I’ve been a regular weight lifter for almost 20 years and have helped female professionals in companies such as Lyft, Uber, and Salesforce go from skinny fat to fit for the past 4 years.
The most common body goal they request when they hire me?
Fat loss and look more toned.
Women tell me all the time ‘I want to look toned but not bulky’.
Every time I talk to my mom on the phone she tells me to cut back on lifting. She believes that my body will morph into looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Mr. Olympia days and I’ll look like a man.
In response (and my defense!), I go down my list of why strength training is important and why it's important for fat loss.
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.
Why Strength Training Is Fat Loss Training
Let’s look at some sample subjects to show you what strength training can do for you and for fat loss.
Subject A – Before and After
Weight - 181 lb
% Body fat and BF mass - 45%; 81 lb
% Lean muscle and muscle mass -55%; 100 lb
Subject B – Before and After
Weight - 145 lb
% Body fat and BF mass - 30%; 44 lb
% Lean muscle and muscle mass - 70%;102 lb
Both Subject A and Subject B start from different points but get on a strength training program and consistently lift weights 3X/week. Over the course of a year they get stronger and build lean muscle mass.
Since muscle is denser than fat and takes up less space they both will have shrunk and toned up considerably in the right areas.
Your Transformation - Comparing Fat Loss With Cardio Versus Weight Training
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.
With a regular weight lifting routine you’ll have more muscle, feel stronger, look leaner, and more firm than if you were just doing cardio.
One of the comparisons I like to make for a cardio body versus a weight lifting body 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.
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.
If you’re wondering whether you should lift weights or not ask yourself what kind of body do you want?
Do you want a smaller version of yourself? Then do cardio.
Do you want a leaner, stronger, more toned version of yourself? Then include weight lifting in your routine.
My Transformation - Cardio Versus Lifting For Fat Loss
Many women overlook weight lifting as an essential to fat loss because they think cardio is enough to burn fat.
I get it.
I was one of them in my younger years.
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 daily practice and even more outside of practice.
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.
Fast forward years later after hiring multiple trainers I figured out how to lift and eat properly so that my body responds to training. 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 and over 200 push ups. 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 around my 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.
Long Term Fat Loss Benefits From Strength Training
You can lose weight with doing just cardio and dieting but you become a smaller identical version of yourself.
Internally a DEXA bodyfat scan will show that after all that work you will still look like the body on the far left with possibly even with MORE subcutaneous fat because of lost muscle. The yellow color indicates subcutaneous fat while red is muscle.
Losing muscle mass lowers your metabolism.
This is why majority of women start gaining back the pounds they’ve lost when they go back to eating their regular diet. Their body’s metabolism has slowed down and the extra calories from eating means fat storage.
Eat Cake Without It Sticking To Your Waistline
The average person unknowingly gains about 3-5 pounds every year and as we get older we tend to become more sedentary which contributes to weight gain.
Inactivity compounded by age-related muscle loss causes us to naturally put on weight.
What if you can eat more, but still stay the same size?
With strength training, you can. In fact, lifting weights helps you to maintain your current lean muscle mass and build more as well.
For every pound of muscle you carry you will burn an additional 6-10 calories daily compared to burning 2-3 calories for a pound of fat. And lifting heavy weights is the quickest way to build strength while burning lots of calories leading to fat loss.
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.
Weight lifting also comes with a greater afterburn effect than certain types of cardio because of muscle recovery, repair, and growth. As your strength goes up, you build and breakdown more muscle costing you more calories after your strength training workout.
Improve Your Long Term Quality Of Life
For women retaining muscle mass is vital to your quality of life.
We have a hormone called estrogen that plays a role in helping to maintain your bone density. Starting at age 35 our bone mass starts decreasing leading to an increased risk of developing osteoporosis which can go undetected until a bone fracture happens.
After menopause, bone loss accelerates increasing the risk of weakened and brittle bones. During the first five to ten years of menopause women can lose up to 25 to 30% of bone density.
Of all the different types of exercises you can do strength training has the greatest impact on bone density and maintenance .
Regular weight lifting build stronger bones to help you to live independently for as long as possible.
Growing old is an inevitable part of life but we can choose whether we allow life to take its toll on us or whether we will grow stronger physically and mentally each year.
Even if we initially strength train for fat loss and to look better your future you will remain healthier and younger too.
We don’t put much thought into how well our bodies function till we’re injured, grow old, or can no longer perform certain activities.
Weight lifting is great for long term fat loss because it preserves and builds muscles that are important for your posture, for making everyday tasks easier and making everyday movements easy.
Having healthy muscles gives you the ability to get up and down the stairs with ease.
You can pick things up without hurting your back and carry your suitcase up several flights of stairs on your vacation in Italy.
You can pack up and move houses easily because you have the strength and ability to do it.
Incorporating a regular strength training routine makes your life easier outside of the gym. It gives you the strength and ability to take care of yourself for decades to come. And when you have this freedom of health, you instantly have a better quality of life.
“Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
- Bronnie Ware
Program Your Body For Fat Loss By Changing How Much You Eat
To lose fat eating healthy is not enough.
Starting a diet that you only stick with for 6 weeks is not enough to lose fat.
Doing a juice cleanse or cutting out carbs is not enough is not enough for fat loss.
Fat loss takes time and must be done under a caloric deficit. You achieve a caloric deficit when you eat fewer calories than your body needs to function.
It’s that simple.
Check out the chart below to give you an idea of how long it’ll take you lose body fat from where you’re starting,
If you pull out the calculator and calculate how many weeks it’ll take you add an additional few weeks to your calculation because fat loss is never linear.
Life is not a systematic routine every day so you have to take account life – those happy hours, birthday dinners, work dinners, travel, weekend BBQs etc that will take you longer than expected to lose fat.
Curious about how many calories you burn? Use a calorie calculator. This is one of my go resources for fat loss and figuring out how many calories to eat.
Don’t worry about meal timing, protein shakes, vitamin supplements, fat loss supplements and all the hype that companies are trying to sell you. Focus on getting to know how many calories you’re burning on a daily basis and cut out 10% of those calories from your diet to start losing fat.
Want the exact details of how to customize your macros for you to expedite fat loss? Check out Nutrition 102 – Macros To Go From Skinny Fat To Fit.
How To Set Up A Strength Training Routine For Fat Loss
There are many effective fat loss programs out there but if your nutrition is not aligned with your fat loss goals then you need to work that out first because you can eat more calories faster than you can burn them.
You must make time and space for tracking your calories, meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking in order to tackle fat loss. Neglecting your nutrition will bring you subpar or no results and lots of frustration because you’re not seeing results.
There are 3 components to an effective fat loss routine,
- Weight Lifting – 3X a week
- Metabolic Resistance Training – 2 to 3X a week
- Moderate Intensity Cardio – 2X week
Does this mean that you’re exercising 7 days a week? Nope.
You can double up on the different fat loss components like do weight lifting and moderate intensity cardio at the end or do metabolic resistance training and moderate intensity cardio the same day but at different time.
#1 Weight Lifting
The reps and sets for weight lifting will differ based on your skill level and age. The more advanced you are the heavier you can lift for lower reps and higher sets because you’re stronger, and you’re able to recover to do that much volume.
As a rule of thumb, beginners should stick with a higher rep scheme like 10 to 12 reps to learn the movement pattern, build the mind body connection, and understand what it’s like to ‘feel’ the muscle working.
To build an effective fat loss workout follow the strength training rules below,
- Compound Exercises
Focus on mastering the big 5 fundamental movements in every workout. No matter what your goal is compound exercises are the best exercises to incorporate into any workout. They involve multiple muscle groups, multiple joints, and burn the most calories compared to isolated muscle work.
- Get Stronger
The afterburn effect from weight lifting comes from tearing down your muscles and repair and recovery outside of the gym. The stronger you are the more you can lift and the more pronounced this afterburn effect because it takes more energy out of you.
A stronger you equals better performance for metabolic resistance training so that you can perform it faster and more intensely to burn more calories for fat loss.
Get stronger by lifting more weight and following the progressive overload rule of always trying to lift more weight every week so that you’ll expedite fat loss.
- Build The Mind Body Connection
Many times when people lift weights they are simply going through the motions and not paying attention to what they’re doing. These are the people who are wasting their time in the gym because they aren’t feeling the right muscles working and they aren’t targeting the right muscle group for that exercise either.
Ensure proper muscle activation every time you perform an exercise. Focus on building that mind-muscle connection so that you feel your muscles contract and relax when you want them to. Proper muscle activation is a game changer because if you cannot feel your muscles working, it’s not going to grow.
Below is are two great beginner fat loss workouts for you start with,
Finish A1 through A5 for 1 set before repeating for a total of 3 sets of A1 through A5. Rest between 30 to 45 seconds between exercises and make sure you're always challenged.
Get more details on maximizing your strength training workouts by following the 5 Rules For Lifting.
#2 Metabolic Resistance Training
MRT is also known as HIIT training AKA high intensity interval training.
HIIT is different from just running or bicycling or swimming in that during the workout you’re switching from high intensity work and low intensity work. You allot a certain amount of time to ‘work’ and a certain amount of time to ‘rest’.
For women who despise cardio like me HIIT is the way to go because you can get an effective fat loss workout in under 20 minutes without slogging away on a machine. Before you attempt a HIIT workout keep the following tips in mind,
- You must be hitting at a RPE (rate of perceived exertion) of at least a 7 or 8 to reap the benefits. Anything below and you’re not getting your heartrate up high enough to justify the cardiovascular and fat loss benefits in doing a shorter but more intense cardio workout.
- Take into account your skill level. It’s easy to pick out a HIIT workout and call it good without thinking about the exercise involved. If there are exercises in the workout that are beyond your skill level please pick different HIIT workout. Due to the intensity of a HIIT workout you’re more prone to getting injured.
HIIT workouts can be designed and used with any piece of equipment.
Below are examples of equipment you can use to create your own HIIT workout and 2 sample beginner HIIT workouts,
- Med ball slams
- Sled pushes
- Stairmaster interval circuits
- Versa climber
- Battle rope interval circuits
#3 Moderate Intensity Cardio
Adding in regular cardio can accelerate your fat loss beyond just dieting alone. You can boost your metabolism, get healthier, and double or even triple your rate of fat loss.
How much and what kind of cardio depends on your skill level, the amount of time you have, your schedule and how quickly you want results. You can get results by starting at 2X a week to get the aerobic benefits and keep adding more time to expedite your fat loss results.
Besides the fat loss benefits regular cardio is great for relaxing and decreasing stress. By doing cardio we help our bodies switch from stress and anxiety to a more relaxed and mellow mindset.
What Does A Fat Loss Program Look Like?
Here I’m going to give you an example of a standard week of workouts for women whose goal is fat loss.
You can switch the workouts around to your liking and add more or less cardio but make sure that you’re recovering properly and your diet is a caloric deficit to get the maximum results.
Sunday – Moderate Intensity Cardio
Monday – Workout A + MRT
Tuesday – Moderate Intensity Cardio
Wednesday – Workout B + MRT
Thursday – OFF
Friday – Workout A + MRT
Saturday – OFF
If you’re an absolute beginner and don’t know where to start when it comes to losing bodyfat you should also read my Ultimate Guide To Go From Skinny Fat To Fit.
In this guide you'll learn,
- Why you're struggling to lose the stubborn fat no matter how much you exercise or diet
- What to do when you've hit a weight-loss plateau and 3 simple tips to start burning fat again
- Why eating healthy is not enough to lose fat plus answers to 10 other questions about going from skinny fat to fit
You can download the guide using the box below,