Is Resistance Training Really Better Than Aerobic Training For Fat Loss?

Dr. Deepak Hilwale presents a research based article which delves deeper into the question whether RT is a better option than AET for targeting fat loss. Many functional facts about Resistance Training and its effects are discussed in the article in comparison with Aerobic Training which you might not have known till now. Read on to know more.

In recent years, in comparison to conventional aerobic endurance training (AET), resistance training (RT) is being touted as a superior method of weight loss. And most fitness experts seem to agree wholeheartedly. But, is this really true?

Delve a bit deeper into science and you realise that evidence for RT being a better weight-loss tool, is not all that strong and AET (and in some individuals, high-intensity, interval training – HIIT) may be better! This is especially true in women.

Interesting to note here that while RT has its own set of metabolic benefits, AET may still be better than RT at reducing risks of metabolic disorders too.

Why Do They Tell You Resistance Training Causes Fat Loss?

It is a common (and, somewhat dogmatic) belief amongst exercisers, exercise-fitness professionals and clinicians that resistance or strength training (ST), in addition to improving your lean body mass (LBM), is the best way to burn more calories and therefore, lose weight as well.

And, this is how – they’ll tell you – it (apparently) works:

  • RT or ST has the potential to increase your LBM, also called fat-free mass (FFM), including muscle mass – there is enough evidence to support this 1–4
  • Skeletal muscle is the most metabolically active tissue in the body – well, no! Its more complicated than that (see below)
  • Increase in muscle mass translates into more calories burned throughout the day, even when resting – evidence equivocal (see below)
  • Therefore, more muscle you carry, more is your resting metabolic rate (RMR) and more calories you burn throughout the day (increase in total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)
  • Increase in TDEE (with or without a nutritional calorific deficit) leads to weight loss

Rebuttal Of The Above Dogmatic Assumptions

While all of the above sound good in theory, everything isn’t as cut and dry as they make it out to be.

  1. Skeletal muscle IS NOT the most metabolically active of the tissues in the body – your heart and the kidneys are! These organs have the highest metabolic rates, 2x those of the liver and the brain and a whopping 35x that of the skeletal muscle! 5Having said that though, of all the tissues, skeletal muscle may indeed contribute significantly towards energy expended during the day. This is so because skeletal muscle wins on account of sheer mass – it weighs much more than all these other organs mentioned.
  2. Increased muscle mass does not bump up your metabolism to the point that it will burn additional calories which will translate into weight loss:
  • Previous studies examining the effects of RT on RMR have reported mixed results – both in men and women 2,3,6–15
  • Only older men (and not older women or younger men and women) show an elevated RMR in response to RT; most studies support this finding 2,3,6,10,11,13
  • In younger men & women and in older women, there seems to be a consistent lack of change in RMR in response to RT; the association between RT and rise in RMR all but disappears 7,8,12,14,15
  • Recent studies have shown mixed results too – with some showing an increase in RMR in response to RT; 16,17others, a no change. 18,19 Interestingly, one study showed a fall in RMR in response to ‘dieting’, which could not be stopped by resistance training 20
  • A rare study that compared the effects of RT on RMR across various age groups, reported no changes in RMR in either young or older individuals! 12
  • A study by Lemmer et al. 17reported some curious findings: RMR in response to RT is more affected by gender than age; men are more likely to benefit from RT than women, when younger and older men were pooled together, a significant increase in RMR with RT was shown, and younger and older women showed no effect on RMR in response to RT

In a nutshell, RT does not alter energy expenditure significantly outside of the exercise session and especially in younger men or in women across all age groups.

Why Then, The Dogmatic Belief?

Misinterpretation of current ACSM and other guidelines 21–23 have led to the dogmatic belief amongst exercise-fitness professionals that RT has conclusively been proven to reduce body weight. In reality, a closer look at existing literature suggests that the evidence for RT as an effective tool for weight-loss remains equivocal, at best.24–29

  • The ACSM guidelines on ‘strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain in adults’ states that, ‘research evidence does not support RT as effective for weight loss’ and points out that ‘the effects of RT for prevention of weight gain (after initial weight loss) are largely unknown’ 21
  • While few studies have observed some reduction in body fat with RT,30–32others have found no effect on body fat % even when the intervention was continued for 12-52 weeks 33–35
  • Interestingly, one study found a gender-based differential effect of RT on body fat – reduction in body fat was observed in the group containing younger and older men pooled together but not in women. 17This finding is not dissimilar to the findings from other studies that RT enhances RMR only in older men 7,8,12,14,15

There is, however, a need to mention here that although RT does not seem to contribute significantly to calorie expenditure outside of the exercise session or fat loss, it is associated with numerous health benefits – increased lean mass, improved work capacity and decreased chronic disease risk factors (sarcopenia), to name a few. 36,37

High-intensity, Interval Training

HIIT, they will tell you, will not only burn calories during the workout but also increase your calorie expenditure through the rest of the day (through increased excess post-exercise oxygen consumption – EPOC). And, that will translate into weight loss.

EPOC or oxygen debt, as it used to be called previously, is the mechanism by which the body makes up for the oxygen deficit created during an exercise session by increasing oxygen consumption well after cessation of exercise – breathlessness you experience for a few minutes after you’ve climbed to the top of the stairs, is an example.

In reality, increase in EPOC after an HIIT session is modest (only 6-15% of your total energy expenditure). EPOC alone, therefore, may be insignificant for causing weight / fat loss. 38

Having said that, a study published in 2002 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology utilising circuit type of resistance training with relatively heavy weights and short rest periods generated EPOC which increased resting metabolic rate by 21% and 19% for 24 and 48 hours post- workout. As the authors suggest, if these numbers are applied to a typical 180-pound individual, it would amount to 773 calories expended over 2 days after cessation of the exercise session! 39 So, prima facie, it appears that HIIT does have benefits.

However, there are practical problems when implementing HIIT workout programs in overweight-obese / untrained individuals. It is difficult to achieve the high-intensity for a long enough duration required to elicit a high enough EPOC to be of any consequence for increased calorie expenditure and therefore induce fat / weight loss. Furthermore, prescription of such complex methods of training – needing highly skilled movements – is likely to reduce exercise enjoyment and long-term adherence in novice and out-of-shape individuals.In seasoned exercisers, however, HIIT and EPOC may be an effective way to bump up calorie burning and improve body composition.

Aerobic Endurance Training

Also known as ‘low-intensity, steady state’ (LISS) cardio or ‘long, slow distance’ (LSD) training, aerobic endurance training (AET) may just be the best tool out there, for most people when it comes to losing fat.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, conducted a study comparing RT with AET in young women 40. The results will come as a surprise (for most)! Apparently, not only is AET better than RT at reducing body fat % but it also wins hands down when it comes to:

  • Improving cardiorespiratory fitness
  • Improving insulin sensitivity
  • Reducing visceral adipose tissue (fat surrounding organs)
  • Reducing abdominal fat, and
  • Reducing inter-muscular (within muscle) fat

 

Other studies have also supported the idea that AET may be better at reducing visceral and abdominal fat, not to mention, the overall body fat%.

  • A study published in Dec, 2012 reported that while AET and combined AET/RT exercise programs caused more weight loss than RT alone, AET/RT and RT resulted in increased lean mass. However, although requiring a double time commitment over AET alone,a combined AET/RT exercise program did not result in ‘significantly more weight loss over AET alone’ 41
  • Another study published in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism concluded that AET caused significant reductions in:
  • Whole body fat including subcutaneous abdominal fat, visceral adipose tissue (VAT – fat around the organs, responsible for metabolic disorders) and liver fat content
  • Plasma liver enzymes, esp. alanine aminotransferase (enzyme reflecting the amount of liver damage), and
  • HOMA (Homeostasis Model Assessment – a measure of the level of your steady state pancreatic beta cell function (%B) and insulin sensitivity (%S)

 

Resistance training, on the other hand, failed to significantly affect these variable 42

  • Owing to results like these, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that AET is recommended to be central to exercise programs for reducing body fat, especially VAT and its metabolic adverse effects – obesity and other metabolic disorders 43
  • Even in the absence of significant weight loss, AET may improve metabolic disease parameters, esp. in patients of type 2 diabetes 44

Women And Aerobic Endurance Training

Why do women prefer conventional AET?

As if the results of the studies mentioned above didn’t come as shocking enough for you, here’s something that is even more thought-provoking – something that might answer your question of why women tend to favour treadmills over free-weights!

It appears that AET is more effective in (overweight and obese, both young and older) women than in men 40. Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that women enjoy AET more than RT 45; the opposite seems to be true with young men – they seem to enjoy RT more.

My hunch is that women find AET more enjoyable because it is more effective for them! Not surprisingly then – call it nature or subconscious minds at work – there seems to be a very valid reason why you see more women heading to the treadmill rather than the ‘free-weights section’!

Resistance Or Aerobic Training And Metabolic Disease

Abdominal obesity is a prominent risk factor for metabolic disease (type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc.). 46 Results from the STRRIDE study suggest that AET was associated with significant reductions in VAT, a measure of abdominal obesity. 47,48 

The authors of the STRRIDE study are of the opinion that AET ‘resulted in significant decreases in visceral, subcutaneous, and total abdominal fat without changes in caloric intake’. 48 

Although in comparison to AET, it does not cause much difference in measures of fat tissue, RT does cause a significant reduction in CRP (C-reactive protein, a parameter, high levels of which, suggests a low-grade, chronic systemic inflammation with the potential to develop into cardiovascular disease and diabetes type II). 49Interesting to note here that an inverse association seems to exist between aerobic fitness and chronic systemic inflammation.50,51 A sedentary lifestyle increases inflammatory markers. 49

Conflicting data exists over the superiority of AET over RT for the reduction of metabolic disease risk parameters (HbA1c, blood lipids including triglycerides and LDL particle size). Having said that, regular and long-term, moderate intensity exercise seems to increase HDL and lower triglycerides, even in the absence of weight loss. 52

Although RT has benefits of its own, a combination of AET and RT exercise regimen – although more effective at reducing the risk of metabolic disease than RT alone – were not significantly different from AET alone 53. This effectively suggests that the RT component may be contributing precious little (if at all) to the disease prevention effect of an AET-RT exercise program. However, it should not be ruled out that AET and RT may both be working synergistically to reduce the risk of metabolic diseases.

A ‘NEAT’ Solution For Fat Loss

Of all the components of human daily energy expenditure (BMR, thermic energy of food, exercise-related activity thermogenesis (EAT) and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)), NEAT is the most modifiable parameter and is capable of significantly pushing up your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) than exercise sessions (!), even in intense exercisers 54.

Even very low-level physical activities like mastication (chewing) and fidgeting can increase energy expenditure by 20-40% above your resting metabolic rate!

NEAT includes energy expenditure of walking, talking, going for your job, sitting, toe-tapping, shopping, dancing, etc.

Comment

It is likely that AET (treadmill runs) may be more effective than RT – especially in overweight women – for reducing body fat and preventing metabolic diseases. Also,

  • RT seems to contribute very little (directly) towards fat loss
  • RT does not seem to contribute towards (metabolic) disease prevention or management as much as AET does
  • Combination of RT and AET does not seem to afford any more benefits over AET alone when weight loss or metabolic disease management is the prime goal

Conclusion

Looking at much of the evidence, the question that begs to be answered is: ‘what if we were all wrong about our weight-loss exercise strategies and indeed, about our obsession with the fat-burning abilities of resistance training? And, what if those women on treadmills were right all along?!

I reckon, it’s time we stopped ridiculing (or even downright laughing at) those men / women who hit the treadmill every single time they’re at the gym.

Take Home Message

  • Resistance trainingmay be contributing precious little towards calorie burning outside of exercise sessions and eventual weight loss!
  • HIITin overweight – obese and untrained individuals HIIT may not be ideal; in seasoned exercisers, may lead to significant calorie expenditure both in and outside of the exercise sessions
  • Aerobic Endurance trainingseems to be the best tool for total body weight and fat reduction – needs to a be an integral part of almost every weight-loss program
  • Aerobic Endurance training wins hands down for metabolic disease management
  • Women do not seem to respond as well to resistance training, aerobic endurance training and HIIT may be better options
  • NEATcan contribute significantly to total daily energy expenditure – staying active through the day can really bump your calorific expenditure (probably more so than RT or AET)

PS: much of the above applies to those interested more in fat loss and metabolic disease prevention. If muscle mass accruing or maintenance is of importance, such as in ‘strength-power athletes, RT becomes indispensable. Point to take away is that you need to pay attention to a calorie deficit nutrition plan and indulge in aerobic training more often than not. This article does not ask you to do away with resistance training. 

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About The Author

Dr. Deepak Hiwale

Dr. Deepak specialises in Sports & Exercise Medicine. He has previously worked in the UK (with top athletes, as well as reputed personalities from the entertainment industry.... Read More..

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