By: Shaun Pang, SSC
Every once in a while, we get people walking into the gym and asking if strength training can help them if their goal is weight loss. Almost all of the time, they’re under the impression that weight loss means doing loads of cardio. In fact, many people still think that fitness is synonymous with cardio and that one’s cardiovascular capabilities is THE metric of how fit someone is. We know that it’s not the case and have been working hard to spread the virtues of strength and the benefits of being physically strong. But I digress.
Before you read any further, this has to be stated very clearly – there is no such thing as a weight loss exercise program, only a weight loss eating program. Exercise will definitely help you towards your weight management goal but if you don’t control your nutritional intake, you can exercise till the cows come home and still see no results.
Every coach worth their salt knows this irrefutable fact. Places that advertise a weight loss exercise program are pandering to the misconception that there’s indeed specific exercise that are meant for weight loss. Unfortunately, it’s what consumers think they need, and marketers know it. Plus, it’s a lot sexier to sell someone a “hardcore fat burning exercise class that will obliterate fat” rather than to teach proper lifting technique coupled with a sensible and sustainable nutrition program.
The next thing we need to talk about is the term “weight loss”. Your body is made up of a whole bunch of different stuff – fat, muscle, bone, connective tissue etc. Using the number on the scale staring back at you is not always an accurate representative of progress. While bodyweight can and should be used to gauge progress while on a weight management program, it’s not the be all and end all metric for success. Other metrics such as body composition and body measurements adds layers of accuracy in gauging the lifter’s progress. It’s not uncommon for new lifters to notice no change or even a slight increase in their bodyweight while reporting that their clothes are getting looser. A quick waist measurement would show that the lifter has lost a couple a of centimeters – in such a scenario, it’s hard to deny that the lifter is making good progress. If the lifter were to only use bodyweight as a metric for progress, they’ll be pretty disappointed despite them heading in the right direction.
With those out of the way, let’s carry on.
While cardio certainly does have its place in a program catered towards weight loss, strength training is a very powerful ally. We put everyone that starts training with us on the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression (SSNLP), no matter their experience/age/weight. We do so because strength is a general adaptation and is beneficial for everyone, regardless of training goals. The fastest gains a lifter will ever make during their entire lifting lifespan would be during the SSNLP. Since a person’s ability to recover from a physical stress is finite, it makes sense to avoid any other physical stress to devote as much resources as possible for the lifter to yield maximum returns during this phase. There are, however, exceptions to this.
Depending on how overweight the individual is, we may or may not add on any cardio to their program. If the individual is a little “fluffy”, we won’t add any form of cardio to their SSNLP for the reasons mentioned above. With training and a sensible nutrition plan, they’ll be able to shed the excess bodyfat. Once this lifter has exhausted their SSNLP and would like to pay more attention to dropping bodyfat, that’s when we’ll add in some cardio exercises. Since this individual is a lifter, we recommend doing conditioning work that has carryover to strength training – high intensity interval training (HIIT) work on the prowler or assault bike done after training on lifting days fits the bill nicely.
However, if the individual is obese and their health and quality of life depends on dropping a lot of weight, we’d add cardio exercises immediately into the program. This is not to say that strength training is not important for such an individual but the risk of carrying too much excess bodyfat far outweighs the importance of maximising the gains from the SSNLP. In fact, strength training is a very important aspect of a healthy and successful weight loss program. Holding on to as much muscle mass as possible while dropping a whole bunch of body weight is important for the long-term sustainability of a healthy bodyweight. But for now, their top priority should be to drop bodyweight.
We use a different approach when it comes to adding cardio exercises for obese individuals. As opposed to the person that’s a little “fluffy” doing HIIT stuff, our preference would be something low impact, done at a low intensity for a long duration – this is commonly referred to as steady state cardio. The cardio exercises would be done on both lifting and non-lifting days. Strength training, steady state cardio together with proper eating habits is a tried and tested formula for weight loss.
Perform compound barbells lifts with progressively heavier loads like one does on the SSNLP and you’ll get stronger. When you get stronger, your body will undergo many architectural changes. You put on muscle tissue. Bones get denser. Connective tissues get stronger. An increase in muscle mass raises your body’s basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of energy that a person needs to keep the body functioning at rest. Since BMR accounts for about 60-75% of the daily caloric expenditure by individuals, it’s a good idea to work towards bumping up this figure. A higher BMR means more calories burnt, even at rest. This can have a big impact if you’re looking to shed excess fat. For older adults, actively adding muscle tissue is even more important as BMR typically declines by 1-2% per decade, which is mainly due to the loss of muscle mass.
So can strength training help with weight loss? Certainly, especially when paired with steady state cardio but the biggest factor that will contribute to your weight loss success would be adherence to a sensible nutrition plan. It’s a simple formula to follow but by no means is it easy. I know, I’ve been through it before. It’s tough to be consistent and you might fall off the wagon a couple of times but I beseech you to get up and try again. Keep trying again and again till you succeed because when you eventually get there, which you will with patience. It’s extremely gratifying and you’ll feel better than you ever did in your life.