There are two times during the year when you are guaranteed to hear people pondering resistance training vs cardio for weight loss – post-holiday indulgence and pre-tank top season. Throughout most of the year, the benefits of resistance training over cardio exercise for long term weight management goes without saying. However, once panic sets in, we begin to throw all reason out the window in search of a quick fix.
We've all been there at one time or another. Although a cardio-based fitness regimen no longer enters my realm of thinking, when I have an event coming up or feel the need to drop a few inches, I will consider cranking up the cardio…briefly, then I roll my eyes at myself and start to take account of my behavior over the past few days, weeks or months.
How has my diet been? Have I been slacking on my protein? How is my whole vs processed food balance? Doing any extra indulging lately? Next, I evaluate my sleep – have I been getting enough quality sleep? I also consider whether I have been stressed more than usual.
Really, this list can go on, but usually, I can quickly identify the culprit for why my clothes may be fitting a bit more snug and it never has to do with the fact that I need more cardio in my life. Until my diet, sleep and stress levels, among other things, are in check, modifying my fitness routine won’t address the root cause, but only mask it.
Many believe that increasing the amount of cardio exercise they do, achieving a higher calorie burn during their workout, will lead to quicker weight loss. When done excessively, however, this weight loss is usually not ideal and can come from a combination of fat as well as muscle. Losing muscle, especially as you get older, has many repercussions, and for weight loss in particular, is very deceptive. If your muscle mass decreases, regardless of the reason, expect your metabolism rate to do so as well!
So, for fat loss, shift your focus from the calories you burn during your session and more toward the calories burned throughout the day.
There is no problem with cardio exercise in and of itself, in fact there are many health benefits of cardio training. However, if your goal is fat loss you would be better served to include resistance training in your program. For a quick rundown on some of the benefits of resistance training, check out my post on heavy weight lifting. But, in short, for weight management and fat loss, building lean mass raises your resting metabolism rate. A higher RMR means more calories burned, primarily from fat, without adding ANY activity.
If getting sweaty and breathless is your thing, however, consider including 1-3 metabolic resistance workouts in your program. Not only will you break a sweat, you're sure to be left gasping for air. More importantly, your body will continue to burn fat for up to 72 hours post workout.
Something else to keep in mind is that cardio training alone won't alter the shape of your body. For example, if you are pear shaped, doing cardio will only make you a smaller pear, where as resistance training can alter your shape, by building up your upper body to balance out your lower body. In short, resistance training adds curves and the infamous “toned” look most people are looking for.
In the end, the long term weight management benefits of cardio can't hold a candle to resistance training. When your goal is permanent weight or fat loss, look to your diet first as well as sleep and stress management, which can lead to better hormone balance and, ultimately, the perfect set up for fat loss. For training, prioritize building lean mass through resistance training to kick up your metabolism, then decide if you want to add in a bit of cardio for fun or a little extra fat burn.
There is nothing wrong with doing cardio if you enjoy it, however, if you are considering a cardio-only fitness routine with the goal of long term weight loss and/or a toned physique, after logging hour after hour of cardio you may be left wondering where you went wrong.