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 . 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 . 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 .
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 .
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   . 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!) . To maximize the burn (and save time), try exercises that work opposite muscle groups back-to-back (for instance: chest/back or quads/hamstrings) .
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   . 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 . 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 . (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  . 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!
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.
What are your favorite exercises to get in a great workout? Tell us in the comments below!
Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft