Can you use strength training exercises for weight loss? While past decades were dominated by jogging, hitting the gym and lifting weights has become ever-more popular now if you want to drop pounds.
These exercises have a plethora of benefits, from boosting your bone density to increasing your lean mass (provided you hit your daily protein quota, with help from the best protein powders for weight loss (opens in new tab)).
If that’s not reason enough to reach for your nearest pair of adjustable dumbbells (opens in new tab), science suggests strength training can also be used as a tool for weight loss. While its primary purpose is (as the name suggests) building strength, research in the Current Sports Medicine (opens in new tab) journal says 10 weeks of resistance training can help you lose fat and gain lean mass.
To set you on your way to using strength training exercises for weight loss, we spoke to expert instructor Rachael Penrose (opens in new tab), a trainer at F45 Paddington (opens in new tab). Read on to find out how to get started, and take your training to new heights.
Rachel Penrose is a trainer at functional training gym F45 Paddington in the U.K. Born in Sydney, Australia, she began dance training at just three years old and went on to perform as a soloist in an all Australian female revue show while living in Las Vegas. Having always had a passion for wellbeing, she moved to London in 2017 and entered the world of fitness. Since then, she has accumulated a wide client base, fronted fitness events and programmed workouts for an array of exercise brands.
How to start strength training exercises for weight loss
When learning how to use strength training to torch fat, it’s first important to understand the key principle behind weight loss: a calorie deficit (opens in new tab). In simple terms, this means you are expending more energy (or calories) than you are consuming during a day.
Penrose explains that adding strength training into your schedule will burn calories and increase your total daily energy expenditure, helping you achieve a calorie deficit. But this isn’t the only way it can help.
“Scientifically speaking, an individual with a higher muscle to fat mass will burn more calories,” she says. “Strength training will increase your muscle mass, burn calories (as any form of physical exercise does) and has numerous other health benefits.”
So, if you're new to strength training, how should you make your first foray into this exercise method? Penrose has an answer for this too.
“If you are a total beginner, I would recommend investing in a personal trainer or group fitness classes with a focus on technique as it is very important that you learn to lift weights correctly."
She recommends starting with functional, compound exercises like the squat and lunge, as well as push and pull movements like push-ups and bent-over rows.
Six strength training exercises for weight loss
1. Weighted squat
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your chest upright, with a barbell in the back rack position (behind your neck, resting across your shoulders).
- Bend your legs at the knee to lower yourself until your knees are below 90 degrees, keeping your spine straight.
- Straighten your legs to stand back up tall and return to your starting position.
- Top tip: If you don't feel ready to use a barbell, a great way for beginners to add weight to this is to hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of you with two hands at chest height, holding it close to the body (this is called a goblet squat).
2. Weighted lunge
- Hold a dumbbell in either hand and stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Step forward with one leg and lower your back knee towards the floor until both knees are at roughly 90 degrees. The thigh of your lunging leg should be parallel with the ground, while your other thigh should be upright.
- Push hard against the floor with your front foot to return to the starting position, then repeat on the opposite side.
3. Chest press
- Lying flat on the floor (or on a bench if you have one) hold a dumbbell in each hand at chest height either side of your body. Your arms should be bent, with the inner side of the dumbbell close to your torso.
- Press the dumbbells vertically upwards, straightening your arms.
- Pause for a second at the top of the rep, then lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
4. Bent-over row
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
- Start by standing upright, then hinge at the hip until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Make sure to keep your core braced and your back straight throughout.
- With your arms straight, allow the weights to hang towards the ground, then retract your shoulder blades.
- Pull the weights towards your belly button, keeping your shoulders back and your elbows tucked into your body, until the dumbbells are level with your stomach.
- Lower them back to the starting position in a controlled fashion, keeping tension in your back throughout.
- Start with a barbell or pair of dumbbells on the ground in front of you, close to your shins.
- Bend at the knee and grasp the weight with an overhand grip.
- Push through your feet to straighten your legs, holding the dumbbells in front of you so they’re almost touching your shins and quads on the way up.
- Keep your spine neutral (straight) throughout the movement.
- Lower the weight back to the ground to complete a rep.
- Top tip: Penrose warns this can be a tricky move to perfect, so it's worth learning how to deadlift with dumbbells (opens in new tab) before starting.
6. Plank dumbbell pull through
- A twist on traditional ab training, this rotational core movement is great for building functional strength.
- Assume a straight-arm plank position with a dumbbell on one side of your body.
- Reach your opposite arm across your body and pull the dumbbell underneath you,
- Repeat using the other arm to bring the dumbbell back to its original position.
How to perform strength training exercises for weight loss
Penrose defines strength training as “increasing muscular strength by making muscles work against a force”.
“This can be done by lifting weights, but can also be achieved through bodyweight movements and performing isometric and plyometric movements (for example, the plank or explosive exercises like box jumps),” she explains.
She prescribes a thorough warm-up before any strength training, targeting the muscles you are going to be using, and also stresses the importance of perfecting your technique before adding too much weight to any exercise.
Once you've learned how to perform exercises like the squat and deadlift with light weight and correct form, you can begin increasing the resistance, upping the intensity of your workout.
Which type of strength training is best for fat loss?
Exercise, by definition, involves completing structured activity that raises your heart rate (burning calories as a result). But, training for fat loss doesn’t need to center around a stereotypical sweaty run or grueling HIIT circuit.
“Putting your body under stress by lifting weights requires more oxygen to be pumped through your body to your muscles,” says Penrose. “This instantly raises your heart rate, which in turn burns calories.”
This can help you achieve a calorie deficit, although Penrose emphasizes the importance of not creating an excessive deficit as this may leave you lacking the energy and resources your body requires to function effectively. Or, in other words: “You need sustenance and fuel to perform not only daily tasks, but also to train.”
However, if you’re looking for a type of strength training to help you with fat loss goals, we suggest cross training (opens in new tab) — an exercise methodology that sees you draw on several different training styles to boost your fitness.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (opens in new tab) suggested that a combination of resistance training and aerobic training (for example, running or cycling) could achieve fat loss while offering the benefits of strength training such as lean body mass gains.
Harry Bullmore is a fitness writer covering everything from reviews to features for LiveScience, T3, TechRadar, Fit&Well and more. So, whether you’re looking for a new fitness tracker or wondering how to shave seconds off your 5K PB, chances are he’s written something to help you improve your training.
When not writing, he’s most likely to be found experimenting with a wide variety of training methods in his home gym or trying to exhaust his ever-energetic puppy.
Prior to joining Future, Harry wrote health and fitness product reviews for publications including Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Runner’s World. Before this, he spent three years as a news reporter with work in more than 70 national and regional newspapers.
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