Sure, cardio makes you sweat—but despite decades of advice telling us we had to cardio our way to weight loss, there’s actually a better way. It’s called strength training. Here’s what you need to know to get your mind, workouts, and waistline right.
Why Not Cardio?
Cardiovascular training produces a sense of instant gratification because our apps, wearables, and fitness equipment tell us we’re burning lots of calories, says Eric Johnson, C.S.C.S., strength coach and the co-founder of Homage Fitness. But all that ‘sweat equity’ you put in isn’t really all that efficient in the end. While cardio gives you that satisfying short-term burn, strength training better supports weight loss long-term.
How Strength Training Boosts Weight Loss
Though the process takes time, regular strength training signals your body to build muscle. Ultimately, muscle is the golden ticket for weight loss—and cardio just doesn’t stimulate muscle growth the way strength training does.
Why does muscle matter? Muscle tissue is ‘metabolically active,’ meaning it requires energy to maintain. Fat? Not so much. So, the more muscle mass and density you build, the more your metabolism rises—and the more calories your body automatically churns through every single day.
Sure, you can burn extra calories every day by slogging away on a cardio machine. However, if you build enough muscle, you’ll burn extra calories every day even if you don’t leave the couch!
In fact, one study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports shows that resistance training can increase metabolic rate by seven percent.
Plus, you’ll still burn calories while hitting the weights, too. A 170-pound man burns about 462 calories per hour of strength training, while a 120-pound woman burns about 324.
The Best Way To Strength Train To Shed Fat
If you want to lose weight (and keep it off), Johnson recommends starting with three 45-minute strength-training workouts per week. Just make sure to schedule your sessions at least 24 hours apart to allow your muscles ample time for recovery and regeneration.
For best results, each workout should light up all of your major muscle groups (yes, upper and lower body) to maximize muscle-building and calorie-burn, says Devon Levesque, personal trainer at Performix House in New York City.
The Right Moves
To get there, focus your workout on big lifts that work multiple muscle groups at once.
“Bench pressing, squatting, and deadlifting are all excellent functional, compound moves,” says LA-based personal trainer Seth Broadstreet, C.P.T. These exercises stimulate the most muscle tissue and require the most energy to perform, so they’ll best boost your workout’s immediate calorie-burn and support maximum gains in muscle mass over time.
Make sure every workout starts with two or three of these big, compound exercises.
Then, follow those up with three or four isolation moves (like bicep curls or lateral raises) to show specific muscle groups some extra love. Just think of these as accessories—not the main event.
The Right Reps And Sets
While you’ll use fewer reps and heavier weights to build pure strength, go for a higher rep range for fat-loss, says Broadstreet, who recommends sets of 10 to 15 reps. Use weight heavy enough that you’re exhausted—but don’t break proper form—by the end of each set.
This particular rep range provides the ideal stimulus for hypertrophy, or muscular growth—and successful weight loss means building as much muscle as possible.
Using bodyweight moves? Mix things up by setting a timer for 60 seconds and doing as many reps as possible in that period, suggests Levesque.
To keep your heart rate—and calorie-burn—high, limit rest periods to 90 seconds or less, says Johnson. Give yourself enough time to catch your breath and get going again.
The Place For Cardio
Of course, in addition to a solid strength-training routine, the right cardio can help you shed fat while building muscle.
If you want to incorporate some cardio between lifting sessions, Broadstreet recommends two to three sessions per week.
If you’re newer to exercise or need to recover from a tough lifting workout, stick to lower-intensity steady-state cardio, like walking or jogging.