You run and run and run, but you don't shed a pound. What gives? It's one of the most common pain points for people who exercise. All of that effort and so little reward, but why is that?
Simple: Cardio often isn't the fastest way to lose weight, and it's certainly not the only way. There is a solution, though, which will allow you to spend less time in the gym and see even better results.
Strength training is a critical component of any program than emphasizes long-term fat loss.
Alwyn Cosgrove, fitness expert and author
1. Burn More Fat With Strength Training
Far too many people are focused on how many calories they burn while they’re in the gym, but this is short-sighted.
Stop focusing on how many calories you burn in the gym and instead focus on how your body expends calories outside the gym. You burn calories throughout the day regardless of what you're doing, but exercise helps increase the rate at which you burn those calories.
With most forms of traditional steady-state cardio, you expend calories while you’re exercising, but once you stop, you quickly go back to your normal metabolic rate. Strength training, however, builds muscle, and more muscle helps you burn more calories — even when you’re sitting on the couch.
"Strength training is a critical component of any program than emphasizes long-term fat loss," said Alwyn Cosgrove, co-author of the book The New Rules of Lifting.
Think of it like this: The more muscle you have, the more fuel you're constantly burning. A treadmill or elliptical trainer is often seen as the quick fix to shed body fat — and they're certainly useful if your goal is to improve cardiovascular health or endurance — but strength training is a powerful ally.
2. Resistance Training Won't Make Women "Manly"
This myth just won’t die, and unfortunately, it’s horribly misguided.
It takes a lot of work both in and out of the gym to get big or bulky. You not only need to be dedicated to your training, but you need proper nutrition if you’re serious about putting on size.
"There is a big misconception about what causes bulk. Bulk isn't muscle; it is muscle covered by fat," said Mike Roussell, author and nutritional consultant. "So if you feel that you are too bulky, then it is important to fine-tune your diet to lose the excess fat — not give up weight training."
Women have a distinct disadvantage if the goal is to put on size. They have about one-tenth the testosterone of males, and testosterone is a key component in the muscle-building process.
Women can build muscle, though. But in general, instead of big and bulky, they'll be the type of long and lean muscles many women desire.
3. Weight Training Benefits Your Athleticism
If your goal is to look, move and feel like an athlete, you need a corresponding strength-training routine.
"Elite athletes need their body to function as an efficient unit," says Wil Fleming, performance coach and co-owner of Force Fitness and Performance in Bloomington, Indiana. "So focus on big-bang movements that utilize multiple muscle groups — both the prime movers and the smaller stabilizers.
The premise here is simple: Stop isolating body parts and pumping away mindlessly on the machines. Focus on compound, multi-joint exercises. Hire a trainer or coach and learn how to squat, deadlift, chin and overhead press safely and effectively.
The only reason your athleticism will be limited in the gym is if you follow an ineffective program or one that’s designed for “show” versus “go.”
4. Running Isn't Always the Best Way to Get Fit
It’s not that running is bad, but it puts a fair amount of stress on your muscles and joints. Recreational runners can have injuries caused by weakness in the core and hip-stabilizing muscles. The better plan is to take time to develop the muscles of your core and hips first instead of jumping off the couch and running three miles.
For the hip stabilizers, start off with basic single-leg exercises like split-squats, lunges and step-ups. For the core, exercises like front planks, side planks and bird dogs will help get you stronger and more stable, making you much less likely to injure yourself when you do decide to run that 5K.
Some people need activities that are a bit more joint-friendly, as the pounding caused by running on a treadmill or pavement is simply too much. If you like more traditional options, a dual-action exercise bike or rower will not only engage a ton of muscles but take some of the stress off your joints as well.
If you want newer (and possibly more exciting) variations, consider kettlebell swings, medicine ball or barbell circuits, Prowler pushes or even battle rope exercises.
There are many different ways to get into shape, and while running is great, it’s just one option you have at your disposal.
The Bottom Line
Strength training can help you lose body fat and is likely a quicker ticket to better fitness than steady-state cardio. It also won’t limit your athleticism, but more likely improve it, and women can derive tremendous benefit from resistance training without getting bulky.
For those of you who like to run, remember it's only one way to improve your fitness, but definitely not the only way. So be sure to mix in some strength training to prevent injury and improve athleticism.
As with any program, though, you have to put in the work. It’s time to get into the gym!
Shake Up Your Workout
IF YOU... Run three miles, three days a week.
TRY THIS... Perform strength-training exercises with a moderate resistance for two to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions, focusing on the big muscle groups like your chest, back and legs. This should only take about 30 minutes. Follow it up with a 1- to 1.5-mile run to still get your cardio workout.
IF YOU... Lift three times a week using a machine circuit.
TRY THIS... Learn to lift with free weights and make those the cornerstone of your program. Make it a goal to learn one compound exercise per week. Good lifts include squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, rows, push-ups, bench presses and overhead presses.
IF YOU... Lift every day but don't do cardio.
TRY THIS... Shift to a more balanced routine. Strength training three to four times per week is plenty. At the end of your workouts, consider throwing in some form of cardio. If you don’t enjoy running, try different options like the rower, kettlebell training or even battle ropes if your gym has them.