Cardio vs. Weight Training – Introduction
Cardio vs. Weight Training: Which Is Better for Weight Loss + Fitness?
Improving your fitness and losing weight are two of the best things you can do for your long-term health.
Being fit and the correct weight for your height can extend your lifespan and improve your quality of life, including your all-important mental health.
But what workout should you do?
Is yoga the best?
There are so many choices!
What is Cardio?
Cardio is short for cardiovascular.
It refers to any workout that challenges and develops your cardiorespiratory system, which is the collective term for your heart, lungs, and blood vessels.
Improved cardiovascular fitness is inextricably linked to better cardiovascular health and can lower your risk of:
- Heart disease
- Heart attack
- Type II diabetes
- Respiratory disease
- Some cancers
- All-cause mortality
There are lots of workouts that fall under the banner of cardio, including:
Broadly speaking, most cardio workouts can be classified as either aerobic or anaerobic.
Aerobic means “with oxygen,” and aerobic activities are usually performed at a relatively low level of intensity for prolonged periods, e.g., jogging for 30 minutes.
In contrast, anaerobic activities include things like sprinting, high-intensity interval training, and circuit training.
Anaerobic means “without oxygen,” and anaerobic workouts are usually short and very intense or involve brief periods of strenuous exercise broken up with short rests.
Anaerobic exercise shares many benefits with aerobic training.
However, anaerobic training tends to burn more calories per minute, and workouts are often shorter, so it’s usually more time-efficient.
What is Weight Training?
Weight training is a general term used to describe any activity that overloads your muscles to make them stronger.
Workouts that fall under the banner of weight training include:
- Bodyweight or calisthenics training, e.g., push-ups and pull-ups
- Freeweight training, e.g., barbell and dumbbell exercises such as:
- Olympic weightlifting
- General strength training
With all forms of strength training, you lift weights (either external or your body weight) to overload your muscles.
As a result, your muscles adapt and change to better cope with the demands of your workout.
The benefits of weight training include:
- Stronger muscles
- Better muscle tone
- Increased muscle size
- Increased bone mass
- Improved joint mobility
- Fat burning and weight loss
- Improved cardiovascular fitness and health
It’s important to note that lifting weights won’t automatically give you huge muscles.
While bodybuilding IS a form of weight training, not all weight training workouts are designed to make your muscles grow.
So, there is no need to avoid weight training just because you don’t want colossal biceps or massive shoulders.
Muscles don’t get bodybuilder-big by accident, and it takes a lot of time and energy to build a muscular physique.
Calories Burned – Cardio vs. Weight Training
Any form of physical activity will increase your caloric expenditure.
How many calories you burn will depend on several factors, including how hard and how long you work out for, your body weight, and the type of cardio or weight training workout you do.
That said, because weight training tends to involve short bouts of activity and long rests, it usually burns fewer calories per workout than cardio.
However, it’s important to note that weight training can cause a long-term increase in your daily caloric expenditure.
Winner: Cardio in the short-term, but weight training in the long-term.
Fat Burning – Cardio vs. Weight Training
Weight training and interval training mostly burn carbohydrates and sugar for fuel.
Your body doesn’t have time to break down fat during short, intense workouts.
However, that all changes during prolonged, lower-intensity cardio, when fat becomes your body’s preferred energy source.
That said, while low-intensity cardio does burn more fat than weight training and HIIT, the amount of fat is relatively small.
Also, total calorie expenditure is more important for weight loss than the source of those calories.
Winner: Cardio, but it doesn’t matter much for weight loss.
Strength – Cardio vs. Weight Training
Anything that overloads your muscles will make them stronger.
If you are unfit and deconditioned, even walking will strengthen your leg muscles.
However, as your muscles will soon get used to the demands of walking, cardio won’t increase your strength beyond a relatively low level.
In contrast, the main aim of weight training is to increase skeletal muscle strength.
Workouts get progressively harder to ensure you keep getting stronger.
You can lift heavier weights, do more reps, do more sets, or do more workouts per week to ensure your muscles continue to adapt.
Being stronger is a significant benefit and will make many daily activities easier and less tiring, including cardio workouts.
The reverse is not true for cardio.
Winner: Weight training by a mile!
Muscle Tone and Hypertrophy – Cardio vs. Weight Training
While muscle tone and hypertrophy are two different things, they’re similar enough that they can be lumped together for the purposes of this article.
Muscle tone is the readiness of a muscle to contract, the firmness of a muscle, and how healthy it looks.
In contrast, hypertrophy refers to the size of a muscle.
Cardio and weight training can improve muscle tone, but cardio probably won’t lead to significant muscle growth.
In contrast, strength training will improve muscle tone and make your muscles bigger if you choose an appropriate workout.
Also, weight training usually involves the lower and upper body, whereas most cardio workouts mainly work the legs.
Adaptations are specific to the muscles used during your workouts, so lower-body training only affects the muscles in your legs.
So, if you want to develop your entire body, choose compound exercises that work your torso, arms, and legs.
Winner: Weight training.
Cardio vs. Weight Training – Cardiovascular Fitness
Unsurprisingly, cardio workouts tend to be better for your cardiovascular fitness.
During cardio, your muscles demand more oxygen, and your heart and breathing rate increase to supply them with what they need.
This essentially overloads your cardiovascular system, which responds by getting stronger and more enduring.
In contrast, weight training demands less from your heart and lungs, so it has a smaller impact on your cardiovascular fitness.
However, weight training is similar to interval training in that it involves periods of work alternated with brief rests.
As such, lifting weights does have a small but statistically significant impact on your cardiovascular fitness, especially if you perform large compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges, and power cleans, which leave you out of breath.
Also, it’s worth noting you can do your weight training workout as a circuit, which means exercises are performed back to back.
This will increase the cardiovascular demand of your workout and can improve your fitness as well as regular cardio.
Winner: Cardio, but weight training has cardiovascular benefits, too.
Safety – Cardio vs. Weight Training
There is a small safety risk with all types of exercise.
Pulled muscles, joint injuries, and even heart attacks happen during all workouts, although the chances are very low.
With cardio, the main dangers are overuse injuries caused by doing the same movement over and over again.
Weight training injuries tend to be more acute and are often caused by trying to lift too much weight or using poor exercise form.
The good news is that you can reduce your risk of injury by warming up properly, changing your workout from time to time to avoid overuse injuries, and staying within your limits.
Of course, injuries can still happen, but they’re rare and may even be unavoidable.
Winner: It’s a draw.
Weight Loss and Fitness – Cardio vs. Weight Training – Which is Better?
While cardio and strength training share a few benefits, they generally affect different aspects of your health and wellness.
Cardio is primarily good for your heart, lungs, and cardiorespiratory system, while weight training is better for your skeletal muscles.
Both activities can help you lose weight, although effective weight loss is usually more of a dietary than an exercise issue.
So, because of these significant differences, it’s impossible to say which is better because they have different effects.
The best one is the option that most closely matches your workout goals.
If you want to focus on your cardiovascular fitness, then cardio is the obvious choice.
But, if you want to tone, strengthen, or build your muscles, then weight training is the way to go.
However, if you want to lose weight and burn fat, either workout will get the job done, and you need to sort out your diet.
Cardio vs. Weight Training – Wrapping Up
Cardio and weight training affect your body differently, but both can be very beneficial.
As such, most people should include both of these workouts in their weekly exercise schedule.
That way, you can enjoy all the benefits they offer.
For example, you can:
- Do cardio one day and weight training the next.
- Do cardio after lifting weights.
- Combine cardio with weight training by doing circuit training.
Ultimately, there is no need to choose between cardio and weight training.
Together they can improve all aspects of your fitness, help you reach and maintain your ideal weight, and enhance your health.
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