September 26·5 min read

Losing weight isn’t just about cardio. Here’s why

If you want to lose it, lift it.

There are a lot of reasons to team up with a personal trainer, and their expertise can put a wide range of goals in reach. For many, the primary goal is a desire to lose weight.

Whether this is your first dedicated exercise effort or you’ve tried and failed to shed pounds in the past, there’s a chance you’ve internalized some assumptions about how weight loss works. Clearly, it must be all about burning calories through cardio. And if you’re trying to look skinnier, bulking up with weight training must be counterproductive.

One of the primary benefits of personal training is that your coach has the expertise to steer you away from what you think you’re supposed to do and towards a program that’s designed to actually work. And when it comes to losing weight, that means making strength training the backbone of your fitness regimen. Yes, really.

Don’t be fooled: cardio definitely has a role to play. But relying entirely on manually burning calories to lose weight is, fittingly enough, kind of like riding a stationary bike: you’ll definitely get some exercise, but when it’s over, you’ll find yourself right back where you started.

Understanding the case for lifting weight requires thinking beyond the number you see on the scale. We’ll explore the relationship between metabolism, muscle, and fat, and soon enough you’ll see why lifting weight plays an essential role in losing it. 

Lifting builds a speedier, smarter metabolism 

It’s true that burning calories is the mechanism by which your body loses weight. But what controls that mechanism? The speed of your metabolism. Simply put, your metabolism is how your body converts the calories you consume for energy. The faster it runs, the more calories you’ll burn while at rest.

At some point, you’ve probably envied someone with a fast metabolism who could seemingly eat an entire pizza without gaining an ounce of weight. While it’s true that some folks are genetically blessed with a fast metabolism, the good news is that your metabolic rate is far from fixed. In fact, your metabolism can speed up or slow down depending on lifestyle choices like your fitness regimen.

Adding muscle subtracts weight 

So what does this have to do with lifting weights? It all relates to the difference between how your metabolism relates to muscle and fat. 

Because a pound of lean muscle tissue requires more calories for energy than a pound of fat, the gains you see from weight training give your metabolism no choice but to adapt as you get stronger. And because your metabolism is in constant motion, speeding it up means you’re burning more calories even when you’re not working out. So though it may sound counterintuitive, lifting weights with the aim of adding muscle mass revs up your metabolic engine for long-term success with weight loss and fat loss. 

Think beyond the scale 

While lifting is foundational to long-term weight loss, part of what may scare would-be pound shedders away from it can feel counterproductive. That’s because even lean muscle is more dense than body fat. While you’re replacing fat with a stronger foundation of muscle, that positive change can be hard to recognize if you fixate on the external validation of the scale. 

Conversely, seeing pounds go down doesn’t automatically mean things are moving in the right direction overall. In the short term, losing weight could mean you’ve lost muscle mass or water. You might’ve heard of fighters jumping rope with three sweatshirts on to lose a pound or two of water before a weigh-in. But dehydration obviously isn’t a sustainable weight loss strategy for those of us who don’t get punched in the face for a living. Discarding muscle mass could also end up making it harder for you to keep losing weight in the long run. That’s why any smart, sustainable weight loss program targets fat loss through at least some degree of weight training. 

Instead of impatiently abandoning weight training right before it’s about to pay off, look for more qualitative signs of progress in the short term. Are your clothes fitting better? Are you seeing other positive changes in the mirror? Do you feel more toned? More confident? Just because you can’t quantify those changes on the scale doesn’t make them any less real. And as you start to rack up these wins, you’ll summon the drive and the consistency to push those pounds away. 

Lift to lose for the long haul

So what happens as your lifting leads to losing? Any weight loss regimen will eventually require burning more calories over the course of a day than you ingest. And over time, the process of trading fat for muscle will slow down as your body adapts to your weight training routine. 

Getting to that point might make it seem like you’ve reached the end of the road with lifting, and can fully transition back to the familiar comfort of cardio. Not so fast. Once your focus shifts from muscle growth to muscle preservation, hitting the weights is more important than ever. If those muscles disappear, you might keep losing weight, but it eventually comes at the cost of longer-term metabolic efficiency. When combined with a proper approach to nutrition, picking up those dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells is a key part of  preserving and maintaining the lean muscle mass that leads to weight loss.

So where does cardio fit into the program? 

No matter your fitness goal, cardio is one of the four types of movement  that belongs in a well-rounded workout routine. It can help you increase endurance, improve heart health, lower cholesterol, and, yes, lose weight. Even still, cardio can’t stand on its own as the foundation of a weight loss-focused workout routine. 

What about all the calories that your smartwatch or stationary bike said you just burned? Those numbers aren’t made up. But whereas weight training motivates your metabolism to burn calories even when you’re at rest, the caloric benefits of cardio are more or less done by the time you’ve returned to your resting heart rate. Think of the difference between weight training and cardio as the difference between working smarter and working harder: it takes a little bit of both to succeed, but there’s an obvious advantage to getting more output from the same amount of effort.

Even if there isn’t a direct correlation between the speed of your cardio movements and your metabolism, that doesn’t mean you should consider that as an excuse to skip endurance training entirely. Utilize cardio as a strategic supplement to weight training, and you’ll reap the health benefits that don’t necessarily show up on the scale or in the mirror.

Depending on your schedule, aiming for one or two weekly sessions of 20 to 30 minutes at a medium intensity is a good place to start. And don’t stress over picking the “right” cardio. As long as it’s an activity you’ll enjoy and can keep coming back to, it’s a good fit for you. 

Burnt out on an all-cardio gym diet? A Future coach can help you work harder and smarter as you lift weight to lose weight. They’ve got the expertise to create a customized workout plan that builds muscle and burns fat. Even if you’ve never picked up a dumbbell, your Future coach can advise on strength training form and techniques. They’re just a call or message away whenever you need a kick-butt motivator to lift you up, and they’re always ready to adapt your workouts to keep things fun and flexible. 

Ready to start? Get a big discount off your first month and try a smarter, more sustainable way to shed some weight.

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