Weight Lifting for Weight Loss: How Effective Is It?

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Reviewed by Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Written by Vanessa Gibbs

Published 05/07/2024

What comes to mind when you think about exercising to lose weight? Probably cardio, right? But weight lifting for weight loss shouldn’t be overlooked.

Weight lifting isn’t just great for building muscle. It can help you lose fat, and combining weight lifting with cardio might be more effective for weight loss than doing just one type of exercise alone.

Below, we’ll cover the benefits of strength training for weight loss, a sample plan to follow, and tips for beginners if you’re just starting out.

Weight lifting sometimes gets a bad rap. But it’s not just for gym bros and bodybuilders.

Strength training is important for anyone trying to look after their health, and it can be especially useful when aiming to lose weight.

Here’s how weight lifting for weight loss works:

  • Weight lifting helps you lose fat and build muscle. That’s right, strength training for fat loss is a thing. Lifting weights can help you lose fat mass — including belly fat — and maintain or build muscle mass, which can be lost during weight loss. This can improve your body composition (muscle, bone, and body fat percentages in your body).

  • Weight lifting boosts your metabolism. Resistance training — which could involve lifting weights or using your body weight to do exercises — can increase your resting metabolic rate (RMR). This is how many calories your body burns at rest. It doesn’t take long to have this effect — after just 10 weeks of resistance training, your RMR could increase by seven percent.

  • Weight lifting combined with cardio may be more effective for weight loss. You don’t have to be exclusive when it comes to exercise. A 2012 study found that doing both resistance and cardio exercises for 12 weeks led to more weight loss and fat loss than cardio or resistance training alone.

  • Weight lifting combined with nutritious foods can help you lose fat and build muscle. Yes, it’s possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. Research shows that combining resistance training with dietary changes — like eating more protein — can make this more likely.

Beyond weight loss, resistance training may improve insulin sensitivity and support bone development. It can also help reduce blood pressure, low-density lipoprotein (“bad cholesterol”), and lower back pain. Not bad, right?

Just getting started? It can be useful to follow a weight lifting plan — or at least use one for inspiration.

In general, it’s good to aim for at least two strength training sessions a week with exercises that target all major muscle groups. If you’re new to strength training, start slowly and build up to more or longer strength workouts each week.

Here’s a sample strength training for weight loss plan.

Monday

“Push day” to target your chest, triceps, and shoulders.

Do some dynamic stretches — stretches with movement — to warm up.

Then do three to six sets with six to 12 repetitions (aka reps) of each of the following upper-body exercises:

  • Chest press

  • Incline press

  • Pec fly

  • Overheard press

  • Delt fly

  • Triceps extension

  • Triceps dip

For example, you might do six repetitions of a chest press, take a short break, and then do six more until you complete this three times. You could also run through all the moves, with six reps each, then repeat the whole thing up to two more times.

Tuesday

“Pull day” to target your upper back, lats, and biceps.

Dynamic stretches to warm up.

Do three to six sets of six to 12 reps for each of the following exercises:

  • Pull-up

  • Chin-up

  • Rear delt fly

  • Lat pull-down

  • Seated row

  • Hammer curl

  • Bicep curl

Start with six reps each and work your way up to 12 reps.

Wednesday

Lower-body day to target your legs, lower back, and abs.

Dynamic stretches to warm up.

Do three to six sets of six to 12 reps for each of the following exercises:

  • Leg extension

  • Leg flexion

  • Leg press

  • Calf raise

  • Squat

  • Deadlift

  • Lower back extension

  • Sit-up

  • Abdominal crunch

Again, you might start with just six reps of each move and work your way up to 12 over the course of several weeks.

Thursday

Rest day. Consider doing some active recovery like walking or gentle stretching.

Going Forward

Repeat this four-day exercise routine every week for six weeks. Every two to four rotations, increase the weight you’re lifting in your weight training exercises by five to 10 percent.

FYI, weight lifting for weight loss in females looks the same as it would for males.

“There are no significant differences in workout plans between men and women,” says Dr. Mike Bohl, licensed physician, certified personal trainer, and medical advisor at Hims & Hers. “Men and women may just have different goals, and — therefore — they may want to focus on different types of workouts, such as toning different parts of the body.”

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Weight loss treatment that puts you first

Weight lifting can be intimidating if you’ve never tried it before, especially if you’re walking into a brand-new part of the gym. But strength training is for everyone, and it’s okay to start where you’re at.

Here’s what to keep in mind when weight lifting for weight loss:

  • Build up gradually. You don’t need to be lifting heavy weights straight away. Start by using your body weight or light weights, and slowly increase the weight you lift and how many strength training sessions you do each week.

  • Use what you have. Dumbbells and kettlebells? Use ‘em. Resistance bands? They work too. Gym membership? Try out the resistance machines. None of the above? Bodyweight exercises — like push-ups and lunges – also count as strength training. You don’t need to join a gym or invest in at-home equipment now, but it might be useful as you get stronger and want to start lifting heavier weights.

  • Don’t forget about rest and recovery. Rest days are just as much a part of weight lifting as the weights themselves. Rest gives your body the chance to recover and adapt. As well as full days off, aim for at least seven hours of sleep a night to maximize recovery and get the energy you need to stick to your weight lifting plan.

  • Adjust the number of reps and sets you do depending on your goals. Fewer reps and steps while lifting heavier weights is best for building muscle strength. More reps and sets while lifting lighter dumbbells is best for building muscle endurance.

  • Consider speaking to a personal trainer. An expert can assess your form to make sure you’re doing each exercise safely and effectively. They can also recommend a tailor-made weight lifting plan for your body and goals.

Remember: Cardio Matters Too

As you incorporate weight training into your routine, don’t forget about cardio. Cardio involves anything that gets your heart rate up, like running, cycling, swimming, and even brisk walking.

Aerobic exercise, aka steady cardio, is best for reducing your body weight and body mass index (BMI). On the other hand, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) — which alternates between heart-pumping moves and short rest periods — is considered best for improving body composition in those with overweight or obesity. HIIT can also help you lose fat mass.

Aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio a week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio.

You don’t have to do this much physical activity in one go — spread it out throughout the week and work your way up to these numbers. It might look like 15 minutes to an hour Monday through Friday, depending on the intensity.

Weight training for weight loss is all well and good, but it’s not the only way to lose weight. In fact, it’s just one part of the much bigger puzzle.

Non-Exercise Movement

Alongside lifting weights, think about increasing the amount of general movement you get outside of a structured training program.

This could include:

  • Taking more steps each day

  • Taking the stairs

  • Standing during phone calls

  • Playing fetch with your dog

  • Doing yard work and physical chores

Every little bit counts.

Nutrition

Choosing nutritious foods can support weight loss and fuel your weight lifting sessions. Though there’s no single best diet for weight loss, making protein your new BFF might help.

High protein intake and weight lifting can help you build muscle, and protein can make you feel fuller.

Read our guide to protein for weight loss to learn more.

Hydration and Sleep

Remember to drink plenty of water and get enough sleep. These simple lifestyle habits can help you lose weight, perform your best in your workouts, and feel your best while doing them.

You’ll also feel better during all the other hours you’re not working out.

Weight Loss Medication

Finally, weight loss medication can be useful for some people trying to lose weight. Options like Ozempic and metformin can help you stick to a nutritious eating plan.

This type of prescription medication can also help those struggling with stress eating.

Weight lifting is a great form of exercise to incorporate into your routine. It can be an effective way to lose weight, build muscle, and boost overall health — talk about getting good bang for your buck.

Here are our top takeaways about weight lifting to lose weight:

  • Ease into weight training to lose weight. Start with a low weight (like three-pound dumbbells) and slowly work your way up. New to this type of workout? Consider following a pre-made plan or getting personalized advice from a personal trainer or healthcare professional.

  • Don’t neglect cardio and general movement. Try to get a mix of both cardio and weight training into your week, and do more day-to-day non-exercise movement day to day, like taking the stairs or going for a morning walk.

  • Nutritious foods, water, and sleep can all help. Reach for whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. Drinking more water and getting enough sleep will also boost your weight loss efforts and your performance when weight lifting.

It’s not for everyone, but weight loss medication might help you achieve your goals.

If it’s something you’re considering, take our free assessment to find out which weight loss treatments could work for you.

11 Sources

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  4. Kim JY. (2021). Optimal Diet Strategies for Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance.
  5. Kolnes KJ, et al. (2021). Effect of Exercise Training on Fat Loss-Energetic Perspectives and the Role of Improved Adipose Tissue Function and Body Fat Distribution.
  6. MacKenzie-Shalders K, et al. (2020). The effect of exercise interventions on resting metabolic rate: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
  7. Nunes EA, et al. (2022). Systematic review and meta-analysis of protein intake to support muscle mass and function in healthy adults.
  8. Sundell J. (2011). Resistance Training Is an Effective Tool against Metabolic and Frailty Syndromes.
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
  10. Wang H, et al. (2024). Comparative efficacy of exercise training modes on systemic metabolic health in adults with overweight and obesity: a network meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.
  11. Westcott WL (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health.
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