Cardio and Strength Training for Weight Loss: Why You Should Do Both

Cardio and Strength Training for Weight Loss: Why Do Both

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One of the perennial questions about exercise for weight loss is whether to concentrate on aerobic exercise or weight training. In years past, those seeking to lose weight focused on cardio and avoided resistance training. After all, gaining muscle can mean gaining weight.

But muscle is lean tissue. Increasing the amount of lean tissue on your body improves your overall body composition and can even provide some metabolic benefits to make weight loss easier. Still, that doesn't mean you should avoid cardio. Cardio and weight training are two different types of exercise, but when you put them together, you have a powerful combination for fat loss success.

What Is Strength Training?

Strength training—also called resistance training—helps you build muscle and make muscle stronger. Strength training means moving your body against resistance. Resistance may include tools such as dumbbells, barbells and weight plate, resistance bands, or kettlebells.

You might also simply move your body against gravity. Bodyweight exercises such as lunges and push ups are highly effective for building strength.

Benefits for Weight Loss

Weight training burns calories, just like other forms of exercise. You'll usually burn fewer calories during a traditional weight training session than you would during a vigorous cardio session. But there are other ways that resistance training helps you to reach your weight loss goals.

Muscle has a slightly higher metabolic rate than fat, so having more muscle helps you to raise your resting metabolic rate (energy expenditure). However, the differences are not dramatic. Even at the high end of predictions (which are disputed), it is just a few calories per day for each pound of muscle increased. That helps, but it's not life-changing.

But weight training is important to help you maintain muscle—especially if you are dieting. When you lose weight by restricting calories, you are likely to lose some muscle mass. Ideally, you want to lose the fat but hold onto the muscle.

Weight training helps you maintain lean muscle tissue during weight loss, and has many other benefits for health and performance, such as increasing bone density and improving quality of life as we age.

What Is Cardio?

Cardio, or or cardiovascular activity, is movement that raises your heart rate and keeps it elevated continuously for the duration of the workout.

Cardio is also referred to as aerobic activity because during this type of activity, your body uses oxygen to turn glucose into fuel. Aerobic means "with oxygen." You'll notice that your breathing becomes deeper during cardio or aerobic activity because your oxygen needs increase.

Aerobic activity can be performed at a low intensity level, a moderate intensity level, or a high intensity level. There are different types of cardio or aerobic activity:

  • Steady state cardio is when you participate in activities like cycling, running, or taking an aerobics class and keep your heart rate within a steady range for the duration of your workout. Steady state cardio is often (but not always) performed in a moderate range, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines as between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate.
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT) combines vigorous aerobic activity with short rest segments. Because this type of workout requires that you work at a very high intensity level (between 77% and 93% of your maximum heart rate), these workouts are generally shorter in duration than steady state cardio workouts.

Benefits for Weight Loss

Scientific studies pop up from time to time showing a certain level of fat loss with cardio versus weights—and for the most part, cardio outperforms weights in any reasonable comparison.

The main advantage of steady state aerobic exercise at moderate intensities is that you can do it continuously for much longer than the intermittent task of lifting weights.

It is this non-stop movement that gives cardio an inherent advantage in energy expenditure during an exercise session.

Researchers have also found that moderate intensity activity, such as brisk walking, produces health benefits without a high risk of injury. For many people, a session of moderate intensity exercise is more approachable and attainable and therefore a more realistic approach to exercise than heavy weight lifting (which requires knowledge about the use of equipment) or vigorous aerobic activity.

But while both moderate-intensity cardio workouts and high-intensity cardio workouts are known to be effective for weight loss, researchers often single out HIIT workouts as being more effective for fat loss, in part because the workouts are shorter and more efficient.

If you don't have a lot of time to work out, you can burn more calories in a shorter period of time with HIIT.

Another benefit of HIIT workouts is that you can mix resistance training and aerobic movement in circuit training sessions to provide that extra boost. For example, your workout might include intervals of jumping jacks and intervals of burpees. Both movements are intense enough to keep your heart rate elevated, but the burpee provides the additional benefit of resistance training using your own body weight.

Lastly, if you participate in HIIT workouts (either just cardio or combined cardio and resistance training) you may be able to benefit from excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC. When you work very hard during exercise, your body continues to use more oxygen in the hours after you finish your session. This increase in oxygen consumption (sometimes called the "afterburn") results in a higher caloric expenditure for up to 14 hours after exercise.

Cardio vs. Weights

Both resistance training and cardio workouts (whether steady state or HIIT) can help you to burn more calories each day and reach a caloric deficit to lose body fat. And if you structure your weight training in a circuit style workout to keep your heart rate elevated, both weight training and HIIT workouts may be able to help you to burn more calories, thanks to EPOC.

So is it necessary to choose cardio or weight training when your goal is weight loss? Your best bet may be to do both.

For some people, combining weight training with cardio into a comprehensive program means doing cardio some days of the week and doing weight training on others. Others prefer to combine both activities into one workout.

For instance, you could do 50 minutes of cardio activity on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and then do weight training on Tuesday and Thursday. Or if you have less time to work out, you might do three 25-minute, high-intensity workouts each week that include vigorous aerobic activity combined with muscle strengthening activities.

Any scenario where you combine cardio exercise and weight training into a comprehensive program of exercise will help you to build muscle, improve cardiovascular fitness, contribute to weight loss and can also satisfy the current physical activity guidelines for Americans.

How to Get the Best Results

Use these five guidelines to build your exercise and weight loss workout program and lose fat.

  • Combine resistance training with continuous movement in a circuit training program or a similar anaerobic training program in which you work out on progressive workstations at a moderately high intensity.
  • Don't forgo rest and recovery. Take time off for total rest or active recovery on the days after vigorous workouts. It is during the recovery phase that your muscles rebuild and become stronger. Rest periods also give your body and brain a much needed break from exercise.
  • Find exercise that you enjoy. Your program is likely to be more sustainable if you enjoy the activities that you have chosen. If you are not a person who naturally gravitates to exercise or to the workout environment, take some time to try different types of activities in different settings. Perhaps a playground bootcamp is best for you. Try barre workouts or a spin class or home workouts with a neighbor.
  • Fuel your body well. Your nutritional plan will play a substantial role in reaching your weight loss goal. Make sure that you are consuming adequate calories and getting the protein, carbs, and healthy fats that you need. A registered dietitian can help you develop a personalized plan.
  • Lift heavier weights. Your weights workout should be challenging. Low reps and high weights build muscular strength, while high reps with low weights tone and build endurance. Both are valuable. Aim for a weight/rep combination that gives you enough intensity for a vigorous workout, with minimal rest intervals.

A Word From Verywell

Both weight training and cardio provide benefits when it comes to weight loss. Resistance training and aerobic activity also provide other health benefits. So there is no need to choose one or the other. Try to include both types of training in your workout plan. This balanced approach to exercise can not only help you to get closer to your weight loss goals, but it will also help you to keep you fit, healthy, and well.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which one should you do first to lose fat, cardio or strength training?

    There isn't conclusive evidence for an advantage of one sequence over another, whether your goal is aerobic fitness, fat loss, muscle growth, or gaining lower body strength. It may be best to just do your workouts in the order that appeals to you (or mix things up to keep yourself engaged and challenged.

  • How many days a week should you do weight workouts to lose weight?

    The CDC recommends 2 or more days per week of strength training. Workouts should include exercises that work all major muscle groups (such as the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms). These workouts will also help you reach your weight loss goals.

  • Can you lose weight by only doing strength training?

    Yes. You lose weight when you maintain a calorie deficit and your body burns stored fat as fuel. You can achieve a calorie deficit with changes to your diet alone or by using a combination of nutritional changes and exercise. The CDC recommends both aerobic activity and strength training activities for overall health.

15 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.