Trying to lose a few pounds, but the scale won't budge? Try adding more weight—at the gym. Weight training—using free weights or weight machines to build muscle—is a type of strength training that not only can help you slim down, but also can gain you a ton of other health benefits.
The best part: You don't have to spend all your time in the weight room. You can even do it at home, without fancy equipment. Here's why weight training may be what you need to get the scale moving in the right direction, plus a few tips and moves to get you started.
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It's really pretty simple: Weight training builds muscle, and muscle burns more calories than fat—up to three times more, according to some estimates.
"Muscles are fat-burning machines," says Wendy Batts, a regional master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. "So the more muscle you have, the more calories you're going to burn."
It doesn't end after you leave the gym either. Your body is still torching calories for the next 24 to 48 hours as it works to repair stressed muscle tissues. That's known as the afterburn effect, another name for excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). The more oxygen you use both during and after a workout, the greater the EPOC. And studies show strength training is one of the best ways to do it.
All of this is very good news if you're trying to lose weight.
Think about it. With weight training, you're revving up your calorie burn. You're boosting your metabolism—possibly by up to 5 percent, according to one nine-month study. And since you're likely already watching what you eat, your exercise routine is now working with your diet to help you shed those unwanted pounds.
"Obviously, burning more calories throughout your day, combined with a sensible diet, is going to maximize your weight loss," Batts says.
Not only that, but it helps keep the weight off, too. One study found that less than an hour and a half each week of resistance training helped keep dieters from gaining back weight, and especially harmful belly fat.
The benefits go beyond the bathroom scale, too.
"Weight training improves your posture, helps your endurance, builds strength and reduces your chance of injuries," Batts says. Research shows it can also boost heart health, improve cholesterol and increase bone density. It also slows the inevitable strength decline as we age, as it keeps our muscles from turning to mush—and being replaced with fat—as we get older.
Oh, and one thing weight training doesn't do: it won't make you bulk up.
"If you're training to be a body builder, you're going to be eating more. You're going to be training with heavy weights, doing fewer reps and isolating different muscles," Batts explains. "To lose weight, you're going to monitor your calorie intake and do more reps with lighter weights."
The end result: a leaner, stronger, more toned body—and who doesn't want that?
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"Where people get into trouble is when they start by lifting heavy," Batts says. "They go to the gym, pick up 10 pounds, and then try to lunge or squat or curl. And the next day they're so sore and miserable that they get discouraged and quit."
Instead, Batts suggests starting with your own body weight (see below for some suggested moves). Your goal is to do 12-15 repetitions—they should feel like a challenge, but you should still be able to keep your form. As you get stronger, gradually add more weight.
No dumbbells at home? Household items will do, Batts says. Start with soup cans and slowly work up to lifting milk or laundry detergent jugs (partially filled). Try carrying a full laundry basket while you do a set of walking lunges.
"You don't have to have a really heavy weight in the beginning, especially if it's for weight loss," Batts says.
Finally, remember to change things up.
"Do something new every week—even if it's just a little change—so you're challenging your body in a different way," Batts says. "You'll be using different muscles and expending more calories."
If you always do cardio first, try switching the order and starting with weights instead. One study suggests weight-training first gets your heart rate up, making your cardio workout more efficient.
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Try these strength-building moves from our sister site, Shape.com. Be sure to warm up first. Watch your form and keep a slow tempo. If you feel pain, stop.
Moves with hand weights or other equipment:
• Step-ups with arms overhead (Note: The image shows a big step up, which may be too challenging for beginners. Start with a smaller step if you're trying this for the first time.)
• Squat press
• TRX/suspension workout (Note: You could also use the bridge here, or the squat, biceps curl, and/or tabletop row.)
• Back-to-back circuit routine (Batts suggests doing 2 to 3 sets of 12 reps per exercise, with little to no rest in between. This will burn more calories and increase your heart rate.)