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November 29, 2022
Many gym goers know that weight training is excellent for building muscle mass and improving strength. But there's another great benefit you may not even be considering. We're talking about weight loss! In fact, strength training's weight loss effect is so profound that it's not uncommon to see a weightlifting workout explicitly designed to burn calories.
But just how many calories do you actually burn lifting weights? And should you even try to lose weight while weight training? We believe you can weight lift to lose weight, but not necessarily in the same way you may use steady-state cardio to do so.
This article will dig into the calories burned lifting weights, and provide you with evidence-based knowledge on how to most effectively utilize your weight training to burn fat.
This post will discuss:
Before we get into calories burned weight lifting, let's get on the same page about what we mean when we say weight lifting. We mean pretty much any type of resistance training, even including some cardiovascular exercise as long as it's anaerobic exercise, such as sled work.
In short, we're discussing all forms of training people use to increase muscle mass or sports performance, including strength training, muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth), calisthenics (bodyweight exercises), high intensity interval training (HIIT), and sled work.
The reason we want to differentiate this from cardiovascular training is that there is a tendency to conflate anaerobic training with aerobic exercise. Both of these styles of training operate under different physiological and metabolic systems, meaning that when we're discussing weight lifting calories burned, they shouldn't be grouped together.
Let's start with a few topics that will help us dive into the topic of weightlifting and weight loss. First, how do we define weightlifting, and what exactly is its original purpose?
Weight lifting can include styles of training similar to strength training or muscle hypertrophy work. This can consist of things such as free weights, dumbbells, barbells, and machines.
While people will perform weight training for a variety of reasons, resistance training goals can be broken down into a few categories:
This is a relatively complex subject, but here's what to keep in mind at a very basic level. When trying to improve strength or hypertrophy, your training should fall under the following variables:
These can obviously vary depending on the purpose and coach who wrote the program but for the most part, any plan should follow these 3 variables in some way.
This brings us to the next question on our calories burned weight lifting journey. Does weight lifting burn calories? Yes!
Your body literally burns calories even when you're sleeping and supporting physiological systems, such as respiration. This is known as your BMR, and it accounts for 60% of your total calories burned daily.
In addition, any activity you perform throughout the day will require more calories for energy. This can range from walking to the door, bringing in the groceries, or doing deadlifts.
Since we burn calories doing everything (and nothing), the question we're really asking is: How much does weightlifting increase our calories burned?
Okay, without further ado, let's get to the big question: How many calories do you burn lifting weights? When measuring the number of calories burned weight lifting, the total will vary greatly depending on an array of factors.
For example, vigorous weight lifting will burn more calories than using light dumbbells. That means the calories you burn during an ultra-intense leg workout will be greater than a short bodyweight workout specifically targeting the outer thighs.
Some other factors include the types of weightlifting exercises, the size of the trainee, the load used, and the total volume.
There actually have not been a large number of studies that have examined how many calories burned lifting weights. However, one study looked at the calories burned by three different size participants during 30 minutes of various forms of exercise¹. Researchers found the following:
Keep in mind we don't know have specifics about the exercises that fall under each of these categories. Therefore, we can't even necessarily say just double these numbers for 60 minutes.
For example, to burn 252 calories in 30 minutes using weight lifting, it would need to be very intense. It's doubtful this would be able to be maintained for another 30 minutes.
Regardless of the unknown variables, these numbers fall in line with most other estimates, with 300 calories being burned in a 45-minute workout the average.
When you are trying to burn the most amount of calories, several variables can make a significant difference. This means it's not as simple as finding a generic answer to "how many calories does lifting weights burn?"
If are looking for answers regarding how many calories burned lifting weights so you can lose weight more effectively, you'll need to consider the following factors:
Compound exercises use multiple muscles, including large muscle groups. For example, the bench press is a compound exercise that trains the upper body, particularly the chest muscles, shoulders, and triceps.
However, it also activates the core and even the back muscles. Because it uses so much muscle mass, the body requires more calories to fuel the movement. This means that as far as calories burned from weight lifting go, you're going to get some serious bang for your buck.
Compare this to an isolation movement that only uses one muscle group. For example, barbell curls only train the biceps muscle, which is a relatively small muscle. Your body will not need the same amount of energy to fuel it.
When digging into the question, "does weight lifting burn calories," you'll need to look at upper and lower body exercises differently. Compared with upper body exercises, your lower body mass is significantly larger. For example, when you lift weights, a lower body compound exercise will train the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. These are massive muscles.
It's safe to assume lower-body exercises will burn more calories than upper body workouts.
If we are assuming that calories burned during weight lifting are related to muscle mass used, then it's probably a safe assumption that free weight exercises and bodyweight workouts burn more calories.
This is because these types of exercises require more muscle activation to help stabilize the weight.
Total workload refers to the total amount of weight lifted throughout the entire training session. For example, let's look at two sessions, both utilizing the squat exercise, and squatting 200 pounds.
The second session squatted 2,000 more pounds, so this will require more calories.
Another aspect to remember when it comes to how many calories are burned lifting weights is that you aren't working out every day. The average person is probably following a 4 day split, which is a very common split (because it works!). This leaves three days that get no calories burned from weight lifting.
Now let's assume a person burns 350 calories in a one-hour session. Over four days, this amounts to 1,400 calories. Since it takes 3,600 calories to burn one pound of fat, it would take 2.5 weeks to get this done.
Eh. When you put it that way, the fat loss from weightlifting doesn't look so great, does it? But don't worry; it'll all make sense by the end of this article.
A common argument made for using weightlifting to lose weight is the phenomenon known as EPOC. This stands for excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.
When we perform strenuous exercise, our various physiological and metabolic systems react to compensate for the stress. However, once we return to a resting state, our bodies must return these systems to their normal state.
A few of the different processes can include a higher heart rate, stabilizing hormones, and ATP replenishment.
Remember that even simple processes, such as breathing, requires increased calories for energy. Therefore, all of the above processes will require an increase in calorie expenditure until the body's systems return to their base level.
EPOC and its associated calorie burn have a tendency to be used for marketing various training programs, cardio workouts, and classes. And while EPOC does exist, the truth about its role in weight loss has been greatly exaggerated.
It's not uncommon to hear claims that EPOC burns calories for 48 hours after exercise. This is only partly true (maybe) and often taken out of context. While there have been some studies that show this to be accurate, the effect steadily drops as time goes on.
Regardless, the total effect of EPOC is minimal, especially if you are comparing different modes of exercise. For example, the complete caloric burn from EPOC is estimated to be 6-15% of the actual workout. Therefore, 300 calories burned each day you perform your workout split would result in an additional 18-45 calories per day2.
Further, every type of training creates EPOC. Therefore, if you specifically designed a workout and it had a 100-caloric EPOC burn, that's only an extra 65 calories.
Regardless, let's pretend that you do burn 100 calories during EPOC. If you train four times a week, that's only 1,600 calories a month. This means you need two whole months just to burn an extra pound of fat.
While this is cool, the effect of EPOC takes a significant amount of time to make any meaningful change. This has been concluded in multiple studies3.
Let's return to the main topic of this article: How many calories do you burn weight lifting? Furthermore, how do you choose exercises to burn the most calories?
In our opinion, you don't.
That's probably not what you were expecting, but let us explain. Remember, at the beginning of this article, we talked about the primary purpose of weight lifting, which is to build lean muscle mass or strength. Its main objective does not include burning calories.
At the same time, your typical exercise regimen that has been optimally designed for muscle growth and improving muscular strength will already burn calories, approximately 350 per hour. While you could alter the program to burn more calories, it would likely be at the expense of building muscle or strength.
The reason being is that the variables that are optimal for strength training are completely opposite of those required for a fat-burning workout. This means you would need to alter your program and use a rep scheme and exercise selection that's better for burning calories.
But, remember, adjusting these variables would likely decrease the effectiveness of the program for improving strength and mass.
This is a problem because there are no other ways to build muscle mass. So what you're effectively doing is taking the one tool you have for increasing total muscle mass and decreasing its effectiveness.
Even if you were to make a special session, this is going to increase the total amount of stress that you put on your body. This could hurt your muscle recovery and your mass-building weightlifting days.
So to reiterate, we are NOT saying when it comes to how many calories are burned weight lifting that you won't burn calories. You very much will.
What we are saying is that calories burned are a secondary benefit of resistance training behind its ability to improve strength and increase lean muscle mass. So while you will burn calories, your exercise selection should only be focused on what you need for optimal muscle growth.
Truthfully, we don't believe any form of training is better than another for fat loss. This includes cardiovascular exercise or even playing sports.
That's because all of these activities merely burn calories. This means nothing if you don't have your diet in check, which requires finding a diet that works for you. A weight loss program, like the 80 20 rule diet or macro counting, is crucial if weight loss is your goal.
Remember we mentioned above that on average, weight lifting burns around 1,400 calories a week? This can almost be ruined by drinking just one extra coke a day. In other words, your diet has a much more significant effect on your body weight in terms of losing weight than exercise ever will.
This is why we are cautious when talking about any workout for burning calories, as we want people to control their calories with their diet.
Further, it's not uncommon for people to start trying to control their calories with exercise. In other words, they may go out for pizza one night and then wake up in the morning to "burn it off." This is a dangerous way of looking at exercise.
Now, just because we may disagree with altering your strength training program to try and burn more calories, we still think it has a role. In fact, we believe strength training has a MAJOR role in weight loss.
In our opinion, the absolute best method for weight control is combining proper weight training with a healthy diet. Here are 4 reasons why we think you should weight train to lose weight.
We know. We just wrote an entire article about this. However, we wanted to reiterate the fact that lifting weights burns calories. While it's not thousands of calories, they do add up. We just think it should be looked at as a bonus rather than the main objective.
When you are in a caloric deficit, which is when you will burn fat, it is very hard to build muscle. This is because two things are at odds with one another, making body recomposition pretty tricky.
You can obviously see the contradiction. There are certain situations when you can do both, such as new lifters or those with a very high body fat percentage. However, when dealing with anyone who has been lifting weights and is past the beginner stage, this becomes increasingly difficult. It becomes even more challenging the leaner you get.
While some research suggests we might be able to build muscle while losing fat, more research is needed. Still, weight training does play a role in your muscle mass.
When you are in a caloric deficit, your body is going to look for fuel elsewhere. Usually, this comes from glucose (carbs) or stored body fat. However, it can also sometimes break down muscle to free up amino acids which can be used for fuel. We obviously don't want this.
Therefore, in this scenario, lifting weights can actually help preserve muscle mass. In other words, when you are dieting, lifting weights can give your body a reason to save muscle.
While there haven't been any specific studies on this, the general consensus is that traditional strength training is the best method. This includes using compound exercises, free weights, heavier loads (85-90%), and low reps (<6).
The best way to think of this is that you want to stimulate your muscle enough so that your body wants to keep it. At the same time, you don't want to stress it to the point where you cause too much fatigue. Remember, your body will be in a caloric deficit and won't have the extra calories.
We should also note that typical workouts for weight loss suggest dropping the weights and performing high reps or circuit training. While this might burn more calories, it could potentially cause too much stress.
This claim is also overly exaggerated to sound more profound than it is. Muscle does burn more calories than fat, but studies estimate this to only be around 10-15 calories per pound of muscle. It's not a lot, but every little bit helps.
Again? Similar to weight lifting burning calories, strength training does produce EPOC, just not enough to plan your entire program around it. In fact, there's reason to believe that the calorie burn from heavy weight lifting produces greater EPOC than using light weights.
Remember that when you train, your body's physiological systems get out of whack adjusting to the stimulus. After training, your body requires extra oxygen to return its systems to normal, and this is where you get EPOC.
If you have ever done proper strength training, you know these heavier loads leave you feeling more wiped than using light weights, especially over an extended period. This likely results in more calories burned.
Now that you have a better grasp of the calories burned by lifting weights, we can lay out some variables for you to consider when lifting weights to burn fat. In reality, aside from your diet, not a lot needs to change with your routine when you're trying to lose weight. You lift the same and eat more to gain weight and eat less to lose weight.
That said, you can make some adjustments to your training plan if desired. Taking into consideration all of the information we just discussed about the calories burned from lifting weights, here are the training variables to consider.
The beginning of your training should start with 2 or 3 heavy compound lifts. These should be your primary lifts, such as bench presses, back squats, and deadlifts. Run these with heavy weights equal to 85-90% of your 1RM. Use enough rest to make sure you get clean reps.
After these, you can perform 2-3 accessory compound exercises. These are lifts such as chin-ups, the incline dumbbell fly, shrugs (this isn't a compound exercise but is still valuable to include), and Romanian deadlifts. These lifts should be done with a load equal to about 80% of your 1RM in the 8-rep range.
You could throw in some isolation exercises at the end of your routine, if you wanted to. However, it should be done in a circuit manner and limited to 1-2 rounds.
Plan to finish your training session with some sort of metabolic conditioning. Some examples include sled work, a farmer's walk, kettlebell exercises, and barbell complexes.
These can be used in a variety of fashions, such as:
As it turns out, the fundamental question surrounding how many calories burned weight lifting misses the mark. In fact, strength training with a weight loss mindset can cause one to make poor choices with exercise selection and program design. However, if you follow a proper diet, you can use weight training `to preserve your muscles.
At the end of the day, your ultimate goal when dropping weight should be to lose fat and maintain muscle. This is best done by following a diet with a moderate caloric deficit, finding a great strength training program, and lifting heavy weights.
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