Why strength training is the key to weight loss

Number crunching published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests that a person weighing 160lb (73 kg) will burn about 250 calories per 30 minutes of jogging at a moderate pace. If they picked up the pace, they could conceivably burn around 365 calories in the same time frame. But if they used the half hour to weight-train instead, they would only be likely to burn around 130-220 calories.

How cardio and weight training work together

So cardio wins the calorie-burning competition in the short term but, Mikuriya suggests, resistance training is still essential “to make your body a high-rate, calorie-burning machine”. Why? Because it is a highly effective tool over the long term.

“As the body develops more muscle mass, the metabolism also increases,” she explains. And not only in the recovery period that follows a workout. “Since muscle burns more calories than fat, having a higher muscular body composition will lead to a higher basal metabolic rate,” says Mikuriya. “So even when at rest, the body will burn more as it requires more energy to maintain.”

When one study put participants through 24 weeks of weight training, the resting metabolism of men was raised by 9 per cent, and that of women by 4 per cent. In another, published in 2021, researchers found that one or two hours of weight training a week reduced the risk of obesity by 20 to 30 per cent, even if people did no aerobic exercise at all. Adding cardio exercise into the mix was even more protective. 

Is it better to lift a heavy load for weight loss?

Not if you are starting from scratch. “If it feels challenging, it’ll be helping,” says Tessa Strain. “If you’re already quite fit, you’ll need to introduce a more intense regime to test yourself further. If not, gardening, lifting shopping and stair climbing can all contribute towards building your resting metabolic rate.”

Mikuriya agrees: “The important factor is to challenge your body, but that doesn’t need to mean heavy weights.” Light weights and even just lifting your own body weight doing things like squats and push-ups will help to develop lean muscle mass and spur weight loss, she suggests. That said, the more strenuous the weights session, the more your body’s metabolism is elevated after training.  

Mikuriya continues: “If your muscles are repeatedly subjected to the same load, they will get stronger. But over time, your strength will eventually plateau.” So what’s the key? “When that load becomes easier and you no longer reach muscular fatigue, it’s time to increase the load or the repetitions.”

How often should I do weight training for weight loss?

“The NHS physical activity guidelines say you should be doing two or more sessions of strength exercises a week that use all your major muscle groups,” says Strain.  

Mikuriya would recommend three to five sessions, of between 30 and 60 minutes each (depending on your fitness, health and goals). “But if sessions are frequent, the recovery factor is critical as well,” she says. If you’re working your muscles hard five times a week, they won’t have had time to recover between sessions, she explains. Your next workout will be sore and less efficient. Plus, you will be tired, which can lead to injury. “Listen to your body,” she urges.

The best weight-lifting routines for weight loss

“It is vital to train properly with weights, to prevent injury,” says Mikuriya. “For novices, I would suggest learning the proper techniques first with a certified personal trainer who can monitor and correct your form.” Weight and resistance exercises are counted in repetitions, or reps (one complete movement, like a single sit-up), and sets (a group of repetitions). A trainer will design a training programme, altering the number of reps and sets, as well as the intensity, according to your fitness and condition. 

There are ways to maximise the results of your workout, however. For example, you could sit on a bench and do the requisite sets of bicep curls, but Mikuriya would be more likely to suggest you do them while squatting. Using multiple muscle groups at once requires more oxygen and thus burns more calories in the short term. Pull-ups, push-ups, squats and deadlifts are good examples of these compound exercises. 

When it comes to building muscle, she would usually recommend around eight to 12 repetitions, sets of between two and six, and weights that are pushing you to around 75 to 85 per cent of the maximum you could possibly lift for one repetition. 

That said, “if you are doing heavier weights one day and want to go back to the gym the following day, switch things up so you are working with lower weights and more repetitions,” Mikuriya advises. Diversification is key, she suggests, for long-term motivation, health and results.

Those who have already embraced the resistance revolution should make sure they are mixing up their repertoire, while those who have been put off by its outdated reputation should rethink – fast. Mikuriya says: “I would always suggest mixing both weight training and cardio training for the most efficient and long-term weight-loss goals.”

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