Fit man curling a big dumbbell.

Exactly How Many Calories Do You Burn Lifting Weights?

Your strength workout doesn’t hold a candle to cardio when it comes to calorie burn, unless you do this.

In a sea of reasons to strength train (build strength, gain functional fitness, and increase longevity to name a few), calorie burn doesn’t usually get much attention. Yet, weightlifting can have powerful effects on fat loss.

So how many calories do you burn lifting weights? How does strength training compare to cardio workouts? And exactly what should your workout routine look like to maximize fat loss? Let’s dig in.

Does Lifting Weights Burn Calories?

Yep, weight training burns calories. Your body inherently burns calories at rest, so no matter what you do—whether you’re climbing the stairs, having sex, sitting at your desk, or sleeping—you’re burning calories. Of course, that calorie burn increases with activity, and some activities burn more calories than others.

Categorically, lifting weights is just okay at burning calories. Traditional strength training burns more calories than easy everyday activities like gardening or doing the laundry, but fewer calories than an average cardio session.

How Many Calories Do You Burn Lifting Weights?

Let us be clear: it depends. How many calories you burn depends on how much you weigh (the more you weigh, the more you’ll burn) and the intensity of your workout (which you can boost by tweaking a few elements of your routine).

For example, here’s how many calories people at different weights can expect to burn for 30 minutes of general, moderate-intensity weight lifting, according to Harvard Medical School (1):

  • A 125-pound person will burn 90 calories.
  • A 155-pound person will burn 112 calories.
  • A 185-pound person will burn 133 calories.

Increase your intensity, however, and your calorie burn will nearly double. The calorie burn for 30 minutes of vigorous weight lifting (1):

  • A 125-pound person will burn 180 calories.
  • A 155-pound person will burn 216 calories.
  • A 185-pound person will burn 252 calories.

If you’re thinking this is vague, it is. We don’t know the specifics of these routines, but what is clear is the more intense your strength training routine is, the more calories you burn.

Intensity in strength training is typically defined as the overall load you’re lifting. The heavier the load, the higher the intensity. But calorie burn is typically calculated using METS—the metabolic equivalent of a task or the amount of oxygen used to perform an activity. 1 MET is the amount of oxygen your body uses at rest. 

According to MET norms, the average strength workout—8 to 15 reps of multiple exercises—is 3.5 METs, but explosive squats (which we could assume is performed at heavier loads, less reps, and with more rest between sets) is 5 METs (2). Vigorous circuit training with minimal rest, however, scores the highest at 8 METs. Meaning, lifting heavier loads might increase calorie burn; but, dialing up the aerobic component of your workout by cutting down on rest (i.e circuit training) will burn even more.

If you want a more exact estimate of how many calories you burn during a particular workout, try a calories burned calculator like the Omni calculator.  It converts your activity to METs (metabolic equivalent of a task) and pumps out the average calories burned for your weight.  

Calories Burned Lifting Weights vs. Cardio

If you want to lose weight should you prioritize strength or cardio? Here’s how it breaks down.

Cardio usually burns more calories during a workout

In general, you’ll burn more calories from doing cardio than weightlifting. For example, according to Harvard Medical School, general weight lifting burns about four calories per minute on average; whereas, a brisk walk (4.0 miles per hour) burns about six calories per minute (1). This means your usual run on the treadmill or spin around the neighborhood crushes traditional strength training for calorie burn.

Strength training might increase your metabolism

Your basal metabolic rate—or the amount of calories you burn at rest—is influenced by lean body mass (including muscle mass) (3). Muscle burns more calories than fat (4). Since strength training has the unique capability of helping you build and maintain muscle, it might increase your resting metabolic rate. 

One study suggests that people who completed a nine month progressive strength training routine were able to increase resting metabolic rate by about five percent on average (5). Still, the average exerciser only gains a few pounds of muscle from strength training—probably not enough to make a huge difference in overall calorie burn (4).

Strength training might burn more calories after a workout

Strength training taps into excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (or EPOC)—when your body burns more calories after a workout to recover, repair, and return to its pre-exercise state. One study found that weight lifting and high-intensity cardio training are more effective for triggering EPOC than steady-state cardio (6).

However, the actual calories burned from EPOC is typically pretty minimal. For example, most studies suggest that after a typical strength workout (4-8 exercises, 2-4 sets, 8-12 reps, at a load of 60 to 70% of your one rep max) EPOC only lasts for about an hour, burning on average only 35 more calories—which isn’t nothing, but not a ton either (7). 

That said, it seems that intensity and mode of the strength workout matter. For example, one small study found that high-volume hypertrophy training with an emphasis on eccentric contractions—the lowering part of an exercise that dials up muscle damage—extended EPOC up to 72 hours, burning an average of 550 calories (8). 

It’s worth noting that since hypertrophy training involves working at high volumes, it might not be best for newbies or the average lifter who doesn’t have hours on end to spend in the gym. You’ll also want to avoid overdoing it with eccentric training, since it can increase post-workout muscle damage and soreness, and may warrant more recovery. 

If you want to give eccentric training a try, consider cutting your volume down to one set, and slowing down the eccentric phase of each exercise to four seconds. One study suggests this method might have a similar effect (burning about 300 calories more over the following 72 hours) while cutting back on potential muscle soreness (9). 

Do both to boost fat loss

Even though strength training burns fewer calories than your average cardio session, a combination of strength and cardio can be more effective for fat loss. Why? This combo has been shown to result in greater fat loss than aerobic training alone (10).

Plus, if you’re in a calorie deficit to lose weight, it’s not uncommon to lose both fat and lean mass (read: muscle) (11). Resistance training (along with eating enough protein) can help preserve muscle (12). 

By doing a combo of cardio and strength training, you’ll build or maintain muscle (thanks to your strength sessions), while burning loads of calories (through your aerobic sessions)—effectively turning your body into a calorie-burning machine.

How to Burn More Calories While Lifting Weights

In an ideal world, you’d be able to complete a minimum of 180 minutes of steady-state cardio a week, three days of heavy strength training, and a HIIT session or two. But let’s face it, most people don’t have the time. That’s where tweaking your routine to combine strength and cardio into one high-intensity session can kill two birds with one stone.

We’ll hedge by noting, if your goal is to specifically build strength, hypertrophy, or power, this method is not ideal. It’s also not perfect for methodically building endurance through intentional zone 2 training, and VO2 max sessions. When you manipulate the specific variables of any routine, there’s going to be some give-and-take to get to your priority. If that priority is weight loss with minimal time in the gym, then make this your bread and butter.

Prioritize compound exercise

The more muscle mass you use, the more calories your body needs to fuel that movement. For example, isolation exercises that focus on only one muscle at a time—like bicep curls—won’t require anywhere close to the same amount of calories as a compound exercise that works multiple muscles at a time—like lat pulldowns.

One study found that lat pulldowns burn 20 percent more calories than bicep curls, and squats burn 35 percent more calories than leg extensions (13). To use more muscle groups during your workouts, do compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, lunges, step-ups, farmer’s carries, bench presses, overhead presses, rows, pullups, dips, and pushups.

Lift lighter weight for more reps

When compared to lifting heavier weights for fewer reps, lifting lighter weights for more reps nearly doubles calorie burn, according to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (14). If you’re worried about your gains taking a hit, don’t be. Several studies have confirmed you can build the same amount of muscle whether you’re using light or heavy weights (15).

However, there is a point where the weight is too light for muscle growth (16). The TL;DR: you still need to push yourself hard enough to see results. Find a weight that’s somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of the maximum weight you could lift for that exercise, and rep it out until you could only eke out one to two more reps. For most people, this should land somewhere in the 15 to 30-rep range. If you can lift over 30 reps, it’s time to level up in weight.

Try circuit training

The most important thing you can do to burn more calories is to improve your workout efficiency. During a traditional strength training workout, a lot of time is spent resting between sets—this is important if your goal is to maximize muscle growth and strength, but not so helpful for burning calories.

By using circuit training to your advantage, you can increase the reps, sets, and aerobic intensity you put in during your workout, without having to increase your time at the gym. Circuit training has been shown to increase muscle mass and cut down on body fat in a fraction of the time of a regular strength session (17).

To do it, create two to three mini circuits by stacking each with four compound exercises. Complete the exercises in each circuit back-to-back with a 15 to 20-second breather to transition between exercises. Repeat each circuit three to five times before moving on to the next circuit.

1. Harvard Medical School (2021). Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights.
2. Ainsworth, B. et al. (2011). 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities. 
3. Science Direct. Basal Metabolic Rate.
4. National Library of Medicine (2022). Can You Boot Your Metabolism?
5. Aristizabal, J. et al. (2014). Effect of Resistance Training on Resting Metabolic Rate and Its Estimation by a Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry Metabolic Map.
6. Greer, B. et al (2014). EPOC Comparison Between Isocaloric Bouts of Steady-State Aerobic, Intermittent Aerobic, and Resistance Training.
7. Arney, B. et al. (2019). EPOC: Is It Real? Does It Matter?
8. Hackney, K. et al. (2008). Resting Energy Expenditure and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness After Full-Body Resistance Training With an Eccentric Concentration.
9. Heden, T. et al. (2010). One-Set Resistance Training Elevates Energy Expenditure For 72 h Similar to Three Sets. 
10. Brellenthen, A. et al. (2021). Resistance Exercise, Alone and In Combination with Aerobic Exercise, and Obesity in Dallas, Texas, US: A Prospective Cohort Study.
11. Diel, P. et al. (2021). Weight Loss Strategies and the Risk of Skeletal Muscle Mass Loss.
12. Lopez, P. et al. (2022). Resistance Training Effectiveness on Body Composition and Body Weight Outcomes in Individuals with Overweight and Obesity Across the Lifespan: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. 
13. Reis, V. et al (2017). Energy Cost of Isolated Resistance Exercises Across Low- to High-Intensities.
14. Scott, C. et al (2011). Aerobic, Anaerobic, and Excess Postexercise Oxygen Consumption Energy Expenditure of Muscular Endurance and Strength: 1 Set of Bench Press to Muscular Fatigue. 
15. Grgic, J. et al (2020). The Effects of Low-Load Vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Fiber Hypertrophy: A Meta-Analysis.
16. Schoenfeld, B. et al (2021). Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum.
17. Ramo-Campo, D. et al. (2021). Effects of Resistance Circuit-Based Training on Body Composition, Strength and Cardiorespiratory Fitness: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.