Until recently no one thought weight training and weight loss were linked in any way. Have you ever heard someone say “My clothes are starting to fit a little too tight, so I’m going start hitting some intense weight training in the gym”? Of course not. Maybe the word “gym” will be in the answer, but it’ll be for the cardio equipment, not weight training.
Endurance/aerobic training like running, cycling, etc., does burn more calories – a LOT more calories – than weight training. The problem is that the calories burned during any exercise are actually only a small part of the benefit of exercise. Even though aerobic exercises burn more calories than anaerobic exercises, it really still isn’t that much, certainly not enough to offset a major calorie count problem.
Weight loss is all about running a calorie deficit. But aerobic exercise doesn’t burn enough to really even put a dent in the calorie math problem. So what benefit is there to doing any aerobic exercise? And if aerobic exercise burns a lot more calories than anaerobic exercise, then it seems even more pointless to do that kind of workout, right?
How Weight Training and Weight Loss are Connected
The real magic of weight training and weight loss is not in the number of calories burned during the actual exercise, but by the changes it creates in your body.
High-intensity training, like weight training or running intervals, stimulates the body’s production of human growth hormone and testosterone, which builds muscle AND reduces fat storage.
Increased muscle mass is a larger “engine” that burns more calories even at rest.
The body is programmed to be as efficient as possible, so it resists building any more muscle (“engine”) than necessary because it is costly to maintain. The body must use 50-100 calories per day just keep a pound of muscle tissue alive. And that’s even if that muscle tissue is completely inactive.
So if your weight training over time causes your body to create 5 pounds of new muscle mass, that results in 250-500 more calories burned per day even without any exercise. If the actual calorie burn falls in the middle of that range, that means that the additional muscle mass will burn around the same amount as running three miles. But THAT calorie burn happens EVERY DAY whether you exercise or not. And it doesn’t result in achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, or any other of the many running injuries or aches and pains.
Weight training and increased muscle mass have also been shown to improve “insulin sensitivity”, which ultimately results in less stored fat tissue.
Better still, new research is coming in all the time linking muscle mass with all kinds of tremendous long term health benefits.
But I don’t want to look like a body builder
I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone replied to my suggestion of weight training with “But I don’t want to look all muscular like a body builder”.
This is a myth. Go to any gym and look around in the weight machines and free weights sections. You will not see that many especially muscular people there. And many of them spend a LOT of time in the gym TRYING to look like a body builder. They fail because it’s NOT THAT EASY.
So even if you WANTED to look like a body builder and spent hours every day in the gym, you wouldn’t look like a body builder. It really isn’t that easy.
But you CAN spend 30 minutes in the gym twice per week and add only the kind of muscle that makes you healthier, stronger, feel better, and LOSE FAT.
Forget what you know about weight training and weight loss
When many people think about weight training they think of men with bulging muscles spending hours in the gym.
Fortunately a new approach to weight training and weight loss and fitness is becoming more well-known now, and recent research is backing it up.
The new approach involves shorter, less frequent workouts using less weight, but very slow repetitions. The speed of the reps is not the only unique factor, but I’ll usually refer to it as something like “slow weight training”.
For the absolute best book on the subject, see Body by Science. READ IT!
But while you wait for it to be delivered, I will briefly summarize it. The idea is that you can see maximum results for fitness, health, strength, and increased muscle mass with a weight training workout once every 3-6 days for about 20 minutes each time.
I KNOW that sounds a little ridiculous. I thought so too till I understood the model and tried it.
Conventional weight training
The REAL workout time in conventional weight training
To understand how a 20 minute workout could deliver BETTER results than a 90 minute workout, let’s consider a conventional weight workout. Most conventional approaches break workouts out into three groups, often (1) Chest and triceps, (2) back and biceps, and (3) legs.
A typical chest and triceps workout in a scheme like this involves around eight different exercises, each one with three sets of ten repetitions (“reps”), with 1-2 minutes between sets. Usually a set of 10 reps takes 20-30 seconds. The weight used for each exercise is whatever amount you can lift for the full 10 reps, but not many more.
Let’s just assume a normal workout is eight exercises, each involving three sets of ten reps, and that the recovery time between sets is 90 seconds. If you break out your calculator, that means each set takes about two minutes (including the lifting and recovery), and the whole workout should take around 48 minutes (2 minutes per set, 24 sets in all). Having worked out with training partners before I can tell you that this 90 second recovery estimate is ridiculously low, so this hour will easily be at least 1.5 hours.
Our calculator also tells us that our total LIFTING TIME is around 12 minutes. 24 sets, 30 seconds per set (maximum).
The REAL workout time in conventional weight training
Now for the REALLY interesting factor. When you lift a weight at a normal speed, the vast majority of the really intense muscular strain occurs only in first 50% of the “up” movement (if on a press exercise), or 25% of the entire up/down cycle. After that first 50% of the upward motion the weight is moving more on MOMENTUM and your muscles work much less intensely to just KEEP the weight moving upward and then controlling the downward return movement.
If I lost you there, this basically means that when you lift at “normal” speed you’re only REALLY working for about 25% of the total lifting time. That means of that 12 minutes only about THREE of those minutes are really intense.
Additional downsides to conventional weight training
And there’s one more consideration regarding those conventional workouts. When the muscles are only intensely engaged in the first 25% of a movement, the mechanics of the movement usually mean that the muscles that would normally be engaged toward the end of the movement are short-changed.
Allow me to illustrate that with the rowing machine (not the kind where the seat rolls back and forth, but the kind where the seat remains still while you pull handles toward you till your elbows are partly behind you and your shoulder blades are almost touching). When you pull fast, the weight is already moving easily by the time your elbows are straight out to your side. But the REAL exercise for the upper back really starts after the elbows go beyond that point, so essentially you end up with very little back exercise on a movement designed to target that muscle group.
OK, so to summarize “conventional” weight training, a 60-90 minute workout really only involves MAYBE THREE minutes of highly intense muscle contraction, and because of the momentum involved, only a portion of targeted muscle groups are really intensely engaged.
NOW lets compare that to the crazy claim that two 20 minute workouts each week is superior to that.
SLOW weight training
First I will tell you how slow weight training works, then I’ll pick it apart a little.
The base workout exercises
The main slow weight workout involves FIVE exercises, each one targeting large muscle groups with compound movements, ONE set of each exercise. [Note: A press is a “compound movement” because it involves the chest muscles and the triceps, a “curl” is an isolated movement targeting only the biceps]
The exercises are:
- Chest Press: This can be a bench press with either barbell or dumbbells, or more ideally a machine where you are pushing the weight directly away from you.
- Row: Ideally this is a machine where you sit and pull handles toward you until your shoulder blades are almost touching.
- Military Press: This is a machine similar to a chest press machine, except you are pushing the weight upward at a steep angle instead of directly away from you.
- Pull Down: Or pull up, or chin up. Pull down will usually be a machine where you pull a bar weighted with pulleys directly downward. This exercises your “lats” (latissimus dorsi).
- Leg Press or Squat: This is simply squatting down and up with a weighted bar on your shoulders, or the machine equivalent (which I believe is MUCH safer).
SLOW is the key
The catch: You must do these repetitions SLOWLY, around 7-10 seconds up and 7-10 seconds down, or 15-20 seconds per full repetition. You also don’t pause between reps, and you don’t extend fully or contract fully. So on a press, you stop after 85% of the way up and don’t let the machine hit the stops on the way down. You keep the muscle under load the whole time.
One set “to failure” at each exercise
You don’t do a fixed number of reps. You just do each set until you CANNOT do even one more rep even if your life depended on it. And as soon as you reach this failure limit, you move immediately to the next exercise, and there you do one set of slow reps until you can’t do any more, then to the next exercise, etc.
If you’re using the right weight and doing the right speed, each exercise should take around 1-2 minutes.
The right weight
The “right weight” is maybe 60% of your normal speed weight. Or if you don’t already do normal workouts, it should be a weight with which you can do these slow reps for 1-2 minutes (4-8 reps, 15-20 seconds each) but no more.
For the first few reps, the “right weight” will feel a little like it may not be challenging enough. But by the time you get to the third rep you’ll start to feel it, and by reps 5 and 6 you’ll feel like you’re trying to lift a small car. Your muscles will start quivering and shaking, you’ll sweat, and you won’t know how you can go another rep.
So that’s the workout, now a little analysis.
SLOW weight training analysis
As I mentioned above in my description of conventional weight training, the total lifting time in that 90 minute workout is around 12 minutes, and only about 3 really intense minutes.
With slow weight training the lifting portion takes around 15 minutes, but almost ALL of it is HIGHLY intense. And MORE muscle tissue is exercised. This is because going slow completely removes any assistance from momentum, so all of the muscles involved throughout the whole movement are engaged equally.
And if all this is just a little too academic for you, and it’s still hard to believe that a 15 minute workout beats a 90 minute workout, there’s an acid test to prove it: Try each method and compare for yourself.
Or you can listen to my story.
My own experience with slow weight training
I have done weight training the conventional way for the better part of 16 years before learning about this slow weight training approach. And after I tried the slow method for the first time I felt like I had never worked out before.
First, I was more sore than after any previous conventional workout. Secondly, the soreness extended into muscles that never were sore using conventional weight training.
So my own personal experience seems to back up all that rationale about a 15 minute workout being more effective than a 90 minute workout.
Another thing to consider is that since you are actually using less weight you are much less likely to get injured using slow lifting movements. The muscles are intensely engaged in the slow movements, but the joints and tendons bear far less weight, and are therefore less subject to injury.
Slow weight training works for EVERYONE
Another major selling point for slow weight training is the fact that it really works for everyone. You don’t need to be especially fit or athletic to do this and get great results.
In fact, “Super Slow” was initially invented to train elderly women with osteoporosis. The idea was that their low bone density put them at extremely high risk of serious injury, so in order to help them build needed muscle they needed a training program that removed most of the risk. Doing slow reps with very light weights resulted in almost miraculous changes in health and increased muscle mass without injury.
Weight training and weight loss summary
Weight training is probably the runaway best exercise for weight loss and health in general, especially if you do it right. And even better, if you do it right it shouldn’t take you more than a half hour twice per week. There really is nothing else like that in terms of bang-for-your-buck (timewise).
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