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Strength Training to Lose Weight: 4 Science-Backed Tips

Why resistance training is an integral part of shifting body composition. 

Woman performing strength training during weight loss to improve body composition

It’s easy to equate weight loss with hours spent sweating through cardio, whether that’s running, spinning, cycling, or swimming. But according to a 2021 systematic review published in the journal Sports Medicine, you may see more noticeable results when you include strength training to lose weight. Strength training helps you to build more lean muscle mass and can reduce body fat percentage, total fat mass, and visceral fat (the type of fat that surrounds your organs). That’s without even adding cardio to the mix. 

For starters, building more lean mass via strength training may result in small increases in your resting metabolic rate (RMR), or how many calories you burn while doing literally nothing, like sitting here reading this article. In fact, resistance training was found to be more effective than aerobic exercise at increasing RMR  in a 2020 review of 18 studies published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. Plus, the strain you put on your muscles during resistance training by lifting, pushing, or pulling can spur changes on the cellular level that start to break down fat for energy, based on a 2021 study published in The FASEB Journal.

If you’re looking to shift your body composition, strength training is essential to reaching your goal. Here’s how to leverage strength training for weight loss  the healthy way.

1. Strength train at least two times per week. 

People tend to think that more is better when it comes to exercise and weight loss. But lifting weights for just one to two hours per week may significantly reduce obesity risk, a 2021 study published in PLOS Medicine found. There were also no major differences between women who performed resistance training either two or three times a week, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The most likely reason you don’t need to go hard every day is strength training’s effect on metabolism, says Matthew Olesiak, M.D., the Chief Medical Director at SANESolution

“Studies suggest that strength training increases resting metabolic rate (RMR)—the number of calories burned at rest—for up to 24 hours after an exercise session,” Olesiak explains. “As RMR comprises an estimated 70 percent of daily energy expenditure, it’s easy to see how consistent strength training—even as little as twice a week—can reduce weight gain.” This won’t happen overnight, as consistency is key to capitalizing on this added energy expenditure in your RMR.  

infographic for strength training during weight loss with the following information: 2x - Strength train at least two times per week

2. Challenge yourself consistently. 

Strength training operates on the principle of progressive overload. That’s when you gradually increase the weight, frequency, or number of repetitions in your strength training routine. 

“Progressive overload is very important because it’s the only way to increase strength and muscle mass,” says Keith Hodges, a certified personal trainer and founder of Mind In Muscle Coaching. Progressive overload utilizes the SAID (Specific Adaptation of Implied Demands) principle of fitness which suggests that when you start lifting at a certain weight, over time, your body adapts to that weight, and you need to consistently and systematically increase the demand to make progress.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to keep adding weight every session because that can potentially lead to injury, says Hodges. Instead, there are a variety of ways you can accomplish progressive overload: increasing resistance, reps, overall volume, training frequency, total time under tension, adding tempo training, or even decreasing rest periods. Plus, Tonal does the work for you by increasing your suggested weight when you’re getting stronger and expertly building progressive overload into hundreds of coach-led programs.

3. Vary your programming.

Your body is very smart. The more you do a certain type of exercise, the more efficient you get at doing it. And the more efficient your body gets, the fewer calories it needs to burn to do something, explains Olesiak. Variation is a key factor in keeping your body working hard and keeping you motivated to continue exercising. 

That’s why you wouldn’t rely only on strength training for weight loss. Health experts recommend 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity and two to three strength sessions per week. 

Plugging in cardio workouts is an easy way to break up lifting days and still work toward your weight loss goals. And just like you vary your strength training workouts by focusing on different muscle groups or different goals (i.e. power and explosiveness versus strength and endurance) try switching up your cross-training and the intensity to keep challenging yourself. Tonal offers a vast array of options with over 300 exercises and hundreds of easy-to-follow workouts and programs. In addition to strength training content, you’ll find options for high-intensity interval training, cardio, mobility, barre, yoga, Pilates, dance, boxing, kickboxing, boot camp, pre- and postnatal, recovery, meditation, and more.

4. Find a healthy calorie deficit and eat enough protein.

At the end of the day, weight loss is an equation: You want to burn more energy than you consume. Of course, it’s not quite that simple or it would be easier, but in general, calories in need to be less than calories out. There is a multitude of ways to accomplish a calorie deficit so the goal is to find one that works for you and your lifestyle. 

The best way to do this is slow and steady, not in big drastic changes. People who lose weight gradually and steadily (about one to two pounds per week) are more successful at keeping weight off, according to the CDC. So what you shouldn’t do is overly restrict your calories to stimulate faster weight loss. 

The benefit of including strength training to lose weight is that it preserves lean muscle mass while you reduce your total calorie intake. If you were to only reduce calories and increase cardio, you might see a reduction in muscle mass. In a study published in the journal Obesity, participants who combined a low-calorie diet and weight training lost more body fat than those who combined a low-calorie diet and walking workouts.

Plus, what you eat during a calorie deficit is just as important as the number of total calories you consume. A 2016 study showed that eating 2.4g/kg (~1.1 grams per pound of body weight) of protein compared to 1.2g/kg for four weeks while resistance training and in a calorie deficit resulted in not only more fat loss but also an increase in lean body mass. Additional research supports that keeping a high protein intake (via high-protein meals) is key when you’re in a calorie deficit to minimize lean muscle mass loss.

Overall, there is no magic bullet for weight loss, but strength training is one of the most scientifically-backed methods that can encourage changes in your overall body composition. The key is to approach your goal with a healthy mindset and healthy habits in order to find sustainable success.