You might not equate lifting weights with dropping pounds, but building strong, lean muscle is one of the best ways to rev your metabolism. It also helps ensure that while you burn fat and calories, you aren't also losing precious muscle. What's more, a strength workout can itself torch a hefty chunk of calories, especially with these simple strategies that help you make the most of your time:
Just because you need to rest your muscles between sets, doesn't mean you need to rest. Try using that time to do easy body weight movements like jumping rope or walking on the treadmill. The benefits extend even beyond extra calorie-burning. "Active recovery clears out lactic acid and gets more blood flowing through the muscles," says Lyle Shirley, a specialist trainer at West Loop Athletic Club. "This helps your body prepare for another set faster, so you'll have more energy for your next set of exercises."
Instead of isolation lifts and arm curls that target only biceps, for example, focus on groups of muscles. "The more muscle mass you involve the more calories you'll burn," says fitness researcher Anthony Caterisano, Ph.D., a professor of health sciences at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Pulley systems and cable machines in your gym's weight room are great tools for this. Leg presses, bench presses, back rows — these types of moves help you hit both large and small muscles together, Shirley says.
Take a step-down approach
Drop sets are another way to increase your burn, Shirley says. "Start with a heavy weight and when you start to fatigue, lower the amount of weight and do another set of reps," he says. "Keep lowering the load as you continue for as many reps as you can."
Try a circuit
Straight sets aren't only boring, they aren't the most efficient way to pump iron, according to Caterisano's research. "When we compared standard weight lifting (three sets of six exercises with 2-minute rests in between) and circuit training (six exercises three times with 30 second rests in between), we found that circuit trainers burned significantly more calories than those lifting straight sets," he says. "Circuit workouts multitask, combining both cardio and strength training to elevate your heart rate and your metabolism so you keep burning calories even after your workout is over."
Pack on pounds
Go heavy or go home! Caterisano's research also found that doing fewer reps with a heavier weight burned more calories than lifting lighter weights for more reps. His team had subjects do five sets of 10 reps with a heavier weight and five sets of 20 with a lighter weight so the overall poundage would be the same. What they found: Heavier weights and fewer reps ended up recruiting more muscle fibers, so the body needed to expend more energy repairing the muscle tissue and so burned more calories during the recovery period.
Find your balance
Alternate between pushing and pulling movements, as well as working opposing muscle groups (biceps and triceps, quads and hamstrings). "Creating balance lowers your risk for injury, improves form and prevents burnout, all of which allow you to work harder," Shirley says.
Refuel the smart way
Eating protein-packed foods after your workout helps build and preserve lean muscle mass, which keeps your metabolism humming. But your body also uses up more energy (read: calories) to digest protein, according to research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Aim for at least 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal.
Interested in more detailed training plans? Reach out to our Personal Training team!
—Kelly Rowe for Chicago Athletic Clubs
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