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Cardio vs Weights for Weight Loss: Who Wins? 

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

It’s the age-old debate: Is cardio or weight lifting better for shedding pounds? Both activities can yield desirable results. Cardio is an excellent way to burn calories and even gain lean muscle mass. Weight lifting can turn extra mass from fat into muscle bulk

But which is better for achieving your weight loss goals? We’ll look at both angles to develop a sound conclusion. 

A man and a woman comparing cardio vs weights for weight loss
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Cardio vs Weights for Weight Loss: Understanding Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss

Fat loss, weight loss–is there a difference? Yes! Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they actually have stark differences. If you want to hit your goals, you’ll want to understand how they differ and how this information can benefit you.

Let’s start by defining the two idioms.

Weight Loss Definition: You measure a person’s mass or weight using a unit of mass, such as pounds or kilograms. The only way to correctly determine a person’s weight and how much they’ve lost is to have them stand on a scale and subtract the difference between their starting weight and current weight.

Fat Loss Definition: Understanding a person’s fat loss is a little more complicated. This refers to how much body fat a person loses over time. Tracking fat loss requires a body fat scale or skinfold caliper. Some people also use a measuring tape to calculate the number of inches they’ve lost over a period, but this is a less precise method of determining fat loss.

Why is it important to know the difference? 

Well, weight loss varies significantly based on numerous factors. Water loss from dehydration or sweat, using the bathroom, dropping muscle mass, losing fat, or even bone density loss can all influence how much you weigh. As a result, it’s much more difficult to use weight loss as an accurate method of measuring your goals. 

Additionally, if you’ve been doing strength or resistance training, you’ll gain muscle. Muscle weighs more than fat, so if you’re building muscle while simultaneously dropping fat, the scale alone can’t tell you how much progress you’ve made. 

Fat loss, on the other hand, offers a more accurate method of defining your goals. If you’re getting results from working out and eating right, you’ll lose fat and won’t gain it back just by drinking water or building muscle mass.

A woman at the gym comparing cardio vs weights for weight loss
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Is Cardio or Weight Lifting Better for Weight Loss?

Now that you understand why fat loss and weight loss are different, it’s easier to answer the question of this article: Is cardio or weight lifting better for weight loss? 

There are several factors we can measure to answer this question. Let’s take a look. 

Cardio Burns More Calories

If you’re only focused on calorie burn, cardio will appeal to you. Calories matter when it comes to weight loss, so this can be a very good thing. The more calories you burn, the less fat you gain from eating. 

It’s important to note that this is not always the rule. You can often burn more calories during cardio sessions simply because you keep your heart rate elevated throughout the entire session, which isn’t always the case with strength training.

However, many new strength training programs encourage a higher elevated heart rate throughout the workout. Thus, you could burn more calories compared to cardiovascular exercise. 

Weight Training Boosts Your Metabolism

A key benefit of weight training is that it can perk up your metabolism, which means you’ll burn more calories throughout the day, even after your workout ends. This is because those with more muscle have a higher metabolic rate, which means they’re burning more calories at rest than those with less muscle. 

Physical activity in any form will boost your metabolism, so you can metabolize fat regardless. But weight training definitely has the edge on this one. 

HIIT Offers Both Benefits

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can offer the best of both worlds. HIIT is a type of exercise that combines various intense exercises in short bursts. Usually, you’ll alternate between aerobic training and strength moves (lunges, barbell curls, etc.) and cardio (jumping jacks, sprints, jump ropes, etc.).

With HIIT, you’ll enjoy the elevated heart rate that you see with cardio alongside strength and resistance training. The biggest benefit of doing HIIT is that it offers the same caloric burn benefits in less time than a typical cardio session. 

Research indicates that combining cardio and weight loss in a HIIT session burns up to 30% more calories than other exercise forms. Similar research also points out that HIIT can help those who are overweight and obese see faster weight and fat loss results.

Crossfit offers a similar platform as HIIT but with a higher focus on resistance and strength training. This may not burn quite as many calories (depending on the intensity of the workout) as HIIT, but it can benefit your metabolism, leading you to greater calorie burn while at rest.

A woman on an elliptical to compare cardio vs weights for weight loss
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Varying Workouts Is Key

While both cardio and weight lifting have their benefits for promoting weight loss, research shows that it’s better to vary your workouts. 

Weight training alone won’t decrease the numbers on the scale as quickly as you might like. As you build muscle mass and require more calories to maintain your mass, you won’t see the numbers decline. It can, however, reduce fat. 

Cardiovascular training seems to be more effective for weight loss in general, but it doesn’t target fat loss as quickly as weights training. Therefore, if you’re seeking an overall improvement in body composition, a combination of both weights and cardio will yield the best results. 

How Many Days Should You Exercise for Weight Loss?

When doing these workouts, quantity matters. Of course, if you want to see quick results, exercising every day will be the most effective. 

It is possible to perform aerobic exercises every single day without hurting yourself as long as you listen to your body and plan your workouts to target different muscle groups. You can also incorporate cardio daily as long as you’re staggering lengthier and more intense workouts with milder forms of exercise. 

However, not everyone can maintain such an intense training routine. It simply might not be feasible to set aside time seven days per week to work out. And if you have any orthopedic restrictions or medical concerns, it may not be wise to work out so frequently. 

So, the recommendation is to work out at least 5 days per week in 45-60 minute sessions for a total of 250 minutes weekly. You’ll notice this is more than the CDC’s recommendation of exercising 30 minutes a day, five days per week. The latter is the bare minimum recommendation for a healthy body, but when you’re attempting to lose weight, you’ll need to up the ante. 

The most important thing is to pay attention to your body. You don’t want to injure yourself or get burnt out. You might consider starting with 4-5 days of exercise per week and working your way up to ensure your body handles the stress gracefully. 

What Exercises Are Best for Weight Loss?

You’ll encounter some debate on the internet about the best exercises for weight loss, simply because there’s not one right answer to this question. It’s true, however, that some exercises will burn more calories and promote your metabolism better than others. 

We recommend combining intense bursts of cardio with repetitions of strength and weight training. You could also trade off weight training days and cardio days to see results.

Swimming, cycling, jogging, hiking, and even walking can be highly effective for burning calories and dropping weight. Incorporate pilates, yoga, weight lifting, and resistance exercises to build muscle and boost your metabolic rate.

A woman working out outside to compare cardio vs weights for weight loss
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Don’t Forget What You Eat!

While exercising is a huge part of weight loss, remember that calories and nutrients matter when you’re trying to lose weight and fat. When you offer your body a calorie deficit, it can start to burn your fat stores, which is how you reach your body composition goals. 

So, examine your diet and make some changes if necessary. Balance your diet with whole and nutrient-dense foods and reduce the amount of sugary, salty, and processed foods you eat. 

It might be helpful to look into a macronutrient program. This helps you focus on eating the right foods to fuel your body within your calorie budget, so you feel full and don’t have as many cravings. It also helps fuel your body with adequate nutrients and energy, so you feel better and have the energy needed to work out and stick to your goals. 

Other Benefits of Cardio to Consider

As we continue to weigh the pros and cons of cardio for weight loss, let’s consider some of the benefits of doing cardio. 

Helps Caloric Expenditure

If you’re having a hard time with your calorie deficit, you might prefer cardio because of its caloric expenditure. Because you’re burning more calories per cardio session, you can eat more.

It’s important to note that burning more calories than you eat is essential for fat loss, but it won’t necessarily change your body shape. You won’t get that infamous “hard body” from cardio alone.  

Heart Health

Cardio is fantastic for cardiovascular health. Keeping your heart rate elevated during a cardio session is one of the best ways to extend the life and vitality of your heart. Your heart muscles will strengthen from each cardio session, pumping more blood and warding off the risk of blood clots that could cause a stroke or heart attack. 

Obese adults are significantly more likely to experience heart problems, so engaging in cardiovascular activity is an excellent way to prevent it. 

Better Immunity

Did you know that doing cardio can help you avoid getting sick? Several theories support this, including that cardio workouts boost endorphins and reduce cortisol levels, both of which affect your immune system. 

The heart-health benefits of cardio also translate to the immune system. Those who perform cardio are also more likely to sleep better at night, which allows your immune system to function properly.

A man doing push-ups to compare cardio vs weights for weight loss
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Other Benefits of Weight Lifting to Consider

While cardio has some clear benefits for weight loss, weight lifting is still a strong contender. Let’s look at some other benefits weight lifting offers your body composition. 

Muscle Strength

Stronger, bigger muscles are the key to boosting your metabolism and burning more calories at rest. Yes, muscle weighs more than fat and the scale will reflect that as you grow your muscles. But weight training workouts target fat and offer longer-lasting results. 

You’ll build lean muscle with cardio workouts, but you won’t see the tone and definition that weight lifting can offer. You also won’t build the muscle mass you need to strengthen your metabolic rate or see the desired body composition changes. 

Faster Metabolism

We’ve covered this multiple times in this article, but it bears repeating: Bigger muscles burn more calories. Because of this, you can consume more calories and your body will burn through them faster. 

This doesn’t negate the importance of a caloric deficit, but it does help you stick to your diet. 

Can Improve Sleep Quality

As you push your body to its limits in weight training, you’ll improve your quality of sleep, even above the benefits that cardio offers. The most important parts of muscle repair and growth happen while you sleep, so your body naturally pushes you to sleep better.

Research shows that those who suffer from insomnia or other sleep problems have fewer problems when they’re lifting weights. 

And, as research has established time and time again, quality sleep is vital for body weight control.

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Final Verdict: Cardio vs. Weights for Weight Loss

So, for body weight reduction is it better to do cardio training or strength training exercises?

You might have been hoping to hear that one is more effective than the other, but that’s not always the case. Both offer supreme benefits for weight and fat loss.

It’s also important to note that your goals for losing weight will affect your priorities in choosing cardio or weights. Cardio’s caloric expenditure can help you stick to your caloric deficit, but it won’t yield the body changes you might hope for. Weight lifting is more likely to produce the muscle-toning and firming appearance that you might crave.

However, a workout plan that incorporates both weight training and cardio is far more effective than using one or the other. We recommend turning to a HIIT or Crossfit plan to burn more calories, improve your cardiovascular health, and boost your metabolism.

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