Weightlifting tones and builds muscle — but can it help you lose weight, too?
Yes and no. Muscle weighs more than fat, so you may not see the number on the scale go down — but that may not be a bad thing depending on your goals.
See, when people talk about wanting to lose weight, they usually mean they want to lose fat — not muscle, not water, not their heaviest limb —and weightlifting can 100 percent help you do that by building muscle and blasting fat.
In fact, building muscle usually results in fat disappearing from your face, belly, butt and legs, giving you an overall leaner look. And, if combined with cardio and dietary changes, lifting weights can be a very helpful weight-loss tool.
Lifting Weight to Lose Weight
Weight loss can be difficult in practice, but weight-loss success really comes down to a simple equation: You need to burn more calories than you consume. One pound of fat is equal to 3,500 calories, according to JAMA, so if you burn 250 to 500 calories a day, you could potentially drop a pound a week. According to Harvard Health, a 155-pound person can burn 446 calories after 60 minutes of lifting free weights, and a 185-pound person can burn 532 calories.
Research shows that your body continues to burn calories after a lifting workout: The lean muscle mass you build from weightlifting will speed up your resting metabolism. "This means that hours after your workout — and sometimes even days after — your body will continue burning calories," says Lais DeLeon, Plankk Studio trainer. While other workouts like cardio certainly have their benefits (stress relief and heart health, among others), they burn calories in the moment. Weightlifting is unique in these after-burn benefits.
Lifting weights can also help with your body composition. When the number on the scale decreases, you're usually losing a combination of body fat, water and muscle, DeLeon explains, but resistance training can help you preserve more muscle than cardio for a more toned look. "You're more likely to burn body fat, instead of muscle, when you lift weights."
Read more: Is It Bad to Do Just Cardio?
Go Hard, Burn More
So, how long, hard and often do you need to lift weights to see weight loss results? The number of days you lift weights per week is much less important than the intensity of those workouts and the number of calories you consume, DeLeon explains.
That being said, she recommends weight training three to five days a week — along with aerobic activity and active rest — if weight loss is your goal. That's because the best workout plan is a well-rounded one: Not only will you target different muscles and challenge your body in new ways, but you won't get bored (and a lot of times, keeping your workouts interesting is half the battle).
DeLeon also suggests workout splits, where you target each muscle group on different days. (You can technically lift weights daily, as long as you allow each muscle group to rest for at least 48 hours, but this split set-up allows you to work in cardio and active recovery, too.)
Here's an example week: On Monday, you'd do a heavy legs and glutes workout, followed by active recovery on Tuesday (walking one mile or doing an hour dance or light cardio class). Wednesday, you could focus on upper-body weight training, followed by active recovery on Thursday and full-body resistance training on Friday, light legs and glutes on Saturday and light upper body on Sunday.
Burn Even More Calories with Circuit Training or HIIT
If you want to burn more calories in a shorter period of time, you can combine weightlifting with cardiovascular exercise in a weight-training circuit or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) routine, which involves repeated bouts of intense efforts followed by varying recovery periods.
A circuit-training routine should last about 20 to 30 minutes. Harvard Health reports that a 125-pound person can burn 240 calories after 30 minutes of circuit training — almost twice as many calories than from weightlifting alone. A 155-pound person can burn 298 calories after a half-hour of circuit training and a 185-pound person can burn 355 calories. An average of 297 calories burned in 30 minutes amounts to a loss of 2.5 pounds after one month — about a half-a-pound more than lifting weights alone.
Diet is Key to Losing Weight
No matter what workout you choose, you're going to have a hard time losing weight if you don't make changes to your diet: Unfortunately, exercise is just one part of an effective weight-loss plan — and diet is a major piece of the puzzle.
A person who burns 500 calories a day through weight-training exercises and slashes 500 calories every day from his diet can see a two-pound reduction in weight after just one week. That's a good thing, because healthy adults should limit their weight loss to two pounds a week, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Any more than that isn't sustainable and could have negative health consequences.
Bottom Line: Can Lifting Help You Lose Weight Quickly?
About two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and exercise, including weightlifting, can help you prevent weight gain and reduce your chance of developing a potentially life-threatening chronic illness such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. It might also help you attain the sculpted look you're striving for.
But how fast will you burn fat and lose any excess weight? That depends on how much work and discipline you choose to put in.