Cardio vs. Resistance Training for Fat Loss and Body Recomposition

There are a lot of opinions out there – professional and otherwise – about which training method yields the best results when it comes to general fat loss and body recomposition. Generally, the two methods placed at odds are Strict Cardio and Resistance/Weight Training. Today, we’re going to look at the Pro’s and Con’s of using each method, as well as provide a recommendation for which might fit you best.

What makes a cardio session?

For our purposes we’ll define cardio as, “a fitness activity that can be maintained for 20 minutes or longer at a steady or variable pace”. Examples you’ll recognize are running, swimming, and cycling, but we can also include things like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) with weights or body weight movements that maintain a steady pace at low resistance.

Benefits

Cardio tends to have the major benefit of being low impact and easy to maintain. You can usually start a cardio session pretty easily, and then maintain it for a relatively long time before needing to rest. These activities work the long term energy production systems of the human body more so than the short term/sprint systems (in general), but modalities like HIIT will also include sprint intervals. When people try to train their long term endurance, they tend to stick with cardiovascular movements like these.

Your ability to use your oxygen supply, breath regularly, and maintain activity levels is improved by steady  state cardio and HIIT.

Drawbacks

The major down side to this kind of training is the time it takes to complete (in most cases). Going longer timeframes or longer distances simply takes more time out of your day. The low impact nature means you need to do work over a longer span of time than if you did something more intensive. An exception to this is the HIIT mode we talked about before, but that comes with it’s own drawback: it’s much harder to do and not easy to start for a beginner.

How to define resistance training?

Lifting weights, performing body weight movements of sufficient difficulty to get stronger, and any other training that is done for the expressive purpose of developing your ability to move weight from point to point using muscular power can be said to be resistance training. The base of this type of training is creating stress on the muscles which generates muscle growth, making them stronger and (in many cases) bigger/fuller.

Unlike cardio training, resistance training tends to focus on the shorter term energy systems in the body. Most weightliftings movements are short term, strong power output moves that then give the body a brief chance to rest before being done again. Unlike steady state cardio where you are moving through a range of motion under a low stress for long periods of time, resistance training has you move through a range of motion for limited repetitions (3-15 usually) at a higher amount of load/work over a short amount of time.

Benefits

This is the training that makes muscles stronger, which is the major benefit you should look at. If you want to be able to affect your body or outside forces acting on your body with more control, resistance training is the right tool to include in your arsenal.  In addition to getting stronger, your muscles will also “fill out” more and help regulate your caloric load to maintain muscle rather than fat. This is commonly called “getting toned” in the fitness world, but in reality it’s simply helping make adjustments to your body composition.

If the health benefits weren’t enough, also keep in mind that people with more muscle tend to look healthier, improving their personal aesthetic.

Drawbacks

Resistance training has two major drawbacks. First, it can be hard to learn the movements you need to know to be the most effective in your workouts. Unlike most cardio movements, proper form tends to be incredibly important to make sure that your weight training sessions are safe and working the way they should be. This means there tends to be a learning curve right away that many people have issues getting past, either because they just don’t care to learn or because they don’t have the resources to do so. Second, resistance training takes a lot more time to see results. While you can burn a ton of calories running, which will hasten your immediate weight loss, lifting weights is a long-term strategy that will yield results only when pursued with discipline.

So, which one wins out?

Neither! They both pale in comparison to a proper diet, maintaining a healthy level of calories in, calories out, and good food choices. I know, I know. That was a mean answer to give. The truth is that 80% of your health really is how you eat day to day. If you eat like crap all the time, then your exercise isn’t going to help very much. You can’t out run – or out lift – a bad diet. Make sure you’re paying attention to what you eat for best results.

As to which exercise mode you should use, that depends on your goals (you do have concrete, measurable goals right?). If you want to be a runner, then you need to run. If you want to get stronger, than you need to lift weights (or at least hone your bodyweight training). If your major goal is just overall health and fitness, then a program which combines steady state cardio, short-term interval training, and resistance training is going to be your best bet.

In the end, your diet will determine a lot about how well you live and perform, but your training will help develop your skills and strengths into what you want them to be.