Weight training is, increasingly, becoming a woman’s world. Girls in gyms across the country are sacking off the stereotypes and hitting the bar – and if you’re setting yourself a weight loss goal this year, you might want to consider joining them.
“There was once a fear that lifting heavy would ‘bulk’ us up,” admits personal trainer Kate Pearson, Coach at Inside Out Fitness and Nutrition Coaching in Glasgow. “But more women are realising that lifting lots of kilograms can actually help you shift pounds.”
“If weight loss is your aim, the quickest way to achieve that is not by jogging mindlessly for an hour on the treadmill or taking a beasting in a spin class (although both of these are great forms of exercise and lots of fun). Lifting heavy weights is actually the best way to burn lots of calories.”
“But it’s not during the activity that the magic happens, it’s after,” she adds. “We call this the after-burn effect. Whilst running burns lots of calories, that process stops when you stop. Lifting weights, however, can help you burn higher calories for up to 72 hours afterwords!”
Calorie burn isn’t the only benefit of lifting weights, either – in addition to making you fitter and stronger overall, strength training can help to have a positive impact on your bone density, reducing your chances of developing osteoporosis, and some research even suggests that it could lower your risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Want to incorporate weights in a way that helps shift the numbers on the scales? Here are five ways to get the results you’re looking for in the most efficient way:
- Muscles and Metabolism
- The Fat-Burning Machine
- Healthy Hormones
- Lift Heavy to Lose Weight
- The Power of Inefficiency
- What Type of Weight Lifting Is Best For Weight Loss?
- What Should I Eat to Lose Weight While Weightlifting?
- 1. Stop “dieting”
- 2. Think quality
- 3. Eat the best foods for weight loss
- 4. Re-think quantity
- 5. Don’t eat these diet-busting foods:
- 6. Try 80-20
- 7. Look at the big picture
- 8. Move more
- 9. Add in exercise
- 10. Ramp up the cardio
- 11. Get your zzzs
- 12. Chill out
- A Beginner’s Guide To Losing Body Fat!
- BodyFit Plus
- What comes with BodyFit Plus?
- Weight Lifting to Lose Weight
- 11 Major Health and Fitness Benefits of Lifting Weights
- 1.You’ll Torch More Body Fat
- 2. …And You’ll Especially Lose Belly Fat
- 3. Your Muscles Will Look More Defined
- 4. You’ll Burn More Calories Than Cardio
- 5. You’ll Strengthen Your Bones
- 6. You’ll Get Stronger, Obv
- 7. You’ll Prevent Injury
- 8. You’ll Be a Better Runner
- 9. You’ll Increase Your Flexibility
- 10. You’ll Boost Heart Health
- 11. You’ll Feel Empowered
- What are the Best Sources of Protein?
- How Much Protein Do I Need to Eat Every Day?
- When is the best time for me to eat protein in a day?
- Should I Take Protein Supplements?
- Protein and Strength Training: A Match Made in Heaven
- How Much Protein You Should Eat to Build Muscle
- Give Me One Week In Your Inbox…
1. Invest in guidance
Personal training = £££, but a little bit of tuition can greatly reduce your chance of doing yourself more harm than good – and frankly, that makes the upfront spend worthwhile. At the very least, Kate recommends asking someone to show you a few key moves and how to use the weights machines initially. “It’s vital you get the technique right – at best you won’t make any gains, at worst you could seriously injure yourself,” she explains. If you’re really not up for a one-on-one sesh, you could consider joining a class instead – increasing numbers of gyms are offering lessons in lifting, in order to teach you to use weights safely.
2. Lift heavy
“Bicep curling 2kg a few times is not going to do anything for you – sorry!” Kate says. Turns out you need to be doing what the pros call “lifting to failure” – if you get to your third set of 10 repetitions, you need to be only making 7 or 8 at the most. If you’re finding it easy, it’s a sign that you need to add more weight. Hey, nobody said this was going to be easy…
3. Use your time wisely
Most of us don’t have time to spend hours on a workout everyday, but with weight training, that’s not necessary; you just need to identify the moves will get you to where you want to be, and make them your priority. “If you don’t have much time, focus on big compound moves that use lots of muscles,” Kate suggests. “Deadlifts, squats, and pull ups are all great for working on big, important muscle groups.”
4. Eat enough protein
Protein is essential for building muscle, so eating a diet that’s rich in lean meats, fish, eggs, beans, nuts and pulses should be a big part of your training plan – Kate recommends that you aim for 2-3 good quality portions of lean protein every day. The beauty of good-quality protein is that it helps you to stay fuller for longer, so you’re less likely to setback your progress with a 4pm sugar fix – after all, as the old adage goes, you can’t out-train a bad diet.
5. Be in a calorie deficit
“Sadly, the quickest and easiest way to lose weight is still to eat less than you burn,” Kate advises. “It used to be said that you couldn’t build muscle in a calorie deficit, but increasing research shows that’s not the case. You can still reduce your calorie intake and make some great gains in calorie-consuming muscle at the same time.” The NHS states that the average woman can lose weight at a steady rate eating around 1400 calories a day, but this will depend on your starting weight, height and activity levels, amongst other things – seek the advice of your doctor if you’re unsure what’s right for you.
When Ellen Zwiefel started putting on weight after the birth of her second child, she did what a lot of people do: She tried to run it off. Four or five times a week, she laced up her running shoes and ran five miles, nonstop. But the scale refused to budge. Figuring she wasn’t doing enough, Zwiefel, 44, started attending regular cycling classes and doing additional workouts on cardio machines. Months of heroic effort, however, did little to reshape her body. “Nothing was working,” she says. “I thought my metabolism had just slowed down and that I’d never be able to lose the weight.”
But rather than give up, Zwiefel sought help. Under the guidance of Jason Stella, NASM-PES, CES, head of training at Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minn., Zwiefel took up a strength-building program. Instead of low-intensity, repetitive exercise sessions on treadmills and ellipticals, she began doing shorter, more intense workouts with weights that were never the same from one day to the next.
Four months later, Zwiefel’s shoulders, arms and abs had the sculpted, athletic look she’d always wanted. Better yet, 15 pounds had melted off, and her body fat percentage was 7.5 points lower. Friends started asking her how she’d pulled it off. “Strength training made all the difference in the world,” she says.
Many gym-goers — and even some health and fitness professionals — still believe that strength training is only for people who want to gain weight in the form of shirt-stretching muscles, and that long-duration exercise like running and cycling is the fastest way to lose fat. In-the-know trainers like Stella, however, believe otherwise.
Both their real-life experience and the latest fitness research suggest that low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, while beneficial, is not the fastest route to leanness and overall health that many people believe it is. The real key to fat loss is high-intensity exercise, especially strength training — with real weights, real sweat and real effort.
The real key to fat loss is high-intensity exercise, especially strength training — with real weights, real sweat and real effort.
The results may have little to do with what the scale tells you. Your weight may go down, stay the same, or even go up a bit. Your shape, however, will change dramatically, says Stella. “I always ask my clients, ‘Do you want to hit a number on the scale, or do you want to be leaner, more athletic, and able to fit into your clothes better, even if you weigh a little more?’ For most people, it’s no contest.”
Muscles and Metabolism
Aerobic activity is great for your heart and lungs. For many, it can be a meditative way to clear the mind, blow off stress and get in touch with nature. For others, it’s a challenging and invigorating competitive sport. But as a tool for getting leaner, aerobic exercise by itself is a mediocre strategy.
Here’s the problem: To lose weight, you must burn more calories than you eat. Stay in a calorie-deprived state long enough, and your body begins to burn through its own tissues for fuel. Presto! The number on the scale goes down. You can make that number drop through aerobic exercise and calorie restriction. But what most bathroom scales won’t tell you is how much of the weight you lose is in the form of fat, and how much of it is muscle. And losing muscle mass can sabotage your weight-loss efforts.
Muscle contraction is a primary engine of fat loss, explains Stella: The more muscle mass you have to contract, the more calories you can burn. In addition, strength-training workouts that take large muscle groups to a state of burn will increase the release of hormones that aid in reducing body fat. So anyone who wants to lose fat should make every effort to hang on to, and even gain, as much lean muscle mass as possible.
The best way to do that is resistance training, which will help you hold on to your muscle tissue while you lose fat. You might even gain some muscle while you’re restricting your calories, as long as you’re getting enough protein. (Stella recommends a gram of protein per pound of lean body weight per day, which requires an individual to know his or her body fat percentage.) In turn, this extra muscle keeps your metabolism humming, even as restricted food intake threatens to slow it down.
The Fat-Burning Machine
Numerous studies have demonstrated conclusively that strength training, in conjunction with good nutrition, burns fat much more effectively than dieting alone and dieting in conjunction with aerobic exercise. What no study has shown yet is exactly how.
This much is known: Aerobic activity burns fat while you’re exercising, but anaerobic (meaning without oxygen) activity burns fat in the minutes, hours and days following exercise, as your body recovers from your workout. Compare the energy costs of the two activities during a workout session, as many studies have done in the past, and aerobic activity appears to burn more fat, which may explain why many health and fitness professionals still recommend it.
But if you add up the fat burned by the two activities during and after exercise — including what’s burned between sets during the workout itself — anaerobic activity comes out ahead. Way ahead.
Several factors contribute to this. An exerciser consumes additional oxygen in the hours and days following a strength-training session (a phenomenon known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC), and that accounts for some of the difference. Simply put, you burn more calories and keep your metabolism elevated when you use more oxygen. The muscles of a strength-trained athlete also remain slightly contracted (meaning they’re still firing) for several hours after working out, which adds fuel to the metabolic furnace. And it’s likely that the fat-burning effect of an anaerobic workout is cumulative, so that with each successive set, you burn incrementally more fat, leading to a kind of fat-burning jackpot at the end of your workout.
But, as with many questions in the relatively young field of exercise science, a complete answer remains elusive. “The truth,” says Christopher Scott, PhD, associate professor at the University of Southern Maine and an expert in metabolism, “is that we don’t have a valid way of measuring anaerobic energy expenditure.”
Absent a full explanation, experts like Alwyn Cosgrove, MS, CSCS, posit that intense anaerobic exercise causes an unusual amount of metabolic perturbation — breakdown in muscle and other tissues — from which the body must scramble to recover.
Cosgrove, co-owner of Results Fitness in Newhall, Calif., and coauthor of The New Rules of Lifting for Life (Avery, 2012), explains that this systemwide disturbance results in a temporary but significant spike in resting metabolic rate. This spike, combined with the large amounts of fat and calories burned by the activity itself, probably accounts for the remarkably high energy expenditure of these types of activity.
You can’t see all the benefits of strength training in the mirror, but you’ll definitely feel them. One reason: Regular, intense resistance training can have a dramatic effect on your endocrine (or hormonal) system, which manages energy, mood and other components of well-being.
Regular, intense resistance training can have a dramatic effect on your endocrine (or hormonal) system, which manages energy, mood and other components of well-being.
Hormones also regulate your body’s immediate and long-term responses to strength training, so they not only help you burn fat and build muscle directly after a workout, but they also make you a more efficient fat-burning, muscle-building machine, 24/7.
Lift Heavy to Lose Weight
Strength training affects dozens of hormones directly or indirectly, but here are a few of the key players:
- Before you even begin your strength-training session, your adrenal glands secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine, which aid in producing more force, blood flow, and the metabolism of sugar and fat. This helps explain why you might start to feel charged up as soon as you lace up your lifting shoes or stroll up to the front desk at the gym: Your adrenals are revving up.
- Heavy strength training stimulates your anabolic (tissue-building) growth hormone and testosterone. Growth hormone boosts your immune system, increases fat metabolism, and promotes growth in your muscles, tendons and ligaments. Testosterone — abundant in men but present in small amounts in women as well — supports muscle growth while boosting mood and energy. Strength training may thus be an effective, natural way to counteract the drop in testosterone (and resulting loss of muscle mass and energy) that tends to occur in men as they age.
- Peptide YY, a digestive hormone stimulated by anaerobic training, can also aid in fat loss by counteracting the effects of ghrelin, a “diet-sabotaging” hormone that can make you hungrier and more likely to store fat when you cut calories.
- Over time, strength training has been shown to lower insulin resistance, a condition associated with type 2 diabetes that limits your ability to access and burn fat cells. The upshot? Your newly insulin-sensitive metabolism burns fat more efficiently.
Different approaches to strength training, from high reps to low reps, heavy weights to light weights, and everything in between, all elicit slightly different responses from your endocrine system. This has led some zealous exercisers to “chase” different hormones with overly rigid workout programs or to seek out sketchy “hormone-boosting” supplements.
But Jonathan Mike, PhD(c), USAW, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, an expert on the hormonal effects of exercise at the University of New Mexico, advises against such strategies. “The actions of the various hormones are interrelated,” he explains. “You can’t raise one without affecting the others, negatively or positively.”
Mike advises clients to stick with a general resistance-training program. (For more on an especially effective fat-burning method, see “Training Tips,” below and the “Rev Up Your Metabolism!” workout.)
The Power of Inefficiency
In addition to biochemical benefits, a progressive strength-training program also keeps you operating at maximal inefficiency. And that’s better than it sounds.
The problem with many repetitive exercise programs is that they require progressively less energy the more you do them. That’s partly because repetition of any activity makes you more efficient: Your body gets better at performing that task. This is especially true if you’ve lost a significant amount of weight. Your body will naturally use less energy to move your new, lower weight. You’ll also expend less energy during low- to moderate-intensity exercise. This enhanced efficiency can be a major impediment if you’re trying to lose weight.
The problem with many repetitive exercise programs is that they require progressively less energy the more you do them. That’s partly because repetition of any activity makes you more efficient: Your body gets better at performing that task.
Your best bet, then, is to find ways to make your exercise program more inefficient. With aerobic exercise, you can mix it up: Alternate longer runs, rides or swims with some intermittent training — intervals in which you go hard for a short burst (30 to 60 seconds), then slow down to an easy pace for a minute or two. But it’s even simpler with strength training: Slap some extra weight on the bar, or take some off. Do sets for time instead of stopping at a predetermined number of reps. Adjust your rest time between sets, do your exercises in a different order, or do different exercises altogether, and you have a new set of challenges to which your body has to adapt. Tweak your program regularly, and you can continue improving for as long as you keep up your strength-training efforts.
“Changing things up guarantees inefficiency,” says Lou Schuler, CSCS, coauthor of The New Rules of Lifting for Life. “And that’s what you want when you’re trying to create a metabolic stimulus for fat loss.”
Many people find that the variety and progression inherent in strength training keeps the activity engaging, which is an advantage in itself. But Cosgrove believes that higher-intensity activities may actually burn large amounts of fat in part because they require so much focus and attention, and don’t allow you to simply go through the motions. After all, it’s pretty tough to zone out when you’re holding a loaded barbell over your head. “There may be a cognitive element to effective fat-loss programming that we don’t yet fully understand,” he says.
At some point, says Cosgrove, health and fitness professionals may find out exactly what’s going on cognitively and metabolically, allowing them to devise programs that burn fat even faster. But for now, they aren’t sweating the details — and neither should you. “We’ve been wrong in the past about the mechanism behind it,” he admits. “For all I know, strength training simply summons the gods of fat loss. But we’re not wrong about the fact that it works.”
This article has been updated. It originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Experience Life magazine.
Andrew Heffernan is a Los Angeles–based fitness coach and a contributing editor at Experience Life.
Research varies a fair bit when it comes to determining how much a pound of muscle actually increases your RMR, but everyone agrees that adding muscle definitely DOES increase your metabolic rate. Some say a pound of muscle burns an extra 12 calories per day, while others estimate that a pound burns up to 70 calories! (At either end of the spectrum, muscle has a pretty big impact on your metabolism)
Back to our Duke University study…
The RT and AT/RT groups added lean mass (i.e. muscle), which means they increased their RMR. In other words, lifting weights leads to muscle gain, which boosts metabolism, and stimulates weight-loss all day, every day.
That’s pretty darned cool.
What about the AT group who was busy doing cardio?
Cardiovascular exercise can actually have a negative effect on RMR. If you do too much cardio training, your lean body mass can begin to decrease. This is known as entering a catabolic state, where your body burns muscle tissue for fuel. This is exactly the wrong place to be if you’re looking to lose weight for the long-term.
Simply put, when you jog on the treadmill, you will burn a fair number of calories. But, that calorie-burning turns off almost instantly when you stop running. Simultaneously, cardiovascular exercise isn’t supporting your existing lean body mass, nor does it help create new lean tissue. Therefore, you can end up killing your metabolism by focusing on cardio.
I could cite study after study that confirms the positive impact of weight lifting on RMR and overall health. Lifting weights is NOT just for men. And no, strength training is not just for bodybuilders. Weight lifting is for anyone who wants to shed weight and keep it off.
What Type of Weight Lifting Is Best For Weight Loss?
Hopefully we’re on the same page now. Lifting weights is fantastic for your metabolic rate, and therefore is necessary for maximum weight loss.
But, what type of resistance training should you use? This is a complex question that varies to some degree for each individual, but here’s a simple answer:
The best weight lifting program for weight loss is one that has you move in every way that your body is built to move.
That might sound like a confusing answer, but in reality, your body moves in just 6 ways, often referred to as your Primal Movement Patterns. These include squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, bending, and twisting. (Sometimes your gait, walking or running, is added as a seventh movement pattern, although it is a variation of a lunge)
Most of the diet tips you hear for weightlifters have to do with building muscle. Makes sense: strength training is the number one way to build muscle, and paired with a balanced macronutrient diet with plenty of protein and healthy carbs, it’ll have you on your way to a stronger body in no time. But if your primary goal is to lose weight — not necessarily to build muscle — it can be a little harder to find the diet you need. We’re here to help, along with registered dietitian (and nationally ranked CrossFitter!) Michele Fumagalli of Northwestern Medicine and Fit Plate Nutrition.
First of all, Michele confirmed that weightlifting can help you lose weight, but it’s mostly going to be fat. No complaints here, but if you’re only tracking on the scale, you might not see big shifts. “If you’re starting to weightlift, the ultimate goal is to decrease body fat mass and increase your lean body mass,” Michele told POPSUGAR. That means that you might be able to see and feel differences in your body, with bigger muscles and less fat on top, but your actual weight may not change very much.
With that in mind, weightlifting is a very effective way to shed fat. Muscle itself doesn’t “burn fat,” as the popular saying goes, but muscle gain and fat loss are certainly connected; the more muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate will be, meaning that you keep burning calories even when you’re not actively exercising.
Of course, the food you eat has a major role as well. To maximize your fat loss through weightlifting, Michele shared five key diet tips.
- Eat enough calories. Underfueling will cause your muscles to break down instead of grow, “and that’s the complete opposite of what we want when we’re weightlifting,” Michele said. “If you’re not feeding your body enough, it almost sees it as a famine. It’s going to hold on to your fat reserves instead of burning them.” An easy way to figure out how much you need, Michele said, is just to listen to your body.
- Aid recovery with fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids. Inflammation naturally occurs after a hard strength-training workout; it’s related to the process of breaking down your muscles to help them grow bigger and stronger, which ultimately helps you burn fat. While this kind of inflammation is a “good” thing, Michele said, you can still help to bring it down and help your muscles recover faster by eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and omega-3 fatty acids like flax meal, chia seed, walnuts, sardines, and fatty fish like salmon.
- Balance your protein throughout the day. Protein is crucial for post-workout recovery, but it’s also an important portion of every other meal throughout your day. “You want to have some protein at pretty much every meal and snack,” Michele said. It promotes muscle growth and helps to keep you full, both big helps for losing weight.
- Stay hydrated. “Muscles need more water,” Michele told POPSUGAR. Being dehydrated only weakens your muscles, which makes it harder to get through workouts and recover from them. Reminder: stronger, growing muscles help you burn more calories and lose more weight, so drink that water, at least a half-gallon a day.
- Swap some — but not all — starchy carbs with vegetables. Good news: “You don’t need to completely eliminate starchy carbs,” Michele said. (Starchy carbs are the kind you find in breads, pastas, potatoes, and cereal.) However, if you’re really looking to up your fat-burning, you’ll see faster results if you do substitute some of those carbs for vegetables. Michele recommended having at least one meal where about a fourth of your plate is a healthy starchy carb like quinoa, whole wheat pasta, or sweet potatoes, and limiting them in the other two meals in your day.
What Should I Eat to Lose Weight While Weightlifting?
Now that you’ve got the facts, it’s time to figure out what you’ll actually be eating. Michele recommended planning out your meals around your protein source — simply because those usually take the longest to cook — and filling in vegetables and some starchy carbs around it. Pop a chicken breast in the oven, for example, while you sauté some spinach and boil quinoa. Here are a few of Michele’s healthy meal recommendations for weight loss:
- Fruit-filled overnight oats
- Open-faced breakfast sandwich
- Spring greens with cottage cheese, blueberries, quinoa, almond slices, and balsamic vinegar. “Feel free to add leftover chicken, or use edamame to keep it plant-based,” Michele said.
- An open-faced sandwich with turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mustard, plus sides of mandarin orange, half a cucumber, and Greek yogurt.
- Greek yogurt
- Two hard-boiled eggs
- Cucumber-red pepper slices
- A small apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter
- Baked chicken or ground turkey with lots of veggies (choose your favorites), whole wheat pasta, and tomato sauce
That’s what you should eat — what about what you shouldn’t? Michele said you don’t have to omit any food completely to lose weight, but you should try to limit both alcohol and highly processed foods. Alcohol hinders recovery, Michele said, and “it’s just empty calories.” As for ultraprocessed foods, “they’re just not nourishing. They might be delicious but they’re really not providing you very much besides calories.” A recent study confirmed that people on an ultraprocessed diet gained an average of two pounds per week over two weeks.
Eating cleanly and strategically works hand in hand with a strength training routine to help you maximize fat burn and muscle gain, which can equal major weight loss. For more meal ideas to promote weight loss, check out our two-week clean eating plan and pair it with this weeklong muscle-building workout schedule for maximized fat burn.
Image Source: Getty / PeopleImages
With so many “get ripped yesterday” and “lose 50 pounds by tomorrow” schemes out there, it’s tempting to keep looking for that easy way to lean out. But, even extreme plans that seem to work for a while are fraught with trouble.
The reality: If you really want to be a slimmer you, you’ll be making some habit changes in terms of how you eat and move.
“Lifestyle changes are the best way to improve health and manage weight long term,” says Donald Hensrud, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program and editor of The Mayo Clinic Diet Book and The Mayo Clinic Cookbook Here are some of the most effective tips and tricks for changing your lifestyle and droppping those extra pounds.
1. Stop “dieting”
The good news: If you really want to succeed, you won’t be going on a diet. “When someone undertakes a program with the typical approach to diet, they do something that’s very restrictive and drudgery but they think, ‘If I can just do this until I lose the weight, I’ll be fine.’” Hensrud says. “But if it’s negative and restrictive, it’s temporary.” The potentially less-good news (if you’re resistant to change): You will likely have to modify what you eat, how much you eat, or (probably) both.
2. Think quality
“Accept that calories count.” Hensrud says. “This is basic, but there are many fads out there that say they don’t.” By the numbers, one pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. So in order to lose a pound per week, you’d have to reduce your calorie intake by 500 calories a day. This doesn’t mean that you need to count every morsel that goes into your mouth (though if you’re into that sort of thing, feel free).
Rather, you need to understand calorie density versus nutrient density. Foods that are calorie-dense tend to be high in fat (after all, there are 9 calories per gram of it) and/or full of “empty” calories—as in, ones that don’t provide much nutrition (sorry, French fries, candy bars, and soda). On the other hand, nutrient-dense foods have lots of good vitamins and minerals for their calorie load. The best ones also have fiber, protein, and/or “good” fat content, which will keep you fuller longer (which is another reason that sugar-laden juice should probably be limited). Hello, veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean fish, chicken, beans, and nuts.
3. Eat the best foods for weight loss
Vegetables are particularly nutrient dense, especially those that are vividly colored, like dark greens and bright red tomatoes. Greens like kale and cruciferous veggies like broccoli and Brussels sprouts are high in fiber, which will fill you up.
Fruit is a great choice, too, and though it is higher in sugar, the fiber content tends to offset that in terms of preventing a blood sugar spike. The color rule applies here, too, with brilliant berries leading the pack in terms of nutrient density. Still, watch your portions if your main goal is weight loss.
Whole grains are fiber-rich and provide necessary nutrients such as B vitamins and magnesium, and yes, even protein. Wheat, oats, and brown rice may be most common, but get creative with quinoa (a particularly good source of protein), amaranth, buckwheat, and teff.
Lean fish, such as wild-caught salmon, rainbow trout, and sardines are low in mercury and high in Omega 3s and, of course, protein.
Boneless, skinless chicken breast is one of the best bangs for your buck in terms of protein content, with 27 grams in a 4-ounce serving.
Beans are both low in calories yet very filling, being high in fiber and protein (how’s that for nutrient-dense?). Top choices include black beans, kidney beans, lentils, and chickpeas—but really any are worth your while.
Nuts are best enjoyed in moderation on account of their relatively high fat content, which makes them more caloric ounce for ounce than other healthy picks. Stick to the serving sizes (usually an ounce) and you’ll reap the benefits of their wide array of nutrients and their satiating abilities. Especially good picks are almonds, cashews, and pistachios.
Here’s our comprehensive list of the 103 best foods for weight loss, according to nutritionists.
4. Re-think quantity
OK, so you’re not dieting. That means that, yes, you can actually have those French fries. Just probably not every day. Consider quantity as a sliding scale, from limited fries and candy to unlimited veggies, and fill in from there with moderate portions of meat and beans (for protein), whole grains, and low-fat dairy. (The government is onto something with that whole MyPlate thing.) “An extreme example: If someone ate only 600 calories of jelly beans a day, yes, they’d lose weight, but not support their health,” says Hensrud. But they’d be pretty hungry and unsatisfied once the 60 or so jelly beans (or 150 smaller Jelly Bellys) were gone. (Note: We’re also not suggesting 600 as your target calorie count, but you get what we’re saying.)
5. Don’t eat these diet-busting foods:
Candy. Kinda a no-brainer, since it’s either all sugar or sugar and fat. Still need your sweet fix? Get down with fun size—and stick to one at a time.
Pastries. A combo of sugar, fat, and refined flour—yeah, not so great for the waistline. And, unfortunately, that danish containing apples or the pie made of blueberries aren’t any better.
Deep-fried…anything. Oil soaking into those potatoes and breadings might taste great… but it’s not filling and certainly won’t help you towards your weight loss goals.
Chips. Ones that are fried or cheese-powder-coated certainly don’t scream good for you, but even the ones that purport to be “healthy” by being baked or made of, say, sweet potatoes, still are mostly empty calories.
White bread. The grains have been de-germed, rendering white bread fairly nutrient-sparse. Many are fortified (for that reason), but it’s generally better to get your nutrients from their natural, original source.
6. Try 80-20
As noted, deprivation doesn’t work long term. That’s why Nathane Jackson, C.S.C.S., R.H.N,, a health and wellness coach and founder of Nathane Jackson Fitness, recommends his clients follow the 80-20 rule: 80% of your calories should come from fresh, whole “single-ingredient” foods that you eat in largely the form in which they grow in nature (produce, meat, nuts, etc.). The other 20% can be of the more “processed” variety, in which he includes foods that have a place in a healthy diet, such as whole-grain bread. Of that 20, he says 5 to 10% can be from the junk food column. But “don’t have chocolate or ice cream in the house,” he says. “Rig the game so you can win, rather that relying on willpower. If you want it, you can go get it, but make it an effort to do so.”
7. Look at the big picture
After reading all that, you may still think you have some major dietary changes to make. Before you freak out, start by taking inventory of exactly what you’re eating, including portion size. An app like MyFitnessPal can make logging easier, with its extensive database, barcode scanner, and “memory” of most-used foods (we’re creatures of habit, after all). If you’re not good at estimating how much you ate (and studies show that most people aren’t), measure your food until you’re better at eyeballing it. And don’t ignore the calories you drink (soda, juice, beer), which Jackson says are easy ones to cut down on right off the bat. Once you know where you’re starting, you can make changes—slowly. “Try adding one more serving of fruit and one more of veggies, and one less of meat each day,” suggest Hensrud. Gradually, the goal is to have the nutrient-dense foods you add crowd out the calorie-dense ones you should limit, so you can eat plenty of food and feel full but consume fewer overall calories.
8. Move more
When it comes to weight loss, what you eat (and don’t eat) is far more important than your exercise plan. However, the more you move, the more calories you’ll burn, which will set you up for greater success. Also, you’ll develop fitness habits that will be essential for maintaining that weight loss once you reach your goal. If you’ve been totally sedentary, that means starting by getting up off your duff more. Set a timer to go off every 50 minutes and stand up, walk around, move a little. Studies have shown time and again that people who are naturally thinner move more—up to two hours a day. This timer deal will get you there.
9. Add in exercise
Just like you won’t overhaul your diet, you don’t need to suddenly become a gym rat. We’re aiming for sustainable activity here, so if you go from zero to five days a week at the gym, eventually you’re going to burn out. A more manageable goal, Jackson says, is to ramp up your activity slowly, starting with a half-hour walk every day. Then, he suggests some strength training two to three times per week to retain muscle as you lose fat. Choose multi-joint movements like squats, pushups, overhead presses, and rows—”your biceps are a small muscle, so they don’t burn a ton of calories,” Jackson says—and allow yourself plenty of rest between sets at first. “Working out too intensely at first can affect your appetite and energy, so finding a balance is key,” he says. A great circuit could include two or three sets, with 8-12 reps each and a few minutes rest between, of the following exercises:
– Supported Rows
– Overhead Presses
– Glute Bridges
– Incline Pushups
10. Ramp up the cardio
Once some of the weight is gone and you’re feeling stronger, you can increase your strength-training intensity, taking shorter breaks between the exercises, which will increase the aerobic benefits. You may also add in one or two higher-impact cardio days, such as incline walking or running, cycling, or rowing. Start with steady-state workouts, where you go at the same pace for a half hour to 45 minutes, then play with intervals of exertion and recovery, which are higher intensity and have more calorie-burning benefits. Keep the higher-impact portion shorter than the recovery at first—say 30 seconds or a minute on, 1 to 3 minutes off—and then gradually decrease the recovery. When you’re ready, you can then increase the push until you’re at even time.
11. Get your zzzs
Chronic sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on your weight-loss efforts. “Your hunger hormones reset when you sleep, too, so if you’re deprived of quality and quantity sleep, you’re behind the eight ball when you first wake up, and more likely to crave junk food and carbs,” Jackson says. Sleep is also when your muscles repair post-workout, so it’s even more important to get enough once you’ve started your workout routine. “Quantity is good, but quality is also important,” Jackson says. “Sleep hormones are naturally released around 8 or 9pm, so by going to bed at 10 or so, you’ll feel more replenished because you’ll have slept during the window for best quality.”
12. Chill out
Stress is another factor that can adversely affect your weight-loss efforts. “When under stress, your body also releases cortisol,” says Jackson. When stress is chronic, you’re fighting an uphill battle to lose weight. Further, “exercise itself is actually stress on the body, which is why it’s also important to have a balance of different intensities of training.” He recommends meditation, conceding that at first most of his clients roll their eyes. “But you don’t have to be a monk sitting on a mountain in Tibet. Take 20 minutes a day to relax and breathe and focus.” (Check out these Men’s Fitness cover guys who meditate for more motivation.)
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The best diet is the one you can stick to.
You don’t have to stop eating carbs or fats. You don’t have to eat crazy amount of proteins. You don’t have to eat every 3 hours.
You just have to control your calorie intake. You can do this by counting calories directly. Or you can do this by building simple eating habits.
You’ve probably heard that lifestyles beat diets long-term. That’s actually the original meaning of the word diet – “a way to live” (from the Greek word “diaita”)
So the StrongLifts diet advice is to focus on building simple eating habits you can stick to long-term.
- Simple Nutrition Rules
- Intermittent Fasting
You don’t need any supplements to get stronger and build muscle. You can get results without taking supplements. Most supplements don’t even work anyway, so you’re better off without. I barely take supplements for this reason.
- Only Supplements You Need
If you’re a young, skinny, ectomorph, hardgainer who struggles to gain weight, liquid calories can help you get more calories in. Check this:
- GOMAD for young, skinny guys
A Beginner’s Guide To Losing Body Fat!
Before we get started, the first thing I’m going to tell you is this: Don’t go on a diet. Period. Why? Because most diets are not based on sound nutritional principles. Instead, read this article to learn more about the basic principles of weight loss, along with some great nutrition tips and workouts you can do in the gym!
Losing weight comes down to one very basic idea: Take in fewer calories than your body uses. So let’s start by figuring out how many calories your body burns on a typical day.
How Many Calories Do You Need?
We’re all different, so the number of calories we need every day differs, too. How much energy you burn depends on your age, your size and weight, and your activity level. This total amount you burn is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). You can get a good idea of your TDEE by using this calculator.
To use the calculator, provide your statistics, then select “fat loss” as your goal. Pick an activity level that matches how active you really are. If you say you’re more active than you are, the calculator will give you more calories per day. If you consume all of them, you’ll gain weight. Only by being honest about your activity level can you start to lose weight.
Once you know how many calories you need, you can figure out what kinds of foods you should eat to get those calories. We can help you quickly figure out those numbers, then get you started on meal plans that’ll help you lose body fat—and exercises to help you stay strong!
What Are Your “Macros”?
The most successful weight-loss programs are the ones that combine a good meal plan with the right kind and amount of exercise. But meal planning can be intimidating at first. Some people grow up eating nothing but junk food and never learn about nutrition.
Foods haven’t always had nutrition panels on their labels, so many people didn’t have an opportunity to learn how to compare the macronutrients (macros) in the food they buy. It wasn’t that long ago that people never though in terms of protein, carbs, or fats. It was just “food.” We’ve come a long way since then.
Food consists of three macronutrients:
The human body is made mostly of water. After that comes protein. You need protein every day to perform thousands of functions in the body. Your body works by breaking the protein down into different combinations of amino acids, the “building blocks” of protein.
Carbohydrates are the preferred form of fuel for your body’s energy needs. Simple or sugary carbs have their place when you need fast energy, but for the most part you should eat complex or slow-burning carbs (we’ll give you examples of these later). The thing about carbs, though, is that after you consume all the carbs your body needs for immediate energy, any excess carbs will be stored as body fat.
Body fat has a number of purposes, too. Our bodies store energy in fat tissue, which also keeps us insulated from high and low temperatures, and protects our vital organs. But there are good and bad types of body fat. Most of us eat way too much fat—especially saturated fat and trans fat. We need fats, we just need more of the right ones.
Use this macronutrient calculator to find out how much of each you need. Choose fat loss as your goal and an appropriate activity level.
Your carb intake can be a little higher on days when you know you’re going to be physically active. On days when you do cardio exercises like running or biking, you’ll lose fat faster if you work out on an empty stomach.
Protein shakes are a good way to get macronutrients after you’ve been working out. When possible, though, get your macros from whole foods.
There’s Food, Then There’s the Right Food!
Good protein comes in many forms:
- Lean red meat
- Chicken (no skin)
- Low-fat dairy
This is just the beginning of the list of good proteins. Don’t be afraid to eat whole eggs, since most of the nutrients are in the yolk. Avoid processed meats, meats high in fat, and full-fat dairy.
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of a food’s ability to elevate blood sugar. In general, the lower the number, the better the carb choice.
The best carbohydrate choices—the ones that are low on the GI scale—include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Whole-grain products
- Veggies (these are fibrous carbs)
Carbs to avoid include:
- White flour
- High sugar foods
As with carbs, some people think that the way to lose weight is to cut out every scrap of fat in their diet. But you need fats to give your body the nutrients it needs—and to make yourself feel full so you won’t feel so hungry between meals.
Some good fats include:
- Cold-water fish
- Low-fat cheeses
- Sunflower seeds
- Peanut butter
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Safflower oil (eat these in moderation)
Fats to avoid include:
- High-fat meats
- High-fat dairy
- High-fat salad dressings
- Deep-fried foods
Planning Your Daily Meals
By now, you know how many calories you can consume every day and still lose weight. You know how those calories should be divided up between protein, carbs, and fats. And you have some ideas about where to find the best sources for all these macros.
What’s next is putting together meals that give your body what it needs to enable you to get the best of both worlds—losing body fat without losing muscle mass. Here’s a sample of a fat-burning diet that will help you lose weight faster.
Note: This meal plan is just an example. To create a fat-burning diet that fits your situation, adjust the portion sizes based on your calculator values for daily calories and macros.
Fat Loss Sample Meal Plan
Breakfast Note: Breakfast is a critical meal if you want to burn more body fat, so doOatmeal (flavored with cinnamon) 1/2 cupApple 1Eggs 3Water 1 glass Mid-Morning SnackProtein Bar (low-fat/sugar/high-protein) 1 LunchChicken 6 oz.Brown Rice 1/3 cupVegetables (mixed) 1 serving Water 1 glass Mid-Afternoon Snack Yogurt 1/2 cup Protein Shake 1 Dinner Steak (lean) 6 oz. Sweet Potato 1 Carrots (steamed) 1 serving Water 1 glass Snack Pudding (protein) 1/2 cup
Meal Planning Basics
High-fiber carbs are a good choice because they can help you lose body fat while improving your digestion and cholesterol numbers.
You can look for low-fat, low-sugar “dessert” type foods, including those that use stevia. And to keep a plan like this from becoming too bland, use seasonings. They add very few calories to your meal.
The key here is to not go above your daily calorie allotment. Having said that, it is common to “zigzag” calorie totals. If you have a daily calorie allotment of 2,200, you can consume 1,800 one day, 2,400 the next, 1,950 the day after—as long as you’re averaging 2,200 over the course of the week.
As for cheat days or meals, I personally would rather have a healthy eating plan I can stick with than to go nuts one day a week and eat like a pig. Not to mention that once you cheat it’s hard to return to a strict diet the next day.
You can find some delicious protein shake recipes at Bodybuilding.com. But don’t forget that these are not magical drinks—they contain calories, too. Make sure you count your shakes as part of your daily calories and macro goals.
Exercise Guidelines: Weight Training and Cardio
One way you can lose weight fast is by keeping your metabolism high. You can keep it high by doing cardio, and by doing strength exercises that help you build more muscle mass. Muscles consume a lot of energy, so you want to take steps to build more of them.
The great news is that the more you increase your metabolism, the more fat your body will burn, not only when you exercise, but afterward, too! You burn body fat when you work out, and you keep on burning it at a higher rate than normal for hours afterward.
A mixture of both strength training and cardio can help with weight loss. Here’s a list of the most common strength-building exercises, followed by a short explanation of how to approach cardio.
Routine 1: 3-Day Split
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Daily Workout Variation
Cardio Exercise: A Great Fat Burner
Depending on your metabolism and how much body fat you want to lose, you can add cardio to your strength-training days, with weights first and cardio after. Cardio session should be 20-30 minute long. Do cardio at least 3 times a week, more if you want to accelerate your ability to burn body fat.
You can do cardio on non-training days whenever you have time, but it’s best to do it in the morning on an empty stomach. If that’s not possible, do it later after dinner. By doing cardio done in the morning before you eat or after you’ve lifted but before a big meal, you can more body fat and less carbs.
Interval training is a high-intensity method of doing cardio that can allow you to do more in less time. Start by warming up at the cardio exercise of your choice by using a moderate pace for about 2 minutes. Then speed up to a high level for about 1 minute, back off to a slow pace for 1 minute, then repeat.
Allow a 2-3 minute cool down by moving at a slow pace at the end of your cardio workout. Interval training take a lot of stamina. Work your way into it over time. Start with 5-10 minutes and work your way up until you can handle longer sessions of 20-30 minutes.
Weight Lifting to Lose Weight
Frustrating as it may seem, banishing extra fat isn’t impossible. Study after study has shown that the clincher, after cutting back on calories, is exercise. But as you charge into the gym, don’t forget to enlist one of your best fat-fighting allies: your own muscles.
If you want to get into shape, aerobic workouts can’t be beat for their power to tune up the heart and lungs. Aerobics will also tone the muscles you’re using. But pumping iron can be another potent weapon in the battle against the bulge. Weight training will not only shore up your bones, build additional muscle mass, and make it easier to heft grocery bags or firewood, it can also help hold the line on your waistline.
Lose what you don’t need
If you’re dieting, weight lifting can help you lose fat instead of muscle and bone. Most people don’t realize it, but when they diet, only about 60 to 75 percent of the weight they lose is actually fat. So if you shed 20 pounds, five or six of those pounds are from nonfat tissue, including muscle, bone, and water — leaving your body weaker. But exercise, particularly the iron-pumping kind, can preserve muscle and bone, so that up to 85 percent of what you trim is fat, says Dale Schoeller, a nutrition researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
We all tend to fatten up as we get older, and one key culprit is the dwindling of muscle mass that begins in our 20s or 30s. After 40, we lose roughly a third of a pound of brawn a year. And since muscle burns more calories than fat does, our metabolism slows down. In women, who start out with proportionally less muscle than men, this process takes a bigger toll on the waistline. The average female gains around 20 to 25 pounds of fat between the ages of 20 and 50.
Weight training can also raise a person’s metabolic rate for as long as 12 hours after exercising. That means that if you lift weights, your body will burn calories faster. But whether regular exercise generally increases your metabolism over the long-term remains controversial, says Glenn Gaesser, an exercise physiologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
One study in the Netherlands found that 18 weeks of weight training by young men sped up their metabolism by 9 percent. Other studies haven’t found such a benefit. Nonetheless, Gaesser and others believe that by maintaining muscle, weight lifting can help minimize the metabolic downturn that occurs as you get older.
Here’s the math: A pound of muscle burns five to 10 calories daily, even if you’re lying on the couch. With a moderately strenuous weight-lifting regimen, women can gain one to two pounds of muscle after three months; men rack up about twice as much. Two extra pounds of brawn would thus consume 10 to 20 calories daily. That seems like small change, but over months and years, it can really add up. “Ten calories a day is 3,650 calories a year, which is equivalent to about a pound of body fat,” says Gaesser. Over 20 years, that extra bit of muscle could keep you from putting on 20 pounds. “So it can make a rather sizable difference in the long term.”
Indeed, nutrition researcher Miriam Nelson, director of the Center for Physical Fitness at Tufts University, often sees weight lifting open the door to a trimmer body. In one study, she put 10 overweight women on the same diet, but half of them lifted heavy weights twice a week. Both groups ended up around 13 pounds lighter on the scale. But that wasn’t the whole story. On average, the diet-only crew lost only 9.2 pounds of fat, whereas the lifters actually lost 14.6 pounds of fat and gained 1.4 pounds of muscle.
Which points up a neat thing about strength training: You may not necessarily lose more weight, but you can still gradually slim down as you trade fat for brawn. Contrary to female fears, crunching dumbbells won’t turn women into the Incredible Hulk. If anything, it’ll make them smaller as they replace jiggly fat with compact muscle, says Nelson. Even more gratifying, people who pump iron notice striking improvements in strength fairly quickly, giving them more stamina for walking or biking. Two more major long-term bonuses, especially for older women: You get stronger bones and better balance.
Based on her research, Nelson lays out a program of diet plus aerobic and strength exercise in her book, Strong Women Stay Slim, and on her Web site, StrongWomen.com. The regimen has won glowing praise from readers. One 49-year-old battled weight all her life until she tried Nelson’s plan a few years ago. “I wear clothes two sizes smaller than I used to wear at this weight,” she wrote in a message posted at StrongWomen.com. “… I have run and done aerobics for years, and nothing compares to weight lifting!”
While that’s inspiring, other experts caution that not everyone will get such fabulous results. “For some, it’s going to be a lot harder,” warns Gaesser. For those people, it’s helpful to remember that any kind of exercise will earn you a big payoff — in better health. Working out can do more than improve strength and endurance; it also helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and stave off diabetes. Even strength training can help protect the heart, though to a lesser degree than aerobic exercise. And perhaps most important, staying active will do wonders for your self-confidence. As Gaesser puts it, exercise simply makes you feel good.
To get started, Nelson recommends doing five essential weight-lifting exercises three times a week, and walking or biking at least three times a week. Can’t fit all that exercise into your life? Check out Gaesser’s book, The Spark. Breaking up your workout time into 10-minute sessions, he explains, is just as good as doing it all at once.
American College of Sports Medicine. “Resistance Training in the Older Adults.” http://www.acsm.org/comments.htm
Gaesser, Glenn A. The Spark. Simon and Schuster, 2001
Nelson, Miriam E. and Sarah Wernick. Strong Women Stay Slim. Bantam Books.
Votruba, S.G. et al. “The Role of Exercise in the Treatment of Obesity.” Nutrition, Vol. 16.
Van Etten, L.M.L.A et al. “Effect of an 18-week weight-training program on energy expenditure and physical activity.”
Interviews with Glenn Gaesser, Gaesser, an exercise physiologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; and Dale Schoeller, nutrition researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
11 Major Health and Fitness Benefits of Lifting Weights
Tara Moore/Getty Images
No disrespect to cardio, but if you want to blast fat, get in shape, and rock everything that comes your way—both in and out of the gym—strength training is where it’s at. And experts agree: Heavy lifting is in! You can’t swing a kettlebell these days without hitting some workout guru, exercise program, or book advising women to not only lift weights but lift heavier weights.
But why? And should you try it if you’re already happy with your current workout routine? Here, eight benefits of lifting weights that’ll convince you to pick up the heavy dumbbells.
1.You’ll Torch More Body Fat
Build more muscle and you’ll keep your body burning fat all day long. (Here’s all the science behind why muscle helps you burn fat and calories.)
“Lifting weights can increase your lean body mass, which increases the number of overall calories you burn during the day,” says Jacque Crockford, CSCS and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Burning extra calories post-workout plus building muscle? That’s the surefire way to get the body you want.
In recent research on overweight or obese adults (age 60 and over), the combination of a low-calorie diet and weight training resulted in greater fat loss than a combination of a low-calorie diet and walking workouts, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Obesity. The adults who walked instead of weight trained did lose a comparable amount of weight—but a significant portion of the weight loss included lean body mass. Meanwhile, the adults who did strength training maintained muscle mass while losing fat. This suggests that strength training is better at helping people lose belly fat compared with cardio because while aerobic exercise burns both fat and muscle, weight lifting burns almost exclusively fat.
2. …And You’ll Especially Lose Belly Fat
While it is true that you can’t spot reduce—your body is born with pre-conceived places it wants to store fat—a University of Alabama study found that the women who lifted weights lost more intra-abdominal fat (deep belly fat) than those who just did cardio. This not only helps you lose weight and build a more toned body, but it also lessens your risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers. (Not to mention, lifting heavy weights recruits your core, giving you an abs workout without even trying.)
Strength training may have a reputation of making women “bulk up,” but it’s not true. The more your weight comes from muscle (rather than fat) the smaller you’ll be. “In fact, body weight often goes up with strength training, but dress size goes down one or two sizes,” says Perkins. Plus, it’s really, really difficult to get body-builder huge. “Women produce about 5 to 10 percent the amount of testosterone men do, limiting our muscle-building potential when compared to men,” says Sinkler. To seriously gain size, you’d pretty much need to live in the weight room. (More proof: What Really Happens When Women Lift Heavy Weights)
Image zoom Nastasic/Getty Images
3. Your Muscles Will Look More Defined
Love the lean, defined muscles on super-fit ladies? “If women want more definition, they should lift heavier since they cannot get bigger muscles because of low testosterone levels,” says Jason Karp, an exercise physiologist and author. “So, lifting heavier has the potential to make women more defined.” (Seriously. Here’s why you can lift heavy and won’t bulk up.)
If you want more proof, watch this video with two-time Reebok CrossFit Games champion Annie Thorisdottir, who has a great body and certainly isn’t afraid to throw around heavy weights.
4. You’ll Burn More Calories Than Cardio
Just sitting on your butt reading this, you’re burning calories—if you lift weights, that is.
You may burn more calories during your 1-hour cardio class than you would lifting weights for an hour, but a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that women who lifted burned an average of 100 more calories during the 24 hours after their training session ended. Another study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Metabolism found that, following a 100-minute strength training session, young women’s basal metabolic rate spiked by 4.2 percent for 16 hours after the workout—burning about 60 more calories.
And the effect is magnified when you increase the weight, as explained in a study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Women who lifted more weight for fewer reps (85 percent of their max load for 8 reps) burned nearly twice as many calories during the two hours after their workout than when they did more reps with a lighter weight (45 percent of their max load for 15 reps). (Up next: 7 Common Muscle Myths, Busted.)
Why? Your muscle mass largely determines your resting metabolic rate—how many calories you burn by just living and breathing. “The more muscle you have, the more energy your body expends,” says Perkins. “Everything you do, from brushing your teeth, to sleeping, to checking Instagram, you’ll be burning more calories,” Perkins says.
Image zoom Corey Jenkins/Getty Images
5. You’ll Strengthen Your Bones
Weight lifting doesn’t only train your muscles; it trains your bones. When you perform a curl, for example, your muscles tug on your arm’s bones. The cells within those bones react by creating new bone cells, says Perkins. Over time, your bones become stronger and denser.
The key to this one is consistency, as research has shown that lifting heavy weights over time not only maintains bone mass but can even build new bone, especially in the high-risk group of post-menopausal women. (Psst…Yoga has some bone strengthening benefits too.)
6. You’ll Get Stronger, Obv
Lifting lighter weights for more reps is great for building muscle endurance, but if you want to increase your strength, increasing your weight load is key. Add compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and rows to your heavy weights and you’ll be amazed at how fast you’ll build strength. (Here’s what really counts as lifting heavy and how often you should do it.)
The payoff? Everyday activities (carrying groceries, pushing open a heavy door, hoisting a kid) will be easier—and you’ll feel like an unstoppable powerhouse, too.
7. You’ll Prevent Injury
Achy hips and sore knees don’t have to be a staple of your morning run. Strengthening the muscles surrounding and supporting your joints can help prevent injuries by helping you maintain good form, as well as strengthening joint integrity. (Related: An Open Letter to Women Who Are Afraid of the Weight Room.)
So go ahead, squat low. Your knees will thank you. “Proper strength training is actually the solution to joint issues,” says Perkins. “Stronger muscles better hold your joints in position, so you won’t need to worry about your knee flaring up during your next run.”
Image zoom Brooke Schaal Photography/Getty Images
8. You’ll Be a Better Runner
Stronger muscles mean better performance—period. Your core will be better able to support your body’s weight and maintain ideal form during other exercises (like running), plus your arms and legs will be more powerful. What’s more, since strength training increases the number and size of calorie-torching muscle fibers fueling your performance, strength training could actually help you burn more calories during your cardio workouts, says Perkins.
(More: Run into shape with this 30-Day running challenge—good for beginners, too!)
9. You’ll Increase Your Flexibility
Ignore that super ripped guy fumbling in yoga class for just a minute. Researchers from the University of North Dakota pitted static stretches against strength-training exercises and found that full-range resistance training workouts can improve flexibility just as well as your typical static stretching regimen.
The key word here is “full-range,” notes Sinkler. If you can’t complete the full motion—going all the way up and all the way down—with a given weight, you may need to use a lighter dumbbell and work up to it.
Image zoom John Fedele/Getty Images
10. You’ll Boost Heart Health
Cardiovascular exercise isn’t the only exercise that’s, well, cardiovascular. In fact, strength training can up your heart health, too. In one Appalachian State University study, people who performed 45 minutes of moderate-intensity resistance exercise lowered their blood pressure by 20 percent. That’s as good as—if not better than—the benefits associated with most blood pressure pills. (Related: How to Use Heart Rate Zones to Train for Max Exercise Benefits)
11. You’ll Feel Empowered
Throwing around some serious iron doesn’t just empower women in the movies. Lifting heavier weights—and building strength as a result—comes with a big self-esteem boost. Your strength will not only show in your lean, toned body, but also in your attitude. (See: 18 Ways Weight Lifting Will Change Your Life.)
“Strength has a funny way of bleeding into all areas of your life, in the gym and out,” says Jen Sinkler, an Olympic lifting coach, kettlebell instructor, and author of Lift Weights Faster. By constantly challenging yourself to do things you never thought possible, your confidence grows. ” Weight lifting empowers you,” she says.
- By K. Aleisha Fetters
So you want to know about protein, eh?
Great! In part one of our Ultimate Guide to Protein, we’re gonna dig into everything you need to know about this super important macronutrient.
Whenever we speak with new Online Coaching Clients, protein is the macronutrient we begin every discussion with! It’s THAT important when it comes to either weight loss or building muscle.
Not sure how much protein to eat for your goals? Our coaches can help! Learn more:
Here’s what we’ll cover in this guide (click to jump to that part):
- What are the best sources of protein?
- How much protein do I need to eat every day?
- When is the best time to eat protein?
- Should I take a protein supplement?
- Protein and strength training: best combo ever?
What are the Best Sources of Protein?
Protein is amazing.
Your body uses protein to rebuild your muscles and keep you strong, especially if you are exercising or strength training regularly.
Protein is both good for you AND satiating without being a calorie bomb.
Protein can come from any number of whole food sources, including:
Not a meat-eater? Read our massive plant-based guide!
A serving of protein is about the size and thickness of your palm.
*The 4 oz serving is for an uncooked piece of meat. Cooking reduces about 25% of the weight, bringing it down to about 3 oz.
When building a plate, aim for the following amount of protein:
- Dudes: 1-2 servings (6-8 oz or about 170-228 g): two palms
- Dudettes: 1 serving (3-4 oz or about 85-114 g): 1 palm.
If you’re curious, here’s how much protein is in a serving of food:
- 4 oz (113 g) serving of chicken has around 30 g of protein.
- 4 oz (113 g) serving of salmon has 23 g of protein
- 4 oz (113 g) of steak has 28 g of protein.
As we cover in our “how to start eating healthy” guide, protein should be PART of a balanced plate:
How Much Protein Do I Need to Eat Every Day?
Claims for the amount of protein needed vary wildly from source to source (and athlete to athlete, and nerd to nerd).
You are a unique snowflake and your protein requirements should be aligned with your goals.
You want specific numbers, right?
The current international Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.4g per pound of bodyweight (0.8 g per kg of body weight): Case closed?
In our opinion, and as pointed out by this study the RDA for protein is too low and should be higher regardless of your body composition.
You just want me to tell you how much to eat, right? I figured.
As Examine.com points out in their heavily researched summary on protein:
If you’re overweight or obese, aim for 0.54–0.68 g/lb (1.2–1.5 g/kg). You do not need to try to figure out your ideal body weight or your lean mass (a.k.a. fat-free mass). Most studies on people with obesity report their findings based on total body weight.
If you’re of healthy weight, active, and wish to lose fat, aim for 0.82–1.23 g/lb (1.8–2.7 g/kg), skewing toward the higher end of this range as you become leaner or if you increase your caloric deficit (by eating less or exercising more).
If you’re of healthy weight, active, and wish to build muscle, aim for 0.64–1.09 g/lb (1.4–2.4 g/kg).
If you’re an experienced lifter on a bulk, intakes up to 1.50 g/lb (3.3 g/kg) may help you minimize fat gain.
“Steve, just tell me what to do:”
Not knowing ANYTHING about you (other than you have GREAT tastes in what websites you read), here are some daily numbers you can start with:
- If you are an athlete or actively working on building your physique, consume 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight (2.2g per kg).
- If you are sedentary, aim for 0.8g of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.6g of protein per kg).
These are starter numbers that you can experiment with as you see your body transform.
As Examine points out in its research on protein,
“Higher protein intakes seem to have no negative effects in healthy people**,” so aim for the higher end of the spectrum depending on your goals and adjust from there.
**Of course, if you have specific kidney or medical issues with regards to protein intake, PLEASE go with your doctor’s recommendation for required protein consumption!
LONG STORY SHORT: Consuming protein is an important part of life for everybody, both the sedentary and the athlete:
- By consuming enough protein while bulking up, you can ensure muscle growth during a bulk with minimal fat gain.
- By consuming enough protein while eating a caloric deficit and strength training, you can maintain the muscle mass you have while losing body fat (you might even be able to build muscle while losing fat simultaneously).
I personally consumed a significant amount of protein (240g of protein per day at a bodyweight of 190 pounds) during a recent “lean out” phase, and it allowed me to cut bodyfat while getting stronger and without feeling hungry.
In summary, a major portion of your plate each day should be a source of protein.
You still need to have the right systems, the right nutritional strategy, and the right workout in place to put that protein to work!
To help busy people like you fix their nutrition and not waste time in the gym, we created our Online Coaching Program that might be a good fit for you.
When is the best time for me to eat protein in a day?
What you THINK the answer is: “You need to eat 30 grams of protein, no more or less, at equal intervals throughout the day in order to promote muscle growth!”
Here’s the actual answer:
According to this abstract:
“In general, protein supplementation pre-AND post-workout increases physical performance, training session recovery, lean body mass, muscle hypertrophy, and strength. Specific gains, differ however based on protein type and amounts.”
And in this extract:
“These results refute the commonly held belief that the timing of protein intake in and around a training session is critical to muscular adaptations and indicate that consuming adequate protein in combination with resistance exercise is the key factor for maximizing muscle protein accretion.”
WHAT THIS MEANS: The amount of protein you consume in a day is more important than the timing of your protein with regards to muscle building.
So eat protein when you want, either before OR after a workout. Just focus on TOTAL amount of protein consumed, in whatever time-frame works for you!
I do like the mental cue of “get 30g of protein with each meal,” as that tends to be 1 serving of a whole food protein.
Now, if you’re like me and targeting significantly MORE protein than the RDA minimum amount, supplementing with a protein shake could be beneficial!
Should I Take Protein Supplements?
If you are strength training correctly and eating the right way, consuming enough protein will help you build muscle and perform better!
And “enough protein” can include protein supplements and protein powders.
Just remember that protein shakes are not a panacea for all of your ailments:
They are NOT required for being healthy, they MIGHT help you lose weight, and they should only SUPPLEMENT (zing!) a healthy diet, not be expected to do all the “heavy lifting.”
You still need to be eating well, following a strength training routine, and getting enough sleep.
But I bet you have WAY more questions about protein supplements, like:
- Should I go with whey protein?
- What about plant based protein?
- How do I make protein shakes NOT taste like drywall?
You can check out Part 2 of our protein series: “Ultimate Guide to Protein Shakes and Supplements.”
Protein and Strength Training: A Match Made in Heaven
Bringing it all together, protein is a crucial macronutrient whether you are trying to:
- Lose weight and slim down.
- Bulk up and build muscle.
- Lose weight and gain muscle at the same time.
Now, in order for protein to get to work rebuilding your muscle…you need to strength train!
Essentially, your muscles get broken down when you strength train, and then the protein you’ve consumed gets to work rebuilding those muscles stronger. This burns extra calories and requires your body to divert more resources to the muscle building process.
In other words: your body will have a tendency to store fewer calories as fat, it’ll need to pull from fat stores to carry out bodily functions (if you’re losing weight), and rebuild your muscles stronger.
That’s a win-win-win!
If you are looking for more resources around strength training:
- Our Beginner Bodyweight Workout
- The 5 Best Beginner Strength Training Workouts
- 6 Beginner Gym Workouts: Never NOT know what to do again.
The tips outlined above will get you started with protein and strength training, but if you’re looking to go a bit further…
1) If you want step-by-step guidance on how to lose weight, eat better, and get stronger, check out our killer 1-on-1 coaching program:
Our Coaching program changes lives. Learn more here!
#2) The Nerd Fitness Academy – This self-paced online course has helped 50,000 people get results permanently.
There’s a 10-level nutrition system, boss battles, 20+ workouts, and the most supportive community in the galaxy!
Join the NF Academy! One payment, lifetime access.
#3) Join The Rebellion! We have a free email newsletter that we send out twice per week, full of tips and tricks to help you get healthy, get strong, and have fun doing so.
I’ll also send you tons of free guides that you can use to start leveling up your life too:
Download our free weight loss guide THE NERD FITNESS DIET: 10 Levels to Change Your Life
- Follow our 10-level nutrition system at your own pace
- What you need to know about weight loss and healthy eating
- 3 Simple rules we follow every day to stay on target
Alright, I think that about does it for this guide.
PS: Don’t forget to check out Part 2 of our Protein Series: Ultimate Guide to Protein Shakes!
How Much Protein You Should Eat to Build Muscle
Whenever I talk about protein and building muscle, I think of this video:
…and then I want a protein shake, hahah.
In all seriousness, I’m often asked how much protein is actually needed for building muscle.
Is 1 gram per pound of body weight per day enough? If we eat more, will we build more muscle?
Or should we be eating less than that? 1 gram per pound of lean mass, maybe? Is that even more than we need?
Well, let’s find out.
Would you rather watch a video? Click the play button below!
Want to watch more stuff like this? Check out my YouTube channel!
Why Your Body Needs Protein to Build Muscle
You may already know this, but I want to give a brief summary just to make sure.
In the body, a protein is a special type of molecule that is comprised of substances known as amino acids. Think of amino acids as the “building blocks” of proteins–without the requisite amino acids, the body can’t create protein molecules.
Now, there are many types of proteins in the body, and they perform a wide variety of functions ranging from the replication and repair of DNA, to cell signaling (insulin is a protein, for instance), to the formation of tissues and other substances like hair and nails, and more.
The building of “muscle proteins” (the types of protein molecules that our muscles are made of) requires a variety of amino acids, some of which must be obtained from food (these are known as “essential” amino acids).
When you eat a food that contains protein, your body breaks the protein molecules in the food down into the amino acids they’re comprised of, and then uses those amino acids to build its own proteins.
If you eat too few grams of protein every day, your body can become deficient in the amino acids it needs to build and repair muscle, and thus, muscle growth becomes impaired.
Now, the body has certain protein needs even if you don’t exercise. Remember that every day cells are dying and being regenerated, and this requires amino acids.
When you do exercise, however, the body needs even more amino acids to repair damaged muscle fibers and, depending on what you’re doing, grow them larger. This is why athletes need to eat a high-protein diet to maximize performance.
How high do you have to go, though?
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400 Grams of Protein Per Day? Seriously?
Many years ago, before I knew what I was doing, I was stuck in a rut in the gym, and I thought maybe my protein intake was the problem.
I asked an ex-professional bodybuilder how much protein I should eat every day, and he said 2 grams per pound of body weight.
I was a bit taken aback–that would mean eating close to 400 grams per day.
He was adamant that 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight was absolutely necessary to break through the plateau and start building muscle again, so I went for it.
I manned up and doubled my daily intake to reach the 400 g/day number, and, well, it sucked. I was constantly full, beyond sick of protein shakes, and eating in general just felt more and more like a chore.
But I stuck it out…and didn’t build any muscle to speak of.
Fast forwards to today. I’ve radically transformed my physique since that time, and I haven’t eaten more than 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day in many years (don’t worry, we’ll get into the numbers in a second).
The point of this little story is this:
- If you’re having trouble building muscle, eating more protein is not necessarily the solution.
- You don’t need to eat outrageous amounts of protein to efficiently build muscle.
The bottom line is maximizing muscle growth does require following what is generally known as a “high-protein diet,” but it does not require choking down pounds of meat and cups of protein powder every day.
So, how much protein should you actually be eating to build muscle, then?
The Protein Needs of Athletes
According to the Institute of Medicine, 10 – 35% of our daily calories should come from protein. That’s not very helpful for us, though.
10 – 35% is quite a range to choose from, and even if we went with 35%, if our daily calorie intake is too low, we won’t get enough protein, and if it’s too high, we’ll eat more than we need.
So let’s look at some of the clinical research available on protein needs, and specifically with athletes.
First, let’s look at research conducted by McMaster University.
According to their paper, protein intake of 1.3 – 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (.6 – .8 grams per pound of body weight) is adequate for stimulating maximal protein synthesis. They note, however, that more protein might be needed in the case of frequent and/or high-intensity training, and in the case of dieting to lose fat (restricting calories).
A widely cited study conducted by The University of Western Ontario concluded the same: 1.6 – 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight might be enough for athletes, but higher intakes may also be warranted depending on a wide variety of factors including energy intake, carbohydrate availability, exercise intensity, duration and type, dietary protein quality, training history, gender, age, timing of nutrient intake, and more.
As you can see, the topic is actually quite complex, and there may not be a “one-size-fits-all” solution.
“Gym lore” can actually lend some insight here, and it agrees with the above findings.
- 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (2.2 g/kg of BW) per day has been a bodybuilding rule of thumb for decades.
- Higher levels of protein intake, usually in the range of 1.2 – 1.5 grams per pound of body weight (2.6 – 3.3 g/kg BW) per day, are commonly recommended when “cutting” to lose fat.
If those numbers sound really high to you, consider this research published earlier this year, and conducted by AUT University. Here’s the conclusion:
“Protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of FFM scaled upwards with severity of caloric restriction and leanness.”
I’ve found this to be very true, not only with my body, but with the hundreds and hundreds of people i’ve worked with.
As you get leaner, keeping your protein intake high becomes very important. If it drops too low (below 1 gram per pound of body weight, in my experience), strength and muscle loss is accelerated.
Oh and in case you’re worried that eating that much protein is bad for your kidneys, don’t worry–it’s not.
The Type of Protein Matters
Not all forms of protein are alike. There are three important factors you should know about:
- Different forms of protein digest at different speeds.
- Some forms of protein are better utilized by the body than others.
- Different forms of protein have different amounts of the essential amino acids our bodies need.
Beef protein, for example, is digested quickly and 70-80% of what’s eaten is utilized by the body (the exact number varies based on what study you read, but they all fall between 70 and 80%), and has a large amount of essential amino acids.
Whey protein is also digested quickly and its “net protein utilization” (NPU) is in the low 90%s, which means that 90-something percent of it can actually be used by your body. It also is high in essential amino acids, and in leucine in particular.
NPU and digestion speeds are important to know because you want to rely on high-NPU proteins to meet your daily protein requirements, and research has shown that a fast-digesting protein like whey is ideal for post-workout consumption.
The bottom line is if you get plenty of fish, meat, dairy, and eggs in your diet, you’ll have no issues with meeting your body’s protein needs.
Vegans, however, have it a little tougher.
You probably expect me to start talking about “complete” and “incomplete” proteins, but the “incomplete protein” myth and the faulty research that spawned it was thoroughly debunked by MIT years ago. All protein found in vegetables is “complete.”
What is true, however, is that some forms of vegetable proteins are lower in certain amino acids than others, making certain sources better than others.
For example, the protein found in peas and rice is superior to the protein found in hemp.
I recommend vegans eat plenty of grains (quinoa, and amaranth are probably the most popular high-protein choices), legumes (with all types of beans being the most popular choice here), and high-protein vegetables like peas. I recommend soy be eaten sparingly, for reasons given in this article on protein powders.
Supplementing with vegan protein powders, such as Legion Thrive, also makes balancing your numbers easier.
Does “Protein Timing” Matter?
The last thing I want to quickly touch on is protein timing. That is, when you eat protein. Does it matter?
Do you need to eat protein every 3 hours? Is eating protein before or after working out necessary?
- The frequency of protein intake doesn’t matter, so long as you hit your daily numbers.
You’re not going to “go catabolic” if you don’t have protein every few hours, and eating protein more frequently won’t help you build more muscle.
If you like to eat 3, larger meals per day with several hours in between each, do that (don’t worry, your body can absorb a lot of protein at once). If you’re like me and prefer more smaller meals throughout the day, that’s fine as well.
(Check out my article on intermittent fasting if you want to learn more about the irrelevance of meal timing.)
- Having protein before and after working probably does matter, however–it can help you build more muscle.
The reason why I say “probably” and “can” is the research is contradictory at this time.
Some studies, such as those conducted by Victoria University, Baylor University, and the University of Jyväskylä indicate pre- and post-workout protein consumption does help build more muscle; whereas other studies found no such benefits, such as those conducted by The College of New Jersey and Manchester Metropolitan University.
Personally, I eat protein before working out (unless I’m training fasted), as well as after, because I believe there’s enough clinical and anecdotal evidence to support doing so (and so do other smart people in this industry).
- Eating protein before bed is a good idea as well. Not to prevent muscle breakdown, but to aid in muscle repair.