Ask the average person how to lose body fat and they’ll tell you to walk, jog, or do some other form of moderate-intensity exercise. Most people believe that is the best way to lose weight. This common misconception is what keeps many people, predominantly women, from reaching their long-term fat-loss goals.
What’s the problem with moderate-intensity, aerobic exercise for fat loss? On the plus side, it’s a calorie burner. In fact, short-term it burns even more calories per minute than weight training. However, you have to look at the bigger picture. Where will you be 8 months later if you follow this approach? If you jog or do some other form of aerobic exercise, like cycling or working out on an elliptical machine, you may lose weight, assuming you’re watching your diet. However, “weight” encompasses body fat, muscle tissue, the weight of your organs, and the amount of water in your blood vessels and tissues. How much of what you’re losing is body fat? Just as importantly, have you improved your body composition?
Fat Loss vs. Muscle Loss
On the other side of the equation, what if you devoted your time to serious strength training? You would have burned fewer calories WHILE you were doing it but over the months also gained strength and muscle tissue. The muscle you gained is metabolically active so your resting metabolism is now higher. Just as importantly, your body composition would likely have changed as well. Your physique would be firmer and tighter and you would have more defined muscles. All good things, right? Too often, we get so wrapped up in the numbers on the scale that we forget that, ultimately, it’s how our bodies look and function that counts the most.
You also have to consider what happens between workouts. Research shows strength training and high-intensity interval training increase EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) more than steady-state cardio. EPOC is the well-known “afterburn” phenomenon where your body burns more calories for 24 to 48 hours after a workout. The afterburn is the extra energy your body expends to recover – to remove lactic acid from muscles and tissues, normalize pH, lower core body temperature etc. EPOC is more pronounced with high-intensity strength training. This small additional calorie burn that continues for up 2 days after a workout may, over time, have an impact on fat loss.
The Problem of Cortisol
Then there’s the hormonal benefits of weight training. Long periods of cardio place enough low-grade stress on the body to boost cortisol, a catabolic hormone that triggers muscle breakdown. Your liver uses amino acids from muscle tissue, during times of stress and starvation, to make glucose and cortisol signals the liver to do that. High-intensity resistance training and HIIT training can also trigger cortisol release but this is balanced by a boost in growth hormone and testosterone release, both of which are catabolic. Plus, growth hormone promotes fat loss. So, high-intensity interval training is helpful for strength gains as well as fat loss.
So, what can you do to maximize the fat-loss benefits of weight training?
The afterburn you get from strength training is directly related to the intensity of your weight-training efforts Lift heavy and you’ll burn more calories in the hours after your workout. You’ll also get a greater anabolic effect. This means you’ll have growth hormone and testosterone as well as other fat-burning chemicals, like epinephrine and norepinephrine, working in your favor. Don’t be afraid to lift heavy weights and take some sets to failure. That’s the kind of stimulation your muscles need to become stronger and more defined and the stimulus your body needs to burn fat. As a bonus, lifting heavier helps preserve bone mass and may even, based on some studies, help you gain bone mass. That’s important for preventing osteoporosis.
Do a High Ratio of Compound Exercises
Focus mainly on compound exercises. These are exercises that work multiple muscle groups and entail movement of more than one joint simultaneously. Compound exercises include squats, lunges, deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups, bench press, bent-over rows, to name a few. Squats and deadlifts are particularly effective because they work the largest muscle groups in your body. The more muscles you work, the more calories you burn. Isolation exercises, ones that work a single muscle group, have their place but don’t make them the bulk of your workout, especially if you’re trying to shed body fat.
What about Circuit Training?
Circuit training is often touted as a fat burner because you move quickly from exercise to exercise without stopping to rest. The constant movement keeps your heart rate elevated and offers some cardiovascular benefits. You will likely burn more calories during a circuit-style workout since you’re not resting as long between exercises, but because you’re using lighter weights, the anabolic benefits and after-burn will be less.
In one study, researchers compared EPOC between three forms of training: aerobic exercise (steady-state cycling), circuit training, and heavy resistance training. The winner was heavy resistance training followed by circuit training. Steady-state cycling came in last. Also, studies show heavy resistance training produces a greater EPOC than lower intensity resistance training when you keep the volume of work constant.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should ONLY do heavy resistance training if you’re trying to lose body fat. However, a portion of your workouts should focus on high-intensity resistance training. Include some circuit sessions and even some cardio to mix things up. Routines shouldn’t be TOO routine.
The Bottom Line
Both aerobic exercise and weight training can help you lose body fat, but only weight training will greatly change your body composition. Calorie-burning aerobic workouts won’t make you lean AND toned and it’s not always good for fat loss longer term because your body becomes more efficient at doing it and burns fewer calories doing the same, repetitive movements. So, if you enjoy aerobic exercise, do it but balance it out with weight training to maximize fat loss and change how your body looks. It’s all about making positive changes, right?
Finally, make sure you’ve got it right in the kitchen. Exercise alone is unlikely to lead to a significant loss of body fat. You need the diet and lifestyle component as well and that means quality sleep and stress management.
The Glute Guy. “Strength Training Is Fat Loss Training”
Res Q Exerc Sport. 2015 Jun;86(2):190-5. doi: 10.1080/02701367.2014.999190. Epub 2015 Feb 12.
Exercise After-Burn: Research Update by Chantal A. Vella, Ph.D. & Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
Journal of Applied Sport Science Research, 6(2), 88-91. (1992)
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