Advice: Strength training for weight loss

I’m getting a lot of conflicting advice about strength training and thought I’d open it up to the 'Dope. Essentially, I want to do strength training as a part of weight loss, with the main goal as increasing my metabolism, and a secondary goal of being more flexible and having more endurance (so doing aerobic exercise is a bit easier). I’m doing this for my health, so I don’t want to skip cardio if that’s what’s best for me.

However, everyone I ask seems to have a very different idea of what I should be doing exactly. I’m female, and don’t really care about bulk (but am happy to add muscle mass in order to reduce fat, if that’s what needed) or necessarily gaining a lot of physical strength.

Everyone, of course, agrees to rest for two days after each muscle group, and work different groups on different days. However, otherwise, their plans are very different.

Friend #1 is a male. He advises doing 8-12 reps at very high weight, in 2 or 3 sets, with two minute waits between each. He advises no cardio, or no more than 5 minutes of it if I insist. He claims that cardio before weight training will remove its effectiveness and possibly cause me to lose muscle mass (!). He says the same thing for doing more reps. If I want to do cardio, he says I can only do it on off days. He advises strength training four days per week and cardio, if I want, on the other days. He also insists I should be taking whey protein supplements and creatine as well, and possibly casein, and recommended a loading dose of creatine of 30g per day for several weeks in order to get more benefits. (This individual learned all of this from a somewhat serious weight lifter, but insists it will work best for my situation too.)

Friend #2 is female. She advises at least a half hour of cardio first for calorie burning and reducing the likelihood of injury by warming up the muscles. Also, she says this will improve the cardio benefit of strength training. Then, she advises doing lots of reps - 20 at a time, at least 3 sets - with lower weight. (This individual learned this method from a personal trainer.)

Friend #3 is female. She advises doing ten minutes of cardio, then ten minutes of strength training, then repeating alternately until I have 30 minutes or more of cardio and have worked all the muscle groups I want to that day. She says that doing more than 10 minutes of cardio at a time means that I won’t get as much benefit from the strength training. She also advises lots of reps at low weight.

I find all of this quite confusing. I really don’t want to be at the gym 6 or 7 days a week, but I do want to maximize the benefits I can get from exercise. I know how to eat healthily (though I don’t always do it) but I don’t feel that I truly understand what I should be doing, exercise-wise. I am also doubtful about spending a ton of money on supplements. Your help appreciated.

Any kind of cardio is much more effective for weight loss than strength training. That said, any well balanced fitness plan must have strength training.

Do one of each
Light weight with high reps(15-20) builds endurance, heavy weight with medium reps(12-6)build mass,heavy weight with very low reps(2-4) build strength
Bench press/dumbbell press
Pullups/pulldowns/bent row
Squats/leg extensions/leg press
Hamstring curls
Toe raises(on a machine if available or toe pushes on a leg press machine)
Overhead press/dumbbell press
Side laterals
Use full range of motion with all exercises
Core work-there are numerous exercises that fill this need-take your pick.

The key element here is going to be your diet. I know you’ve probably heard that before, but it’s so important that it bears repeating. Once you’ve got that taken care of, exercise becomes important.

In brief, yes, aerobic exercise can cause you to lose muscle mass, and it is not an effective means of weight loss. It is important to keep your cardiovascular fitness up, but a combo of walking and vigorous weight training can do that.

The primary purpose of weight training is to keep your muscle mass and metabolism up. The number one mistake that women make with weights is following programs that are designed to tone. Fat loss just doesn’t work that way, and the programs are often counterproductive. Being female means that it’s likely going to be difficult for you to add a significant amount of mass without taking drugs, so don’t worry about that. Check out this site for some solid advice aimed at women who are starting out with weights.

Please, please, please read ultrafilter’s post. Hear him now and listen to him later, because every word is spot on. Nutrition will trump any exercise routine in terms of progress - working out is actually relatively easy. It’s the eating properly that’s difficult.

I especially implore you to take any workout advice tailored specifically for women with a boulder of rocksalt as they will often have you standing on a swiss ball doing squat-twist-overhead press/extensions with 5 lb weights for sets of thirty. This is counter-productive - again, the site mentioned by ultra is excellent and remains one of the few exceptions to the rule. Just remember, if you’re afraid of “bulking up,” how hard all the testosterone-fueled boys toil just to scrape together a few measly pounds of beefsteak - and that’s with the hormonal advantage.

Just remember that it’s dietary caloric restriction, and not “cardio,” that helps you lose weight. Exercise merely stokes the furnace a little.

I appreciate the advice, and I understand your inclination, but I’m specifically interested in the questions I posed in the OP. Assume my diet is fine - where is the science on cardio vs strength training, and high weight vs low weight?

I don’t agree with any of your friends in toto.

The purpose of strength training for weight management is to build muscle mass, and thus raise your metabolic rate (muscle burns calories even at rest, due to muscle tone. Muscle tone is a very weak state of contracture where a very few of the fibers of a muscle are contracted.) Therefore, you are not generally burning calories during weight training - that is what cardio is for. You are jazzing up your metabolism and increasing the size of your muscles.

Don’t worry about getting “too big”. That is what women always say, and it is much like saying you don’t want to practice the piano because you don’t want to turn into Liberace. You won’t turn into Liberace unless you deliberately try to turn into Liberace, and unless you have the extremely rare combination of genetics and circumstance that will allow you to turn into Liberace, or Ahnold Schwarzenegger, for that matter.

That having been said, you can do weights first and then do cardio, if that works for you. Or you can do cardio first and then weights, if that works for you. “Works for you” is defined here as “something that you can stick to”. I always lift first and do cardio second, because I like lifting and don’t like cardio, and I can read on the Stairmaster and distract myself. But there isn’t going to be much difference, providing you don’t wear yourself out doing one so that you skimp on the other.

But do three sets of eight reps on the base exercises (as listed by runner pat, although I would do biceps curls rather than laterals), on three non-consecutive days of the week. Monday-Wednesday-Friday, or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. Use weights in each exercise that will allow you to do three sets of eight in perfect form, and work at it until you can do three sets of twelve, Then increase the weight and go back to eights. Women generally choose weights that are too light (men usually go too heavy).

Free wieghts are better than machines, unless you don’t have access to free weights, or don’t like them. Warm up adequately, stretch after lifting, use a spotter, back off when you are stale, use perfect form on every rep of every set. If you stick with it for six months, you’ll be hooked.

Then you end up an aging gym rat like me.


[banging my head on the floor]Bwahahahahaha…[/banging my head on the floor]

I’m sure this parses out intelligently to the two of you, but damn if this isn’t a big part of trying to understand available advice. It’s hard to figure out which is the good advice to begin with, exacerbated by ostensibly conflicts.

Mrs. Dvl and I i) moved out of the city and work from home (no more daily walks to and fro), and ii) quit smoking over a couple years (fits and starts and relapses oh my), which resulted in about fifty to sixty pounds we’re stuck with.

At the moment we’re on the treadmill for an hour a day and cutting way back on caloric intake (to about ten to fifteen percent below suggested maintenance levels).

The next step is to add weight training to our regime, and I hope the OP doesn’t mind me piggybacking on her thread.

How do we figure out where the balance should be between the picking-up-and-replacing-heavy-objects and plodding-along-on Dante’s-cruel-joke? We figure with dedication it will take anywhere from nine months to a year to get close to our former volumes (weight is a misnomer since some fat pounds will be replaced by muscle pounds), and that slow 'n steady is the right course. But with aerobic exercise, muscle building, and general stretching, how best to parse out the time?

Well, if you must choose one, I’d go with Guy #1. He’s correct in that protein supplementation can be very useful for muscle growth. As a rule of thumb: take whey protein peri-workout as it is rapidly absorbed and impacts insulin readily. Take slower-digesting casein (or a whey/casein blend) for more general meal-replacement uses. Insufficient protein intake can really hamper your progress, and I’d think about adding a whey shake after your workout at the very least.

The community is decidedly more divided on the subject of rep ranges. One thing to keep in mind is that, ideally, loading and repetitions should be inversely proportional - to induce the same workload, lighter weights must be moved more. This can cause problems with the average lifter, as in my experience extremely high-weight/low-rep and low-weight/high-rep routines are difficult to maintain. The former requires intense, explosive output and flawless form; the latter burns like all hell and presents difficulties with progression.

Anybody that uses the word “toning” should be automatically disregarded. The conventional wisdom dictates that lower repetition ranges prioritize strength output, while higher (up to, say, 15 or so) ranges induce greater degrees of hypertrophy. Four sets of eight is a good baseline and should offer nicely balanced benefits.

Cardio is bunk, insofar as its reputation as the golden standard of weight loss. Burning calories is an easy and inexact science - weight lifting in itself, while not as demanding on your energy systems in the same way a brisk run might be, confers notable benefits. The cites aren’t great (mostly because I’m at work and googling it in) offers increased basal metabolism, enhanced insulin response, andincreased bone density as benefits of strength training. Obviously there’s the “sweet gun” factor, although as a female I suspect that’s less of a pressing issue.

Cardio in close conjunction with weight-training has been shown to increase cortisol (the infamous “stress hormone”) concentrations, and should be avoided. One or the other, on any given day.

Of course, many of the aforementioned qualities can be credited to exercise in general. There’s a lot of snake-oil salesmen and conflicting information in the workout industry, and I encourage you to do some research of your own. What isn’t being debated is that exercise, of any type, is good. More intense exercise is generally better. What really matters is staying consistent with whatever routine you decide to use - consistent means measuring things in months instead of days.

I don’t know much about the science but I do know what worked for me. I was 32 years old, never worked out in my life, was always naturally somewhat-thin. But having a desk job for 10 years took its toll on my body, I found my gut growing over my belt and just feeling tired and weak all the time.

I started the P90X program (if you watch cable TV on the weekend you can’t miss the infomercials) and I got great results. The program is supposed to be for 90 days but it took two 90-day cycles for me to get at peak form. Nothing quite like the guys in the video because I wasn’t willing to give up all the foods I like, but I absolutely lost major fat AND put on more muscle than I’ve ever had in my life. They way they do it is alternating strength training days with aerobic days. Specifically the days go like this 1) Back & Chest 2) Plyometrics (jumping aerobics) 3) Shoulders & Arms 4) Yoga 5) Legs & Back 6) Kenpo kickboxing 7) rest day.

If I were home I’d post my before and after pictures, again, nothing quite like the guys in the video, but I’m happy with how I look. As a 5’8 guy I went from 160 pounds and 3 pullups to 140 pounds and up to 15 pullups. Naturally, I’m stronger all over too. Even if you don’t go this route, it’s definitely possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time.

Do you have access to a gym, or are you looking for a home work out?

If you have access to a gym, I would look to do a single session with a personal trainer. Ask around your gym, or watch them work out with somebody and try and find one whose style you like. One session shouldn’t be expensive, tell them you want a basic full body work out. They should teach you to do the movements correctly, and give you a workout to do for the next 6 weeks to 2 months. If you’re just starting out (if not, please don’t be offended by my assumption), then learning to do everything without injuring yourself is quite important.

Sorry, Rhythdvl, I’ll try to clarify what Tubesand I meant.(and Tubes, if I get your take wrong, feel free to slap me.)

You lose weight by burning more calories than you take in. You do this by restricting calories, exercise, or a combination of both. Everyone is different as to what works.

Cardio does burn more calories than weight lifting for the same amount of time, but the weights will help maintain muscle mass.

Conventional wisdom is wrong here. Hypertrophy is a function of the total load on a muscle, and which fibers are engaged. To simplify a bit, there are three types of muscle fibers: slow twitch, fast twitch and very fast twitch. Slow twitch fibers are capable of producing low force for very many reps, fast twitch fibers are capable of producing moderate force for a medium number of reps, and very fast twitch fibers are capable of producing large amounts of force for very few reps. In addition, the growth and strength potential increases as you move from slow twitch to very fast twitch, so targeting your very fast twitch fibers is the fast track to what most people want.

Unfortunately, the lifting program that most people come up with are mostly going to engage the slow twitch fibers, which is not productive. Anything over about eight reps per set is of limited value from a strength/size standpoint, although that doesn’t mean that it’s not occasionally worthwhile, as I’ll explain below. Targeting the very fast twitch fibers requires low reps and heavy weights (say three per set), and is not recommended for beginners. It’s also very important to note that strength depends on your nervous system being in shape, and high weights are extremely good for that purpose.

I do have to add one caveat: what I’m discussing above is sarcomeric hypertrophy, which is an increase in the size/strength of muscle fibers. There’s also sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which is an increase in the size of the tissue that feeds nutrients to those fibers. You can get that through low weights/high reps, but it doesn’t contribute to that rock hard quality that most people are going after.

I hate to post so frequently (although I won’t deny my love for discussions of health and nutrition,) but I must say I admire your awareness of the timescale involved. That being said, here’s a fact, bloated with the dubious credit of anecdotal experience: most people overestimate how hard it’ll be, but severely underestimate how long it will take. Here’s what I suggest:

Stretch daily. Particular emphasis on hip flexors and quariceps, as these are the most commonly, chronically overactive postural muscles. Brief, 10-15 minute sessions should be fine; I love to stretch in the shower with a hot spray directed at the muscle in question.
Strength training thrice weekly. Every other day works well for most people. I suggest full-body workouts focusing on big, compound lifts that never exceed 45 minutes. This may differ from most of the advice which will advise “splits” of muscle groups for each workout. Kind of a toss-up here, my personal belief is that most muscles can handle more than a once-weekly exhaustion. An example workout might look something like:

[li]Deadlift (5x5)[/li][li]Hang clean and press (5x5)[/li][li]Dips (3x10)[/li][li]Seated row (3x10)[/li][/ul]

Cardio if you absolutely must. Honestly my opinion is that properly executed weight-lifting and nutrition planning should be enough. YMMV, of course, and so if you’re dead-set on plodding along with Dante once in a while, just make sure you’re not doing it during your weight training sessions.

As I will reiterate countless times, diet is by far the most important factor. Keep a food log and start spacing your meals to six times daily. Cooking and eating should consume the majority of your “fitness time.”

ETA: I agree, ultrafilter, that exceeding eight reps diminishes a lot of value when lifting weights. However, for supplemental/postural purposes I don’t think that it’s completely contraindicated. And as you say, the really beneficial high weight/low rep stuff needs a lot of experience with form and proper technique. What’s most clear, however, is that bodybuilders employing both techniques can achieve excellent results.

Not quite true. Each minute spent actually lifting weights burns more calories than a minute spent doing cardio (I assume you mean traditional aerobic exercise), but you can spend many more minutes doing cardio than lifting, unless you’re lifting anemically. However, no matter what your situation, you’re going to spend much more time not exercising than exercising, and lifting boosts your non-exercise metabolism much more than cardio.

The primary benefit of cardio is in maintaining or increasing your aerobic fitness, but you don’t need to walk on a treadmill for that. In fact, just walking on the treadmill probably won’t do that much for your aerobic fitness in the first place.

For all you folks who hate the treadmill, keep in mind that anything that gets your heart pumping is cardiovascular exercise. Going for a walk, playing basketball, lifting with some actual intensity–that’s all cardio, and it beats the hell out of the treadmill.

Now we’ve got some things going.

My followup question, Interconnected Series of Tubes, is where does “Cardio if you absolutely must…just make sure you’re not doing it during your weight training sessions” come from? What is the specific negative of doing cardio in the same workout of doing strength training? That was one of the main concerns with my male friend’s advice. He was dead-set in his belief that cardio is destructive to weight training. You seem to agree. However, many others (including ultrafilter’s site recommendation, which I’ve been reading through) seem to imply that cardio is fine. That site specifically recommends a few minutes of light cardio and then all the cardio you want at the end.

So, where is the science? What is the impetus to restrict cardio or force it to the end of a session?

(Gotta love slow Tuesdays.)

A calorie burned is a calorie burned, fluiddruid. It doesn’t particularly matter what you’re doing to burn them, with the exception that running on a treadmill has a limited purview of benefit - it’s basically a few extra calories. You could easily achieve the same thing by playing a sport, going to a climbing gym, or a night of sweaty, passionate sex. Or even weight lifting! There’s nothing particularly bad about the concept of “cardio” save that, for your time, there’s a lot of other things you could do that achieve the same result.

In the context of weight lifting, however, cardio is to be avoided. The entire point of strength training is to stress the body into overcompensating. By combining cardio with any properly intense lifting session, you very easily overtax yourself. The result is cortisol - which has a plethora of undesirable effects in the context of body composition.

So, basically; cardio is fine, but inefficient, most of the time, but actively detrimental if closely combined with weight-lifting. Do it on your days off, if you must.

I think Tubes is being a little too anti-cardio, although as you can see I’m not that big a fan myself. It’s not where you get the most bang for your buck, and therefore it shouldn’t be your top priority. In particular, you don’t want to do a bunch of cardio and then get to your weights already drained. But if you have some time after you’re done lifting, go for it–it will help you to burn some fat, although nowhere near as much as you’d like.

The reason that you want to keep up your aerobic fitness is that your ability to metabolize stored fat is limited by the amount of oxygen you can take in. The more oxygen you can take in, the more fat you’ll burn, even when you’re not exercising.

ETA: After submission, I see Tubes’s latest post, and I do agree with that. In particular, don’t try to do both intensely on the same day. It’s very hard to do anything productive when you’re injured.

Obviously, I’m pro-cardio. I ride a handcycle for cardio(long story) and lift at a local gym. I do not try to do both in one session. Lift in the morning, ride in the afternoon or evening. If you have time to workout twice a day, you can put more focus into each session. And I was able to build muscle while doing quite bit of cardio. YMMV

I am not familiar with this whole cardio pro & con discussion, and always thought that doing cardio was better for your overall health than not doing cardio, all other things being equal.

Without trying to cause Workout War III, maybe someone knowledgeable can comment on this:

Some exercises are more effective than others at tapping into fat as an energy source. In fact the cardio machines where I work out have charts to show what heart rate is good for cardio training and the rate better for fat burning. Does this matter in the long run? I refer to the “a calorie is a calorie” argument.

I also have to say that I have read about training for a long time and have seen more contradictory advice than you can shake a stick at. This thread is a good cross-section of that.

There are so many conflicting messages out there it is hard to say what the best method is for everyone.

I can only tell you that I started running in April. I didn’t do or consider doing any serious weight training until about two months ago. The impact that weight training has had on my overall fitness/size and how healthy I feel and look is INSANE.

I have dropped only 10lbs since April, but I have lost SIX INCHES on my waist, most of it in the last 2 months. Last week I dropped 2.5 lbs and I only ran once–the rest was strength training.

I use actual iron weights and lift the highest weight I’m comfortable with and do splits – upper body on one day, lower body the next day, and alternate. I haven’t ‘‘bulked up’’ … just slimmed down. By and large, I’d have to say the idea of having women do multiple reps of lighter weights to ‘‘tone’’ their muscles is ineffective. The health benefit of lifting higher weights and shorter reps (say 3 sets of 10 reps at a higher weight) is immediately obvious to me. I feel strong immediately, and the energy/metabolism boost lasts well into my next workout.

That is not to disparage cardio–it’s important for many reasons, but for losing weight it just doesn’t seem to do the trick for me. It’s all about diet and lifting (I also climb a lot of stairs on the way to work.)

Go here for amazing advice and myth-busting about women and lifting weights.