Discover how to maximize fat and calories burned weightlifting plus tips for a well-rounded workout routine.
With limitless ways to burn calories nowadays from increasingly popular Peloton workouts to cult-frenzy CrossFit clubs, it can be difficult to understand which types of exercise will best support your fitness goals. However, if your goal is to lose weight and burn calories, you may want to consider lifting weights.
Mistakenly written off in the past as an activity reserved for bulk-seeking bodybuilders, weightlifting is now gaining mainstream popularity.
Weight lifting is associated with plenty of health benefits besides its traditional purpose of building muscle—one of which is the ability to burn calories during and after your exercise sessions.
To sift out weightlifting from its calorie-burning contemporaries, this article uncovers how weightlifting can help you burn excess energy and fat; it also compares weightlifting with other popular methods for burning fat, such as cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercises.
Weightlifting is a type of exercise performed by repeatedly lifting heavy objects, such as barbells, to strengthen your muscles. Weightlifting can also be called strength training, weight training, or resistance training.
Weightlifting uses resistance (dumbbells, resistance bands, kettlebells, weight machines, etc.) to contract the muscles to build strength and size of skeletal muscles as well as increase their anaerobic endurance. Anaerobic exercise breaks down glucose in the body without using oxygen.
Though traditionally assumed to only offer muscle-building potential, there are plenty of reasons to incorporate weightlifting into your workout routine. Research shows that weightlifting:
Depending on your fitness goals, certain types of exercise may be right for you, while others may be less fitting for your specific aspirations.
Overall, the number of calories that you burn from weightlifting (or another exercise) depends on a variety of factors, including your weight, gender, fitness level, and the duration and effort of your weight lifting.
Duration and intensity matter when you lift weights to lose fat. An exercise regimen consisting of weightlifting may vary in intensity, duration, and targeted muscle groups.
The amount of calories that you can burn by lifting weights primarily depends on two factors: what you weigh, and how long you lift. According to the American Council on Exercise’s (ACE) physical activity calculator, 30 minutes of intense weight training by a 150-pound person burns 204 calories<sup>4</sup>. Thirty minutes of “normal” or moderate-intensity weight training by a 150-pound person burns 102 calories.
*Source: ACE’s physical activity calculator. Parameters include the listed duration for a 100-pound person lifting at moderate intensity on the low end of the range and for a 300-pound person lifting at an intense effort on the high end of the range.
The following lists give you a general comparative view of the number of calories burned doing various types of cardio (aerobic exercise) according to the ACE activity online calculator. These estimates are based on a 150-pound adult. The number of calories that you burn performing any of these exercises will vary based upon your exact weight, age, and intensity level.
Running (6 miles per hour, or a 10-minute mile):
Walking (3.5 mph):
Swimming (laps, vigorously):
Cycling (12–13 mph):
Remember: although you may burn more calories performing a cardiovascular exercise than you would in the same time frame weightlifting, you may burn more calories at rest after lifting weights.
While being careful not to oversimplify the process of calorie expenditure, cardiovascular exercise and weight lifting are two different forms of physical exercise that tend to burn calories in different ways. Cardiovascular exercise uses the aerobic system, while weight lifting uses the anaerobic system.
In general, cardiovascular exercises tend to burn more calories per session (within any allotted time frame) than resistance training.
However, one study on healthy adults indicates that nine months of consistent weight lifting significantly increases overall metabolic rate<sup>7</sup>, allowing you to burn more calories while at rest—not just when you’re actively exercising.
Another study conducted on sedentary women found that resistance exercise had an elevating effect on the basal metabolic rate<sup>8</sup> (BMR), or amount of calories burned while at rest.
As you build more muscle through weight lifting and resistance training, your metabolism makes adaptations to accommodate your increasing lean muscle mass. That said, you may notice that your appetite increases as you get stronger<sup>9</sup> (add more fat-free mass). This is normal, as it takes more calories to build muscle.
If you want to lose weight, things can get more tricky. Technically, losing weight includes all body weight—water, fat mass, and fat-free mass. Eating in a caloric deficit can make you lose muscle mass in addition to fat mass; one scientific paper notes that there may be an active drive exerted by fat-free mass to increase energy intake to preserve your muscle.
Interestingly, the American College of Sports Medicine’s stance on physical activity recommendations for weight loss states that resistance training does not enhance weight loss<sup>10</sup> but may increase fat-free mass and is associated with reductions in health risks.
Dr. William Dixon, an emergency physician, explains. “Resistance training reduces skeletal muscle work efficiency<sup>11</sup>, which may sound bad except when you are talking about calories burned at rest—then you want your body to be as inefficient as possible,” he says.
“Compare resistance training to cardio, which burns calories during the activity, but makes you overall more efficient [over time] and reduces long-term calorie burning,” Dr. Dixon notes.
The takeaway: Create a balanced exercise routine that includes both cardio and weight lifting to burn calories during activity and at rest, and improve your body composition (more muscle, less fat). One randomized controlled trial showed that aerobic (cardio) training is optimal for reducing fat and overall body mass<sup>12</sup>, but that resistance training is needed for increasing lean mass.
Include protein in your meals and snacks (20–30 grams at one time, a few times a day) to build and preserve your lean muscle mass.
You don’t have to choose between burning calories, losing fat, and building muscle. However, it can be tricky to lift weights for the purpose of gaining muscle while also trying to shed fat (we feel you). These tips for burning fat while weightlifting can help:
How do I calculate calories burned lifting weights?
You can calculate the calories you burn by lifting weights through a variety of online calorie burning tools, calculators, and resources, including (but not limited to):
Yes, it is certainly possible to burn 500 calories by lifting weights (and sometimes more). Depending on your weight and the intensity at which you’re lifting weights, it may be easier or more difficult for you to burn 500 calories by lifting weights.
You can expect to burn anywhere from 100–600 calories during one 45-minute weight lifting session. However, this range may vary based on your weight and the intensity of your exercise.
It is possible to burn 1,000 calories a day by lifting weights or performing cardiovascular exercises. However, burning 1,000 calories a day is not always possible or healthy.
If you are someone who would like to burn 1,000 calories a day through physical exercise, a combination of cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercises should suffice. However, make sure that you re-energize with healthy nutrition, work up to this goal over time to prevent injury and burnout, and allow yourself rest days.
It seems logical that lifting heavy weights builds more muscle, and more muscle burns more calories while at rest.
One small study examined the effects of eight reps of lifting heavy weights and 15 reps of light weight lifting in gender-specific groups. Total energy expenditure and rate of calories burned per minute of weight lifting<sup>16</sup> were not significantly different between the heavy and light weights for either men or women. But, relative energy expenditure for both the heavy and light intensities was higher in females compared to males.
Personal trainer and Fitness Institute of Australia certified instructor Alex Fergus recommends lifting heavy weights that you can complete two to 10 reps with good form before muscle failure if you want to burn fat. Heavy lifting in this manner empties muscles of its glycogen stores without the need for insulin to be released—this improves your sensitivity to insulin receptors in your muscles and helps you burn through your stored energy.
Some research suggests that lifting weights may better in the long term for losing fat, losing weight, gaining muscle, and changing overall body mass. Others, however, tend to argue that comparing lifting weights to cardiovascular exercise is a futile effort; both types of exercise, and the utilization of both the aerobic and anaerobic systems, are beneficial to your overall health and can, together, complement a weight loss regimen.