimal muscle growth and retention while also increasing your overall fatigue (which is already an issue as you are not eating enough calories to file optimal recovery).
Training above 85% can be done; however, it can quickly lead to overuse, injury, and fatigue if not accounted for and properly maintained.
Remember, the goal of a fat loss phase is to lose fat through eating less. Your workouts should be there to retain strength and muscle mass. This is not the time to push your maximums or try to train with the highest intensity to gain max power and size (to do that, you want to ensure you are eating enough food to fuel recovery).
You can (and should) still challenge yourself, but understand that the longer you diet, the harder it will be to progress your sets, reps, or weight week to week. You will need to manage your expectations and listen to your body.
Your rest periods allow you to put your best effort into each set. Generally speaking, rest for 2-3 minutes when training in the 5-10 rep range and 1-2 minutes in the 10-20 rep range.
Rest longer if you need extra time to put your best effort into a set.
If you’re finding yourself getting distracted or losing motivation between sets, then shorten your rest periods.
Despite what many people may think, cardio is not necessary to lose fat. Many lifters can get very lean by simply eating less and lifting weights. Too often, people over-prioritize cardio to “burn calories” and instead lose muscle and fat (weight loss) rather than just lose fat (fat loss).
Cardio can be a helpful tool to help you increase your overall energy expenditure, especially if you are not active outside the gym but it shouldn’t be a priority.
Generally speaking, most people should be able to lose fat without cardio if they lift weights at least 3-4 days a week, eat 10-20% less than they need to maintain their weight and walk 10,000 steps a day. They will lose fat if they can do this consistently for 8-12 weeks.
If you are doing all that and still struggling to lose fat, you could throw in 30-90 minutes of weekly cardio. However, if this is impacting your strength training, it’s not worth it.
Related Article: Cutting Without Cardio: Is it Possible? (100% Yes It Is!)
Sample Fat Loss Routine For A 4-Day Split
Below is a sample 4-day fat loss routine. This workout program has you training muscle groups twice per week. One workout is geared to help you preserve strength, whereas the other is geared to help you keep your training volume high to maintain lean mass.
This program should be paired with a calorie deficit, 10k daily steps (low intensity to usual daily life steps), and 7-8 hours of sleep.
Most people can expect to lose ¾ -1 lbs per week, with heavier individuals losing 1-2 lbs per week (250 lbs +) if they are consistent with the program and other fat loss factors.
Day 1 – Upper Body
- Barbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Assisted Pull-Up Machine: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Hammer Incline Chest Press: 3 sets of 10 reps, superset with Dumbbell Row
- Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 10 reps per side. Rest 30-60 seconds between exercises and 1-2 minutes between sets
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3 sets of 10 reps, superset with Seated Bicep Curl
- Seated Bicep Curl: 3 sets of 10 reps. Rest 30-60 seconds between exercises and 1-2 minutes between sets
- Cable Face Pull: 3 sets of 10 reps, superset with Cable Tricep Pushdown
- Cable Tricep Pushdown: 3 sets of 10 reps. Rest 30-60 seconds between exercises and 1-2 minutes between sets
Day 2 – Lower Body
- Barbell Back Squat: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Barbell Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Leg Press: 3 sets of 10 reps, superset with Walking Lunge
- Walking Lunge: 3 sets of 10 steps per side. Rest 30-60 seconds between exercises and 1-2 minutes between sets
- Leg Extension: 3 sets of 10 reps, superset with Leg Curl
- Leg Curl: 3 sets of 10 reps. Rest 30-60 seconds between exercises and 1-2 minutes between sets
- Hanging Knee Raise: 3 sets of 10-15 reps, superset with Crunches
- Crunches: 3 sets of 10-15 reps. Rest 30-60 seconds between exercises and 1-2 minutes between sets
Day 3 – Upper Body
- Barbell Bent Over Row: 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Incline Bench Press: 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Lat Pulldown: 3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Barbell Shoulder Press: 3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Barbell Bicep Curl: 3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Machine Reverse Fly: 3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Rope Overhead Triceps Extension: 3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
Day 4 – Lower Body
- Lying Hamstring Curl: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Barbell Back Squat: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Smith Machine Bulgarian Split Squat: 4 sets of 15 reps per side, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Leg Extension: 4 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Machine Crunch: 3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Side Crunch: 3 sets of 15 reps per side, rest 60 seconds between sets
If you notice you’re losing muscle mass and strength in certain areas during a fat loss phase (or you notice you naturally struggle to gain strength and size in a certain area), you can do a 5th day and repeat either day 1 or 2 workout.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.