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How to Optimize Exercise for Better Body Composition

Transforming your body is no easy task. The food shopping, meal prep, meal timing and food tracking can be more tiresome than the workouts for many – not to mention the right supplements, strict sleep habits, and careful avoidance of tempting social pressures. 

But what about those workouts? 

Raise your hand if you’re exercising regularly but seeing little or no changes in your body composition. Let me tell you that I’ve been there too. 

No doubt, achieving and maintaining optimal body composition is a huge endeavor. It requires walking that fine line between metabolic and mechanical stress (appropriately challenging workouts) and adequate recovery (nourishment, rest and recovery activity). 

The major positive here is you’ve already got time set aside for exercise. That’s often half the battle. Now let’s talk about optimizing your gym time - and your body comp transformation!

Make every workout count.

Do you ever walk into the club without a specific purpose for that day’s exercise session? And just to note, “burn some calories” isn’t a good enough purpose if you’re serious about body comp change….

The fact is, if your overall approach is random, then your results will be too. 

Making every session count doesn’t mean you need to trash your body every workout either. Our bodies produce better results when they’re challenged and then allowed to properly recover – not when they’re beat to a pulp at every workout.

This approach means working with your body, not on it. It requires you to listen to the subtle signals your body gives you day in and day out. It emphasizes the role of your intuition in transforming your body. 

Assuming your exercise sessions are about an hour apiece, transforming your physique will require 2-4 sessions per week of resistance training (more specifics below), 1-3 sessions per week of higher-intensity cardiovascular intervals, 1-2 sessions of lower-intensity recovery activity, and plenty of daily movement outside of exercise sessions. 

In other words, you’ll need to do something active every day. Your body needs those continual nudges pushing it toward change. Several times per week you’ll need to explore the limits of your physical comfort zones, partake in some form of active recovery, and also escape your desk more than usual. Simple enough, right? 

Warm up properly.

No, I’m not suggesting you mimic your high school gym class, lackadaisical toe touches and trunk rotations before you step onto the weight floor – unless these are part of a comprehensive mobility routine you like. 

To access and burn maximal fat calories during (and after) any exercise session, we’ve found a personalized metabolic warm-up to be most helpful. Through the wonders of metabolic testing, Life Time professionals can help you zero in on the exact 8-12 minute warm-up sequence that may increase fat burning by 20-50% across a variety of exercise intensities. 

It seems too good to be true, but your warm-up time is so valuable that skipping it or just randomly jogging on the treadmill until you find your “flab-buster” playlist could be undercutting the rest of your session. You can’t afford to waste that time when trying to optimize body comp.

Gradually increase the physical stress.

The human body has an amazing ability to adapt, which means once it’s used to a certain amount of stress, it will require more stress to induce further change (force a new adaptation). 

Part of the process of optimizing exercise for better body comp is progressively increasing the intensity and/or volume of physical stress from exercise session to session or week to week.

Ramping up intensity or volume properly is tricky, however. There is a fine line between increasing your effort and overdoing it (potentially creating setbacks like injury, fatigue, and/or illness triggered by the increasing amount of stress). See “Mastering the Art of Stress & Recovery” for more on this.

For better body comp – namely gaining or maintaining muscle while losing fat – you’ll need to account for two major types of physical stress: mechanical stress and metabolic stress. 

Mechanical stress describes the physical damage induced upon muscle tissue during resistance training. To stimulate muscle growth (hypertrophy), you’ll need to gradually increase the total amount of mechanical stress (muscle damage) to about 6-10 sets containing 8-12 reps of a given exercise with minimal rest (45-60 seconds) between sets – ideally from large muscle groups using multi-joint movements (e.g. barbell squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, or bench press). 

Doing many, many reps (high volume) at relatively heavy weights (60-70% of your 1-Rep Max) until muscle failure for at least two exercises per session creates such a great amount of mechanical stress that the body should respond by ramping up all the processes that build more (and stronger) muscle fibers over time. 

So, during the first workout in a progression like this, you may do 6-8 sets of squats at a given weight (using controlled tempo) separated by 60-second rest periods, then 6-8 sets of bench press. The next week you may need to decrease rest periods or increase the weight by 10-15% to force the next level of muscle adaptation. 

Is it entertaining to put your body under the necessary mechanical stress? Not necessarily. Save your more fun “entertainment” exercise for your active recovery days!

Metabolic stress refers to the process of demanding a higher than normal energy output from the muscle tissue you already have, not necessarily to stimulate new muscle growth. Metabolic stress means you push the limits of your physical fitness by inducing a calculated amount of exhaustion, separated by some active recovery intervals. 

For example, a workout in your first week (following your warm-up, of course) might have 8 higher-intensity intervals – say 8 x 2 minutes in above your Anaerobic Threshold (AT) – separated by an equal amount of walking rest (2 minutes). 

The next week you could progress to either 10 x 2 minutes above AT with a 2-minute walk between each, or alternatively stick with 8 x 2 minutes above AT but cut walking rest to 60 or 90 seconds while maintaining your speed/effort during the hard intervals. 

Generally, when choosing progressions in your program, choose either volume (number of sets, reps or intervals) or intensity (weight, speed or heart rate intensity) adjustments in a given week. Increasing both at the same time may increase the likelihood you end up on the less desired side of that fine line mentioned earlier. 

Choose quality over quantity – especially if you haven’t dialed in your nourishment and rest habits.

Don’t get caught in the mindset that you can burn off unhealthy calories. It probably won’t work for very long. Putting your body through high amounts of physical stress without much regard to how you nourish your biochemistry is a risky experiment. 

If you’re still working on your nourishment habits, aim for the minimum effective dose of exercise, and reserve the rest of your time for improving your nutrition and recovery habits. 

In reality, you can achieve better body composition in as little as 20-40 minutes of smart exercise most days of the week. 

This process does not require perfection - just consistent effort and progress on all fronts. That means knowing where you are in your program, nourishing your body properly to be ready for the next stressors, and moving your body in smart, impactful ways. 

Are you interested in learning more about personalizing and progressing your workouts for maximal fat loss and body comp change? Talk with one of our fitness professionals today. Thanks for reading.

In health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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