Strength training: Is this the secret to burning fat?

Pounding the pavement and other sweaty activities can ignite your fat burn, but strength training keeps the fire flaming long after you’ve stopped exercising.

Strength training, also known as resistance training, can be just as effective as cardio for reducing your body fat percentage, according to University of New South Wales research.

The systematic review pulled together 58 existing studies involving a total of 3000 participants and found they could lose around 1.4 per cent of their entire body fat through strength training alone.

This equated to roughly half a kilo in fat mass for most participants.

Diet and running are not the only way to lose fat

Dr Mandy Hagstrom, the exercise scientist behind the study, says there’s a common assumption that if you want to lose weight, you need to diet and start running.

“I think that kind of message is constantly repeated in this industry,” Dr Hagstrom says.

The review showed when people who had not previously undertaken strength training started using free weights or machines, they lost some body fat.

And that was without restricting their diet or going hell for leather on the cardio.

“Most of them trained on average three times a week and performed programs that were on average three sets of eight exercises for about eight repetitions,” she says.

“They were really similar programs to what most people would use when they go to the gym.”

Why is strength training effective for burning fat?

In the case of the study, Dr Hagstrom says it may be as simple as the participants starting to exercise when they had not before – burning more energy in the process.

Physiotherapist Tim Dettmann, from Kieser Australia, says when you build muscle mass through strength training, your resting metabolic rate can increase by 5 per cent.

“So it means that with cardio exercise, you might just burn calories whilst you’re walking or whilst you’re running, but with strength training it builds a bigger engine so your engine is fuel-hungry 24 hours a day,” Tim says.

He says as long as you don’t increase your food intake, this can contribute to losing body fat.

How often should you strength train?

Generally, Tim says, you only need to strength train two or three times a week for about 30 minutes to feel a benefit.

“A lot of people think, ‘I need to go to the gym for an hour-and-a-half and I need to go five days a week’ and you just don’t,” he says.

He recommends starting slowly and building up over time.

“You’re not going to get your results in the first couple of weeks – forget about that.

“Set your goals at three months and at six months’ time.”

Once you’re comfortable with your technique, don’t be afraid to work hard.

“I think when a lot of people don’t get the benefit from strength training that they’re after, it’s because they’re going through the motions,” Dr Hagstrom says.

Why combining strength training with cardio is best

While you can lose fat without cardio, Dr Hagstrom says ideally you should be doing a mix of both strength training and cardio, which have different benefits.

“Cardio training is really good for your cardiovascular system – your heart and your lungs and your blood vessels,” she says.

But strength training allows you to grow muscle and increase bone mineral density, which is especially important as you age.

To lose more fat, you should also be watching what you eat, she says.

It’s not the number on the scales that counts

While you might be keen to shed a few kilograms, Tim says your waist circumference is a much better indicator of your health.

“You get some feedback about that every time you put your pants on, every time you tighten a belt buckle, every time you pull a T-shirt over your tummy,” he says.

And while your weight might not necessarily change with strength training, your jeans are likely to feel a little looser if you stick with it.

Written by Larissa Ham.