By Lindsay Wilson
Lifting weights to lose weight is a great idea. Resistance training during weight loss can protect muscle and metabolism.
On a really basic level it’s easy to associate cardio with being thin and strength training with being bulky. At the elite level this makes perfect sense, after all the world’s strongest people weigh three times more than the world’s fastest marathon runners. But as intuitive as this may seem it creates a trap for regular people just trying to lean out.
Although most people say they want to lose weight what they really mean is they want to lose fat. And if we diet down without exercising we risk giving up valuable muscle mass. Not only can this affect the way our body looks and feels, but it can make it harder to maintain weight loss in the long run. This is where strength training comes in.
In this seventh section of The Fat Loss Framework we are going to look at how strength training can protect muscle, boost metabolism, improve quality of life and help optimize body composition. We’ll then ask how someone new to strength training can find their strength.
Strength training protect muscles
One of the easiest mistakes to make when you start losing weight is to assume that weight loss and fat loss are the same thing. When you shift 2 kg (4.4 lbs) of weight in the first week of a low carb diet it’s easy to be seduced by the idea that this is all fat. But in reality it’s pretty unlikely you just sucked 2,000 calories a day out of your fat cells.
In the short term these kinds of water weight fluctuations can mess with peoples’ heads but in the long run it’s not water we need to worry about, it’s muscle. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
The following graph is from a study where they took 94 women with an average weight of 78 kg (172 lbs) and age of 35 years and put them on 800 kcal a day until their BMI fell below 25 (these types of very low calorie diets should only be done under medical supervision). The women were also randomized into different exercise groups either doing nothing, aerobic or resistance training. Here are the weight losses.
As you can see each of the groups lost a staggering amount of weight, averaging over 12 kg (26 lbs) over 21 weeks. Although the amount lost was largely determined by BMI status it’s easy to look at a graph like this and assume that aerobic training yielded the best result. But if you dig a little deeper you’ll quickly see that the scale can deceive.
Here are some more results from the same study, but this time we’ll instead look at lean body mass and resting energy expenditure.
If you look at the lean body mass figures you can see that the resistance training women manage to gain a small amount of muscle while the aerobic and non training groups lost muscle. Not only is it remarkable that these women gained muscle eating just 800 kcal/day but the training served to limit the downgrading of their resting energy expenditure to only what would be expected due to their declining weight (the metabolic adaptation). Although these are small numbers they do matter over time.
The ability of strength training to limit muscle lose while dieting is an important reason to consider it as part of any weight loss program. Cardio can also be muscle sparing when you’re in a deficit, but resistance training offers the tantalizing opportunity to gain muscle while losing fat. This is particularly true in people new to resistance training using mild deficits.
Bottom line: Strength training can protect muscle while dieting
Strength training boosts metabolism
In the activity and cardio sections of this framework I’ve talked about ways you can expend more calories. For the most part increasing activity or adding low intensity is just trading in calories. Sure it burns more calories during the activity (and for a little bit after) but in the long run it does little to change resting metabolic rate.
Strength training (and high intervals to a degree) are a bit different. As you get stronger and build muscle you will literally burn more calories while you sleep. Sure you’ll burn less energy during a strength workout, but over time you are investing in building a bigger engine.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you go do your first strength session. During the session you might burnt just a few hundred calories. Over the next 72 hours or so you’ll have increased muscle protein synthesis which might bump up your resting metabolic rate by 100 kcal/day. This is what we might call the acute response.
Now imagine you do this two or three time a week for six months. Not only will you gradually expend more energy in the gym (as you lift more), you’ll also use a bit more energy in the days after workouts and start to see some chronic adaptations to your metabolism.
Let me give you an example. In the next study they took 15 men and women aged 61-77 years old who had never resistance trained before and supervised a very basic 10 station program of machine weights (lasting around 45 mins three times a week). The focus was on progression, everyone completed and attendance was above 90%. At the end of the six months they waited a few days to avoid measuring any acute response to training and then measured their total energy expenditure.
They found that their total daily energy expenditure had increased from 1,870 to 2,101 kcal per day, up 231 calories a day. The biggest rise came from their resting energy expenditure, but they were also more active in general, used extra calories exercising as well as digesting (due to presumably eating more).
Now, let’s take a look at what happens to the metabolisms of people when they get really muscular. For this we’ll use a fascinating old study where they matched two groups of eight obese and lean men for age, height, weight and surface area and compared their resting metabolisms. Both groups of men weighed around 95 kg (210 lbs) but the lean group of athletes were just 11% fat compared to the obese group at a more typical 30%.
Despite being the same age, height and weight the lean individuals had an average resting energy expenditure 251 calorie a day higher than the obese group. While no doubt there are some genetic differences involved the main point is that the lean individuals were carrying almost 18 kg (40 lbs) more muscle, and muscle is much more metabolically active than fat.
If you’ve ever come across the myth that 1 lbs of muscle burns 50 calories a day at rest this graph might look at little disappointing to you. Sadly the idea that adding 20 lbs of muscle to your frame will burn an extra 1,000 calories is not supported by evidence. The scientific data says it’s closer to about 6 calories per pound.
In fact most of what influences your resting metabolic rate is the mass of your other organs. This goes a long way to explaining why women have a harder time losing fat than men. They have both smaller organs and less muscle mass resulting in a lower resting energy expenditure.
In the graph below you can see how body composition and resting energy vary among a small sample of healthy weight men and women roughly 30 years old.
The key thing to notice here is that although the men are getting an extra 220 calories a day in expenditure from their muscle mass this is only one third of the variation. The big differences are coming from the energy hungry brain, liver and kidneys. Despite weighing just three and four kilograms in total, for women and men respectively, these organs are responsible for over half of resting energy expenditure in both.
This graph points to the important reality that a lot of your resting energy expenditure is fixed by genetic factors. If you hammer the weights and intervals while eating enough you might be able to add a few hundred calories to your resting rate but a lot of what determines this is out of your control.
The majority of variation in your total energy expenditure will come from how active your life is and how much you exercise. In fact this is where the real returns to having extra muscle come from. Not only will you burn more energy in day to day life but you will really be able to light it up when you do exercise.
Bottom line: Strength training can improve metabolic rate
Strength training improves quality of life
Although much of the fitness industry sells aesthetic appeal the value of strength training extends far beyond shredded abs and bulging glutes. Strength training can improve all sorts of things including physical performance, movement control, walking speed, functional independence, cognitive abilities, self esteem, bone density and participation in spontaneous physical activity.
So while it’s nice to know what you bench at twenty five years old it will be much more interesting to ask what you can squat at sixty. Remember our group of fifteen 61-77 years who did six months of machine weight and saw improvements in their metabolism? Let’s grab a few more results from that study to see what happened to their body composition and strength levels.
Over the course of six months they added 2 kg of muscle and lost 2.7 kg of fat. Arm strength increased 25% and leg strength was up 42%. The changes in lean body mass and fat mass together with the improved metabolism and respiratory ratios suggest a significant improvement in how their bodies partition nutrients.
And this study is just a drop in the ocean. There is an entire field of research showing how exercise interventions combining strength, endurance and balance training are the best strategy to improve rate of falls, gait ability, balance, and performance in older adults. In other words people that lift, jog and do some Tai Chai age in style.
Of course you won’t need to age to see the benefits of lifting. In the process of adding plates to a squat, deadlift, push and pull exercise you’ll quickly realise that suddenly you can manage all the shopping bags in one go and walk with someone on your shoulders without pain.
Bottom line: Strength training can improve life quality
Strength training improves composition
If you want to get ‘ripped’, ‘shredded’ or ‘jacked’ then you really need to do some type of resistance training. If you’ve got plenty of muscle already this will help you keep it as you diet down, and if you want to gain then you need resistance to stimulate growth (along with enough food). Either way you need to find a type of resistance training that interests you.
If your main priority is to lose fat (while keeping your muscle) then it can be smart to combine resistance training with cardio, while still maintaining most of your focus on diet. Although your diet will still dictate your deficit both strength and cardio can help improve your partitioning of nutrients. By which I mean send more protein into your muscle fibres, more carbs into your glycogen stores and mobilise more fat to burn as energy.
Although you can certainly get great results using just resistance and diet there are both health and hormonal arguments for keeping at least a little cardio in the mix. A nice example of this comes from another study looking at 60-80 year olds, in this case around 140 abdominally obese Canadians who were randomized between no exercise, resistance, aerobic and a combination of the two.
Here are the average changes in muscle and fat from each group.
As you might expect the people that did solely resistance training gained the most muscle, whereas the aerobic group lost almost twice as much fat. But the best results in terms of composition came from combining resistance and aerobic training, where they gained a little muscle but lost the most fat.
In terms of energy balance the difference between these groups over the course of six months is tiny, so the results are more interesting in terms of partitioning effects.
In fact the mechanism of most interest in this study was how the exercise modalities affected insulin resistance. Here are the results.
This graph shows the degree of improvement in insulin resistance for each of the different groups. Although the index units are a touch confusing what it basically means is that the combined group had the biggest improvement in the rate at which their muscles uptake glucose from the blood in response to insulin.
Essentially the combination strength and cardio produced the best improvements in carbohydrate tolerance. Only the improvements for the aerobic and combined groups were statistically significant, which is in line with other research suggesting the insulin sensitivity benefits of aerobic exercise.
Bottom line: Strength and cardio together improve composition
Finding your strength
Hopefully by this point I’ve convinced you that some type of strength work is a good idea?!
But if you’ve never done any serious lifting then it’s not always simple to find your way. So rather than give you a one size fits all list of exercises, sets and reps I thought we could talk through a five step journey towards becoming ‘someone who lifts’.
It seemed apt to depict this journey as a pyramid. Let’s start with the base.
1) Movement – Start with basic patterns
Although strength training is often divided into various camps (like bodyweight, body-building, powerlifting) when you strip everything away it comes down to a battle between your body and gravity. And despite the different equipment, sets and repetitions most forms of strength training involve fundamental movement patterns that are similar.
Here are some of the essentials:
- Squat: bodyweight, pistol, goblet, dumbbell, barbell, overhead . . .
- Push: pushup, dip, handstand, dumbell presses, bench press . . .
- Pull: pullup, chinups, inverted row, dumbel row, pendlay row . . .
- Hinge: deadlift, russian deadlift, clean, snatch, kettlebell swings . . .
- Raise: hollow body, knee raise, leg raise, L-sit, dragon flag . . .
Although I’ve only listed five types of movement patterns we have already covered the majority of classic lifts in strength training. With a few additional movements like split stances, load carries, back extensions and jumps we’ve got most primary training exercises covered.
More importantly, the basics movements are almost universal. When you possess a good form a squat, pushup, pullup, deadlift and leg raise you have all the tools required to progress in any form of strength work. All you need to do is invest your time and energy in making progress.
Bottom line: Strength starts with good movement
2) Community – Learn from a group
Once you’ve got some basic movements patterns in your locker you need to find a style of strength that interests you. In the old days we needed to be blessed with a great local gym in order to find something that might work. These days we are blessed with youtube.
Obviously a real life community is what you want in the long run, but youtube allows you to learn about different strength disciplines before committing too much time, money or energy into them. Youtube is now overflowing with talented people desperate to share the skills that have transformed their own bodies.
Although I have my own interests and biases there is no point in me recommending a specific style of strength training to you. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses. I personally think you’ll do better with the one that interests you most rather than what you think will ‘work’.
Let me give you a few examples:
- Workout videos: Following an instructor is super useful for beginners. FitnessBlender has over 400 follow along workouts you can do at home. If you enjoy the workouts you can jump quickly to a structured program that mixes basic strength and cardio.
- Callisthenics: Bodyweight training is a great way to develop strength without needing a gym. Although the basic bodyweight push, pull and squat movements have been around for ever there is a growing community teaching progressive callisthenics. Al Kavadlo’s ‘mastering your bodyweight‘ gives a great overview of how people progress.
- Bodybuilding: Bodybuilders have a highly aesthetic approach to strength training, so they are a great source of knowledge if you want to gain muscle mass or get lean without losing it. The coaches over at 3DMJ are a wealth of knowledge on both fronts.
- Powerlifting: Powerlifting is the focused pursuit of lifting as much as you can in the squat, deadlift and bench. It’s an incredibly efficient way to get strong and rapidly growing in popularity. CanditoHQ is a great place for beginners to start, he also introduces people to solid beginner programs.
- Crossfit: Crossfit is a relatively new sport that mixes elements of olympic lifting, gymnastics and interval training. These elements produce great athleticism and crossfit gyms are renowned for creating a strong sense of community. The crossfit channel and barbell shrugged provide good introductions.
- Weightlifting: Olympic weightlifers are some of the strongest people on the planet. The ‘snatch’ and ‘clean&jerk’ are the competitive lifts, while squatting, pulling and pressing are used to build strength. Olympic lifting is technically challenging but incredibly functional. California Strength is a great place to start.
- Gymnastics: The combination of strength and control gymnasts have is pretty much unparalleled in sport. It can be a great resource for people wishing to progress their callistenics skills but requires serious buy in. Gold medal bodies provides an accessible approach to learn to control your body like a gymnast.
- Yoga: Although Yoga isn’t a traditional resistance program it can produce great changes in peoples bodies with many holds and balances that are incredibly challenging. It’s also superb for improving mobility and often has a meditative component. Tara Stiles provides accessible starter programs.
- Pilates: Pilates can produce great core strength and mobility, as well as surprising strength gains. It also incorporates lots of elements from other disciplines. Blogilates is a fun place to learn about it.
- Movement: In many ways all strength programs are just a small specialized subset of movement. Many ballet dancers don’t lift, but you’re kidding yourself if you think they aren’t ‘strong’. If you are interested in a broader idea of strength and movement check out Ido Portal.
Now obviously powerlifting and pilates won’t produce the same kind of results. That’s not the point. Real body transformations happen over years, not weeks or months. If you can find something you like enough to invest real energy in, very good things will happen to your body. The challenge is to find actual pleasure, interest and fun in the process. If you do that it’s like swimming downstream.
Bottom line: Finding a community can make strength fun
3) Technique – Improve your skills
It’s very tempting when you find a strength program you like to start adding weight, or moving to harder exercises, in a hurry. This is fine if your technique is solid, but if your technique is lacking it’s generally a mistake. Lifting beyond technical failure ingrains poor technique and increases the risk of injury.
Before you start throwing around heavy weight, or progressing to advance movements, you want to nail the basics. Learning good technique early on sets you up for fewer injuries and greater gains in the long run. At the same time you need to balance this technique work against the desire to progress. A good way to do technique work without getting bored is to integrate progressions into each of your movements. Let me give you two examples, the squat and pullup.
Let’s say you are squatting sets of 80kg, keen to hit 100 kg, but your technique is quite poor. Instead of jumping quickly into your working weight at 80kg you can progress up to it using a technique focused warmup. You could start with bodyweight squats focusing on mobility at the bottom. Then do some goblet squats to promote better upper back tension. Then find your grove front squatting the bar, then 40kg, then switch to back at 60kg, 70kg and finally do your work sets at 80kg.
With this approach the lighter technical work serves both to warm you up and train better technique. It can teach you depth, upper back tension and how to align your feet correctly for greater balance. Starting the session with an empty bar is common place among the worlds best olympic weightlifters, so it should be good enough for any beginner.
We can take a similar approach to the pullup. If you can’t do one strict pullup, there is little point practising pull ups. You’ll just get better at doing bad pullups.
Instead you go back to basics. Start with the inverted row, and get it down. Then do some pull preps to focus on the lats. Then progress to negatives to build up some arm strength. Once you’ve taken your time to work through that progression you’ll be well prepared to start pulling. Not only this but you’ll be much more likely to move on to advanced pullups like the muscle-up in the long run, because you’ll have prepared some key strengths.
Bottom line: Solid technique is the foundation for progress
4) Progress – Focus on getting better
Once you’ve got some solid technique down adding resistance is where the gains lie. For classic compound movements like the squat, deadlift and bench this simply means working your way up in 2.5kg or 5kg increments every time you complete your goal (eg 3 set of 5 reps @ 100kg). Early on this can mean adding weight every week.
To make serious progress your best bet is find a program and then stick to it. The better strength programs around have been devised by coaches with decades of experience and reflect a great deal of practical wisdom. Many beginners can grind out gains for a year before they start to hit serious plateaus at which point they are an intermediate lifter and need to take a more nuanced approach to intensity, frequency and volume.
For strength work that is more skills focussed (like bodyweight, gymnastics, yoga) the principles of progress are more qualitative. That is you master a basic movement before progressing to the next more difficult one.
Take the pushup as an example. For this you could give yourself a goal of a number of reps with correct form. So an example could be you start with 3 sets of 20 solid reps of wall pushups. Then aim for 20 knee pushups, then full pushups, diamond pushup, archer pushup, all the way up to one arm pushups if you get crazy strong.
Although this progress seems different to compound movements you are really just changing the exercise to increase the intensity. Moving up to more difficult pushups simply increases the load, in much the same way as adding kilos to your bench does. This step by step approach can be applied to things like gymnastics, yoga, pilates and pretty much any form of movement.
Making progress in terms of skills, strength and hypertrophy produces results that keep people coming back for more.
Bottom line: Progress keeps people coming back
5) Strength – Define your strength
Strength seems like a quite objective metric, after all you can either deadlift a weight or you can’t. But powerlifters, weightlifters, gymnasts and dancers are all strong as hell, they just have different definitions of what strong means.
The great thing about strength training is you get to define what ‘strong’ means to you and then chose a type of ‘strength’ you think will improve your life.
If you want to get good at picking up heavy things try powerlifting. For explosive aestheticism do the olympic lifts. For a crazy strong core try bodyweight training. For supreme spatial control think gymnastics. For flexibility and mobility look at pilates or yoga. For balance try Tai Chi.
Regardless of what you pursue you will find that strength training is a marvellous meritocracy. People who put in consistent effort are invariably rewarded with strength. Sure they might not have the genetics, early start or environment of an elite athlete, but all beginners can make remarkable gains in their first year of serious training.
And that just scratches the surface. Strength training can reshape your body and improve how it functions. Moreover, gaining physical strength has a funny habit of providing people with new found mental and emotional resilience.
It all starts with movement. Your body is a marvellous adaptive machine. The choice is simply to move it or lose it.
Bottom line: You get to define what strong is
Strength training is the perfect companion for a weight loss diet. It can protect muscle, boost metabolism, optimize body composition and improve quality of life. And when people combine weight loss with improved strength they can normally move better, something truly valuable.
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