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Many people believe that weight loss fitness includes only cardiovascular exercise, such as jogging or walking on a treadmill, but a growing body of scientific evidence says differently. Findings of recent studies suggest that weight lifting has an important role to play in a weight loss program.

Why weight lifting for weight loss is so important

How we understand weight loss is responsible for the misconceptions surrounding weight lifting. For years, weight loss programs focused almost solely on creating calorie deficits. There is logic to this approach. Your body needs to burn calories to create energy. When you consume fewer calories than you expend, your body can burn fat to power itself.

From a calorie-burning perspective, weight lifting delivers only modest benefits. A 185-pound person who lifts weights for 30 minutes will burn only around 126 calories. By comparison, using an elliptical trainer for the same amount of time burns roughly 378 calories, and 30 minutes of low-impact aerobics burns 231.

When only focused on burning as many calories as possible, choosing cardio over strength training makes sense, but the rationale behind that decision doesn’t take into consideration how metabolism actually works. While it’s true that calorie deficits can trigger fat burning, your body may also break down protein in muscles to generate energy.

Eating a calorie-restricted diet can make your body more prone to burning muscle instead of fat. When you dramatically cut down on the number of calories that you eat, your body’s natural inclination is to store fat in case of starvation. During cardio exercise, your body resists metabolizing fat and is more likely to burn muscle instead. In other words, the loss of weight you see may be due to lost muscle and not fat.

How do you lose weight lifting weights?

Weight lifting may not set you up for the calorie deficit that cardio can, but it may help ensure that your body burns fat instead of muscle. One study found that people who completed two to three 45- to 60-minute strength training sessions lost 1.4% of their total body fat on average after 5 months. These individuals followed no other diet or exercise plan, yet they still lost body fat.

So how did the observed fat loss happen? The answer lies in how strength training affects the body. Routinely lifting weights builds muscle mass. This muscle mass requires extra energy, which your body can acquire by burning fat.

How to lose fat and gain muscle

When you gain muscle in place of fat, you may not see a big shift on the scale, but you’re likely to notice other changes, such as your clothes fitting you better.  For significant weight loss, the best approach is to combine strength training with cardiovascular exercise and a healthy diet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that each week adults:

  • Engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise like brisk walking or light jogging
  • Complete two to three strength training sessions that target muscles in the shoulders, chest, arms, abdomen, back, hips and legs

The fat burning effects of strength training even continue after your workout ends because your body must expend energy to repair your muscles. Working out multiple muscle groups at once can bolster this after-burn effect. Over time, resistance training may also raise your metabolic rate so that you burn more calories even at rest. 

Additional benefits of strength training

Not only may strength training be part of the answer to how to lose fat and gain muscle, but it also may provide additional health benefits. Some benefits of strength training include:

  • Bone health: a systematic review of studies revealed that performing resistance strength training exercise two to three times per week for one year allowed postmenopausal women to maintain or increase bone density in their spines and hips.
  • Less risk of falls: roughly 3 million older adults visit emergency rooms every year due to falls, making prevention important as you age. A review of previous studies found that adults who engaged in resistance strength training workouts regularly had better balance and gait ability, putting them at a lower risk for falls and fall-related injuries.
  • Improved self-esteem: studies have shown that regular strength training leads to improvements in body image among older, middle-aged and young adults.
  • Reduced fatigue: a recent study revealed that after 12 weeks of resistance strength training, older women demonstrated greater endurance. These findings suggest that weight lifting may slow down the rate of muscle fatigue, giving you more energy to complete cardiovascular workouts and your everyday activities.
  • Overall health benefits: the CDC reports that strength training reduces arthritis and back pain, increases blood sugar control in people with diabetes and lowers the risk of heart disease.

Weight loss exercise with dumbbells

You don’t have to pay for an expensive gym membership to adopt a strength training regimen. Investing in a simple set of dumbbells is all you need to complete a full-body workout. Here are some examples of weight loss exercise with dumbbells to get you started:

Shoulder presses

To complete shoulder presses, sit on a chair or a bench with both feet on the floor. Bend your elbows and position the dumbbells on either side of your face so that the long side is facing forward. Slowly press upward to fully extend your arms. Hold for two to three seconds and then lower your arms back to a bent position.

Flat flies

To do flat flies, lie on a bench with your feet on the floor. Lift your arms straight up in the air and your palms facing each other. Slowly, open your arms out to the sides, continuing until they are straight out and your palms face the ceiling. Hold for two to three seconds and then slowly return to the upright position.

Bicep curls

While standing, hang your arms at your sides with your palms facing forward to begin a bicep curl. Slowly bend your arms upward by drawing the biceps to your chest. Continue until you fully bend your elbows and your palms face your chest. Hold for two to three seconds and then slowly lower.

Triceps extensions

For triceps extensions, lie on a bench with your feet on the floor. Lift your arms straight up in the air and your palms facing each other. Slowly bend your elbows, drawing the weights toward your ears. Continue the movement until the weights almost touch the bench. Hold for two to three seconds and then slowly return to the upright position.


Stand with your arms loose at your sides and your palms facing inward to begin a dumbbell squat. Keep your arms stationary while you slowly bend your knees. Keep your back straight and aim your knees over your feet. Continue moving until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Hold for two to three seconds and then gradually straighten your legs. Then, slowly lift your heels off the floor and lower them back down.


Stand with your arms loose at your sides and your palms facing inward. Step forward with one leg, planting your heel down before the rest of your foot. Gradually bend your front leg until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Then, step back and repeat on the other side. Keep your arms stationary at your sides and your back straight as you perform lunges.

To encourage fat burning, follow the repetition maximum method by continuing to do repetitions of an exercise until you can’t complete another rep. For most people, this means 6 to 10 repetitions. Take a short rest and then repeat, performing three to four sets of each exercise.

11 tips for strength training success

To make the most of weight lifting for weight loss, follow these tips:

  1. Talk to your primary care provider before you begin any new strength training regimen.
  2. Start with lightweight dumbbells and increase weight gradually as your strength improves. Lifting weights should be challenging, but you should not have to strain, or compromise good form, to move them.
  3. Set a measurable, time-based goal to strive for. Remember: you don’t need to make big changes all at once. You can start off with just one strength-training workout per week and build from there.
  4. Eat a diet rich in lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables to support your weight loss efforts and the development of lean muscle mass.
  5. Wear comfortably padded sneakers with thin rubber soles. Replace your sneakers when you begin to notice a loss of tread depth on the soles.
  6. Dress in loose clothing made of breathable fabrics, such as cotton or mesh.
  7. Warm up before you begin lifting weights with light stretches.
  8. Wear weight lifting gloves if you have difficulty maintaining your grip. Gloves can also reduce the risk of calluses associated with using weights.
  9. Take deep breaths throughout each movement. Resist the tendency to hold your breath when your workout becomes difficult.
  10. Give your body at least one day to rest and recover in between strength training sessions.
  11. Celebrate your progress with rewards other than food, such as buying something special or enjoying an outing with your family.

How Forward can help you get fit and reach your weight loss goals

To lose weight by lifting weights, you need a customized fitness plan tailored to your needs as well as a healthy dietary plan that complements your efforts. As your primary care provider, Forward can create a complete plan that takes your health, goals, culture and lifestyle into consideration. Our 12-week, doctor-led Weight Management Program starts with assessments, medical testing and goal-setting and includes ongoing support with monitoring and motivational programming to help you reach your target weight and improve your overall health and well-being.

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