One Goal for Faster Results

Darren Ellis

Darren Ellis MSc, coaches youth, world champs and regular people in real world, effective strength training and nutrition to improve fitness, sport performance and body composition.  Check out his old school gym at

“What’s your number one, top priority goal to achieve over the next three months?” When designing a training program for a client, I always ask this question. Otherwise, 9 times out of 10, the request is for a program that builds lots of muscle, burns a ton of fat, while increasing the bench press and improving marathon time.  Oh, and to clear up that nagging rotator cuff injury if it’s not too much trouble.  A saying a wise old hunter probably used once which works well here is “chasing too many rabbits and catching none.”

Of course we’d all like to be a little more muscular, a little leaner, and a little fitter and stronger.  But it’s a rare person that can simultaneously improve all four of these to a significant level, unless they are a complete beginner to exercise.  And it’s an even rarer program that can deliver those results in the first place.  If you had to I’m sure you could rank these attributes in their order of importance to you. Which one’s at the top of your list?  Deep down, think about what you most want out of your exercise program.  If it’s fat loss, then make it a priority.  Your bench press PB might slide a little, but it’ll be there waiting for you anytime you want to go back to it.

Once you’ve been honest with yourself about what you want to get out of your training, you have to put the plan in place.  The list below contains the most important things to do to accelerate your most important physique or fitness goal.

Strength Priority

Use basic, full body exercises such as deadlifts, squats, presses and rows. These multi-joint movements are king when you want more weight on the bar. Avoid isolation exercises for muscles such as biceps and abs to save your energy for more squats.  Train 3-4 times per week using a full body or upper/lower split and perform 4-8 sets of 3-6 reps per exercise.  Don’t use more than two exercises per muscle group.

Muscle Priority

Again, use mostly full body exercises, using the big movements to increase both mechanical stress and hormone activity to force muscle building adaptation.  But complement them with a few isolation exercises, such as chest flyes, direct arm and shoulder work, and train up to 6 times per week.  If in doubt however, rest more; remember you grow when you’re not training.  Most people will do well on 4-5 days.  Use an upper/lower split or a 3 way split such as chest/back, legs, shoulders/arms if more experienced.

The program should include 8-12 reps, 3-4 sets per exercise, 2-3 exercises for big muscle groups such as legs, chest and back, 1-2 exercises for small muscle groups like shoulders and arms.  Go easy on the cardio, and leave it out altogether if you’re a lanky hard gainer.  One goal remember?!  Excessive cardio will consume valuable energy that could be used for muscle protein synthesis.  Sure you can store a little fat if you eat too much energy, but with the extra muscle you add driving all future activity, you can lose that fat easier once your goals change.

Fat loss Priority

To maximise your fat burning potential, utilise the big exercises once again.  But this time pair them up in non-competing supersets i.e. a set of lunges followed by a set of bench press, repeated after a rest period.  This increases your workout density (density is the amount of work done in a given time).  Speaking of rest, keep it short; no longer than 60 seconds.  Repetitions should be in the 12-20 range to prolong the muscles’ time under tension and stimulate hormones.  The effect of all this is a nice burn in both your muscles and your lungs.  The resulting rise in your metabolic rate and hormone levels will continue to incinerate fat for up a day and a half later.

In addition to 3-4 full body workouts, add in 2-4 sessions of high intensity interval training.  It doesn’t have to be more than 10-20 minutes, as long as you go full bore for 30-60 seconds with a 60-120 sec active rest.  Choose any form of activity: swimming, rowing, running, cycling etc and perform either immediately after weight sessions, 6-8 hours later, or on alternate days. If you want even more, add in as much low impact activity (walking, easy cardio) as you’ve time for.  Steady state cardio, while the least effective fat burning exercise mode, can be the ‘icing on the cake’ when trying to lose the last stubborn kilo or two.

It goes without saying that a clean diet will help immensely with this particular goal.  In fact if you haven’t got your nutrition dialled in you may as well not bother chasing a six pack.  No room to go into major details here, but let’s agree that we know what NOT to eat during this phase.  Stick to foods that run, swim and grow.

Fitness Priority

Depends on the sport, but the most likely answer is to add specific gym work designed to complement the sport, and cut back on any training aimed specifically at muscle growth or fat loss, unless its necessary for your sport.  But then you’d have a different primary goal……starting to see the picture here?  One rabbit at a time!  Make sure energy intake is at a high enough level to support performance.  Eat easily digested carbohydrate and protein foods soon after training, and keep it clean the rest of the day.  Talk to a strength coach who knows your sport well, about how to include beneficial strength and conditioning training into your routine.

If you feel you’ve reached a bit of a plateau in your training, take a good look at your current program and ask yourself if it’s tailored to your most important goal.  If you have more than one goal, decide which you want the most and give it 100% before choosing a new one.  This will ensure consistent progress, continued enthusiasm through varied training, and over time, a lot of goals achieved instead of none at all.

Darren Ellis MSc, coaches youth athletes, world champs and regular people in real world, effective strength training and nutrition to improve fitness, sport performance and body composition.  Whether you’re an athlete, or just want to train like one, check out   

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  • Darren says
    Sorry, but the intention of the article wasn't to give specific workout advice; but to highlight how often you can get bogged down in details at the expense of decent progress.

    Drop me a line at if you need a hand setting up a training program.

  • marsch says
    Good article, as usual.
    But why, for the fat-loss section, do you recommend to "pair them up in non-competing supersets"?
    What difference does this make versus competing supersets (eg chin up paired with military press)?
  • Darren says
    Hey marsch,

    to get a little more work done and increase the energy cost of the workout, ie burn more fat. Non-competing allows recovery of the 1st muscle group while the 2nd muscle group is working. Your example is actually also a non-competing one (pull vs pushing muscles), whereas military press paired with pushups would not be a good idea as the triceps and shoulders are used in both exercises leading to early muscular fatigue. This can be a good thing for muscle building, but not as efficient when trying to burn fat.

    Of course none of these finer details are important if you're eating shit, so that comes first :)
  • marsch says
    Aah, i see. Thanks for the clarification Darren.

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