Which is better for fat loss: cardio or strength?

Despite your attraction to daily cardio, here are a few good reasons to shift your focus from cardio training to strength training.

Despite your attraction to daily cardio

I often get asked, “What’s the best for weight loss: cardio or strength?”

And before I dive into the scientific answer, it’s worth mentioning that the best exercise is one that you’ll actually do.  Even if running or yoga or plyometrics were the best exercise for weight loss, and you hate doing it, you probably won’t do it.  The topic of ‘which exercise is best’ then becomes irrelevant.

It’s also a good time for a reminder that exercise alone is not enough to transform your body. Nutrition and lifestyle factors such as stress, sleep, hormonal imbalances and medications will all factor in. With that being said, if your goal is to improve your health and shed extra body fat (and keep it off) exercise is extremely important.  I find it extremely frustrating that there are weight loss plans out there that recommend not exercising because the calories from diet are not enough to sustain movement.  It’s ludicrous.  I digress, that could be an entirely different article (or book).

So what is best for weight loss: strength training or cardio?

If all you truly care about is the number on the scale, opt for cardio. In fact, the  quickest way to lose weight may actually be to hitch a ride to the moon and weigh yourself there.  The scale will show a lower number- but your body will look the same.

The moon example is a bit far fetched, but I hope you get the point.  Many people get caught up with the number on the scale, but it does not measure fat loss, or health for that matter.  Changes on the scale can reflect changes in water, muscle mass, waste and body fat.  For example, if you’re prescribed bed rest for a few weeks, you will most likely lose weight, but that weight loss is due to muscle wasting.  Most people don’t actually want to just lose weight; they want to shed body fat. If this is the case, and you don’t want to lose your muscle mass (and therefore lower your metabolic rate), it’s time to start lifting weights.

If you have been reluctant to lift weights in the past, you’re not alone.  First, conventional wisdom says that since cardio burns more calories during a bout of exercise, it will lead to burning more body fat. I was taught this when I went to school.  However, the body is a bit more complicated than a simple math equation (I’ll get to this in a bit). Simply moving more (burning more calories) and eating less (counting calories and keeping it to a certain number) is not a sustainable way to lose body fat and keep it off.  Also, strength training requires skill.  Most people learned how to walk, run and ride a bike at an early age- not how to do a proper push-up or lunge.  In order to be effective and to prevent injuries, strength training needs to be done correctly.

The ‘gymtimidation’ factor can also deter you from lifting weight.  If you’re new to exercise or not confident with strength training, then going to a regular gym can be intimidating.  You can however, get muscle-sculpting results at home, or opt to workout at a private training studio.

And finally, many women shy away from lifting anything heavier than their purse because they think you’re going to look like a body builder.  It will not happen!  Women do not have the hormones required for extreme muscle gain.  Even men have to work extremely hard to bulk up.

Despite your attraction to daily cardio, or potential fear of lifting weights, there are a few good reasons to shift your focus from cardio training to strength training (or if you’re just getting started with fitness, to start lifting weights).

Strength Training and Metabolic Rate

Strength training boosts your metabolism.  Muscles are metabolic tissue- meaning they burn energy (calories) even at rest.  Drop in muscle mass is a major component in the drop in metabolic rate in women as they hit their 40s and beyond.

Strength Training and Calories Burned

While you’ll likely to burn more calories during a bout of cardio, you will burn more calories in the 24-48 hours after a strength workout.

Strength Training and Hormones

Strength training promotes a fat burning hormonal environment.  Cardiovascular training, on the other hand, tends to raise cortisol in the body. While in moderate doses, this is a good thing, adding stress to our already stressful life can be counterproductive to fat loss. Cortisol increases muscle loss, and increases fat stores, especially around the midsection.

Strength Training and that “Toned Look”

Strength training shapes the body.  If you lose weight with cardio alone, you will lose both body fat and muscle mass.  Essentially, you’ll be a smaller version of yourself.  Many people desire a more ‘sculpted’ look, or want to look ‘toned’.  Muscle ‘tone’ is the direct result of picking up a heavy object, putting it down, and repeating.

While this article focuses on strength training and fat loss, it’s important to mention that strength training improves your quality of life. Whether you’re picking up your child or grandkid, loading your kayak, or unloading groceries – your life will be easier when you’re strong!

If your goal is to shed body fat it’s time to lift weights.  I’m not recommending that you retire your running shoes altogether.  Cardio training can also aid in fat loss.  It’s great for heart health, improves your energy levels and mood, and it simply feels good.  Best bet?  Do both. Lift weight 2-3 times per week and walk, or do another form or cardio on the other days.

If you are interested in shedding body fat, say good-bye to the long hours of cardio training, and say hello to a few sets of dumbbells.  Your bones, muscles, and figure will thank you.

Tanja Shaw is a health and fitness coach, Rotarian, passionate entrepreneur, mom, runner, and owner of Ascend Fitness Inc. and host of the Fit & Vibrant You Podcast. Tanja and her team of expert fitness coaches inspire and coach others to become stronger, more confident and energetic versions of themselves.  Visit Tanja  at  www.ascendfitnesscoaching.com and  www.tanjashaw.com.

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