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Why Strength Training Is the Workout You Need If You’re Trying to Lose Weight

When you think about the best type of workouts for weight loss, your mind might not immediately jump to strength training, but it should. While it’s definitely true that cardio workouts get your heart working harder and as a result, help your body burn calories, strength training is what’s really going to give your weight-loss goals that extra boost.

Before we really get into it, we want to make it clear that weight loss as a goal isn’t necessarily for everyone. For anyone who has a history of disordered eating, even if you’re in recovery, you should speak with a doctor before you pursue any weight-loss goal, including starting a new exercise routine. And even if you don’t have a history of disordered eating, it’s really important to have realistic expectations and make sure you’re pursuing weight loss in a healthy way. Results can be incredibly difficult to come by, may take a very long time to achieve, and are also really hard to maintain. Also important to remember: Exercise is only part of the equation. You have to create a calorie deficit (burning more calories than you consume in a day) in order to lose weight, which requires not just working out, but also being cognizant about what you’re eating, making sure to eat quality calories and watch portion sizes. You need to get good sleep, regularly. You need to have lowered stress levels. You need to take care of your other bodily needs. With so many factors at play, it’s no wonder weight loss is a very unique experience for every person.

If weight loss is a goal of yours, incorporating strength training into your routine is key. Here’s the thing, while strength training may not give you the instant heart-pounding, sweat-dripping satisfaction of, say, Zumba or an indoor cycling class, in the long run, building lean muscle definitely works in favor of your weight-loss goals. The short version? Having more muscle means your body burns more calories at rest. The long version? Read on for more on why strength training is the best exercise for weight loss.

STRENGTH TRAINING HELPS BUILD LEAN MUSCLE

“Aerobic exercise is actually the most effective in losing weight, however, it’s not the best at burning fat and increasing lean mass (muscle),” says Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder of TS Fitness. When you’re losing weight strictly through cardio, it’s normal to lose muscle and fat. And if resistance training isn’t a part of your plan to counteract this, you could actually be slowing down your metabolism by losing lean muscle mass, rather than revving it up (which can lead to weight-loss plateaus).

Strength training is better at much building muscle than a cardio-only routine, explains Michaela Devries-Aboud, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at McMaster University. “When you lift weights, you overload the muscle and it works to adapt to be able to lift more weight. The way the muscle adapts is by increasing something called myofibrillar size (the contractile units of the muscle),” she explains. Resistance training stimulates this growth, which leads to an increase in muscle mass over time. “And while aerobic exercise can also [stimulate this process], this increase is not as great as it is with resistance exercise.”

MORE MUSCLE = A HIGHER BMR (BASE METABOLIC RATE)

Having more lean muscle means your body will burn more calories at rest. Having more muscle increases your everyday base metabolic rate, or BMR (AKA, how many calories your body would burn just to keep itself running if you did nothing but binge on Netflix all day). “Muscle mass is a more metabolically expensive tissue,” explains Devries-Aboud. “The metabolic demand of a pound of muscle is greater than it is for a pound of fat, so just sitting around, the amount of energy needed to maintain a pound of muscle per day is greater than that of a pound of fat. The more muscle you have the more calories you burn throughout the day.”

“Muscle is constantly being broken down, recreated, and synthesized, and all these processes require energy. The more muscle you have, the more energy it takes for this process,” adds Tamir. So by building more muscle, you’re stoking the fires of your metabolism. By increasing your BMR and burning more calories at rest, you’re also increasing your calorie deficit, which is necessary for weight loss. (Get all of the formulas and information you need to figure out how many calories you should eat for weight loss.)

And don’t freak out if you don’t see huge results on the scale: “Go by how your clothes fit, because muscle is more compact than fat,” suggests Devries-Aboud. If you’re not losing as much weight as you think you should be, you’re probably building muscle as you’re losing fat, and that’s a good thing! (And no, you won’t get bulky.)

“That new muscle has a huge influence on decreasing body fat,” explains Holly Perkins, B.S., C.S.C.S. “The net result is that you are tighter and leaner, regardless of what the scale says.”

YOU’LL STILL BURN CALORIES DURING A STRENGTH WORKOUT

Even though cardio gets a lot of the credit when it comes to calorie-torching workouts, you can still get a great burn during a strength-training session by adding in some heart-pumping elements. There are several things you can do maximize your burn, says Perkins: Move faster between exercises, don’t rest between sets, move quickly during each set, increase your reps, and choose heavier weights (but don’t go so heavy that you risk injury, of course). Or, “add a five-minute cardio burst in-between strength moves: Hop on the treadmill and jog or sprint for five minutes,” says Perkins.

“These methods work mostly because they increase your heart rate during the workout,” she explains. “An increase in heart rate means a greater need for fuel, and a greater need for fuel means that your body will demand more calories. Also, as a result of an intense workout, your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, will [go up and] result in more calories being burned after the workout. Think of EPOC as a temporary boost to your metabolism.” This is known as the afterburn effect.

HERE’S HOW TO ADD STRENGTH TRAINING INTO YOUR WEIGHT-LOSS PLAN

At the end of the day, you still have to burn more calories than you take in to lose weight, and even though building muscle can help keep that up long-term, it’s still important to chip away at calories on a day-to-day basis. “Having a challenging cardiovascular routine helps in your caloric deficit,” says Tamir.

Moral of the story: Do both strength training and cardio, says Tamir. It’s important to include both types of training in a successful weight-loss plan. In general, Tamir recommends strength training three to four times a week for 45 to 60 minutes. “Strength training also gives you the ability to endure more during your aerobic training,” notes Tamir. “The stronger you are, the less effort it takes for you to complete aerobic exercise.”

This means you can increase your performance in cardio-based activities: “For example, having strong glutes for running helps you go faster for longer, which burns more calories. And doing exercises to strengthen your core can help you maintain form for biking, which can also help you burn more calories,” says Tamir.

So no need to ditch the dance cardio or treadmill workout—just throw some weights into your routine a few times a week, too.

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Get the Nutrients You Need for Your Workout

Proper nutrition from real food — as opposed to powders and supplements — plays a meaningful role in your ability to exercise with optimum strength. With a few healthy tweaks to your diet, you can feel an uptick in your daily energy and endurance levels, as well as a positive change in your mental health. Here, three dietitians share their go-to foods for athletes based on their chosen sports.

THE GYM-GOER

Whether you’re a Type A CrossFit devotee or take a spin class a few days a week, there are three foods all exercisers should consider adding to their diet, according to Gisela Bouvier, RDN, from Port Charlotte, Florida:

QUINOA FOR BREAKFAST

Although quinoa is cooked like a grain, it’s actually a seed that’s filled with protein — making it a great morning meal to support muscle recovery. Although calorically quinoa is almost identical to other grains, the inclusion of all essential amino acids makes quinoa a complete protein. In a one-cup serving, quinoa provides eight grams of protein and five grams of fiber!

KALE TO STAY HEALTHY

This super dark leafy vegetable is rich in vitamins and fiber. It’s also anti-inflammatory and supports a healthy cardiovascular system.

THE WEIGHTLIFTER

Lifting weights triggers your body to fight to keep and build muscle. You need to feed these muscles the proper nutrients to make your efforts worth it. “If you work out without being nourished or even without eating, your muscles won’t be ready for the tasks you are demanding of them,” says Danielle Flug Capalino, RD, from New York City. Capalino recommends the following foods for weightlifters:

BANANA WITH ALMOND BUTTER FOR A HEAVY WORKOUT

The almonds provide protein and omega-6 fatty acids to aid in muscle replenishment. The banana provides necessary carbohydrates, fiber and potassium. Potassium — an electrolyte that plays an important role in hydration and muscle contraction — is lost through sweating, and bananas can act as a source of replenishment.

FISH POST-WORKOUT

The best way to replenish muscle after a workout is by eating sources of anti-inflammatory protein. Capalino recommends fish, like salmon, after a weightlifting session. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation.

THE RUNNER

To stay lean, runners may get restrictive with what they eat, but they need calories, too. A study published in Frontiers in Nutrition explains that because  “running is a weight-bearing discipline, it is believed that the lighter the body weighs, the better the performance, which is far too simplistic and can lead to dramatic situations of leanness and nutritional deficiencies.”

Julia Levine, RD, from St. Louis, shares what runners, especially endurance runners, should eat during each stage of a workout:  

OATMEAL BEFORE A RUN

Carbohydrates often get a bad rap, but because they are the body’s preferred source of fuel, they can be especially helpful when consumed before endurance exercise such as marathon running. Not all carbs are created equal; it is important to choose ones with a low-glycemic index, such as whole grains, to prevent spikes and dips in blood sugars. The high-fiber content of oatmeal causes it to be digested slowly, providing a sustained release of energy into the bloodstream for optimal performance. If you’re competing in a long-distance running race, eat overnight oats, homemade granola or a simple instant oatmeal packet about 1.5 hours prior to the start.

RAISINS DURING A RUN

During the race, instead of refueling with energy gels or gummies, try raisins or other dried fruits as a more natural option. Raisins are high in calories to provide quick energy, and they are also filled with potassium. Keep miniboxes in your pockets for a quick energy boost.  

YOGURT AFTER A RUN

After exercise, consuming protein within an hour is necessary for muscle recovery and growth. Greek yogurt is your best choice, as it can contain up to double the amount of protein of regular yogurt. Look for the words “live active cultures” on the label for added probiotics, which can help immunity and digestion. Sprinkle a high-fiber cereal or oats on top for added whole-grain carbohydrates. Although the protein will help build and repair muscle, the carbohydrates will replace your depleted glycogen stores.

With these quick additions to your diet, your workouts can become even more powerful and, in turn, can give you swifter results.  

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Why Muscles Shake During a Tough Workout

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You’ve probably felt your muscles shake at some point during a hard workout. At first, it can be alarming — you’re literally vibrating like a bell that’s ringing for you to halt whatever it is that you’re doing.

You might wonder: Is it normal for my muscles to momentarily quiver out of control while holding this plank? Is my infrastructure in danger of collapse?

The short answer is no, you’re good.

While you may crumple to the mat, you’re likely not destroying your foundation but rather reinforcing it. That little muscle quake is generally a good sign that you’re pushing yourself and getting stronger for it.

NEW ACTIVITY
“If somebody is doing a challenging new activity — say a weighted split squat — it’s not uncommon to see them shake,” explains Trevor Rappa, a doctor of physical therapy and co-founder of Resilient Performance Physical Therapy in NYC. “The reason behind that is our brains have these motor patterns that execute on command, like walking. When we introduce something new, the brain needs to figure out how to do it. Some muscles may not know how to work in conjunction with others to perform something new, which can cause some of the shakeup.”

This doesn’t just apply to people who are upping the ante in their fitness routine. If you’ve taken a hiatus from the gym (long or short), reintroducing exercise to the body can be jarring. “For someone who hasn’t trained in a while, exercise really disturbs their homeostasis,” Rappa says. “Any disruption to that baseline is going to be a shock to the system, so it’s not abnormal to have that shaking response.”

FATIGUE
Another factor that may add an extra twitch (or 20) is fatigue. If you’re on your third set of minute-long planks, it makes sense that you’d be feeling wobbly. “When the muscles get really tired and heavy that’s often due to an accumulation of hydrogen ions, making muscles more acidic,” Rappa says. “That sends signals to the brain that the muscles are in pain or have a lot of discomfort, which then prompts the brain to tell the body to stop.”

The good news: Your body’s involuntary mid-exercise convulsions will eventually subside as you grow accustomed to the moves and develop your strength and conditioning, says trainer Noam Tamir, founder and program director of TS Fitness studio in Manhattan. In other words, getting in shape may delay the onset of this fatigue. “More conditioned people usually have better nerve recruitment so they don’t lose control as quickly,” Tamir says.

BUT KNOW WHEN TO BACK OFF
There is a balance, however, of knowing when to push through versus when to hold back, like when you feel the tremors rising. “Shaking isn’t dangerous, but it could be if you are holding weights that you can’t control and put force on muscles and joints that have lost their power,” Tamir warns.

Rappa agrees but emphasizes that context matters. For example, if you’re feeling unstable doing lunges, adding a light weight might help you feel more grounded and allow you to regain balance, he says. However, if the weight is too heavy, it could throw you off balance, which could lead to injury.

AND REMEMBER TO BREATHE
One way to safely work through muscle quakes is to keep breathing. Holding your breath while planking will only add stress to the body and make you shake more, Rappa says. Instead you want to encourage the body to relax, which you can do by exhaling and inhaling at somewhat of a normal rhythm. “Reset your breathing cycling, and you may stop shaking,” he says.

After your workout, make sure to replenish your glycogen stores with muscle-building foods (such as these tasty options) within the recovery window of 30 minutes after completing the activity. Adequate post-workout recovery will help you come back fresher and stronger next time.

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How To Find A Workout Buddy

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Hey, you don’t need to be afraid to admit:

It can get lonely out there.

Whether you’re on the track, in the pool or deadlifting pieces of scrap metal in the local junk yard, working out is usually a solo grind.

And while sitting in the back row of spin class or running next to headphone-wearing treadmill zombies might feel like solidarity, it’s actually closer to solitude. And that’s not a bad thing. Working out is a time to focus on yourself, to clear your head. In many ways it’s therapeutic to have that time alone.

But getting a rigorous sweat in doesn’t mean you have to discipline yourself in some dark workout dungeon. Even when Bruce Wayne was trying to escape the Pit in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he had all of his prison boys chanting and cheering him on. And that’s one of the great things about workout buddies (and prison buddies, I suppose).

There’s a sense that, “yeah, this is tough, but we’re all in this together.” So do yourself a favor, and consider calling a workout buddy once in awhile.

But don’t call just anybody.

You must weigh pros and cons — and consider the most prominent prior examples. Below are some readily available options for you to evaluate:

YOUR ROOMMATE

If you’re a morning workout person (or want to be), this option is worth exploring. Somebody who is most likely within shouting distance when you wake up is going to make it harder for you to sleep in and slack off. Same goes for sharing a fridge. If you’re trying to eat healthy, your roomie will make it harder for you to sneak Ben and Jerry’s. If you can commit to a routine, you’ll be able to easily motivate each other to get up in the morning, hit the gym and stay disciplined.

Con: If you don’t prefer the same gym. Or if you hate your roommate.

Favorite example: Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Zook (Wyatt Russell) in the workout montage scene in “22 Jump Street.” The QB/WR duo relentlessly pumping iron in their room together — literally that’s all they do.

YOUR RIVAL

Nothing gets the juices flowing like an old nemesis from your playing days. Ideally this person is somebody you competed against. There was a little bad blood, but time (and maturity) have buried that hatchet. In a real best-case scenario, you can find a situation to play against each other in a sport like pick-up basketball and train after. I assure you even the oldest rival will bring out the best in you. Who knows? You may even dispel post-workout awkwardness and become friends.

Con: You haven’t matured as much as you thought, and a hard box out turns into a full blown melee during your Thursday night ZogSports basketball league.

Favorite example: Rocky and Apollo Creed training montage in “Rocky 3.” The beach run/water hug is the stuff dreams are made of.

YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER

This pertains to those couples who don’t live together yet (otherwise, see “your roommate” above). It also pertains more to couples who have been seeing each other for a bit — although I have heard of a few examples of spin class first dates (but won’t comment further). A glimpse into each other’s routine is fun, and playful competition is good (until somebody starts to get sensitive). Working out with your SO can also be a very nice dispute-resolution technique, both for very effectively settling arguments passive-aggressively (see: running with headphones in) and not-so-passive-aggressively settling arguments (see: boxing class).

Con: This works best as a change-up to a routine not something that becomes super-regular. And if you’re the overly competitive type, it could spell disaster for the relationship…

Favorite example: Couple of the athletic moment — Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton. They’re just like you and your girl/boyfriend, save for the fact they are world-record holding track and field stars.

YOUR TRAINER

Every once in awhile, it just helps to be coached again. Whether you’re learning proper techniques for a new type of workout or just need somebody in your ear pushing you to a higher level, I find that splurging on a personal-training session is well worth it.  

Con: The disadvantages are just that — the cost — but even just a periodic check-in can help, and your trainer might be able to give you routines to follow on your own.

Favorite example: “SNL” legends Hans and Franz, here to pump you up.

YOUR DOG

The strong silent type: loyal, nonjudgmental and almost guaranteed to be faster and in better physical shape than you are. You will never find a partner happier to join you on a run or with a better all-around attitude.  

Con: Can’t spot you on the bench.

Favorite example: Air Bud.

No man (or woman) is an island. Finding your own workout buddy is not just a helpful way to break up the monotony of solo training. It’s also beneficial mentally and physically — and altruistically, as in you’re helping another person in the classic “help me help you” tradition of Jerry Maguire.

Just choose carefully. Workout Buddy is a title to take seriously.  

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