For decades, conventional wisdom (and Jane Fonda) said cardio was the best exercise for weight loss. Since then, the rhetoric has changed – strength training has muscled its way in as the modality du jour for revving your metabolism and shedding some LBs, but with 1.9k of you still searching for advice on weight training vs cardio for weight loss, it’s clear some are still apprehensive to rely on resistance.
Kiera James, 35, is proof that weightlifting really can work for weight loss, but before we get into her story, we want to clear something up. Fitness has plenty more benefits than weight loss, and it’s important that you seek medical advice before attempting to lose weight. Sure, we all have goals, and it’s OK if yours is weight loss, but only if this will help you on your way to a happier and healthier life. Exercise should never supersede your happiness, and your happiness is not defined by your weight. Capiche?
For James, her weight loss goal stemmed from feeling uncomfortable in her body. ‘I had noticed that my clothes were starting to get a lot tighter, and I was restricting myself into wearing certain things I knew I was comfortable in. I’d slowly put on weight since turning 30 in 2018, and more so than the number on the scales, I noticed that I was not feeling very toned or comfortable in my body,’ she tells WH.
So, in February 2023, she signed up to a 3-month Bodied by XO programme, founded by Christina Okenla. Her personalised programme involved four-five virtual weekly workouts, and a meal plan centred around specific macros, tailored to James’ workout routine. After three months, James lost 4kg and says that despite ‘working out for years’, she is now ‘lifting heavier than ever’.
Coach Okenla tells us: ‘Depending on their schedule, clients were allowed to schedule each session as they saw fit within their week, however, I advised the following: train Monday- Tuesday, rest on Wednesday, train Thursday-Friday. I would encourage James to use the weekends to focus on going for walks to increase steps and active recovery.
‘I also split her sessions into upper vs lower body days, to allow adequate time for each muscle group to rest, rather than encouraging training lower body twice in a row for example.
Bar one HIIT workout and one back and cardio session, her plan didn’t include cardio workouts, and she admits she was surprised to have lost weight through weight training. ‘I suppose I had always associated weight loss with calorie burn and cardio, and with weight training I’m not necessarily burning 100+ calories every 10 minutes like I do during a cardio session,’ she tells us. ‘However, with the consistency of training and meal planning, I lost more weight than I had with all my efforts prior to that.
‘Before starting the programme, I was heavier than I’d ever been, so I was constantly in a cycle of trying to lose some weight. I would lose a few LBs, then gain more, then lose a few LBs and continue with the cycle,’ she adds.
The mechanism behind weight training for weight loss is pretty straightforward: ‘Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so the more you gain, the more calories you’ll burn – and the more likely you are to keep fat off,’ says exercise physiologist Dr Leigh Breen.
Sure enough, weight lifting can be especially effective for helping women lose stubborn body fat (e.g. if you’re trying to get rid of back fat or lose belly fat) with a University of Alabama study showing greater belly fat loss in women who lifted weights as compared to those who just performed cardiovascular exercise.
Here are the five things that James says contributed most to her weight loss through weight training.
‘This was key for me. I had to get into the routine of working out 4-5 times a week, which meant I had to make sure that I got enough sleep and went to bed at the same time every evening during the week.
‘I started working out in the mornings, so waking up at 5:30 to be able to get in a workout before work, as after work I can always find an excuse not to train. I also do not like being around too many people in the gym, as it means equipment is busy and you don’t always get to do the workout you have planned out.
‘Having my workouts planned meant I could go into the gym and just work through a plan without having to think about it too much. My plan was also separated into two lower-body, two upper-body and a full-body session. This meant that I would do at least four workouts a week; this helped me to remain consistent, even when I didn’t want to train. As the programme went on, it became more about strength for me so I wanted to make sure I was getting in the workout so I could continue to progress with how many KGs I lifted each week.’
Consistency is key for giving your body time to adapt, and therefore, for you to see results. As an example, research indicates that it takes around 6-10 weeks of persistent strength training for muscle growth to occur. James trained regularly for 12 weeks.
2. Staying accountable
‘Having check-ins with Christina each week helped me massively to remain on track around weight loss and training generally. The accountability also motivated me to be consistent with the plan. I am a bit of a perfectionist and people-pleaser (including myself) so having to report my progress (in terms of KGs, number of workouts, sleep, food, weight) to someone each week really helped me to remain focussed.
‘The weekly check-ins were also a time for me to reflect on what had gone well and what needed some work, so I was also accountable to myself for what I was doing. It was not about feeling bad or guilty if things haven’t gone to plan or if you missed some days or overindulged, as everyone has ups and downs.
‘It was more of a reflection on what the goals were and where I wanted to be, and a time to refresh and refocus each week. I continued this even after the programme; I got myself a diary and would record personal bests and things that went well/I wanted to improve on in the coming week.’
Training with a friend and keeping a journal of your PBs like James can work just as well as a PT.
‘I’d weight trained for a while prior to starting this programme and never really progressed with my KG lifted. Okenla talked me through progressive overload, and I did this differently throughout the programme. With my upper body, I tend to find that I increase reps once I feel comfortable at a weight for 10-12 reps, and therefore I should technically be able to lift more for the same reps, albeit more challenging.
‘For my lower body, I increase the weight I lift gradually by 2.5 – 5kg. For example, with hip thrusts, I would have 3 sets planned at 65kg; if that is feeling somewhat comfortable, I will do the final set at 70kg, and then the next week I’ll do 70kg for 2 sets out of 3, and then the next week I’ll start at 70kg and my final set would be 75kg.’
Okenla adds: ‘James would track the weight she lifted within my app and after each month, I would review them and then set new weight targets. The increase in weight lifted depends on the exercise. For example, if it’s a lower-body move, it may be an increase of 5-10kg; if it is upper body, it may be an increase of 2-3kg. For example, it is very hard to increase weight on a lateral raise vs. a bent-over row.’
The purpose of progressive overload is to make your body stronger and more able to recover and adapt to exercise stressors, and it’s been scientifically proven.
A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology observed 83 people over a period of 12 weeks as they practiced progressive overload on a series of arm strengthening exercises — gradually increasing the weight and number of repetitions of exercises. The results showed that progressive overload was effective for increasing bicep strength and muscle growth in both men and women.
Read our full guide on progressive overload and the benefits.
4. Getting enough rest
‘Sleep has always been important to me, but it was especially important to help with my consistency around weight training, so that I had enough energy to work out. I was training in the morning and if I didn’t sleep, I would not wake up, so getting into a routine was key for me.
‘Making sure I put a ‘do not disturb’ sleep setting on my phone so I don’t get notifications after 9pm helped, and I tried to stay off my phone after this time. I would also wind down with a cup of chamomile tea and read or watch something light on TV, that doesn’t stimulate my brain too much, then I would make sure I was in bed by 10pm. This way I got the hours that I needed; if I don’t sleep well, it also impacts my diet the next day as I’ll be more likely to crave sweet things and binge.
‘Obviously, this was not 100% of the time – I had days where I didn’t sleep well and would eat off plan – but when that slipped, I knew what would help me get back into it the next day.
‘Also, having complete rest days is important. I know my body needs to recover, and it also helps with consistency. When I push too hard and work out too much, I will crash for a few days and all of my nutrition and exercise goes out the window, which means my mood and energy levels suffer.’
Rest is proven to encourage muscle hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth), and muscle is more metabolically active, meaning you burn more calories at rest, which can therefore help with weight loss. And if you’re worried about losing all your hard-won gains, fret not.
According to the journal Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, two weeks of downtime causes no significant loss in bench press or squat performance, while, in a separate study, scientists estimated that strength ‘is readily maintained for up to four weeks of inactivity’.
Here are 7 signs you would benefit from a rest day.
5. Consuming enough protein
‘With my nutrition, I worked on increasing protein, and never cut out any food groups. I noticed that when I had the right amount of protein, my energy and mood was better which helps with consistency and motivation.
‘Meal planning and prep was my saviour here – when I don’t have meals planned, I am more likely to go for the easy option for lunch and dinner, which is more often than not the unhealthy option, and to snack after work. It was great to have meal options provided by Christina that were healthy and balanced with the right macros for me. Having balanced meals also helped with my sleep as I was eating less sugar. Her meal plans also included “sweet treats” such as high protein snacks, so my sweet tooth was fulfilled.’
Calculating your macros – how much fat, carbs and protein you consume – is proven to aid with weight loss. Check out our handy macro calculator to work out the correct numbers for you, and remember that everyone is different. What worked for James won’t work for you, and vice versa.
Since finishing her programme in April, everything James learnt above means that she has successfully maintained her weight. ‘I am no longer trying to lose weight, just maintain. I now fit comfortably in my clothes again and can see more muscle definition forming. I have continued to progress my weights (KGs) since I finished.
‘I still train 3-4 times a week and run at least once a week, but I’m a little more relaxed with it as it’s part of my lifestyle now. There are some mornings I do work out, some I don’t, but I’ll just work out the next day, or even after work (which was always a no-no for me before the programme).
‘The biggest achievement for me was being able to lift more KGs than I ever had in my life and being able to squat my body weight and hip thrust over my body weight. I have focussed mainly on increasing hip thrust KG and lifting 25kg heavier three months down the line. My upper body is also getting stronger which has always been a challenge for me.’
If weight loss is your current goal, here are James’ words of wisdom: ‘Find something you enjoy doing and set yourself goals that are meaningful to you. When I stopped focusing on my weight and started to think about my emotional wellbeing and physical strength, weight loss came without me thinking about it.
‘And be consistent; it’s not always about how motivated you are to do it. After two weeks of making myself meal prep on the weekend and going to the gym, it became a habit and I started to want to go. That has stuck with me’ I used to make myself work out but now I enjoy doing it. I even go in the evening sometimes, just to get a workout in.‘
Inspired? Here’s a full breakdown of how James’ workout timetable:
- Workout 1: Back and cardio
- Workout 2: Legs and abs
- Workout 3: Upper body – arms, shoulders and chest
- Workout 4: Lower body – glutes focused
- Workout 5: optional home-based workout
- Workout 1: Back and chest
- Workout 2: Lower body – hamstring focused
- Workout 3: Arms shoulders and abs
- Workout 4: Lower body – quads and glutes focused
- Workout 5: Full-body dumbbell (optional)
- Workout 1: Upper-body pull day
- Workout 2: Lower body – quads focused
- Workout 3: Upper-body push day
- Workout 4: Lower body – quads and glutes focused
- Workout 5: Full body – weighted HIIT & Cardio (optional)