Q: I'm overweight. When I lift weights to try to lose weight, not only do I not lose weight, people tell me that I look heavier. I thought that weight lifting is supposed to help me shed body fat? What am I doing wrong?
A: If you're gaining muscle mass from lifting weights, you may end up looking bigger, even though you're trying to slim down. But it's not that easy to build lots of muscle, so unless you've been at it for a long time, it may be that you are simply eating moreâ??and appearing heavier as a result.
If you are significantly overweight, you need to do more than simply lift weights to lose pounds or inches. This may contradict what you've been told in the gym. In the body-building world there's an idea floating around that pounds don't matter because the secret to getting lean is to shift your body composition by building more muscle and decreasing your percentage of body fat. This is a somewhat simplified claim that isn't as miraculous a solution as it seems to be.
First of all, to someone who is 50, 70, or 100 pounds or more overweight, pounds do matter. And since fat cells do not turn into muscle cells, ignoring body weight and trying to shift body composition would entail somehow gaining say, 50 pounds of muscle, while losing 50 pounds of fat. Even hardcore body builders may find it impossible to gain 50 pounds of muscle.
Not only do you have to eat more than you normally do to build muscle mass, you also need to lift a serious volume of weights (lots of sets and reps with heavy weights). Even if you do so, it's tough to gain a lot of muscle (that's why so many people succumb to steroids.) On average, it takes around six months of progressive weight training for a woman to gain around two pounds of muscle. In this time, men will gain a little more, but not much.
Shedding all that body fat isn't as easy as the body-building mantra suggests either. Fat doesn't just start melting off once you start weight training. A position statement by the National Strength and Conditioning Association notes that resistance training may improve body composition and decrease body fat, but the body fat loss is "modest." Clearly, lifting weights to lose significant amounts of body fat is not a realistic option for someone who is seriously overweight.
So for an overweight or obese person for whom pounds do matter, does lifting weights help them lose weight?
So far, there's little evidence to show that resistance training by itself leads to weight loss. In 2004, esteemed strength-training researcher William Kraemer, Ph.D., of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, studied muscle hypertrophy (excessive growth) in women doing periodic resistance training.
He found that untrained young women who lifted progressively heavier weights for six months got stronger and gained muscle but showed no significant decrease in body fat. Kraemer and colleagues concluded that calorie control from dieting may be a more effective way to lose fat.
The 2009 position stand from the American College of Sports Medicine, "Appropriate Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for Weight loss and Prevention of Weight Regain in Adults,"
notes that "resistance training does not seem to be effective for weight reduction ... and does not add to weight loss when combined with diet restriction." That's not to say that lifting weights isn't great for youâ??it is. It's just not the magic pill to produce weight loss for an overweight or obese person.
So what's the prescription most likely to produce the results you want? Clocking up more cardio minutes by being more physically active every single day. That means getting on a cardio machine, walking around the block, riding your bike, hiking or playing a game of hoops. The more you move, the more calories you burn, and over time, this can lead to weight loss and fat reduction, especially in the belly. Plus, a body with less fat will let the muscle you have firmed up from lifting weights look more defined.
So how much do you need to do? There has been much controversy over this and research in this area is just starting to accumulate. But the evidence from well-designed studies shows that you can absolutely lose weight from cardio workouts alone. The only caveat is that you have to do more of it than you might think. While any amount of physical activity is good for your health, the ACSM position stand notes that weight loss is rarely seen when people do 150 minutes or less week (So, a 20 to 30 minute walk every day probably won't cut it).
But greater amounts of activityâ??for people fit enough to keep it upâ??can make a dent in fat depots and a difference on your scale. Aiming to move for at least for more at least 150 minutes, and preferably up to 225 to 420 minutes per week, can burn enough extra calories to produce a noticeable weight loss. So, that means trying to get in about an hour a day on most days of the week. Other official recommendations note that it takes around 60 to 90 minutes of cardio per day to manage weight. Combining cardio minutes with calorie-controlled eating can produce the biggest weight loss results.
But that doesn't mean that lifting weights is a waste of time. Resistance training has been shown to improve health risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, bone mass and insulin resistance.
And it keeps you strong, probably decreasing your injury risk while you're racking up all those cardio minutes. And it's especially important to lift weights if you're dieting, since resistance training can help preserve lean body mass, most of which is muscle, that's normally lost when dieting alone.
If you're not used to doing cardio, start slowly for 10 to 15 minutes at a time and work your way up to faster, longer and/or harder sessions gradually.
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