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Weight Training for Fat Loss

Program Development: Matthew Rice, CSCS, NSCA-CPT

Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss

The scale does not tell the whole story. Losing 10 pounds of fat is much different from losing 5 pounds of fat and 5 pounds of muscle.

Muscle is needed to burn fat. If muscle is lost, fat burning ability is reduced. Exercise affects metabolism in two ways:

  • Burns calories while exercising, as well as increasing metabolism for several hours after exercise.
  • Weight training can cause an increase in lean muscle tissue, which raises your resting metabolic rate.

Women should not be afraid to gain muscle. Muscle occupies less space than fat, provides tone, and also burns calories at rest.

The Bottom Line

Calories In vs. Calories Out will determine if you lose or gain weight.

One pound of fat = 3,500 Calories. In order to lose one pound of fat per week, you must burn 500 more Calories per day than you are taking in. The most effective way to create a Caloric deficit is to decrease Caloric intake while increasing energy expenditure.

Spot reduction is a myth. You cannot lose fat from one particular area of your body by doing a certain type of exercise. Everyone is different genetically, and will lose fat from different areas at different rates.

Fat loss, not weight loss, should be the goal of an exercise program.

Getting Started

If you haven’t been physically active, build up gradually. Any increase in your physical activity can make a difference. Do not have an "all-or-nothing" mentality! Consistency in your exercise program will be the long-term key.

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Progressive Overload

Gradual progression of stimulus is the key to maintaining improvements. Only an overload to the muscle will cause it to adapt to the training stimulus. Changing variables such as frequency, intensity, and duration will ensure continued improvements.

Anaerobic Exercise (Weight Training)

Anaerobic exercise, or weight training, is vital to maintain or even increase lean muscle mass.

Beginning goal: 2-3 days per week of total body weight training. Between 6-9 exercises, as little as 1 set per body part, 12-20 repetitions per set. Work up to 3-4 days per week, up to 3-5 sets for certain body parts, 8-15 repetitions per set.

Work all of your major muscle groups:

  1. Chest
  2. Back
  3. Shoulders
  4. Biceps (front of upper arm)
  5. Triceps (back of upper arm)
  6. Abdominals
  7. Quadriceps (front thigh)
  8. Hamstrings (rear thigh)
  9. Calves

Don’t exercise the same muscle two days in a row. Muscles need time to recuperate and get stronger between weight training sessions.

Perform the last repetition of sets to fatigue. If you do not, your body will not receive the full stimulus from the set. Always perform sets with correct form.

Increase weights when you can attain your repetition goals relatively easily.

Change your routine every 6-8 weeks. Changing variables of your routine (exercise order, number of repetitions, etc.) will keep the body from reaching a plateau. Periodization is the most efficient technique for continued improvement.

Strength Training: What’s In It for You

A regular, moderate program can bring these benefits:

  • Stronger muscles, which in turn mean stronger bones, thus reducing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
  • An improvement in blood cholesterol levels. Lifting weights may also help control blood pressure and blood sugar.
  • Less risk of injury during other activities. It may help correct muscle weakness and imbalances and joint instability.
  • Improved self-esteem and self-confidence. Added muscle and bone strength will benefit you in your daily activities, including other exercises and sports.
  • May help with weight control. Even if you don’t lose weight, you’ll become trimmer and fitter.
  • Reduced arthritis pain and lower-back pain. (Note: if you have osteoarthritis, you may need special advice about a strength-training program.)

What Weight Training Can Do for You

We all have different reasons for wanting to lift weights. Undoubtedly, many of these reasons have to do with looking better. Sculpted arms and tones "abs" have become somewhat of a fashion statement. But there are more compelling and, ultimately, more satisfying reasons to lift weights. Here is a reminder of what training can do for you.

  • Keep your bones healthy. The average woman loses about 1 percent of her bone mass each year after age 35. Men are susceptible to brittle bones, too. Lifting weights can drastically slow the rate of bone loss and may even reverse the process. With strong bones, you won’t become hunched over as you age, and you’ll lower your risk of life-threatening fractures. No matter what your age, it’s never too late to start strengthening your bones.
  • Help control your weight. When you lose weight through dieting and aerobic exercise (such as walking or bicycling), you lose muscle along with fat. This can be a problem: When you lose muscle, your metabolism slows down, so you’re more likely to regain the weight. By adding weight training to the mix, you can maintain (or increase) your muscle and thereby maintain (or even boost) your metabolism. Although weight training is no magic bullet for weight loss, many obesity experts consider it to be an essential part of any weight-control program.
  • Increase your strength. Lifting the front end of a fire truck may not be among your goals in life, but a certain amount of muscle strength does come in handy. Weight training make sit easier to haul your stacks of newspaper to the recycling bin and drag your kids away from a video game. Studies show that even 90-year-olds can gain significant strength from lifting weights.
  • Boost your energy. Forget about hokey dietary supplements: One of the best energy boosters around comes not in a bottle but on a weight rack. When you lift weights, you have more pep in your step. You can bound to the bus stop or sail through your company’s annual charity walk-a-thon.

--Weight Training for Dummies

Building Muscle And Bone At Home, On Your Own

If you feel shy about starting a strength-training program, it may help to sweep a few myths from your mind.

Myth: Strength training is only for the young. Older people might injure themselves.
Fact: Older people need it even more than the young, in order to counteract the decline in muscle strength that usually comes with aging, due to decreasing activity. If you’re over 50, strength training can be your new best friend.

Myth: Strength training is only for body builders.
Fact: A moderate program that confers health benefits isn't going to make your biceps bulge. Strength training not only builds muscle, but also helps reduce body fat and increase bone.

Myth: Strength training is only for men.
Fact: Women, perhaps even more than men, can benefit from strength training. Women are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis, which strength training can help to prevent.

Myth: Women need a different strength training program from men. For example, they should not lift barbells.
Fact: Women and men can follow the same program of exercises designed for their body size and level of strength, not for their gender. Women can lift barbells. What you do depends on your level of ability. There’s something for everybody.

Myth: Strength training is very time consuming. It takes hours every week.
Fact: Strength training can be one of the fastest workouts ö less time-consuming than aerobic exercise like running or walking. Three 20-minute sessions a week (preferably not on consecutive days) will do the job.

Myth: If you lift weights, that’s all the exercise you need.
Fact: You still need to do aerobic exercise. One type of exercise is not a substitute for the other. Doing both aerobic exercise and strength training pays real dividends.

Getting Started

You need little space and only a few inexpensive pieces of equipment. Any store with a sporting goods section should have a selection of dumbbells. Women should start with a pair of 2- or 3-pound weights, men with 5- or 10-pond weights. Light weights that can be strapped to your feet or ankles are convenient, too. You can also buy adjustable dumbbells, to which you can add or remove metal disks.

Some strength training routines (push-ups and sit-ups) require no equipment. You can also use exercise bands. If you don’t want to buy anything, you can even use heavy objects from the pantry, such as soup cans.

Workout Tips

The following exercises are an excellent way to get started. Getting some formal instruction (at the local Y, for example) is also worthwhile. Weight machines at gyms are easy to use, but for safety’s sake, beginners should always get some instruction. Note: Although working with light weights is very safe, if you are over 40 or have heart disease or another medical condition, you should check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

  1. Warm up before each workout for instance, run or march in place for a few minutes. Then do some gentle stretches.
  2. Start with light weights, -ones that you can lift comfortably 8 to 12 times. This is called a “set”. Doing one set is beneficial, but you can work up to two or three sets. Gradually increase the weight; you may have to reduce the number of repetitions at first. Vary your routine by adding new exercises. This is called progressive resistance training. Lifting the weights should not be effortless. The goal is to tax your muscles somewhat, but don’t overdo it: if you can’t repeat an exercise eight times, the weight is too heavy.
  3. Rest between sets -for one to two minutes.
  4. Work slowly and smoothly -through the entire range of the muscles. This reduces the chance of injury and soreness. Lowering the weight in a slow, controlled manner is also important. Don’t "lock" (fully straighten) your knees or elbows when these are involved in an exercise, since that puts excess stress on the joint itself.
  5. Exhale while you lift -and inhale when you bring the weight down. Breathe evenly with every repetition: holding your breath when lifting can raise blood pressure precipitously.
  6. If you feel any pain -during an exercise, stop immediately. Continue only if the pain subsides, but reduce the amount of weight. Soreness the next day is normal when first starting to exercise or when increasing the amount of weight you lift.
  7. Avoid arching your back- when lifting a weight.
  8. Work large muscle groups first,- such as those in the legs, chest, and back, which require heavier loads.
  9. Pair your exercises.- Each muscle group has an opposing (or antagonist) one with which it works, so it is important to work both ö for example, the quadriceps and hamstrings (on the front and back of the thigh), or the biceps and triceps (on the front and back of the upper arm). An imbalance between opposing muscles increases the risk of injury.
  10. Cool down- after the workout. Repeat part of your warm-up and stretching routine to help muscles recover. Note: A good resource for beginners, men and women, is Miriam Nelson’s Strong Women Stay Young (Bantam Books).

Why Women Need Weight Training?

Again and again, research has shown that women who maintain a regular, moderate strength training program enjoy a long list of health advantages. Some women still fear that weight training might bulk them up in unfeminine ways. However, as women of all ages realize the benefits of resistance training, negative attitudes about women in the weight room are rapidly fading, according to renowned strength training researcher William J. Kraemer, PhD, of Ball State University in Muncie Indiana.

Weight training expert and researcher Wayne Westcott, PhD, from the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, gives 10 important reasons why women need to take strength training seriously:

  1. You'll Lose More Fat Than You'll Gain in Muscle. --Westcott and his colleagues have done numerous weight training studies involving thousands of women and have never had anyone complain about bulking up. In fact, Westcott’s research shows that the average woman who strength trains two to three times a week for eight weeks gains 1.75 pounds of lean weight, or muscle, and loses 3.5 pounds of fat. Unlike men, women typically don’t gain size from strength training, because compared to men, women have 10 to 30 times less of the hormones that cause bulking up, explains Kraemer.
  2. Your New Muscle Will Help Fight Obesity. -As you add muscle from strength training, your resting metabolism will increase, so you'll burn more calories all day long, notes Westcott. For each pound of muscle you gain, you'll burn 35 to 50 more calories daily. So, for example, if you gain three pounds of muscle and burn 40 extra calories for each pound, you'll burn 120 more calories per day, or approximately 3,600 more calories per month. That equates to a loss of 10 to 12 pounds in one year!
  3. You'll Be a Stronger Woman. -Westcott’s studies indicate that moderate weight training increases a woman’s strength by 30 to 50 percent. Extra strength will make it easier to accomplish some daily activities, such as lifting children or groceries. Karemer notes that most strength differences between men and women can be explained by differences in body size and fat mass; pound for pound, women can develop their strength at the same rate as men.
  4. Your Bones Will Benefit.- By the time you leave high school. You have established all the bone mineral density you'll ever have ö unless you strength train, says Westcott. Research has found that weight training can increase spinal bone mineral density by 13 percent in six months. So strength training is a powerful tool against osteoporosis.
  5. You Will Reduce Your Risk of Diabetes. -Adult-onset diabetes is a growing problem for women and men. Research indicates that weight training can increase glucose utilization in the body by 23 percent in four months.
  6. You Will Fight Heart Disease. -Strength training will improve your cholesterol profile and blood pressure, according to recent research. Of course, your exercise program should also include cardiovascular exercise and flexibility training.
  7. You Will Be Able to Beat Back Pain and Fight Arthritis.- A recent 12-year study showed that strengthening the low-back muscles had an 80 percent success rate in eliminating or alleviating low-back pain. Other studies have indicated that weight training can ease arthritis pain and strengthen joints.
  8. You'll be a Better Athlete.- Westcott has found that strength training improves athletic ability. Golfers, for example, significantly increase their driving power. Whatever your sport of choice, strength training may not only improve your proficiency but also decrease your risk of injury.
  9. It Will Work No Matter How Old You Are.- Westcott has successfully trained numerous women in their 70s and 80s, and studies show that strength improvements are possible at any age. Note, however, that a strength training professional should always supervise older participants.
  10. You'll Strengthen Your Mental Health.- A Harvard study found that 10 weeks of strength training reduced clinical depression symptoms more successfully than standard counseling did, Westcott says. Women who strength train commonly report feeling more confident and capable as a result of their program. This information is courtesy of IDEA, the leading international membership organization in the health and fitness industry.

Which Exercise is Best for You?

If you or someone or in your family is mostly sedentary, we’d like to encourage you to get going and if you’re already active, we want to offer some reinforcement. Take a look at the chart if you are trying to get started, or looking for variation, or not too sure what your current program is doing for you.

Charting Your Exercise

Expending 2,000 calories a week in leisure-time activity may sound like an impossible goal. Yet that’s only about 300 calories a day, or an hour of yard work or brisk walking each day. You have a wide choice of activities, from free to expensive, from gregarious to solitary, from competitive to laid-back, from high impact to low impact. If you carefully evaluate who you are, what you have time for, and how you prefer to begin, there will certainly be a range of activities to suit you.

Activity Calories
Per Hour
(Low, High)
Builds Endurance,
Strength, Flexibility
Aerobics, low-impact   L E,S,F,B
Basketball 560 H E, S, (F), B
Cycling, leisure 315 L E, (S), B
Cycling, vigorous 700 L E, (S), B
Golf, with cart 245 L (S), B
Gardening 350 L, (H) (E), S, F, B
Mowing, push mower 420 L E, S, B
Raking leaves 280 L (E), S, B
Running, 6 mph 700 H E, (S, F), B
Running, 8 mph 945 H E, (S, F), B
Softball 350 L (H) (S, F), B
Skiing, cross-country, light 490 L E, S , F, B
Skiing, downhill 350 (L, H) (E), S, F, B
Swimming, general 420 L E, S, F, (B)
Tai chi 280 L (E), S, F, B
Tennis 490 H (E, F), B
Walking, slow 210 L E, (S, F), B
Walking, 4 mph 315 L E, (S, F), B
Weight training 420 L (E), S, (F)
Yoga 280 L S, F, B
Parentheses around letters on the chart mean "to some extent".

Calorie expenditures are averages for a 155-pound man.