New Research Suggest Strength Training Is Just As Effective In Fat Burning As Cardio


Most people believe that lifting weights will result in a physique that looks like it belongs to a body builder, but that’s simply not the truth. While it’s common knowledge that in order to gain muscle you need to do strength training, and attempting to lose fat and weight you need to do cardio, the thing is, it’s not the only way!

A new study from UNSW, which was a systemic review and meta-analysis of already existing evidence, showed that people can actually lose ‘around 1.4 percent of our entire body fat through strength training alone,’ which is actually a similar amount to how much people can lose when doing aerobics or cardio activities.

Exercise physiologist and senior lecturer at UNSW Medicine & Health, Dr. Mandy Hagstrom, who is also a senior author for this study shares, “A lot of people think that if you want to lose weight, you need to go out and run.”

“But our findings show that even when strength training is done on its own, it still causes a favorable loss of body fat without having to consciously diet or go running,” she adds.

Currently, the association between fast loss and strength training has yet to be established. While studies have looked at the link before, the studies usually only follow a smaller group of participants, normally because those that join don’t want to volunteer to exercise for months and months. Smaller group sizes not only make it difficult to get the proper statistical results, not all bodies respond in the exact same way to the same exercise programs either.

Dr. Hagstrom explains, “It can be really difficult to discern whether there’s an effect or not based on one study alone. But when we add all of these studies together, we effectively create one large study, and can get a much clearer idea of what’s going on.”

Dr. Hagstrom and team took the findings of 58 research papers that had used highly conclusive body fat measurements such as body scans that can measure and differentiate lean mass from fat mass in order to measure the strength training program outcomes. The meta-analysis looked at 3000 participants, of which none of them had former experience in weight training.

Although the strength training programs also differed from one study to the next, all the participants worked out approximately between 45 to 60 minutes for each session, on an average of around 2.7 times per week. These programs also lasted around five months or so.

The research team found that on average, the study participants managed to lose 1.4 percent of their total body fat after completing their training programs. This was equal to around half a kilo in fat mass, which is roughly 1.1 pounds, for most of the participants.

Despite these findings being quite encouraging for individuals that enjoy weight lifting, Dr. Hagstrom still cautions most people that want to lose fat to continue eating nutritious meals, while also including cardio and aerobic exercise alongside strength training.

Although for those that really don’t enjoy cardio or aerobic exercise, thankfully they don’t actually need to force themselves to do exercises they don’t want to do.

Dr. Hagstrom shares, “If you want to exercise to change your body composition, you’ve got options. Do what exercise you want to do and what you’re most likely to stick to.”


The Fat Loss Myth

 Most people don’t believe that strength training can actually be as effective in burning fat and losing weight as cardio, but that’s due to the inaccuracy of the ways fat is measured.

Most people focus more on the number they see on their weighing scale, which is their total body weight, rather than how much actual fat mass they have. The scale weighs the entire body, including bones, muscles and water.

“More often than not, we don’t gain any muscle mass when we do aerobic training. We improve our cardiorespiratory fitness, gain other health and functional benefits, and can lose body fat,” says Dr. Hagstrom.

She adds, “But when we strength train, we gain muscle mass and lose body fat, so the number on the scales won’t look as low as it would after aerobics training, especially as muscle weighs more than fat.”

For the research team, they chose to focus on measuring how much total body fat percentage had changed after participants did their strength training programs, which is the amount of body made up of fat mass. What they found is that this measurement showed that fat loss was seemingly on par with cardio and aerobics training, regardless of the way the figures differed on the scale.

According to Dr. Hagstrom, “A lot of fitness recommendations come from studies that use inaccurate measurement tools, like bioelectrical impedance or scales.”

She also explains, “But the most accurate and reliable way of assessing body fat is through DEXA, MRI or CT scans. They can compartmentalize the body and separate fast mass from lean tissue.”

Although the study didn’t share how certain areas such as exercise duration, intensity, frequency, or set volume managed to affect the overall fat loss percentage, the research group hopes to further investigate whether the way people strength train could truly change one’s fat loss amount.


Finding A Better Way to Measure Progress

Their study, which was published in the journal Sports Medicine, had a portion where the research team did a sub-analysis that compared how various ways of measuring fat can also change or influence the findings of a study.

What they found was that when research papers used more accurate measurements such as body scans, they normally showed lower changes in body fat overall.

Lead author of the study and Ph.D. candidate at UNSW and NeuRA, Michael Wewege, shared, “Using accurate fat measurements is important because it gives us a more realistic idea of what body changes to expect. Future exercise studies can improve their research by using these more accurate body measurements.”

They also said that by changing or reframing the way individuals measure their progress don’t only apply to sports researchers, but to normal everyday people as well.

Dr. Hagstrom says, “Resistance training does so many fantastic things to the body that other forms of exercise don’t, like improving bone mineral density, lean mass, and muscle quality. Now, we know it also gives you a benefit we previously thought only came from aerobics.”

She adds, “If you’re strength training and want to change how your body looks, then you don’t want to focus on the number on the scale too much, because it won’t show you all your results. Instead, think about your whole body composition, like how your clothes fit and how your body will start to feel, and move, differently.”