What’s your goal when you weight train? If you’re trying to gain strength and improve your body composition, gaining muscle and losing body fat are likely both on the agenda. Losing body fat alone won’t make you firmer. That’s why you need the benefits that a strength workout offers.
To lose body fat, you might be tempted to do hours of cardio to burn more calories. Yet, that’s not the best approach if you’re trying to build lean body mass as well. Cardio burns a significant number of calories while you’re doing it but resistance training and high-intensity interval training deliver more of an afterburn, a higher rate of fat burning even after your last interval is over and you’ve fully recovered. Plus, building more metabolically active muscle is a longer-term investment in your metabolism.
The Benefits of More Muscle
No doubt about it – having more muscle serves you well longer term. That’s why a higher ratio of strength training to cardio may ultimately give you a better payout than focusing on cardio for fat loss. Don’t forget – weight training also burns calories while you’re doing it as well as after you finish – and studies show that weight training alone can lead to meaningful weight loss.
In one study, researchers divided overweight participants into three groups. One group cut calories only. Another reduced calories and did aerobic exercise while a third group reduced calories, did aerobic exercise, and lifted weights. Were there differences in fat loss? At the end of 12 weeks, the group that dieted lost 14.6 pounds of fat and the aerobic + diet group lost 15.6 pounds – only a pound more. The real winner was the group that dieted, did aerobic training, and strength training. This group lost 21.1 pounds of body fat. That’s why if you’re trying to get leaner, weight training should be part of your plan. At least in this study, aerobics alone didn’t offer greater benefits than dieting alone.
Picking Up The Tempo: Boost the Calorie Burn When You Train
When you weight train, you can adjust a number of variables to change the way you challenge your muscles and, ultimately, the results you get. One such training variable you can vary is tempo or rep speed. According to a study carried out by Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, picking up the tempo can help you burn more calories during a weight training workout.
In the study, researchers asked nine participants to do 4 sets of squats consisting of 8 reps per set. During some sets, they asked them to use a standard tempo, 2 seconds up and 2 seconds down, but during other sets, they asked the participants to make the move more explosive – 2 seconds down and back up as quickly as possible. During the sets, they measured the participants’ oxygen consumption. The results? When they did explosive squats, they burned calories 11.2% faster and also had a 5.2% greater afterburn after the workout was over.
What about Strength?
If you use a fast tempo will it interfere with or enhance strength gains? When you lift using an explosive tempo, you activate fast-twitch muscle fibers, fibers that are adapted for strength and power. Plus, performing a rep quickly calls more motor units into play and more fast-twitch muscle fibers. In one study, researchers asked one group of participants to do bench presses at a self-selected speed. Another group, they asked to do bench press reps as quickly as possible. Both groups used weights that were 85% of their one-rep max. Surprisingly, only the group that lifted at a rapid temp gained significant bench press strength (around 10%) after six sessions. The other group made no notable strength gains.
Of course, you shouldn’t ONLY train at a fast tempo. Lifting in a slow controlled manner increases time under tension and recruits higher threshold motor units for strength and size gains. Some research also shows that a slow tempo and greater time under tension maximizes muscle protein synthesis more than a faster one. So, there are advantages to both.
The best approach is to vary your rep speed, possibly by using a periodized approach, so you’re exposing your muscles to different forms of stress – but wait until you’re more advanced to do explosive moves. It’s best for beginners to stick to a more controlled tempo and master proper form first. When you pick up the tempo, momentum comes into play and the risk of injury goes up.
Nutrition Matters Too
Don’t forget that what you eat accounts for 80% of your body composition. You can do everything right when you train and still not lower your body fat percentage if you’re not eating the right foods. Eating right means choosing whole foods, not processed junk, and avoiding sugar. You also need enough protein to give your muscles the building blocks they need to grow. So, get things right in the kitchen too. As fitness trainers are fond of saying, it’s 80% nutrition and 20% exercise.
What about cardio? There’s still a place for cardio, after all, heart health is an important concern. If your goal is to get leaner while building muscle, you may be best served by shortening your cardio workouts and increasing the intensity. For that, high-intensity interval training works well. Research suggests that vigorous exercise is more beneficial for fat loss and for heart health as well. Vary the type of HIIT workouts you do by changing the exercises you do, so your body doesn’t adapt and stop changing.
The Bottom Line
With so many ways to train, there’s no reason to get into a training rut or reach a plateau. If you’re lifting at a slow pace, try making the moves more explosive for a change. As a bonus, you’ll also develop more power. Most importantly, have fun!
Nerd Fitness. “What Burns More Calories: Cardio, Intervals, or Weight Training?”
Women’s Health Magazine. “Slim Fast” November 2007.
Poliquin Group. “Ten Things You Should Know about Tempo Training”
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