The other day, I got an email from a reader of building muscle 101 who wanted to know which is better, weight training or cardio. The debate between cardio versus weight training has been going on for over a decade. Where do I stand?
Well, I have my own ideas about cardio versus weight training but I wanted to see first, what popular media was saying on the subject so I did some research on the term, “cardio versus weight training”. I came across sites that were very scientific stating the benefits of each, but were lacking a very fundamental question which was…
What Are Your Goals?
You see, cardio vs weight training is a very broad term because it doesn’t take into account what a persons goals are.
If your goal is to simply lose weight, you don’t have to do neither, cardio or weight training. You simply have to eat less and you’ll ultimately lose weight.
Cut your calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories, on a daily basis, and presto, you’re going to have weight loss on your very first week.
However, if you’re more specific in your goals, such as, “I’d like to lose weight, burn fat and tone my body up”, well you’re going to require a little more than eating less.
Now, you’re talking about specific exercise that are geared towards your goal. In fact, this got me thinking. My sister is on the Herbal Magic Diet and on this diet, they don’t require you to do any exercising at all. In fact, they don’t even recommend it (I really don’t like this diet).
Anyways, she is losing weight, but the one thing that she is noticing is that she is still “soft”. She is noticing that she still has “flab” behind her arms. She is getting smaller and softer everywhere, and on some parts of her, she doesn’t want to get smaller and softer. She wants toned and sleek. So, she asks me the other day, “I want to tone up my body – How do I do it?”
Her original goal was to simply lose weight, but now that she’s doing it, she can see what is actually happening to her body. Now, she has identified another goal, which is to tone her body up while she is losing weight. She now wants to know which is the best way to attain this goal. She’s thinking cardio but she is also wondering about weight training.
Well, this got me thinking…
Popular media has always stated that if you want to lose weight, you have to do lots of cardio each and every day. That can be a half hour walk every morning, an hour on the elliptical trainer every day or anything else that gets your heart rate pumping.
On the other hand, popular media has always stated that if you want to bulk up and get huge muscles, than you have to weight train.
I couldn’t help but think of the gyms I’ve trained at over the years. I’ve trained at Gold’s, World’s, and a bunch of other gyms in and around some of the provinces in Canada. If there is one thing that I’ve noticed when I’ve trained at these gyms is the sheer number of people in the cardio rooms. There were times when I’d go into the cardio room to look for an exercise bike, treadmill, or elliptical trainer and I’d just turn around because there was a line up for the machines.
In fact, I remember going to a particularly popular gym looking to do a cardio workout. I remember having to go through this big sign up process just to use the cardio machines. Once that was complete, I had to sign my name on a huge board which had days, times, and a bunch of names on it. I actually had to sign my name in advance so I could guarantee use of the machine for the following day – I couldn’t use the cardio machines on that day because the sign up line was too long!
This is especially true right after New Years because everyone has a goal of getting back into top shape and losing weight as a new years resolution. Take a look at the cardio room and take a look at the weight room, which is going to be more popular?
So, as I read through the email, I couldn’t help but think of the ongoing debate of cardio versus weight training. Traditionally, weight training has been associated with muscle, strength, and power while cardio has been associated with weight loss. Which would explain why most cardio rooms will be packed to the rafters while the weight room will be all but bare.
Well, as I mentioned before, popular media has distorted our perceptions of cardio and weight training.
Let me ask you something. Have you ever noticed the physical difference between a pure cardio freak who does no weight training and the hard working weight trainer who does mostly weights but little cardio (in the same weight class – IE 130 pound class)? I’m going to bet that the cardio freak is in great condition but despite that, looks a little “soft”. However, all things being equal (including diet and fitness levels), the weight trainer will seem “hard”.
Here’s the analogy I like to use – It’s called the pear analogy. Let’s take a person who is over weight and shaped like a pear. Let’s assume that person wants to lose weight. Based on traditional thinking, that person will start to do tons of cardio and will, ultimately lose weight (providing the diet is on par). Let’s also assume that this person is scared of weights for fears of “bulking up” and she does no resistance training of any kind.
So, day after day, week after week, this person hopes on the treadmill and does 45 minutes of steady state cardio each and every day. The end result?
Well, this person will have ultimately lost weight, which is great. However, what you’re going see is a smaller version of the pear shape she started with. With no resistance training of any kind, that person hasn’t stimulated any muscle fibres so there is no reason for any lean tissue to get stronger and grow. This is what is called “shape”.
Like my sister and the herbal magic diet, that person didn’t grow the muscle to bring shape to her body so the muscle stays “soft” and will always appear “soft”. However, if the muscle was strengthened and stimulated through resistance exercise, the muscle will appear hard and toned.
This, is the main difference between cardio and weight training.
Here’s my view on cardio versus weight training. Each is a different form of exercise and is very efficient at what it does – if done correctly.
Cardio exercise is exactly that, a form of cardiovascular activity that specializes in one thing, improving cardiovascular conditioning. That is, doing this type of exercise with varying degrees of intensity will improve your aerobic conditioning which will improve your bodies ability to efficiently use oxygen. This exercise will also help reduce your overall body fat percentage which is a by product of this type of exercise. If your goal is to improve your cardiovascular conditioning, lose weight and decrease your body fat levels, this form of exercise will certainly help.
Now, weight training uses the muscular system. It’s pretty simple, you push a weight up and down with varying degrees of intensity. The main focus of this exercise is also very simple, it is meant to strengthen the lean tissues of your body. That is, it will strengthen your lean tissues such as your muscles and bone. The focus of this exercise is not to help with your cardio vascular endurance – Cardio does that. The focus of weight training is to strengthen lean tissues and to get them working again. Muscle tone is a by product of this type of exercise. If your goal is to tone your arms, chest and butt, than this is the type of exercise you should be doing.
I think the real question is what’s a better fat burner, weight training or cardio? Well, this is certainly up for debate but in all honesty, what it comes down to is exercise intensity.
Here’s the way I look at it. Intensity is the key to optimal fat burning and/or muscle building. Low intensity exercise will do little to improve 1) Fat burning; And 2) Muscle building. That goes for both, cardio and weight training. The harder you force your body to work, the more fat you’ll burn and/or the more muscle you’ll tone/build. It’s that simple.
Steady state cardio is a low intensity exercise. So is light weight training using machines. Personally, both are fine to do, if you are just starting out and want to start to get back into shape. However, over time, you will need to adjust your intensity levels in order to get the most from either exercise.
The key is this. This is the true way to look at fat loss.
Fat Loss equals:
“Energy In The Form Of Calories Going Into Your Body Minus The Amount Of Energy You Expend Doing Certain Activities”
So, if your goal is to lose body fat, the question becomes, “What’s better for fat loss, cardio or weight training?” Well, as I said before, it’s a matter of exercise intensity. Personally, the way I look at it is this, the harder you work at certain activities, the more calories you’ll expend.
Here’s perfect example. Back in high school, I worked for this brick laying company for a summer.
All we did, day in and day out was carry bricks back and forth from the crates to the job site. That was it. We did this for 12 hours, each and every day in order to meet deadlines. Those guys that I worked with looked like body builders and they didn’t even touch weights. They didn’t have an ounce of fat on them and they didn’t use any type of cardio exercise. All they did was move bricks day in and day out. To top it off, they ate huge amounts of food. They all had these huge arms, backs and shoulders, and after that summer, I did too!
These guys burned more calories doing a very physically demanding job than they were taking in. They built muscle and burned fat.
So, the question is not so much as “cardio versus weight training” it becomes, what is harder to do ? Cardio or weight training . To tell you the truth, both can be hard to do, depending on your intensity levels. Steady state cardio for 45 minutes is not hard to do. 25 minutes of high intensity interval cardio is very, very hard to do. Doing 15 minutes of light weigh training using machines is not hard to do. Doing heavy squats for 7 sets of 12 is extremely hard to do. However, as I said before, each will produce different results because of the dynamics of the exercise.
I’m a little bias towards weight training. You see, the one thing that cardio training can’t do, or is very limited in it’s ability to do, is to boost your resting metabolic rate. RMR (resting metabolic rate) is the amount of energy expended while doing nothing, or resting. Weight training has been shown to actually increase your resting metabolic rate. What does this mean?
To put it mildly, it means that you burn more calories doing nothing. It means you actually burn fat while you are sitting around, even sleeping. Ever notice how people look when they have very high metabolisms? Chances are, you know somebody like this. They can eat anything and still be lean. These people have high resting metabolic rates. Of course, we’re not all like this, but there is a way to help create this kind of fat burning environment.
No, I’m not talking about drugs or anything like that. I’m talking about weight training.
Weight training will help strengthen and build muscle tissue. This, in turn will help improve your bodies resting metabolic rate, which we know, will constantly burn fat, even when you’re sleeping. Fat is a very lazy body tissue and requires very little energy to keep it in place. Muscle on the other hand is a calorie hog and requires a lot of energy to keep it moving. The more muscle tissue you have, the more calories it needs in order to maintain that muscle.
By incorporating weight training into your weight loss regiment, you are introducing one of the best ways to burn fat. Using weight training to help burn fat has 3 distinct features (And benefits) to it. First off, you will burn a certain amount of calories by simply doing the weight training exercises. Second of all, your body will be forced to burn a certain amount of calories needed to repair muscle tissue after you’ve completed your weight training session. Lastly, as your muscles get stronger, they will require more and more calories just to keep them moving. This cycle continues for as long as you keep improving in your weight training program.
Have you ever done a weight training session and afterwards, your body is so sore you have a hard time walking? Well, think of it as this way. You’ve spent a certain amount of calories to actually do the workout. Afterwards, while your body is repairing itself (the agony, a day or so afterwards), your body is spending even more calories to accomplish this. Once your body is completely repaired, the muscle tissue will be stronger, and over time will get larger and harder which will require more energy to keep it going. The muscle tissue will spend even more calories just to keep the new muscle tissue.
Cardio on the other hand, does not allow for this kind of thermal effect on the body. Cardio does nothing for the muscular system. However, there is a special place for cardio.
Cardio does burn fat. There is no question about it. Performing cardio will:
1) Improve your cardiovascular condition which will greatly improve your bodies ability to efficiently use oxygen. Better oxygen uptake means better fat burning capabilities. It means your body will be able to operate more efficiently. We can’t ignore this fact.
This is the magic of improving your cardiovascular condition. However, we are now seeing more and more studies that show how high intenstiy interval training actually burns much more fat than steady state cardio does. High intensity cardio involves more muscle tissue being used and more resistance training. This reinforces the ideas around weight training and fat loss.
Want to know where the real magic of true fat loss lies?
If you truly want to burn the maximum amount of fat, get into the best shape of your life, and do it quickly, you need to do both.
I was looking through a great book called “The Maximum Muscle Plan” which was written by Thomas Incledon, and Matthew Hoffman and they cited a very interesting 14 week study at North Dakota State University. In this study, the university compared the effects of different kinds workouts on resting metabolic rates and fat loss. Some exercises only did aerobic type training, while others only weight trained and some did both. In this study, it showed that those that did both, aerobic exercise and weight training, lost an average of 10 pounds of fat and gained 13 pounds of fat free mass. On top of that, their resting metabolic rates increased by about 380 calories per day.
I’m inclined to agree with this study since my personal preference is to do both. I enjoy doing heavy compound movements, which are extremely difficult to do and combine that with interval training, usually on an exercise bike. My usual weight training exercise will ast about 45 minutes. Afterwards, I will do 15 to 20 minutes on the exercise bike, using interval type training. Believe me, this workout is very hard to do but it works. All in all, with my weight training and cardio, the workout takes about an hour and 15 minutes to do.
I don’t do a lot of steady state cardio anymore because I personally feel I get more out of interval type training. Plus, interval type training cuts down on the amount of time I spend on the exercise bike. Here’s the way I look at it. Why waste your time doing steady state cardio when I can challenge myself doing intervals and burn up more calories while doing it?
If you truly want to burn the maximum amount of fat and really get the body of your dreams, I suggest you do the following:
• Incorporate multi jointed weight training;
• Incorporate interval type training;
• Cut your caloric intake by at least 500 calories per day – to start.
Do these 3 things and you’ll start to see results in as little as two weeks – guaranteed!
That is how I see the cardio versus weight training debate.
All the best,
Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.
Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.