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The Other Reason Weight Training is Good for Fat Loss

Paul Swainson

By Paul Swainson

Having run a personal training business for 10 years and been involved in PT management and tutoring, Paul is currently Head of the Future Fit School of Personal Training. Read more.

Lifting Weights

The fitness world has seen a significant breakthrough recently with the increasing recognition that resistance training is not just a useful tool in the fight against fat, but should actually be a core component of any body composition training programme.

If you’re reading this you’re probably familiar with the commonly cited benefit of lifting weights – adding lean muscle ramps up your metabolism, meaning you burn more calories at rest. All things being equal, that should translate into more fat burned over time.

What isn’t as well-known is that increasing muscle tissue is far easier the leaner you are in the first place.

lose fat to gain muscle

Reasons for this include the fact that your insulin sensitivity is better, so nutrients (particularly carbohydrates) are more likely to be used correctly by the body and taken in to the muscles rather than be stored as fat.

Body fat also contains the enzyme aromatase which converts testosterone into oestrogen.  As testosterone is key to building muscle, anything that limits the amount available in the body will impact negatively on body composition improvements. The higher your body fat, the higher your aromatase levels and the harder the battle to add lean mass.

So in a nutshell, it’s more effective to lose fat to gain muscle, rather than gain muscle to lose fat.

1. So why is weight training still such a great approach for fat loss in the first place?

This comes down to another big shift in training for body composition improvements that we’ve seen over the past few years – the move away from the ‘fat burning zone’ of low-intensity steady state cardio (LISS) to high-intensity intervals, or HIIT.

Whilst the number of calories burned within much shorter types of workout may not be as large as can be achieved with longer, lower intensity sessions (and indeed the energy used comes mainly from carbohydrate rather than fat), energy expenditure whilst training is not the main focus.

The lion’s share of your daily calorie burn is due to your resting metabolic rate anyway - effectively the energy used up were you to just stay in bed all day - so when you think about it, if you can only do 3-4 workouts a week you’re never going to make a huge difference to your overall weekly calorie expenditure during the training sessions themselves

IN AND OUT

Instead, HIIT works by stimulating hormonal responses that facilitate fat burning following training, and increasing Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) – the ‘afterburn’ effect whereby the body expends extra energy recovering from the high intensity workout.

Training hard means oxygen isn’t as readily available to fuel your muscles there and then so your metabolism is elevated for some time after your workout to compensate. Not only are you therefore burning extra calories for hours, but those calories are more likely to come from stored body fat as fatty acids are mobilised into the bloodstream.

2. What’s this got to do with weights?

HIIT involves the recruitment of large muscle groups to raise the heart rate and stimulate the production of lactic acid. It normally requires brief periods of very hard effort (10-60 seconds) such that you then need recovery time before being able to repeat the work to the same intensity.

Graph

Reading that description again you can see how resistance training can fit into this format.

3-4 sets of 12-15 repetitions performed to failure or near-failure, with a 30-60 second rest period between each set promotes almost the exact same metabolic responses as doing 3-4 30-second maximal sprints on a bike for example.

Going a step further, circuit training can be great way to structure your workouts when fat loss is the primary aim. Higher repetition ranges and little to no rest between exercises ensures the heart rate stays high as blood is shunted to the muscles that need it, whilst enabling specific body parts to recover just long enough to go again.

3. Who needs the treadmill?

Running

This means there may be no need to do traditional cardio sessions on top of your weights workouts, provided you perform the latter in the right way (short rest, high intensity, working to almost maximum effort).

There’s other factors to take into consideration though, such as total number of training sessions each week, muscle recovery and of course progress - if you’re not losing fat then perhaps an additional conventional HIIT session or two could be useful for variety.

The bonus here is that they are an optional tool to pull out of the bag if needed, rather than something your body is already doing and therefore adapted to, which will limit their effect.

4. The future of training?

So where traditionally we have separated ‘weights’ and ‘cardio’ - in the field of body composition especially - under the belief one is for building muscle and the other for pure calorie burn, perhaps over time the distinction will become more blurred, and we’ll simply see all types of training as a continuous spectrum.

After all, is a set of squat jumps a metabolic/cardiovascular exercise or a bodyweight resistance movement?

Paul Swainson

About Paul

Having run a personal training business for 10 years and been involved in PT management and tutoring, Paul is currently Head of the FutureFit School of Personal Training.

His aim with the School of PT is to provide the next generation of fitness professionals with all the support and resources they need for a successful career. You can follow him on Twitter: @PaulSwainson


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