Resistance Training for Weight Loss – Build Muscle To Burn Fat


When many people think of resistance training, often the image of a sweaty bodybuilder, with bulging muscles bench pressing 400 pounds, comes to mind. While weightlifting is one example of resistance training, there are others. Resistance training is any type of exercise that uses force to cause muscular contractions. So lugging sandbags, rowing with kettlebells, stretching with resistance loops and bands, lunging, and doing pushups, are all instances of resistance training. Not every activity that causes muscle contractions is resistance training, however. Training is purposeful activity, something that we do with forethought to meet fitness goals.

Not all resistance training is geared toward increasing strength nor improving power. Not all resistance training is strength training. So if the image of bulging muscles is stuck in your mind when you think of resistance training, you can work at replacing it with an image of you surrounded by astonished onlookers as you work toward completing forty pushups or finishing fifty prisoner squats, an image of toned muscles and increased muscular and cardiovascular endurance.

So the end result of resistance training is not always bulging muscles. That is especially true if you are a woman. Only about 1% of women can naturally bulk up via weightlifting. Most men can because they have about twenty times more testosterone, a hormone that aids in muscle building. But still many men have to try. It has to be part of a plan. So if what you want to do is use resistance training as your primary weight loss method it is possible. First, get a plan.

Cardiovascular exercise, running, biking, swimming, step aerobics, burns more calories more quickly. It is estimated that we burn between 8 and 12 calories per minute while jogging, for instance, and only 3-7 per minute while doing resistance training. The primary reason for the difference is that resistance training is interval training. Over the course of 30 minutes, we take breaks. We have to. Not just because resistance training tends to be divided into repetitions and sets, but because we run out of fuel, ATP-C. A little bit of background knowledge will clarify what happens.

resistance-training-weight-loss-tricepsATP-C is a combination of phosphates (ATP) and creatine, an acid that is an ingredient in the production of ATP. Both are made in small amounts by our bodies, because our bodies constantly make small contractions and, therefore, need a ready source of fuel. It is depleted rapidly, and since resistance training is anaerobic, meaning “without air”, ATP-C is the only source of fuel we have for resistance training. Our aerobic pathway does not begin to kick in until we are about two minutes into a routine. Resistance training sets typically do not last two minutes. So while resistance training activates our cardiovascular system, aerobic training activates our cardio respiratory system, which includes our cardiovascular system as well as our lungs. Aerobic training causes the size of our hearts and lungs to increase over time. That increases our endurance so that we can work longer and harder. Our muscles are very much dependent on the added oxygen, blood and other nutrients that results from this increased heart and lung capacity. Bottom line, our hearts do not work as hard when our hearts increase because more oxygen and other nutrients are pushed through the left ventricle with each beat. Since the cardio respiratory and cardiovascular systems are so well integrated, however, one leads us to burn only slightly more calories than the other, because it does more work and because it feeds increasing amounts of nutrients to the large muscles in our glutes, thighs and legs.

Those who want to use resistance training as their primary weight loss activity should find good news in it too. Resistance training does burn calories. Just not as many as the more intense forms of cardio: jogging, biking, swimming, step aerobics.

That would lead many people to ask why anyone would want to use resistance training as the primary means of losing weight? There are a few reasons. The best reason I’ve heard is “I don’t like cardio!” Yes, I accept that as a very good reason, because the best type of exercise you can do is the one you will do. As a personal trainer, I do let my clients know that the best exercise program combines cardio, resistance training, and flexibility training. I also throw in balance to prevent falls. My reasons are related to how the cardio respiratory and the cardiovascular systems work. And the fact that my clients tend to be members of special populations, people who have health conditions. No one is ever guaranteed weight loss. For members of special populations weight loss is often imperative, however. That means that they cannot just get by with changing body composition, which is more easily achieved via resistance training.

Furthermore, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., and I often have to remind people that the heart is a muscle, too. Cardio is resistance training for the heart. I would be careless if I did not at least attempt to impress upon my clients the importance of cardio, especially if they are deconditioned. I also let them know this as well: Resistance training burns more calories in the long run. The best way to get fat off is via cardio; the best way to keep it off is via resistance training, because muscle burns fat. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat. It raises your metabolism. The more muscle you have, the more you can eat without gaining weight, and for those who like food that is a powerful incentive to do that cardio and lift those weights. Also, good balancing programs can easily be resistance programs. Many use exercises, such as the one-legged squat, the bird dog, and various types of alternating lifts. Now that I’ve qualified my position, let’s discuss resistance training for weight loss.

There are other reasons to prefer resistance training for weight loss: (2) You are a member of a special population. People who are members of a special population (who have a medical condition), such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, may only be able to build endurance via muscular endurance exercises, by lifting a relatively light weight for a high number of repetitions, usually an amount that would cause muscular failure. (3) You are trying to avoid weight loss plateaus. Losing weight more slowly and changing routines can go a long way toward helping to avoid those dreaded weight loss plateaus. You know, those periods which you feel like you are trying to climb an icy mountain.

resistance-training-weight-loss-bicepsYou’re working your butt off, but the weight just won’t budge. Metabolically you’re out of whack. If it’s a real plateau, you’ve created too large of a calorie deficit and that is the culprit. Your body doesn’t want to release the fat, because it would have to release an unhealthy amount of muscle along with it. So it tries to hold on until the conditions become more favorable (i.e. you give it some calories back). I’ve experience that. I once went about 6 weeks without losing a pound, and then went on vacation and ate my way through the city. When I returned home a few days later, I was 5 pounds lighter. At the end of ten days, I was 11 pounds lighter. There are also hundreds of resistance training exercises. So it is easy to change a routine to avoid plateaus and boredom. (4) It is really important for you to retain muscle while losing weight.

Using resistance training for weight loss would slow down your weight loss. Remember, one pound is equal to 3,500 calories. It would allow you to more easily retain or maybe even increase muscle, which means your body composition will be more favorable at the time you reach your goal weight. A lot of muscle toning might not be necessary. And since muscle burns fat, your metabolism will be higher.

But doesn’t muscle weigh more than fat? No. One pound of muscle is equal to one pound of fat. Muscle tissue is more dense than fat tissue. Meaning, it takes up less room. The comparison is a moon rock to an earth rock. They can look exactly the same, but the moon rock can be ten times heavier, because of its composition.

So how do you do it? How do you use resistance training to lose weight? Either keep your heart rate up while lifting, since muscular endurance exercises are aerobic exercise, or lift heavy weights to cause your heart rate to rise high, and then drop precipitously during your break periods to effect a good interval. When doing muscular endurance exercises, keep breaks to between 30 and 90 seconds. You can also try a strength circuit training, especially a Tabata one, if you do not like to do cardio. Tabata is high intensity interval training (HIIT). Tabata exercises are done in 20 second sets that are done eight times for a total of four minutes. There are 10 second breaks between each set.

How often resistance training for weight loss should be done is mainly a matter of intensity of exercise. Intensity is related to load (weight lifted) and duration. It is not true that low load, high repetition (duration) exercise burns more fat than a high load, low repetition one does. For a greater afterburn effect, studies show that it is the other way around. Afterburn refers to the higher metabolic rate many of us have after relatively intense exercise. It is caused by our body’s attempts to return to homeostasis and our muscles trying to repair themselves.

All Other Resistance Training Rules Apply:

  • Use proper form to avoid injury and to work the correct muscles.
  • Use compound, functional movements.
  • Breathe in on the eccentric (easy part of the lift), breathe out on the concentric.
  • Use progression as you improve.
  • Rest between sets to refuel and do not work the same muscles two days in a row.

Most of all: Watch your diet. Many say diet is 80% of health and weight loss!

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About Author

Brenda Gaines Hunter

Brenda Gaines Hunter specializes in functional training for deconditioned populations, recreational athletes, senior citizens, people struggling with obesity, diabetes, asthma and arthritis. See my profile page for more information!

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