Lifting Weights To Lose Weight: The Complete Guide

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Despite what some people are inclined to think, you don’t have to run, cycle, or do a ton of cardio to lose weight

While aerobic exercise should be set in your workout routine for cardiovascular health benefits, it’s possible to focus your exercise efforts on weight lifting for weight loss.

Lifting weights to lose weight involves structuring your training program in a particular way geared towards weight loss rather than other goals like muscle building, but as long as you’re doing your workouts frequently enough and at the right intensity, you can lose body fat by strength training just as you could with cardio exercise.

In this article, we will discuss lifting weights to lose weight to help you get lean and toned as you get strong and fit.

We will cover: 

  • Can You Lose Weight By Lifting Weights?
  • How Does Lifting Weights Help You Lose Weight?
  • Lifting Weights to Lose Weight

Let’s jump in.

A person doing a dumbbell curl.

Can You Lose Weight By Lifting Weights?

The concept of lifting weights to lose weight is rather counterintuitive. After all, if you’re working hard in the gym and lifting heavy weights, you should be building muscle, and the more muscle mass you build, the more you will weigh.

For this reason, many people wonder, “Can you lose weight by lifting weights?” 

As long as you are also following a healthy, calorie-controlled diet, with the right type of strength training workouts, you can definitely achieve losing weight weightlifting.

In fact, strength training can be a really effective form of exercise for fat loss and body composition changes.

Remember, when we talk about “weight loss” in common, casual conversations, most people actually desire fat loss

Technically speaking, body “weight” refers to your total body mass, so it includes body fat as well as lean tissue like muscle, bone, and so on.

We don’t usually want to lose lean tissue; we only want to lose body fat.

For this reason, weight lifting is a fantastic way to “lose weight” because it helps you lose body fat while maintaining your lean body mass, often even more so than cardio exercise.

A person lifting weights.

How Does Lifting Weights Help You Lose Weight?

Let’s look at how lifting weights can help you reach your body composition goals.

The following are ways in which lifting weight can help you lose body fat:

#1: Lifting Weights Burns Calories

Like any form of exercise, strength training burns calories.

Your muscles need energy to contract, so any time you are lifting weights or moving your body, you’re burning more calories at rest.

The number of calories you burn lifting weights depends on several factors, such as your body weight and composition, your sex, the intensity of your workout, and the duration of your workout.

The heavier the load you use relative to your one-repetition maximum (1RM, or the most you could possibly lift for one full rep), and the less rest you take, the more elevated your heart rate will be and the more calories you will burn in your workout.

Harvard Health Publishing has a report that shows the approximate number of calories burned doing 30 minutes of various common types of exercise for different body weights.

The site reports that 30 minutes of “vigorous weight lifting” burns 180 calories for a 125-pound person, 216 calories for a 155-pound person, and 252 calories for a 185-pound person.

Since this is sort of a nebulous description, you can also use METs for weight lifting activities to estimate the number of calories burned.

A person doing a single arm row.

The Compendium of Physical Activities reports that using the StairMaster or other stair climbing exercise machine is the equivalent of 9 METS while running upstairs is 15 METS.

Circuit training at a moderate effort is 4.3 METs, while resistance training doing squats is rated at 5.0 METs.

Finally, circuit training with kettlebells and aerobic exercises with minimal rest is 8.0 METs.

Using METs values, you can calculate the number of calories burned during circuit training based on your body weight and the duration of your workout using the equation to determine energy expenditure:

Calories Burned Per Minute = METs x 3.5 x (your body weight in kilograms) / 200 

For example, if you weigh 165 pounds (75 kg) and do resistance training with squats: 

5 METS x 3.5 x 75 / 200 = 6.6 calories per minute.

Then, if you do a 30-minute workout, you multiply the number of calories burned per minute by 30 minutes = 6.6 x 30 = 198 calories. 

While this isn’t a huge number of calories, keep in mind that you’ll burn more if you weigh more, work out longer, and lift weights at a higher intensity.

The more calories you burn, the faster you will lose weight.

Generating a caloric deficit of 3500 calories will result in one pound of fat loss.

People lifting weights in a gym.

#2: Lifting Weight Increases Lean Body Mass

One of the primary benefits of strength training is that it builds muscle mass.

As long as you are using loads that are substantial enough, your strength training workouts will trigger muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of repairing muscle tissue.

When you lift weights, you cause microscopic tears in your muscles. 

This signals the body to initiate the repair process. New amino acids are transported to the muscles and assembled into proteins.

These new proteins are laid down on the existing muscle fibers to reinforce and strengthen them.

This makes your muscles larger and stronger.

The more muscle tissue you put on, the higher your basal metabolic rate will be, meaning that you will burn more calories throughout the day, even at rest.

Since a sustained caloric deficit is needed for ongoing fat loss, the higher you can drive up your BMR, the easier it will be to generate a caloric deficit.

For example, imagine your BMR is 1600 calories. This is the number of calories your body burns just to sustain life (breathing, circulating blood, etc.).

If you increase your lean body mass through strength training, you will increase the energy requirements of your body and might increase your BMR to 1800 calories. 

Now, every day you are burning an additional 200 calories, which may not seem all that significant, but it will result in about one pound of additional fat loss every two weeks. 

Plus, muscle is more metabolically active during exercise as well, so in addition, you’ll see a boost in the number of calories you burn during a workout.

A person doing a deadlift.

#3: Lifting Weights Can Support Healthy Food Choices

Although this isn’t as scientifically based as the other two weight loss benefits of lifting weights, many people find that beginning an exercise program of lifting weights can lead to a mindset shift that supports other healthy choices.

Notably, you might find it easier or more motivating to stick with a nutritious diet once you start a habitual exercise routine.

You will likely feel more motivated to fuel your body before and after your workouts with nutrient-dense foods, and you might be inclined to cut back on junk food, excess sugar, alcohol, etc.

Once you get the gears in motion of prioritizing your health and begin lifting weights to lose weight, the inertia can carry over into your diet and the rest of your lifestyle.

Lifting Weights to Lose Weight

Any type of resistance training can potentially help you lose weight, but the most effective weight lifting workouts for fat loss have the following qualities:

A person preparing to do a deadlift.

Perform Compound Exercises

When you are lifting weights for weight loss, you should focus on compound, multi-joint exercises that utilize numerous large muscle groups at once.

The more muscles you engage, the more calories you will burn.

For example, a total-body exercise like a squat with an overhead press is much more metabolically demanding than sitting on a leg curl machine and doing isolated hamstring curls.

Although far from an exhaustive list, here are some of the best strength training exercises for weight loss: squats, deadlifts, step-ups, bench press, push-ups, lunges, overhead press, pull-ups, rows, lat pull-downs, chest fly, reverse fly, planks, and hip thrusts.

People doing deadlifts in the gym.

Use Enough Resistance 

When it comes to losing weight weightlifting, intensity is key.

You need to use enough resistance for two reasons: to get your heart rate up so that you burn more calories and to create enough of a stimulus to trigger muscle protein synthesis for muscle building.

Use a load that you can handle for 8-12 reps max, ensuring you’re using proper form.

As soon as you can get through all 12 reps with good form, increase the resistance.

The other factor that can contribute to the intensity of your workout is the amount of rest you take in between each exercise or each set.

Circuit training is a style of resistance training that involves moving quickly from one exercise to the next with little to no break in between each move. 

The benefit of this format is that your heart rate never really gets a chance to come back down to baseline in between each exercise, so the number of calories you burn is higher.

You can also add cardio moves interspersed with the strength training exercises to boost the metabolic effects of your strength training workout.

Exercises like burpees, mountain climbers, jumping jacks, jumping rope, and sprinting in place can provide short bursts of intense, calorie-torching activity.

By driving your heart rate up and then moving immediately into strength training exercises, you will burn more calories and make your weight-lifting workout that much more effective for weight loss.

A person doing bench press.

Do Enough Volume

Your training volume can refer to the volume you do in a workout and your volume over the week.

Within a workout, the training volume is determined by the amount of weight you lift (the load) multiplied by the number of reps and sets. 

The frequency of your workouts in a week is the other aspect that can be clumped in with volume.

One set of 8-10 reps of a few exercises or one workout per week isn’t going to be enough to lose weight. 

You have to be doing enough volume to make a difference in your weight loss efforts.

Aim for 2-3 sets of 8-15 exercises per workout, performing 8-12 reps per set.

Depending on the other workouts you are doing in the week, you might do anywhere from 2-5 strength training workouts per week if the goal is fat loss.

If lifting weights to lose weight is the main focus of your exercise plan, aim for 4-5 strength training workouts per week, but if you’re also doing aerobic workouts several days per week, 2-3 workouts will suffice.

Lifting weights to lose weight is all about consistency, intensity, and patience. You can do it!

If you would like to accompany lifting weights to lose weight with healthy eating, check out our healthy diets for runners guide.

A person doing a snatch.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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