There's a lot of information out there on fat loss exercise, with some folks advocating hours of "cardio" every day, and others promising results in "just minutes a day". It's hard to sort out fact from fiction and marketing hype.
The truth is, it takes time and hard work to lose body fat the right, sustainable way. Bear in mind as we talk about this that what you need to do to achieve fat loss, better body composition, and improved performance is not necessarily what you will need to do to maintain it. In other words, don't freak out when we tell you how much work you'll need to do to get to your goal, because you will almost certainly not have to do that for the rest of your life.
How Much/How Often Should You Train?
Put simply, for effective fat loss / body composition change, 3 hours per week is really the minimum if you are trying to lose fat. At 3 hours per week of the right kind of training, if your nutrition is in order, you could probably expect something on the order of 0.5 - 1 pound of weight loss per week, which is a great, sustainable number. The less activity/exercise you do on a regular basis, however, the easier it is for small lapses in nutrition or the occasional missed training session to affect your progress.
For more consistent, stable progress, where you could expect around 1-2 pounds of weight loss per week presuming your nutrition is in order, you'll want to aim more for the 5-6 hours per week mark, with a blend of strength, high-intensity anaerobic intervals and high-intensity aerobic intervals.
For most of us, training more than 5-6 hours per week is not really feasible, and 6 hours might even be pushing it, so the "sweet spot" for more accelerated fat loss would be somewhere around that 5 hour per week mark.
HOLY COW, THAT'S A LOT!
Now that might seem like a lot of work, and it really is. To get in that amount of those types of exercise in a week, you're going to need to be at the gym, training HARD four to six times per week or more.
When you're working 40+ hours per week, and have family commitments, etc. as well, I get it - "spare" time is in short supply. Those of you who don't know me or train with us at The BTG probably don't know what my schedule is like, and might have the idea that, "Well, he's a trainer for a living, so he can spend as much time in the gym as he wants." You might think I have no real concept of how "regular" people live. That couldn't be further from the truth.
As I write this, here is my normal weekday schedule (leaving out where I fit in my workouts):
- 6:30 AM - Wake Up
- 7:00 AM - Help my kids get ready for school, eat breakfast, etc.
- 7:30 AM - Leave for my full-time day job
- 7:45 AM - Start my full-time day job
- 3:45 PM - Leave my day job
- 4:00 PM - Arrive home, start setting up for training
- 4:30 PM - Start training clients in The BTG Garage
- 7:30 PM - Last training session ends
- 8:30 PM - Put kids to bed
- 10:00 PM - Go to bed
I'm pretty much on the go and/or working for about 13 hours a day on the average weekday, and between training and bedtimes, I need to find time to spend time with my wife, do admin work/writing/research for training and nutrition programs, household maintenance/chores, etc. Often, I'm up way past 10:00 PM working on either office or gym stuff. In short, I know what it's like to have little to no "spare" time for training.
A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE
Let's put that 5 hours per week in perspective, though. There are 168 hours in every week. Let's presume you're getting 8 hours of sleep a night, and you work 40 hours per week at a job. That leaves 72 hours of non-work, non-sleep time. 5 hours of that is just under 7% of that remaining time in your week. If you're serious about losing fat and getting healthier, isn't it worth putting in 7% of your available time to achieve that?
Bear in mind, first, that I'm not saying jump right into 5 hours per week if your weekly exercise regimen right now is climbing the flight of stairs to the lunch room at work. You can work your way up to it if need be, but understand that 5 hours is the eventual commitment you'll need to aim for.
Bear in mind also that we're talking about the active pursuit of fat loss/weight loss/body composition change. Fat loss is NOT the same as maintenance. It is easier, from a training perspective, to maintain a certain level of strength and conditioning than it is to get there, so you're not committing to 5 hours a week, every week from now until eternity. Maintenance requires significantly less time commitment.
But you're not there yet. Understand that fat loss is not forever. If you're training hard 5 hours per week and losing a sustainable 1-2 pounds per week, you should be able to achieve as much as 100 pounds of fat loss in one year. If you're in that "last 10-15 pounds" kind of range already, losses may be a bit slower, but you should still be able to achieve that goal within about three months or so.
I'm going to get a bit "tough love" on you here, so please try not to take offence:
It may be a bit harsh, but I will go so far as to say that if 7% of your available time is too much of a commitment for you to make for a maximum of one year before switching to maintenance, then you're just not serious enough about achieving your fat loss/fitness goals. It just isn't that important to you, regardless of what you might say.
That's OK if that's the case. Everyone has their priorities. I have also been at that point (many, many times) where I would rather spend more time with my family and friends than go and work out. Just don't complain about not being in better shape if you're not willing to put in the work, or go looking for some shortcut pill or potion in hopes you can get away with doing less. Fat loss only works if you do. Accept that, right now, it's just not a real priority for you, and move on.
I could go on, but one of my favourite and earliest influences as a personal trainer really sums it up well in the following video. Ross Enamait is a very genuine, no BS kind of guy who tells it like it is, and (as you can see from the intro to this video) he is an absolute bad-ass in the gym as well. Here's the video:
Remember, we're not saying immediately jump into 5 hours per week. We can work our way up to it over the next couple of months, and we'd rather see you start with something less that you can stick with now, rather than over-committing and burning out.
One More Thing To Note
I would not recommend spending more than an hour to an hour and a half in the gym at a time, because it's difficult to sustain a really hard effort for longer than that. You're going to be looking at 3 - 5 trips to the gym each week if you're aiming for that kind of time commitment each trip. For me, however, I've found it much more effective to break up my exercise even more, so I can go harder in each workout and get better results.
Your mileage may vary, but for me it seems that more frequent bouts of exercise results in better fat/weight loss results than the same total time commitment over fewer visits. I got my best results by training circuit-style strength for 30-40 minutes per day (usually at lunch time), and high-intensity interval training for 20-30 minutes each evening, six days per week. While shorter, these workouts were HARD from start to finish. There was minimal rest, and no easy sets. Just a brief warm up, then full-throttle for the remainder of the workout. You could change it up and do the interval training first thing in the morning, and strength at night, or whatever works for you, but I have never been as fit or as lean as when that was my training regimen.
While I have no scientific evidence to back this up, my thinking on this is that consistent, more frequent, more intense activity keeps your body primed for action throughout a greater portion of the day, and that results in chronically elevated metabolism and better fat loss results.
Summing it all up...
So - short version: for the most effective, sustainable fat loss, work your way up to training 5 hours per week, with a blend of strength and high intensity interval training. Keep your intensity high, and rest brief. Training more frequently for shorter duration has been more effective for me personally, but your mileage may vary.
Remember also that this isn't for the rest of your life - once you've reached your goal, maintenance does not require as much time commitment. Until you reach your goal, though, stay focused, and be consistent.