Many people hop on a treadmill or take up other forms of cardio in an attempt to sweat their way to a smaller size. Cardio is great for burning calories and maintaining a healthy heart. But, strength training is the unsung hero of weight loss. Both cardio and strength training can torch calories in the short term. However, building lean muscle mass is what will keep your internal furnace burning hotter.
“Your body has what’s called its BMR or Basal Metabolic Rate,” explains Aaptiv Trainer Kenta Seki. “This is the rate which indicates how many calories your body naturally burns throughout the day in order to provide energy and nutrients to itself. Strength training increases the amount of solid muscle your body has. More muscle requires more calories, so this naturally increases your BMR. Strength training can increase the number of calories [that] you’re burning just sitting around.”
Strength training may also be best for getting rid of that stubborn abdominal fat, which can be detrimental to your waistline—but also your heart. In a study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, researchers found that healthy men who performed 20 minutes of weight training each day showed a smaller age-related increase in abdominal fat, as compared to men who spent those 20 minutes doing aerobic activities. Yet another nod in favor of strength training.
To learn more about strength training and how it impacts weight loss, we spoke with Seki and Aaptiv Trainer Ceasar Barajas. Read on for their pro tips, and then incorporate them into your own exercise routine.
Strength Training to Lose Weight
First up, Barajas stresses that there’s more to strength training than losing weight. In short: it’s just plain good for you. “Strength training is going to help you become a stronger, more functional person,” he says. Plus, he states that “weight loss is simply a positive side effect of strength training.”
He also notes that, even if your total weight loss doesn’t seem significant, the increase in strength might be—and that’s also a worthwhile result. He provides this example: A person who weighs 160 pounds at 32 percent body fat begins a strength training regimen. Then four months later weighs 152 pounds at 24 percent body fat. “Is the weight loss significant? No, but the strength increase, body fat percentage loss, and overall mental health [improvement] are,” says Barajas. “If the ultimate goal is weight loss, then strength training, alongside healthy dietary intake, partaking in a myriad of physical activities, and living an overall healthier lifestyle is important because it will challenge the body in positive strides towards weight loss.”
Strength Training vs. Cardio
“Most people focus on cardio to lose weight. But the downside to cardio is it primarily burns calories during the workout, but not so much after,” says Seki. “Strength training, on the other hand, burns calories during and after you exercise.”
Now, how much should you be doing, and must it replace your current exercise plan?
Barajas notes that everyone’s path to weight loss is unique. Factors, such as personal health history, age, gender, and family genetic histories, should be taken into consideration. Because of that, it’s difficult to prescribe exactly how much one might benefit from strength training versus cardio. But, there are some general guidelines.
Both Barajas and Seki suggest beginning with a 50/50 split between cardio and strength training. “This split can be either on the same day or different days, depending on your workout schedule,” says Seki. “Then increase one or the other slightly until you find a good balance of what gives you the results [that] you’re looking for.”
“Most folks do not emphasize the fact that strength training can and will burn calories effectively,” says Barajas, though he notes that it doesn’t occur in the exact same way as cardio.
So, if you love running, by all means, keep running. You don’t have to stop doing any healthy activity that you enjoy. But, if you can supplement that running—or cycling or boxing or whatever else—with some resistance training, then you’ll enjoy a more well-rounded exercise program.
How To Add Strength Training To Your Weight Loss Plan
If losing weight is your goal, then it helps to have a plan in place. Even if you’ve never picked up a dumbbell in your life, you can still undertake an effective strength training regimen. According to Barajas, that starts by thinking more broadly about strength training. By using resistance bands, doing bodyweight exercises, and practicing yoga, you can build a stronger body, lose weight, and feel better—all without picking up a weight.
But, when it’s lifting that you’re after, Barajas likes to mix things up from the standard favorites. It keeps your workouts interesting and your body guessing, which helps you to avoid plateaus.
“I’m a huge fan of unconventional lifting,” says Barajas. “With proper guidance and an emphasis on proper form, take the traditional squats, deadlifts, bench press, and pull-ups, but do them with kettlebells, sandbags, bands, and ropes.”
“Some of the most effective strength training exercises for weight loss are compound, or combo style moves that work multiple parts of your body at once,” says Seki. “The more muscle groups involved in an exercise, the more energy it requires—so you end up burning way more calories and ultimately end up burning more fat.”
Some of Seki’s favorite total body exercises include squats with a shoulder press, deadlift rows, walking lunges with bicep curls, push-ups, and pull-ups.
For more inspiration, here are some equipment-free exercises that work your upper body, lower body, and whole body. Then, once you’re ready, you can move onto free weights, resistance bands, and more.