There are many ways to lose weight from strength training to doing cardio-based activities, like spin or HIIT training.
But, is one more effective than the other?
Here’s my quick answer if your goal is fat loss:
You should prioritize weight training 3-4 times per week for max fat loss results over cardio. While there are cardio workouts you can do to help aid in calorie expenditure, cardio does little to preserve or build muscle, and prioritizing it more than weights will often lead to both fat and muscle loss, rather than solely fat loss.
For optimal results (losing mainly body fat) it’s ideal to prioritize weight training into your workout routine that hits the different parts of the body, and use cardio as needed to help you burn a few more calories based on your individual circumstances.
Before diving into the specifics of cardio vs weights for fat loss, let’s first take a look at the distinction between weight loss vs fat loss
Weight Loss vs Fat Loss: Why Knowing The Difference Matters
These two terms can often be incorrectly used interchangeably, which can make defining each a critical point when it comes to improving body composition and health through fitness and diet modifications.
Defining Weight loss
Weight loss is the term used to describe losing a unit of mass (kilograms, pounds, stones, etc.) over time.
This is taken by standing on a weight scale.
Decreases in weight can come from water loss (dehydration or sweat), food waste leaving the body, muscle loss, and fat loss (and in some cases, loss of bone density as well).
Defining Fat Loss
Fat loss refers to a decrease in the amount of body fat lost after a period of time.
It can often take longer to have decreases in body fat loss than weight loss simply because immediate weight loss comes from loss of water and food waste leaving the body.
Why You Shouldn’t Focus On Weight Loss
When only concerned with weight loss, many people will fail to recognize that if they lose 20lbs, but 5lbs of it is water loss, 7lbs is muscle loss, and the other is 8lbs is fat loss; nearly 40% of the weight they lost came from loss of muscle tissue.
This is a common issue when dieters neglect weight training, employ crash diets, and keep protein and calories too low for too long.
This will often result in similar body fat percentages as before starting the diet, which will have you appear still soft and not toned (also known as skinny fat).
The Switch To Focusing On Fat Loss Instead
By focusing on fat loss, which can be measured by skinfold calipers or various body scans you can monitor fat loss and muscle loss more closely during the diet phase.
In general, you should focus on a slower rate of weight loss to improve your chances of losing higher percentages of body fat and preserving as much muscle as possible.
I shoot for roughly 0.5-.75lbs per week of weight loss on the scale, or slightly higher (.75-1.5lbs for individuals who are heavier to start (225-250lbs +).
By understanding the difference between weight loss and fat loss, and the risks of only focusing on losing weight on the scale, as fast as possible, you can help establish a more reasonable rate of weight loss.
The goal should be to maintain as much muscle as possible to have a more significant improvement in body fat loss and body composition improvements.
Do Cardio Workouts Burn More Calories Than Weight Workouts?
Most people will burn more calories DURING a workout doing cardio simply because they are keeping their heart rate elevated for longer periods of time when compared to weight training workouts.
That said, weight training workouts can burn a ton of calories DURING the workout, with the added benefit of increasing calorie burn AFTER the workout as well, which cannot be said so much for cardio workouts.
If you are concerned with burning the maximal amount of calories to aid in weight loss, a combination of the two workout styles could benefit you the most, as both have their distinct benefits (and drawbacks).
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Benefits of Weight Training When Dieting
The 3 main benefits of doing weights for fat loss are:
- It builds muscle
- It increases metabolism
- It can Improve sleep quality
1. Builds Muscle
Lifting weights builds muscle.
This has widely been established and is one of the main reasons so many people turn to weight training.
Building more muscle can give you the size and shape you are looking for, increase your strength, and aid in hormone production.
On the other hand, cardio workouts typically are not an effective way to build muscle tissue due to the lack of structural loading, which is why individuals who solely perform cardio during a diet phase (and have low amounts of muscle tissue to begin with) often end up losing scale weight but have minimal changes in body composition.
2. Increases Metabolism
Muscle burns more calories than fat both during workouts, and more importantly at rest.
The more muscle someone has, their resting metabolic rate is higher.
This is key for fat loss (and general health), since the higher your metabolism is at rest, the more calories you can consume compared to a less lean you, and still get results (assuming you are still in a caloric deficit).
Can Improve Sleep Quality
Lifting weights can help you fall asleep faster, and increase the quality of your sleep (it has even been established as an alternative treatment for insomnia).
By improving sleep, your body is able to produce hormones, recovery, and improve your overall well being.
Sleep is also important for muscle growth, stress reduction, and appetite control; all of which as key factors that influence fat loss.
Benefits of Cardio When Dieting
As discussed above, when looking to increase fat loss, the goal is to have the majority if not all weight lost on a scale to come from decreased fat, rather than losing fat and muscle.
The more muscle you can sustain during a fat loss program, the more tone and lean physique you will have.
For this reason, cardio is not as critical as eating so that you are in a calorie deficit and weight training in a fat loss phase.
That said, cardio workouts do have their benefits and can be used as needed to aid in overall fat loss if necessary.
The 3 main benefits of doing cardio for fat loss are:
- It aids in caloric expenditure
- It improves heart health
- It boosts immunity
1. Aids in Caloric Expenditure
Cardio burns calories, just like weight lifting does.
The benefit of doing cardio however, is that you can often sustain a higher heart rate since you are staying in motion continuously (or even during HIIT), and do not often have the muscular stress and soreness that comes with weight training.
Cardio workouts can be done to aid in calorie expenditure when you are struggling to eat less food to place yourself in a calorie deficit.
It is important to note that in order to lose fat and weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. The most beneficial ways to do this is to eat less food, lift weights (to maintain as much muscle as you can), and to use cardio sparingly to help burn a few more calories (or, you could simply eat less).
2. Improves Heart Health
When you do cardio, your heart contracts and relaxes for prolonged periods of time at a higher intensity than it does at rest.
Performing cardio can specifically help train the muscles of the heart to become more efficient at pumping more blood per contraction (stroke volume), and be more efficient with its contraction rates (heart rate).
Training cardio can not only improve endurance during exercise itself, but can help your heart perform its job at rest, with less effort and stress.
Moderate intensity exercise has been shown to increase your immunity, help decrease your chances of getting colds, and even help your response to vaccinations.
Cardio workouts that are done in the light to moderate intensity range can also help you decrease stress, which also plays a role in our overall immunity.
It is important to note that high intensity exercise, as beneficial as it is for other aspects of our health and performance, can place stress on the body and acutely suppress immune function (which is why sleep is so important).
Cardio vs Weights Verdict: Which Is Better For Fat Loss?
Both cardio and weight training work for weight loss only when paired with a sound diet plan that has the individual in a calorie deficit.
Both cardio and weights can be used to burn calories, however only weight training has the ability to burn calories AND build muscle (or more importantly, not have you LOSE muscle).
When dieting, it is important to not place yourself in too large of a deficit, as fat loss can only happen so fast. If you are losing weight faster than those ranges, this suggests that any additional weight lost on the scale is coming from water loss, food waste loss, and MUSCLE LOSS.
Therefore, be sure to take a more conservative approach to losing weight (rate of loss), prioritize weight training to preserve and build muscle and strength while dieting, and utilize cardio as needed to help you be in a calorie deficit (helpful when you cannot eat less food due to hunger, etc).
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.