Q: I just had a baby and I’m trying to loose weight, I was told to do cardio to loose weight first then lift weights because I don’t need to tone the fat. Is this true or can I weight train as well? Can weight lifting help burn fat?

A: Congratulations on the baby! Yaaaaasssss baby fever up in the #bgg2wlarmy!

Okay, back to being serious.

When people talk about “toning the fat,” I can tell they’ve very focused on the appearance aspect of the weight loss journey. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. However, it’s worth noting that it might be a bit shortsighted.

I’m always talking about the importance of strength training for a reason. Outside of the fact that it’s highly likely that you’ll need muscle for the way you ultimately want to look and the muscle development process isn’t one that happens overnight, the reality is that muscle has countless benefits to your metabolism that make it easier for you to lose the body fat. It’d actually be hazardous to your goal to attempt your fat loss solely through cardio at this point, and I’ll tell you why.

For every pound of body mass that you have, whether it be for body fat or lean muscle mass, that pound burns a certain amount of calories. However, lean muscle mass burns almost triple what the average pound of body fat can be expected to burn in any given hour. This basically translates into “the presence of muscle means you burn more calories per day.” Keep this in mind throughout our chat, here.

A regimen that is solely cardio sounds great to a lot of folks – it’s just a few regular spin classes a month, a few early-morning runs, whatever. No big deal. And, if you love those activities and will be able and willing to keep it up as time progresses well past you’ve reached your goal, that may very well be the method you go after to maintain your weight loss. That being said, certain activities won’t match with everyone’s ultimate goal for their appearance, and this leaves a lot of people disappointed in the end.

Plans that are solely cardio will whittle down the body fat, sure, but they’ll also whittle down the muscle that ensures that your metabolism can stay high, meaning the amount of calories you burn each day can decrease drastically with a cardio-only plan. This makes it far more difficult for someone used to eating larger plates to actually maintain their weight loss, because the difference between the amount of calories you’re able to eat in the beginning compared to the end is far greater than you were ready for.

When we talk about muscle, sure, it sets up a solid foundation for the frame you’ve sought to build, but muscle is also protective against weight gain. Because of the dramatic increase in one’s metabolism thanks to the development of muscle (not to mention maintaining the muscle you’ve already got), you can eat more [and have a social life, mind you] without worrying about drastic weight gain. You’ve got enough going on to keep your metabolism higher than it was when you first started, and that’ll help you maintain even on days when you might’ve had a little more than you should’ve. (Let’s hope we don’t make it a habit.)

I’m an advocate for the high intensity interval training model with this kind of goal, primarily because it spares much of the muscle you already have and, in some instances, will help you build new muscle. It can spare your metabolism, ensuring that you don’t have to cut an obscene amount of calories from your regular consumption in order to maintain your goal weight.

I’ll put it to you like that – oftentimes, women come to me asking about weight training after they’ve already gone on the strictly-cardio regimen, telling me they’ve reached a plateau or–in many cases–began gaining weight again. They were eating slim to no calories a day, they were doing mad cardio, and they got to a point where they couldn’t lose any more and thought, “maybe now it’s time I try this weight training thing-a-majig.”

By the way… before you get curious and think this is a legit way to lose weight, trust me – it isn’t. There are a lot of ways to lose pounds, but not only do most of them ruin your metabolism by forcing your body to eat away at its muscle, but many of those other weight loss methods are recipes for yo-yo weight gain. If you can’t maintain it forever, don’t even think about it.

Anyway, after talking to them about their eating habits and the way they worked out, ultimately it became clearer: these were women who ruined their metabolism by cutting so many calories, their bodies chipped away at the muscle they had first; did so much cardio that their bodies shrunk faster than their ability to understand how many fewer calories they should be consuming; and now, with a metabolism reduced far beyond what would allow them to have a social life, they’re stuck running endless miles each month just to maintain, and are unsure how to fit that into their regular lives.

It’s totally doable for some… for some… just not for them, hence why they came to me about strength training.

This entire scenario is why I tell people not to just try to cardio their way through it, especially if you have a lot of weight to lose (and, by a lot, I mean 50+ pounds.)

The second part of the question asked if weight lifting could burn the fat.

Absolutely. That’s what I didfor the most part–and that’s what I’ll be doing once I’m cleared for exercise, myself.

The implied part of this particular Q&A e-mail, however, is that once the cardio is done, you can just build the muscle and it’ll be quick and easy breezy. Not the case.

Muscle development, no matter how much the Internet lies to you, is incredibly difficult. The average newbie might be able to build 5 solid pounds in a super-dedicated month with above par nutrition, sure, but beyond that? Good luck.

A weight loss regimen that results in the loss of muscle is a major setback, not only because of what the loss does to your metabolism, but because of what’s required to get that muscle back. What might represent 15lbs on the scale could take you four months to get back, and that’s a lot of work that most people (read: me) would rather avoid. Real talk.

So, in closing, “toning the fat” should be the least of your concerns. Yes, you can build muscle underneath a thicker layer of fat; yes, you should do this by way of high intensity interval training even though you may not be able to immediately see the fruits of your hard work; no, an all-cardio regimen isn’t ideal to me; and yes, strength training can absolutely burn fat and leave you even better poised to lose body fat outside of working out, altogether.

Does it get any simpler than that?