Dear Swole Woman,
My question is about whether weightlifting is a fat-burning workout. But first, I must say that your column has greatly inspired my solo lifting journey. I got into lifting because of an ex and had no idea if my progress was similar to (or even normal for) other females. Your column and some of the resources you link to have given me the tools and confidence to keep going, especially after the relationship ended and I no longer had a dude by my side in the Big Scary Weight Section.
I started out following a routine which was carefully curated by my ex, consisting of 8 exercises doubled up for super-sets for sets of 15, 12, 10 and 8, swapping back and forth, with little or no rest. Oh, and we would run before and after this routine. This is what I continued to do for the next three years, albeit inconsistently, because, life.
A few months ago, I started going back to the gym in earnest. My goals are always 1) being healthy and strong 2) burning fat. I got up to 65 pounds on bench and 70 for deadlift, and I burned a good bit of fat, but I noticed that I seemed to be working a lot harder and moving much faster than everyone else in the gym. I was also truly exhausted after each workout.
This week, I started the 5×5 Stronglifts program (at my normal weight, not what they suggested) to try to switch it up. This program has come with a lot of recommendations from yourself as well as other lifters I know. However, after my old routine, it feels like such a drastic downshift! I find myself getting antsy during the 90-second rests and troubled over the lack of sweat. I want to continue to burn fat, and it just feels like this isn't going to cut it. Is it supposed to feel easy? Should I add in some additional exercises, or start with a sweat-inducing warm up? Or should I just follow the program and wait for the results?
Thanks for all of your advice!
I’m so glad you’re back to lifting!! So here is the thing about the way lifting feels, particularly when you’re just starting out with actually building strength, as opposed to just exercising—it may not feel like you’re doing much. Lifting for intensity, especially when the workout consists of maybe only 15 to 20 minutes of actual activity spread over 40 to 60 minutes, you might just not sweat very much at all. It is eminently common not to sweat at all, or only sweat a little, or to sweat buckets for that matter, as sweating threshold varies from person to person.
Emphasis on calories burned has become a real cultural force, and exercise studios or classes or instructors often sell their workouts based on that (“600 calories in one hour!” For the record, this is about the same burn rate as running for an hour; there is nothing special, calorie for calorie, about Barbell Dance Level II, or whatever it is that’s marketing itself on this relatively achievable calorie burn rate). But burning calories is not the best way to think about exercise or health, for a few reasons. For one, those calories-burned estimates are just that—estimates. And they might not look anything like what a particular individual is actually burning. What’s more is that research suggests that after a certain point, energy expenditure (calories burned) plateaus—it turns out that piling on activity isn’t necessarily piling onto the caloric burn. Beyond that, exercise only accounts for a small percentage of our bodies’ daily energy usage. Add to that the fact that exercise is now understood to either hinder—or at the very least not impact—weight loss efforts, and it starts to become clear that calorie burn probably isn’t the best way to look at whether a workout is effective, pretty much no matter what your goal is.
For another reason, if you’re comparing activities, while there is evidence that lifting weights burns fewer calories than most types of cardio, remember that more muscle mass helps increase your resting metabolic rate a bit, which means that at rest you’ll burn a few more calories than you would with less muscle mass (note: the increased burn is not wildly high). But! But. So many factors impact metabolism and weight loss that it’s not worthwhile to evaluate an activity based on caloric burn alone. Exercise is really good for your health, period. And after lifting, you have built actual muscles and strength to use in your daily life, a benefit that cannot be underestimated. But since you’re concerned specifically about fat burn, let me add one more point in the strength-training-is-great-for-all-goals column: The more muscle you have, the harder and longer you’ll be able to work out, which is great for your goal of burning fat.
When talking about your lifting routine, I’m not sure what you mean by “at my normal weight, not what they suggested.” But if it means that you are not adding weight to your lifts as the programs suggest, at least weekly if not every session, but you are also completing all your sets with flying colors and never feeling taxed, you should add weight. Any beginner lifting program will instruct you to add weight to your lifts consistently, and if you are eating and resting enough to support your lifting program—barring injuries or limiting factors like mobility problems—you should be able to.
Starting-strength “linear progression” type lifting programs, whether Stronglifts or GZCLP or something else, are not really designed for performing the same weights over and over for a relatively unskilled lifter. They are designed specifically for building strength, keeping the reps low and intensity high so that your muscles get the right amount of damage to rebuild on your rest days, and then you come to the next session stronger than before. “Linear progression” means, literally, getting consistently stronger by adding the same amount of weight at the same time interval, and this should be doable for at least a few months.
It is possible you have just started at weights that are relatively easy for you, but the nice thing about linear programs is that they get tougher relatively quickly. The best way to judge if you’re going hard enough isn’t by how much you sweat per se, but how you feel during and after your sets. For example, I don’t always break a sweat on sets of less than five, but I know I’m not being challenged enough on a set if I just set the barbell down and I am immediately bored and not thinking about how I’m going to complete my next set. If I feel out of breath and taxed and need time to stand and collect myself, but was still able to finish all the reps with perfect form, that was the right amount of difficulty. You may want to check that your lifting form is on point (if you don’t like Stronglifts’ resources on this, there are other websites, books, and videos), because it can be tough to get stronger if you’re not letting your body move and use its muscles in the strongest ways.
If you let these programs get you stronger and you decide to transition out of strength building after a while, you will be able to lift more weight when just working out. Maintaining muscle is not as much work as building it in the first place, but if you don’t have much to begin with, you should give yourself that chance to actually get strong.
Strength is for everyone, but it’s especially for women. Ask a Swole Woman is a column for people who are tired of trying to always be less, eat less, do less, and make it look perfect and effort-free. Have a question for me about strength training or anything related? If you’re ready to give your body what it needs, to test your grit, and become more than you ever have been, email AASW@self.com.
Casey Johnston is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: @caseyjohnston.