How can I use weight lifting for fat loss?

Do you lift weights? If the answer is no, it’s time to get in and start moving heavy things around on a regular basis! If the answer is yes, that’s fantastic and good job! Either way, lets talk about how you can use weight lifting – also called resistance training – to work towards the main goal of 90% of people who are exercising: Fat Loss!

Weight Loss versus Fat Loss

Most clients who come into the gym or sign-up for personal training cite a very specific goal: to lose weight. But what is body weight? Your body weight is the sum total of all the stuff inside you: muscle, bones, organs, fat, and even recently consumed food/liquid. So of these things fluctuate heavily (food/water content) and some don’t fluctuate much at all once you reach adulthood, barring disease or injury (bone and organ mass). The two things that change from exercise are Muscle Mass and Fat Mass. It’s probably safe to assume that most people asking for weight loss help don’t want to have their legs cut off, even though that would certainly reduce their weight by dozens of pounds at once, and it’s probably a safe bet that they would say no to having bones removed too. That only leaves us with Fat and Muscle as a means to reduce body weight.

Lets just say this right now: body muscle is good. It lets you walk, lift, carry, sit, stand, and just generally move around. If you lose muscle, you get weaker, more gaunt, and less able to live a full life. Muscle is good, necessary, and – to be frank – sexy. You want body muscle. Period.

Body Fat, however, is only useful to a point. Back in the day, early humans used Body Fat as a storage mechanism for calories, so that during times of low food volume they would be able to survive and find more food. In today’s world, and especially in developed countries, it’s very uncommon to go more than a day without eating. Now, 24 hours without eating may seem like a lot to you, but keep in mind that our ancestors went without the conveniences of packaged food, farms, grocery stores, and pre-hunted meat. Getting a decent meal every other day was a pretty sweet deal, and Body Fat helped them survive when those meals didn’t come so frequently.

Today’s conveniences make Body Fat mostly superfluous, with only a relatively small amount being needed to maintain a healthy body. According to the American Council on Exercise the Essential Body Fat for a male is 2-5% and for a female it’s 10-13%. Someone who is fit and eats healthily can usually maintain a Body Fat at ~15% (male) and ~22% (female) easily, while professional athletes can fall much lower (~10% for men and ~16% for women). Compare these Healthy or Essential numbers to the U.S. average of 28.1% (male) and 40% (female) and you see that we are carrying around a lot more Fat than we need to!

So why does this matter? Because you need to stop thinking of “weight loss” and starting thinking about Fat Loss. If you could choose between being a flabby 150lbs or rocking toned everything at 175lbs, which one would you choose? Just because the scale goes up, doesn’t mean your health goes down. What matters is how that weight is distributed and what your body is made of. So stop thinking about your Weight Loss, and starting thinking about your Fat Loss.

Lifting Heavy versus Lifting Light

There are generally three types of lifting routines: heavy weight/low reps, light weight/high reps, and medium weight/medium reps. The heavy workout is doing more work with each repetition of the bar, while the light workout is doing less work per rep, with the medium workout falling between the two. Generally these methods are intended to support three different goals:

  • Heavy Lifts for Strength Gain – 85%+ of 1 Rep Max for 2-3 sets of 3-4 reps each with 3-5 minutes rest between sets
  • Light Lifts for Endurance – 20-60% of 1RM for 3-5 sets of 15-20 reps each with 60-90 seconds rest between sets
  • Medium Lifts for Muscle Growth – 65-80% of 1RM for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps each with 30-45 seconds rest between sets

For someone with a maximum bench press of 150 lbs, they might use the following workouts to improve each area:

  • Strength: 135 lbs for 3 sets of 3 reps
  • Endurance: 75 lbs for 4 sets of 15 reps
  • Growth: 100 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps

These have been striated in thought for decades, but newer training methods being shared all over the internet and in publications are showing different results by combining these ideas into a gestalt. Intended to develop Strength, Endurance, and Hypertrophy at the same time (though some to a larger degree than others, depending on the routine) the newer training methods look at your muscular development as a continuum rather than as clearly delineated sectors of improvement. So basically, we’re learning to train smarter!

There is a lot to go into here, so we won’t cover it all today. An example rep scheme I use that has helped me improve in general is 5 sets of 8 reps at 80% 1RM with 60 seconds rest between sets. You can see that it is a gestalt of the training types, with heavier weights done for shorter sets, but more overall reps, and only moderate rest. You can see this programming in action in many classes at CrossFit Catonsville.

So what does this all mean to you? Based on the last section, we stated that our goal should be Fat Loss and not Weight Loss. It follows that we are not afraid of increasing our muscle mass, because increasing weight is no longer a problem. With me so far? Good, because increasing muscle mass has several major benefits: increased metabolic activity, improved strength, longer lasting endurance, and increased sexiness.

For Fat Loss, we’re concerned with the increase in metabolic activity. It takes more calories to maintain your muscle mass than it does to maintain your fat mass. By increasing the amount of muscle you carry, you automatically increase the number of calories you burn per day simply by existing. In addition, if you are consistently doing resistance training workouts your body will preferentially burn stored body fat instead of muscle mass, which means the added muscle and training is a bifecta of fat burning goodness.

The Take Away

Getting strong is one great reason to add resistance/weight training into your weekly routine, but increasing muscle mass to help keep body fat under control is yet another. Muscle is one of the most metabolically active and everyday-useful tissues you can have. As a human, you are in the unique position of having significant control over your body composition. You can intelligently choose your diet and training methods – or seek out assistance in doing these things – so that you remove any excuses for being unhealthy. Take advantage of the opportunities you have to make positive changes, and you will notice that your entire life improves. From sleeping better to lower blood pressure, from being able to lift any every day object to being able to respond with strength to life-threatening situations, training your muscles via resistance training is just a good idea.

And of course, every push-up, sit-up, and burpee you do is one more rep closer to being the one people admire, instead of always being the one doing the admiring.

Be strong.