When it comes to burning fat and losing weight, most people think: “go on a diet and do cardio.” (And if you lift weights, you must be trying to get huge, right?)
But in reality, your body needs a powerful signal to burn stored fat. Getting a hot body requires metabolic and hormonal changes. Simply burning calories won’t cut it.
Fat loss vs weight loss
It’s easy to get attached to the number on the scale. But to get the stronger, leaner body you want, you have to focus on losing fat. Not just losing weight indiscriminately.
Consider this scenario:
- You start doing a whole bunch of cardio and go on a diet
- You lose 5 pounds. (Hell Yeah!)
- But you didn’t do any kind of strength training…you just focused on burning calories and eating less
- So you’ve lost 4 pounds of muscle and 1 pound of fat
- Your metabolism will slow down (because you have less muscle mass)
- You won’t be as strong
- You haven’t lost much fat
Essentially, you’re fatter than when you started. (You might weigh less, but your body fat percentage will be higher.)
With a slower metabolism, fat becomes more stubborn. Add this to a cycle of yo-yo dieting, and you can really screw yourself.
When you focus on losing fat while maintaining/increasing your strength, you will transform your physique and get the body you really want. Even if the scale doesn’t budge.
Remember, when you’re at the beach or trying on clothes, no one (including you) really cares about the number on the scale. How you look and feel are what matter.
Burn fat all day: Why strength training is superior
To turn your body into a fat burning machine, you need to lift weights. Real weights. Heavy ones. Even if you don’t want bigger muscles, strength training will burn pounds of fat and get you lean.
More muscle = higher metabolism
Muscle tissue is active. It burns a lot of calories even in a resting state.
Each pound of muscle burns about 10 calories per day in a resting state. That’s not a massive number considering that the average resting metabolic rate is 1500-1700 calories. But when you gain or lose pounds of muscle, that number starts to add up fast.
That’s 10 calories per pound of muscle in a resting state. A post-workout muscle will burn a lot more.
EPOC: The afterburn effect
Aerobic activity (i.e. steady-state cardio) burns calories while working. Stop the workout, and you stop the calorie burn.
Anaerobic activity — lifting weights, sprinting, etc. — not only burns calories during your workout, it also causes a metabolic disturbance.
After a heart-pounding, balls-to-the-wall workout, it takes energy to get back to equilibrium. Metabolism and caloric burn stay elevated for up to 72 hours following an intense strength workout. Thats hundreds of additional calories burned.
This effect is called Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption, or EPOC. You consume more oxygen in the post-workout window, because your body is still working its ass off (even though you stopped exercising).
Steady-state (aerobic) cardio may appear to burn more calories during the workout — especially if you watch the calorie counter on your machine. But when you add up the total calories burned at the end of the day, strength training comes out ahead. And the calories burned are more likely to come from fat.
The right hormones help you burn fat at rest
That’s right. You burn fat stores throughout the day, because strength training causes a hormonal response that turns you into a fat-burning furnace.
- Human Growth Hormone. HGH signals your body to release stored fat into the blood to be used for energy. That fat energy is what fuels the EPOC/afterburn following an intense workout.
- Epinephrine and Cortisol…the stress hormones. We usually want to minimize their release because they are catabolic (break things down). Both spike at the beginning of a high-intensity workout, and that’s good because they break down fats. As epinephrine and cortisol levels fall, those fats will continue fuel your exercise and recovery.
- Testosterone. Yes, this is the “male sex hormone,” but females also have testosterone in small amounts. Male or female, increasing T levels through exercise will increase strength and bone density, and reduce stored body fat. Higher T levels are also associated with increased sex drive (in both sexes) and a general sense of well being.
You have to work at a high level of intensity to get this. Cardio alone will not get you there. No matter how many spin classes you take.
How to preserve lean muscle while stripping away the fat (without getting bulky)
Now that you understand the importance of muscle in being lean, here’s how to maintain it while shedding pounds of fat.
Weight lifting for fat loss workouts
Among the most effective methods for fat loss are paired sets and circuits. You perform two or more exercises in a row, with short rest periods, before going back to the first exercise.
When done correctly, this training maximizes HGH release to keep the fat burning in high gear. And it will give your body the shape you’re looking for.
A paired-set strength program might look like:
- 1A Squat
- 1B Pushup
- 2A Alternating backward lunge
- 2B Seated row, etc…
Or you could do circuits of three exercises:
- 1A Step up
- 1B Dumbbell row
- 1C Plank
- 2A Kettlebell deadlift
- 2B Pushup
- 2C Kettlebell swing, etc…
There are limitless ways to put this type of workout together. You can be creative, but make sure you follow these guidelines:
- Lift heavy…this should be hard
- Use complex, multijoint exercises (squat, deadlift, row, etc.)
- Perform 2-4 sets of each exercise
- Do 7-9 exercises total, spread among 3-4 circuits
- Select moderate to heavy weights that will allow 8-12 reps per set
- Rest 30-60 seconds per exercise; rest 1-2 minutes between circuits
- Do this three times per week (twice at the absolute minimum)
The strength classes at your gym are a mixed bag
You may be tempted to jump into a strength class that uses body bars, bands and light dumbbells. Or join a “bootcamp.” That’s not the kind of strength training I’m talking about. The problem with these classes is that the intensity is too low, even if they feel hard.
You can move around for an hour with light weights and break a big sweat, but if you’re not lifting heavy, you’re not going to get the benefits of strength training.
Rep after rep after rep after rep will delude the intensity of an exercise. Intensity is what jacks up the fat burn.
If you must do classes, a group weightlifting class such as CrossFit is closer to the mark. It’s not my favorite training method, but it works for shredding fat and building strength. Just pay close attention to form and technique.
But I just want to “tone”
There’s no such thing as “toning.” Let me repeat: There’s no such thing as toning.
Want to achieve a lean, toned physique? You need to increase muscle mass — or at least maintain it. The most admired “toned” bodies are simply well-developed muscles with low body fat.
Strength training is how you get that kind of body. You’re not going to get it from churning away on the elliptical. And you’re not going to get it from a low-calorie, deprivation diet either.
Females: you will not get bulky from strength training. You literally do not possess the hormonal make-up to grow large muscles. The women you see in bodybuilding magazines take drugs to look like that. You will never look like that. Trust.
Strong is good at every age
As our bodies age, we naturally lose strength, balance and bone density. (Fractured hip, anyone?) The loss of bone density is more extreme for women.
Strength training — specifically load-bearing exercises with heavy objects — is the easiest way to prevent this. In fact, it’s the only type of exercise that’s consistently proven to increase bone density, maintain strength, and improve balance in older individuals.
idiot celebrity trainers say that women should never lift anything heavier than 3 pounds. But eventually, you might need to pick something up off the ground. In real life. And it might be heavy.
Don’t be SOL when this happens.