Weight loss is a journey that often leads to numerous questions, with one of the most common being: "Should I focus on cardio or lifting to shed those extra pounds?" The internet is flooded with conflicting opinions, leaving many confused about the most effective approach. The truth is, both cardio and resistance training play significant roles in fat loss. They should be used together, but there are trade-offs that individuals need to consider. In the real world, where time is a finite resource, it becomes essential to understand the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.
Fat Loss Basics
Before delving into the debate between cardio and lifting, it's crucial to grasp the fundamental concept of energy balance. Weight loss occurs when the total calories burned throughout the day exceed the total calories consumed. If we're able to do this consistently over time, you will see results.
Engaging in regular physical activity not only aids in weight loss but also offers a myriad of other health benefits. From improving cardiovascular health to boosting mood and reducing stress, exercise is a key component of a sustainable, holistic approach to fat loss.
Both cardiovascular training and resistance training contribute to this energy balance, albeit in different ways.
The Case for Resistance Training
Strength training is a potent weapon in the battle against body fat. One of its primary advantages is its ability to build and maintain muscle mass. If you are looking for that "toned" physique, maintaining the muscle mass that you have during a weight loss journey should be among your top priorities. Ask yourself the question "am I looking for weight loss, or fat loss?"
Muscle Burns Calories
Muscle tissue is metabolically active, requiring more energy for maintenance than fat tissue. As a result, individuals with a higher percentage of muscle mass naturally burn more calories, even when not actively working out. This makes resistance training a strategic choice for those aiming to increase their daily calorie expenditure, or at least keep it as high as possible during a cut.
Resistance Training is Great for Longevity
Whether your goal is to compete in a bodybuilding show or play with your grandchildren as you get older, resistance training is a must.
We often think of building muscles when pumping iron, but there are many other benefits to resistance training including:
Bone Health: Resistance training promotes the development of strong and dense bones, which is particularly important as we age.
Improved Joint Health: Strengthening muscles around joints provides better support and protection, reducing the risk of joint injuries and improving joint function.
Enhanced Flexibility: Engaging in resistance training through a full range of motion can improve flexibility and joint mobility.
Cardiovascular Health: While not a replacement for cardiovascular exercise, resistance training can still contribute to improved heart health by reducing risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Increased Insulin Sensitivity: Resistance training can enhance insulin sensitivity by better uptaking of glucose in the body, helping to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
The Case for Cardio
Less Systemically Taxing
Cardiovascular training, such as running, cycling, or swimming, have a different demand on the body compared to lifting heavy weights. Generally speaking, cardio is a little more gentle on the body. Heavy squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc. are going to be quite taxing on our nervous system and place more load on the muscles as they lengthen (eccentric contractions) in comparison to 20min on the BikeErg. One is great for the lungs, bloods vessels, etc. whereas the other is more suited to building muscle.
Burns More Calories Compared to Lifting
While lifting primarily boosts metabolism through muscle mass, cardio directly burns more calories during the exercise session. This can make it a quick and efficient way to increase the calorie deficit, especially for individuals with time constraints.
It's very important to note here: While this is true, fitness trackers typically do a pretty poor job at estimating calories burned during a workout. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.....but you probably aren't burning 1,000 calories in that spin class.
Great for Health
Apart from weight loss, cardio is renowned for its positive impact on cardiovascular health, lung capacity, and overall fitness. It helps reduce the risk of chronic diseases and improves endurance, making it an essential component of a well-rounded fitness routine. Here's a short-list of cardiovascular training benefits:
Improved Heart Health: Cardiovascular training strengthens the heart, making it more efficient at pumping blood throughout the body.
Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases: Regular cardiovascular exercise can help lower the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
Enhanced Mood: Cardiovascular training stimulates the release of endorphins, which are known as "feel-good" hormones, leading to reduced stress and improved mood.
Better Sleep: Regular aerobic exercise has been linked to improved sleep quality and can help alleviate insomnia.
Enhanced Immune Function: Regular exercise can boost the immune system, making the body more resistant to infections and illnesses.
So What's Best For You?
Okay, so we've established that both of these things are great......now which one do we choose? As always, we're going to be somewhere in the middle. If your goal is sustainable health and fat loss, you really should be doing both. Where you are at right now is going to greatly influence what is going to work best for you. So here we go:
Starting Point | Sedentary
If you are currently not doing anything, our recommendation is to start with what interests you the most. We need to build some small wins here before we really dig deep into a plan. If the gym scares you, start with walking 30 minutes per day. Can't quite get 30min in? Do 15. Got some 10lb dumbbells collecting dust at home? Whip those out, do some curls, do some goblet squats, whatever you need to start building a routine.
Building regular activity into a lifestyle is what underpins transformations. A 1 hour workout is 4% of your day. What are you doing the other 96%?
Believe it or not, most individuals would do significantly better with low-intensity, higher volume movement to start than going nuts on the HIIT sessions* (EPOC isn't nearly what we thought it was 10 years ago).
I had a client once who was really struggling with weight loss despite bootcamp classes every day and fasting 2 days per week. This was our initial plan:
We lowered the training volume and focused on building strength at full Range of Movement.
We got her eating consistently and not skipping food groups (carbs)
We set a general walking target (something she enjoyed) every day
In the coming weeks, she added a few more steps. She enjoyed the process and being outside. One day on a call, she said "You know what? I was walking by the river and I thought to myself 'I'm going to run!'" And of she went. She is now leaner, healthier, and it wasn't by following a crash diet or killing herself in the gym.
Whatever you do, make sure you can stick with it. When you're ready to take things up a notch, move to step two.
* Before lovers of HIIT training come after me, I have nothing against HIIT, it's actually quite beneficial when done properly. I'm just saying that there are probably some better alternatives to doing high intensity training every single day.
Starting Point | Active
If you are currently getting some activity in each week (100-150 min is a great target) you're probably ready to get some more purposeful workouts in. Here's what I recommend; aim for 1-3 days of resistance training per week (start with one, work your way up) and if possible add some low level conditioning on a couple of the off days. This doesn't need to be a Stairmaster, it can be something as simple as going for a long walk, playing pickleball ,etc. Here's what a week might look like:
Monday: Full Body Strength Training
Tuesday: 30min brisk walk
Wednesday: Full Body Strength Training
Thursday: Softball League
Friday: Full Body Strength Session
Saturday: Active Living *
Sunday: Active Living *
* We refer "Active Living" to simply being aware and proactive against sedentary behaviour. Many people start an exercise program (awesome!) but don't move around a lot outside of that (not so awesome).
Starting Point | Active - But Wanna Get Jacked
If the goal is to get as lean/muscular as you can, resistance training is going to take precedence. Muscle groups vary based on size/fiber type/training age/etc. but we typically want to see 10-20 sets at moderate to high intensities to see some growth.
There are a number of training splits that could work for you. Our Flagship Hypertrophy program, Verix | Build, is a 6 day Push-Legs-Pull split, but you can organize your training however needed to fit around your schedule. To learn more about training splits, download our free "How To Choose Your Training Split" guide.
Again, as stressed before, cardiovascular training and strength training both have unique qualities. As we move our goals around, we may emphasize one training modality over another, but it is often foolish to completely ignore conditioning.
Nutrition will be the ultimate predictor of your physique, but if you need some extra help getting in a deficit, that's where we add in some low level cardio sessions. Again, this doesn't need to be dedicated sessions in the gym. When coach Steve won his pro card at the WNBF, he simply went for walks outside.
How To Do Both
With the surge in popularity of hybrid style training (resistance training combined with endurance training) the question often comes up "can I do both?". 10 years ago we probably would have cited a phenomenon called "the interference effect" which states that resistance training and cardiovascular training, having competing demands, will yield sub-optimal results on both ends of the spectrum.
However, research now is pointing towards this interference being minimal as long as we are following a properly designed training program. Best practices when training for both is to complete them either on separate days, or have a gap of 6-8+ hours between endurance and strength sessions.
Some modes of conditioning may result in more fatigue, and therefore more interference, in the strength training sessions. Gentle cardio with minimal impact (eg. Elliptical) will be less stressful than something like 2 hours of pickup basketball. Similarly, our runs are probably going to suffer if you crushed your legs in a Max Effort workouts hours before.
In the ultimate showdown between cardio and lifting for health & fat loss, the winner may depend on individual preferences, goals, and time constraints. A well-balanced approach that incorporates both forms of exercise is often the most effective strategy. By understanding the unique benefits each offers, individuals can tailor their workouts to achieve optimal results in their quest for a healthier, fitter lifestyle. Whether you're lifting weights to sculpt your physique or pounding the pavement for cardiovascular health, the key is finding the right balance that works for you.