Cardio or Weights: What’s Better for Fat Loss?

It’s an age old question.

You want to lose fat; you’ve joined a gym, but now what?

Should you be doing cardio or weights to help you reach your goals and is one better than the other?

This article will look at the benefits and drawbacks of both and give you a clearer idea of what you should do, to burn fat and look great.


Cardio on Rowing Machine

Typically in the form of running on a treadmill or getting straight on to the exercise bike, Cardio is the favored exercise for a lot of gym goers.

Cardio workouts allow you to burn more calories per session and need very little instruction or thought (once you’re running, just keep running).

Scientists have researched how many calories people burn doing different activities, and it’s not uncommon for someone to burn anywhere from 300 to 500 calories in a 30 minute cardio session.

Other factors can also influence how many calories you burn, such as your weight and how intense you exercise.

A quick look at the myfitnesspal calorie calculator paints a clearer picture.

For example a 150lb person jogging at a consistent pace of 5mph would burn 272 calories in 30 minutes, compared to 363 calories for a 200lb person doing the same activity at the same intensity.

Increase that intensity ever so slightly, to 5.2mph and the 150lb person would burn 306 calories, whereas the 200lb person would burn 408 calories. 

Woman Jumping or Skipping in Gym

As great as all that sounds, cardio does have its drawbacks.

Many people find cardio boring and 30 minutes on the treadmill can feel like a lifetime. Some people can struggle to maintain their focus, and pace, for the duration and soon want to stop.

Injuries are another possible drawback associated with cardio, as the repetitive nature of pounding the treadmill can lead to stress fractures or injuries to the lower body.

Although it’s a safer alternative to running outside on the concrete, the stress on the joints can be very painful and it can take a while for your body to heal.

Another thing to consider with cardio is the after effects of exercise.

As big as the calorie expenditure is from your cardio session, the benefits soon disappear as your heart rate returns to normal and your body recovers from the session. 

Some activities give you the added bonus of revving up the metabolism enough to ensure you keep burning calories after the workout is over, unfortunately traditional cardio doesn’t do that.


Rack full of Dumbells in Gym

Weight training does not give the same calorie burning results as cardio but it has other, much more important qualities, such as building muscle.

Our bodies burn calories even when ‘resting’ and muscle burns more calories at rest, than other tissues in the body (such as fat). By increasing your muscle mass you are able to burn more calories throughout the day, even if you’re just watching TV.

 It should be noted that this increase is not huge, some studies have found that developing muscle mass and increasing your metabolism can only lead to an increased calorie expenditure of 140 calories (per day) in men or 50 calories (per day) in women.  

However it does result in more calories being burned, which is certainly a positive.

Another benefit of building muscle is the amount of space it takes up.

You’ve heard that muscle weighs more than fat right? Well it’s wrong.

Muscle and fat, weigh the same!

1lb of fat weighs the same as 1lb of muscle, 1lb!

However what is very important to note is that muscle is a lot more compact and therefore takes up a lot less space.

Woman Doing Triceps Kickbacks

How does that benefit you I hear you ask?

Well as you’re getting rid of fat and building muscle, you’re losing inches and getting smaller, despite growing your muscles and getting stronger.

This will mean your clothes fit better and your overall size will decrease.

​As you continue to build your muscle your body shape will start to change dramatically, allowing you to change how you look.

It’s been said that losing weight without prioritizing the maintenance of muscle mass, can often to lead to you looking the same, just at a smaller weight, whereas building muscle can lead to a visibly different physique.

As you build your muscles it could result in benefits such as a bigger more sculpted chest and arms for guys, or a firmer and more toned bum for women.

Finally, although lifting weights does not burn as many calories as its cardio counterpart, there are studies that indicate an elevated resting metabolism for as much as 38 hours after lifting weights.

That means that long after you’ve finished the workout, sometimes a day or more, your body is still burning calories and enjoying the effects of the weight lifting workout you’ve put yourself through, which is great for your overall fat loss results.

HIIT and Alternative Types of Training

Man Exercising on Parallel Bars

On the one side there’s the higher calorie burn of cardio, on the other is the physique changing benefits of lifting weights, it begs the question of if there’s something in between?

And there just may be.

Over the last few years there’s been a rise in popularity of HITT workouts and a growth in more people doing Crossfit type workouts.

That is using weights to get the muscle building benefits of weight training, but for short bursts of time, at a high intensity, to get the heart rate going, like when doing cardio.

If purely aiming for fat loss, these types of workouts can prove very popular as it allows you to get the best of both worlds.

It ensures you’re burning a lot of calories immediately, while still burning calories long after the exercise has finished.

These workouts can take many forms, from a Barbell complex which involves dong a set series of heavy barbell exercises one after the other, to a circuit type set up which could involve sprinting on the treadmill before using hand weights or kettle-bells.  

These types of workouts are great if you’re pressed for time and can be very demanding.

Benefits of diet

It’s worth noting here that whatever your preference for blasting fat, your nutrition should still take priority.

 1 large portion of McDonald’s French fries would require an average man or women to do 40-48minutes of cardio to burn off the calories, or 53-64 minutes of weight lifting.

It doesn’t mean you can’t have fries, but it does mean that if your goal is fat loss, you need to be mindful of what you eat and drink.

As always, a balanced approach to nutrition should remain at the forefront of your mind.

Your diet should be varied and you should aim to build your meals around protein and try to include a range of vegetables in every meal.

 Limiting your processed food intake and increasing your water intake should also be a priority, opting for fresh whole foods wherever possible.


So which one is better for fat loss, cardio or weights?

Both have their positive and negatives, however, although it offers a higher calorie expenditure during the workout, I would always opt for a weighted workout routine instead of a purely cardio training session.

Taken on face value, with no regard to calories burned, the benefits of weight training far outweigh the benefits of cardio.  

  • ​Increased muscle mass
  • ​Increased strength
  • ​Improvements in muscle and bone health
  • ​Ability to change your body shape
  • ​Ability to strengthen the body as a whole, thus protecting yourself from injuries
  • ​The ability to support rehab from injury

These are all benefits of lifting weights.

If we bring the calories back into play, yes cardio burns more initially but not so great that you can’t offset the difference through diet.

By ensuring your diet is structured properly you can get the full benefits of lifting weights and ensure your overall calories in/ calories out, is perfectly matched for your goals.  

It doesn’t mean that cardio doesn’t have a place in your routine and depending on your goals and or if you’re training for an event, it may be vital that you do it, but for most gym goers, the priority should be on weight training.

As discussed above, this can be part of a dedicated weight lifting routine or make up part of a quicker, faster full body workout.

If you’re struggling with planning a routine, feel free to message us and ask for help, we’d be happy to point you in the right direction.

If you want to make sure you don’t make mistakes with your training program​ be sure to check out our previous article on why you might not be getting results here!

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