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Cardio or Strength Training: Which is Best for Weight Loss?

You want to lose weight. You’re taking care of your nutrition, now you’re wondering: what type of exercise should I be doing? Cardio or strength training?

So, you want to lose weight. You’re taking care of your nutrition, and now you’re wondering: what type of exercise should I be doing? Cardio or strength training? Both? Neither?

Are you tired of this topic yet? Not me!

The subject of cardio versus strength training for weight loss has inspired an endless amount of debate and scientific investigation. And, while the obesity epidemic in North America continues to gather steam (nearly 75% of the U.S. population is now considered overweight with 42% being obese) and after many decades of research, science does not seem to be any closer to giving us a one-size-fits-all exercise solution. If someone possessed the formula for the perfect exercise program to lose weight—one that would work for every person, every time—that individual would be a billionaire.

There is so much information out there—some legitimate and some less so–and everyone and their dog has an opinion on the matter. It can seem very challenging to create an exercise program that best maximizes our limited time and energy and that actually produces quantifiable results (i.e., weight loss). In this article, I investigate the relative benefits of each exercise mode when it comes to losing weight and practical advice on how to best exercise to reach your goals. Spoiler alert: it’s not as complicated as you might think. And maybe we need to ask different questions when it comes to weight loss.

Where’s the biggest burn?

Cardiovascular exercise, which we can define as exercise that “increases heart rate and respiration while using large muscle groups repetitively and rhythmically” has been demonstrated in many studies to burn more calories while you’re doing it. A strength training session, on the other hand, may burn fewer calories but has been shown to have an increased ‘after burn’ effect, where the exerciser’s body continues to burn calories even after the workout has finished and can last for up to 36 hours. One study compared different types of strength training workouts and found that decreasing recovery time between exercises and sets produced the most intense and long-lasting EPOC effect.

An interesting note about cardio and calories: intensity matters! Sprinting exercises have been shown to produce an ‘after burn’ effect similar to that of strength training, which suggests it’s not just about the type and duration of exercise, but the intensity. If you’re interested in getting started with cardio HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and want to learn more, check out our Infofit article here.

Starting Your Weight Loss Journey

For most beginner exercisers who want to lose weight, cardio is a great option. Unfortunately, in certain ‘fitness’ circles, it is now trendy to scoff at cardio and to promote just discarding it altogether in favour of ‘lifting heavy’. This is unfortunate, in my opinion. Cardio exercise is accessible, cheap, and for many just starting on their fitness journey, an awesome gateway into building a healthy and consistent exercise routine. And when it comes to weight loss, cardio exercise has been shown to promote many of the beneficial hormones that support mental health and promote fat loss and curb appetite. Great news!

That Being Said, Not All Weight is Equal

The fixation on ‘losing weight’ can sometimes blind us to some very important considerations. When it comes to weight loss, not all ‘weight’ is equal–are you losing fat? Muscle? Water? All three?

This is where the question of exercising for weight loss falls short. It fails to acknowledge the complexities of body composition and other health metrics. Most of us do not want to lose muscle mass. Many of us could stand to lose a little fat. A better question might be: how do we exercise to lose fat and maintain or grow the lean muscle mass that we do have?

You guessed it: we need to strength train!

Strength training is essential for maintaining muscle mass, especially when in a caloric deficit (i.e., when we’re ‘dieting’). When you restrict your calories for an extended period of time, you will lose weight–but some of that may not be fat. Studies have shown that stimulating your muscle fibres through strength training (and protein!) can help you to preserve your lean mass. If you’re only doing cardio, though, while in a caloric deficit, you are more likely to lose muscle–and perhaps not much fat at all!

Weight Loss is Only a Part of the Equation

You’ve heard it before, and I’ll say it again– 5 square inches of muscle weighs more than 5 square inches of fat. Muscle is denser, taking up less space on your body, and is also more metabolically active (i.e., has a higher calorie demand). In my opinion, you should not be afraid to gain weight from muscle mass. Muscle is essential for healthy living–it protects your bone and joint health as you age, improves your posture and core strength, and protects your organs. Gaining muscle mass also helps to redistribute the fat that you do have in a way that is not only more aesthetically- pleasing but will also contribute to better health outcomes.

But…Which Will Help Me Lose Weight?

In the metrics of both fat loss and general health, I would recommend a combined routine of cardio and strength training. This might seem like a cop-out, but as I mentioned earlier in the article, studies have shown that higher intensity exercise–whether cardio or strength training–is more likely to result in sustained fat loss. Exercises might include sprinting intervals or weight-lifting with minimal recovery time. While you definitely don’t need to kill yourself every day at the gym (and I generally wouldn’t recommend it), the key, it seems, is to keep the intensity high and rest periods short and sweet. Challenge yourself!

The definition of ‘high intensity’ is different from person to person. If you need help gauging intensity, I would recommend referring to the commonly-used RPE scale (which you can find here) and gaining the assistance of an experienced personal trainer to help you reach your ideal intensity.

I hope you found this article helpful! When it comes to cardio versus strength training, it doesn’t need to be one or the other; at Infofit, we recommend combining for best results.

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!

Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.

Works Cited

Bryner, R. W., Ullrich, I. H., Sauers, J., Donley, D., Hornsby, G., Kolar, M., & Yeater, R. (1999). Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 18(2), 115–121. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.1999.10718838

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 30). Adult obesity facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

Da Silva, R. L., Brentano, M. A., & Kruel, L. F. (2010). Effects of different strength training methods on postexercise energetic expenditure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(8), 2255–2260. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181aff2ba

Leaf Group. (n.d.). Definition of cardio exercise. LIVESTRONG.COM. Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://www.livestrong.com/article/114986-definition-cardio-exercise/

Stiegler, P., & Cunliffe, A. (2006). The role of diet and exercise for the maintenance of fat-free mass and resting metabolic rate during weight loss. Sports Medicine, 36(3), 239–262. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200636030-00005

Townsend, Jeremy R.; Stout, Jeffrey R.; Morton, Aaron B.; Jajtner, Adam R.; Gonzalez, Adam M.; Wells, Adam J.; Mangine, Gerald T.; McCormack, William P.; Emerson, Nadia S.; Robinson, Edward H. IV; Hoffman, Jay R.; Fragala, Maren S.; and Cosio-Lima, Ludmila, “Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (Epoc) Following Multiple Effort Sprint and Moderate Aerobic Exercise” (2013). Faculty Bibliography 2010s. 4767. https://stars.library.ucf.edu/facultybib2010/4767

Willoughby, D., Hewlings, S., & Kalman, D. (2018). Body composition changes in weight loss: Strategies and supplementation for maintaining Lean Body Mass, a brief review. Nutrients, 10(12), 1876. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10121876