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Lifting Weights To Lose Weight

Updated: Feb 11, 2019

A Tip from the Fitness Center at The Churchill School and Center


“If I want to lose body fat, why should I lift weights? My schedule doesn’t allow much

time to exercise, so shouldn’t I dedicate the little time I have just to cardiovascular

training?” I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked this question. Since most people who want to lose weight focus just on the calories they burn during their workouts, the common belief is that the more calories they burn at the gym, the more weight they will lose. And since cardiovascular training usually burns more calories than weight lifting, they think that focusing on the former would maximize their results. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way.


When at the end of the day we have burned more calories than the calories we have eaten, we have created a negative energy balance. While it’s true that the greater this negative energy balance is the more body fat we should lose, it’s important to point out that there are several ways we can achieve this balance… and some are more efficient than others.


If we significantly decrease the amount of calories we consume, we would achieve this negative energy balance rather quickly, but we may also be losing some muscle mass along with body fat. If instead we do a lot of cardiovascular training without lifting weights, we could achieve this negative balance as well, but (again) at the expense of our lean body mass. If our goal is to lose body fat and keep it off, we should pay attention to our muscle mass, because if we neglect to preserve it, we may find ourselves in a worse situation than we previously were. Let’s see how.


Although weight lifting may not directly burn as many calories as cardiovascular

training, it ends up burning the same and even more indirectly. By adding weight lifting exercises to our aerobic training routine, we can preserve (or even increase) our muscle mass, and this is critical for us if we want to maintain the body fat lost. The amount of calories our body burns in a 24-hour period is called basal metabolic rate (or simply, basal metabolism). This can take up to 70% of the total calories we burn, and is heavily affected by the amount of muscle mass: the more muscle mass we have, the more calories we burn throughout the day (even at rest). Since 1 pound of muscle mass roughly burns about 50 calories per day, if we lose muscle, we will limit our body’s ability to burn calories (and consequently fat). If we quickly do the math, a loss of 5 pounds of muscle mass would equal to 250 fewer calories burned in a day… an amount that takes good work to burn on a cardio machine, and can end up making a difference at the end of the week when we get on a scale.


When we lift weights we prevent our basal metabolism from decreasing, and this goes to have a positive effect on the negative caloric balance we were discussing above. Adding weight lifting to our training routine allows us to lose body fat more efficiently, because we won’t be affected by the decrease in basal metabolic rate we would experience by only doing cardiovascular workout or just dieting. Weight lifting can also help us stabilize our basal metabolism (and consequently maintain our muscle mass) when we are trying to lose weight only through nutrition. During a low-calorie diet, significant weight loss can occur. Without weight lifting, some muscle mass is lost together with body fat, which results in a reduction of the basal metabolism. This often ends up causing most of the body weight lost to come back, because of the reduced capacity of our body to burn calories throughout the day. Weight lifting while dieting can help prevent this.


In summary, burning calories at the gym is important, but we shouldn’t be obsessed with the amount of calories we burn in that hour, because it will not help us achieve our goals, unless we are willing to look at the whole picture and take in consideration all the factors that play a role in our weight-loss program. Following a balanced nutrition and performing aerobic training are very important to lose body fat. Eating right prevents us from wasting calories down the road (in addition to improving our overall health), and burning big chunks of calories on cardio machines helps us achieve our goal more efficiently (in addition to boosting our cardiovascular system). However, unless we integrate them with a balanced weight lifting program, we will more likely have problems keeping off those pounds of body fat we’ve lost, and will probably end up struggling to maintain our body weight where we want it to be without having to further restrict our caloric intake. This is mainly the reason why some people end up regaining those pounds lost, even if they seem to be eating less and less.


Maintaining muscle mass during and after weight loss should be an important component to any successful weight loss program, which is a combination of following a balanced nutrition, performing consistent aerobic exercise and implementing an organized weight lifting routine. To achieve optimal health and body weight, we need them all.


(These fitness tips are part of a monthly series)


Giacomo Cresti

NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist

The Churchill School and Center

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