Tip: Aerobic Exercise is a Waste of Time

Women lost 2 pounds of fat for every pound of muscle they gained by exercising this way instead. Here's exactly what they did.

Women Going Nowhere

They're usually the first thing I see when I walk into a gym, any gym: A line of women, usually a little soft, often a little plump, always a little sad, marching along furiously on a string of treadmills in the hopes of burning off some fat.

I desperately want to point out to them that what they're doing is the perfect metaphor for their attempts at fat loss because they're not... going... anywhere, distance wise or fat-loss wise, but I fear being pelted with Shape magazine water bottles.

What these women need to do instead of using the treadmill (or spinning, or rowing, etc.) is heed the results of a recent 16-week study of women in their 30's who used a modest weight training program, combined with a manageable diet, to lose 2 pounds of fat for every 1 pound of muscle they gained.

They couldn't have done any better if their bodies were made of clay and a master sculptor had helped fashion them into their feminine ideals.

The researchers, two of which were Brad Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon, sometime contributors to T Nation, sought out 40 women for a really well-designed study.

  • 10 women were put in the Dietary Intervention Only group.
  • 10 women were assigned to a Resistance Training Only group.
  • 10 women were placed in the Resistance Training Plus Diet group.
  • And 10 women served as controls.

Each of the women in the first three groups received daily macronutrient and calorie goals, based on DXA and RMR (resting metabolic rate) tests. They each ingested 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram (of fat-free mass). Twenty percent of the total calories came from fat and the rest from carbohydrate.

The women in the Resistance Training Only and the Resistance Training Plus Diet groups performed 2-3 workouts a week, using alternating workout complexes, for the duration of the study. A personal trainer made sure the workouts were done correctly.

Okay, if you're smart enough to figure out at least a fourth of the clues in one of those airline magazine crossword puzzles, you've already guessed the ballpark results of this study.

Yes, all groups (except the control) experienced some body fat loss, with the Resistance Training Only group showing the least and the Resistance Training Plus Diet showing the most.

The Diet Only group cut out only about 500 calories a day, while the Resistance Training Plus Diet group hit a daily calorie deficit of about 630 calories, largely owing to their additional physical activity.

However, as mentioned in the opening paragraphs, the Resistance Training Plus Diet group ended up adding more than a pound of muscle for every two pounds of fat loss. That's huge.

Another big finding was that dieting didn't affect the participant's resting metabolic rate at all. Most diet coaches fear that dieting leads to a reduced metabolic rate and, as such, negates the diet, but that didn't happen here. Of course, the diet only lasted 16 weeks, but still.

Female Weights

Chances are, if you're one of the legions of women who are trying to tread, spin, or Nordic Trac your fat away, please stop. At best, you're losing a little bit of fat and probably, over the long run, a lot more muscle.

If you were plum shaped before, you'll just end up a smaller plum after. If your butt looked like an old, collapsed sofa cushion before, it'll look like an old, collapsed throw pillow after.

Besides, aerobic exercise in general is a poor, ineffective way to lose body fat. The calorie expenditure, despite what legions of Jillian Michaels wannabes tell you, is just too little to make that much of a difference.

It's much more effective to diet, and it's much better still to combine diet with resistance exercise, i.e., weight lifting. The combination of the two modalities seems to almost defy physics – you gain weight, the right kind of weight (muscle), while simultaneously losing the right kind of weight (fat).

Here's the program the women in the study used, should you want to copy it:

Exercise Complex 1

  • Squat
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Swiss Ball Squat
  • Bench Press
  • Lat Pulldown
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Incline Dumbbell Flye
  • Seated Row
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise
  • Hyperextensions (for the lower back)

Exercise Complex 2

  • Deadlift
  • Leg Curl
  • Leg Extension
  • Incline Dumbbell Press
  • Close-Grip Pulldown
  • Arnold Press
  • Cable Crossover
  • Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
  • Face Pull
  • Hyperextensions

The women did the exercises in Complex 1 three times a week for weeks 1-3 of each month, and then trained just twice during the fourth week. After four weeks, they performed the exercises in Complex 2 for four weeks, using the same frequency as they did for Complex 1. They'd then pivot back to Complex 1 for the next 4-week period before reverting to Complex 2 again.

They did 4 sets of 10-12 reps on each exercise, increasing the weight as needed. Rest periods were 60-90 seconds in-between sets.

  1. Miller T et al. Resistance Training Combined With Diet Decreases Body Fat While Preserving Lean Mass Independent of Resting Metabolic Rate: A Randomized Trial. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018 Jan 1;28(1):46-54. PubMed.