AtA: Caloric Consumption and Weight Training

Posted July 9th, 2010 in Ask the Author by Clint

Quick question on calorie deficits as a result of weight training. I’m operating under the assumption that more work = more calories burned. Using bench press as an example, under a strength training workout, I’m doing 3 sets of 8 reps at 135 lbs with 2-3 minutes in between sets.

Under a bodybuilding workout I’m doing 4 sets of 12 reps at 90 lbs with 30 seconds in between sets.

Workout A is 3240 lbs moved over a longer period of time and Workout B is 4320 lbs moved over a shorter time period.

In this scenario, would workout B yield greater calorie deficits? Especially given workout A is a 2 day split vs. 4 day for workout B?

At face value the answer is moot, as the actual “calories” expended between the two is a wash, and a muddy one at that. However, once you start talking about the effects on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption it gets slightly more substantial, but still murky and largely dependent on individual traits and characteristics. As I mention in the book, there are numerous factors involved even beyond the volume/time equation, such as compound groups called into play, levels of neuromuscular activity, speed and explosiveness, range of motion, and even simple skeletal loading.

For example, you could create an absurd level of ‘volume’ by putting a substantial weight on the leg press or seated row and crush out hundreds of reps in a short span of time, but it would not produce near the levels of NMA or load that a well-performed set of squats would.

That said, the crux of the matter is intensity. When you talk about ‘calorie-burning’ (i.e. “waste” or inefficiency, which is a primary factor in keeping fat off the body), the higher purpose is intensity, which is why I put forth both HIIT and heavy resistance (in the 3-8 rep range) training that includes structural loading and compound movements for maximal “if we drop this, we may die” NMA levels. At high levels of intensity (especially in competitive or “play” states), the catecholamine dumps themselves are worth more toward a calorie deficit than anything that can be worked out on a spreadsheet.

Again, the focus I push is for maximum results with the minimum investment of time or complexity. If you’re looking for other perspectives you might try a more specialized program, since you mention a ‘body builder’ program which aims for a different set of goals.

One of the reasons, for example, that I solely focus on the big movements are studies like this one, that take a 31 minute circuit program of bench, power cleans, and squats, and demonstrate a higher metabolic level at 38 hours post-exercise, which is double the previously established max. That’s a higher rate of caloric consumption for the better part of two days after lifting. It makes the double-digit levels of calories-burned during actual exercise rather inconsequential.

Bodybuilding is a sport (or art, depending how you look at it) and they measure success by different metrics than almost anyone else, be they athlete or regular person. But if your question (specifically about calorie-expenditure) is rooted in loss of bodyfat, you’d likely better serve your goals by focusing on how hard you’re lifting rather than how much (and of course what you are eating). Hopefully that gets you closer to the answer you’re looking for.