The 3 Pillars of Fat Loss

Which is most important in fat loss – caloric restriction, aerobic conditioning, or resistance training? Is any more important than the other? Can one accomplish fat loss without the others?

Anyone who ever tells you “this is what you should do one hundred percent of the time” when it comes to your training is trying to sell you something. The sales pitches are even more pronounced when it comes to particular areas – speed training is a great example (is there an agility ladder event at the Olympics?). But for the winner takes all, no holds barred champion of fitness myths, the biggest is that strength training cures everything.

Fat Loss Is Big Business

This misguided belief seems to include everything from pain management and rehab to sports performance (because after you kick a goal in soccer you need to deadlift to show how strong you are) and even fat loss. Fat loss is always a hot topic in the fitness industry because about sixty percent of the western world is overweight or obese. That’s about four billion potential clients you can find if you come up with a hot new fat loss plan.

It Takes Time To Lose Weight

A new study looked at research on weight loss from many parts of the world and tried to put it all into one place – no easy feat. Some of the common grounds gleaned for weight management included:

  • 150-250 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical activity will help protect against initial weight gain.
  • More than 250 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity can result in a “clinically significant” weight loss.
  • For improved maintenance of weight loss, 250-300 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical activity is recommended (amounting to approximately 2,000 cals/ week).

This clearly indicates that while a small amount of moderate activity (150 minutes equates to thirty minutes daily, which could be further broken into three, 10 minute time slots during the day) is helpful to stave off initial weight gain, a far more significant amount is required to shift that weight once it has been gained.

Weight Training Helps

The researchers found the inclusion of resistance training helpful to “lead to favorable changes in the areas of body composition, muscular endurance, bone density, cardiac risk factors, psychosocial well-being, and metabolism.” But also stated:

Despite the significant health and functional benefits that resistance exercise can provide, it is not an effective sole strategy for reducing excess bodyweight. Furthermore, the combination of resistance exercise and a reduced calorie diet does not provide additional weight loss benefits beyond that seen with diet alone.

It Takes Three to Make a Thing Go Right

Each of the three factors – calorie restriction, resistance training, and physical activity in the form of moderate intensity aerobic work – was seen as a key factor in successful weight loss. Which brings me back to my first point. Anyone who tells you that it has to be “this way’ or “that way” is only trying to get you to buy their product. The research clearly shows there is no one thing that will magically help you lose weight, nor is there one factor that significantly plays a more important role in fat loss.

A real world example of this is pre-competition bodybuilders. They obviously have a steady diet of resistance training and then add in calorie restriction and light aerobic work in the form of cycling or walking to help shed pounds. The results have been going on in front of us for some time and are clear to see. You could add CrossFit to this mix as well – plenty of resistance training, a sensible paleo eating plan (which is restrictive compared to the modern diet) and then met-con work (the only difference being the intensity of this work compared to the recommended “moderate”) as the added energy system work to help shed fat.

resistance training, strength training, fat loss, weight loss

To Get The Results, Put In The (Right) Work

The take away from all this is that long-term body composition changes come from a blend of all three areas, and aren’t determined by one actor alone. When it came to singling out factors, resistance training was actually the least favorable individual aspect to use when looking to drop weight and keep it off. This may be in part due to the “get big to get strong” mentality that is prevalent among many who primarily lift weights, however the research didn’t delve into the possibilities of body dysmorphia that often come from weightlifting as a sole pursuit.

My clients see fantastic results from following a sensible eating plan, resistance training three to four times per week, and walking an hour daily – a system I’ve been using now with clients for over a decade. It is repeatable and always works. I love it when research shows that what we have instinctively found to be right is proved correct.


1. Sword, David, “Exercise as a Mangement Strategy for the Overweight and Obese: Where Does Resistance Exercise Fit In?” J Strength Cond Res 34: 47-55, 2012.

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