Kaleena Lawless began her weight-loss journey the same way many people do: by watching what she ate and exercising. But she credits weight training with helping speed up her dramatic weight loss: She lost 50 pounds in 2002.

“I started weight training — bicep curls and bench presses,” says Lawless, who was almost completely inactive before she started working out. “I noticed that not only was I getting in better shape, but also that my weight loss was accelerating.”

Now a personal trainer, she says that weight training is a staple of her personal fitness regimen and a big part of her training approach. She says she currently works out with free weights three times a week to maintain her results and prevent injuries.

Try a variety of strength-training options

“Muscle mass burns more calories than fat does, and building muscle mass revs up your metabolism,” says Lawless. That means muscles are burning calories even when they’re at rest. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn.

According to Gus Diamantopolous, a strength-training exercise instructor in Toronto, cardio is a poor method for building muscle. The intensity of effort in your average cardio workout rarely reaches the minimum threshold for growing the muscle groups most capable of growth, he says. “By contrast, strength-training activities such as weight lifting and weight training are designed to stimulate muscular growth and so increase strength.”

Weight training can also build bone mass — helping prevent bone diseases such as osteoporosis — as well as strengthen joints and improve posture and balance.

There are many ways to strength train, including using free weights (hand-held dumbbells), your own weight and machines.

Getting started on your weight training program

  • Check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
  • If you’re new to weight training, start slowly, with one to two exercises per muscle group, suggests Lawless. Perform each repetition slowly and in a controlled way; overdoing it can lead to injuries that can sideline future workouts.
  • Start each workout by tiring out the larger muscle groups such as glutes (your bum muscles) and thighs, and then moving on to smaller muscle groups such as shoulders, biceps, triceps and calves. That way, your smaller muscle groups won’t be tired out prematurely, says Lawless.
  • Aim for strength training twice a week to maintain muscle tone. Gradually increase the amount of weights — you should always be tired after six to eight repetitions.
  • Be sure to rest between sessions. Rest allows your muscles to repair themselves after intense workouts, says Diamantopolous.
  • Watch what you eat and don’t forget to drink water to keep hydrated.

Weight training doesn’t require expensive equipment, or a big time commitment. Just doing a few planks (balancing on your forearms and toes while holding your body parallel to the floor), squats (simulating sitting down in a chair and then straightening out), lunges (placing one foot in front of the other and bending the knee of the opposite leg without touching down) and push-ups can be great ways to strengthen your body.

Don’t worry about bulking up

Lawless says many of her female clients are worried that strength training will bulk them up. “Women aren’t going to lift weights, wake up the next day and look like the Incredible Hulk,” she says.

Instead, weights can actually give you a lean look. “Truth is that even the most intense strength-building exercise will build tissue that is extremely dense, particularly close to the bone,” says Diamantopolous. He says that in the early stages of weight training, people with high fat stores can build muscle over fat, making it seem like they’re bigger. However, this is temporary as the fat gradually becomes muscle and the person’s physique becomes leaner.

Lawless is certainly a convert. And she says that the key is to maintain a positive attitude: “In the beginning everything is hard. But you have to push through.”