Alice Fields lived by cardio for years—but she absolutely hated it. “I was getting up before sunrise and was running 5Ks every morning. It was torture. I wasn’t something I enjoyed at all,” Fields told People. Weight loss was a goal for the Melbourne, Australia native, and she thought cardio—paired with a super restrictive diet—was the key to shedding pounds. But 18 months ago, that all changed when the 24-year-old was introduced to powerlifting. Fields enlisted a coach to help her learn the proper powerlifting technique, and she also started a new diet focused on balancing rather than restricting her protein, fat, and carbohydrate intake. Not only did she like the sport more than her dreaded cardio, but the workout combined with her new diet regimen also helped her start to lose weight for the first time in five years. She told People she’s lost about 37 pounds in the past 18 months, and she feels better than ever.
“I fell in love with the sport instantly,” Fields said. “I started noticing changes with my body within about a month. Not only had my strength increased dramatically, but my whole body composition changed. My bum was perkier than ever and my clothes were getting loser.”
First, it’s important to note that weight loss isn’t a goal for everyone, like it was for Fields. For anyone who has a history of disordered eating, even if you’re in recovery, you should speak with a doctor before you pursue any weight-loss goal, including starting a new exercise routine. And even if you don’t have a history of disordered eating, be sure to set realistic expectations and make sure you’re pursuing weight loss in a healthy way. Also important to remember: Exercise is only part of the equation, and weight loss is a different experience for every person. To lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit (AKA burn more calories than you consume in a day), and that requires not just working out, but also being aware of what you’re eating, the quality of your calories, and your portion sizes. And you need to take care of your other bodily needs, too, like getting regular sleep and managing your stress.
Fields pursued weight loss in a healthy way, and powerlifting was one component that helped her reach her goal. She never thought that weight lifting could help with weight loss—and that’s a misconception many people have. Yes, cardio workouts can get the heart working and get the body burning calories during a sweat sesh. But experts say that strength training—whether it’s powerlifting, bodyweight moves, or good ol’ fashioned dumbbells—can help you develop lean muscle, and the more muscle you have the more calories your body will burn when it’s at rest.
“Muscle mass is a more metabolically expensive tissue,” Michaela Devries-Aboud, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at McMaster University, previously told SELF. “The metabolic demand of a pound of muscle is greater than it is for a pound of fat, so just sitting around, the amount of energy needed to maintain a pound of muscle per day is greater than that of a pound of fat. The more muscle you have the more calories you burn throughout the day.”
And that’s a realization Fields came to through her powerlifting, too. “I definitely thought doing only weights would just make me heavier, but I quickly realized, the more muscle I had, the faster my body burnt fat,” she told People. “Not just that, but having more muscle gives you that ‘toned look’ a lot of women want.”
But experts suggest you don’t completely drop a cardio routine. It’s best to combine both cardio and strength workouts if you’re trying to lose weight. Both will help build up your caloric deficit, and they’ll feed off each other to help you perform better when you’re working out, too. “For example, having strong glutes for running helps you go faster for longer, which burns more calories,” Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder of TS Fitness, previously told SELF. “And doing exercises to strengthen your core can help you maintain form for biking, which can also help you burn more calories.”