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New Study Reveals Why This Popular Exercise Is So Good at Blasting Fat

Yet another reason to start lifting weights.
FACT CHECKED BY Jessie Van Amburg

There are plenty of reasons to start lifting weights more regularly. The cardiovascular, skeletal, and muscular benefits of strength training are well-documented. Now, fascinating new research recently published in The FACEB Journal has collected compelling evidence indicating weight training is essential for anyone looking to burn more fat.

In short, study authors' preliminary findings suggest that when we lift weights, our muscles release a specific type of genetic material into the bloodstream. That genetic material then seems to be offloaded to our fat cells to speed up the fat-burning process. Basically, the mere act of lifting weights may spur a biological process that immediately starts to metabolize fat cells.

"The process was just remarkable," John J. McCarthy, PhD, an author of the study, told the New York Times. The discovery is yet another reminder, he added, that "muscle mass is vitally important for metabolic health."

This certainly isn't the first research project to uncover the fat-burning benefits of weight training. Another study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism concluded that a mixture of resistance exercises and dieting helped decrease body fat while also preserving lean muscle mass. Another study released earlier this year in PLOS Medicine found that lifting weights for just one to two hours per week can reduce obesity risk considerably.

It makes scientific sense for weight training to promote fat loss. After all, the larger your muscles, the more calories they burn. However, that reality doesn't fully account for the more immediate fat-burning benefits observed in weightlifters. It takes time to build and maintain larger muscles, suggesting resistance exercises may also spark fat-burning processes on a cellular level that take effect much more quickly. That was the thought that drove the study authors to conduct their latest research.

So what does this research mean for someone who wants to get lean and burn fat? Here, we break down in detail what the study found—and how you can maximize your weight-lifting routine for even better fat-burning results. And don't miss: Life-Changing Fitness Tricks That Only Take 7 Minutes. 

Looking at weight lifting in mice


The research team behind the study simulated weight training in a group of mice. This was accomplished by "incapacitating" most of the rodents' leg muscles, leaving a single muscle to pick up the slack. Predictably, it didn't take long for that muscle in each of the mice to bulk up considerably.

Before that happened, the rodents' leg muscles had high amounts of miR-1, a type of genetic material that controls and slows muscle growth. After that one muscle had bulked up, however, muscular miR-1 levels dropped considerably. Where did all the miR-1 go? The bloodstream and nearby fat tissue. Check out: This Simple Morning Workout Melts Fat All Day Long, Say Experts.

The potential effect of lifting weight on fat cells

adding weight to a large dumbbell

Further experiments in the study revealed that the miR-1 traveled in vesicles (tiny sacs that transport material into and out of cells), which targeted fat tissue and cells upon being released into the bloodstream. These vesicles eventually deposited the miR-1 into said fat. Not long after mirR-1 arrived into fat cells, the cells started to break down. The transfer of miR-1 from muscle tissue to fat tissue seems to provide two benefits simultaneously: muscles can grow and strengthen following a bout of weight training, and the newly arrived miR-1 essentially instructs fat cells to destroy themselves. Read more: This Simple Walking Workout Is an Amazing Fat Burner, Says Top Trainer.

How this may apply to humans, too

Fitness girl doing dumbbells plank row exercise lifting dumbbell weights. Woman doing floor workout renegade row or commando alternating plank row at gym.

As a final component of the study, human subjects agreed to have blood and tissue samples extracted following a lower-body weight training workout. Just like the rodents, participants' muscles had low miR-1 levels while their bloodstreams had high numbers of miR-1 carrying vesicles. This suggests that a similar fat-burning mechanism may be at play in humans after weight-training exercises.

As mentioned earlier, these findings are preliminary. More extensive research is necessary with human subjects before we can determine any definitive takeaways. For example, just how much weight lifting do we need to reap these fat-burning rewards in humans? That said, this study represents a major step forward in our understanding of how weight lifting promotes fat loss.

How to maximize your weight training to get lean


If this study has you excited to hit the weight room, here are some ways to better optimize your routine.

For starters, be sure to lift weights before you do any cardio. That way, you'll have more energy weight lifting and a better shot at maximizing fat burning during cardio. "You'll build more muscle by lifting weights first since you have more muscle glycogen [aka carbohydrates] stored up to use as energy," Josh Schlottman, CPT, CSCS, previously told ETNT. "Add on at least 10 minutes but preferably up to 30 to 40 minutes of cardio after you lift weights to maximize your fat burning."

You should also prioritize exercises that work more than one muscle group to get the most benefits. Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of Lift to Get Lean, told Women's Health that barbell deadlifts are the "mack daddy of strength moves for fat loss. It literally involves every single muscle in the body for huge metabolic effects." (And here's a whole workout circuit you can try for more full-body moves.)

Finally, don't be afraid to push your limits (with reason). "By pushing your body out of its comfort zone, you are forcing it to respond and to change. Your body has to use energy to repair and recover. Make your body work for you, and don't be afraid to fail," Kelley Vargo, MPH, CSCS, wrote for the American Council on Exercise. So if you're lifting eight-pound weights without breaking a sweat, it's time to move up to slightly heavier weights. Looking for more fitness tips? You'll want to read The Secret Trick for Getting Fit Using Your Toothbrush.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more about John