Cardio vs. Strength Training: Which Should You Be Doing

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The classic battle of which workout regimen reigns supreme has been going on as long as people have exercised. At this point, we’ve all seen the women who credit their new sculpted bodies to their daily “hot girl walks” just as we see others ridiculing the cardio enthusiasts for wasting their time on the treadmill.

Whether you’re one who prefers cardio over weightlifting or vice versa, you probably have found yourself asking which is better and what you should actually be doing. In this article, I will break down the traditional cardio vs strength training debate and give you the run down on what you should be doing, and how often depending on what your goals are.

In this article:

Cardio

What is Cardiorespiratory Training

Cardio or aerobic training is any exercise that requires the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to supply oxygen-rich blood to the body for sustained periods of activity. This type of activity strengthens the hearts and improves breathing efficiency in addition to its various other benefits.

Benefits of Cardio

The benefits from this type of training are many; improved cardiovascular function, increased lung capacity and more efficient oxygen use by the body. In addition to the increased fitness benefits, cardiorespiratory training can also improve mental health by reducing stress levels and anxiety. Some other benefits you can expect are listed below.

Improved heart health – Cardio has been associated with improved circulation and overall heart health.

Reduced risk of death and chronic illness – Cardiorespiratory fitness is one of the strongest predictors of morbidity and mortality and can effectively reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease.

Weight management – Cardio can burn extra calories which can aid in weight loss goals.

Reduced Diabetes Risk – Research has found that those with adequate cardiorespiratory fitness levels are less likely to develop type two diabetes. Although notably, most available studies are unable to control other diet and lifestyle factors to determine if this is a correlation or causation relationship. Many individuals who participate in cardio activity tend to be more health conscious all around.

Downsides of Cardio

Cardiovascular workouts are great for burning fat and increasing your heart rate, but they’re not as effective at building muscle mass as weightlifting. And while cardio workouts can help you lose weight, they don’t provide the same benefits to your bones and joints that strength training does.

For those who are seeking to maintain or build mass, cardio can also increase caloric needs. So while those with muscle building goals should still include cardio in their routine, these additional calories lost need to be accounted for through the diet.

Certain types of cardio can also be hard on the joints—especially if you have an underlying injury or condition such as arthritis or osteoarthritis. In these instances, low impact cardio such as rowing, cycling, swimming, or the elliptical are viable options.

High-Intensity vs. Low-Intensity Cardio

Cardio can be low-intensity, moderate-intensity or high-intensity. Low-intensity cardio is typically performed at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate (MHR), while moderate-intensity cardio is at 80%-85%. High-intensity cardio means working out at 85% of your MHR or higher.

You’re probably wondering which one is better for you, right?

Well, research has not concluded that neither high-intensity nor low-intensity cardio is more effective than another when it comes to fat loss or hypertrophy. The main advantage of high-intensity cardio is that it can generate comparable results to longer bouts of lower-intensity cardio within a shorter period.

I often see the other common social media debate on low intensity vs high intensity work for fat loss. The one person says, walking burns more fat, and the other rebuts that running burns more calories. Here is the deal, both are are accurate…sort of. Lower intensity exercise does use fat as its primary energy source, which means that you do technically metabolize more fat during the duration of the exercise. However, when it comes to losing fat, we know that the greater the calorie deficit, the greater the fat loss. And low intensity bouts of cardio expend fewer calories than higher intensity ones.

On the flip side, higher intensity cardio will use glucose primarily as its energy source. Although it will also burn more calories (if performed for the same duration) so your body will deplete its glycogen stores during the exercise and metabolize more fat later on the day. So all of this is to say that if fat loss is your goal, you will make more progress by choosing the activity that will burn the greatest amount of calories.

So which is better?

Both types of cardio have different advantages on the body; for instance, high-intensity cardio training can improve VO2 Max (the maximum rate at which oxygen can be taken up and utilized by your muscles), which may be beneficial to athletes; whereas low-intensity exercises can improve mitochondrial efficiency (the body’s ability convert food into energy) and resting heart rate.

The moral of this story? Incorporate both types of training into your regimen!

Effective Types of Cardio

When it comes to cardio, the key is to find something that you enjoy doing otherwise you will not consistently do it. For the steady state cardio that people generally find boring, I usually tell my clients to find an audiobook, podcast, or tv show that they really enjoy and only allow themselves to watch/listen to it during their cardio. This works well for a lot of people because it turns the otherwise dreaded task into something that gives them an opportunity to do something they like.

Low or moderate intensity steady state cardio should comprise the majority of you cardio workouts, although if your goal is weight loss caloric expenditure should be considered. So if you only have 20 minutes for cardio, you may be better off jogging over walking or increasing the intensity.

To improve speed, agility, quickness,VO2 max, or maximize calorie expenditure within a confined a timeframe, complete a high intensity interval (HIIT) workout once or twice a week. There are many different ways to do this, for instance: 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest or 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest.

You can even include some body weight strength training exercises like burpees or wall balls to get some strength and cardio benefits together. These work periods should involve maximum effort where you reach a point of breathlessness. Although, again, due to its high intensity nature, you should not complete HIIT workouts more than twice a week because it can inhibit muscle recovery and lead to overtraining.

Types of Cardio You Can Do At Home

I know that going to the gym in of itself is a hurdle for a lot of people. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to get a great cardio workout without ever leaving your home.

Below are some of my favorite options that can facilitate cardio training at home.

Peloton bike

The Peloton bike may be overly hyped, but I really am a genuine fan of the Peloton products. The equipment is solid and the classes and simulated rides are awesome. There really is something for everyone. Because I really don’t love biking, I decided to opt for the expensive Peloton treadmill and get a cheaper stationary bike for the days when my hips need a break. But if biking is your chosen form of cardio, the Peloton is worth the splurge.

Affordable, basic stationary bike

For those who don’t want to drop $1500 on a bike, I get it. This more affordable option is the one I personally have in my gym and while it’s not the best, it gets the job done. However, I do want to note that while the listing shows an iPad on the mount, I do not suggest using it for this purpose. The bike wobbles quite a bit when you are pedaling hard and my iPad has gone tumbling onto the concrete garage floor.

Peloton treadmill

If you missed it, I wrote an entire article reviewing this thing and it’s what I use for pretty much all of my cardio. I love the classes and there are tons of “scenic runs” which I personally love for days when I just want to listen to an audiobook or as a warm up or cool down for my strength training.

Walking pad

If you are on social media, you almost certainly have seen the walking pads rising in popularity. While not something I have personally tried, I do have a few clients who use these and really like. People put these under their standing desks or set them up inside, in front of their TV. The great thing is that they are super light and transportable and much more affordable than a traditional walking pad.

Row machine

Rowing is another popular cardio activity that involves the legs and arms and is low impact. This rower is compact and affordable which makes it a great addition to your home gym.

Elliptical

While I have a personal vendetta against elliptical machines, it’s not for any good reason other than I hate using them myself. But for many people, it’s a great running alternative because it uses similar movement patterns without the impact that can be disruptive on the joints. This one is a light option has great reviews and is reasonably priced.

Now you have some cardio equipment options for the home gym. However, if you have don’t have the space or would prefer not to spend any money, then cardio is as simple as going for a walk or run around your neighborhood.

Strength Training

What is Strength Training

Strength training is the use of resistance to build or maintain muscle mass, endurance, power, and strength. It includes exercises that generate force using controlled movements. Strength (aka resistance) training involves sets of exercises with multiple repetitions, the number of which vary based on the objective of the workout.

Benefits of Strength Training

As you already know, strength training can help you build muscle mass and improve your metabolism. But did you know that it also helps with everything from balance to posture? Here are some of the other benefits of strength training:

  • Increased muscle mass — This is the most well-known benefit of strength training. While a benefit to many, women often choose not to lift weights out of fear that they are going to get too big. For any of you who fall into this category, rest assured, it is actually quite challenging to build muscle—it can take a month of heavy lifting and diligent nutrition to gain even half a pound of muscle mass. And often times it is this muscle mass that gives women the lean, “toned” physique that many want. Consider the metabolism boost that muscle mass brings, simply as an added bonus.
  • Improved lean mass and metabolism – For older populations, resistance training can help prevent age-related muscle deterioration which can not only help maintain physical appearances but also prevent the slowing of the metabolism.
  • Increased strength – As you may expect, by lifting weights, your muscles become stronger through adaptation.
  • Increased bone density — Resistance training places additional stress on your bones which can help improve bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Improved balance — resistance training improves range of motion, joint stability, and balance by forcing muscles throughout your body to work together and leveraging lesser-used stabilizer muscles that play a critical role in balance and injury prevention.
  • Improved posture — Strength training can help correct muscle imbalances that result in postural syndromes.

Downsides of Strength Training

There are some downsides to strength training, though. For one, it can cause injury if proper form is not executed.

Similarly, strength training can also cause muscle soreness and fatigue. This is common when starting out but should go away as your body gets used to working out more often. You may also experience decreased flexibility. All of these potential downsides can be prevented, however, through stretching and foam rolling.

When it comes to recovery time, strength training requires more rest than cardio does because it puts much more stress on the muscles compared to cardio workouts. So it’s important to create a split that works for your schedule and allows each muscle group adequate rest.

Strength Training at Home

Another common reason that people avoid strength training is because they don’t have the proper equipment. However, you can complete an effective strength training workout with minimal equipment and even just bodyweight. With this said, if muscle development is your goal, you will eventually need to progress to higher workloads to continue to to experience hypertrophy. If you are thinking about upgrading your home gym, here are a few of my favorite items:

Starter Dumbbell Kit

If you’re just getting started with weightlifting, especially for my women, this is going to be a great dumbbell kit. It has dumbbells ranging from 5 to 25 lbs which is going to be sufficient for many exercises. It even comes with a nice rack to keep them organized

Multi-Functional Weight Bench

This weight bench is awesome because it is an all-in-one solution. From a flat bench to a back extension machine—this is one of the only benches I could find that could do so much. The back of the bench is adjustable so you can put it at a decline, an incline, or of course, keep it flat. I have one of these in my garage and I use it for back extensions, decline crunches, and preacher curls in addition to all of my weight exercises.

Barbell Set

Another great Amazon option and a gym staple—I always recommend that those with physique goals have access to a barbell. This one is great because it comes with the barbell, the plates and the clips and is more affordable than buying each option separately. They have different packages depending on the amount of weight you need. Yes, weights are expensive, but between the above dumbbell set and the barbell you will have just about everything you need. The dumbbells for the upper body/lower weight exercises and the barbell for bigger muscle groups. Note that while I love this set, you do need a rack to do a lot of the barbell exercises. I have a recommendation for that below.

Barbell Cage

If you are going to get the barbell, I strongly encourage you to invest in a cage as well, otherwise your barbell exercises will be limited to curls and deadlifts. This one is very nice for the price and it comes with a pull up bar as an added bonus. They also sell different packages with lat pull down extensions but you can always purchase that later if you need it.

Resistance Bands

Finally, if you aren’t quite ready to invest in the weights, you can start working on your strength training with some resistance bands. This set is under $30 and it comes with resistance up to 50 lbs. You can also stack them to increase the weight. It comes with various attachments for the hands, and legs.

Both Benefit the Body in Different Ways

So now that you know the benefits of cardio and resistance training and have a few items you can add to your Christmas list, let’s get back to the discussion. Which is better? Well, both help you lose weight and gain muscle. But it’s more complicated than that. Cardio is better for your heart health, while weightlifting is better for your strength and size. Both types of exercise have their place in a healthy lifestyle plan.

Cardio vs. Weightlifting for Weight Loss

If your goal is weight loss, you may be wondering which type of exercise is more effective? I want to start by saying that nutrition is a huge part of the game when it comes to weight loss. It is going to be extremely challenging to make considerable progress toward your goals with exercise alone. But the gym certainly can help increase the efficacy of your efforts in the kitchen.

Cardio can be more effective toward weight loss because it can help you achieve a greater caloric deficit, which we all know is the only road to fat loss. It can also improve overall heart health, lower LDL cholesterol, improve blood pressure, and reduce the risk factors for heart disease. For this reason, cardio should definitely be included in any weight loss plan. However, resistance training should be included as well. Resistance training (paired with adequate protein intake) can help maintain muscle mass during caloric deficits and maintain metabolic rates which. is going to expedite results and give your body more definition as the fat comes off.

Cardio vs. Weightlifting for Muscle Gain

There’s a lot of misinformation about the best way to gain muscle. To get bigger, you need to do some weightlifting. That said, cardio isn’t completely useless for building muscle mass—it just takes a backseat in your program. If you want to increase your lean body mass (LBM), which is the total amount of your body that isn’t fat, then resistance training paired with a high carbohydrate and moderate protein diet will be key. However, cardio should be included as well if you want to improve your overall health and longevity.

For this population, I suggest including 15 to 30 minutes of light, low intensity cardio in your workouts two to three times a week. Usually, I have my clients do this on the upper body days of their splits.

Cardio vs. Weightlifting for General Population

As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. In terms of health and fitness, it takes both cardio and weightlifting to maximize overall wellness.

Cardio can improve general health and reduce disease risk while resistance training can help build muscle, maintain lean mass as you age and improve metabolism. Both are important for general health and wellness but they shouldn’t replace each other.

Cardio Before or After Weights

This is another common question I am asked, and the truth is that there’s no clear winner in this debate. We’ve established that regardless of your goals, you should have both cardio and weight training in your routine.

Most trainers recommend resistance training first so the muscles are well-rested and you can get the greatest output from the training. However, clinical evidence has shown that cardio can be completed before or after resistance training without compromising lifting performance.

So for this reason, it’s completely up to you which order you prefer to do your exercises in. Some people like doing cardio first, others prefer resistance training first. I usually say to get whichever one you enjoy least over with first, so it’s not lingering at the end of the other activity.

How to Incorporate Both Into a Program

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of cardio activity each week. All populations should aim to achieve at least this much, but those seeking weight loss should aim for more.

For those seeking weight loss, you should aim to do more cardio than resistance training with most exercises being low-intensity with one to two high intensity session per week or as part of your resistance training program. For those looking to build muscle mass, including light cardio on the upper body days of your split is sufficient.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is strength better than cardio?

The answer is that it depends on your goal. Both strength training and cardio should be included in an effective training program. However, generally speaking, those looking to lose weight should spend more time doing cardio and those looking to build muscle mass should spend more time doing weights.

Does strength or cardio lose weight faster?

Cardio perpetuates faster weight loss than weightlifting alone. However, it’s important to remember that weight loss does not always mean fat loss. Cardio alone can cause fat and muscle loss which can also cause negative metabolic adaptions and not necessarily lead to your ideal physique. Combining cardio with resistance training is the best way to maintain muscle mass, keep your metabolism up and achieve your optimal physique.

Can you lose weight by only lifting weights?

Yes! Weight lifting burns calories which can contribute to a caloric deficit, the necessary component of any weight loss journey. And depending on the types of workouts you are doing, in some cases, you can burn just as many if not more calories lifting weights as during a low intensity cardio session. Additionally, weight lifting can improve your metabolism which can lead to more calories burned at rest.

Disclaimer: I make a small commission on some of the affiliate links above. If you chose to purchase any of the items through the links, I appreciate your support in that way!

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