By Dr. Mercola
Your muscles follow the “use it or lose it” principle. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate. As noted in a Nerd Fitness2 blog discussing the merits of weight lifting, while your overall weight loss in terms of pounds may appear slower, you will tend to lose inches faster.
This is in part because, unlike traditional cardio, strength training causes you to continue burning more calories for up to 72 hours after the exercise is over through a phenomenon called after-burn.
To Burn More Calories, Add More Muscle
There are many success stories out there that can attest to the success of strength training for weight loss. A very common problem is that people try to “run off” their excess weight. More often than not, all that running ends in failure.
Lifting weights, however, helps shed pounds as a side effect of building and carrying more muscle. In short, muscle contraction is the “engine” that drives fat loss.
Provided you’re eating right, the increased energy expenditure caused by muscle contraction will help “melt off” your excess body fat. As noted in the fitness magazine Experience Life:3
“Many gym-goers — and even some health and fitness professionals — still believe that strength training is only for people who want to gain weight in the form of shirt-stretching muscles, and that long-duration exercise like running and cycling is the fastest way to lose fat...
[But]... real-life experience and the latest fitness research suggest that low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, while beneficial, is not the fastest route to leanness and overall health that many people believe it is.
The real key to fat loss is high-intensity exercise, especially strength training — with real weights, real sweat and real effort.”
Fitness experts like Dr. McGuff and Phil Campbell have also pointed out that, in order to actually access your cardiovascular system, you have to perform mechanical work with your muscles. So strength training is also an excellent cardiovascular workout.
Moreover, provided you’re doing high intensity strength training, you’ll also improve your insulin and leptin sensitivity, and boost your human growth hormone (HGH), otherwise known as the “fitness hormone.”
Two Variations of High Intensity Strength Training
Research over the past several years has revolutionized the exercise field. High intensity interval training (HIIT) consistently turns up at the top of the list for being the most efficient and effective, and that also applies for weight loss. HIIT seamlessly integrates with strength training to maximize the health benefits of exercise, and in combination, these two forms of exercise are likely an unsurpassed strategy for shedding excess weight.
There are two ways you can turn a strength training session into a high intensity workout. The featured article4 discusses “metabolic strength training,” which is basically strength training performed on a high intensity interval circuit. A sample workout demonstration is included above. Alternatively, by considerably slowing down your movements, you also end up with a very high intensity exercise. This is also known as “super-slow weight training,” and is the variation I personally prefer.
Strength Training Basics
There are two basic terms you must understand before planning your strength training routine:
- Reps: A rep (repetition) indicates one complete motion of an exercise. Be mindful of performing each rep using full range of motion
- Set: A set is a group of reps
So, if you performed two sets of 10 reps of bicep curls, this means you did 10 bicep curls, rested, then did 10 more. How many reps should you do? That really depends on your fitness level and your goals. Here are some general guidelines:
- For building strength and bulk, it’s generally recommended to do fewer than eight to 10 reps per set with heavier weights
- For tone and general conditioning, aim for 10 to 12 reps using more moderate weight
- For Super-Slow weight training, aim for only one set of 8-10 reps. You should not be able to do the last rep no matter how hard you try. If you can do 11 then increase the weight. If you can’t do 8 then decrease the weight
Regardless of how many sets you do, make sure the last rep in your set is done to failure. You want to fully fatigue that muscle in the last rep, while still maintaining control of the weight so you don’t lose your form, as this could lead to injury. As your fitness progresses, you’ll want to carry each exercise to “muscle failure”—where you just can’t complete all of the last rep. Adjust the amount of weight you use for each exercise depending on which muscles you are working. Larger muscles such as your thighs, chest, and upper back are stronger and will require a bit heavier weight. Smaller muscles, such as your shoulders and arms, require less weight.
Supercharge Your Strength Training with Super-Slow Techniques
As mentioned, when you slow down your movements, you automatically crank up the intensity. This is because the super-slow movement forces your muscle to access the maximum number of cross-bridges between the protein filaments that produce movement in the muscle. You only need about 12 to 15 minutes of super-slow strength training once a week to achieve the same HGH production as you would from 20 minutes of Peak Fitness sprints, which is why fitness experts like Dr. Doug McGuff are such avid proponents of this technique.
You can perform the super-slow technique using hand weights, resistance machines, bodyweight exercises, or resistance bands. The key to really making the super-slow workout work for you is to make sure you reach muscle fatigue. Your goal therefore is to use enough weight that you cannot do more than 12 reps, but not so much that you can’t complete at least four. Ideally, you will be somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to eight reps.
Higher Intensity Allows for Reduced Frequency
When the intensity is high, you can decrease the frequency of your strength training sessions. As a general guideline, when you start out don’t do more than two of these exercise sets per week. You need to recover and repair between high-intensity sessions. Also, do not exercise the same muscle groups each time. Recovery is important regardless of the exercise, but becomes increasingly important as the intensity goes up. This advice applies if you’re doing metabolic strength training as well. Once you become stronger, you will only want to do one super-slow session a week as you will need at least that long to recover.
In the featured article, fitness trainer Nick Tumminello5 suggests starting out doing one metabolic strength training session once or twice a week, building up to three or four times a week. I disagree. As explained by Dr. McGuff, as your strength and endurance increases, you should actually decrease how often you do the sessions, as each one is placing greater stress on your body, provided you keep pushing yourself to the max. So, a better plan might be to start out doing it say twice a week, and as your fitness improves, and the intensity you’re able to achieve increases, reduce the number of weekly sessions down to one.
How to Perform the Super-Slow Technique
I recommend using four or five basic compound movements for your super-slow (high intensity) exercise set. Compound movements are movements that require the coordination of several muscle groups—for example, squats, chest presses, and compound rows. Here is my version of the technique. I also demonstrate a number of exercises in the video above, starting around the 15-minute mark:
- Begin by lifting the weight as slowly and gradually as you can. In the video above, I demonstrate doing this with a four-second positive and a four-second negative, meaning it takes four seconds, or a slow count to four, to bring the weight up, and another four seconds to lower it. (When pushing, stop about 10 to 15 degrees before your limb is fully straightened; smoothly reverse direction)
- Slowly lower the weight back down to the slow count of four
- Repeat until exhaustion, which should be around four to eight reps. Once you reach exhaustion, don't try to heave or jerk the weight to get one last repetition in. Instead, just keep trying to produce the movement, even if it's not “going” anywhere, for another five seconds or so. If you're using the appropriate amount of weight or resistance, you'll be able to perform eight to ten reps
- Immediately switch to the next exercise for the next target muscle group, and repeat the first three steps
Strength Training Is for Everyone
Strength training is an integral part of a well-rounded exercise program, and is recommended for both sexes of all ages, including kids and seniors. Besides losing excess fat, gaining more muscle through resistance exercises will also help you maintain healthy bone mass and prevent age-related muscle loss. Strength training also has a beneficial impact on a number of biomarkers associated with aging itself, such as:
Strength and muscle mass (which results in greater balance, as you get older) Body composition Blood lipids Bone density Cardiorespiratory fitness Blood pressure Blood glucose control Aerobic capacity Gene expression and telomere length
Needless to say, the more consistent you are, the greater your long-term rewards. Having an active lifestyle is really an investment in your future well-being. Diet accounts for the majority, about 80 percent, of the health benefits you reap from a healthy lifestyle, but exercise is a crucial component and adjunct to a healthy diet. Exercise, and strength training in particular, essentially acts as a force multiplier that will allow you to achieve optimal health and weight.