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Lift Big, Lose Fat

Think the three big powerlifting exercises are only for getting strong and huge? Think again. Better yet, think lean.


Big lifts aren’t just for massive gains in strength and size. Sure, the biggest, strongest individuals in the world build their training programs around squats, deadlifts and presses (bench and/or military), but these powerlifting moves are just as effective for shedding body fat. It’s all a matter of approach, really. The powerlifter typically stays within the one to five rep range, stopping short of muscle failure on most sets. One-rep max (1RM) strength, not getting shredded, is the priority.

Perhaps you don’t particularly care what your 1RM is on squats, deads or presses and are more concerned with being lean. Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean your exercise selection needs to change. The big lifts can still be your No. 1 ally, albeit with considerably higher rep counts than one to five. If you’ve ever lightened the weight on barbell squats and taken a set anywhere close to failure, you know the feeling: Your legs burn, your head hurts and you’re sucking wind afterward like you just ran an all-out 200-meter dash. That’s the feeling of change, of your body being well outside its comfort zone. Repeat this on a regular basis and you will lose body fat. You’ll probably build some muscle, too.

“The major benefit to a high-rep weightlifting approach is the human growth hormone (HGH) release that comes with this much intensity and load,” says Josh Elmore, a certified strength and conditioning coach and owner of Conjugate Consulting in Charlotte, N.C. ( “Produced by the pituitary gland, HGH has benefits that range beyond helping us grow. It’s hugely important to your body composition, especially burning fat, lean muscle growth and metabolizing sugar.”

News flash: CrossFit didn’t invent the big-lift/high-rep set. The concept goes back to at least the 1930s, when weightlifter Mark Berry first introduced his famed 20-rep “deep knee bend” (squat) program: a routine centered around one all-out extended set of squats that to this day is still revered and practiced by reputable strength coaches around the world. In the section below, Elmore provides specific guidelines for implementing the 20-rep model into your program on virtually any big lift of your choosing.

“At the end of the day, working high-rep weightlifting into your training program can help you get stronger, increase your conditioning and burn more fat,” says Elmore. “Couple that with a dietary intake that supports muscle growth and prevents fat accumulation, and you’ll ramp up your fat burning in no time.”

20 Reps To Shredded

Duration: Perform the high-rep program either three times per week for six weeks or twice a week for eight weeks.

Exercise Selection: Use the 20-rep scheme on one of the three big lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press or military press) at a time, although advanced athletes can implement it on two or three lifts concurrently.

Weight Selection: The premise here is not to use a light weight and bang out 20 tough reps; rather, it’s to pick a moderately heavy weight and do 20 quality reps in the span of about three minutes. Select your training load for each exercise in one of two ways: 1) simply use your 10-rep max, or 2) figure out how long you’re going to do the program and subtract 5 pounds for every training session from your five-rep max. For example, if your 5RM is 350 pounds and you’re going to train three times a week for six weeks (18 total sessions), use 260 pounds for the 20-rep set.

Execution: Elmore recommends doing one rep at a time and resting briefly between each without re-racking the bar rather than stringing together multiple reps, resting for a longer period, doing another few reps and so on until 20 reps are completed. “Slow and steady wins the 20-rep race,” he says. “I’ll hit a rep, take a few breaths, then get set and hit another. I’ll try to keep this same pace for the whole set. I don’t think banging out a few reps and then taking a longer rest is as effective. A 20-rep max should take about three minutes. Take your time and focus on your breathing between reps.”

Volume: Complete only one 20-rep max set per exercise on two to three nonconsecutive days a week. Take your time warming up and give that single set everything you have.

Other Lifts: After performing your 20-rep max set, proceed with the rest of your regularly planned exercises for that training session, being mindful to moderate total volume and intensity as needed to prevent overtraining.