I got my first gym membership when I was 19 years old. It was my first year of college and the pounds were slowly creeping on, as was an alarming sense of dread that appeared every time I had to climb the 5 stories worth of stairs to my freshman Intro to Oil Painting class. For the first time in my life, an unusual feeling had come over me. A voice inside my head was telling me to work out. There’s a lot of ways in which I am an unusual candidate for being a personal trainer, let alone a fitness director. First and foremost being that I did not play sports as a kid nor had a seeming athletic bone in my body until I was in the latter half of my twenties. But also the fact that I hadn’t even walked into a traditional gym prior to age of 19.
But age 19 proved to be the year that I WOULD step into a traditional gym. Between January 05 and May 05 I had lost nearly 25lbs and was feeling pretty good about myself. It was just me, my headphones, and an elliptical. And like, 6 or 7 hours of dedication to that each and every week. No big deal. I would continue to lose another 10lbs over the course of another 6 months. I was indeed svelte.
Fast forward 13 years later and I am now a fitness professional, and in these past 4 or so years have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. But, with nearly a decade of fitness mistakes under my belt, I’ve basically tried every thing under the sun both nutritionally and fitness related to try and improve, change or alter my body. I am often asked the question about whether or not I think it makes more sense to do cardio over strength training to achieve fat loss. And through both research, and personal experience, I have an answer for that very question.
Cardio will definitely have you burning more calories in an hour than an hour dedicated to strict strength training. If you train with us at BNF and you are connected to a MyZone, or any heart rate or intensity tracker than determines an approximation of calories burned, then you know this to be true. Cardio wins the calories burned game all day long. However, cardio does not provide the same lasting change as strength training, and in many ways can create some serious metabolic issues if relied on too heavily as your only means of weight loss and maintenance. Now, lets go back to my story…
I would fight for the remainder of my college years to maintain this weight loss. Spending hours in the various gyms spread across campus, sometimes pulling two a day cardio workouts. I found over time that I had to eat less and less to maintain my weight, in addition to having to do more and more cardio. Without going into too much detail, lets suffice it to say I had gotten myself into a very bad situation for my health, and my mindset. Senior year of college hit, and due to one too many stresses on top of another, I ballooned right back up and had gained about 30 pounds. This wasn’t due to crazy binges, and in fact I had significantly improved my nutrition by becoming a vegan. My body was just done. It wanted to reset, no matter how hard I pushed back.
Over the course of the rest of my twenties I would rally a weight loss and regain, back and forth over and over. And it wasn’t until I decided to play a sport, and become a certified personal trainer, that I would really learn the answer to the important question posed above. Whats better for fat loss and weight maintenance, strength training or cardio?
First lets answer one question – What causes fat loss? Fat loss is more or less determined by a caloric deficit created through a calories in/calories out equation. But, thats not the whole story. I instead like to think of calories as our energy currency – the fuel that keeps the machine working and chugging along. You need a certain amount of calories in so that you can keep the machine working optimally. Fat loss happens as a result of all other systems firing properly, and then you factor in the caloric deficit, best done with a combination of diet and exercise.
I like to recommend shooting for a total(through both exercise and diet) caloric deficit that is equal to no more than 20 – 25% of your daily needs. Lets say you need 2400 calories a day just to maintain. Drop 200-300 calories from your daily diet, add in a workout that burns about 300 – 400 calories, and you could easily lose 1 to 1.5lbs a week. That’s safe, sustainable fat loss. Days where you don’t workout – feel free to eat less. Days that you strength train, you’ll need to eat more to get the results you are looking for. Remember – if you start off by immediately taking away 40 to 50% of your needs, you leave yourself very little wiggle room when you plateau. There’s only so much food you can take away, and only so much more time you can spend trying to burn more calories each day.
Next, lets look at what exactly happens when you engage in strength training. If it doesn’t burn as many calories, then why is this better for fat loss?
- Muscle works harder at rest. Just existing with more muscle on your frame will have you burning more calories at rest as its a more metabolically active tissue. At rest, your body needs and burns energy to maintain itself. A pound of muscle may burn as many as 7 to 10 calories at rest where as a pound of fat will only burn 2 to 3 calories at rest. Therefore, working on building and maintaining lean mass will overall improve your metabolism.
- Strength training improves insulin sensitivity. When we take in carbohydrate, our body turns it into glucose for either immediate use or for storage for later use. The presence of glucose in our blood stream signals for the release of insulin, which will move the glucose towards storage in our muscle or in the liver (glycogen stores) for current or later use. If there is too much for either immediate use or for muscle or liver storage, it will be stored as adipose tissue(fat). Muscle contractions signal insulin to move glucose into our skeletal muscle, improving our overall sensitivity to insulin. This allows us to build more lean tissue, helping us improve overall body composition.
- You will continue to burn more calories after a strength training workout than after a cardio workout. As soon as you are done with your cardio session, you are basically done burning that higher number of calories. After a session with weights your metabolism can stay revved for up to a full day or longer, meaning more overall calories burned and a higher metabolic rate.
- Strength training provides a lot of variety. We all know how easy it is to get bored with doing the same cardio workout. With that variety also comes more progression. Strength training can almost always be varied and progressed to get different out comes and to push the envelope so to speak, equalling continued results. At a certain point, the only thing you can do to your cardio workout to get more out of it is to go for longer or to up the intensity. There’s really only so far that you can push those variables before you either get hurt or just get burnt out.
So what should I DO?!
I would never suggest to only strength train and never do any cardio – its not balanced, and I totally understand that some people just really enjoy the feeling of a sweaty cardio session(myself included). Cardio is good for mental stress relief, feels good, is great for improving work capacity and cardiovascular health, and is an important part of a well rounded fitness regiment.
That being said, the importance of strength training should not be overlooked and should be given priority in your programming. That is, if you are looking for fat loss, weight maintenance, aesthetically pleasing results, and improved strength among other things. My suggestion is for 2 to 4 days of strength supplemented by 2 to 3 short and effective cardio workouts. As always, it depends on your goals, it depends on what you have for time and what the rest of your life looks like. But the plan that is sustainable, and that allows for consistent strength training with consistent progression, is probably the one where you are going to have the most long term success.