The No. 1 reason why most people join health clubs is to lose weight. Likewise, obesity is fast approaching the top spot (just behind tobacco use) in sheer numbers as a preventable disease in this country. According to the latest Surgeon General reports, approximately 300,000 Americans a year die from illnesses caused or exacerbated by obesity. The bill for obesity-related health care costs totals at a staggering $117 billion annually. Clearly the U.S. public is in dire need of some weight management education and health clubs are in the perfect position to help them reach their goals. Yet, even amongst the fitness community, you'll find disagreement about just what is the best way to pare off those pounds.

Diet and cardiovascular exercise are the standard prescription amongst health professionals to lose weight, but strength training is also becoming a heavy weight contender at many a club. But just how strong a role does strength training does play is arguable; research results have supported both sides of the argument.

Weighty Issues

On the one hand, proponents of strength training for weight loss stress the role resistance training has on raising a person's basal metabolic rate (BMR). According to recent study results (published in a journal by the American College of Sports Medicine), women who combine aerobics with weight training burn more calories (including after they've stopped exercising) than women who only do aerobics. The study's lead researcher, Carol Binzen, a clinical exercise physiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, found that women who performed 40 minutes of aerobics burned up to 50 calories post-workout, while women who did 40 minutes of aerobics combined with 40 minutes of weightlifting burned up to 155 calories post-workout. Concluded Binzen: muscle's choice fuel is fat, not carbohydrates.

Strength training “plays a far more important role than people realize,” agrees Wayne Westcott, the fitness research director for the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass, and co-author of two books on youth strength training.

“As we go through the aging process, in a very sedentary society… we lose 5 to 7 pounds of muscle every decade. Men on average lose 7 pounds per decade, women lose an average of 5,” Westcott continues. This is a reduction of 5 to 7 percent in resting metabolic rate (RMR). “If we don't cut down our calories or greatly increase our physical activity…. We start to get the creeping obesity.” This “creeping obesity” results in the average American adult gaining 15 to 17 pounds of fat every decade, he explains.

“When you replace three pounds of muscle — which is average after two months of weight training — your resting metabolic rate increases 7 percent. That reverses 14 years of the aging process right there,” Westcott says.

That being said, lean body mass (LBM) - which includes organs such as liver, heart, brain, and kidneysm - comprises about 95 percent of BMR, explains Dorene Robinson, the director of nutrition and health education for Peak Performance, Beyond Fitness Division in Bellevue, Wash. “But there's a vast difference between the resting metabolic rate of the different tissues which comprises LBM. Skeletal muscle itself is responsible for only 22 percent of RMR, because it's the least metabolic active component of LBM. In fact, resting skeletal muscle burns only three times the calories that adipose tissue does — 5.5 vs. 2 calories per pound.”

Robinson provides a concrete example of what this means in terms of your clients: “A 21.4 percent body fat, 154-pound guy would have to double his skeletal body muscle tissue (gain 61 pounds of it) to increase BMR by 20 percent. Obviously, this is not going to happen, so the increases people can expect in BMR… are not clinically significant…

“If you trade 10 pounds of fat for 10 pounds of muscle the net increase in BMR will only be 34 calories¾while a single Oreo is 50 calories!” she continues. “What we're really going for is total calories, and what burns the most calories is cardio.”

A Heavy Contender

But while some health professionals tout weight training more heavily than others, all would agree it's an essential part of weight management (in some degree), both psychologically and physically.

“If you look at the historical data, people who do both [cardio and strength training] do better than people who do one or another,” maintains Richard Wolff, owner and director of the HMR Program for Weight Management at Wolff Health & Fitness Center in Elgin, Ill. Instead of favoring one method over another, Wolff factors in cardio and resistance training, as well as diet, as all being separate (but equally important) pieces of the weight management equation.

“People lose sight of the impact of strength training,” says Mark Miller, the regional fitness and wellness director for Merritt Clubs, based in Baltimore. “It's usually the forgotten variable [in weight loss programs].” Miller believes strength training plays the most important role in weight management.

Besides his beliefs on strength training's role in increasing metabolism, Miller emphasizes working with weights in order to improve a client's resistance to injury. With cardio (though still important), he says, a client can easily sprain a knee and stop exercising, but muscle training builds up the body and helps to prevent future injury, thus improving retention and results. Miller's ideal prescription for weight loss includes two to three strength workouts a week combined with three to four cardiovascular workouts.

The research on the subject seems to indicate a happy medium will give you the benefits of both training styles. According to a study published in the journal Medicine, Science Sports and Exercise, cardio exercises typically burn more calories during the actual workout, but resistance exercises causes the body to burn more calories for up to two hours after the workout (energy expenditure for aerobic exercises increased for less than an hour afterward, the scientists reported). It should be noted, however, that not everyone agrees with these figures. Says Robinson, “You can expect to burn about 15 calories in PEOC (Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption) for every 100 calories burned while exercising — so PEOC will be higher for aerobic activities than for weight training.”

But both cardio and strength training are necessary for your clients, no matter which belief system you subscribe to. By only utilizing strength-only or cardio-only training in weight-loss programs, clients lose out on valuable benefits that each can give. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition conducted fat loss research using three control groups (diet-only, cardio-only, and strength-only). After eight weeks, the mean amount of weight lost, 9 kg., was approximately the same for all three groups. However, the strength-training group lost “significantly” less fat-free mass (FFM) than the aerobic- and diet-only groups, according to the study's researchers. The strength-training group did show significant increases in anthropometrically measured flexed arm muscle mass and grip strength. Mean RMR declined for all groups as well, while peak oxygen consumption increased the most for the aerobic group, the report states.

Psychologically, however, strength training offers results that can't be measured quantitatively. “Let me be perfectly clear on this,” says Robinson. “I am totally pro strength training… You can't tone and shape a body without strength training.” And for women, especially, strength training helps to build self-esteem and confidence, she says. As they feel stronger with their workouts, they feel more motivated to keep working out.

In addition, many people who would normally balk at cardio workouts find it easier to keep coming to the gym to do weight training (once they try it). The goal, after all, is to get the client to stick with an exercise program — any exercise program. Explains Brad Schoenfeld, owner of the private Personal Training Center for Women and president of Global Fitness Services in Scarsdale, N.Y., as well as author of the best-seller women's body-sculpting book Look Great Naked: “One of the nice things is [strength training] is not as grueling,” he says. “There's a temporary discomfort whereas with cardio it's ongoing.”

For those concerned that weight training won't keep the heart rate up like cardio, do a little of both. Christine “CC” Cunningham, the owner of performENHANCE, an Evanston, Ill.-based sport and adventure athlete training company, recommends mixing up 40 minutes of cardio with 20 minutes of strength in one workout. “If your heart rate is elevated than you're burning calories,” she explains. “You still burn calories depending on how you set up the weight-training program.” To get maximum calorie burning, Cunningham has clients do cardio training in between strength workouts so that the rest period after sets is eliminated. Additionally, most experts recommend focusing weight training on the larger muscle groups for maximum results.

“If you work the large muscle groups they work the most energy and have the most potential for muscle replacement,” explains Westcott.

The Fear Factor

Still, all this is easier said than done. You know what will work best for your client, but getting your client to do what is best for her is an entirely different matter. For some, the idea of strength training can be quite intimidating, especially for the obese, as well as some women and older clients.

In many cases, the club can help alleviate anxiety and embarrassment by taking steps to make sure the facility features both a welcoming atmosphere and knowledgeable staff. According to Miller, clubs that feature a lot of young, hard bodies in tight spandex will alienate many obese clients. You may want to consider dress codes if you want to attract the deconditioned. More importantly, though, is to “have a diversified staff to cater to all different populations,” he says. A 22-year-old 250-pound bodybuilder may intimidate a 65-year-old grandmother, whereas a more middle-aged female trainer would not.

You'll also want your staff to help educate your clients on the use of all equipment in the club. People usually fear what they don't know, and a knowledgeable consultation from your personal trainers can go a long way in alleviating these fears. “If we just get people inside the door we're home free,” says Wolff. “We literally go through three or four personal training sessions with every new member before we ever let them work out on the equipment themselves.”

And make sure that you understand your clients' psychological needs and wants. “When you're dealing with someone who's overweight, equipment selection is very important,” stresses Miller. “Don't put them in equipment that they have to squeeze into.” Or don't have an obese person lie on his stomach for certain exercises, which puts him in an awkward and uncomfortable position. Make sure you also get a health history screening and check with the client's doctor for guidelines and restrictions.

For those who are especially intimidated by the weight room, many clubs try and have separate rooms for weight loss clients or women-only weight rooms. Once the client starts to see results, however, they will gain confidence in themselves and may integrate themselves into the facility. “And generally, I find that as they start to lose weight then they want to be in the weight room. It's like, ‘Hey, look at me!’” says Cunningham.

Weighing Off

Alternatives to bells, plates and selectorized equipment

Here at Club Industry we've been doing a little heavy thinking: What are some options for clients that either can't (because of injuries) or won't (too intimidated) work with freeweights and selectorized equipment? A strength-training workout need not include the usual suspects — dumbbells, barbells, and machines — in order to meet the client's goals.

“There are some very creative solutions if you're willing to do it,” says Brad Schoenfeld, author of the best-seller women's fitness book Look Great Naked, president of Global Fitness Services in Scarsdale, N.Y., and owner of the private Personal Training Center for Women.

Some of these creative solutions/tools include:

  • Resistance bands
  • Tubing
  • Isometric exercises
  • Body weight exercises
  • Exercise, Swiss, and medicine balls
  • Manual resistance
  • The only drawbacks with some of these methods is, depending on the client or the trainer, the exercises become too easy or too hard. For example, a client who is particularly weak may not have the strength to do body weight exercises while a client who is very strong may find these exercises too easy, explains Christine “CC” Cunningham, the owner of performENHANCE, an Evanston, Ill.-based sport and adventure athlete training company. And, if you pair a small trainer with a bigger client, manual resistance exercises won't offer the proper challenge, she says.

    For new exercisers who are timid around machines and dumbbells, you may want to start them off with some of these alternatives, and, as they become more comfortable with their body, graduate them on to the weight room. And, be sure and mix up strength workouts with weights with these exercises for added fun and variety.

    Weigh Off

    What's your opinion on strength training for weightloss? Tell us all about it! Drop us a line at: Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462. E-mail: lshelley@primediabusiness.com. Fax: (610) 238-0992.