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When it comes to losing weight, should you head to the treadmill or make gains in the weight room?
Cardio enthusiasts say you’ll burn fat by torching calories when you increase your heart rate. Meat heads will say that excess fat is best shed by increasing muscle mass. So which is best?
In this blog post, I’m going to address the cardio vs weight training debate from a number of different angles including:
Calories Burned During The Session
A 60-minute, steady state run on the treadmill in general will burn more calories than spending the same amount of time doing a traditional strength training session (not Crossfit!). This shouldn’t come as a surprise because your heart rate will be elevated at a higher rate during the session than lifting weights alone.
So in the cardio vs weight lifting debate, cardio definitely wins this one. Cardio training will burn more calories during the session than a traditional weights session.
Calories Burned After The Session
After strength training however, your engine doesn’t just cool off immediately. It takes time. I like to use the comparison of driving from Galway to Tuam vs Galway to Dublin. Your car engine is going to take longer to cool down and get back to it’s normal state after driving to Dublin (weight training) than going to Tuam (cardio).
So after a weights session, your metabolism can be boosted for up to 38 hours post-workout. This means that your body burns more calories as you chill out on the couch for the evening after strength training vs doing a traditional steady state cardio session alone. How cool is that? After you pay your dues in the gym and sit down and relax for the evening, your body will continue to burn more calories as you rest.
In order to generate a high amount of post-calorie burn from aerobic training, you’d have to be doing it for a longer duration of time.
It is worth noting that sprinting does have similar effects on your metabolic rate to that of weight lifting – so sprinting is definitely something to consider. However, for the most part, the “after-burn” of strength training lasts longer than that of traditional, steady-state cardio.
Long-Term Calorie Burn
Not only does strength training burn more calories in the short-term window post-workout, but it also has more of a long-term calorie burning effect as well.
Why is this? Muscles are more metabolically active than fat. The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn even while you rest. That is why strength training is not only a good short-term strategy for fat-loss, but long-term too. The more lean muscle you have on your body, the more calories you burn around the clock.
This is the main reason why males typically eat more than females without gaining weight. Women have up to 15 to 20 times less testosterone than men. This means, in general, if a man and woman performed the exact same weight lifting routine, the man will gain more muscle.
Whenever someone says they want to get in “shape” or to “tone up,” if you think about it, what are you referring to? What gives your body that shape and tone?
No it is not your bones! They hold your body in place. But to get that shape and tone you desire, you are specifically referring to building muscle in the right areas so you can get that toned stomach, or defined butt or big arms! Muscle is the thing that gives your body that shape and tone in the absence of bodyfat!
That’s not to say that cardio doesn’t help you lose weight. It certainly does, but this weight loss is typically a combination of fat and muscle so what you’re left with is a smaller version of yourself. The focus should be to build muscle, not burn it off.
That is why GAA players tend to lose a lot of muscle mass in-season when training frequency and intensity picks up around championship. After spending the winter strength training, a lot of players make the mistake of completely stopping once the season gets underway. As a result, the increase in cardio combined with the decrease in strength training means players are literally burning off their muscle rather than building it, the longer the season goes on.
The best way to get “shaped” and “toned” is to perform strength training along with cardio training (not cardio training alone) while eating in a calorie deficit. This will give you a much better overall transformation than doing cardio alone. Anyone whose lost a considerable amount of weight but still looks somewhat “soft” is usually because they have lost some fat, but their muscles aren’t overly toned.
What If I Want to Strength Train And Do Cardio?
If you wanted to combine both weight lifting and cardio in a single session, do not do your cardio first and weights after (unless you’re doing max effort sprinting which is a different topic). Cardio training first for say 30 minutes and then doing 45 minutes of weights will mean your weight training performance will suffer.
Why? Because you’re pre-depleting your carbohydrate stores before you ever even touch a weight. Your carbohydrates are needed to enable your muscles to work at their best capacity. You’ll naturally diminish the results you can achieve when you try to lift weights by doing tough cardio first.
For best results, stick the cardio at the end of your workout or on a separate day. This will help you see better results and avoid the abovementioned problems.
Cardio And Health Benefits
One point does have to be made about the benefits of doing cardio for your cardiovascular health. Your heart and your lungs typically work harder doing cardio than weights.
Thus, the purpose of this post isn’t to tell you that you should eliminate cardio from your fat-loss training. It’s to tell you that you shouldn’t just do cardio alone as your only form of exercise to get there.
What If I Hate Cardio But Understand It's Benefits?
If you’re someone who acknowledges the benefits of having a good cardiovascular base but hate the thought of lacing up your runners and going for a 45 minute jog, then HIIT or circuit training might be a better alternative for you.
HIIT training involves alternating intense exercise which requires shorts bursts of energy (usually between 8-12 seconds) with low-intensity recovery periods. Examples would include doing clap push ups, med ball slams, jumps, sprinting or the assault bike with max intent for 8-12 seconds before resting, walking, jogging or coasting for about 45-60 seconds and repeating this for 10-20 minutes. A 1:5 work: rest ratio is optimal. HIIT training will save you time, might be more enjoyable for some than traditional cardio and will still allow you to get the health benefits of cardio.
Circuit training involves performing a number of exercises in a circuit fashion with minimal rest in between. I like to call this ‘muscle-building cardio’ and share multiple examples of it on my Instagram page such as this.
· In general, a cardio workout burns more calories than a weight-training workout.
· In general, a strength training session burns more calories after a workout.
· Weight training has more of a long-term calorie burn than cardio.
· Strength training is more effective for body shape/toning up,
· Do your cardio after strength training, not before if you’re doing it in the same workout.
· Cardio has health benefits for your heart and lungs.
· If you don’t like cardio, but still want a cardio base, consider doing HIIT training or circuit training.
The bottom line is, the best form of exercise is the one you enjoy, that you’re most consistent with that gets you the goals you desire. Adherence and effort will determine a huge percentage of your fat loss. However, working out won’t change the number on the scale if you’re living off pizza and fries! That’s a topic for another day!
In my own personal experience, if fat-loss is the goal, primarily focusing on strength training while incorporating cardio yields the best results.
I would recommend you to make lifting weights a priority and break free from the mindset that cardio alone equates to faster fat loss.
Thanks for reading.
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