Cardio vs. weight training - What's better for weight loss?

Nowadays, fat loss is in nearly everybody's mind. And it seems like every day, there is a new study that "proves" some special ingredient is the best way, to lose fat fast.

But what is actually the best strategy? Is it spending hours on the treadmill? Or hill sprints? Maybe it's deadlifts and squats? Or should we just stop eating altogether?

Let me break down the basics for you and show you what the best and easiest way to lose body fat is. Here are the contestants:

  • Cardio: Basically anything with low intensity, you can do for a long period of time. For example running, using the elliptical, aerobics, swimming, zumba or dancing in general
  • HIIT: Running or biking with varying intervals of speed and intensity, such as sprinting for 1 minute, followed by 1 minute of moderate activity, repeated for 20-30 minutes
  • Weight lifting: Lifting weights and targeting certain muscle groups in a cyclical fashion

The truth behind weight loss

Let's get it out of the way. You don't have to do any sport to lose weight. A caloric deficit is all it takes to lose body fat. But, it's easier when you work out, because you can eat more and you'll look better in the end.

Everybody tries to lose weight. But, what they actually want to lose is body fat. There's a huge difference between those two, but I'll explain that in a separate post.

Simply reducing your weight will leave you skinny fat. However, if you reduce your body fat percentage, while maintaining or even gaining muscle muscle (yes, that's possible if you're new to weight training), you're improving your body composition. That's what you really want.

Many people don't realise how much muscle mass they'll lose on a crash diet or a poorly designed diet. And how soft/skinny/sick they will look afterwards.

Cardio and weight loss

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Cardio is the first thing that comes to everybody's mind, when they try to lose weight. I see lots of people every day, spending literally hours running, biking or climbing.

In fact, just doing cardio guarantees little to no progress, when it comes to weight loss. Many people even end up gaining weight when they begin with cardio. Whaaaat? Yes, it's true. There are basically three reasons for that.

  • It's too easy to eat the calories you've burned back. A handful of nuts, a yogurt and a banana - that's all it takes to undo the 30 minutes of vigorous running. Cardio just doesn't burn as much energy as we think/wish it does
  • Cardio can also lead to increased hunger, especially when done for a long time, which will make it even harder to stay in a caloric deficit, unless the diet is on point
  • Our bodies adapt to cardio. Ever experienced a weight loss plateau? When you're in a caloric deficit, the body wants to be more efficient and adapts to exercise. Meaning, as time goes by, less and less energy is required to perform the same exercise. Hence, you're no longer burning as much as you did in the beginning

The adaption process happens only to a very small extend for weight lifting by the way.

The exception: HIIT

As bad as all this sounds, there is one exception: High intensity interval training (HIIT). Short interval sprints, followed by low intensity intervals, burn significantly more calories than steady state. Plus, your body has a hard time adjusting to HIIT, which means less efficiency!

HIIT is quite hard and much harder than steady state cardio. But you will be rewarded, I promise. Here's how:

  • Increase in resting metabolic rate (you burn more after you've performed the exercise)
  • Higher levels of fat oxidation
  • Increased growth hormone release (induces muscle growth)
  • Post-exercise appetite suppression
  • Improved body composition
  • Takes less time (20m HIIT is better than ~60m normal cardio)

Oh and by the way: since HIIT is a lot more intense, you should never do more than 30 minutes. And no more than 4 times per week. In fact, if you can do it for, say 60 minutes, you're doing it wrong. The all-out intervals have to be so hard, that you simply can't do more than 30 minutes of it.

A good rule of thumb is: if you can still breath easily, 10-15 seconds into a high intensity interval, you have to ramp it up!

Weight training and weight loss

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Weightlifting isn't a very popular way to lose weight. However, it's a fantastic way to speed up fat loss and prevent muscle loss.

You want the type of weightlifting, that:

  • Preserves or builds muscle mass
  • Burns a lot of energy

So heavy compound weightlifting it is. By heavy, I mean really heavy. Use weights, that are roughly 70% of your one-rep max. This will build muscle mass and burn fat. If you're in the 4-6 rep range, you're doing fine.

What do I mean by compound exercises? Big movements like squats, military press, bench press and deadlift. You don't need scientific proof, telling you that squatting burns significantly more calories than crunches, do you? (they are of course :))

What's the best and why?

Definitely weightlifting! If your goal is to get a lean physique, make sure to incorporate weight lifting into your routine, instead of cardio. Yes even the ladies. You won't get "too muscular", that's a myth!

Weight lifting will increase your muscle mass and therefore the calories you burn, when you're at rest. Cardio will only burn calories while you do it, plus you'll most likely burn muscle tissue as well (cardio is catabolic).

Furthermore, a proper heavy leg workout can burn a whole lot more calories than running on a treadmill - and on top of that, you'll also burn more calories throughout the next 24h, even while at rest, due to an after burn effect.

Eating for weight loss

But it doesn't matter how much weight lifting or cardio you do, if your diet is bad. So let's talk about that, shall we?

First off: calories are king. Don't get fooled by some media articles and "diet gurus". It doesn't matter if you eat high carb, low carb, keto, paleo, vegan or only Snickers. Deficit means fat loss!

Think about it this way: it doesn't matter if you get paid in Dollars, Pounds Sterling or Euros. As long as the value is the same, you have the same amount of money. Similar to calories. 2000 calories are 2000 calories. Doesn't matter if they come from rice, chicken, tofu, chocolate, tomatoes or soda!

Mind you, I'm talking about the energy value here, not the nutritional value. Tomatoes are certainly better for your health than soda!

But how many calories should you consume?

The following calculator uses one of the best formulas out there, to accurately estimate the calories you need on a daily basis. Activity levels are expressed in a way, that better suits most people's daily lives.

Start with the estimation and then adjust your calories once a week, depending on the progress you made during the past 7 days. Simple as that.

Questions? Let me know in the comments down below!

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