Weight loss can be an overwhelming task. There are so many different approaches we can take when we first commit to it. Diet plans, fitness regimens, supplements, alternative remedies—even surgery—are all options we could consider. It doesn’t help that every single one of them is marketed as a miracle solution to weight troubles.
Humans are herd animals, and when something works, we’re eager to promote it. That’s why the cardio versus weight training for weight loss debate has stood strong all these years. On both sides of this argument, you’ll find devout fanatics who swear that their chosen side is the answer.
But the bandwagon effect is no good when it comes to weight loss, because what we want is results. In fitness, often what works wonders for the goose won’t make any difference at all for the gander.
It’s the same premise as medicine. Some people take to it, some reject it. Our bodies are different, and therefore, there is no magic formula to losing weight. It’s something that has to be designed around a number of factors in your own life: body mass index, dietary needs, metabolism, physical capabilities, and even genetics.
This is a big problem in weight loss. False (and sometimes dangerous) information is constantly fed to us under the delusion that we are all the same.
Still, one thing we know for sure is that cardio and weight training really are good for us, and both of them aid in weight loss. So rather than give you a brief description of why you should be exercising, I want to help you decide which one is better for you.
Weight Loss How-to
It doesn’t matter if you are exercising or dieting—or both—the only way you will lose weight healthily is if your body burns more calories than it takes in. A calorie is not actually a physical part of your body—it’s a unit of energy.
When you have an excess of calories, your body stores it in fat cells, thus causing you to gain weight. A balanced, low-calorie diet is a good place to start if you’re looking to shed extra weight, but exercise is an important part of the calorie discussion.
When your body is put to work, it taps into your calorie reserves to power whichever parts of you are working the hardest. High-intensity workouts will burn more calories because your body needs more fuel to keep up.
This is why it’s most effective to combine dieting and exercise when losing, or maintaining, weight.
How Are Cardio and Weight Training Different?
Cardio is short for cardiovascular activity, and it’s defined as any exercise that raises your heart rate and increases your oxygen levels. Aerobics and cardio are one and the same and are used interchangeably.
Cardio is probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of fitness, and most types of exercise—from jogging or Tae Bo to dancing like no one’s watching—they’re all branches of the cardio tree.
It’s right there in the name: cardio is great for heart health and circulation, and it also benefits your muscles and brain.
Weight training (also known as resistance training or strength training) is officially defined as exercise that involves lifting weights—but it’s so much more than that. Weight training includes anything that creates resistance for your muscles. It’s conditioning, and the ultimate goal is to strengthen and tone your muscles.
It’s not just weight lifting. Although using equipment designed for weight training is always the better option, you can create the necessary resistance with your own body. Squatting, pull-ups, sit-ups, and lunges are also weight training. It’s a bit of a reach, but yoga and Pilates can be placed in this category as well.
Cardio and weight training are vastly different in how they affect your body, but think about it: cardio can be weight training (since it works your muscles), and weight training can be cardio (if it gets your pulse and breathing up).
They both have important health benefits—which I will cover below—and shouldn’t be treated as the same thing. But in one, you’ll always find the other.
Before I get into which one is better and why, here’s what you need to know.
Another thing that puts cardio and weight training in the same box is that both can be harmful when done incorrectly or excessively. I don’t mean to sound like one of those infomercial doctors who recommend consulting a physician before you even get out of bed, but it has to be said.
If you are considering starting either, make sure you are not putting yourself at risk.
Although cardio is the best exercise you can do for your heart health and circulation, too much of it causes strain, which can have adverse effects and actually damage your heart. It’s especially true for extreme athletes, but it applies to you as well. It’s easy to overdo it, so work within your limits.
High-intensity cardio is not recommended if you’re pregnant, elderly, or significantly overweight. It’s also inadvisable if you have a heart condition or cardiovascular disease, or if you struggle with respiratory problems. Muscle and bone injuries could be intensified during cardio, so consider that, too.
It’s not to say that you should avoid cardio altogether. Just be sure to get the all clear from your doctor before you start.
Weight Training Risks
A 2010 study concluded that weight training–related injuries had doubled in prominence in a 20-year span, particularly in men.
Home gyms have persistently grown in popularity, so more people who are interested in weight training have easy access to equipment they might handle to their detriment. The above study noted that a surprising amount of weight training injuries are caused by weights falling on people.
Weight training can damage your muscles and bones too, though. You can read about the hazards of weight training here.
You could be at risk if you are—or have been—injured, have degenerative muscle or bone illnesses, or are fall into the above risk categories for cardio risks.
On that note, let’s pit cardio and weight training against each other to see which one comes out on top for weight loss.
Weight Loss Benefits of Cardio
Cardio is not the only exercise you should do if weight loss is your priority. But it is one of the most effective regimens you can try (and probably the most popular too). Let’s find out why fitness enthusiasts choose cardio.
You Burn More Calories
As explained, cardio raises your heart rate and uses muscles you don’t typically engage. When you do cardio, you have to power more parts of your body all at once. This means more calories are sent out from your reserves, so you burn fat faster.
The higher the intensity of your workout, the more energy you will use, so the more calories you will burn.
You Can Exercise More
In other forms of exercise—weight training especially—your body has to recover from the strain of your workout. With cardio, however, you don’t need to rest as often, so you get more exercise in.
So cardio can also burn more fat in less time.
It’s Versatile and Easy
Cardio doesn’t require any special equipment, and there are so many ways to go about it that you don’t even have to think of it as work. So long as you get your heart racing and sweat a little bit, it counts.
In this video, a fun dance workout is proof of that:
Of course, it’s better to have a rhythmic workout, but if jumping jacks and jogging don’t suit you, try swimming, dancing, cycling, or fast-paced sports.
Even if you’re inclined to stick to a set workout, if you ever get bored of it, you can shake things up by changing your intensity or doing different motions to affect various parts of your body.
Here’s another video. It’s a low-intensity workout, choreographed for heavy people:
You’re spoiled for choice in cardio, and because you get to decide what works for you, it suits almost everyone.
You Can Eat More and Still Lose Weight
If you want to lose weight, you have to eat well. This is not an invitation to eat as much or whatever you like. What’s great, though, is that cardio burns many more calories than most other types of exercise, so it makes a significant difference in your calorie count.
It leaves room for more calories in your food, so you won’t have to commit to as strict a diet as you would in low-intensity workouts.
More Benefits of Cardio
Cardio doesn’t only impact your weight, it aids your overall well-being. It releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin—giving you more energy, better sleep, and improvements in your mood and mental health.
Since it releases so many good hormones, it reduces cortisol and stress. It also keeps your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol under control. Cardio works wonders on your lungs and respiratory processes too, and it strengthens your muscles and bones. It also keeps a range of illnesses (like diabetes) at bay.
Most importantly, it improves your circulation so your brain benefits dramatically. It can improve your memory and reasoning, and it can also fight against Alzheimer’s and other degenerative conditions.
Weight Loss by Cardio Myths
Cardio is popular, so it’s only natural that there’s a lot of false information out there. In some cases, these claims can be dangerous and even cause you to gain weight. Here are some common myths:
Myth: Cardio Is Enough to Lose Weight
It’s a great way to lose weight, but it’s not a cure-all for weight gain. For the most effective weight loss results, you want to combine cardio with other strength-focused exercises and a balanced diet.
Myth: Cardio Is More Effective on an Empty Stomach
Food is energy, and energy is fuel. You can’t drive a car with an empty tank, and you can’t work your body without calories.
Cardio is meant to be tiring not exhausting. If you push your body to its limits (which is exactly what you do when you don’t eat before exercise), you could cause serious harm to yourself and might even collapse. Don’t do this.
For best results, eat at least 90 minutes before your workout.
Myth: Cardio Has to Come First
There is no evidence to suggest cardio should happen before you switch to a low-intensity workout to cool off. The only difference is that if you do cardio first, you’re likely to have more energy to endure a longer workout.
Myth: Steady State Cardio Is Better for Weight Loss
Steady state means that you exercise at a lower intensity for a longer, more consistent time. High-intensity interval training is when you work as hard as possible in shorter bursts, switching to low intensity in between.
The truth is that high-intensity workouts burn calories faster by distributing more to different parts of your body simultaneously. Steady state cardio still burns calories, so it doesn’t really matter which one you prefer. You just have to consider how quickly you want to see results.
The Cons of Cardio for Weight Loss
The benefits of cardio far outweigh the disadvantages of it, but it still has a downside. I want to determine which is better in the battle between cardio versus weight training for weight loss, so I have to consider the cons, too.
It Makes You Hungrier
It goes back to just how much energy cardio burns. Using up your calorie reserves could easily lead to an increase in appetite. Because of cardio’s high-intensity reputation, it tends to cause compensation: overeating as a reward for exercising.
Some people believe cardio cancels out the calories we take in after it, but of course, that’s not how it works.
You Might Lose Muscle Mass
Cardio is great for your muscles, but unless you keep them in shape by regularly increasing the intensity of your workout, it could cause your muscles to shrink. This is only a risk if you do cardio bu itself or if you abuse it.
Too much cardio can force your body to reach into your lean muscle mass to scrape out whatever calories it can find. Since your muscles are not meant to be engines for your system, this can have a disastrous effect on your health.
Is Cardio Right for You?
A better question would be how much cardio is right for you? Everyone should incorporate it into their lives, because it is scientifically proven to be good for you and your health.
But no one can tell you how much of it you should be doing or how intense your workouts should be. That depends entirely on your body.
To begin, you can determine your cardio goals using this target heart rate calculator.
Weight Loss Benefits of Weight Training
Weight training might not be as popular as cardio, but it’s still a good (and necessary) practice if you want to lose weight. Let’s look at its pros.
It Sustains Calorie Burning
I’ve already explained that working your muscles burns calories, but I have to add to that. Weight training not only burns calories while you exercise, it continues to burn calories long after your session is over. This is called afterburn. It’s true that cardio can result in afterburn, too, but not as much of it.
More Muscle Equals Less Fat
Weight training increases your lean muscle mass. So—because muscles burn calories—the more muscle you have, the more calories you will divert to them and away from your fat cells.
I am absolutely not saying that you should aim to be a bodybuilder—that has its own list of cons. All this means is that weight training builds muscle, and muscles burn fat.
It Makes You Stronger
This is important, because the stronger and fitter you are, the more exercise you can endure, so the more fat you will be able to burn. And not just in weight training. All areas of exercise will improve, so your weight loss will get a lot easier.
It Tones Your Body
Getting into shape doesn’t mean that you can lose weight and call it a day. Weight training actively tones and tightens your body, which is the key to looking fit. The progress you make is much more noticeable in weight training than it is in cardio.
More Benefits of Weight Training
Weight training improves your metabolism, which not only makes it easier to lose weight, it also makes it easier to maintain your weight and prevent weight from returning. It also regulates insulin, directly combating diabetes and obesity.
More muscle mass also means stronger bones, lessening the risk of osteoporosis. Since weight training strengthens your entire body, it improves your fitness levels by default and also improves your immunity to illness.
Weight Loss by Weight Training Myths
Some people shy away from weight training because it’s sorely misunderstood. There are so many incorrect assumptions about what it entails that I just have to clear it all up.
Popular myths are:
Myth: Weight Training and Bodybuilding Are the Same
Weight training and bodybuilding are two branches of the same tree. The key difference between the two is that the latter focuses on the size of your muscles, while weight training optimizes strength. In a way, bodybuilding is weight training taken to the extreme.
It’s quite a shame that some people use the terms interchangeably, because not everyone finds bodybuilding appealing. They reject weight training under the impression that if they try it, they’ll become too buff for their liking. This will only happen if you allow it.
Myth: You Have to Restrict Your Diet
Again, weight training and bodybuilding have been confused here. This study found that there is no evidence supporting the idea that limited diets improve the effects of weight training.
Yes, you still want to eat well to lose more weight, but you do not have to live on a high-protein—or otherwise restrictive—diet to benefit from weight training.
Myth: It’s Expensive
You do not need a high-tech home gym and heavy weights for this. Weight training, as explained above, is exercise that places resistance on your muscles, so even if you can’t afford a gym membership or equipment, you can still participate in it.
Squats, lunges, sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups are all examples of weight training exercises. It will help if you can invest in weights, resistance bands, or other equipment, but it is not necessary.
The Cons of Weight Training for Weight Loss
As with cardio, weight training has some negative aspects for us to consider. I think it’s safe to say that the disadvantages of weight training are slightly worse than those of cardio, and there are more of them. This doesn’t mean cardio wins, just that you should take weight training a little more seriously—especially if you are new to it.
Risk of Injury Is Much Higher
I’ve mentioned this already, but I need to emphasize that you can seriously hurt yourself during weight training. Even more so if you don’t take necessary precautions to prevent injury.
Herniated disks, fractures, sprains, tears, and pulled muscles and ligaments are all real threats that could happen accidentally or due to negligence. And let’s not forget that stat about how most injuries are caused by mishandling equipment—an unlikely scenario in cardio.
It’s Not as Versatile
Weight training isn’t something many people can do on the fly. It requires more preparation (and repetition) than cardio, so most of us prefer to have a weight training routine. This is especially true if you are using specialized gear, like resistance bands, weights, medicine balls, or cable machines, at your gym.
It’s also better not to be spontaneous with weight training. The risk of injury is already higher than it should be, and you want to be sure you’re in a safe space to avoid hurting yourself or straining too much.
You can still experiment with a routine that works for you, and just as in cardio, you can adjust your workout intensity to suit your needs. It’s not that weight training is boring, repetitive, or formulated. It’s just not as accommodating as cardio.
Rest Period Is Longer
Your muscles don’t become stronger during exercise—they actually build strength while recovering. Recovery also prevents overexertion.
Of course, you shouldn’t spend more time doing nothing than exercising, but acceptable recovery—a recommended 48 hours between workouts—means that you have less time in which to burn fat.
This shouldn’t deter you, though, because afterburn applies here. Still, if you’re looking for frequent exercise, or something you can do daily, the rest period needed is an important factor that could interfere with your plan.
It Takes Longer to See Results
Since you don’t burn fat as fast as in cardio, it might take longer for you to see weight loss results when your focus is weight training. After all, the point of weight training is building strength—weight loss is just an added bonus.
This isn’t really a downside, but it does matter in your weight loss goals—and it’s important for you to have realistic expectations—lest you disappoint yourself and lose motivation.
Is Weight Training Right for You?
It’s the same as cardio: you really should be doing some sort of weight training, whether it’s your focus or not. It helps with weight loss and toning, so if looking good is important to you, it’s reason enough to get started with weight training.
However, if you want to see results quicker, are looking for frequent or daily exercise, or you can’t invest consistent time or effort into a steady routine, weight training is not the best place to start.
There will be a learning curve—for your own good so that you don’t hurt yourself—and you’ll want to invest at least a little bit of money into protective gear. This is even more important (and non-negotiable) if your workout will be high intensity.
On the other hand, weight training could be the answer to your troubles if you don’t mind being patient and putting in the effort. Slow and steady wins the race.
Cardio vs Weight Training: Which One Should You Pick for Weight Loss?
The short answer is that both cardio and weight training are necessary for weight loss. They complement each other and shouldn’t be seen as incompatible. They’re good for you, and you should include both of them in your routine.
I’m not saying that you should start running marathons, or bodybuild until you resemble a WWE superstar. What I mean is that if you only do cardio you won’t reap the benefits of weight training, and vice versa. It’s better to go for the package deal.
But this doesn’t mean that you should focus on them equally. The results you desire will determine which one you should put more time into.
Focus on Weight Loss by Cardio If:
You’re looking to burn fat quickly for faster results. Cardio is better if you want to improve your overall health and fitness or if you need a versatile program that you don’t need to put too much time or preparation into.
Cardio is also better if you don’t want it to feel like exercise. Perhaps you’d rather take up swimming or a Zumba class. Cardio can also be more social (and more fun) than weight training, which means it’s great for those of us who don’t want to do it alone.
Cardio is also the cheaper option, as it requires no other tools even if you want to take it seriously. Equipment is still an option, but if all you can manage is a morning run around the block, it won’t make a difference to your routine.
Lastly, focus on cardio if you get bored easily and are looking for something you can shake up every once in a while. There’s more freedom in cardio, and the only way you can stay in shape is if you don’t give up on what you’re doing.
Focus on Weight Loss by Weight Training If:
Conditioning is more important to you than simply losing weight. If you want to increase your body’s power, weight training should be a priority. You will still lose weight, but you’ll gain muscle and strength in the process.
Weight training is better for those who can’t, or don’t want to, exercise daily, those who want to start off slow, or who want longer lasting results (at the cost of speed). It’s also more suited to people who are more disciplined or who seek a rigid exercise regimen.
If you want to wing it, go for cardio. A lot can go wrong if you’re irresponsible in weight training, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The Weight Loss Winner Is…
I know I mentioned you need both if you want a balanced exercise regimen, but this was a showdown. There can only be one winner.
My personal pick is weight training. Although it seems it has less overall benefits than cardio, the benefits it does have are more significant in weight loss and, in my opinion, have greater effect.
For one, afterburn means you’ll burn fat without even thinking about it. The same happens with cardio, but it doesn’t last as long. Weight training means you exercise less and still shed weight.
Weight training also builds muscle and, since muscles are powered by calories, the more muscle you have, the more fat you will burn. This will apply to daily life outside of exercise as well. Simply put, weight training is a far more sustainable way to lose weight—one that ironically requires less energy.
The superficiality is a factor as well. If you could only do one, weight training would have a stronger effect on your appearance: toning, firming, and tightening your body, while growing muscle as well.
You will still look great after cardio, but if you’re losing a lot of weight, you’ll have to do a lot of maintenance. Weight training is the maintenance.
Weight training didn’t win this one in a landslide. I’m still a fan of cardio, and I’m not implying that you should disregard it. I just feel that, when they’re matched against each other for weight loss, cardio might be the simpler choice, but weight training is the smarter one.
Of course, the smartest choice would be to design a routine that includes both. If you are serious about losing weight, you will need the best of both worlds. You’ll be lighter, stronger, and healthier if you do.