Strength Training is Not “Fat Loss” Training. And Neither is Aerobics

by Robert Santana, PhD, RD, SSC | February 26, 2020

strength training the press

It’s 2020, we’ve just entered the new year and those of us training at commercial gyms are pissed off at the lack of parking, waiting lists for the squat rack, and constant solicitation by the salespeople at the gym. The influx of new gym members is in large part due to the commitment to a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. The vast majority of us that train or exercise have, at some point, desired fat loss. Let’s face it: we’ve gotten fatter over the last half century and at some point, the gym became the “cure.” The problem with this approach is that it is wrong, and it is wrong because it ignores some very important aspects of human physiology. 

Aerobic exercise has been the dominant exercise prescription since large commercial gyms came into the marketplace. Aerobic exercise utilizes the musculoskeletal system as well as the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems for long durations, thus stressing the endurance of those systems. Aerobic exercise features more muscle contractions, an increase in heart rate, an increase in ventilation, and an increase in perspiration. This results in an increase in oxygen demand, leading to an increase in energy expenditure. If performed for a sufficiently long duration, at a sufficiently intensity, the caloric expenditure can be substantial. This serves as the foundation for the belief that increasing your heart rate, ventilation rate, and perspiration is essential for fat loss. 

The problem with this belief is that in the absence of serious endurance training or career athletics, the energy expended by a standard “cardio” workout is modest at best. A typical gym member may spend an hour running on the hamster wheel at an intensity that is just enough to make him sweat and feel like he is doing something difficult. The “walkers” will never expend more calories than you would find in a bowl of lettuce. The net result is the pursuit of symptoms of heart failure to complete the quest for visible abs. 

The bigger problem with this belief is that it has extended itself into the weight room. At some point in the last 40 years, aerobic exercise and “hypertrophy training” tied the knot. A lovely couple indeed, since there is slight overlap in the training experience. Hypertrophy training tends to be higher in reps, which elicit hyperventilation, heart rate elevations, and exercise induced acidosis (i.e. “the burn”). Not nearly to the extent that aerobic training does since fewer total repetitions are performed, but enough for the person performing it to perceive that he did something challenging. 

Since the guys promoting this stuff were historically 5% body fat at 250+ lb, surely we should listen to them. In all seriousness, pay attention to these people because there is a reason, beyond exercise addiction and negative body image, that they have been able to train this way for decades: they do not have Normal Physiology, and they are on an anabolic steroid regimen that they often won’t share with you. Anabolic steroids get people stronger and improve recovery between overload cycles, thus allowing for more frequent training and higher training volumes and/or intensities. 

It doesn’t take a terminal degree to conclude that a bodybuilder on anabolic steroids can train more often, at higher volumes and/or intensities, and can do so using sillier exercises and still build muscle. They can also eat more protein and use more of it because protein synthesis is higher than that of a human with Normal Physiology. Since this paper is targeted at humans with Normal Physiology, let me start by saying This Is Not You. You take longer to recover, don’t need as much protein, can't use as much protein, won’t build as much muscle, and most importantly, won’t get away with as much stupidity in the gym. 

The unfortunate truth is that many gym members continue to subscribe to this philosophy and will refuse to train properly, claiming that “it’s not enough.” They believe that strength training should feel like aerobic training to “burn fat.” They believe that their hamstrings aren’t getting enough work on deadlifts. They are worried about their rear delt development and can’t conceive of the idea that presses, deadlifts, and chin-ups train and develop the posterior deltoids. They also cannot understand that incrementally loading a lat pulldown machine will lead to a chin-up because it doesn’t feel as shitty as wasting a bunch of time doing negatives or bouncing around on rubber bands. It’s an uphill battle for the strength coach, and one we will likely lose until some celebrity finds the Blue Book, couples it with his steroid use, and swears it is the “New Way.” Until then, let’s microload our linear progression of anti-silly-bullshit articles. 

First, neither aerobic exercise nor strength training expends a substantial number of calories unless you are in the gym for several hours. Fat loss requires a negative energy balance and that is mostly achieved through caloric restriction. Balancing macronutrients skews the weight loss towards fat and away from muscle. Physical activity and training will burn enough to cover a meal or snack but not typically not enough for chronic fat loss (e.g. losing 20+ lb). Unless you are a professional athlete, are a genetic outlier, or have altered your physiology through steroid use, dietary manipulations will have the greatest impact on the loss of stored body fat. 

Second, we lift weights to get strong and build muscle mass. Strength training is not aerobic training, and should not be treated as such.  It is an intermittent activity, not a continuous activity. We rest because It’s Heavy, and we need to complete another two sets of five repetitions with it. We aren’t “lazy powerlifters” – we are strong, useful human beings. We aren’t “heavy on our feet,” because we aren’t sitting on the couch the rest of the day – we are staying active outside of the gym. Strength developed under the bar is meant to serve you in life. If your life consists of sitting all day, coming home, then sitting some more, then you have a physical activity problem, not a “too strong” problem. 

Third, displaying visible muscles is a function of both fat loss and muscle gain, the latter being truer in areas that contain minimal fat stores. I cannot tell you how many times a fat guy hired me, got stronger without any weight loss, and got visible traps, mid-back muscles, and delts. This is because his traps, lats, and deltoids grew and spread out the marginal amount of body fat stored in those regions, resulting in an increase in muscle visibility. If you are lacking hamstring and posterior deltoid development, then you aren’t lifting heavy enough. Yes, a sub-100 deadlift for a female and inability to do chin-ups is Not Heavy Enough.  A 95 lb press for a male is Not Heavy Enough. Pulling 200 lb, performing 10 chin-ups in a row, and pressing 135 lb or more will fix this, whereas performing 10 variations of rear-delt flyes with 5 lb dumbbells and leg curls for sets of 11 will not. 

Now this may not “feel like enough” to the over-exerciser who needs to feel like a heart attack is imminent. This would be a good time to ask, “Enough for what?” If it is not enough to satisfy an exercise addiction, then a mental health consultation is in order. If you think it is “not enough” to build or preserve muscle while losing body fat on a caloric deficit, then I hope this has sufficiently explained why you are wrong. Now, get under the bar, do your fives, learn the movement, and load enough weight to see some meaningful changes. If you need to lose some body fat, then clean up your diet, lose the necessary body fat, and keep getting stronger. Getting stronger is much better fate than suffering an avoidable fall that results in a hip or knee replacement in your 60s. 

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