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When is Rapid Fat Loss Ideal?

Written on January 21, 2010 at 9:44 pm, by Eric Cressey

Programs aimed at rapid fat loss are quite the rave nowadays.  There are some excellent programs out there (most notably Warpspeed Fat Loss, which we’ve discussed here quite a bit) that deliver some quick reductions in body fat over the course of a few weeks of absolutely hellish training and strict nutritional modifications.  There’s no doubt that it’s a effective way to drop body fat quickly.


That said, the question is whether that degree of specialization – incinerating body fat at all costs – is what’s right for an individual.  For some people – particularly woman (who aren’t generally as concerned with carrying appreciable levels of muscle mass and strength), these programs are just fine; any accompanying losses in strength and muscle mass won’t be as disconcerting because they aren’t perceived as being as important.  Obviously, it’s also true for those who are morbidly obese, but they generally aren’t candidates for complete overhauls right away, as they have to get their feet wet first with the basics of regular training and better nutrition.

Most specific to this piece, though, rapid fat loss programs are most enticing to the more experienced trainee who carries a lot of muscle mass, but needs to shed some blubber quickly to get ready for a vacation, photo shoot, or scandalous make-out scene on live TV.

However, for every one of these folks (the experienced trainees – not the horny, drunk, bearded dudes with Confederate flag hats), there is another individual who is male, with limited training experience, subpar strength, and not enough muscle mass on him to really even demonstrate that he regularly trains.  He might be 6-1, 180 pounds at 20% body fat.  For those of you keeping track at home, that’s 144 pounds of fat free mass, and 36 pounds of fat mass.

Well, here’s a question: if this hypothetical guy dropped 10 pounds of body fat right now and somehow managed to maintain all his muscle mass (and recovered any water weight reductions he got from lower carb dieting), would he be happy with how he’d look?  That’d still put him at 144 pounds of fat free mass, but lower his body weight to 170 with 26 pounds of fat mass (15.3% body fat).  Sorry, but while respectable, 15.3% body fat isn’t super lean.  And, 170 pounds at 6-1 will only earn him points with insurance companies who calculate premiums based on body mass index.

Imagine taking about the ideal NFL cornerback, and then stripping 25 pounds of muscle off him and adding back 15 pounds of body fat.  Be sure to kill off all the athleticism in the process, too.  Not a very impressive picture.

In other words, a program that might have been perfect for a guy who was 30 pounds heavier with the same body fat percentage – but two more years of training experience – just isn’t a good fit for a guy who can become “skinny-fat” really quickly.


I have just seen a lot of guys go on crazy fat loss programs only to get to a lower weight and realize that they look skinny because they aren’t carrying enough muscle mass in the first place.  And, along the way, they lose a lot of strength – so it’s harder to build up muscle mass quickly thereafter to right the ship.

For this reason, it’s been a long time since I resorted to a rapid fat loss program in my own training; I just am not willing to sacrifice the strength gains I’ve made just to see the scale weight go down quickly.  Rather, I’d prefer to do it gradually and retain the gains.


This has also been a strategy we’ve employed with excellent success with athletes who come our way who need to lean out.  Often, body weight – and not body composition – are what predicts their success.  Pitchers are a perfect example; I’ve seen many who have just indiscriminately lost body weight, only to see their velocity drop considerably.  This may come from the actual loss of body mass, the increased training volume that caused it, the type of training (extra aerobic activity?), or – most likely – a combination of all these factors.  One thing is for sure, though; I would be my 2010 salary on the fact that if CC Sabathia “trimmed down” to 210, he wouldn’t be nearly as dominant as he is.


Would some gradual weight loss and an emphasis on improving body composition help him?  Absolutely.  Would taking 80 pounds off him be a smart or specific off-season goal?  In my opinion, no.  The research has demonstrated that body mass is one factor that predicts velocity.

Baseball relevance aside, this is why I rarely go “exclusively fat loss” or “exclusively bulking” with a lot of general fitness clients who don’t have more than two years of strength training under their belt.  They absolutely, positively can add muscle mass and drop body fat simultaneously if they accumulate enough of the right kind of activity and eat the right stuff.  It just takes some individualization, adherence, consistency, and effort.  We’ve seen it hundreds of times already with the Show and Go program alone, and that doesn’t even take things to the level of individualized programming.

To reiterate, I’m not saying that rapid fat loss programs don’t have merit; I’ve seen a lot of people get tremendous results when the program was the right fit for them.  However, I also know that handing a NFL running back’s training program to a 12-year-old Pop Warner running back isn’t appropriate in light of his experience.  The same can be said for novice trainees who try to drop body fat too quickly; they are skipping steps and missing out on crucial adaptations – including strength and muscle mass gains – that could bode more favorably for long-term progress.

As always, you have to fit the program to the individual, and not the individual to the program.

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17 Responses to “When is Rapid Fat Loss Ideal?”

  1. Mark Young Says:

    A friend of mine wanted to get into the United States Marine Corps. He made it by losing 30 pounds. The Marines didn’t care whether the weight was fat or muscle. In fact, they made a body builder nutual friwns of ours take muscle off. It was, after all, only weight. I told my younger friend that taking off muscle is blasphemy. But I understand sacrifice in service of your country.

  2. Mary Says:

    Years ago I lost 90 pounds. Eventually I did lift weights and lower my processed carbs intake, but would up with injuries from being weak and gaining some weight back. I have your book and use it for the mobility exercises–is the weight training part ok for women? I know I need to get stronger to reduce injuries in the future and to drop the fat I have gained back.

  3. Jake Says:

    I think the best fat-loss programs are what give you the best bodyweight composition. Achieving the ideal composition can also mean losing strength, unfortunately. Not many “ripped” guys are really that strong because they’re on a low-carb (cycling) diet with reduced calories. Therefore, their energy levels are low. A true athlete who wants the most performance benefits has to eat appropriately to support maximum training effort. Those who just want to look good can get away with using short-lived fat loss programs.

  4. Quagbert Says:

    More so than the strength loss, I think people should focus on routines and “unconscious competence.” If you have to turn a 3 week fat loss kamikaze mission into a major life “event” than by definition that event is an anomaly and will not be a part of who you are. Manageable body fat needs to be built into the clever balance of regular diet, regular training, and regular cardio/energy work, adapted to your own metabolic rate. I’ve been carrying an extra 15 lbs of fat (@245lbs) for the past 3 years due to my “golden triangle” homeostasis (the things I tend to eat, lift, and do with predictable regularity) and deciding to ditch that 15 pounds in my view needs to result from twisting a few screws here and there, not some bold declaration of a “War on fat” or any such nonsense.

    Cliffs notes: Goals that are “continuous” such as weight maintenance need to be built into a continuous routine, not planned as an “incident.”

  5. Travis Says:

    I love this: “As always, you have to fit the program to the individual, and not the individual to the program.” Unfortunately it seems to go out the door with so many people. I don’t know if it’s ignorance or blatant laziness because of not wanting to specialize a program. Regardless, however, it’s our duty as trainers to explain to the father of the high school freshman athlete that it’s probably not the best idea to follow Ladainian Tomlinson’s off-season program.

  6. riley Says:

    Strength for what? Just came back from the Himalaya. Carrying around extra weight of any kind is the real problem. Harder on all parts of your body. I doubt you are talking about the strength that is required to provide your body with o2 for 18 hour days at 18000 feet. and the kind of strength you use to push weights around in a gym is pointless in my opinion. I am glad I am finally figuring out how balance and strength keep you healthy. After 28 years of metal pushing in the gyms I dont even touch them anymore.

    245 pounds? shit man..that is fat no matter who you are..dont fool yourself.

    and the example of the dude who has the low muscle mass and high blubber content…Work out and drop 40 pounds. \e should probably be 150 pounds if he has a very hard time with muscle mass than he should maybe be 140.

    This high weight and body builder bullshit has to die…all it created was a society of obese folks with hypertension and early health probs.
    hard to see it if you have never had a look outside North America.
    Go help the Sherpa carry their loads of 10 pieces of plywood up 50 miles of trail.
    A running back on 4 kinds of juice to increase body mass? an abomination…

  7. Billy Says:

    really, a level minded body building approach is what landed this country into the abysmal depths of widespread obesity? and to think I was under the impression that laziness, instant gratification and excess were suspect to fat gain- when really we should be pointing fingers at supersets and 3 day splits, right riley? specificity is specificity. 245lbs might be shit for scaling a mountain side, depending on height etc, but I can think of a number of situations where that kind of weight is beneficial. How on earth can you say 245lbs is fat no matter who you are?? check out gustavo badell on google image search. That’s 245 lbs. What a fatty. Don’t get me wrong- I’ve got nothing against honing neural efficiency and maximizing relative strength ratios, however, more is better holds certain situations- obviously body fat is usually an exception… so I think you’re insane to randomly guess 140 to 150lbs for this hypothetical guy is adequate.

  8. Povlovich Says:

    Well, to be fair to Riley you never know when the Sherpas are going to call.

  9. John Romaniello Says:

    Great post, Eric.

    I think the main thing to be aware of is that different populations will have different definitions of what a “good” physique is, and also how much fat one can carry to qualify for that moniker.

    For a great number of people who train for aesthetics, the starting point is going to be on the overfat side, rather than on the skinny guy trying to pack on mass side. For those people, once they have some time training under their belt, rapid fat loss programs have merit because no matter what the end goal is, that weight’s gotta come off.

    Using your example, if our client gets down to 15% body fat at a bodyweight of 170, he is neither very lean nor very muscular. So he’s got two problems, really. Now, if he’s aiming to have a good aesthetic physique, he really needs to be a lean (10%) 180 at his height.

    In that instance, he needs to be 162 pounds of muscle and 18 pounds of fat. A long way off.

    If you’re taking him from his starting weight of 180, you have an equal body recomp–he needs to lose exactly 18 pounds of fat and gain 18 pounds of muscle.

    In almost all instances, I’d have this client losing at least 18 pounds of fat while gaining strength.

    I knowI don’t have to tell you, but if we start trying to pack mass on him (overfeeding him for that purpose), he’s much more likely to wind up being even fatter. In fact, I don’t let any of my clients go on dedicated mass gaining programs if they have body fat higher than 11% — otherwise you just get too damn fat.

    Given that we’re training him for aesthetics over athletics, in this instance it’s better to have him lose the flub as quickly as possible, that way he’s clear to slowly gain mass without going from bad to worse.

    And in that case, I’d always go for a rapid fat loss program.

  10. Wayne Says:

    HI Eric,

    Very nice post. I also see you got a comment from John Romaniello, so it’s sort of an all star post. You and John seem to have a different path to the same end point, so it’s good to see the discussion.

    I’ve always thought that motivation plays a big part in the outcome. In choosing your strategy in this situation, should you go fast, or maintain strength and muscle mass, do you feel it’s best to decide based upon what you think is most likely to motivate a client? I would think some would be happy to lose the weight fast, while others would curse your name if they lost 5lbs on their squat.

    By the way, Show and Go is a great product.


  11. Matt Says:

    I’ve recently done a rapid fat loss program with pretty good results. I am 5’7” and went from 186lbs to 164 in about 8 weeks.

    I also managed to maintain most of my strength, with about a ~10% drop in my lifts from start to finish. Squat 365×1 –> 325×3. Bench 265×1 –> 245×1. Dead lift peaked at 430lbs mid diet. I actually PR’ed a body weight + 100lbs x 3 chin up.

    I think if done correctly, with an intermediate trainee, you can spare a lot of muscle mass. Important factors are heavy, low volume strength training, very light frequent cardio/activity (read: walking), and having most of the deficit come from a high protein, very low calorie diet. It’s also important to modulate calories, activity, training and recovery to keep yourself from crashing.

  12. Kasey Says:

    I’ve done the rapid fat loss thing when I definitely shouldn’t have in the past, and you’re right – the end result is definitely not what you want. I just looked skinny and weak. Definitely was not happy with how I looked or performed.. That being said, when body recomposition is the goal, trying to maintain or gain strength while more slowly losing fat, where do you generally put the calories? At maintenance level, or slightly below?

  13. RStock Says:

    Eric good info as always, I dropped 30lbs last year and when I saw a picture of myself I could not believe how thin I looked. I hit the gym and was shocked by how weak I had become,even though I could do a ton of pushups. I then discovered your book (Maximum Strength). I put it to the test and was very pleased with the first 16 week cycle, since I tend to carry a bit more body fat than I like I needed to address this with out giving up my strength gains, I then discovered Romans(Romaniello) blog and have incorporated his 6 week program (FPFL) between the two of you I believe I have a great combination for strength gain and keeping body fat in check, not bad for a guy who just celebrated his 54 birthday. Looking forward to completing the next 16 week cycle. Thanks to both you and John for great info.

  14. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, great! Happy belated birthday!

    If you liked Maximum Strength, definitely check out Show and Go; it blows it out of the water!

  15. Eric Cressey Says:


    As a general rule of thumb, I like to keep the calories at maintenance, but with slightly increased activity. I think the goal should always be to “improve tissue turnover,” if that makes any sense.

  16. Eric Cressey Says:

    You’re right, Wayne; it really depends on the person. For most, faster is better (at least in terms of their perception of “success”) – although not everyone can handle the more “extreme” measures it takes to get it off quickly. Glad you liked Show and Go!

  17. R Smith Says:


    Funny that this is the first post I read today. I have pegged May 1 through May 30 as my Get Lean period. I cannot afford to go down by much since I am totally unwilling to lose my strength gains and I just want to get in beach shape.
    Using The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, I went from 210 to 230 in 4 1/2 months while seeing my strength shoot up on all lifts and not getting significantly bigger. (Even at 6-5, being bigger is of little concern.)

    I am starting Phase 2 of Show N Go this week, and for diet I am just going back to the way I normally eat (which closely follows what you outlined here, http://tinyurl.com/3rtwerm). And, for anyone looking for a great program to get them jacked, lean and strong without starving themselves, Show and Go is the ticket. Eric, the programming genius that he is, fluctuates the training stress (high, medium, very high, low) from week to week, which effectively allows you to get leaner while maintaining strength over the course of each month. It WORKS exceeding well.

    Just 1 month into S and G, and I already look and feel better.

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