Strength Training and Weight Loss

To see how strength training can benefit your weight loss goals, we first need to take a look at how we lose or gain weight.  

The basic idea of weight loss

Losing weight is a simple idea, burn more calories than you take in.  We burn calories through a number of methods.  The most basic is the resting metabolic rate (RMR).  Resting metabolic rate is the amount of calories that you body needs to sustain life.  RMR is the number of calories you would burn per day if you did absolutely nothing that day. This number is based on any combination of factors age, sex, weight, height, lean body mass, etc.  RMR can either be measured through testing or calculated.  Testing can be handled in a few different ways and can give you an accurate RMR.  Calculations can be done to give an estimate, and this is usually good enough to be effective for weight loss.  An example of the formula is:

Men: (88.4 + 13.4*weight) + (4.8 * height) – (5.68 * age)

Women: (447.6 + 9.25 * weight) + (3.10 * height) – (4.33 * age)

(height in centimeters and weight in kilograms)

This formula doesn’t include your daily activity.  So your daily caloric expenditure will need to be factored in.  If you have a desk job you will burn far fewer calories in a day as a opposed to a construction worker.  So to get your caloric needs per day you need to multiply by a factor based on your activity (1.2 for sedentary – 1.9 for very active).  

This is just for demontstartion only!  This is to give you an idea of how these numbers are calculated. There are calculators all over the internet that can calculate this for you, and it will give you a good number to start with.  

So to lose weight, you will need to burn more calories than you consume. A pound of fat is 3500 calories, so you’ll need consume 3500 fewer calories to burn a pound of fat.  This can be done safely over a week or longer.  If you set a goal to burn a pound of fat every week, you will need to cut 500 calories per day to reach that goal (or a 500 calorie deficit per day).  So if your daily caloric need is 2500 calories, you will need to end the day with 2000 calories every day to burn that pound of fat.  

That is the basic idea for weight loss.  Any diet that you utilize will basically be shooting to get you into a caloric deficit.  Different diet plans work better for some people than others.  It works this way based on personal preferences and differences in genetics.  So it will take some experimentation to find what works best for you.  No matter what your diet plan claims, you need to burn more calories than you consume.

You can cut calories by reducing your food intake, or increasing your caloric expenditure.  We do this by training or exercise. The amount of calories you burn depends on the type of exercise you do, and there are various ways to estimate the number of calories burned.  The thing you need to keep in mind is that the numbers will never be perfectly accurate in any of these measurements.  Caloric measurements in food are not always accurate and exercise calculations will vary with equipment and formulas used.  In the beginning your weight loss journey, you don’t have to be perfect with this to start losing weight.  The key is to start developing habits of paying attention to what you eat, and keep a caloric budget that you follow throughout the day.  

Where does strength training fit in?

You may have heard that running is the fastest way to burn calories, or you can’t lose weight without proper diet.  These statements are true but they only paint a partial picture.  We need to look at body composition.  When looking at the picture of weight and health we have a number that gets thrown around, Body Mass Index (BMI).  This number is all over the place and is used by most physicians to determine if you are at a healthy weight.  This number uses weight, height, and age to determine if you are underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese.  This number fails to include lean body mass vs body fat.  Lean body mass includes muscle, bones, and internal organs.   Running and dieting can reduce your BMI rather quickly.  However, lean body mass is also reduced.  Body composition looks at body fat vs lean mass.  It’s not a specific number, but it’s often viewed as the percent of body fat.  Ideally the program we would look for would reduce body fat while keeping lean body mass.  Reduction of lean body mass results in weaker bones and muscles and can lead to injury.  

As a basic rule, there is not perfect system that works across the board to reduce body fat and increase or perfectly maintain lean body mass.  Generally speaking if you lose weight you will lose both LBM and body fat.  There are some situations that can increase LBM and decrease body fat, and that will occur in overweight and untrained individuals.  This doesn’t last forever though, so enjoy it while you can.  For everyone else the goal is to skew the ratio of what is lost towards the body fat and try to lose as little LBM as possible. This is accomplished by consuming enough protein to preserve muscle mass and strength training to keep the muscles in demand. Long slow cardiovascular exercise tends to be catabolic (muscle breakdown), so keeping that to a minimum and focusing on more high intensity shorter duration work can help to prevent muscle catabolism and preserve lean mass.  With a good diet and enough protein and proper training, body fat percentages will drop and lean body mass should stay about the same.  

So what does this mean?  

If you are looking for that “toned, jacked, lean, fit, athletic” look (or whatever adjective you want to use), then your goal should be to reduce body fat.  To do that will require strength training with proper nutrition.  There really is no other way around it, if you want to look like a fitness model, it’s going to take time and commitment.  Somewhere along the way you’ll realize that they don’t look like that all the time and that the “perfect body” is really a myth hiding behind photoshop and brutal diet regimens.  For most people, carrying around a six pack all the time is not really that healthy and a fit and healthy body looks different for different people.  

What if you are not looking for that perfect instagram body?  What about older people who just want to be healthy?  As we age, we lose lean body mass.  This is just a normal function of aging.  We can regain that mass and strength through weight training.  If you are in your 50’s, preserving your strength while reaching a healthier weight is essential.  Losing muscle mass, can lead to all sorts of problems injuries, falls, etc.  Preserving strength at this age is preserving independence.

There is a common myth that getting stronger and building muscle will lead to excessive bulkiness especially in women.  To get to the “bulky” look you are thinking of, takes years of training and intentionally working to get there.  Gaining mass isn’t easy and you shouldn’t be concerned with getting too bulky. If gaining mass was easy, the supplement industry wouldn’t be as successful as it is.  This isn’t the case and there are thousands of supplements out there promising to make you bigger.  Some people are genetically predisposed to having a lot of muscle mass, but most of us aren’t in this group.  Basically, if you are worried about getting bulky and building too much muscle, don’t worry, you’ll never get there.

So that’s a general view of weight loss and body composition.  There is a lot more to it and people have built their entire professional lives around studying all the minutiae about this process.  The key takeaway is that the goal should be to lose fat and maintain lean body mass.  This is accomplished through diet and strength training.  Body image is a whole separate topic that is a huge topic.  I didn’t go into that much here, this is basically to inform what it takes to move towards a healthy body composition.  Build a strong, functional body and enjoy your life.  Don’t get too hung up on what the scale or mirror tell you!

How this looks at Spearpoint Fitness

So if someone wants to lose weight and comes in the door, we will follow a basic strategy.  First we will get them lifting and working towards building strength.  Aside from the regular benefits of strength we will use the improved strength to have more effective conditioning workouts.  We will also begin to monitor the clients nutrition.  If they are already on a diet or nutrition plan, we will stick to that and monitor progress.  Also, we will need to make sure that they are consuming enough protein to ensure that we are preserving muscle mass.

After a few weeks if progress towards weight loss isn’t happening, we will look a little closer at diet and start adding in some conditioning at the end of workouts.  We can add in a nutrition plan for stricter control over diet.  

We won’t add in long slow endurance work, unless this is something the client is already doing, it doesn’t sacrifice recovery from the strength workouts, or if it is part of the clients goals. Fat loss should occur through the steps outlined above.  If it is not happening, we will revisit nutrition and try a different strategy until we find what works.  The key with fat loss is discipline and continuing to work towards the goal.  There is no shortcut to success.

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