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Cardio vs Strength Training for fat loss

May 5, 2015

Cardio vs. Resistance training for fat loss

“I want to lose weight!”

“I want to tone up!”

“How did Hugh Jackman put on so much muscle for his role as Wolverine?”

“How did the guys in the movie 300 get so ripped?”

Having worked as a Fitness and Nutrition Coach for over a decade, I have heard comments like this more times than I could tell you (if I had a nickel for every time…). Whether you call it toning up, slimming down, or getting ripped, what you’re saying to me is, “I want to add muscle and lose body fat”. It is my responsibility as a Fitness Coach to help you reach your goal as quickly and safely as possible. So what is the best method for losing body fat? There are two main exercise approaches people take when it comes to getting rid of those stubborn love handles: steady state cardio and resistance training. What is the difference between the two? Steady state cardio, is a cardio workout such as jogging or using an elliptical machine that is a continuous effort over an extended period of time. (Note that when I’m talking about cardio in this article I’ll be talking about steady state or low intensity cardio - not high intensity or sprinting cardio.) Resistance training, or weight training, is simply using resistance to the muscles as it contracts to create more strength or size. Traditionally when people want to lose body fat they put on Pandora and jump on the treadmill for 60 minutes. On the flip side when they want to build muscle they head to the weight room. But which is really the best approach when it comes to losing body fat faster?

First, let’s discuss something called EPOC, or Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption. This is also known as the after burn effect. There is quite a bit involved with this process but basically what it means is your body will continue to burn calories after your workout. It has been shown that weight training workouts can produce higher caloric expenditure than cardio for up to 24-36 hours after a workout. So let’s say you do a 60 minute steady state cardio session and burn 600 hundred calories during that hour. As your body stabilizes after you finish your workout, you will not be using energy at the same rate as you were during the workout so you may burn an extra 100 calories over the next 36 hours. In total, that cardio session helped you lose 700 calories. Not bad.

Now if we look at a 30 minute resistance training session done at a higher intensity (and intensity will vary person to person) you may only burn 350 calories during that session. However because of the after burn effect you will continue to burn an average of 15 more calories per hour over the next 36 hours. Whoa, that’s 540 additional calories burned after your workout, for a total of 890 calories lost from that workout. If you have three resistance training sessions a week, that comes to 2,280 more calories burned every month, over the same number of 60 minute cardio sessions. Now that may not sound like a lot, but remember that is in addition to the calories your body was already going to burn through regular daily activity and your workouts. Which brings me to my next point: your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR.

BMR is the amount of calories your body burns to carry out basic functions when you are completely at rest. This is what people are really talking about when they say you want to speed up your metabolism. In an article put out by the Mayo Clinic they stated, “Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex biochemical process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function. Even when you're at rest, your body needs energy for all its "hidden" functions, such as breathing, circulating blood, adjusting hormone levels, and growing and repairing cells.” So even when you are sleeping at night you are burning calories. Sounds good doesn’t it? Here is something that might sound even better: you can effectively get your body to burn even more calories when you sleep. I’m not just talking about after burn now. I’m talking about raising your BMR, which can be done through weight training. It takes more energy to maintain a pound of muscle than to maintain a pound of fat. So not only do you build more muscle tissue and lose body fat with weight training, you also increase your BMR. Cardio can still help you lose body fat, but since you won’t build as much muscle it doesn’t “rev up” your metabolism as fast.

We also want to consider another important factor: time. I know I’m busy, as I’m sure you are, and there isn’t always time for a long cardio session. But does that mean you should skip your workout completely? Of course not! However, with strength training if you choose a type of interval training and utilize full body movements you can accomplish more in just a 30 minute workout than you could with a 60 to 90 minute cardio session.

But if you enjoy running and don’t want to give it up, that’s fine. You can always combine it with your weight training by jogging on your off days or adding sprint intervals in with your resistance training workouts. (Although sprinting, much like our cardio PACK class is a type of high intensity cardio, and can be very effective in fat loss.) A combination of steady state cardio and resistance training will give you more bang for your buck, and help you reach your fat loss goals quicker.

Now if you remember at the beginning of all this I said it was my responsibility as a Fitness Coach to help you reach your goals quickly and also as safely as possible. This is an important factor to consider especially if you are brand new to training. Often times when someone is first starting out and trying to slim down they will pick one or two forms of cardio and do those continuously over and over. This can cause imbalances in the body and result in certain muscles being over used which can lead to injury, putting a major halt on any progress. However, if you use strength training intervals you can choose from different exercises that will work all the different muscle groups, and keep your training balanced. Of course if you are just starting out with resistance training I urge you to start slow and learn the movements using weights and speeds that you can control.

All that being said, cardio will definitely improve your cardiovascular health, and I’m not recommending you remove it from your workout regimen. Ultimately you have to do something you enjoy or you probably won’t stick with it for long enough to see any benefits or any results at all. Maybe you just enjoy running and want to increase your distance and losing fat is not important to you. If that is the case, then you should focus on activities that will help you improve your end results. Decide on your goals before starting a program to make sure you are choosing the right program to help you reach those goals. And don’t be afraid to mix things up – you just might get to your goals faster and need to set new goals!

Andrew Griffiths – Johns Creek Personal Trainer


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