While cardio usually gets all the credit for calories burned, strength training, if structured effectively, can also tap into the calorie-burning arena — and keep your metabolism healthy.
But tracking caloric expenditure during strength training isn't all that matters, Alec Blenis, CSCS, a strength and endurance coach for Complete Human Performance and the metabolic specialist for Life Time, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Instead, he says, focusing on the benefits after exercise is where the real calorie crushing comes from.
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"A lot of the metabolic benefit from strength training comes from long-term adaptations like increased muscle mass and bone density, not just the calories you burned in the moment," he says. "That's why it's important to focus on the quality of your strength training session, not just the short-term caloric expenditure."
While the benefits of strength training extend well beyond the calories you burn during training, that doesn't mean you don't sometimes want the added oomph of getting your heart rate spiking. Make some of the following adjustments to your workout structure to add much-needed variety while also upping the ante on your overall calorie burn.
1. Lift Heavier
A surefire way to increase your calorie burn is by adding more weight — enough so that you can't hammer out rep after rep with ease.
"The more muscle you build, the higher your resting metabolic rate becomes and the more efficiency you have to burn more fat both lying around and during workouts," Hannah Davis, CSCS, founder of Body By Hannah, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
In fact, the American Council of Exercise says that one pound of muscle burns roughly 5 to 7 calories a day at rest (fat burns none). That means if you pack on, say, 5 to 7 pounds of muscle, you can increase how efficiently your body produces and uses energy — also known as your basal metabolism — by up to 50 calories a day. And over time, those extra calories add up.
2. Do More Reps
While lifting heavy helps increase calorie burn in the long-term, switching things up to work on muscular endurance (your ability to exert force against resistance for an extended period of time) can increase calorie burn in the short-term.
"Doing high-volume and lower-weight during weight-lifting has been shown to create more of a calorie burn," Noam Tamir, CSCS, founder and CEO of TS Fitness, tells LIVESTRONG.com, noting that HIIT workouts have become increasingly popular for that reason.
"They show a high calorie burn during the workout and an EPOC after, making it a very efficient way to exercise when calorie burning is the main goal." EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) refers to your body's attempt to repay the oxygen debt you incurred during an intense workout, which requires you to burn more calories to return to your resting state.
3. Pause Your Movements
Manipulating your time under tension is a good way to burn more calories and build more muscle. This strategy involves increasing the amount of time your muscles are working against resistance, Alonzo Wilson, founder and director of training at Tone House, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
One way Wilson recommends increasing the strain on your muscles: adding pauses to your reps. If you're doing squats, that means holding at the bottom of the movement for a good 5 seconds before rising back up to standing. Besides the bonus burn from sitting in the most challenging part of the exercise, it'll also help you increase your range of motion.
Feeling extra saucy? Wilson suggests adding pulses. In a squat, this would mean lowering down to the bottom of the movement, then moving up and down about an inch or so each way. This increases your time under tension and improves your muscular endurance.
4. Supplement With Supersets
The whole idea of a superset is to perform two exercises back to back with little to no rest in between. The draw? It activates more muscle fibers in less time, exercise physiologist Nick Occhipinti, CSCS, tells LIVESTRONG.com. And who doesn't want a faster, more efficient workout?
Try pairing exercises that work opposite muscle groups like a biceps curl and triceps extension or ones that target the same muscle group like squats and lunges or you can even try working two unrelated muscle groups by doing a shoulder press and deadlift.
5. Rethink Your Rest Intervals
When it comes to weight-lifting, typically, the thinking is to work more and rest less. After all, it keeps your heart rate elevated (hello calorie-burning cardio!) and keeps your muscles working for longer. That said, there may be a case for extended rests periods during your next weight-lifting session.
A small April 2016 study in Experimental Physiology looked at men who engaged in moderate‐intensity, high‐volume, fatigue‐inducing resistance exercise interspersed with either a 1-minute or a 5-minute rest and found that exercisers who took longer rests experienced a 152-percent increase in muscle growth. What's more, those who sat out for the shorter rests found their muscle-growing abilities blunted.
6. Use Your Breaks Productively
You could also forgo your rest altogether and adding what Blenis calls "filler" exercises. These are "low-intensity movements that don't interfere with the primary goal of the workout but still offer benefits," he says.
For example, if you're doing a lower-body workout, a shoulder exercise is a productive use of that time that still allows you to recover between sets and perform well on the more challenging movement. On the other hand, Blenis says, if you ran between sets, "that kind of fatigue could detract from the quality of your workout."
And Occhipinti says that a simple way to increase the cardiovascular demand of a strength session is put some cardio directly into the workout. He suggests a low-intensity, low-skill cardio movement to keep the heart rate up, which is as simple as walking between sets as opposed to sitting down and texting or checking Instagram, he says. Other good pairings: bench press and jump rope or deadlifts and jumping jacks.
Wilson agrees that you shouldn't let a good rest period go to waste because active recovery is another way to maximize fat burning. His movement of choice: ab exercises. This way, the muscles you're primarily working rest between sets, but you're still being semi-active.
7. Experiment With EMOM
An interval-based cardio workout popularized by CrossFit, EMOMs — every minute on the minute — are an awesome way to do a lot of work in a short amount of time. Here's how it works: "Every 60 seconds, you do a certain number of reps of a selected exercise, and you have the remainder of that minute to rest until the next set," Occhipinti says.
One Occhipinti uses with his clients: performing 3 trap bar deadlifts, resting the remainder of the minute until the next set. Try this for 7 to 10 minutes, he says, noting you want to select a load that is well under what you can perform for a 1-rep max (the most amount of weight you can lift in one attempt). Try 70 percent of your 1RM to start.
A June 2019 study in Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry confirms that interval training like EMOM workouts is a great way to increase your calorie burn after a workout, citing that EPOC was higher for this type of exercise compared to those who exercised continuously. It also revealed that total calorie burn was higher in the interval group.
8. Choose Compound Movements
When it comes to calorie burn, intensity isn't the only thing that matters. The number of muscles you recruit plays a big role, too. That's why compound movements, which are exercises that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously (think squats, deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups and lunges), are a great way to maximize caloric output both during and after the workout.
Research in a January 2018 International Journal of Exercise Science supports this. Women who participated in a six-week exercise program that included multi-joint compound movements experienced an increase in their basal metabolism rate, increasing their calorie burn at rest.
9. Try Metabolic Resistance Training
Metabolic resistance training (MRT) is where strength training meets cardio, Frank Baptiste,CSCS, owner of Frankly Fitness, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"It's high-intensity like HIIT but done with traditional free-weight exercises," he says, noting that the two modalities are often confused. HIIT generally uses cardio activities for short, intense work periods followed by rest, while MRT uses strength exercises with weights whenever possible.
"The focus is on workout density, meaning you'll aim to do more work in less time," he says. Think of a dumbbell circuit or kettlebell complex where you move from one exercise to the next with little or no rest.
MRT works a ton of muscles and taxes both the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, making for massive calorie burn during and after your session. Done correctly, you'll perform compound movements for 30 to 60 seconds with short, 30-second (or less) rest periods between exercises and sets.
Baptiste's suggestion: Choose six movements, alternating between upper and lower body or opposing muscle groups and complete 5 to 6 sets. Try it two to three times per week with at least a day of rest in between.
“This workout is going to push your lactate threshold (a measure of how hard you're working),” says Baptiste, who notes that once you’ve reached it, the only way to clear that lactate acid is with oxygen, which means you’ll need to rest. “If you find yourself feeling nauseous mid-workout, take a long break, don’t try to push through.”
10. Finish With Power
Nothing caps off a strength session quite like a finisher. This intense effort is meant to empty your energy tank at the end of a workout. Doing so will help you incinerate more calories and increase the amount of fat your body burns post-workout (hello, EPOC!), as well as increase your endurance, work capacity and mental toughness.
"The beauty of this type of conditioning is that it is very conducive to muscle-building goals, because you can still lift maximally during the strength portion of a workout," Occhipinti says.
Since these efforts aren't sustainable for a long period of time (only about 4 to 10 minutes), the work portions will be extremely short (6 to 15 seconds) but at maximum effort.
"The key here is to choose modalities that require very little attention to technique so you can just move as hard and fast as possible," says Occhipinti, who recommends these three finishers following strength sessions:
Move 1: Hill Sprint
- Find a hill that allows a max-effort sprint of about 8 to 12 seconds.
- Perform 8 hill sprints and rest as you walk back down (about 30 to 45 seconds).
Move 2: Assault Bike Sprint
- Go as hard as possible on the assault bike for 10 seconds with arms and legs.
- Rest actively at an easy pace for 20 seconds.
- Do this 8 total times for a total of 4 minutes.
Move 3: Sled Push
- Load a sled with enough weight plates that are heavy enough to challenge you but still allow you to move quickly.
- Perform 20-yard sled pushes (roughly 10 to 15 seconds) followed by a 60-second break.
- Do 3 to 5 sets.
- American Council on Exercise: 'Why You Should Be Lifting Heavy'
- Experimental Physiology: Short inter‐set rest blunts resistance exercise‐induced increases in myofibrillar protein synthesis and intracellular signalling in young males
- Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry: Effect of interval exercise versus continuous exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption during energy-homogenized exercise on a cycle ergometer
- International Journal of Exercise Science: Six Weeks of Moderate Functional Resistance Training Increases Basal Metabolic Rate in Sedentary Adult Women