Should You Strength Train to Lose Weight?


Think about the recent commercials you’ve seen advertising health and fitness? What activity do you see? Running, walking, or other aerobic exercise? Weight training just never seems to get the same spotlight. In fact, it’s often depicted as a specialty offshoot rather than a core component of general fitness. Weight training, however, plays a very important role in health and weight loss. If you have a habit of spending most of your time on a treadmill or an elliptical for your workouts, this article is for you! You may be missing out on some of the most significant exercise benefits.

What is Resistance Training?

Strength Principles

The major goal of weight training is to generate a force on your body it has not experienced in the past–a force that is enough to make it adapt but not so much that it could cause injury. For example, if you haven’t done pushups since you were in high school, doing one set of ten pushups could be enough stress for your body to adapt for a week. The next week, you might need to do two sets. Provided you don’t have an existing injury, this can be enough stress to for your muscle tissue to grow stronger and your bones to become denser.

The other extreme goes something like this (a true story). Earlier in my training career, I was organizing some of the equipment on the free weight floor. Behind me, I heard someone gasp “A little help?!” I spun around and saw a man in his forties stuck under a bar on the bench press, which he had loaded with 225 pounds (two 45s on each side of the bar). I found out he had just joined that day and hadn’t done any strength training since playing football in high school. The 225 pounds was what he used to lift. He thought he’d give it a try that day some two decades later. His story presents the perfect example of using far more force than the body should be exposed to. Had I not been there, he could’ve been seriously injured trying to get the weight off himself.

Fortunately, this man’s example is pretty rare. More commonly, people are afraid to push themselves hard enough. If you have a tendency to pick the same equipment, use the same weight and do the same number of repetitions each workout because it’s comfortable for you, you’re really just going through the motions. It’s better than sitting at home on the couch, but it isn’t enough to effectively change your body.

To benefit from resistance training, you must (in order of priority):

  1. Perform the exercise with proper technique
  2. Move the weight in a controlled movement
  3. Use a weight and rep range that leaves you fatigued at the end
  4. Use more weight, complete more repetitions, or do more sets over time.

Without a basic level of knowledge about exercise technique, the amount of weight you can move matters little. In fact, if you don’t do an exercise properly, you’re not going to get much benefit even if you do points two through four correctly. I would strongly encourage you to consider the benefit of working with a health and fitness professional, even if it’s just for a handful of sessions. I know there’s a perception that a personal trainer is a luxury. Your body is the most valuable asset you have, and when it functions properly, you become even more valuable as a parent, employee, friend or spouse.

What’s interesting is that if you watch small children, they squat, push and pull (the three foundational movements) and move with almost perfect form. As we grow up and spend more time sitting, our posture changes. Twenty years later, when we decide to start a fitness program, our poor range of motion prevents us from moving the way we were supposed to. A trainer can help us overcome those limitations in the safest, most efficient way, which means we’ll benefit from our exercise programs sooner and more intensively.

Strength Training and Weight Loss

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Most people think that to lose weight, you need to walk, run, cycle or take group fitness classes. It’s almost ingrained in our minds that you have to do cardio to lose body fat. Cardio does play a role in weight management, but its major purpose is to help train the body to prefer fat for fuel over carbohydrates, not to burn calories.

Unfortunately, cardio training–particularly when excessive–also has a downside. Endurance training can cause the body to lose muscle tissue. Think about it. If you’re going to spend a lot of time running, your body won’t want extra muscle tissue to lug around. It will retain its slow-twitch, endurance-type of muscle tissue and get rid of the fast-twitch, strength-type muscle fiber.

Even worse, many people cut back significantly on their energy intake when they attempt to lose weight. Low-calorie diets are notorious for causing muscle loss–often at the same rate as people lose fat! If you undereat, it sends a signal to the body to save energy. Muscle is much more metabolically active (it burns a lot more energy) than fat. The body will logically use fat cells for energy but simultaneously get rid of muscle to conserve energy.

When comparing the results of a low-calorie diet plus cardiovascular/endurance training against a low-calorie diet plus resistance training, the difference was significant. Those following the low-calorie diet plus resistance training experienced far less muscle loss and actually raised their resting metabolic rate. The endurance group lost more weight, but they also lost a lot more muscle tissue and ended up with lower resting metabolic rates. Both groups saw similar improvements in cardiovascular conditioning. Researchers have also found–even without a change in diet–that resistance training helps to reduce the levels of fatty liver, ( a condition most commonly associated with alcoholism but also caused by poor diet and lack of activity) in which the liver stores an excessive amount of carbohydrates (especially fructose) as fat. (That said, diet still has more of an effect for improving this condition.)

Cardiovascular/endurance training has its legitimate place in a fitness and weight loss program. However, know that well-planned resistance training should also have an essential role in your program.

Maintenance of Lean Body Mass

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While you probably don’t wish for the physique of a male or female bodybuilder on the cover of a magazine, few people imagine their ideal physique as thin, bony and lacking any kind of muscular definition. If you’re like most people, there’s something between these two extremes that describes what you’re after. Strength training helps build muscle tissue to create a lean, curvy look in one’s shoulders, arms and hips, and to help create a waist that narrows from the top to bottom of one’s back. It’s important to note that people don’t need to worry about becoming big, bulky and thick from strength training unless they’re choosing to “artificially enhance” their natural hormone production.

Without resistance training, it’s difficult to retain much of any muscle during a weight loss program, a change that will leave people a skinnier version of themselves but still holders of a high body fat percentage. Weight training can help retain–and increase–muscle mass as well as improve bone density.

As we age, we will lose muscle. It’s unfortunate, but it is a reality of aging. The more muscle you have to start with from your younger years, the more you’ll have in your later years. Your muscle helps your whole skeleton become more functional and protected as you age. Without as much muscle, you won’t have the same kind of support when you step off a curb the wrong way. Without enduring the forces to build muscle, your bones won’t maintain their density.

Whatever lean body mass you have today is probably all you’ll get for the rest of your life if you don’t do something about it. If you don’t eat enough protein and give your body enough healthy physical stress, you may end up with a severe shortage of muscle mass long before the end of your life. The result could mean spending many years needing assistance or avoiding extra movement because you don’t have an appropriate level of muscle tissue or bone density. Strength training is an investment in your lifelong health and mobility. Paired with the right nutrition plan, you’ll at least maintain your lean mass longer if not increase it.

At the extreme of physical aging, we see diseases like arthritis. Often, people who are faced with this or other degenerative diseases are afraid to do exercise like resistance training. This is unfortunate because even those with rheumatoid arthritis benefit from increased lean body mass when they strength train properly.

Cardio or Strength Training?

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Ideally, both types of exercise should be incorporated over the course of a week. For the purpose of weight loss, nutrition is the major determinant as to whether we lose weight. However, the type of exercise we use to complement our nutrition can determine what kind of weight we actually lose–fat or muscle. Resistance training helps to ensure most of the weight lost is fat, but a combination of strength training with some cardiovascular exercise is probably ideal in terms of health and weight management.

Finally, if you feel the most comfortable doing cardio, or if you’ve been doing the same resistance training routine since leg warmers were in fashion, ask a Health and Fitness Professional for some guidance. He/she can design a personalized program for progressing in your resistance training goals and can guide you in achieving proper form and technique.

You can lose body fat and maintain lean body mass with good nutrition and a strength training program. You can accelerate your fat loss by adding cardio, but you can’t maintain your muscle, range of motion and bone density without strength training. You know the advantages of weight training for your body. Take the next step in claiming those benefits for your weight loss and wellbeing.

Max Reynoso NASM-CPT, PES, CES, Physical Therapist Aide, Kettlebell Cert, Power Plate Cert. Metabolic Tech, is Fitness Professional at the Life Time Fitness in Gilbert, AZ. He’s been in the fitness field for 20 years helping people take control of the way the look and feel. If you wish to setup a Training Solution Consultation with him so he can review your current fitness status and help you design a plan of action for 2017, contact him at mreynoso@lifetimefitness.com or call 530-522-8483

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