In the fat loss and health arena, one of the oldest and most wrongly understood paradigms remains, Cardio or Weight Training, which is better? Both the schools have ardent followers with sufficient evidence backed arguments to support their beliefs. However, most of these arguments are not backed by science. At most they are hearsay.
The common belief is that if you wish to lose fat, cardio is your friend, and if your motive is to build muscle, weights are your partner. Well, it may sound good and seem even logical. But, it is anything but true. It is important for a health-conscious gym goer to know the attributes of cardio and weight training and how the two work in combination to transform our body composition.
Benefits of weight training over cardio
- Extended calorie burn
Calorie burn per minute is indisputably higher in cardio exercises compared to strength training, which is why people who do aerobics lose weight (not fat) faster than people who train with weights. However, weight training helps to burn far more calories for a longer period of time, sometimes for up to 36 hours after the activity, facilitating more fat loss and gain of lean muscle mass over time.
- Muscles turn the body into a calorie burning powerhouse
Also, the more muscle you gain, the more calorie your body expends just to maintain the muscle. For every one pound of muscle, the body burns 50 calories each day just to feed the muscle. Come to think of it, if you gain 10 pounds of muscle, your body would need to spend 500 calories per day just sitting around. Since muscle tissue is fairly long-term and loss of muscle tissue, if at all is slower, gaining substantial lean muscle would be a foolproof and effective strategy for sustained fat loss. in the long-run.
- Body recomposition
While cardio exercises will help one lose fat, in the long run, the loss will be a mix of both fat and muscle, resulting in a drop in body weight, but not as much drop in body fat. However, with weight training, one can change, transform, recompose and reshape your body by amazing proportions. A calorie deficit diet with enough dietary proteins and good fat, combined with weight training can result in a significant drop in body fat as well as tone up the body giving the perception of an improved body shape within a short span of time, sometimes in as less as 2-3 months.
- Cortisol, the game changer
Have you ever seen people who do the legendary evening and morning walks for years, or do other low-intensity cardio workouts like swimming and cycling, yet don’t lose much body fat? I am sure you have. Well, the reason could be the hormone Cortisol. Excessive cardio pushes the body to release higher levels of cortisol, the hormone that facilitates the loss of lean muscles as well as accumulation of abdominal fat. Excess cortisol also leads to reduced growth hormone, faster onset of osteoporosis and lower glucose utilization. On the contrary, weight training induces the release of endorphin, which in turn offsets the release of cortisol.
Should you do cardio at all? If yes, how much cardio is optimal and maximizes fat loss?
The one biggest benefit cardio exercises have is in improving overall cardiovascular health. An effective fat loss training program must have a fair mix of both cardio and weight training, depending on the body type and personal goals.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends either of the following as optimal cardio exercise (a) 30 minutes of moderate cardio five times per week (b) 20 minutes of intense cardio three times per week.
Women and weight training
Women have been known to be wary of weight training. They believe they will “bulk up” and gain weight/volume if they lift weights. This is anything but true. Women are just not endowed with the kind of hormones (like men) that will bulge their biceps and widen their shoulders. The professional women weight lifters and body builders that we see on magazine covers and digital media depend on hormones and other supplements to bulk up. That is their profession and they do it under medical guidance with the purpose of achieving a specific body type that is competition level muscular. That’s not going to happen to you if you weight train in your local gym.
Bear in mind that untrained gym trainers who recommend light weights to women to help them “tone and shape”, are bogus! Run for cover, if you come across one.
What someone is probably looking for is “to lose some body fat and make their muscles tighter”, and this can happen only by training with weights. Do not shy away from lifting heavy. Chuck those tiny one pound pink weights and go full throttle. Challenge your limits. However, do take expert guidance to get the form and technique correctly to derive maximum benefit of weight training and avoid injury.
Eliminating weight training or doing excessive cardio could hamper your fat loss process and eventually stall you for long.
My personal schedule
I lost most of my initial weight through cardio, not because I loved cardio, but simply because I didn’t know two bits about weight training. So in my ignorance, I overdid cardio. A few years ago, when I was introduced to weight training, I was sold straight away. I always prioritize weight training, leaving cardio for recovery days when my muscles need to be stretched. I do 45-60 minutes of intense cardio (high-intensity interval training) 2-3 times a week and low-intensity cardio like spinning, cycling or walking 2 times a week. Other days I warm up with just enough cardio before training with weights. And I do active rest or off days for to avoid muscle fatigue and allow enough time for repair and recovery.
I lift as heavy as some men and more heavy than some! And I am proud of it.
The following quote by Jim Conroy an Olympic Coach, helps me push myself a little harder than the last time.
When you hear your muscles shrieking …..Just remember, somewhere in China, a little girl is warming up with your max!