Women tell me all the time ‘I want to look toned not bulky’. Every time I talk to my mom on the phone she brings up my muscles and tells me to cut back on lifting. She believes that my body will morph into looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Mr. Olympia days but on a smaller scale. ;)
Instead she tells me to do yoga because it’ll stretch out my muscles and keep me petite like my sister. Becoming bulky like a man is my mom’s greatest fear for me.
In response (and my defense!), I go down my list of why strength training is important.
I don't think guys have the same conversations with their moms about why they lift weights because it’s normal for guys to want to get big and strong but not women.
To even begin to look like a bodybuilder takes years of dedication, strict dieting, and the INTENT to train like one. These people dedicate their entire lives to bodybuilding and there is no way that you will turn into one by lifting heavy.
Why Strength Training Is Fat Loss Training
But if you want to lose fat, sculpt your body, and dream about the day when you get to eat your cake without adding to your waist line then strength training is for you.
Let’s look at some sample subjects to show you what strength training can do.
Subject A – John
% Body fat and BF mass - 25%; 46 lb
% Lean muscle and muscle mass - 75%; 139 lb
Subject B – Jenny
% Body fat and BF mass - 30%; 39 lb
% Lean muscle and muscle mass - 70%; 91 lb
Both John and Jenny get on a strength training program and lift weights 3X/week. Over the course of a year they get strong and pack on muscle through hypertrophy training.
They both gain 10 pounds of muscle while their weight remains the same which means they will have lost close to 10lbs of fat.
At the end of the year John will have added on 10lbs of muscle reducing his bodyfat from 25% to 19% while Jenny’s bodyfat changed from 30% to 22%.
Since muscle is denser than fat and takes up less space they both will have shrunk and toned up considerably in the right areas.
To give you a visual of what this looks like below is a DEXA scan borrowed from strength coach Bret Contreras,
The yellow color indicates subcutaneous fat while red is muscle. Over the course of a year you can see that the yellow is reduced and the body composition shifts from having more fat to less fat and more muscle.
The power of strength training over cardio workouts.
With just cardio and proper dieting you will be able to lose weight but you'll lose muscle mass too. You become a smaller identical version of yourself and the DEXA scan will show that after all that work you will still look like the picture on the left with possibly even with MORE subcutaneous fat because of lost muscle.
Losing muscle mass lowers your metabolism. When you get off your diet it’s back to gaining back the pounds you've lost. Your body’s metabolic engine cannot handle the extra intake of energy off diet because it shrank and instead stores the extra calories in the form of fat.
Building and maintaining muscles is very costly calorie wise
For every pound of muscle you carry you will burn an additional 6-10 calories daily compared to 2-3 calories for fat. And lifting heavy weights is the quickest way to build strength while burning lots of calories leading to fat loss.
Brett Jones, a SFG strength coach, once said,
“Absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. The bigger the glass, the more of everything else you can do.”
As your strength goes up, you can lift more, and everything else can be expanded.
When you lift heavy your entire system has to gather up the resources, adapt to move the weight and recover from the effort. It’s taxing on your entire body. This is why when you lift you can afford to cheat here and there with your diet and not have the scale go up on Monday.
Who do you want to look like?
Strength training alters the body in different ways for everyone and depending on your diet and intensity of your workouts you may gain, lose or maintain your weight. But the point is that you’ll have more muscle than when you started. You will have more tone, shape and firmness on your body with strength training.
One of the comparisons I like to make is between sprinters and marathon runners. Both are runners but run different distances.A sprinter needs to generate explosive power and speed. Their workouts include being able to move heavy weights as fast as possible and they develop lean, densely-muscled bodies because of lifting.
While a marathon runner focuses on a running program for endurance to build a more efficient cardiovascular system and they tend to develop a more lithe, gangly type of body.
Both are runners but their bodies developed differently based on how they trained.
Cardio vs Strength Training - My Own Case Study
Below are pictures of myself in college compared to 2015.
Back in the day I had no clue about strength training so what I did for exercise instead was just lots of cardio. I was part of a swimming and running team and put in 3 hours of practice 5 days a week when it was in season.
I hadn't made the connection between lifting and lean muscle development so as my sister would say I looked a little "scrawny and bony" back in the day. I had the distance runner's body.
Fast forward 10 years later when I figured out how to lift and program design, I am 15lbs heavier, my bodyfat is the lowest it's ever been and I have never been stronger.
In college I could maybe do 1 pullup but today I can do 13 consecutive ones. I've worked my way up to do double kettlebell swings with over half my bodyweight.
I still eat just as much as I did in my younger years but my body would not have been able to handle those calories. Honestly, I would be carrying a tire aroundmy waist right now if I wasn’t lifting because of my appetite and love of food.
Heavy weight lifting allows me to eat a little extra because my muscles can burn it off.
So should you give up cardio and lift iron?
If you love cardio, I say keep doing what you love because moving and exercising is what's important.
But if you want to tone and transform your body, reduce your body fat and still be able to eat that extra slice or two of chocolate cake without your waistline expanding then you need to add lifting to your routine. It's the only way to achieve that lean, toned look of celebrities and people you admire on Instagram and in the gym.