While both forms of exercise have their time and place within a goal-oriented fitness regime, both must be used consistently to reap the benefits of this dynamic duo.
So why the debate? Simply put, cardio enthusiasts often have different fitness goals than avid weightlifters and vice versa. This popular debate is often brought up when people discuss which form of exercise is more effective for fat loss.
With that said, let’s iron out the details as to why these training methods complement each other (and your physique) and when it may be necessary to separate the two.
Cardio and strength training both burn fat, but differently
Here lies the crux of this debate: which training method burns more fat. While you’re more likely to burn more calories during a cardio session, your metabolism will likely stay elevated for longer after a strength workout; creating a steady stream of opinions about why you should choose one practice method over another.
Jeff Cervero, a registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist with more than 26 years of experience, explains, “In general, low-intensity, sustained aerobic workouts burn more calories than strength training during the actual workout.” On the other hand, high-intensity anaerobic training, such as strength training, can increase your metabolism long after due to an “afterburner effect” called EPOC or excessive oxygen consumption after exercise.
“EPOC translates to the number of calories consumed to recover after an exercise session is over,” Cervero says. “The impact of EPOC depends more on the intensity of an exercise than on its duration.”
Lower-intensity, aerobic-based workouts, such as jogging, don’t elicit much EPOC. “Once the workout is over, the calorie consumption stops; While, when an intense, anaerobic training session is over, the calorie consumption continues,” says Cervero. This process is very helpful for burning fat at rest.
That said, if your primary fitness goal is sustainable fat loss, Cervero recommends incorporating a combination of strength training and cardio. The combination of the two (performed on the same day or not) will help your body burn more calories after strength training, and burn more calories in a session on your cardio days.
This perfect pair brings more than fat loss to the table
Better together, cardio and strength training provide the body with both medicinal and physical benefits beyond fat loss. “Cardio is great for heart health and helps lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer,” Cervero says.
Strength training, especially when performed consistently, helps build muscle mass (and strong bones) that declines with age. “Weight training can slow this process and help improve your overall quality of life,” he adds. Add mental health benefits like reduced anxiety and depression to the many benefits that both cardio and strength training provide and you have an impressive combination.
When cardio and strength training don’t go well together
The benefits of both training methods are unmatched, but there are times when one can take precedence over the other. This depends on individual goals. For example, “A competitive weightlifter should prioritize strength training to build muscle; doing an excessive amount of cardio, especially immediately prior to a heavy weight training session, would be detrimental to a competitive weightlifter whose goal is to increase strength and power.” is,” Cervero says.
In this case, Cervero recommends having a separate cardio day for active recovery and light exercise on a non-strength training day.
Even if you have to separate cardio from strength, you will still experience the benefits of both as you tailor them to your goals.
The power of muscle mass on long-term fat loss
The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn. “Muscle is metabolically active, meaning it burns more calories at rest than body fat.” Cervero says. He continues, “Your body burns six calories per hour per pound of muscle and 2 calories per hour per pound of fat — on average, 1 pound of muscle will burn 96 extra calories in 24 hours compared to adipose tissue.” If your routine is cardio dominant and you still haven’t reached your fat loss goal, building lean muscle through strength training is critical.
Keep in mind
The most important thing when it comes to exercising, Cervero says, is making time for it. “The best type of exercise is highly individualized, and the best time to exercise is always the one you can stick to most so that it becomes a lifelong habit,” he says. The takeaway? Find a training method that meets your personal goals; one you like to ensure a lifelong commitment to exercise.