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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Resistance Isn't Futile

Many women (and even some men) that I know have figured out how to lose weight by eating healthy. They might be using Weight Watchers, or a program like Jenny Craig, or maybe they're just being successful counting calories. But once they lose the weight, then the really difficult part starts: How do they keep it from coming back?

Well, first, let's look at how things change during weight loss. Using a general formula (the Harris-Benedict formula), we can estimate that if a 30 year-old woman is 5'6" tall, exercises 3 times per week, and starts off weighing 200 pounds, she needs to eat about 2150 calories per day to maintain her weight and 1650 calories per day to lose weight. Once she hits her goal weight of 135 pounds, she now needs to eat about 2175 calories per day to maintain her new weight.

Okay, that's a general formula. But let's consider two scenarios:

In the first scenario, our friend started off with 46% body fat. She lost weight and reduced her body fat percentage through dieting and cardio, but is still "skinny fat," meaning that she's slim but has a high percentage of body fat - say 30%. Well, if we consider lean body mass (using the Katch McArdle formula) instead of just total weight, our calculations change. After making the adjustment, she should only be eating 2000 calories per day to maintain her weight. If she's using the more general calculation above, she'll be eating 175 calories a day too much. That leaves her gaining more than a pound per month!

In the second scenario, our friend again started off with 46% body fat. But this time, she lost weight and significantly reduced her body fat percentage using a combination of dieting and exercise - both resistance training and cardio. So now she's slim AND she's maintained some of her muscle mass so her body fat percentage is just 20%. When we consider her lean body mass, she can eat 2200 calories per day to maintain her weight. So she can enjoy an extra 200 calories per day, compared to the first scenario, without watching that hard lost weight creep back on. Isn't that the kind of advantage you'd like to enjoy?

So how can you apply this knowledge for yourself? If you're one of the (many) women who loves your cardio, aerobics classes, and the like, but runs FAR away from the weight room, it's time to take a second look. It's important to maintain your muscle mass while you lose weight so that it won't be as easy for the weight to come back when you stop dieting. Resistance training, also called weight training, is an essential part of a successful weight loss plan.

And resistance training doesn't have to use weights. The important point is to stress and challenge your muscles, so that they respond by growing. You can do this with bodyweight exercises OR with weights, as long as you keep your workouts challenging. In fact, you can get a complete bodyweight resistance training workout for free by signing up for my email list (on the right).

To get the biggest benefit from a resistance training workout, you should focus on large movements that work multiple muscle groups. That means you should not consider bicep curls and tricep kickbacks with 5 pound hand weights as your "resistance training" workout. Some of the best exercises are those that work your lower body. That includes squats, lunges, and deadlifts. All three of these exercises can be done both with weight and without, and each uses multiple muscles so you're working efficiently AND buring calories. Kettlebell swings are another great way to work the muscles in your lower body. For your upper body, focus on various types of push-ups, work on doing your first chin-up, and doing either inverted bodyweight rows, or bent-over dumbbell rows with weights. Want to work abs? Check out my popular article about how to get great abs.

If you are an exercise class junkie, never fear! You can get resistance training in a class setting. Many gyms now offer group weightlifting classes with an aerobics feel, but using barbells and weight plates to add resistance. There are also "boot camp" type classes that use bodyweight exercises to coach participants through resistance training workouts that can be done anywhere, without any equipment!

Still feel lost? Find a good personal trainer and ask them to design and help you learn a resistance training plan that you can do without having to use exercise machines, and will give you a good basic workout. Specifically mention the exercises I listed above, so they understand you want a serious workout and not 20 minutes of lifting tiny pink dumbbells over your head.

And feel free to ask me, too, if you need ideas on how to get over your fear of resistance training. Remember, resistance ISN'T futile!


  1. Hey Liz, it's amazing how many women still shy away from resistance training. We can probably blame part of this in the bodybuilding industry because they give a false impression that it's easy to get big, bulky muscles. You do a great job of explaining that it is a must and actually beneficial.

    Great post!

  2. Anna, thanks so much! I agree that some of the images from the bodybuilding industry have influences women's opinions. I hope that posts like this one and the "Who's afraid of a little muscle" post will help change those opinions!

  3. Liz do you know if TT has a beginner's routine that's better for people with knee pain? And/or lower back pain? My Phys Therapist tells me not to take up running again until we can address my "pelvic instability" which may be the cause of my lower back pain (and possibly knee pain). I guess I am wondering if there's a routine without a lot of lunges/squats (for now).

  4. Hey Liz,

    Great post! There are similar issues with some men. Not many of us want to look like a bodybuilder. Despite what you see in magazines. Kettlebells have allowed me to get very, very strong without bulk.

  5. Amy, there are some great bodyweight routines that I've seen people use that have concerns about injuries. You can get a 4-week program by signing up for my email list.

    But I will share that while I defer to your phys therapist, my research indicated that squats and lunges are actually good for people with knee problems, when done correctly.

    And Sandy, thanks for the comment. Good point about men! It's clear from watching your videos that strength doesn't need to come with bulk, even for men.

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