It’s crazy how many emails I get from women who want to know if they should “lose their fat and get fit” before starting to lift weights. My dear friends, that is the point of weight lifting!
There is obviously still a widespread belief that lifting weights will make you bulk up, and that your new bulky muscle will sit on top of your pre-existing fat and therefore make you bigger. This is simply not true.
Weights or cardio for fat loss?
Weight lifting is essential to losing fat and gaining muscle definition (I would rather stab my own eyes out than use the expression ‘toning up’, but for all intents and purposes toning up = losing fat while simultaneously increasing muscle mass).
When you rely solely on dieting and/or cardio to lose weight, you will indeed lose fat (provided you are eating enough but not too much, and working hard enough to place your body in a calorie deficit yet at the same time not overdoing it); however, you will also lose muscle and will be left with the “skinny fat” body I have previously discussed here.
Side note: I don’t care what kind of body anyone has and I’m not here to judge, but most women who contact me are looking for some kind of positive physical result. For the purpose of this post I will therefore be talking about how to obtain just that.
Weight lifting is essential to developing a good physique. Resistance training – either using free weights, machines or your own bodyweight – will change your body composition, unlike cardio and dieting alone. Resistance training places your muscles under stress, which they will respond to by growing. By stimulating your muscles, you will prevent them from wasting away as you lose weight through nutrition modifications.
Although you might not work up as much of a sweat as you would with cardio, weight training is fantastic for fat-burning. Concentrate your workouts around compound exercises (squats, deadlifts and presses) and you will work every muscle in your body and burn fat at the same time. The fat you lose will be replaced by muscle (fat cannot turn into muscle, or vice versa), which takes up less space on your body. This is why many people look better despite gaining weight.
Source (this was a great post on why we shouldn’t use the scale to measure progress)
Weight training will increase your muscle mass, but that is a good thing. The more muscle you have on your body, the more calories you burn. This is one of the reasons I can maintain my weight while eating more than double what I used to back when I was a skinny runner. You can only get a body like the above by challenging it through resistance training. It is not possible to turn into a she-hulk unless you are taking steroids.
Resistance training is all you need to burn fat and get fit. I personally don’t think cardio is necessary, but 2-3 short sessions a week may help to speed up results. And no, I don’t believe cardio is essential to keep your heart healthy – try doing 10-20 reps of heavy squats and tell me that isn’t cardio! I do a lot of walking, but for non-exercise related reasons. If you do genuinely enjoy cardio, then go right ahead – but don’t do it just because you feel you are “supposed to”.
Fear of being overweight
The other group of people who ask this question are those that are too afraid to step foot in a gym for fear of being judged. How many times have you held back from something because of the state of your physical appearance? Perhaps you regularly spend your summer holidays feeling miserable covered up under a muu-muu, or perhaps you often decline party invitations as you don’t feel fit enough to attend. No one will remember that you were carrying an extra 10lbs of fat – they will remember that you were there enjoying yourself.
The types of people who wait until “next time” are usually the ones who never make any real changes to their body,. The ones who do experience amazing physical transformations are the ones that get started on the right program without waiting until Monday, next month or bikini season.
Remember that everyone has to start somewhere. 99 per cent of people in the gym aren’t paying attention to anyone but themselves. If you are overweight, people will commend you for taking the first steps to change your body.
Finally, most people are never happy with their bodies and will therefore never think “OK, I’m now fit enough to join a gym”. It wasn’t until I started lifting for strength that I started to accept my body for what it was.
Strength or fat loss?
Another incorrect belief is that one must first lose fat before they can focus on being strong. Again, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t lose fat and get stronger at the same time. Despite common beliefs, the two goals are not mutually exclusive. If you are a beginner just starting out, you will be able to gain strength quickly no matter what.
In fact, all of my clients who have achieved weight loss have done so while also significantly increasing their strength. I am currently training a woman twice per week as she prepares for her first strongwoman competition. She has lost 6kg in eight weeks but also added 30kg to her deadlift, 40kg to her squat and 15kg to her overhead press during that time.
Granted, more advanced lifters will not typically be able to get stronger while losing fat, but their strength should remain relatively constant if they are dieting correctly.
Training for strength is difficult, and it will encourage both muscle growth and fat loss. You can achieve the body you want by training in sets of five reps or less. Check out Kellie Davis’ story of going from a figure competitor to powerlifter on Bret Contreras’ blog – she also gained weight but looks phenomenal!
Lifting weights will increase your fitness, change your body for the better and improve your strength. Don’t be scared into thinking you are not worthy enough to lift heavy.
Have you ever thought you weren’t ready to lift weights or get stronger?