A number of myths and misconceptions exist about the effects of resistance training and weight lifting for optimal conditioning and weight loss.
As a result, people often find contradictory advice when trying to evaluate the most effective ways to maintain a healthy workout and diet regimen when weight loss is one of their goals.
This article will explore some of the misconceptions associated with strength and resistance training during weight loss (and the science that will help debunk those myths).
We will also take a deep dive into practical recommendations for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of weight training, including addressing the age-old question:
Should I be lifting heavier weights with lower reps or lighter weights with higher reps?
Let’s start with the first weight loss myth you may have heard before.
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Myth 1: Cardio Is Better for Losing Weight Than Lifting
A lot of folks assume that resistance and strength training are no-no’s for weight loss because, among other notions, they think that weight training will cause them to bulk up when they are looking to become leaner. In truth, a thoughtful and consistent resistance training program improves overall physical function, and, in conjunction with a diet that restricts calories (especially empty calories), helps you attain body-shaping goals faster and also helps you to maintain long-term weight-loss. Increased muscle size may be a byproduct of lifting, but unless hypertrophy is your goal, building muscle tissue actually helps you look and feel leaner than losing body fat alone.
One landmark analysis of this topic outlined some of the different approaches to weight loss. They examined how various approaches affected overall physical condition as well as the effects of these approaches on lean body mass. In their Advances in Nutrition article, “Preserving Healthy Muscle During Weight Loss,” published in 2017, scientists Edda Cava, Nai Chien Yeat, and Bettina Mittendorfer detailed the results of their comprehensive data analysis on weight loss and its effect on muscle growth and lean muscle mass.
After an extensive review of the available literature, Cava, Yeat, and Mittendorfer found the following themes:
- People with obesity have more muscle mass than people at standard weights, though muscle quality is lower.
- Losing weight through dieting reduces muscle mass and has no discernible effect on muscle strength.
- Weight loss improves overall physical function in individuals with obesity.
- Taking in high amounts of protein does not improve strength and could negatively affect metabolic rate, but it does help preserve lean muscle mass.
- Endurance exercises help preserve muscle mass during weight loss, but resistance exercises help preserve muscle mass while also improving strength during weight loss.
Based on these findings, they concluded that “weight-loss therapy, including a hypocaloric diet with adequate (but not excessive) protein intake and increased physical activity (particularly resistance-type exercise), should be promoted to maintain muscle mass and improve muscle strength and physical function in persons with obesity.”
In essence, these guys are saying that while cardio and endurance exercises are great, resistance and strength training, along with a diet that is lower in calories and includes enough protein, should have a consistent presence in your workout routines and weight loss plans. In addition, cardio training alone can contribute to weight loss, but you will be likely to lose fat AND muscle, while weight training preserves and improves muscle tone in addition to helping melt away excess fat.
Myth 2: I’d Rather Be Toned than Muscular
When people talk about tone, they generally mean “not fat,” but muscular and toned are really two sides of the same coin. Women, in particular, may worry that their frame will become too masculine or bulky if they work out with weights, so they often stick to low weights with higher reps or avoid significant resistance training altogether when they are looking to burn fat.
But there is a space between the hulking gym gods or powerlifters and the slender distance runner, and that is where men and women alike can use weight training for muscle building, losing fat, and increasing strength. There is no magic combination of weight and reps that will produce the desired results in everyone. However, there are some optimal combinations to consider when you are looking at lifting for weight loss. You may want to check out this post on working out to lose weight, and then take a look at Michelle Lewin’s 90-day Beginner Challenge for an intense, effective way to achieve your weight loss and toned body goals.
Strength vs. Endurance
Now that we have addressed a couple of the most common myths about weight training for weight loss, let’s begin to explore other aspects of lifting for weight loss. One way to think of the debate over high repetitions vs. low repetitions is to think about it in terms of what kind of exercise outcome each one produces.
At its most basic level, it boils down to this: Low reps with heavy weights increase strength, while high reps with lower weight increase endurance. For individuals who want to become stronger, trainers and health experts will agree that fewer reps with heavier weights will produce the desired outcome more quickly. This is not to say that higher reps with lighter weight do not yield improved strength — it does! It just takes a bit longer, and the strength gains will be more subtle.
In addition, improving your baseline strength has lots of positive, long-term impacts on your overall physical health. In a 2018 study entitled, “Exercise and Nutrition Strategies to Counteract Sarcopenic Obesity,” European researchers found that poor muscle quality (sarcopenia) contributes to long-term health conditions like obesity, musculoskeletal issues (e.g., back pain), and mobility. They found that the best way to combat poor muscle quality and obesity was to encourage a regimen of diet coupled with exercise that focused on strength and resistance training. Although their study focused primarily on aging populations, many of their findings apply to individuals of all ages, and maintaining a strong body at 40 will help you continue to have a strong body at 60.
So we know that improving muscle strength has positive, long-term health impacts (including assisting with weight loss), but what about endurance training? Improving the body’s ability to sustain physical activity is also important, and there are lots of ways one can work toward this outcome. Working out to lose weight generally includes a variety of exercises, but what is interesting about endurance vs. strength training is that there are so many ways to improve endurance, but only a few key ways to improve strength.
Endurance can be improved through running, jogging, rowing, swimming, lifting low weights at high reps, and any other sustained physical activity. These activities can also contribute to strength gains, but only incrementally and not as efficiently as lifting. To seriously improve strength and overall muscle quality (which, as we’ve discussed, has positive long term effects on physical health and ability to maintain a healthy weight), one must engage in lifting and/or resistance training. Let’s face it, the best way to get stronger is to lift heavy things, and this can mean lifting weights as well as using your own body for resistance and strength training.
So which is better for weight loss: strength training or endurance training? As with all things in life, the answer is a little of both. Consider using lifting and resistance exercises to improve strength, and consider supplementing that with a variety of cardio and endurance exercises. All in all, however, lifting lighter weights with higher reps is not the most effective way to improve endurance, especially given all the other exercise options out there that target endurance. For more info on how to achieve a lean body at home, check out Damien Patrick’s fitness plan that focuses on shredding fat while increasing positive muscle mass.
The Afterburn Effect, or Metabolism and EPOC
Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or the afterburn that occurs in the recovery period, is a key factor in the lasting effects of an intense workout on overall body conditioning. Most experts agree that afterburn can improve the effects of the exercise on losing weight, though many disagree on just how much afterburn really exists.
In a peer-reviewed 2003 Norwegian study published in the Sports Medicine journal, researchers Elisabet Børsheim and Roald Bahr explored the effects of exercise intensity, duration, and mode on post-exercise oxygen consumption. They noted that previous studies had resulted in disparate conclusions that ranged from EPOC continuing for hours after exercise to studies that concluded that EPOC is minimal, at best. Børsheim and Bahr go on to note that previous studies did not always take into account the differences in intensity and duration and the subsequent impact of those factors on EPOC.
To address that gap, Børsheim and Bahr analyzed the existing exercise science data on EPOC and found a significant difference in EPOC’s presence depending on the type of exercise performed. Although they recommended additional research into the underlying mechanisms that cause EPOC and other metabolic shifts in physiology, they found that EPOC lasts longer and is more substantial after more intense levels of resistance exercise. In other words, a faster, harder workout produces more afterburn, and more afterburn produces better results for both muscle conditioning and weight loss.
How often do I need to lift weights?
Most exercise programs recommend working out at least three times per week, but if you work out every day it is important to mix up the types of muscles you are focusing on as well as goals of any particular workout session. Sommer Ray’s fit plan mixes it up to focus on building lean muscle mass, improving tone, and working out that booty.
How much weight should I lift and how many reps should I do?
What is heavy to you may be light to another, so the best way to figure out your target weight to lift is by testing your tolerance. To do this, aim for lifting to failure in under 15 reps. If you are able to lift the same amount of weight to a rep max of 15, then you need to up your weight. On the flip side, if you cannot complete more than 10 reps safely, consider lowering your weight. As you continue to work out over the course of days and weeks, you will find that your tolerance for higher weights will improve and you will gradually want to add additional weight to work at the same intensity.
Generally, the sweet spot for reps is more than 6 but fewer than 15. Fewer than 6 reps may mean you are lifting too heavy for optimal weight loss (and, if you are a beginner, you may be at a higher risk for injury), while more than 15 reps may indicate that you are using weight training for endurance rather than strength and intensity. Most beginning and intermediate lifters find that a rep range between 8 to 12 reps is an ideal way to stimulate the maximum amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers for an intense but sustainable workout. It is the explosive action of fast-twitch muscle fibers that allow for higher metabolic stimulus, while the slow-twitch fibers support muscular endurance in activities like distance running or higher reps with lower weights.
As an added bonus: Fewer reps means less time lifting and working out, but with better long-term results!
What are the best workouts for losing weight while preserving lean muscle?
Since lifting heavy weights can actually help you get a lean body faster, you may be wondering which workouts or which approaches will move you toward your goal. Should you deadlift or use dumbbells? Should you do push-ups and other body-weight exercises? Should you work out for 20 minutes or 50 minutes? What combination of compound exercises and high impact interval training (HIIT) is best? What muscle groups should you target?
The possibilities are endless, but no matter which plan you choose, whether it is one of the ones already mentioned in this post or any of the variety of Fit Plans available, the most important thing is to select one that aligns with your goals and that you can stick to.
Regardless of which plan you select, or even when you are working out on your own, consider adjusting the rest periods as you progress so that you can train your body to perform the same amount of exertion (work) in less time. By doing so, you will gradually increase the metabolic demands of your workout, and, as we have discussed, an increase in metabolism during the workout continues to offer metabolic gains and calorie burn even after the workout is finished.
What Other Factors Should I Consider?
In any discussion of exercise, as it pertains to weight loss, we would be remiss if we did not also consider the effects of nutrition, hydration, and rest or sleep on overall physical health and on weight loss in particular.
A good diet should take into account all aspects of physical and mental health rather than focus exclusively on weight loss or burning fat. Like choosing an exercise plan, choosing a diet should consider whether or not it can be sustained and incorporated into your lifestyle even after you meet your weight loss goal. A variety of foods that do not require expert preparation and that are readily available are critical for maintaining a healthy weight, and, according to researchers at the Harvard Medical School, one diet that meets those needs for many of us is a Mediterranean type of diet. Although there are many variations of Mediterranean diets, they usually include a combination of the following:
- Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Whole-grain bread or cereals
- Healthy fats (like the kind in olive oil and nuts or seeds)
- Lean protein (like skinless chicken, fish, or beans)
- Reduced or limited amounts of red meat and alcohol (though one or two glasses of wine a day is encouraged)
Because of the flexibility of this diet, it works less like a diet and more like a sustainable (and tasty!) lifestyle change. Diets like Dirty Keto can do your body more harm than good, so be nice to your body and look for options that improve your overall health and ability to maintain your focus on long-term outcomes.
Ensuring that you stay hydrated is also critical in losing weight and keeping it off, and some of the earliest weight loss you will notice is probably excess water weight. To learn more about how water weight affects weight loss, check out this post.
Oh, and don’t forget to get some sleep! Researchers have proven that adequate sleep is critical for improved health, muscle gain and regeneration, and weight loss.
To lose weight, lift weights.
Lifting heavier weights with fewer reps is a more efficient way to build muscle and accelerate fat loss, and once you find that you can do more than 10 or 15 reps, build up the amount of weight you lift. Incorporate different types of workouts for optimal gains (and losses), and continue to push yourself toward a steady progression for consistent improvement.
Note: Want to get in great shape without leaving your house? Workout with elite personal trainers and get 75% off when you start your Fitplan free trial today. But hurry, because this once-a-year offer expires in just a few days. Learn more now!