Do I need to do weights to lose weight?

You don’t have to – it may not do much to boost your calorie burn. But there are still some excellent reasons to include strength training in your weight loss plan.

Weight loss (and maintaining your new body weight) is a complex process. Exercise doesn’t actually have a huge impact on weight loss, regardless of what type you do. Food choices and your normal diet are far more impactful, but it’s more complicated than needing to eat fewer calories than you burn. And what your body is doing when you aren’t working out or eating plays a significant role that is often overlooked.

Strength training will help you maintain muscle mass over the long term. If you lift on a regular basis, your body will recognize that it needs to keep that muscle around for something. This is to your benefit during weight loss, weight maintenance, and aging in general. Bear in mind the following when you’re deciding whether you want to add some weights to your routine:

  • Weight loss from a combination of calorie restriction (changed diet) and increased exercise or daily movement will actually decrease your metabolism and daily energy use, since this is directly linked to total body weight. Strength training will help you maintain or increase your muscle mass and therefore your metabolism, which means that you can maintain higher energy use while still losing body fat.
  • Weight training can help the appearance of fat loss in certain areas of the body by giving underlying muscle more definition or size. It’s not possible to preferentially burn fat in certain areas (often called spot toning or spot reduction) – when fat loss happens, it happens all over the body.
  • While cardio exercise will burn the most calories in a given workout, because it’s relatively low intensity, your body quickly recovers. Weight-based exercise will create more of a challenge for your body, and you’ll use more energy in recovering from this. (Bear in mind that exercise intensity rather than type will ultimately determine how much energy the body will use for physical recovery.)

Strength training is also good for your health, in a variety of ways:

  • Regular resistance training will keep the cells involved in energy production and use working smoothly and your body systems functioning well. For example, muscles that are regularly exposed to high intensity exercises will be better at absorbing and using blood glucose, requiring less insulin production and decreasing diabetes risk.
  • Maintaining or even increasing muscle mass can help prevent frailty in old age.  Muscle mass and movement ability are linked, and movement ability means good mobility, agility, balance, and catching yourself if you trip and fall.
  • Strength training can prevent and help treat osteopenia and osteoporosis, two types of decreasing bone density. Bone loss can be due to the aging process, or can be brought about by calorie restriction or dieting. Lifting weights can help stimulate bone growth, especially when you also have adequate calcium intake.

One last note about strength training and weight loss: Because weights will stimulate at least a small increase in muscle mass, using weights in your weight loss program may actually lead to less change in scale weight. For most people, this is a tradeoff they’re happy to make – looking great makes the number on the scale matter a lot less!

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Elia M. (1992). Organ and tissue contribution to metabolic rate. In: Kinney JM, Tucker HN, editors. Energy Metabolism: Tissue Determinants and Cellular Corollaries. New York: Raven Press.
Plowman, S. A., & Smith, D. L. (2017). Exercise physiology for health, fitness, and performance (5th ed.). Sydney: Wolters Kluwer.

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