7 Key Strategies on Exercising for Weight Loss
Any type of exercise is better than nothing.
You’ve probably tried enough different exercise programs to know that not everything has an equal shot at getting you to your goals.
There’s a reason for that.
For example, if someone wants to be the fastest distance runner in the world, the best strategies will be drastically different from the ones that are ideal for winning the World’s Strongest Man competition.
But what if you’re like most of our clients who don’t care about those sorts of things?
What if you’re not an athlete, you don’t even have the desire to be a particularly gifted “worker-outer,” and you just want to lose some weight so you can have more energy, be more healthy, and fit into some of your old clothes?
There’s a “best way” to do that, too.
In fact, there are 7 specific strategies I use with all of our clients that I recommend you follow.
That is, only if you want to lose weight in a way that’s healthy, sustainable, and highly effective… but also kind of convenient because, let’s face it, you just don’t have a lot of time.
The Big Picture
Weight loss is a highly personal thing. Most people have a lot of history with diet and exercise and it often wasn’t a positive experience. There are a lot of emotions that come with it.
And it’s no wonder.
When you work hard on a diet — like “skip the cinnamon butter rolls at the steak house” hard, or “eat a boring salad while the rest of the family has pizza” hard — and you still end up right back where you started…
When you go to a gym that has all these “science-y” reasons why you just have to keep your heart rate at a certain level and you’ll reach all your goals, but after weeks of trying you feel beat up and let down…
When there are a million different weight loss “gurus” who all want to convince you they’ve found the true secret to weight loss…
It’s natural to put your guard up and expect to be disappointed.
I’m not trying to fool you into thinking my way is the only right way. The strategies I’m about to share are simple guidelines that can be implemented with any number of different approaches.
They’re something to keep in mind so that, no matter how you go about exercising for weight loss exactly, you’ll be more equipped to recognize myths and scams that don’t work, because they won’t use any of the following strategies.
1. Strength Training
This is, by far, the single most important type of exercise you need to do if you want to lose weight.
Not spin classes.
In fact, not any type of cardio.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It all serves a purpose. But remember, we’re talking about what’s best for weight loss, and the simple answer to that is “strength training.”
It will help you manage your hunger. It will help you tone up (read “How to Exercise if You Want to Tone Up”) which, in turn, will speed up your metabolism. It also happens to burn more calories than a lot of other types of exercise.
There are many benefits to it, but the biggest reason to prioritize strength training with weight loss is that it’s a signal to your body that tells it to lose weight in the form of fat.
In other words, if you aren’t doing strength training, you can still lose weight, but your body will start to break down other more important bits from your bones, muscles, and organs. When that happens, it sets off a physiological response that pretty much guarantees you’ll gain back the weight later.
So we have to start with strength training.
2. Free Weights
One of the goals of working out to lose weight is getting the most bang for your buck.
You don’t want to do endless hours of exercise because, well… for one thing you just don’t want to (and neither do I). But another reason is because, in order to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit.
That means you’re taking in less energy (or fewer calories) than you’re putting out (or burning). Combine that with excessive exercise and your body is taking a beating that it literally isn’t getting enough nutrients to recover from.
Lucky for us, that means we need exercise that gets the job done efficiently.
With strength training, that starts with free weights.
That includes the obvious — dumbbells, kettlebells, etc. — but it also includes bodyweight exercises like squats and push-ups, and resistance bands and cable machines (to a certain extent).
The point is to not just hop on a machine with a fixed range of motion that stabilizes all the weight for you. Not that that’s “bad,” you just won’t get as much out of it as when you have to control the weights yourself.
There’s no hard rule, but for the most efficient workouts possible, I’d say it’s best if at least 75% of your workout is with free weights (good news for anyone who wants to exercise at home and doesn’t have a bunch of equipment).
3. Work the Big Muscles
Another way to get more calorie burn bang for your workout buck is to spend the majority of your time hitting large muscle groups.
There are 3 ways to do this:
Prioritize compound movements
Don’t neglect the lower body
Use single leg exercises
Prioritize compound movements means spend the bulk of your time doing exercises like squats and push-ups (that work big groups of muscles) rather than hamstring curls or bicep curls (that mainly work one specific muscle).
Not neglecting the lower body means doing about as many leg exercises at every workout as you do anything else. Even when my clients only have 20 minute workouts, about half that time is spent on the legs.
Using single leg exercises means doing more variations of exercises that work one leg at a time (e.g. lunges, split squats, etc.) rather than only “normal” leg exercises (e.g. squats, deadlifts, etc.).
As much as compound movements and leg exercises in general will get your metabolism going, those single leg exercises are even more key.
4. Full Body Workouts
A common mistake you’ll want to avoid when you first start strength training for weight loss is to have a “chest day,” a “back day,” and a “leg day” (just as one example).
Full body workouts are better.
If you think about it, this just follows the logic from the previous two strategies — namely that you don’t want excessive exercise, but you want to spend more time on the big muscles.
Doing a short full body workout 2-4 times per week (at the most) will let you hit every one of those big muscle groups multiple times each week. And yet you’ll have LESS chance of overdoing it because you aren’t spending a full day annihilating any single muscle.
Your body will be perfectly capable of recovering, even in a calorie deficit (assuming you’re also eating right and getting enough sleep).
If you hear nothing else, the other benefit of this is that you can say goodbye to “leg day.”
Yeah, you’ll still have to work your legs. I’ve made that clear. But you’ll also still be able to walk up a flight of stairs the next day without feeling like you’re going to die.
There are other benefits — like the fact that working your full body regularly is good for overall health and maintaining muscle tissue as you lose weight — but I’m pretty content with the idea of not having to take ibuprofen just to get through the day because my legs are so sore.
Getting more done in less time…
We’ve already established that’s an important aspect of exercising for weight loss. (Not to mention it’s just a more realistic strategy for the average person in general.)
Supersets are one of the best ways to do it.
The traditional method of strength training, and what you see most people do at the gym, is to perform one exercise at a time, “resting” (aka looking at their phone) awhile between sets until they’ve done it however many times their plan says, and then moving on to the next exercise.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, as long as you’re ok with spending an hour or more working out (or just not getting much done — and sometimes that’s ok, too).
There are a lot of different ways to do supersets, but the general idea is that you pick two exercises and do them back to back with little to no rest in between.
While you do one exercise, your muscles from the other exercise are resting, and vice versa.
You can get the same amount done in roughly half the time (so you have more time for all the other important things in your life).
You’re working a bit harder and keeping your heart rate up (which burns some extra calories AND gives you some cardio benefits).
Plus the overall stress on your body is still manageable because you still get similar recovery time on a muscle by muscle basis (and recovery is something to always consider, but even more so with weight loss).
6. Low Intensity Cardio
Remember at the beginning how I said cardio wasn’t the most important type of exercise for weight loss?
That’s still true.
But the fact is, some people just like to do cardio. If that’s you — as crazy as I think you might be 😜 — I want to address what that should look like for weight loss.
The popular myth surrounding cardio for the last 10 years or so is that high intensity cardio is best for weight loss. I plan to write an entire other blog on this, but for now, there are 2 main takeaways about the high intensity cardio myth:
It doesn’t burn more calories (overall) than low intensity cardio
It’s harder to recover from, which we know isn’t great during weight loss
With that in mind, it’s not “bad” to do high intensity cardio a couple times a week if you enjoy doing it to blow off steam. Just know that there isn’t any special, science-y, weight loss benefit to it.
In general, if you want to do cardio while losing weight, low intensity should be the priority because it can help promote recovery, and it will help you burn more (overall) calories, which can make losing weight a bit easier.
When I say low intensity, I’m talking about something that gets your heart rate up just a little bit. You should be able to easily maintain a conversation the entire time you do it.
Bottom line: cardio for weight loss is optional. Especially if you’re following my strength training strategies, since you’ll get some cardio out of that anyway — whether your heart rate goes up from lifting weights or running, your body doesn’t really care.
7. Extra Activity
The less active you are, the less calories you burn (it can become significantly less) and the less food you’ll be able to eat.
It will also lead to you feeling intense hunger, which may seem obvious, but the amount of hunger you’ll experience will be disproportionately higher than what you’d even expect, simply because of your inactivity.
It’s just not a healthy way to lose weight (oh, and it sucks).
My recommendation is, rather than attempting to work out more (like adding cardio just for the sake of burning calories), you replace any nonessential exercise with simple ways of being more active.
For our clients, we often have them keep track of their “extra activity” on certain days to make sure they get in a minimum of 20-30 minutes of doing something on top of their normal routine (hence the word “extra”) that gets their body moving.
This can include literally anything you feel like doing that keeps you off your butt. Which is nice because, for the average person, it’s far easier to get motivated to do something like walk the dog than it is to go to the gym again.
Another option you may prefer is just to make sure your step count stays at a consistent, manageable number (read “How to Use a Step Count to Lose Weight”).
No matter how you do it, it’s important to not think of it as just another workout. The more “exercise-y” it gets, the more likely it is that your body will compensate by burning less calories the rest of the day.
This is about keeping up a certain level of daily activity when you AREN’T exercising.
What’s Most Important
Remember that these strategies aren’t hard rules. They’re principles I follow with almost all of our clients, but even so, everyone’s workouts don’t look exactly the same.
There are a lot of similarities from program to program based on these strategies, and even certain foundational exercises that stay the same (see “The 10 Exercises I Use Most”).
But there still isn’t one right way to do it.
That said, if your workout program doesn’t consider these strategies to some extent, best case scenario, you’re making weight loss unnecessarily difficult on yourself. Worst case scenario, any weight loss will be temporary, and you’ll rebound back to your original weight or higher.
If any of these tips came as a surprise to you, or if you just found them helpful, you’ll also like our free guide, “5 Myths You Have to Stop Believing to Lose Weight.”