The Best Strength-Training Exercises for Weight Loss

The best strength-training or weight-lifting workout for weight loss builds muscle and blasts fat. (Image: ANRproduction/iStock/GettyImages)

Sure, cardio workouts like the treadmill, spin bike or elliptical machine can blast calories, but strength training can be just as — if not more — effective for long-term weight loss.

"Cardio burns more calories in the moment, but resistance training torches more fat overall," says Laura Micetich, fitness coach at Plankk Studio. Why? Because strength training builds muscle, which increases your resting metabolism. "Resistance training increases your body's calorie-burning ability at rest, not just in movement."

That means, while you're at home relaxing after a long workout, your body is still working — i.e. burning calories — to build and recover your muscles.

This doesn't mean you should ditch your cardio workout completely. Instead, Micetich suggests combining weight training with cardio movements for maximum effect. Add movements like walking lunges, jump rope, toe taps, box jumps and air squats in between sets to keep your heart rate up and your body in calorie-burning mode.

Doing a superset-based workout — alternating sets of two different muscle-building moves — three times a week can be incredibly effective, and you can get the whole workout completed in about 30 minutes. For each exercise, she suggests starting with a nice light set and pyramiding up in weight each set until the reps are challenging.

For example:

  • Leg extensions (hold the first rep in the extended position for 30 seconds, then do 15 reps) for four rounds; superset with seated hamstring curls (20 reps)
  • Four rounds of barbell squats (12 to 15 reps each) with 20 air squats in between sets
  • Four rounds of walking lunges (10 to 12 reps per leg) with box step ups (10 per leg)
  • Four rounds of 10 burpees superset with 10 kettlebell swings.

The Best Strength-Training Exercises for Weight Loss

1. Squat

Squats are one of the most effective strength-training workouts for weight loss. "I'm a huge fan, and they will seriously kick your butt," says Micetich. There are many variations of the simple compound move that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. These include front squats, barbell back squats, goblet squats, air squats and sumo squats.

Tip

Put your weight on your mid-foot and in your heels to take the pressure off of your knees when you squat.

2. Burpee

Nobody loves burpees, the exercise that combines push-ups and squat jumps into one physically demanding activity, but they work! "They'll get your heart rate up right away and wipe you out," says Micetich. She suggests keeping your core tight while squeezing your butt during the active part of the movement to get the most bang for your buck. And most importantly, don't be afraid to catch your breath between sets.

3. Deadlift

Deadlifts are another great exercise in the compound movement arsenal, according to Micetich. Just like with squats, the variations are endless — sumo, conventional, Romanian, trap bar, kettlebell or dumbbell — to name a few.

They're also a perfect solution for any weight-training routine because they work with almost any equipment, including barbells, kettlebells and dumbbells. In most variations, you want to lift your chest up and straighten your back, keeping your neck neutral. When you are ready to lift the weight, focus on driving your legs through the floor, not on pulling the weight up.

4. Push-up and pull-up

Push-ups and pull-ups aren't fun, but Micetich warns against shying away from the simple but fundamental strength-training move, which you can do pretty much anywhere. "Having control of your own body is one of the greatest signs of athleticism," she explains. "These movements can be challenging, but they're incredibly scalable for any ability level, making them perfect in most workouts."

5. Kettlebell swing

Kettlebell swings are an old favorite of nearly every trainer, as they engage your whole posterior chain, working your butt off (literally). Micetich explains the key to executing a perfect kettlebell swing is all in the hips. "Keep your back neutral with your weight in your heels and midfoot, not your toes," she says. "Focus on driving your hips forward in a hinge motion until the bell feels weightless, and then let it smoothly return to the starting position."

Sample Weight-Training Workouts to Slim Down

How do you use these moves to effectively blast calories? Designing a strength-training routine for weight loss isn't a case of simply switching your running and cycling to burpees and squats. For the best results, pick exercises that work multiple muscle groups to burn more calories. Micetich put together a few examples of calorie-blasting resistance workouts.

1. Kettlebell Blaster

Kettlebell front squat

  1. Pick two kettlebells of the same weight that feel comfortable. Bring them to your chest and let them rest on your shoulders, forearms and biceps in a neutral wrist position.
  2. Set your feet shoulder-width apart with toes straight or turned slightly out.
  3. Unlike other squats, which focus on sitting "back" with your hips, in this one you are going to sit straight down, keeping your chest high and elbows up.
  4. Press the ground away to stand up.
  5. Complete four rounds of 15.

Kettlebell deadlift

  1. Position your feet in a deadlift stance, with the kettlebell directly under your center of mass (between your feet).
  2. Place your hands on the kettlebell and keep your back neutral.
  3. Drop your hips and tighten your shoulders, hips and core by taking a deep inhale and bracing.
  4. Drive through the feet and push your hips forward.
  5. Repeat for four rounds of 10.

Kettlebell swing

  1. Keep your back neutral with your weight in your heels and midfoot, not your toes.
  2. Drive your hips forward in a hinge motion until the bell feels weightless. (Your arms will reach about a 90-degree angle out from your body.
  3. Let the kettlebell smoothly return to the starting position and repeat for six rounds of 10.

Light kettlebell jump

  1. Place a light kettlebell between your feet with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Reach down as though you're going to deadlift, but instead, drop your hips into a squat, drive through the midfoot and explode into a jump.
  3. Complete three rounds of 10.

2. Calorie Torcher

Front squat

  1. Place the barbell across the front of your shoulders, with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  2. Set your feet shoulder-width apart with toes straight or turned slightly out.
  3. Sit your hips back, bend your knees and push your knees out to lower into the squat. Keep your chest and elbows up throughout the rep.
  4. Continue bending your hips and knees until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  5. Press the ground away to stand up.
  6. Repeat for five rounds of five, with five burpees in between rounds.

Burpee

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, weight in your heels, arms at your sides.
  2. Lower your body into a squat, placing your hands on the floor directly in front of your feet.
  3. Shift your weight onto your hands.
  4. Jump your feet back and lower yourself into a plank position, forming a straight line from your head to your heels.
  5. Jump your feet back up to your hands, landing just outside of your hands.
  6. Jump up into the air, reaching your arms over your head.
  7. Repeat for a total of five between each set of front squats.

Pull-up

  1. Grab the pull-up bar with your arms shoulder-width apart and your palms facing away from you.
  2. Hang with straight arms and your legs off the floor, then pull yourself up by pulling your elbows down toward the floor until your chin passes the bar.
  3. Lower yourself slowly and with control until your arms are straight again.
  4. Complete 10 reps.

Tip

Use an assisted pull-up machine or resistance band if you can't do a full pull-up yet.

Push-up

  1. Start in a plank position with your hands shoulder-width apart, or a bit wider.
  2. As you bend your elbows and lower toward the ground, your elbows should be at about a 45-degree angle to your body. Remember to keep your core engaged and back flat. Your body should be one straight line.
  3. Complete 10 reps.

Tip

You can do your push-ups from your knees or your toes, or from a box if you’re looking for a challenge.

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