Why you shouldn't endurance run for weight loss

If you’re looking for the most effective weight loss diet, each nutritionist you talk to may have a different answer. 

Some folks lose weight by hopping on a low carb high fat diet. Others take the exact opposite approach. 

Regardless of food choice, energy expenditure (how many kilocalories/Calories you burn) depends heavily on the body composition with which you’re starting. 

Not all tissue is made the same. Unfortunately, adipose (fat tissue) is relatively innate. Very few kilocalories are burned by a pound of fat in your body. Muscle tissue, on the other hand, is equivalent to a factory operating 24/7. Whether you’re lounging on a couch or climbing a mountain, muscles burn through energy (and fat). Meanwhile, fat tissue simply hangs on for the ride, only proving its worth when active cells need more energy. 

If you’re embarking on a weight loss journey, the food you eat matters heavily. With that said, I challenge you to place extra attention on your training style too. 

In order to maximize your resting energy expenditure (and burn through more fat), increasing muscle mass should be among your chief concerns. 

The highlight reel of weight loss commercials is the long slow distance running model. Fad training programs always seem to include 5 miles of “walk-jogging” for breakfast. 

Unfortunately, aerobic endurance training is the enemy of increasing fat-burning muscle mass. 

No doubt, moving your body is great. If you create a false dichotomy and say it’s running or nothing, definitely run. If you’re looking for the fastest path to lean and powerful, there’s another option for you:

Resistance training. 

In other words, applying an external load to your body and forcing your muscles to pick it up, put it down, and/or throw it around. 

It’s not always easy to know where to start, which is why running seems to be the first choice for a lot of people. 

I’m going to give you a foundational training program to kickstart your journey. Before I do, I want to give you the basic information that supports anaerobic resistance training over aerobic endurance training from a weight loss and long-term health perspective. 

If you’re going to buy in, it helps to know that your program isn’t unfounded. 

There are a few factors that you should pay attention to as you begin your journey. Too frequently, they are an afterthought. 

First, bone mineral density and peak bone mass are predictors of fragility later in life. At some point, you will reach peak bone mass. Maybe you already have. Typically, peak bone mass occurs as individuals reach young adulthood (25-35ish). The rate at which you lose bone mineral density depends on what you eat, how you eat, and what loads/stressors are applied to your bones. Aerobic endurance training like running or cycling does not place high enough force vectors through bones to support bone mineralization (the building of bones). 

Minimum essential strain (MES) is a term that describes the minimum threshold that must be reached in order to stimulate new bone growth. Resistance training and progressive overload are the two variables to consider during training in order to promote long term bone health. Structural exercises (exercises that put force vectors through the spine and hips) like squats and deadlifts are some of the most efficient stimulators of bone mineralization available. Progressive overload is the process of increasing the stress on your body by increasing frequency, load, or volume. 

For example, if you begin your resistance training journey by squatting 155 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps two days a week, there are a few options for progression: 

  1. Increase weight to 165 for 5x5
  2. Increase squat volume at 155 for 7x5
  3. Add an additional squat day (i.e. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) 

Second, using large muscle groups stimulates larger muscle gains and overall adaptations. Aerobic endurance training applies very little stress to these large muscle groups. Subsequently, the adaptive stimulus is small, muscle-degrading cortisol is increased, and barely enough testosterone is produced to offset the ensuing muscle loss. Running certainly burns calories, but it also creates a weak foundation. 

Resistance training, on the other hand, when properly performed, recruits these large motor units almost immediately. Frequently, these muscles fall into the type II fast-twitch (type IIa or type IIx) category. When you use sufficient weight to recruit all of the available muscle fibers, some damage occurs. While it may sound like the opposite goal of training for health, that muscle damage enables the essential muscle healing and hypertrophy that produces the muscle gain we desire. Once we build muscle mass, we will inevitably burn more calories at rest. When we subject those muscles to greater work demands, we only burn more calories. 

Finally, cardiovascular adaptations don’t have to be sacrificed when you choose resistance training over long slow distance running. While throwing on the running shoes and hitting the sidewalks is easy to start, there’s very limited benefit outside of cardiovascular adaptations.

In this case, high intensity interval training (HIIT) provides the opportunity to reap the rewards of resistance training and cardiovascular training. While the muscular adaptations won’t be as large as pure anaerobic resistance training characterized by high weight and low-to-moderate reps (3-8) and sufficient rest, they will definitely surpass long runs or long rides on a bike. As a bonus, HIIT is one of the most time-efficient training modalities available. In exercise science studies, HIIT even provides a better aerobic endurance stimulus than long slow distance running. As an example, researchers have shown that a greater total distance and work stimulus can be achieved by running at a max pace for 40-20 or 20-20 work-rest ratios than running at a max pace for maximum total time. 

From a resting energy expenditure perspective, HIIT also enables hypertrophy of type I endurance muscle fibers where running does not. While these fibers are more metabolically efficient (fewer calories burned at rest) than type II fast-twitch fibers, they still burn more calories than fat or non-existent muscle mass. 

Whether you’re new to training or feel like you have a decent grasp of core exercises, covering resistance training basics can help you produce more muscle, have stronger bones, burn more calories at rest, and build a long-lasting healthy lifestyle. 

Use the following as a rough outline. If you’re someone that has dumbbells but not a barbell and plates, these exercises can be tailored to your situation (although ensure you have enough weight). 

Beginner (New to weight room or >2 month hiatus from lifting weights)

  • 2-3 resistance training days per week for 3-5 weeks; progress to intermediate
    • Sample split: (include warm-up every day)
      • Monday: 
        • Back squat 5 sets of 5 reps (5x5); emphasize form first
          • With good form, load should be challenging on 5th rep
          • Do not go to failure
          • Maintain a big chest pointed up and out 
          • Toes pointed straight or slightly outward
          • When bent, knees should point slightly out
        • 3x6 each arm, single arm dumbbell row
        • 2x5 pull-ups, weighted or band-assisted as necessary
        • 2x8 EZ bar/barbell/dumbbell/cable curls
        • Stretch
      • Tuesday: 
        • Active recovery; 20-30 min walk 
      • Wednesday: 
        • Dumbbell (DB) bench press 5x5; 
          • Slowly lower weight to chest at nipple height, emphasize fast up
          • Weight should be sufficiently challenging with spotter available
        • 3x6 each, single-leg stability ball hamstring curl; 
        • 2x5 single leg romanian deadlift (RDL)
        • 2x8 EZ bar/barbell/dumbbell/cable triceps
        • Stretch
      • Thursday:
        • Active recovery; 20-30 minute walk 
      • Friday:
        • Front squat 5x5 with form emphasis
          • Film yourself and compare to link
          • Emphasize elbows pointed high
          • Toes forward or slightly outward
          • Keep knees pointed slightly outward 
        • 3x4 each leg DB walking lunge 
        • 3x6 single arm dumbbell row 
        • 3x6 lat pull-down or pull-ups (weighted or assisted for proper strain)
        • 2x8 curls of choice 
      • Saturday: dynamic warm-up
        • 8x50 yards 90% effort sprints; walk back as rest 
      • Sunday: Active recovery; 20-30 minute walk 

Intermediate (in the weight room, but don’t have resistance training mastered)

  • 3-5 resistance training days per week for 5-7 weeks 
    • Sample split: (include dynamic warm-up every day)
      • Monday:
      • Tuesday:
        • Barbell bench press 6x6; 85% 1RM 
          • Ideally spotter or Slingshot available; 
          • If not, use DB bench at 110% BW
        • DB incline bench press 4x5; 80% BW
        • EZ bar skull crushers 3x8; 65% BW
        • Cable tricep push-downs 3xMax reps at 70% BW
        • Stretch 10 min
      • Wednesday: 
        • Dynamic warm-up
        • 10 sets of 12 second max-effort sprints; 1:6-1:8 work:rest ratios (72-96 seconds rest)
      • Thursday: 
      • Friday: 
        • Barbell rows 8x5 70-100% BW
        • Wide-grip or Max-advantage grip (MAG) lat pull-downs 4x6 
          • 100-110% BW
        • Single-arm DB rows from bench; 
          • 4x6 80-100% BW
        • Seated cable rows w/ close-grip; 
          • 4x8 100+% BW
        • DB “run the racks” curls 
          • Heaviest dumbbell curl with good form; max reps
          • Immediately re-rack and pick up next lowest DB; max reps
          • Repeat until all subsequent dumbbells have been lifted for maximum reps 
        • Stretch 10 minutes 
      • Saturday:
        • Active recovery; 20-30 minute walk
      • Sunday:
        • Active recovery; 20-30 minute walk