When you hear someone say they’re going to exercise to lose weight, they’re often referring to some form of cardio. This is because cardiovascular exercise is a calorie burner. The perception is that because cardio burns more calories unless you’re moving at a snail’s pace, it’s better for weight loss. However, the aim should be not just to lose weight but to improve body composition by maximizing fat loss and minimizing muscle loss. If you lose muscle along with body fat, you won’t necessarily improve your body composition. We need to hang on to as much muscle as we can, especially during middle-age and after as bone and muscle loss accelerates.
Why weight train? If you look at the “big picture,” weight training has benefits that cardio doesn’t. Here’s why you shouldn’t neglect weight training when you’re trying to improve your physique.
Weight Training Preserves Muscle as You Shed Fat
If you’re trying to trim down, you might be eating a low-calorie diet. It’s never a good idea to go TOO low in terms of calorie consumption as you can slow your resting metabolic rate if you slash your food intake too drastically. That’s counterproductive! When your resting metabolic rate slows, you’re more likely to regain the weight you lost. The statistics for weight loss maintenance are grim. Eighty percent of people who lose a significant amount of weight regain it. One reason is that weight loss impacts resting metabolic rate and this makes it easier to regain the weight you worked so hard to lose.
When you cut back on calories, the risk of losing muscle, along with the fat, increases. Can weight training prevent muscle loss when people are trying to lose weight? Good news! A study carried out by researchers at West Virginia University found that weight training preserves lean body mass in females eating an 800-calorie liquid diet to lose weight. 800 calories? That’s not something you should try as it’s too restrictive. However, it shows how important weight training is for preserving muscle when you’re eating less. In the study, the resting metabolic rate of the participants who weight trained actually increased by 4%. They also lost more body fat than the group who did only cardio.
Heavy Resistance Training is Anabolic While Cardio is Catabolic
Remember, how we said it’s important to retain muscle as you shed body fat? Cardiovascular exercise that boosts your heart rate for sustained periods of time is catabolic in nature. In contrast, heavy resistance training is anabolic and helps build muscle mass. You may have heard that resistance training using heavy weights boosts hormones like growth hormone and testosterone that aid muscle growth and repair.
However, a study published in the Journal of Physiology found that the post-workout surge in anabolic hormones didn’t enhance muscle hypertrophy or strength gains, at least in men. In fact, it didn’t boost muscle protein synthesis at all, despite evidence that these hormones are released in response to heavy resistance training. It doesn’t look like, at least in men, that the extra anabolic hormone release enhances strength and hypertrophy gains.
Yet, the post-workout rise in testosterone may have more benefits for women since women have less testosterone than men. There is a lack of data looking at whether it improves muscle gains in women. What we do know is using heavy resistance (80% of one-rep max or greater), higher volume, and doing compound exercises that work large muscle groups leads to greater anabolic response and, potentially, a boost in these hormones. For women, that may have more significance than it does in men, as women have less testosterone, to begin with.
Tighter Muscles Make You Look Leaner
Weight training, not cardio, is what changes your physique. It’s not uncommon for people who do lots of cardio to lose muscle mass and become less firm and defined. Compare the body of a long-distance runner with that of a sprinter. The latter is more defined. Working against resistance creates a more pleasing physique and body composition. You look lean and strong, as opposed to the skinny, ill-defined physique some people get when they restrict calories too much and combine it with cardio. Which would you rather have?
Less Risk of Overuse Injury
The problem with long periods of cardio is you’re working the muscles in your lower body repetitively. Plus, most of the cardio people do is high impact in nature. Although high impact exercise, in moderation, is safe if you have healthy joints, you shouldn’t pound your joints against pavement or another hard surface day after day for long periods of time. Runners, especially those who advance their training too quickly, have a high risk of repetitive stress injuries. Weight training with good form carries a lower risk of overuse injuries because you’re working your muscles in a variety of planes of motion using different exercises. Plus, it’s not high impact.
Weight Training is Better for Weight Maintenance
One of the biggest problems with losing significant amounts of weight is the risk of gaining it back! As mentioned, at least 80% of women who lose weight regain it. By building a strong foundation of muscle, you can modestly boost your resting metabolic rate. The boost in metabolism is slight but not insignificant. And also, it’s body composition that counts! Don’t get hung up on body weight. In contrast, long periods of cardio are catabolic and break down muscle tissue.
The Bottom Line
Weight training with moderate amounts of cardio is a good formula for losing body fat and improving your body composition. Just don’t overdo the cardio to the point that you’re neglecting strength training. Also, body composition is at least 80% nutrition. Make sure you’re making the right dietary choices – quality protein and healthy carbs and fats from whole food sources.
Losing weight is never easy! Don’t give up the cardio, but spend at least as much time lifting weights as you do running, cycling, or doing other forms of moderate-intensity cardio. Another option is to shorten your workouts and do high-intensity interval training. Just don’t neglect the weights!
· Journal of the American College of Nutrition 18(2):115-21 · April 1999.
· Journal of Applied Physiology Published 1 January 2010 Vol. 108 no. 1, 60-67 DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01147.2009.
· Science Daily. “Bodybuilding myth debunked: Growth-promoting hormones don’t stimulate strength.”
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