Strength training is mainly for getting stronger, increasing the size of your muscles, and improving functionality, but if you’re trying to get leaner, a little extra calorie burn doesn’t hurt! On a minute-by-minute basis, strength training doesn’t burn as many calories as aerobic exercise, but strength exercises are the ones that change your body composition. After all, body fat percentage is more important than body weight. You can lose weight with aerobic exercise, but you can also shed lean body mass and that’s not healthy. Regardless of your goals, strength exercises should be a part of every fitness program.
These days, it’s more fashionable to be strong and defined than it is to be skinny, but strength matters for your health too! Your muscles must be strong and powerful enough to push yourself out of a chair and do the activities you enjoy and need to do to survive. Being fit and strong helps you avoid injury too. Strong muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones are what keep your body functional and ward off an unexpected injury.
But what if you’d like to burn a few more calories when you strength train? After all, we have to vanquish some body fat to get that muscle definition to show. What strength-training exercises burn the most calories?
Emphasize Compound Exercises but Be Sure to Include This One!
If your goal is to lose weight and build strength and muscle mass, make sure your strength-training routine includes a high ratio of compound exercises to isolation exercises. Compound movements are those that work more than one muscle group simultaneously. These exercises involve the movement of more than one joint at the same time. Compound exercises include squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups, dips, push-ups, overhead presses, bent-over rows, and bench press. In contrast, isolation movements that work a single muscle group at a time, like curls, leg extensions, and kickbacks don’t burn a lot of calories and they also don’t increase functionality as much as compound exercises do.
Compound movements burn the most calories relative to isolation movements because you’re working so many muscles at once, but do certain compound exercises burn more calories than others? Exercise that works large muscle groups, like the glutes and quads, blasts the most calories. But one exercise stands out as the king of calorie burners. It’s the squat, an exercise that almost everyone who wants to get stronger includes in their routine.
In one study, Portuguese researchers measured the calorie burn when participants did a variety of strength-training exercises. In all, participants in the study completed eight strength-training exercises, including leg extensions, horizontal bench press, incline leg press, incline bench press, lateral pulldowns, biceps curls, and triceps extensions. The researchers measured oxygen demand when the participants lifted at different intensities. As you might expect, calorie burn increased with the intensity of the lifting and was lowest for the biceps curl. Not surprising since this exercise works primarily the biceps and involves movement around only one joint. The greatest calorie burn was with the squat, an exercise that works more than one muscle group and emphasizes large muscles in the lower body. In fact, the participants burned around 11 calories per minute when squatting.
In contrast, a 150-pound individual burns around 13 calories per minute when running at a pace of an 8-minute mile. So, even squats won’t burn as many calories as running at a moderately brisk pace. However, this doesn’t take into account the additional afterburn you get from a challenging strength-training session that emphasizes compound movements. You burn more calories after an intense strength-training session than you do a steady-state run. Keep in mind that the calorie burn with squats will vary with the weight you use, the type of squat you do, and the tempo.
Do a Variety of Compound Exercises
Squats may be the biggest calorie burner, but you’ll get more benefits if you include a variety of strength-training exercises in your fitness routine. Most experts recommend doing 75% compound exercises and 25% isolation exercises. Squats are a good exercise because they work the quads and, to a lesser degree, the glutes, two large muscle groups in the lower body. Although they didn’t look at deadlifts in this study, you would expect this exercise, too, to burn a significant number of calories too since it’s an exercise that works muscle groups in the upper and lower body at the same time.
You can also increase the number of muscle groups that work simultaneously when you do certain exercises. To boost the calorie burn when you squat, launch into an overhead press when you rise up from a squat. This turns squats into a dynamic, whole body exercise that burns even more calories. You’re working more muscle groups as well. It’s an excellent functional movement that will get your body into shape quickly.
When you do an exercise like lunges, why not do walking lunges to make the movement more dynamic and increase the calorie burn? Other ways to pack more calorie-burning into a strength-training session is to include a dynamic exercise between each strength-training move. How about adding a few burpees between sets? Keep in mind that doing so may reduce how much weight you can handle for the strength-training exercise that follows due to the exhaustion factor. So, if your main goal is to build strength, use the time between sets to rest.
The Bottom Line
Squats and other compound exercises are the biggest calorie burners, but you’ll likely shed more body fat if you do a combination of strength training and vigorous cardiovascular exercise. Also, how much body fat you carry on your frame depends more on nutrition than on how much you exercise. In fact, research suggests that body weight is 80% nutrition and 20% exercise. But in terms of health benefits and how fit and functional your body is, exercise, including strength training, is essential. Regardless of your body weight, you need strength training to stay fit and functional for a lifetime. So, keep your strength workouts balanced and include lots of compound exercises, including the big calorie burner, squats.
· PLOS One. “Energy cost of isolated resistance exercises across low- to high-intensities” July 24, 2017.
· Calorie Control Council. “Get Moving Calculator”
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