Strength training, also known as resistance training, is an important element of your physical activity plan and is a great tool to support healthy weight loss. Known as any activity by which you are placing resistance on your muscles, strength training allows you to burn more fat while building and shaping your body. It includes exercises such as push-ups and lunges, or the use of resistance bands, dumbbells, weight machines, or barbells.
“Strength training helps you build more lean muscle tissue and turn your body into a ‘fat-burning machine’,” explains Emily Weaver, BSN, RN, AGPCNP, nurse practitioner at True You Weight Loss. “With more lean muscle, your body needs more energy to sustain. Therefore, you can burn more calories by having more muscle.”
A study performed by Wake Forest University in 2017 suggests that “combining weight training with a low-calorie diet preserves much needed lean muscle mass that can be lost through aerobic workouts.” And for older adults, strength training was shown to be the best option for weight loss success. Other benefits of strength training include the prevention of osteoporosis, slowed or less painful arthritis, a decreased risk of heart disease, better blood sugar levels, reduced stress and anxiety, reduced depression, and less limitations when it comes to daily activities.
According to Weaver, strength training should be done for a minimum of two days per week. Rather than focusing on individual muscle groups for each workout, Weaver touts the effectiveness of a total body strength training routine that hits all the major muscle groups multiple times per week (i.e. shoulders, back, biceps, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, and quads). In general, eight to 12 repetitions is a great place to start for beginners, and when the last rep feels almost impossible, you know that you are adequately challenging yourself. When it comes to “graduating” to a tougher workout, Weaver says your body will let you know when you’re ready.
“Your body and brain will let you know when your muscles have adapted to the level of tension you are giving them. When your routine becomes too easy, challenge yourself again by adding more reps or increasing the amount of weight that you are lifting.”
Weaver reminds us that strength training shouldn’t really be used to address your body’s “problem areas,” since nutrition is really the key to losing weight. Instead, resistance training builds strength and muscle mass, and your disciplined diet is what will help reduce the fat that’s sitting on top of the muscles you’re building. The combination of both strength training and diet will deliver the best overall results or weight loss and toning.
To be successful at strength training, you need sufficient protein in your diet to maintain and build more lean muscle. In doing so, you will essentially be able to increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and burn more body fat. Your BMR is the minimum number of calories your body needs to function while at rest. The energy that your body requires to sustain lean muscle tissue is more than the energy needed to sustain fat tissue—in other words, muscle burns many more calories than fat does.
With such a big role to play in strength training success, it’s important to understand how protein fits into your diet. Protein is made up of amino acids that help maintain muscle tissue. It also helps you recover after a workout and gives your muscles what they need to repair and grow. Healthy food choices that contain large amounts of protein include eggs, salmon, chicken, Greek yogurt, tuna fish, cottage cheese, and beans. The more rigorous your workout routine, the more protein you should be eating if you want to see optimal results. For specific amounts, consult with your dietitian for advice. He or she will analyze your level of activity and recommend the correct daily serving of protein that should be included your diet.
If you’re not sure how to get started, Weaver recommends enlisting some help. While an in-person personal trainer is highly effective, it’s simply not affordable for everyone. Instead, Weaver says there are hundreds of great resources and free training videos on YouTube (simply search for basic strength training routines), and there are also plenty of virtual personal trainers, which may be a more affordable option. Bodybuilding.com also has affordable plans to help you learn the basics of strength training. Getting help when you first start strength training can ensure you’ve got the right form and technique, and can help guide you on when it might be time to change things up.
“The biggest mistake you can make when strength training is not focusing on your form or not working on getting progressively stronger,” explains Weaver. “Using the same 10-pound weights for two years will not be effective. Keep challenging yourself by adding more weight and trying new things.”
While maintaining a consistent strength training routine is important, it’s also important to beware of overtraining. “Overdoing it with strength training can be harmful to your health and weight loss goals,” explains Weaver. “Even if you think you feel great, your body could be under a great deal of stress, so be sure not to go overboard.”
Active recovery from strength training involves giving your body one day per week to rest and recover. On your day off, take a light walk or add in some flexibility training, such as stretching or light yoga. Getting a good night’s sleep is also essential for the recovery process. These are good ways to quiet down your stress hormones while allowing your body to recuperate and prepare for its next training session.