Cardio vs. Strength Training: What’s Better
If you could only choose one, should you strength train or do cardio? Trick question! You don’t have to choose, and you shouldn’t. Both types of exercise are important not just for maintaining a healthy weight, but for your overall health. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio each week, plus two strength-training sessions.
Here’s a rundown of why both strength training and cardio work benefit your health and your weight loss goals, with easy ways to fit both into your busy life.
Why you need cardio:
Almost 80 percent of Americans don’t achieve the CDC’s 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week, meaning they miss out on a ton of benefits: Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, of course, but also decreased risks for diabetes, osetoporosis and premature death.
If you vary the pace of your cardio work, it can be supercharged: Interval training, where short bursts of harder work are alternated with easier work or total rest have been found in multiple studies, according to Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, to burn more fat and increase cardiovascular function better than steady-state, medium-paced work.
Why cardio alone isn’t good enough:
Some studies seem to suggest that cardiovascular exercise, by itself, is better for weight loss than combining it with strength training. In an eight-month study of 234 overweight people conducted by Duke University Medical Center, researchers found that those who did cardio alone lost 1.76 kilograms, while those who did a combination of cardio and strength lost slightly less, 1.63 kilograms. Members of a third group, who did just strength training, actually gained about 2 pounds during the study.
But if you look a little deeper, the cardio-only group lost weight, but they didn’t lose lean body mass—meaning they lost muscle, not fat. The combo group gained .81 kilograms of muscle, and the strength-only group tacked on more than two pounds of muscle—meaning they lost fat overall. And a body with less fat and more muscle not only looks good, but burns more calories at rest and can help protect against disease, reduce fall risk and lower your overall risk of death.
An easy way to do it:
Walk! You may think you have to sprint or jog to get all these benefits, but walking does a lot of good. While your watch may be telling you that 10,000 steps is somehow magical, you don’t need that many to get benefits: For every 1,000 steps you take each day, you can reduce your risk of “functional limitation” in the future due to arthritis by 16 to 18 percent (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140612085120.htm).
And walking can help keep weight off: One study conducted by Hopkins Medicine found that “moderately active” people lowered their levels of dangerous visceral fat by 7.4 percent compared with inactive subjects . And you can even get the fat-burning benefits of interval training while walking: Try changing your pace by as little as five inches per second for bursts of one minute, followed by one minute of slower walking. According to Biology Letters, when study participants did this, they burned 20 percent more calories than when they walked the same pace throughout their walk.
Why you need strength:
Having muscular strength means you can do more than just pick up a barbell. The American Heart Association recommends strength training because it improves cardiovascular function, lowers your heart disease risk, increases resting metabolism and improves your “psychosocial well-being.” But that’s not all! Strength training improves cognitive function, according to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and even works productivity.
And, of course, it can help stave off weight gain: In a Harvard study, researchers found that men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training had less age-related belly fat gains than those who did the same amount of cardio work.
Why strength training alone isn’t enough:
It’s possible to increase your heart rate while performing strength work so that you’re “doing cardio” while lifting weights, but for many of us, it’s unlikely that we’ll elevate our heart rate enough during strength training to match the 150 cumulative weekly minutes needed to realize the cardio benefits described above. And if you do, it’s possible you’re sacrificing strength work—that is, your strength training isn’t challenging your strength enough, and has “turned into” cardio. You need both!
An easy way to do it:
If you’re going to the gym, lift light weights. Studies have found that lifting weights to failure—continuing the movement until you can’t do another repetition—is the most important factor in building muscle strength and size, whether the load is heavy or light. One study of this kind showed that men who lifted 30 to 50 percent of their maximum weight for sets of 20 to 25 repetitions gained as much strength and size as others who lifted 75 to 80 percent of their maximum for eight repetitions per set. So if big, heavy weights make you nervous, stick to the smaller stuff. And if training to failure, be safe: Consider using a machine or a really light dumbbell so that if you truly fail, the weight isn’t putting you in danger.
No gym membership? No problem! Your body weight provides plenty of resistance. The act of getting in and out of a chair without using your hands for assistance is a strength training exercise—and it helps build muscle power, which can increase your ability to avoid a fall as you age. Try these five simple power-building exercises to start.
OK, which should I do first?:
If you’re going to perform cardio and strength work in the same day, studies vary on which you should do first. One study published by Ace Fitness found that if you perform weight training first, your cardio workout can be harder than it would normally—resulting in an increase in pulse of 12 beats per minute compared to when the cardio’s done first. In that case, it would seem that the answer is cardio first is better.
But other studies have shown the opposite: Performing cardio first can use up the fuel you’ll need for strength training so you won’t get the same benefits. Doing weight training first can also mean you burn more fat while doing cardio, since weight training can use up the carbohydrates in your body in advance of your aerobic work.
So the real answer is: It depends on your goals, and more importantly, your preferences. If you find you prefer cardio work first and it’s the only way you have enough energy to also do your strength work—stick with that. If when you do strength traninig first, you feel like you have more zip to finish your aerobic session, do that. If all things are equal and weight loss is your goal, do your strength work first.