When people say they're trying to lose weight, they typically mean they're trying to lose fat mass, not muscle mass. Our muscles are vital to supporting our joints, bones, and carrying out bodily functions. Our fat mass can cause a whole buffet of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, along with depression and anxiety.
"Oftentimes people think that they need to be killing themselves with cardio in order to shed the unnecessary weight, when in reality they are burning off good muscle," says Tommy Reardon, C.S.C.S., of Reardon Strength Training.
So, if you're looking to shed weight, point fingers at fat, not muscle. This is where weight training comes in—weight training allows us to maintain our muscle mass, especially while trying to lose fat. Below, we lay out how weight training can aid in your weight loss, and how to start.
What Is Weight Training?
Basically, weight training is exercising your body by adding extra load via equipment such as barbells, kettlebells, and dumbbells.
"Doing exercises with these weights forces your body to adapt to loads greater than those it faces on a regular basis, and the adaptations your body makes to move those loads leads to better muscle and strength," says Men's Health Fitness Director, Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.
How Can Weight Training Help You Lose Weight?
"Weight training can be a tool to address excess fat, also known as adipose tissue, which tends to be stored in the midsection for men throughout life," says Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D., M.P.H., obesity medicine physician and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, and Men's Health advisor.
Muscles support our joints and power our movements. Plus, our muscles require a lot of energy to perform their duties—meaning they burn a ton of calories for fuel. The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you will burn at rest.
That's not the only reason you want to do weight training if you're aiming to lose weight. Weight training also preserves our muscles while we're in a calorie deficit. "Preserve" is the key word here—it's important to note that you will not make massive gains when it comes to building muscle if you're in a calorie deficit, but you will prevent muscle loss as a potential side effect of the lower energy intake.
Plus, if brutal high intensity interval training sessions or long steady-state cardio isn't for you, weight training is a great option to get your heart rate elevated and your blood pumping. And, according to Harvard Health, 30 minutes of vigorous weight training only burns about 30 calories less than 30 minutes of vigorous high-impact aerobic exercise, like running. Add in that it'll keep your muscles in check, and the pros start to balance out the cons.
What Are Other Benefits of Weight Training?
Weight loss isn't the only thing weight training can do (in addition, obviously, to increasing muscular strength).
Adding load to your workout routine can help build bone density, according to the Mayo Clinic. "An increase in bone density during an individual's younger years pays dividends for when they get older."
Our bones lose density with age, so adding in a strength training routine can help prevent bone-related issues like osteoporosis later in life. Building muscular strength also improves joint stabilization and overall balance, which can help reduce the risk of falls and help you maintain independence.
Weight training will also help combat the risk of chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. It can even mitigate symptoms of these diseases—a study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that those who followed strength training regimens were able to minimize the severity of some of the symptoms of their chronic diseases.
How To Get Started
If you've never lifted weights, talk to your doctor first before starting an exercise routine. If you've done that, and you're ready for something to help kickstart you into a routine, take a look at our beginner guide— a full body strength training program that teaches you all the basics to get you comfortable with weights.
Before you stack up the plates, it's most important to get movement patterns down. Start with low weights and focus on form. Gradually add on the plates when your starting weights start to feel easy. "Do it light, do it right," Reardon says. "Perfecting the movement is more important than the weight being lifted."
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men's Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.