How many calories does weight lifting burn?Nov 25, 2019
How many calories does weight lifting burn?
Energy balance is the key to losing weight. It’s impossible to lose weight without generating a calorie deficit, and while some focus should be on the “energy in” side of the equation, the “energy out” side presents an opportunity to make dieting a little easier.
Total daily energy expenditure has a few different components: basal metabolic rate (the bare minimum energy required to keep you alive), the energy required to digest and absorb food, and physical activity.
The energy cost of physical activity is further divided into planned exercise and incidental energy costs associated with posture, walking and daily tasks. The latter is by far the most variable between individuals, but it’s also mostly varied by external factors like occupation. You can read more about it here.
Planned exercise is then the easiest component to consciously target, and usually this falls into the broad buckets of cardio or lifting weights.
How many calories does lifting heavy weights burn?
Both can be challenging, but there is a false assumption that lifting weights burns a lot of calories. This probably comes about since a hard set doesn’t last very long but can feel really tough. Many people also cite the energy costs of recovery, and it’s logical to think that repairing damage and building new muscle has a fairly high energy cost.
Unfortunately, these assumptions aren’t correct. The level of effort and fatigue don't necessarily equate to calories burnt, and it’s often overlooked that most of the time spent during a weights session is spent resting and not actively contracting muscles.
You might be sceptical, but there’s research to prove it. Lytle et al (2019) measured energy expenditure in both men and women during weight training sessions. They did fairly high-volume workouts, too: 7 different exercises, 2-3 sets for 8-12 reps at 70% of their max. These were hard sets that took them close to failure.
The researchers found that the volume of work was the major determinant of how much energy is burned, but even for the experimental workout protocol this didn’t result in much of a calorie burn: none of the subjects burned much more than 200 Calories.
Men burned roughly twice the number of Calories as women due to greater lean mass. This means more muscled individuals will benefit from a greater calorie burn from training, but that isn’t exclusive to weight training. It would occur with any form of exercise.
This matches the results of other studies looking at the calorie burn of lifting weights:
The first study mentioned derived a formula from their data. Depending on the person, lifting weights burns somewhere between 1.7-3.1 Calories per minute.
Lifting weights for 45 minutes would burn on average 108 Calories and lifting for an hour would average 144 Calories. At most, the average male could expect around 186 Calories burned for an hour of weight training.
To put this into context, slow jogging burns 3 to 4 times this amount per minute. Maintaining a quick pace could burn 5 to 8 times as many calories as lifting weights.
Does this make cardio superior for weight loss? If your primary goal with training is to burn calories in the most efficient way possible, then steady-state aerobic training is probably your best bet. Higher intensity cardio and lifting weights is fatiguing and this means rest must be taken in between sets, which happens to be pretty bad at burning calories. Running at a jog means constantly spending energy without pause.
Circuit training and calories burned
I should also note that you can set up a session with weights that functions similarly to traditional aerobic exercise. Most people don’t do this in practice, and usually weight-training circuits are still quite high intensity and not dissimilar to typical bodybuilding training.
Calories Burned After Training
Some people point to the energy cost of recovery after the session as the “gotcha!”. This is called EPOC (excess post-oxygen consumption) and it accounts for the energy cost of returning your system back to homeostasis after any type of training.
This systematic review of EPOC after resistance training reported that energy expenditure after training ranged from just 4 Calories to 114 Calories.
The aforementioned study by Lytle et al measured EPOC cost at just 7 Calories. It’s not a particularly significant amount and is easily outshone by the greater energy cost of an aerobic session of similar duration.
But exercise isn’t just about burning calories. It’s a stimulus that provides health benefits which differ depending on the modality. Cardio causes specific adaptations that are different to lifting weights, but both have tangible benefits to health and longevity.
It’s best to focus on training to achieve these benefits rather than for the energy cost. While burning calories can be a nice addition that supports a fat loss diet, non-exercise activity and how much you eat can easily compensate for the calories burned in the gym.
Focusing on improving performance also decouples exercise from a potentially unhealthy mindset around appearance and calories. Training purely for the calorie burn can become unsatisfying. It’s easy to slip into a mindset of always doing just a little more, whereas improvements in performance can be fulfilling and inspiring while still offering a calorie burn and physique progress.
The take-home points are these:
- Lifting weights contributes to daily energy expenditure, but it’s much less than most people realise.
- Aerobic cardio like jogging is probably the most efficient way to burn calories with planned exercise.
- Training shouldn’t be focused on energy expenditure for most people. Instead, the focus should be on improving physical performance.
Ideally, both lifting weights and doing cardio would be performed regularly, but personal preference has a strong say in adherence, as does the satisfaction of getting better at moving. Do what you enjoy and stick to it!
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