Cardio workouts definitely have their place when it comes to weight loss, since you can burn a nice amount of calories in high-energy classes, on long runs or crushing it on the elliptical. But if you’re focusing on only cardio for meeting your weight-loss goals, you may be missing out on a major way to fuel your progress.
Increasingly, strength training is being recognized for its ability to help change body composition, including a boost to weight loss. Plus, you don’t always have to pick up weights to get there — there’s a huge variety of bodyweight exercises that essentially use gravity as resistance.
Why would working against resistance have such an effect? Here are three big reasons:
When you’re losing weight just through cardio, you tend to lose some muscle mass as well as fat, according to Noam Tamir, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of TS Fitness. That’s a problem, because for most people, lower muscle mass also means slower metabolic rate — essentially, you’re not burning calories as efficiently as possible. The more muscle mass you lose, the slower that rate can get. The result leads to a big risk of a weight-loss plateau.
Although cardio exercise can stimulate muscle growth to some degree, the effect isn’t as pronounced as it would be with strength training, Tamir notes. That matters, because as you increase your metabolic rate with higher muscle mass, your body burns more calories at rest.
So, for example, you could be sitting and watching TV but you’d likely be burning a few more calories if you’d been doing regular strength training.
In addition to increasing your metabolic rate, strength training forces your body to “injure” muscles to a minor degree, and then repair them during a 48-hour recovery period. Within that timeframe, you’ll be burning more calories to aid the repair process.
That’s why trainers tend to say you can burn a bunch of calories during cardio, but you can also burn calories for the 24–48-hour window of time after resistance training. This is known as the “afterburn effect.”
Since you can’t spot reduce when it comes to fat, you’d think focusing on calorie burn overall — instead of method — wouldn’t matter when it comes to lowering belly fat. Why would a weight-training session be better than a Zumba class, if the calorie burn total is the same? And yet, it is.
In a study comparing different forms of activity, researchers looked at more than 10,000 men over a period of 12 years. They found that compared to aerobic exercise, weight training had the strongest association with lowered belly fat.
Best of all might be a combination of high-intensity resistance training with moderate-intensity cardio, according to another study that found higher levels of belly fat loss among participants who took that approach.
In general, mixing strength training into your workout can be a boon to your weight-loss goals, especially if you do both cardio and resistance exercises. More good news: You don’t need to lift heavy, either. A recent study noted that lighter weights done with more reps can get you just as much muscle growth as heavier weights with fewer reps.
If you’re already at your goal weight, there are tons of great reasons strength training matters for you, too — from increasing mobility to bone density to lowering the risk of chronic disease.
Whether you opt for bodyweight exercises, lifting weights or a combination of the two, don’t skip the opportunity to benefit from expanding your workout options.