“Strong is the new skinny.”
You’ve probably seen this proclamation splashed across social media in recent years — but it’s more than just a catch phrase. For decades, mounting evidence has shown that strength training can play a critical role in achieving weight-loss success — not to mention a variety of other health benefits backed up by research.
Strength Training’s Effect on Your Image
Perhaps the most common goal I hear from clients is that they want to achieve a slimmer, leaner, and stronger appearance.
As much as the weight-loss industry likes to tout the seemingly handy ideas of portion control, home-delivered meals, and point calculations, they often leave fitness guidance as an afterthought. (Not to mention, those ways of eating usually don’t serve your body nutritionally, but that’s a separate discussion.) This is especially true when it comes to any mention of heavy exertion.
Dieting alone may produce weight loss on the scale, but it doesn’t prove to be as effective for achieving a leaner, more muscular build as programs that include consistent strength training. Physical change requires a certain type of physical stimulus — and that can’t just be food change alone.
Rather, it’s through heavy resistance training that we can facilitate the most notable and successful changes to our body.
Numerous studies have examined the differences between calorie restriction and its combined effects with either aerobic exercise or heavy resistance training. They’ve yielded some telling results.
For instance, when comparing 12- to 16-week efforts to alter body shape and composition, it seems that combining heavier resistance training with focused dietary efforts is superior for reducing waist circumference, maintaining lean tissue, and increasing quality of life.
Even among obese and diabetic subjects — those who have the most challenging metabolic patterns for fat loss — waist circumference and body-fat loss results were the most significant in those who engaged in supervised strength training three times weekly versus those just underwent caloric restriction.
In fact, this study of obese and overweight diabetic participants showed that the combination of resistance training with modest carbohydrate restriction (to just 45 percent of total calories) and higher protein intakes (31 percent of total calories) resulted in the most remarkable changes to physique and overall body-composition metrics, which is conducive to better long-term health.
The study group that combined the highest amounts of protein with resistance training averaged a 30-pound weight loss (24 pounds of which came from fat tissue), while the standard dietary group performing the same training protocol lost less weight and less total fat.
Out of all participants, the group who consumed higher dietary protein and combined it with resistance training exhibited a greater net effect on weight and fat loss than the outcomes of those in the next closest group. They also saw the biggest reduction in waist circumference.
This demonstrates that adopting a higher-protein diet is important, but the next best action isn’t necessarily to get on the treadmill for long, steady sessions — rather, it may be to start strength training.
Strength Training’s Effect on How You Feel
Trainers often ask their clients how they want to feel when they achieve their sought-after goals. The most common answers are “fit,” “lean,” “confident,” and “strong.”
To achieve these results, following a relatively intense resistance training is essential. That could include bodyweight plyometrics, advanced yoga practice, or a significant devotion to consistent weight lifting — with heavier weights than you might normally do.
Sure, the workout may leave you a bit sore or unable to match those efforts for a few days. But for strength training to be effective, it must be hard enough to force you into a rest and recovery period. Typically, if you follow this pattern of hard training followed by strategic recovery, your repair efforts will bring you to a stronger level within a week’s time. When you’re pushing your limits, be sure to do so safely and keep an eye out for common signs of chronic under-recovery.
Many weight-training experts follow the common guideline: “To know you’ve strength trained properly or to force a change in the appearance, size, or strength of your muscles, you must lift heavy enough so you can’t put forth that same effort on successive days.”
In the highest-protein, weightlifting group from the study mentioned earlier, the pure strength gain seen over just 16 weeks was impressive: The average increase in one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the bench press was approximately 24 pounds.
The average 1RM gains for lat pulldowns increased by 20 pounds in participants who previously had not engaged in formal strength training. That measurable gain in push-and-pull strength in four months is a major boon for confidence.
Other research of men who followed a similar 12-week training protocol measured an increased maximal squat weight by nearly 30 percent. Those who combined higher-protein diet with both aerobic exercise and strength training also showed higher maximal oxygen consumption — a marker of overall fitness capacity.
Again, not only were weight- and fat-loss efforts most successful in those who performed the highest amount of strength training, but their overall muscle function and fitness were also the most improved of all the groups.
To feel stronger, research shows that channeling your inner strong-man/strong-woman and pushing your limits can offer significant benefits. You need to push your limits in order to discover them and set new benchmarks.
Strength Training’s Effect on Your Health
So far, we’ve seen evidence that connects weight training to improved body weight and composition, strength gains, and fitness capacity. But how does it translate to better health?
The studies mentioned above (and others) have demonstrated that the positive outcomes from strength training can significantly influence our long-term functional health. This includes better balance, a more positive mood, improved blood pressure and blood-glucose control, and better bone health.
The discussed study groups with the best fitness and fat-loss results also demonstrated the best glycemic (blood-sugar) control, lowest fasting insulin, lowest triglycerides, and best cholesterol ratios. This occurred after they combined moderately reduced carbohydrate, higher protein dietary patterns with aerobic exercise and three-times weekly resistance training.
These improvements, although achieved over just 12 to 16 weeks, can have lasting effects on the participants’ longevity.
Regardless, it’s never too late to start a strength-training regimen: The participants in these groups were middle-aged, and many had no prior experience with formal exercise.
If you’re new to resistance training or would like some guidance around where to start, consider following one of our virtual training programs (complimentary for Life Time members), or connecting with a fitness professional.
[i] W. J. Kraemer, Volek, J .S., Clark K. L., Gordon, S. E., Puhl, S. M., Koziris L. P., McBride, J. M., Triplett-McBride, N. T., Putukian, M., Newton, R. U., Hakkinen, K., Bush, J. A., Sebastianelli, W.J. Influence of exercise training on physiological and performance changes with weight loss in men. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise [1999, 31(9):1320-1329)].Find all citations in this journal (default).
[ii] Thomas P. Whycherley, Noakes, M., Clifton, P. M., Cleanthous, X., Keogh, J. B., Brinkworth, G. D. A High-Protein Diet With Resistance Exercise Training Improves Weight Loss and Body Composition in Overweight and Obese Patients With Type 2 Diabetes Diabetes Care May 2010 33:5 969-976.