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Cardio vs. Strength Training: Which Is Best For Fat Loss?

There is a common longstanding belief that cardio is the best type of exercise if your goal is to lose weight. This is easy to observe if you walk into most any health club during peak hours. You’ll often find most of the individuals who appear to be exercising for weight loss on the cardio equipment and not so many in the free weight training area.

I believe one of the main reasons behind this is the faulty belief system that in a vacuum, cardio is best for weight loss and strength training is best for muscle building.

While cardio is certainly beneficial for weight loss and obviously strength training is beneficial for building muscle, I’d make the argument that strength training is best for BOTH muscle building and fat loss.

It’s been my experience over the past twenty plus years in the fitness training industry that the key component in a lean body transformation is unequivocally strength training.

Therefore, if you’re goal is fat loss, it should be at the base of your pyramid of priorities with exercise training in general.

Remember, it’s muscle that burns fat for energy production. Don’t get lulled into the hype with “calorie burning” equations with cardio exercise. Sure, you’ll be burning calories while you’re on the stair master or whatever, but when you step off the machine the calorie burning stops.

This is not the case with strength training, especially if you’re doing it in a way to produce a metabolic response. Again, if your goal is to lose inches and change the way your body looks, you’ll be best served to prioritize strength training and then add some cardio at the end of your routines or on “off” days.

This is NOT to negate the benefits of cardio training.

So before you get up in arms, make sure you’re hearing me correctly. I firmly believe in the benefit of cardio and it certainly plays a valuable role in the reduction of body fat. What I’m saying is that if I had to choose just one form of exercise to do over the next 30 minutes and my goal was fat loss, would it be strength training or cardio? No question, in my book it would be strength training.

Now you give me 45 minutes and I’m doing 30 minutes of strength and 15 minutes of cardio. The kicker here is that you wouldn’t find me programming 15 minutes of strength and 30 minutes of cardio. Why? Simple, because the foundation for a lean body transformation is well….working lean muscle. It’s your priority.

Peer reviewed research appears to back this up. Here’s one study that was published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition (1999 Apr; 18(2):115-21). This study directly compared resistance exercise only to cardio exercise only.

The cardio group did 4 hours of low intensity cardio a week while the resistance group did 10 exercises; 2-4 sets, 8-15 reps for 3 times a week. Both groups were on a controlled diet with identical calorie deficits.

The results of the study found the weight training group lost significantly more body fat but even more importantly they maintained or gained lean muscle.

One of the problems with doing lots of cardio, especially when combined with prolonged restrictive dieting, is that it can actually lead to a metabolic slowdown which can make fat loss even more difficult.

Contrary to popular belief women who perform weight training won’t get “big and bulky” muscles either. It’s important to remember that you can’t tone fat. If you want to change your body composition, you have to burn fat by developing lean muscle. The only way to do this is to apply an overload stimulus to your muscles. Intensity is important and you must be pushing yourself to see results.

There are several techniques that can be used to accomplish an overload stimulus and you'll find an effective program will utilize more than one to avoid reaching a plateau with training.

The best way to figure out how to incorporate a strength training program into a fat loss program is to seek the counsel of an experienced fitness professional. Not only can he or she provide you with an effective routine, but also provide beneficial accountability and structure.

If you’re in the Charleston, SC area we’d be more than happy to meet with you for a no-obligations consultation to learn more.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, motivational speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He has over 20 years experience with fitness coaching and consulting and specializes in training programs for middle age and mature adults. If you live in the Charleston, SC area you can meet with Shane for a no-obligations consultation.


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