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Strength Training Helps Obese Teens Lose Four Times More Fat Than Aerboic Exercise Alone

About a month ago I was at a birthday party for a friend when I engaged in casual conversation with another guest. After we exchanged the standard introductory dialogue with what’s your name and what you do, the conversation shifted to some questions about fitness and weight loss for this woman’s overweight adolescent daughter.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem talking shop outside of work as I really do enjoy what I do, most of all being able to help others. I could tell this woman was sincerely frustrated with her daughter’s situation and wanted nothing more than to see her be happy.

The emotional stress that many obese teens face from insensitive jokes by their peers and the resulting blows to self-esteem makes my heart break.

So needless to say I really wanted to help by sharing any information that could assist this woman’s daughter in overcoming her weight problem. With a little questioning, I learned that her daughter had been doing up to an hour of aerobic exercise, five times per week.

She had lost a few pounds in the beginning but now reached a plateau and was struggling. When I suggested that her daughter do a combination of strength training AND cardio, this is what I heard…

“Oh no, I don’t want my daughter to get big, bulky muscles, I just want her to lose weight.”

Further evidence that this myth about weight training is still alive and well. Public perception continues to be that weight training is for building muscle and aerobic exercise is for losing weight. Research however has shown this to be a faulty believe system.

I went on to explain the rationale for this woman’s daughter to incorporate strength training and to make a long story short, the good news is I convinced her to follow my recommendations.

In this post, I want to share with you some of the research on this subject and make a case for strength training in obese adolescents. The same case can be made for obese adults as all the evidence continues to point to metabolic disturbances and the hormonal response to exercise being more important than mere caloric expenditure alone.

There’s no question that not all exercise is created equal. Granted all physical activity is beneficial for weight loss and even walking for 20-30 minutes a day is better than nothing. However, if we’re going to get into a discussion about what type of exercise is better for fat loss, aerobic exercise does not produce the most optimal results.

The reason?

Low- moderate intensity aerobic exercise causes very little changes in metabolic rate and produces negligible hormonal responses.

With all things being equal with diet, strength training will produce far greater fat loss results than aerobic exercise alone. I stress “all things being equal with diet,” as dietary changes will constitute 80% or more of the fat loss results anyways.

The individual’s diet will hold the most impact on weight loss, with ANY exercise merely complimenting it. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet at any age.

So what does the research say about strength training compared to aerobic exercise for weight loss?

There’s quite a bit of research confirming the benefits of short duration, high intensity, burst training for fat loss. I’m regularly posting these findings on my website as it only confirms what I’ve seen in real world application with personal training clients.

A recent 2011 study found that obese adolescents who participated in a 30-minute aerobic plus 30-minute strength-training workout three times per week lost nearly four times more fat than those who just did hour long aerobic training at a similar intensity.

There was about a 3 percent fat loss in the cardio-only group, and 11.5 percent fat loss in the cardio-and-strength group over 1 year.

Long-term effects of aerobic plus resistance training on the metabolic syndrome and adiponectinemia in obese adolescents.


Source: Department of Psychobiology, Post-Graduate Program of Nutrition, Funding Research to Psychopharmacology, Biosciences Department, Paulista Medicine School, Federal University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil.

That’s a significant improvement in percent body fat lost compared to aerobic exercise only group. What should also be noted is the amount of lean muscle composition that may have been lost in the aerobic exercise only group. While not cited directly in this research, evidence has clearly shown that aerobic exercise does not help maintain lean muscle tissue.

In fact, when integrated into a severe low-calorie diet, aerobic exercise can speed up the rate in which lean muscle tissue is compromised. This is an important consideration. While teens have a greater chance of maintaining lean muscle due to favorable hormonal balances, long-term weight loss is dependent on metabolically active lean muscle.

By conditioning obese adolescents that dieting and lots of cardio is the answer to their weight problems, we’re only setting them up for a life-long battle of trying to maintain a healthy body weight. Cardio alone is not the answer, and neither is combining it with low-calorie diets.

This method may work to some degree in the short-term, but over time losses in lean muscle tissue will eventually impact metabolic rate.

I concur that the best protocol for weight loss in obese adolescents is the combination of the following:

  • A supportive nutrition diet (eating several small meals per day from natural, whole foods).
  • Resistance training (2-3 times per week, ideally using burst principals for metabolic disturbances).
  • Cardiovascular training (3-5 times per week, combining a mix of low-moderate intensity aerobic exercise and higher intensity, shorter duration, interval training).

While this would be the best pure protocol I could give on fat loss for overweight teens (just so happens this is the same protocol for adults), I will simultaneously concur that ANY physical activity the individual teen enjoys to do will be the true optimal choice.

We need to take into consideration compliance with any fitness routine that’s started. Instead of pushing teens into any one type of exercise we should encourage them to experiment with different means of becoming fit and active.

While a properly combined resistance training and cardio fitness routine may have the greatest impact on body composition, there’s benefit of allowing the individual to ease into more structured programs by starting with any activity they enjoy.

All physical activity will provide benefits which can create positive momentum. As self-esteem improves and the uneasiness with exercise subsides, other types of fitness training can be introduced.

The last thing you’d want to do is drop off your overweight teen at the local gym every day and expect them to figure things out on their own. Look for things you can do as a family to become more fit and active. Look for ways in which they can exercise with friends or under the guidance of a mentor.

Most importantly lead by example. There’s no greater impact you can have as a parent than by setting healthy examples yourself. In a lot of ways children look up to their parents and will do as they do. Don’t overlook the power of your influence.

If you live in the Charleston, SC area and would like to learn more about a structured exercise and nutrition plan for your overweight son or daughter, I’m here to help. We have a wide variety of programs at Shaping Concepts and our sister company Charleston Group Fitness, all led by certified fitness professionals.

Together we can help find an exercise routine that would be the best fit for your teen and provide him/her with valuable motivation and encouragement. Having a mentor as a positive role model can be one of the best ways in helping to develop life-long habits with nutrition and exercise.

Anything I can ever do to help, even if it’s just with some questions, I’m happy to be of assistance.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts, a Charleston personal fitness training studio that specializes in weight loss and body transformation. See our success stories from numerous Lowcountry residents then sign up for a no-obligations consultation today.

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Category: Fitness Training.