Although cardio is great for you, strength training is an important part of any training regimen — especially if you're trying to lose weight. The best weight-training workouts are fun, challenging and safe, helping you build strength while giving each muscle group adequate rest between workouts.
Why You Should Lift
Yes, cardio is good for weight loss, but whatever your weight or body size, weight training offers a whole world of benefits. First off, it gives you the strength and endurance to make everyday activities, such as hauling groceries, lifting your kids or moving a piece of furniture, much easier.
But that's just the start. As the Mayo Clinic explains, weight training also strengthens your bones; makes it easier to manage many chronic conditions, including diabetes, back pain, arthritis, heart disease and depression; and can even boost your cognitive abilities.
And if you're working out to lose weight, strength training packs a serious triple whammy in your favor. First off, lifting weights burns calories. The exact number will vary enormously based on factors such as your body weight, what sort of exercises you're doing and how hard you're working out.
For example, Harvard Health Publishing estimates that if you weigh 185 pounds, a half-hour of general weightlifting will burn about 133 calories. Crank it up to a vigorous intensity and you'll burn about twice as many calories in the same time.
Second, an intense weight-training workout with short rest intervals triggers a phenomenon known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). The American Council on Exercise (ACE) likens EPOC to the time it takes your car engine to cool down after you turn it off; it's the energy cost of returning your body to homeostasis, its normal level of metabolic function.
That translates to more calories burned — basically, a bonus for working out harder. Keep that in mind if you're ever tempted to "phone in" your strength-training workout.
As ACE points out, you can also stimulate the EPOC effect by turning your cardio workouts into high-intensity interval training.
Third, as exercise researchers at the University of New Mexico explain, lean muscle is four times more metabolically active than body fat. So the more muscle you build with resistance training, the more calories you'll burn simply by existing.
What's Most Comfortable for You?
There are many different ways to do resistance training, and there's no single best exercise for the overweight female body. Instead, there are many ways your body can succeed at weight training. So don't be shy about trying different types of workouts and choosing those that are the most comfortable for you, both physically and psychologically.
After all, as the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion points out, you're more likely to stick with types of exercise that you enjoy.
In the gym, your most common choices of equipment are strength-training machines or free weights, with the latter including dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells.
If you're new to weight training, simple is best — and that usually means strength-training machines. Most gyms offer a free orientation so you can learn how all the equipment works, and the machines are usually labeled with which muscle groups they work. As you use the machines, you'll learn the basic body mechanics that can transfer over to the free-weight room.
Your first goal should be to meet the recommendation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of strength training all your major muscle groups at least twice a week. You should target your back, chest, shoulders, abs, glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves, but that doesn't mean doing one exercise per muscle group.
You can get more benefit in less time by doing compound exercises — working multiple muscle groups at once. For example, the leg press puts both your quads and glutes to work, among other leg muscles, as demonstrated at ExRx.net. And the lat pulldown works almost every major muscle in your back and shoulders, along with the pulling muscles in your arms, as depicted at ExRx.net.
The following exercises make a great first full-body workout routine for a beginner, using only gym weight machines:
- Lat pulldown
- Chest press
- Leg press
- Hamstring curl
- Calf raise machine (or do calf raises on the leg press)
- Ab machine (or substitute your favorite ab exercise without a machine)
You might think you're neglecting your arms and shoulders with this routine, but the lat pulldown and chest press will work those muscles too. If you're particularly interested in working your arms more, you can always add in the biceps curl and triceps extension machines.
Aim to do at least one set of eight to 12 repetitions for each exercise, lifting an amount of weight that makes it challenging — but still possible — to do that last repetition with good form. As you get stronger, you can gradually increase the amount of weight you're lifting, add more exercises to your routine or tackle more challenging variations of the exercises you're already doing.
No matter what sort of strength-training workout you're doing, make sure you give each muscle group at least one solid rest day between workouts. That allows your muscles time to recover — and get stronger — before the next workout.
Moving on to Free Weights
As the Mayo Clinic notes, for weight-training machines to be effective and safe, they must fit your body dimensions, and not every weight machine fits every body. If the weight machines in your gym don't fit you comfortably or you're ready for a new challenge, consider checking out the free weights.
If you're putting together a workout routine at home, free weights are a relatively inexpensive, versatile choice. You can do a lot with nothing but a weight bench and a barbell or two dumbbells.
If you've been using gym weight machines, many of the movements you've learned will transfer into the weight room, although you may find yourself doing them from different positions. For example, instead of sitting upright in a chest press machine, you'll end up lying on a weight bench while pressing a barbell or dumbbell.
Other movements might require specialized equipment. For example, the free-weight equivalent of a lat pulldown requires a high cable pulley. But you can also work the same muscles using different exercises. For example, you could do dumbbell or barbell rows to work your back, shoulders and arms.
Here's an example of how your weight-machine workout could translate into a free-weight workout:
- Dumbbell or barbell row
- Dumbbell or barbell chest press
- Planks or weighted crunches
It's a good idea to switch up exercises every few weeks to help you avoid plateaus and the unpleasant symptoms of overtraining and to keep you mentally engaged with what you're doing. If you're not sure how to work a certain body part, the ACE and ExRx.net exercise libraries are both great resources.
If you don't have access to "proper" weight-training equipment, you might want to consider body-weight workouts — more on those in a moment. But you can also improvise homemade weights. Your body doesn't care what the weights you're using look like; all it cares about is that it's being challenged to push extra resistance.
Almost anything goes for improvised weights, as long as you're certain they'll hold together well and you can keep them under control. (Translation: As long as you're sure you won't drop them on yourself or anybody else.)
You can do squats and lunges holding a bag of potatoes or a sandbag of appropriate size close to your body or fill gallon jugs with water or sand to create dumbbells.
Small weights count too: Soup cans and other canned goods can be good, light hand weights. Just don't forget to challenge yourself by using progressively heavier weights as you build strength and endurance.
When you do hit the free weights, maintaining proper technique is crucial for avoiding injury. Get professional, in-person guidance on lifting technique if you can. It's well worth investing in a couple of personal training sessions to learn your way around the weight room.
Consider Body-Weight Workouts
Last but absolutely not least, you can also do body-weight exercises. If you dislike the idea of being seen struggling with your body in a gym, you can do a body-weight resistance workout routine at home. Developing your ability to bend, twist and lift your own body through space is surprisingly challenging, and if you've never considered yourself an athletic person, you might find the process remarkably empowering too.
Body-weight exercises have the added benefit of requiring little to no special equipment, although a pull-up bar (or substitute) does come in handy. You can also use equipment such as a stability ball or suspension trainer to make the exercises easier or harder. The effect you get depends on how you use the equipment. Here's how the weight-machine/free-weight workout you've been doing could translate into a body-weight workout routine at home:
- Modified pull-ups
- Body-weight squats
- Body-weight lunges
- Planks or crunches
Are you ready for more of a challenge with those body-weight exercises? If you're working out at home, consider creating a DIY weight vest by wearing a backpack with a small sand bag or other weight in it. Even a backpack full of books makes a great weight, as long as it doesn't throw off your balance or technique.
What's the Best Exercise for Burning Fat?
Although there is no single right way to lift weights, there is one clear exercise for burning fat: whatever exercise you're willing to keep doing over the long term, because long-term lifestyle change is the best way to lose weight and keep it off.
That means that cranking through a resistance-training workout on weight machines with free weights or by using your own body weight can all be meaningful parts of any weight-loss program — although to stay healthy and slim down, you must combine those strength-training workouts with cardiovascular exercise and an appropriate diet.
But if you're feeling adventurous, there are other types of strength training you can explore, and here's the case for each of them.
Splits: Instead of doing a full-body workout each time you're in the weight room, you "split" that full-body workout across several days, training a different muscle group(s) each day.
For example, you might work your upper body one day and your lower body the next day; or your chest one day, your back and shoulders the next day, and your legs on a third day and then start over again.
The advantage of doing weight-training splits is that you can spend more time in the weight room, thus burning more calories and building more muscle while still giving each muscle group adequate rest time between its workouts. If you really enjoy strength training for its own sake, this is an excellent approach to take.
Kettlebells: In a one-of-a-kind 2010 study that was sponsored and published by the American Council on Exercise, researchers found that participants burned more than 20 calories per minute during a challenging kettlebell workout. Heads up: As effective — and fun! — as it can be to throw kettlebells around, proper form is imperative for this sort of workout.
Circuit-training classes: Circuit-training classes rotate you from one workout station to the next, sometimes allowing short intervals in between. Circuit classes may involve strength-training exercises only or a mix of strength and cardio, and they can be a welcoming, motivating environment for any fitness level.
Read more: Should I Lift Weights Every Day?
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "5 Factors That Help People Stick to a New Exercise Habit"
- Mayo Clinic: "For Weight Training, Is It Better to Use Free Weights or Machine Weights?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- American Council on Exercise: "7 Things to Know About Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC)"
- University of New Mexico: "Controversies in Metabolism"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition"
- ExRx.net: "Lever Seated Leg Press"
- ExRx.net: "Lever Front Pulldown"
- American Council on Exercise: "Exercise Library"
- ExRx.net: "Exercise Directory"
- American Council on Exercise: "Kettlebells: Twice the Results in Half the Time?"