If you ask any physique or fat loss expert they will likely tell you that weight training is superior to cardio for toning up, dropping body fat or anything physique related.
However, the general public still believes cardio to be the best solution. This is probably because early research showed cardio burns more fat within the workout; however, they did not account for fat loss over the course of a day, week or year.
Further, this does not account for the overall result, with weight training helping you add muscle, tone up, improve strength and look far better overall. If you really want to improve confidence, (or simply look better naked), weight training, or a combo of both, is going to be key.
Since this initial research, new evidence has further supported the use of weight training for fat loss or physique enhancement. This is because it boosts fat burning hormones, increases your metabolism, improves insulin sensitivity (carb tolerance) and other benefits that cardio simply doesn’t provide (1)!
If you are still on the fence or unsure what’s really best, this article will provide a breakdown of the benefits and review cardio vs weight training for fat loss.
Aerobic vs Anaerobic Training & Energy Systems
Before we break down the unique differences and benefits of weight training vs cardio here’s a brief overview of the energy systems required and how our body provides fuel during cardio or weight training.
In short, cardio utilizes the aerobic energy system as it is performed at lower intensities. This energy system allows you to perform it for prolonged periods of time. In contrast, resistance training utilizes the anaerobic energy system which only lasts 2-3 minutes but provides much more energy in the form of ATP.
Some of these distinct differences between aerobic vs anaerobic energy help explain why weight training is superior to cardio. For example, anaerobic training will burn greater amounts of ATP energy, which is generated from the breakdown of food sources or macros (carbs/protein/fat) through different energy pathways (2).
Benefits of Cardio Training vs Weight Training
Firstly, though, I would like to emphasize that weight training and aerobic training both burn calories and have a multitude of benefits; however, your body responds to these two types of training in completely different ways.
The physiological adaptations associated with aerobic training consist of (2):
- Increased cardiac output
- Reduced heart rate
- Increased stroke volume
- Increase in type 1 muscle fibers
- Increased mitochondrial density
- Increased myoglobin activity.
In contrast, the physiological adaptations associated with anaerobic training consist of (2):
- Increase in type 2 muscle fibers
- Increased anabolic hormone production
- Increased bone mineral density
- Increased motor unit recruitment
- Increased strength and power output
- Increased excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)
- Increased resting energy expenditure.
While cardio is still useful for burning calories and cardiovascular health, sadly, it will not help add muscle tone or preserve muscle tone while dieting; in fact, it can actually increase muscle loss if you are not careful.
To optimize our body composition, we want to reduce body fat while maintaining, and in many cases even slightly increasing, lean muscle mass or tone. Resistance training is far superior for achieving this.
Additionally, weight training increases your hormone levels, metabolism and EPOC, carbohydrate tolerance and your resting energy expenditure. All of these will help you reach your physique goals more efficiently and most importantly, help you maintain them.
Weight Training Boosts Your Metabolism to Enhance Fat Loss
Remember, to lose fat efficiently you must be in an energy deficit.
There are multiple ways in which you can enter into an energy deficit. For example, you can increase your physical activity levels or, as most people do with a diet, decrease calorie consumption.
Along with this, another effective way is to increase your resting energy expenditure or the amount of calories you burn at rest!
One of the reasons why weight training is so effective for fat loss is because it quickly increases your metabolic rate, helping you burn more calories that day or the day after. Now, if you perform weight training every day, you will have an elevated metabolism forever (or, at least until you stop training) (3)!
Additionally, research has shown that as you increase muscle mass your resting energy expenditure goes up. So you begin to burn more calories at rest, without even adjusting your food intake (4)! Remember, this won’t happen from 1-2 LB of muscle, but, after a couple of years and 10LB + of muscle gained, you will see more of a significant difference!
Although cardio training does help boost your metabolism in the short term, this only lasts for a couple of hours after exercise, not for the whole day or even into the next day like resistance training (5).
Here’s a graph to demonstrate this:
Finally, remember, cardio doesn’t help add muscle and can even cause muscle loss when it’s combined with a low-calorie diet!
The Research on Cardio vs Weight Training
One group of researchers investigated the effects of cardio vs resistance training during a low-calorie diet and the effects on muscle mass and weight loss.
Both groups lost a significant amount of body mass (as mentioned earlier calorie deficit is key for fat loss).
However, the cardio group lost 4kg / 9lb of muscle mass whereas the weight training group did not lose any, indicating that all of the weight lost in the resistance training condition was fat mass. In other words, the weight training group lost 9lb more fat and preserved all their muscle mass!
Finally, these researchers also demonstrated that calorie expenditure was significantly greater in the weight training condition compared to cardio, supporting the points discussed in the chapter above.
So is Cardio the Enemy of Fat Loss?
Cardio has an immense amount of health benefits for the body and can still be effective for fat loss when used correctly (7).
Remember, if your goal is to optimize fat loss then you should focus more on weight training and increasing muscle mass and energy expenditure. This isn’t to say the odd bit of cardio won’t be effective. You could still do 2-3 sessions on top of weight training or do a 10 minute warm up and cool down after your main weight training session.
The main point of this article is to clarify that 5x cardio sessions vs 5x weight training sessions will yield very different results over weeks and months on your physique, metabolism and muscle mass.
Ultimately, you will not look or feel the same if you just perform cardio. It’s also worth noting this site is about advanced and optimal results, not ‘average’ results. Sure, if an individual is 40LB overweight and just starting out, even 3 cardio sessions a week will work wonders.
In summary, cardio isn’t bad – it is just that it should be used strategically and, ultimately, should reflect your own personal goals and ideal physique.
What About HIIT Cardio Training?
If you are familiar with HIIT or High Intensity Interval Training you will know it’s a great form of cardio that actually produces results more like weight training.
Dozens of studies have shown that HIIT provides superior results to cardio, and in less time. In fact, research has shown that HIIT increased fat loss by 930% compared to steady state cardio (8).
The key with HIIT training is it mimics weight training by performing short intervals at high intensities. Therefore, if you’re still looking for that fix of cardio or the heart/health benefits that cardio provides, a combo of HIIT and weight training is perfect.
For more information on HIIT and all of its health benefits check out my latest article here: hiit-every-benefit-in-one-article
Example Workout Plan & Split
Day 1: Weight Training Lower Body
Day 2: Weight Training Upper Body
Day 3: HIIT (5 – 10 intervals, 3 min rest)
Day 4- OFF
Day 5: Weight Training Lower Body
Day 6: Weight Training Upper Body
Day 7: HIIT (5 – 10 intervals, 3 min rest)
There you have it – hopefully, you can now see why, for fat loss, weight training is the superior choice to basic cardio. Here are a few points to remember:
- Ultimately, weight loss will occur with a calorie deficit; however, we want to focus on fat loss not just weight loss (losing muscle isn’t cool!)
- Weight training creates more fat loss and increases muscle mass & resting energy expenditure / your metabolic rate.
- Normally cardio may decrease muscle mass and resting energy expenditure over the long run, especially when combined with a calorie deficit or insufficient protein intake.
- If you want to be lean and toned, or lean and muscular, weight training must be your main priority.
- Some cardio on the side is still fine, plus HIIT is a very effective add-on to still reap the heart, lung and health benefits of cardio!
1.) Donnelly, J. E., Blair, S. N., Jakicic, J. M., Manore, M. M., Rankin, J. W., & Smith, B. K. (2009). Appropriate Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for Weight Loss and Prevention of Weight Regain for Adults (vol 41, pg 459, 2009). Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 41(7), 1532-1532.
2.) Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2015). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Edition. Human kinetics.
3.) Peterson, M. D., Sen, A., & Gordon, P. M. (2011). Influence of resistance exercise on lean body mass in aging adults: a meta-analysis. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 43(2), 249.
4.) Hunter, G. R., Wetzstein, C. J., Fields, D. A., Brown, A., & Bamman, M. M. (2000). Resistance training increases total energy expenditure and free-living physical activity in older adults. Journal of Applied Physiology, 89(3), 977-984.
5.) Holloszy, J. O. (1973). Biochemical Adaptations to Exercise; Aerobic Metabolism1. Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 1(1), 45-72.
6.) Wilkinson, S. B., Phillips, S. M., Atherton, P. J., Patel, R., Yarasheski, K. E., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Rennie, M. J. (2008). Differential effects of resistance and endurance exercise in the fed state on signalling molecule phosphorylation and protein synthesis in human muscle. The journal of physiology, 586(15), 3701-3717.
7.) Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian medical association journal, 174(6), 801-809.
8.) Tremblay, A., Simoneau, J. A., & Bouchard, C. (1994). Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Metabolism, 43(7), 814-818.