While cardio used to be many’s go-to for getting fit, people have increasingly turned to weight training for weight loss. ‘Social media has helped women break free from the old cardio indoctrination,’ Joy Cox, PhD, a body-justice advocate and weight-stigma researcher at Rutgers University, previously told WH. ‘Everyone is sharing their own narrative, and you see a lot of people with different experiences and different bodies doing all sorts of feats.’
With tons of fitness influencers and trainers sharing workouts on Instagram and TikTok, it’s easier than ever to get the #fitspo you need to switch up your routine. Plus, there’s evidence to support that lifting weights does more than build muscle.
‘For those desiring weight loss, there is ample evidence that various types of strength-training programs can assist with fat loss, such as using free weights and circuit training,’ says Kerry Ann Madden, NASM-CPT, owner of KAM Fitness and Nutrition. It also does wonders for your bones and body composition.
Best of all, you don’t even need to go to the gym to get started. With a little extra space and a set of dumbbells, you can start setting and achieving brand new personal bests in no time.
But that doesn’t mean you should completely quit cardio. ‘Cardio exercise has numerous benefits, including improved endurance in everyday activities as well as the prevention and potential reversal of many chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes,’ says Madden. ‘As with strength training, a different emphasis in your program can develop the desired improvement. A moderately brisk walk, intense intervals on a machine, and an endurance ride at your favourite spin studio are a few examples.’
Meet the experts: Joy Cox, PhD, is a body-justice advocate and weight-stigma researcher at Rutgers University. Kerry Ann Madden, NASM-CPT, is the owner of KAM Fitness and Nutrition. Stacy Sims, PhD, is a senior research associate with SPRINZ- AUT University.
Ready to dive in? Here’s everything you need to know about weight training for weight loss, from how it works to how to get started.
Why weight training is key for weight loss
While cardio has plenty of benefits, lifting weights can help build muscle, strengthen your bones, and more, says exercise physiologist Stacy Sims, PhD. Older theories behind losing weight emphasised doing lots of cardio and delaying meals. With this kind of plan, your body’s cortisol level—a stress hormone that regulates your metabolism—skyrockets. But in reality, this strategy often backfires and makes people put on weight.
‘With resistance training, you’re actually building the muscle tissue, and it’s not quite as taxing,’ says Sims. ‘So you don’t get that cortisol bump.’ The result? A powerful workout that actually changes your body composition.
Over time, lifting weights also makes your muscles more efficient. This is one reason why you may have heard that weightlifters eat a lot, according to Sims: ‘Because their muscles are like, “Great, I can use this, I’m going to do it.”‘ Your muscles are working overtime, so they need all the fuel they can get.
But why focus on building muscle mass, anyway? At the beginning, Sims says, you may not actually notice significant weight loss. ‘You’ll start noticing a change in your clothes, you’ll start feeling fitter, you’ll start looking toner—but the weight on the scale might not change,’ she explains.
That’s because your body composition is changing. You’re losing fat while building muscle mass. Muscles are incredibly dense, according to Sims, because they’re packed with lots of different elements that help move your metabolism along.
So, if the number on the scale doesn’t change right away, don’t give up—keep going.
6 tips to build a weight training routine for weight loss
- Assess your mobility. Before you pick up any weights, it’s a good idea to understand what your body’s mobility and stability looks like, according to Alex Silver-Fagan, CPT, RYT, a Nike master trainer and the creator of Flow Into Strong. Try hanging on a bar, holding a plank, or sitting in a squat. ‘If you can’t hold your body in those places, I wouldn’t add load to those movements,’ she says. Keep working at your tough-for-you exercises with your body weight until you feel more in control.
- Master the basics. There are four functional moves you should be able to conquer before starting your weight training routine, Silver-Fagan adds: squat, push-up, deadlift, and horizontal or overhead row. Having these under your belt will help prevent injuries in the future. Not sure how your form stacks up? Consider working with a trainer for even just a few sessions (virtual or IRL) for feedback and guidance.
- Gather your equipment. To start, Silver-Fagan suggests finding three sets of dumbbells: a light, medium, and heavy pair. Usually, these sets only need to be 2 to 4 KG apart (unless a trainer says otherwise). You should be able to easily lift the lightest ones with little to no effort, while the heavy ones should be tougher. Sometimes, even your own body weight can be enough, she adds—start where you’re most comfortable. If you’re not sure what a good starting point is for you with how light or heavy your weights should be, Madden suggests this technique: Choose one that feels medium-light to you and perform 12 of these foundation movements: squats, presses, rows, lunges, and deadlifts (with perfect form). ‘Next, ask yourself, “Could I have done more than 12?” If yes, that weight is a great starting point for stabilisation endurance training,’ she says.
- Don’t ditch cardio. If you’re not currently exercising or have been taking a break for a while, you should start with one day of strength training and another of cardio. ‘Exercise will create positive changes in your body that may take 4-6 weeks to feel,’ Madden says. ‘From there, you can increase to 3 days of weight training and 4 days of cardio if your body is loving it. Learning your perfect plan is part of the fun!’
- Eat plenty of protein. Protein contains amino acids, which are what actually help build up your muscles, Sims says. They also ‘keep signalling your body to build the lean mass and lose the body fat,’ she explains. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating at least 0.35 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day if you’re sedentary. But if you’re active and looking to build muscle and lower your body fat percentage, aim for more like 0.73 grams of protein per pound of body weight, per the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
- Listen to your body. Pay attention to how you’re feeling while lifting weights. ‘There’s a difference between pain and discomfort,’ Silver-Fagan notes. ‘If something is painful, then you should be backing off. If something’s uncomfortable, you have to ask yourself, “Is this because I haven’t done it? Is it hard?”‘ Plus, remember that you can always take a break in between reps.
Sample weight training plan
Don’t stress about how much or when to lift. These three workouts are easy to fit into your current fitness routine.
Equipment: Hand weights or dumbbells
Best for: Total-body strength
Instructions: Do each of these three workouts once a week for four weeks. Each new week, try to either use a heavier weight or do more reps, Silver-Fagan suggests. Combine with one to two cardio days (jogging, walking, rower, cycling, Tabata, HIIT—whatever you enjoy that gets your heart rate up!), one to two yoga days, and a rest day for the best results. She also recommends warming up by moving through the exercises without weights first.
- Monday: Workout 1
- Tuesday: Cardio
- Wednesday: Workout 2
- Thursday: Cardio or yoga (choose one)
- Friday: Cardio or yoga (choose one)
- Saturday: Workout 3
- Sunday: Rest
Complete five sets total of these two exercises.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a weight vertically in front of chest, elbows pointing toward the floor.
- Push hips back and bend knees to lower into a squat.
- Drive through heels to stand back up to starting position. That’s 1 rep. Complete three to five reps with a heavy weight.
- With a dumbbell in each hand and feet under hips, hinge at hips with knees slightly bent and arms just in front of legs.
- Drive one elbow back toward hips, feeling shoulder blades squeeze together, pulling weight toward side body.
- Slowly lower weight back down, then repeat with other arm. That’s 1 rep. Complete three to five reps with a medium-heavy weight.
Complete four sets total of the following three exercises.
- Holding a weight at chest or dumbbells at each side, stand up straight with feet hip-width apart.
- Take a large step to the right, sit hips back, and lower down until right knee is nearly parallel with the floor. Your left leg should be straight.
- Return to start. That’s 1 rep. Complete 10 reps on each side.
- Place two dumbbells on the floor shoulder width apart. Assume a plank position with feet wider than shoulder-distance apart. Grasp the dumbbells so hands are elevated off the floor, maintaining a neutral wrist position.
- Drive left arm through the dumbbell into the floor, brace entire body, and row the right dumbbell up and to the side of rib cage—your elbow should be pointed up and back.
- Keep your body stable as you slowly lower the dumbbell back to the floor. Then repeat on the other side. That’s 1 rep. Complete 12 alternating reps with a medium weight.
- Sit on floor with legs together out in front of you, knees bent. Hold a dumbbell or medicine ball for added challenge. Lean back slightly so your torso and legs form a V-like shape, bracing abdominals.
- Twist torso from one side, then the other, without moving legs. That’s 1 rep. Complete 16 reps.
Complete five sets total of the next two exercises.
- Stand with feet shoulder-distance apart, with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Hinge at hips and lower torso, with a slight bend in knees, until torso is parallel to floor (or as far as you can without your spine rounding). Keep spine neutral by looking forward, not up.
- Keep shoulders back and engage glutes and core as you drive through lower body to stand up straight. That’s 1 rep.
- Pause for a moment at the top, then slowly lower back down into next rep. Complete three to five reps with a heavy weight.
- Lie flat on back, or on a bench, with feet flat on the ground. With a dumbbell in each hand, extend arms directly over shoulders, palms facing toward feet.
- Squeeze shoulder blades together and slowly bend elbows, lowering the weights out to the side, parallel with shoulders, until elbows form 90-degree angles.
- Slowly drive the dumbbells back up to start, squeezing shoulder blades the entire time. That’s 1 rep. Complete three to five reps with a medium-heavy weight.
Complete four sets total of the next three exercises.
- Hold a kettlebell with both hands using an overhand grip and stand with feet hip-width apart. Push hips back, knees slightly bent, and lower butt and chest and bring the weight slightly in front of feet.
- Keeping core tight, drive hips forward to accelerate the kettlebell up to shoulder height.
- Reverse the movement, lowering the weight back between your legs. That’s 1 rep. Complete 10 reps.
Split stance shoulder press
- Grab a pair of dumbbells or a resistance band. Stagger stance into a wide step, one foot forward and one back with hips squared, and hold the weights or band just above shoulders, elbows close to sides.
- Leaning forward ever so slightly, bend both knees, and press through front heel while simultaneously lifting the weights or band to the sky, keeping elbows forward and arms in line with your ears.
- Lower weights or band back to shoulders. That’s 1 rep. Do 10 reps, alternating side for each set.
Turkish get up
- Lie face-up with kettlebell in left hand resting in front of shoulder. Bend left leg, placing foot flat on floor. Stretch out right arm and leg to the side at a 45-degree angle.
- Get a good grip on handle and press weight up toward ceiling, locking out elbow completely and keeping gaze on kettlebell.
- With eyes still on bell overhead, rise onto right forearm, then push into palm of right hand to sit up straight. Engage abs, then push through left heel and squeeze glutes to lift hips and step right leg behind into lunge, so right knee is down and left thigh is parallel to floor. (Note: You can stop at this step to modify the move.)
- Brace core and drive through glutes to stand if you can.
- Reverse the steps until you are lying on the floor again. That’s 1 rep. Complete five reps with a medium weight on each side.
Complete three sets total of the next two exercises.
- Stand with both feet under hips. Shift weight to right leg, which should be straight with a soft bend in the knee.
- Begin to drive left foot back like you’re stamping the bottom of your foot on the wall behind you, keeping leg straight. Simultaneously, slowly start hinging at the waist, tipping torso forward until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Keep your arms straight, at shoulder height, and perpendicular to the floor.
- At the bottom of the position, your body should be in a straight line from the top of head to the bottom of left foot.
- Then, begin pulling left leg forward while keeping it straight, and lift your torso up until you’re standing again.That’s 1 rep. Complete 10 reps with a medium weight.
Kneeling chest press to tricep extension
- Start kneeling with knees slightly wider than hip-distance apart.
- Hold a dumbbell in both hands and extend arms straight out in front of chest.
- Bend at elbows to pull dumbbell toward chest, then press arms back out to straight.
- Next, raise the dumbbell up overhead, and bend at elbows to lower weight behind head.
- Finally, extend elbows to press dumbbell back up overhead and reverse the movement to return to starting position. That’s 1 rep. Complete 12 reps with a medium weight.
Complete four sets total of the next three exercises.
Squat to overhead press with rotation
- Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart and engage core. Rack weights at shoulders.
- Lower into a squat.
- Once you’ve lowered as your mobility will allow (ideally, thighs will be parallel to the floor), drive through heels to return to standing.
- As you come up, push the weights overhead, keeping your knees soft, and rotate torso simultaneously.
- That’s 1 rep. Complete ten reps with a medium weight.
Alternating reverse lunge to bicep curl
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at arm’s length next to sides, palms facing each other. Stand tall with feet hip-width apart.
- Step backward with right leg and lower body until front knee is bent 90 degrees. At the same time as you lunge, curl both dumbbells up to shoulders.
- Lower the dumbbells as you return to the starting position. Step back with the other leg and repeat.That’s 1 rep. Complete 12 reps with a medium weight.
- Start in a lunge with both knees at 90-degree angles. Hold a dumbbell or medicine ball in both hands.
- Rotate upper body slightly and extend arms so you’re holding weight toward one side of body. Forcefully, but with control, swing the weight over head in an arch or rainbow shape, until you reach the same position on the opposite side of body.
- Bring weight back to starting position. That’s 1 rep. Complete 16 reps with a medium weight on one side, then switch.
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