What Is The Best Form Of Training For Sustainable Fat Loss?

WORDS: Rick Brennan - Certified Personal Trainer, Coach & Sports Nutritionist PHOTOGRAPHY Julia Rekamie

Strength and resistance training is the best solution for many people.

One of the most highly debated questions over the past few decades and still is – what is the best form of training for fat loss? After 3 decades in the industry, I still find I get asked this very question weekly if not daily. So, I thought I would break down some of the science-based data while giving greater insight into what I have experienced throughout my career to dispel some of the many myths associated with this commonly asked question.

Most cardio enthusiasts believe that there is no question, as cardio wins this debate hands down. This is due to the calorie numbers burnt during exercise sessions and these days there are many tools that allow this tracking. However, I believe we need to take a deeper dive looking at the big picture of long-term sustainable fat loss for several reasons. While cardio no doubt can be an incredibly effective way to burn calories, strength training can also contribute to burning calories during activity. However, the real magic of strength training happens post-exercise.

Cardio exercises like running, cycling or swimming can burn more calories per session than strength training exercises, but building muscle through strength training has a more significant and sustainable impact on fat loss. Once muscles are stressed and muscle fibres torn, they need to repair and this recovery and rebuilding phase burns lots of calories.  This repair process requires energy, which means you will be burning more calories even after you have finished your workout. This process, known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), can lead to an increased calorie burn that can last for up to 48 hours after a strength training workout is completed.

Cardio exercise over the years has been popularised in the media as the most effective way to lose weight and get into our best shape. This has also led to a misconception that strength training is only for bodybuilders and athletes. In recent times, however, the tables have started to turn with more and more people turning to strength training to not only build muscle but facilitate body re-composition.

Why do I believe strength and resistance training to be the superior form of training for sustained fat loss?


Firstly, strength training helps to build and preserve muscle mass, which is important for fat loss and body re-composition. Muscle is the most metabolically active tissue in the body, meaning it requires a lot of energy (calories) to maintain and function. Even when you are resting (relaxing on the couch), your muscles are burning calories to keep your body functioning properly. By building more lean muscle you can help burn more calories throughout the day, even when you’re not actively exercising. Studies have shown lean muscle will increase your metabolic rate (BMR) which accounts for around 60% of calories burnt each day.

Building muscle becomes even more important as we age due to a process known as sarcopenia. Age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) for physically inactive people can be as high as 5% of lean muscle every decade from the age of 30 and this number rises each decade. From the moment we are born until the age of around 30 our muscles grow larger and become stronger then at around 30 years of age, sarcopenia starts to take effect. Sarcopenia may also occur in those that stay physically active which suggests there are other factors including dietary requirements, lowering of nerve cells, and lowering of hormone concentrations. Oddly enough building muscle has positive impacts on each of these factors. Strength training when consuming the required amount of protein in our diet is crucial to slowing down age-related sarcopenia.

Strength training will improve body composition, the proportion of lean mass to fat mass in the body. These exercises can help preserve muscle mass during weight loss by promoting muscle growth and repair.  However, in many cases, those that embark on high cardio activity may lose both body fat and muscle mass. This is due to the body breaking down muscle tissue for energy when we are in a caloric deficit, meaning we are burning more calories than we are consuming through our diet.  There is no doubt cardio exercise may lead to weight loss, but it may also lead to lean muscle loss which can have a negative effect on our metabolism. The loss of muscle mass can also lead to a decrease in overall strength and fitness. Strength training, on the other hand, can help to improve body composition by increasing muscle mass while decreasing body fat, leading to a leaner and more toned physique.

Strength training has numerous health benefits beyond fat loss and body re-composition. It can help to improve bone density, reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and improve mental health and well-being. It can help to prevent injuries and improve overall functional fitness, which can lead to a better quality of life, especially in later years.

Having been working in the fitness industry for the past three decades, I know one of the biggest frustrations for some people has been the dreaded weight on the scales and for that reason, those that purely focus on scale weight as a fat loss indicator will stop weight training.  In most cases, you will see an increase of weight on the scales from nutritional changes like more protein as this can lead to muscle development which of course shows on the scales.

One way I recommend to self-monitor body re-composition is to try on a piece of clothing that either fits you right now or you would like to wear in the future. As re-composition can impact the increase in scale weight, it can cause a lot of people to despair as they neglect to recognise the effects of lean muscle gains. The piece of clothing method can help us recognise our body shape changes and realise that the focus on the scales is not the end goal. I find focusing on scale weight to be detrimental to most people’s positive headspace and momentum moving forward.

I recommend incorporating both cardio and strength training along with a healthy diet, to provide the best results for fat loss, body re-composition, and overall health and fitness.