Most people think cardio is the best kind of exercise for weight loss.
While it’s true that cardio is a great way to burn calories, you’ve probably heard that you should also lift weights if you want to slim down.
First, because strength training also burns calories (more than many people realize).
Second, strength training helps you build and maintain muscle (something cardio can’t do), which makes losing weight easier in several unique ways.
In this article you’ll learn everything you need to know about strength training for weight loss, including the best exercises and strength training workouts for weight loss you can do at home or in the gym.
Table of Contents
If someone feels too pudgy, they’ll probably say they need to “lose weight.”
What they really mean, though, is they need to lose fat, not muscle—and that’s an important distinction.
If losing weight is your only objective—that is, if your sole focus is decreasing the number you see on the scale—you can eat very little food and do a ton of cardio, and it won’t take long to reach your goal.
The problem with this approach, though, is it probably won’t leave you looking or feeling the way you want.
This is because your weight is composed of both fat and muscle (among other things), and although starving yourself and running yourself ragged will quickly lead to weight loss, much of the weight you lose will come from muscle, not fat.
Thus, instead of myopically focusing on weight loss, it’s better to strive to lose fat while maintaining or gaining as much muscle as possible, and the best way to do that is with strength training.
That’s because strength training burns a considerable number of calories, which makes it easier to stay in a calorie deficit, and builds or maintains muscle, which keeps you looking good and feeling healthy.
Research shows that weightlifting burns fewer calories than cardio per unit of time spent training, and when most people learn this, they abandon the barbell for the treadmill.
This is a mistake.
While it’s true that cardio burns more calories than strength training, research shows that doing a mix of cardio and strength training is more effective for weight loss than doing cardio or strength training alone.
In other words, instead of thinking in terms of strength training vs. cardio for weight loss, you’ll get better results if you think in terms of cardio and strength training for weight loss.
The reason for this is there are several benefits that are unique to strength training that make it an effective part of a weight-loss regimen.
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Cardio does little to increase the size of your muscles.
Strength training, on the other hand, does help you build muscle.
Finally, research shows that more muscular people live longer and have a lower risk of a variety of other “lifestyle” diseases like heart disease, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes.
Your resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the number of calories your body burns at rest.
Having a high RMR is beneficial for weight loss because it means your body burns a significant number of calories even when you’re not moving, which makes it easier to maintain a calorie deficit, and thus, lose weight.
Research conducted by scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows that when extracellular vesicles leave our muscles, they carry with them strands of genetic material called miR-1 which they then deposit in neighboring fat cells.
When miR-1 is in muscle tissue, it hinders muscle growth, but once it’s deposited in fat cells, it hastens fat burning.
In other words, lifting weights causes subtle shifts in the expression of certain genes that accelerate muscle growth and fat burning.
If you want to maximize the fat-burning effects of strength training, you need to focus on . . .
- Compound exercises: A compound exercise is any exercise that targets multiple muscle groups at once, such as the squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press.
Studies show that compound exercises produce the greatest increases in metabolic rate, muscle mass, and strength, which means they’re the best type of exercise for increasing fat loss.
- Heavy weightlifting: Research shows that lifting weights that are 75-to-85% of your one-rep max (weights that you can do 6-to-12 reps with before failing) helps you build more muscle and burn more fat than training with lighter weights.
- Progressive overload: The best way to build muscle and thus maximize the fat-burning effects of weightlifting is to strive to add weight or reps to every exercise in every workout. This is known as progressive overload, and it’s the single most important driver of muscle growth.
With that in mind, here are the 10 best strength training exercises for weight loss:
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Romanian Deadlift
- Barbell Row
- Bench Press
- Incline Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Shoulder Press
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The following is a tried-and-tested strength training program for weight loss.
The reason it works so well is that it has you doing all the best compound exercises and it uses the right number of weekly sets to promote muscle gain and fat loss without wearing you to a frazzle.
If the 5-day per week program doesn’t fit your schedule, you can shorten it to a 4-day routine by skipping Day 5. And if you’d prefer to do a 3-day routine, skip Day 3 and Day 5.
Of course, when it comes to losing weight, following a well-designed strength training program is only part of the solution—you have to get a handle on diet, recovery, and cardio, too.
If you want an exercise program and diet plan that works synergistically to help you gain muscle, lose fat, and get healthy fast, then check out Mike Matthews’ best-selling fitness books Bigger Leaner Stronger for men, and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women.
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Anyone can build muscle and lose fat using the strength training for weight loss routine above.
That said, if you’re completely new to weightlifting, you’ll probably find it easier to start with the 3-day routine and gradually progress to the 4- and 5-day routines as you become more experienced.
The same problem exists, though: following a strength training program for weight loss is only part of the solution—you have to understand how to manage all aspects of training and nutrition if you want to lose weight quickly and keep it off over the long term.
If you want a fitness program that does just that, and that’s specifically designed to help absolute beginners at any age and fitness level get in the best shape of their life, check out Mike’s newest fitness book for men and women, Muscle for Life.
Strength training provides the same muscle-building, fat-burning, and health-boosting benefits for women as it does for men.
The only difference is women tend to have slightly different goals than men. For example, most women want to develop their legs, abs, and butt, while men prefer to train their chest, shoulders, and arms.
If you want an exercise program and diet plan that’s specifically designed to help women gain muscle in all the right areas and lose fat like clockwork, then check out Mike’s best-selling fitness book for women, Thinner Leaner Stronger.
Although cardio burns more calories than weightlifting per unit of time spent training, weightlifting has several unique weight-loss benefits that you don’t get from cardio.
Specifically, strength training . . .
- Helps you build muscle, which increases your energy expenditure even when you aren’t exercising
- Helps you maintain good metabolic health, which makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight over the long term
- Alters your body on a genetic level so it’s better at burning fat and building muscle
Research also shows that doing a mix of cardio and strength training is more effective for weight loss than doing cardio or strength training alone.
In other words, instead of thinking in terms of cardio or strength training for weight loss, you’ll get better results if you think in terms of cardio and strength training for weight loss.
The best way to do strength training for weight loss at home is using a home gym. However, if you have limited or no equipment available, there are plenty of strength training workouts that you can do using dumbbells, resistance bands, or your body weight.
Unfortunately, no amount of weight loss pills and powders are going to automagically make you lose weight.
In fact, most fat loss supplements are completely worthless.
That said, if you know how to eat and train to drive fat loss, certain supplements can speed up the process.
(And if you’d like to know exactly what supplements to take to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz.)
Here are the best supplements to help you build muscle and lose fat:
- 1-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This provides your body with the “building blocks” it needs to build and repair muscle tissue and help you recover from your workouts. If you want a clean, convenient, and delicious source of protein, try Whey+ or Casein+.
- 3-to-5 grams of creatine per day. This will boost muscle and strength gain, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from your workouts. If you want a 100% natural source of creatine that also includes two other ingredients that will help boost muscle growth and improve recovery, try Recharge.
- One serving of Phoenix per day. Phoenix is a 100% natural fat burner that speeds up your metabolism, enhances fat burning, and reduces hunger and cravings. You can also get Phoenix with caffeine or without.
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