New Research Reveals How Lifting Weights May Even Beat Cardio For Burning Fat

The world of fitness is waking up to the fact that strength training for fat loss is a viable strategy, when working towards a leaner body and improved performance. And this applies whether you’re on the golf course, or paddling into the lineup at Malibu Lagoon State Beach.

This is good news if you either don’t have the motivation, or the time, to do the long, slow cardio efforts that have traditionally been seen as the go-to bodyfat burners. This has been a problem for a while, which is why everything from High Intensity Interval Training to Obstacle Course Racing has been touted as a way to torch body fat, often mistakenly.

RSNG reviewed the latest science and spoke to a strength and conditioning expert from Elekio, about why you should reach for the dumb-bells if you’re looking to get a leaner, more athletic body…

1. Science Backs Strength Training For Fat Loss Two 2021 studies published in the FASEB Journal have cast an interesting light on strength training for fat loss. Muscle is itself an organ that can secrete myokins (proteins). These myokines can influence muscle by regulating fuel usage, hypertrophy, new blood vessel formation and more. Myokines further influence other organs in the body such as bone, brain, liver, and adipose (fat).

Qualified personal trainer and barbell maker Eleiko’s Director of Education, Rodney Corn, is an expert in strength training and tells RSNG that he’s convinced these studies show how: “Strength training is a stimulus that promotes specific communication between muscles and fat to coordinate the supply and use of energy.”

Want the detail? Corn has it: “The specific mechanical overload produced by strength training (as opposed to ‘aerobic training’) causes muscles to release ‘vesicles’ transporting muscle specific micro-RNA (messages). These vesicles are then preferentially received by the white adipose tissue (fat cells) with the ‘message’ to become usable energy.”

2. What About HIIT And Steady-State Cardio? So, the science says yes to strength training for fat loss, but what if you’ve already embarked on either a HIIT or steady-state cardio fat loss program? In terms of aerobic capacity, both workouts will increase yours, boosting your fitness and general health, albeit through different means.

The short, sharp efforts of HIIT will push your lactate threshold higher (and therefore your aerobic fitness) as your body adapts to the demands of intensity. The long-slow efforts of steady state cardio improve your overall cardiovascular efficiency, when then also raises your lactate threshold (the effort level at which your body has to start using your fast-burn anaerobic energy system).

In terms of calorie burn, HIIT achieves more calorie burn over a shorter period, but to be a true high intensity workout it can’t take longer than 30 minutes (and a short workout is the whole point), so the total calorie burn isn’t that high.

This is even though one study found a 30-minute weekly session improved markers of fitness and metabolic health by as much as 2.5 hours of traditional endurance training.

The health and fitness benefits of HIIT and endurance cardio are extremely valuable, but don’t assume they are going to provide the answer to fat loss

Even for steady state cardio, performed in the ‘fat burning’ heart rate zone, the bodyfat-burning effects are nothing to get very excited about, unless you’re an athlete with a full-time training schedule. The HERITAGE Family Study followed 500 people doing a 20-week program of endurance workouts (progressing from 30 mins to 50 mins) and found that after 60 workouts, the average fat loss was less than two pounds.

The health and fitness benefits of HIIT and endurance cardio are extremely valuable, but don’t assume they are going to provide the answer to fat loss.

3. Strength Training For Fat Loss Also Builds Muscle It’s an old adage of weight lifting that you can’t build muscle and burn fat at the same time. While this may be true for those looking to maximize their gains, the new science showing that strength training for fat loss is a thing, does raise an interesting opportunity.

If you’re short of time and have to either ditch a fat burning, or a muscle-building workout, then for Rodney Corn, keeping the weights is the way to go: “Interval training is the performing of an exercise for a specific rep range (typically 1-12) with rest after completion of the reps, and repeating for multiple sets."

"This mode of training will focus on anaerobic level of training at both moderate and high intensity training,” he says.

What’s more you can vary this kind of training into two modes, one of which promotes muscle development, and the other focuses on pure strength (which is also required for the progression of muscle development):

“a) Moderate intensity training – moderate to higher weight, 6-12 reps for 3-4 sets, moderate rest between sets (2-3 min).”

b) High intensity training – high weights, 1-5 reps for 3-5 sets, higher rest between sets (3-5 min).”

4. There’s a Sliding Scale of Aerobic Into Anaerobic Rather than thinking of strength training as something sitting in its own silo somewhere, it’s best to think of workouts requiring the aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (strength) energy systems as being on the same sliding scale. There’s always going to be some crossover and overlap occurring within single workouts, allowing you to tailor your session to individual goals.

At one end of the scale is continuous strength training: “This is a set amount of time to train with no rest – typically anywhere from 3-20 min. Continuous training will focus on a more aerobic level of training, yet with weights,” says Corn.

During this workout the weight (AKA intensity) will be lower, with anything from 1-4 exercises. The reps can be set depending on your fitness and strength and the number of exercises but anything from 5-15 reps is typical. “Sets are determined by how times the exerciser can complete the specified number of exercises – usually referred to as how many rounds were completed in the allotted time [AKA AMRAPS - as many rounds as possible, ED].

Strength Circuits can focus on aerobic to anaerobic depending on how the sets, rep, and rest are structured

BONUS POINT! Sustainable Strength Training For Fat Loss “Results only occur on a sustained basis based upon the ability of the body to recover,” says Corn. In other words, there’s no point thrashing yourself with an intense workout if your body hasn’t recovered from the last one because the results (including fat loss) will be compromised. More is not better here!

But what to do, given that gains rely on consistent training? Corn recommends taking a look at how well you slept, how your physical body feels, your mood and your nutrition, including hydration and energy. Then rate it all out of 12 points. A great day is 10-12 points, a caution day is 7-9 points and a red-flag day is 4-6 points.

“On a caution day, reduce weight by 10%; and/or reduce sets by 1-2, and reps by 1-3. And increase rest by 15-30 sec per set. If doing a continuous strength session this day, decrease the time by 15% and/or slow the pace by 15%.

“On a red-flag day, reduce weight by 20%; and/or sets by 2-3, reps by 2-3. And increase rest by 30-60 sec per set if doing a continuous strength workout this day, decrease time by 30% and/or slow pace by 30%,” says Corn.

WHAT NEXT? If you want more on how to use strength training to increase your club head speed then read our guide from the European Tour S&C Consultant William Weyland.

Follow the author @adventurefella and

Photo by Jonathan Borba, Jesper Aggergaard, Charles Gaudereault, Victor Freitas, Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash