When it comes to losing weight and getting in shape, most people prioritise cardio. They run, cycle, swim and step to use calories, burn fat and lose weight.
So, despite its limitations, why is cardio for fat loss so popular? That’s a good question. It’s not that cardio is over-valued – it IS beneficial and great for your heart and lungs, it’s just that the alternative is so undervalued. That alternative? Strength training, also known as weight training or resistance training.
Strength training is NOT bodybuilding and is NOT weight lifting – both of which are very specialist pursuits often confused with strength training. Where bodybuilding is all about the maximal development of muscle size and weight lifting is an Olympic sport, strength training is pursued for its general health and performance benefits.
Strength training involves applying an external force to your muscles to make them, unsurprisingly, stronger. This external force can come from a number of sources including free weights such as dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls and kettlebells, fixed-path resistance machines, cable resistance machines, resistance bands, and bodyweight exercises. It doesn’t really matter HOW you target your muscles; so long as they have to overcome a form of resistance, often referred to as overload, strength training will be beneficial and effective.
Whether you are a man or a woman, strength training offers many benefits. Regular strength training will:
Increase bone mass – when you overload your muscles, your bones have to bear the brunt of the load and that makes them stronger. Age-related bone loss, called osteopenia, and which can lead to full-blown osteoporosis, can be avoided or even reversed by regular strength training.
Improved posture – by strengthening your “anti-gravity” muscles, predominately in your back and core, you will develop a more upright posture which will reduce the likelihood of developing lower back pain and help you look younger and slimmer. Poor posture is often linked to spending long periods sat at a desk or in a car and strength training provides an excellent antidote to what is a major health risk.
Enhanced functional strength – although modern life is predominately sedentary, being stronger than average can be very beneficial. Strong muscles are slower to fatigue, less prone to injury, and also make many everyday tasks easier. In addition to bone loss, muscle loss is also a common age-related problem. If left unchecked, this can lead to reduced functional strength making many everyday tasks very demanding. For example, getting out of a low chair, getting out of bed or climbing a flight of stairs are very difficult with weak legs. Regular strength training will preserve muscle mass and help maintain independent living.
Maintenance of muscle mass during a diet – eating less is essential for fat loss but, in some cases, dieting can also cause muscle loss which will lower your metabolic rate. Strength training will help maintain muscle mass even during a strict diet thus preventing metabolic slowdown and inhibited fat loss.
Improved general health – from your immune system to your circulation, from your heart to your joints, strength training is good for you. Strength training is also an excellent stress buster and can help preserve mobility and flexibility. Including regular strength training workouts in your weekly schedule can have very beneficial effects on many aspects of your health and wellbeing.
Weight loss and fat burning – while most people understand the value of cardio for weight control and fat burning, many people are unaware how this type of exercise can help you achieve and maintain your ideal weight…
So how does strength training help you to lose weight? Strength training benefits weight loss and ongoing weight control in several ways…
Increased metabolic rate – which car burns the most fuel? The one with the small engine or the one with the big engine? In case you weren’t sure, the answer is the latter. Strength training will make your engine (your muscles) slightly bigger and bigger muscles burn more calories – even while you sleep. In fact, with bigger muscles, every movement you make uses more energy. Adding a small, almost unnoticeable, amount of muscle to your body can have a significant impact on your metabolic rate which is the number of calories your body uses per day. Increasing your metabolic rate means you won’t have to cut your food intake as dramatically to lose weight.
Increased insulin sensitivity – whenever you eat food, and especially carbs, your body produces the hormone insulin. Insulin ferries the nutrients you have eaten into your muscle and liver cells. If the insulin cannot enter the cells, any nutrients are more likely to be converted into fat. Needless to say, this is not what most of us want. Strength training increases your sensitivity to insulin which means nutrients from food are much more likely to be transported into your muscle and liver cells rather than stored as fat. Increased insulin sensitivity lasts for several hours after a strength training workout meaning that you are very unlikely to gain fat after a strength training workout. Cardio does not have such a profound effect on insulin sensitivity. Not only does increased insulin sensitivity lead to reduced fat gain and increased fat burning, it also means that you can eat more carbs – especially immediately after exercise. This is great news for anyone who has had enough of low carb dieting.
High energy expenditure – strength training uses a lot of calories, especially if you focus on whole body workouts involving compound or multi-joint exercises (discussed later). The start/stop nature of strength training means it’s a lot like interval training which is a popular type of fat loss cardio. Strength training can also be made even an even better fat burning workout by using specific methods including supersets and circuits – also discussed later.
Pumps up your EPOC – EPOC is short for Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption and is also known as after-burn. Strength training causes lactic acid to be produced in your muscles. This lactic acid must be flushed away and your body uses oxygen to do this. The process of removing lactic acid from your body uses a lot of energy and happens after intense anaerobic exercise – strength training for example. After strength training, your body has to work extra hard for several hours which means you use lots more calories than normal. Increased calorific expenditure means faster fat loss.
Increased insulin sensitivity, EPOC, high energy expenditure, increased metabolic rate – each of these on their own is a good fat burner but, together, they are virtually unbeatable!
Many people overlook strength training for fat loss simply because of the myths surrounding this type of workout. Strength training is often confused with bodybuilding but, as previously mentioned, this is a very specific form of exercise. Myths that surround strength training include:
Strength training makes women look masculine – remember, the aim of strength training is NOT to build big muscles; that’s bodybuilding. Sensible workouts with weights will firm up and sculpt your muscles and not make them large and masculine. Many women fear strength training only because of this myth so it’s important to differentiate between bodybuilding and strength training.
Strength training is hard on your joints – if you do any exercise incorrectly, it can be hard on your joints. Also, doing the same movement over and over again can be hard on your joints too. Learning proper exercise technique and changing exercises from time to time will minimize joint wear and tear. Running is arguably harder on your joints than any properly performed strength training exercise.
Cardio burns more fat than strength training – this is kind of true because cardio does predominately burn fat BUT strength training often burns as many, or even more, calories. And while these calories come from carbohydrates, it’s total energy expenditure that is more important than which fuel is being used. Cardio does not have a big impact on insulin sensitivity either and nor does it trigger the EPOC phenomenon described earlier. Forget about which burns more fat and focus on which one burns more calories – during AND after exercise.
Strength training workouts are long and/or boring – there are literally endless ways to make strength training fun and interesting. Virtually every exercise can be performed in several ways and using different types of equipment. You can vary the number of reps and sets you perform, vary the load in any number of ways, manipulate your rest periods, and the exercises can be performed in any number of different orders. Yes, it takes a certain amount of knowledge and skill to create interesting, varied, effective strength training workouts but a good personal trainer will be able to do this for you very easily.
Simply doing regular strength training workouts can help you lose weight and shape up. Exercising three or four times a week combined with eating a little less will help you get you to where you want to be. However, if you want to maximize your fat-loss results, there are several things you can do…
Focus on compound exercises – compound exercises involve working several muscle groups at the same time. Good examples include squats, lunges, press-ups, pull-ups, and overhead presses. The more muscles you use at a time, the more calories you will burn. Isolation exercises, in contrast, use very few muscles and, therefore, burn fewer calories, Examples include leg extensions, calf raises and triceps extensions. For best results, your workouts should consist of 80 percent or more compound exercises.
Do whole body workouts – bodybuilders often follow a “split routine” which involve working different muscle groups on different days. This is a good way to build muscle but not a good way to burn calories. Instead, make sure you perform one or two exercises per muscle group per workout so you work your entire body each time you train. This will burn far more calories than any split routine and also ensure that you don’t build overly large muscles.
Do your workout stood up – exercising while standing up uses more calories than the same movement sat down. Even if you are focusing on your upper body, standing up means your legs and core have to work too. This increases your energy expenditure which will enhance fat loss. For faster weight loss, get up off your butt as often as you can.
Do super-sets – super-sets involve performing two exercises back-to-back which reduces rest time, keeps your heart rate elevated, and increases calorific expenditure leading to faster fat loss. For example, after a set of lunges, instead of resting for 60-seconds before repeating, immediately perform a set of press-ups and then rest. Not only does super-setting save time, it also means you can do more exercises per training session which will further enhance weight loss.
Perform circuits – if you are serious about fat loss, try a strength training circuit. Move straight from one exercise to the next without pausing, and only rest after you have completed the last exercise. Take a moment or two to catch your breath and then repeat the circuit two to four more times. For example:
3. Lat pull downs
5. Shoulder press
6. Seated rows
7. Hip bridges
8. Stability ball crunch
As awesome for weight loss as strength training is, it is impossible to out-train a bad diet so it’s essential you eat sensibly if you want the best results from your workouts. There are lots of effective nutrition strategies you can follow – the effectiveness and suitability of which will depend on your food preferences. However, there are several “rules” all good eating plans should follow…
Strength training is often overlooked for fat loss but, in fact, is actually a very powerful if underrated tool. While cardio really only burns calories while you are doing it, strength training burns calories during AND after your workouts and provides a host of benefits that cardio alone simply cannot match.
Cardio IS beneficial but is only part of the weight loss story. For optimal weight loss results, strength training should also be part of your weekly workout routine.
Emily has spent the last 8 years comparing, reviewing and analyzing ingredients in the supplements industry. She has worked extensively with dieticians, nutritionists and personal trainers to separate fact from fiction and help people achieve their fitness goals. In her free time she works and enjoys the outdoors with her husband and 2 children.