Man, this stumped me.
I was standing in the center of the trap bar, mid-demonstration, when the client asked me why we were deadlifting for fat loss.
“How does this fit into my individual plan? Why are we doing this?”
I had 10 million answers in my head, I knew why we deadlifted. I knew every single reason, but I just couldn’t communicate any of them.
I’m sure this question is asked a thousand times a day. To address the individualization thing, I began to quickly explain the difference between trap bar and Olympic bar deadlifting and why one made sense over the other in terms of mobility and learning curve. I mentioned hip flexion and then told him that the load is always individual.
Still, since I missed my chance at a perfectly eloquent, articulate, coherent answer that day, I am using this post to ensure that all of the readers of this blog understand why it’s important to deadlift (and squat, and push, and pull, and lift heavy in general) for fat loss.
Where Does Fat Loss Come From?
It can get pretty confusing (and the science seems to be confused, too), but fat loss seems to be largely related to the metabolic boost that we receive from lifting weights and performing high-intensity interval training.
This increase in metabolism happens because of a few reasons:
- Increased body temperature post-exercise
- Replenishment of muscle and liver glycogen
- Rebalancing of hormones
- Tissue repair
- Redistribution of oxygen and blood to muscles
There are others, but these are some of the largest ones. Essentially, our metabolic boost comes from our body’s reaction to a disruption in homeostasis. Post-exercise metabolic demands are largely based on shifting the body back to neutral.
Now, if we think critically for a moment, it would stand to reason that finding ways to cause a big disturbance in things like hormones, tissues, and energy stores would cause a bigger increase in metabolism, right?
More Bang For Your Exercise Buck
Since we’ve already broken down the post-exercise metabolic boost into smaller parts, let’s think of some quick ways to cause a bigger disruption to homeostasis in the body.
1. Get sweaty
As far as body temperature goes, catabolic chemical reactions within the body are what release energy. They are known as exothermic. Exothermic reactions are categorized as releasing more heat with the products than consuming with the reactants.
This is why you sweat.
When we break down reactants such as ATP, glyogen, or fatty acids, we release heat as part of the reaction. Your body’s temperature increases and you start secreting a gross mixture of water, minerals, lactate, and urea in order to cool yourself down. So if you want to increase your body temperature during and post-exercise, you need to release more energy in the same amount of time.
That could mean running faster, lifting heavier, or taking shorter rests in between your sets.
2. Use The Right Fuel
The next element was replenishment of muscle and liver glycogen. Lucky for us, the body doesn’t bother replenishment fatty acids that it utilizes during exercise.
But to optimize the replenishment of these energy substrates, we need to use more of them (duh). And in order to use up our carbohydrate stores, we need to ensure that our activity is intense enough to elicit the use of carbs as an energy source! Energy system use isn’t only determined by duration, but also intensity.
For instance, if our energy systems only concerned themselves with duration, we would use up our ATP, creatine phosphate, and carbohydrate stores within the first 2-3 minutes of waking! But since that is clearly not the case, we can conclude that only exercise with proper intensity will demand that muscle glycogen be used for energy. Make sense?
Regardless of whether our glycogen use becomes statistically significant at 70% or 85%, we know that we must maintain intensity in that neighborhood or higher in order to stimulate the use of carbs. That means performing sprints, lifting weights at a 8-10RM or heavier, or relying on explosive movements!
3. Personal Hormone Therapy
Hopefully that wasn’t too confusing. The next part of your increased metabolism is the rebalancing of hormones in the body. During exercise (especially resistance training), your body is flooded with hormones. Testosterone. Growth hormone. Epinephrine. IGF-1. Cortisol.
Part of your increased metabolism is caused by your body’s attempts to restore normal hormone levels. That way, you aren’t running around like an angry black bear during mating season (check the facts, apparently they have wicked high testosterone levels).
To cause a disruption in homeostasis, we must cause a large elevation in hormone concentrations. And the only way to get these super important hormones elevated is to train with the proper intensity. We want to lift heavy weights, use short-to-moderate rest periods, and get plenty of volume in (that’s reps X sets X weight.
4. Repairing Your Body
Now that you’re getting sweaty performing explosive movements, sprints, and lifts with your 8-10RM or lower, your body is probably going to need to repair itself.
Tension and volume add up to create a destructive environment (which is obviously beneficial for muscle hypertrophy) which demands that we increase our protein synthesis and repair our muscles. The breakdown of muscle during resistance training is what leaves us sore and this process of repairing the muscles is one thing that helps boost our metabolism post-workout.
In fact, using traditional hypertrophy protocols for fat loss is a great idea. Between the metabolic stress, moderately heavy weights, short rest periods, and muscle damage, we create an ideal environment for a post-exercise metabolic boost and subsequent fat loss.
5. You Need Oxygen!
During exercise of sufficient intensity, our body does not need oxygen to convert creatine phosphate or glycogen into energy. It does this anaerobically.
Furthermore, extended sets with prolonged time-under-tension prevent oxygen from getting to the muscles and blood from escaping. Part of your increased metabolism is due to your body’s effort to restore blood and oxygen to the muscles and remove the muscles of waste products, such as lactate.
Metabolic stress is another interesting component of muscle hypertrophy and further adds to the idea that training for muscular hypertrophy might be a perfect way to also strip your body of fat. Ever wonder why good hypertrophy and fat loss-oriented programs look similar? Now you know!
**And as a side note, traditional fat loss protocols generally fall toward the endurance side of this chart. Don’t believe the hype!
How Does The Deadlift Fit Into All Of This?
It all comes down to work. Not work like standing-at-the-water-cooler-talking-about-last-night’s-Red-Sox-game, but actual, physical work.
As in: W=F*s
The standard unit of work is joules, a measure of energy or heat. In the equation, “F” stands for the magnitude of force and “s” stands for displacement. We can maximize our work output by using more force (moving heavier things or moving light things faster or more explosively) or further displacing the same load.
In order to maximize our anaerobic work output in a workout, we can lift heavier weights, choose exercises with longer ranges-of-motion, use explosive movements, take shorter rest periods, and/or perform more reps and sets. And if our metabolic boost is largely determined by our ability to do all of these things during a session (as we demonstrated above), then we must maximize anaerobic output in order to maximize fat loss as a result.
The deadlift is, perhaps, one of the greatest opportunities to “do work” that there is in any gym. It is usually our strongest lift (greatest magnitude of force) and the range-of-motion (displacement) is probably comparable to deep, ass-to-grass type squats.
When deadlifting with proper intensity:
- The obvious demand for energy creates more heat through the breakdown of molecules.
- We have no choice but to use our ATP, creatine phosphate, and carbohydrate stores as energy.
- The heavy weight helps stimulate hormones like testosterone and growth hormone, which keep us lean and sexually aroused, among other things.
- The compound, full-body nature of the lift means that a large volume would create a huge amount of both muscle damage and metabolic stress.
- The deadlift (along with things like jumps, swings, presses, pulls, Olympic lifts, and sprint work) provide us with the best opportunity for a disruption to homeostasis and subsequent metabolic boost!
So then, I think instead of asking, “why should I deadlift if my goal is fat loss,” you should be asking yourself:
Why shouldn’t I?