Guide to Metabolic Training

It’s that time of year again — the time when people get back in the gym with that New Year’s Resolution of getting back into shape, getting lean, or just flat out getting thei sexy back.

The bad news? Most people have no clue what they’re doing when it comes to their program design!

I hate to tell you this, but following the traditional body part split that’s espoused in muscle rags isn’t the best way to get lean. Nor is it hours upon hours of endless cardio, regardless of what you see on the Biggest Loser.

There are basic principles that you absolutely must employ if your goal is to strip body fat off your frame. And keep in mind — we’re talking about body fat here, not pure weight loss. Quite often, you’ll see a change in how your clothes feel or fit you rather than a change in scale weight (at least at first).

Let’s start off with the big underlying principles first; we’ll get into some of the specifics a little later on.

Fat Loss Principle #1: Always use a dynamic warm-up.

I know what you’re thinking; this principle has very little to do with losing body fat when viewed in isolation. When looking at the big picture, however, this component is absolutely imperative!

How many of you sit for long hours all day long, only to hit the gym after work? Or worse yet, how many of you have to hit the gym first thing in the morning after lying in bed all night?

If either of the above is the case, you owe it to yourself and your body to get a dynamic warm-up in pre-workout. A solid warm-up will increase the temperature in your muscles and joints, prepare your nervous systems for the task at hand, and generally improve your “readiness” for training.

I’m obviously a little biased, but my Inside-Out and Magnificent Mobility DVDs do a great job of explaining the how’s and why’s of the warm-up process. The end result here is not only a body that moves and feels better, but optimizing the workout to come.

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Fat Loss Principle #2: Use big, compound movements in your program.

If your goal is to get lean, you absolutely, positively, must have compound movements in your program.

Sure, the elite level fitness or figure competitor may spend more time isolating certain muscle groups, but that’s because they’re already developed a great base. If your goal is to get to that point, you need to develop that base to begin with!

There’s nothing more annoying than watching someone perform endless sets of calf raises or tricep kickbacks in an effort to “tone” a muscle group. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, there’s no such thing as toning. When you’re training, you’re doing one of three things:

Toning, or spot reduction, is largely a myth. Focus on big bang exercises that will work all the major muscle groups of your body; because it doesn’t matter whether your goal is to get stronger or leaner — exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses and the like are the best options available.

Fat Loss Principle #3: Use alternating supersets.

This principle ties in beautifully to the previous one. We not only want to use big, compound movements, but it helps to perform them in a superset fashion, as well. Let me explain further.

Let’s say you start your day off with a big lower body movement like squats. Instead of waiting 2-3 minutes and doing another set of squats, alternate your work sets of squats with an upper body exercise like bench presses, push-ups, pull-ups, etc.

Performing your workout in this fashion will reduce local fatigue between sets. Let’s look at some examples:

Using straight sets:

Squats, 3×10, 90 seconds rest

In this example, you’d perform a set of squats every 90 seconds.

Using alternating sets:

1A) Squats, 3×10, 90 seconds rest
1B) Bench Press, 3×10, 90 seconds rest

In this case, you get a three-minute (and actually a bit longer) rest in between sets of squats! Obviously you’re going to increase total fatigue between sets of squats, but it does seem to blunt the local fatigue.

While I’m not sure whether there’s any scientific evidence that proves this workout to be superior for fat loss purposes, the anecdotal evidence seems to be quite good.

When using the alternating superset method, I will generally perform this for two (but no more than three) exercise sequences. Remember, the goal is always to focus on quality workouts versus quantity. The layout may look something like this:

Fat Loss Principle #4: Remember your prehab, rehab, and other important exercises!

Far too often when we get dialed in on a goal, we forget about all the little stuff. You know, the “little” stuff that keeps us healthy! This is what I’ll generally program into the third series of exercises: core work, prehab/rehab stuff, and any isolation work for the day.

Even though your goal is to get lean, don’t let your posture, alignment, and movement mechanics fall by the wayside! As my good friend and business partner Bill Hartman always says, “Smart training is always corrective.”

After all, it’s really hard to get lean if you’re nursing a bum shoulder, bad back, or any other injury!

Fat Loss Principle #5: Everything flows together.

This final fat loss principle is just a reminder that every component of your program is dependent upon the other variables.

If you’re doing higher rep sets, you’ll generally perform fewer total sets. Along those same lines, since your intensity as a percentage of your 1-repetition maximum is going to be lower, you can generally get by on shorter rest periods.

Here’s how this would work using a practical example:

In contrast, if you’re doing fewer total reps per set, you’ll need more total sets to get a similar training effect. And since you’ll be working at a higher relative percentage of your 1 repetition maximum, you’ll generally need more rest in between sets.

Again, here’s an example:

As you can see, we perform the same total number of reps in both cases (30). However, in the second example, since we’re only performing 10 reps instead of 15, we can use more weight — which increases our intensity. More intensity leads to increased recovery time between sets.

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Rest times between sets will depend on all the other variables.

So now that we have the major principles outlined, let’s cover some of the nitty gritty details that will help you fill in the gaps of your program design.

Exercise Selection

Exercise selection is a critical component of program design; this is true regardless of your specific goals. We already discussed the need for big, compound movements up front, so I won’t harp on that point any further.

I will, however, reiterate how little isolation work is really needed in this sort of program. As Barack Obama would say, “Let me be clear;” isolation work should be planned at the end of your workout, if it’s included it all!

Quite often, this is where I would put in any isolative arm work. However, that third superset/tri-set is a great time to throw in your prehab, rehab, and core work. Here’s an example (expanding on the one we used above):

Along these same lines, it’s imperative to think about “balancing” your movement patterns. I do an entire three-hour presentation on this topic, so it’s kind of hard to water it down.

Think about the major movements you would include in your programs – squatting, bench-pressing, overhead pressing, pull-ups, etc. For every set of squats you would perform, you should perform an equivalent set of deadlifts. Or for every set of push-ups you perform, you should do an equivalent number of dumbbell or chest-supported rows.

To make it brutally simple (and bordering on too simple), whenever you perform a set of an exercise, perform a movement that does the opposite. Keep in mind, however, that these don’t have to be done on the same day!

For example, let’s say you squat first on your Monday workout. To counterbalance that, you could deadlift first on your Wednesday workout. It takes some time, but you have to think about the big picture — what you’re doing throughout the course of your entire training week.

Here’s what your second workout could look like that week:

Like I said I could go on and on here, but I hope you get the point. Do your best to balance your workouts and you’ll be better off.

And one final note: When in doubt, always err on the side of more work for the back side of your body than your front. Your posture and alignment will thank you!

Number of Sets and Reps

We covered this briefly above, but everything has to work together for a program to get results. In this case, the number of sets and the number of reps you perform go hand in hand.

For fat loss clients, I generally recommend between eight and fifteen repetitions per set. The newer the client, and/or the more fat they have to lose, the more reps they’ll perform per set. As someone gets stronger and more efficient, their reps per set will decrease.

Once you know how many reps you’re going to perform per set, you can determine how many sets you’ll need to get a good training effect. If you’re performing fifteen reps in a set, chances are you probably only need two to three sets to get a great response.

As you get more advanced, it’s generally a good idea to perform fewer reps, increase the intensity (i.e. weight) used, and perform more total sets. I’ll generally have fat loss clients doing eight to ten reps perform three or four total sets.

Rest Periods

Again, the sets and reps you perform are going to tell you what the best rest period will be. A general rule of thumb is that higher reps will incur less fatigue of the nervous system, and therefore require less rest between sets.

In contrast, the heavier you go the more you stress the nervous system.  The nervous system takes at least five times longer to recover than metabolic reserves, so more rest is obviously warranted.

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Follow these simple principles and you’ll be lean before spring ends!


So there you have it: All the tools necessary to develop a kick-ass training program that will help you shed body fat like never before!

Stay tuned for the upcoming “Cardio Conundrum” article where I’ll discuss various methods of cardio and how to integrate them into your program to maximize the fat burning process.

Now get out there and get lean!


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