Somewhat recently, I’ve resumed a focused strength training journey. Those close to me know that exercise, in general, isn’t my favorite thing to do. I’m pretty transparent about the fact that exercise will easily fall off my to-do list if I give it an ounce of wiggle-room. Cook a nutritious meal? Check. Meditate? Check. Exercise? Fine, I suppose.
There are a few exceptions: dance, yoga, walks with my husband, and Pilates are activities I look forward to, and now I’m realizing I can add strength training to that short list, which delights me to no end. After just a couple of months of focused strength training – twice a week at most and once a week when my schedule gets more hectic – I’m already noticing feeling stronger and leaner. Some jeans that had become pretty tight around my hips are fitting again and I’m feeling more comfortable overall.
So I thought I’d share a few things I’m learning and reinforcing about metabolic rate and fat loss as I travel this strength training path myself:
- The variability in your Resting Metabolic Rate or “Basal Metabolic Rate” (the number of calories required to support normal bodily functions and the number of calories you expend each day when you aren’t physically active or exercising) is attributed largely to the amount of muscle tissue on your body. The decline in your metabolic rate that occurs as you age is usually blamed in large part to a wasting away (atrophy) of muscle. If you strength train and regain or retain your muscle tissue, your metabolic rate should improve.
- Strength training has a positive, acute effect on metabolic rate. When you strength train, your metabolic rate is elevated between 7-11% for the next three days (I like that fact a lot!). This effect exists for beginners or experienced exercisers alike.
- Strength training has positive, chronic effect on metabolic rate. When we add muscle tissue to any part of our body, we burn more calories constantly to support that new muscle.
The information above has been adapted slightly from an informational card I received from my trainers at Discover Strength. The workouts at Discover Strength focus exclusively on strength training, which I believe in wholeheartedly – especially as we age. I often recommend strength training to my clients and friends because I believe it’s helpful for just about everyone, whereas other forms of exercising – like intense or prolonged cardio – can be devastating for people with compromised adrenal function, hormonal imbalances, or heart conditions. Even if you have an injury, there are usually ways you can continue strength training while protecting your injury.
I do, however, disagree with some of the philosophies that I’ll call “black and white thinking” about strength training and its correlation to weight loss, many of which are routinely promoted by gyms and well-meaning (and well-educated) trainers. Here are some other points I want to emphasize:
- Strength training is not the end-all-be all when it comes to “exercise” (as many trainers would have you believe). Don’t strength train twice a week (the recommended amount) and then just sit on your petudie for the other five days. Our body needs consistent movement. Yes, I recommend strength training, but I also hope you’ll continue to strive for 10,000 steps a day and find other activities you enjoy to keep you moving. Yoga? Dance? Team sports? Biking? Move it or lose it. (And remember, this is coming from someone who would rather sit on her petudie, if given the option.)
- Weight loss is not as simple as calories in, calories out, as many personal trainers tell you and want you to believe. A conversation my trainer and I were having about this very notion started getting a little heated (just a little) when he very earnestly tried to tell me that as long as you’re increasing your muscle mass and maintaining a caloric deficit you’ll lose weight. (He even dared to say that ‘hormones don’t matter’ when it comes to weight loss. You can imagine how I reacted to that.) Yes, the “calories-in-calories-out approach” works for some people, but not for everyone. Hormones play a profound role in how your body burns calories and how willing your body is to surrender and burn stored fat. So do food sensitivities and some medications. I’ve worked with many clients who severely restricted their calorie intake to 1000-1200 calories a day in an effort to lose weight. Guess what: their weight didn’t budge. Until you balance hormones, heal the thyroid, balance blood sugar, or uncover pesky food sensitivities, that weight is likely going to hang on like a death grip.
- Strength training doesn’t make women bulky. If you’re a woman, it’s going to be very difficult to bulk up, even once you’re lifting heavy weights. Women usually become more lean through strength training. Men are the ones who bulk up thanks to their higher levels of testosterone. I’ve talked with many women who are afraid to lift weights because they don’t want to bulk up. You can let that fear go.
If you haven’t lifted weights before, I encourage you to give it a shot and to begin your journey with a personal trainer until you get the hang of it. Just as with any exercise, it is possible to injure yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing. Trainers will make sure you have the correct posture and are lifting a weight that’s appropriate for you. These two things are important not only for safety but also for achieving the results you want.
Conclusion: Physical Strength = Mental Strength
On a final note, many years ago a gym-owner friend said something that lodged itself in my brain and never left me alone. She said, “Increased physical strength breeds mental strength.” I’ve thought about that idea a lot since she mentioned it and especially since embarking on a more disciplined strength training regimen myself. I’m starting to see what she meant when she said that. Strength training pushes your limits. There are times you’re faced with lifting a weight heavier than you once could have imagined yourself lifting. Sometimes you can actually feel your muscles tearing as you near the end of your rep sequence (not to scare you), and you want nothing more than to drop the weight right then. Sometimes you have a day when your body can’t lift as much as it did three days earlier, and that feels frustrating. But it’s all part of the journey. Just like everything in life, there are days when we feel like a warrior, and there are days when we aren’t sure we can accomplish even simple tasks. Strength training teaches us that as long as we continue to show up, we’ll figure out a way to handle whatever task is in front of us and hopefully do a little bit better than last time. It’s all about showing up and giving it your best, which is exactly what the mentally strong do over and over.