Can Weight Lifting Maximize the Afterburn Effect?

Lifting weights makes us feel the burn, for sure. But could weight training boost our afterburn potential, too?
Can Weight Lifting Maximize the Afterburn Effect?

Benching, squatting, curling, and other weight lifting moves are known to get the muscles burning, but what if those same moves could keep torching calories beyond the gym as well? Studies have shown intense cardiovascular work (like biking and running) can create a post-workout “afterburn” effect, accounting for up to 200 additional calories burned and an elevated metabolism lasting up to 14 hours after exercise A 45-Minute Vigorous Exercise Bout Increases Metabolic Rate for 14 Hours.  Knab, A.M., Shanely, R.A., Corbin, K., et al. Human Performance Laboratory, Kannapolis, NC. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2011 Feb 8 [Epub ahead of print].. Awesome for those zipping along on the treadmill, sure. But can hitting the weights prompt a similar effect even after the dumbbells are racked?

Burn Notice — Why It Matters

The concept of burning calories after intense exercise is known as “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption” (or EPOC for short). At the onset of vigorous cardiovascular exercise (read: killing it), the body accumulates an “oxygen debt,” forcing it to work overtime — even after leaving the gym — to repay that debt. Working overtime ramps up metabolism as the body tries to get back to an even playing ground. That means more calories burned while slugging a post-workout shake or kicking up those feet on the couch (yeaahhh).

And studies show hoisting heavy weights may also keep the metabolism going long after the barbell is dropped (err, gently placed back down). In one study, subjects tried two different approaches to weight training: traditional (one set after another of the same exercise), and superset (putting different exercises back to back). After hitting their 10-repetition max for six different exercises, researchers found both methods yielded an afterburn effect, jacking up metabolism beyond an hour post-workout The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults. Kelleher AR, Hackney KJ, Fairchild TJ, et al. Musculoskeletal and Human Performance Laboratories, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010 Apr;24(4):1043-51.. Another study looking at men performing five sets of leg press demonstrated that they were still burning calories for 40 minutes after re-racking the iron The effect of between-set rest intervals on the oxygen uptake during and after resistance exercise sessions performed with large- and small-muscle mass. Farinatti PT, Castinheiras Neto AG. Laboratory of Exercise Physiology, Physical Activity Sciences Graduate Program, Salgado de Oliveira University, Niterói, Brazil. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011 Nov;25(11):3181-90..

Hesitant to go heavy? Consider this: When comparing heavy lifting to lightening the load, research suggests that going the heavy route may just pay off. In fact, two sets of eight reps at 85 percent could mean increased metabolism levels for up to two hours post-workout, significantly larger calorie burns than lighter-lifting comrades Effects of resistance exercise bouts of different intensities but equal work on EPOC. Thornton MK, Potteiger JA. School of Nursing, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2002 Apr;34(4):715-22..

Heavy Stuff — The Answer/Debate

Keeping metabolism up will require more than just the random trip to the dumbbell rack, though. Research suggests certain lifting methods may fair better than others in the calorie-burning department The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults. Kelleher AR, Hackney KJ, Fairchild TJ, et al. Musculoskeletal and Human Performance Laboratories, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010 Apr;24(4):1043-51. The effect of between-set rest intervals on the oxygen uptake during and after resistance exercise sessions performed with large- and small-muscle mass. Farinatti PT, Castinheiras Neto AG. Laboratory of Exercise Physiology, Physical Activity Sciences Graduate Program, Salgado de Oliveira University, Niterói, Brazil. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011 Nov;25(11):3181-90. Effects of different strength training methods on postexercise energetic expenditure. Da Silva RL, Brentano MA, Kruel LF. Exercise Research Laboratory, Physical Education School, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010 Aug;24(8):2255-60.. In general, exercises targeting larger muscle groups like the quads and hamstrings will burn more calories post-workout than the more isolated alternatives (yes, even curls in the squat rack!) The effect of between-set rest intervals on the oxygen uptake during and after resistance exercise sessions performed with large- and small-muscle mass. Farinatti PT, Castinheiras Neto AG. Laboratory of Exercise Physiology, Physical Activity Sciences Graduate Program, Salgado de Oliveira University, Niterói, Brazil. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011 Nov;25(11):3181-90.. To maximize the burn (and save time), try exercises that work opposite muscle groups back-to-back (for instance: chest/back or quads/hamstrings) The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults. Kelleher AR, Hackney KJ, Fairchild TJ, et al. Musculoskeletal and Human Performance Laboratories, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010 Apr;24(4):1043-51..

Rest between sets could also factor into that afterburn effect — although the research is a little stickier. A few studies show that shorter breaks will lead to greater calorie burn, while others lobby for longer trips to the water fountain to get the most out of each exercise The effect of between-set rest intervals on the oxygen uptake during and after resistance exercise sessions performed with large- and small-muscle mass.Farinatti PT, Castinheiras Neto AG. Laboratory of Exercise Physiology, Physical Activity Sciences Graduate Program, Salgado de Oliveira University, Niterói, Brazil. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011 Nov;25(11):3181-90. Effects of different strength training methods on postexercise energetic expenditure. Da Silva RL, Brentano MA, Kruel LF. Exercise Research Laboratory, Physical Education School, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010 Aug;24(8):2255-60. Circuit weight training and its effects on excess postexercise oxygen consumption. Haltom RW, Kraemer RR, Sloan RA, et al. Southeastern Louisiana University, Department of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Hammond, LA. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 1999 Nov;31(11):1613-8.. One possible action plan: Keep rest periods long enough to maintain intensity levels during the actual sets (around 85 percent) and continue back up once mostly recovered Effects of resistance exercise bouts of different intensities but equal work on EPOC. Thornton MK, Potteiger JA. School of Nursing, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2002 Apr;34(4):715-22.. Any longer and the afterburn effect starts to decrease.

Keep in mind that fitness level may play a role as well. Trained subjects that have been participating in a lifting routine for at least four to six months will recover from workouts faster (thus burn less post-workout) than gym newbies Excess postexercise oxygen consumption and recovery rate in trained and untrained subjects. Short KR, Sedlock DA. Exercise Physiology Laboratory, Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Leisure Studies, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. Journal of Applied Physiology, 1997 Jul;83(1):153-9. . (When trying something new, be sure to put safety first of course, and enlist a spotter, too.)

Finally, remember that EPOC isn’t the cure-all for weight loss. In fact, the majority of calorie burn through working out occurs during the workout, not afterwards  Effect of exercise intensity and duration on postexercise metabolism. Gore CJ, Withers RT. Exercise Physiology Laboratory, School of Education, Flinders University of South Australia, Bedford Park. Journal of Applied Physiology, 1990 Jun;68(6):2362-8. Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. LaForgia J, Withers RT, Gore CJ. School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, University of South Australia, Adelaide, SA. Journal of Sports Science, 2006 Dec;24(12):1247-64.. Still, the afterburn effect can capitalize on the numerous benefits of a weight-training program, so if going big is the goal (we’re talking calorie burn not necessarily muscle size), it can’t hurt to maximize the burn!

The Takeaway

High-intensity lifting sessions can create a larger calorie afterburn post-workout — just remember the majority of calories are burned during the workout rather than afterwards.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Dan Trink and Michael George.

What are your favorite exercises to get in a great workout? Tell us in the comments below!

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft

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