Cardio vs. Lifting Weights: Which Will Fuel Your Fat Loss Efforts?

Cardio vs. Lifting Weights: Which Will Fuel Your Fat Loss Efforts?

Once upon a time, it was believed that running like a hamster on a wheel was best way to lose fat. After all, cardio burns calories, and you need to burn all the calories to lose weight. Right?

Let’s reexamine this belief.

Yes, you do need to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight. This means that you need to burn off more calories than what you consume daily.

Yes, cardio and other exercise is an excellent way to facilitate weight loss and fat loss. Paired with a healthy diet and other lifestyle changes, it’ll put you on the fast track towards seeing results.

No, cardio isn’t the only (or ideal!) type of exercise you should do if you want to lose fat.  

It may seem counterintuitive, but add strength training into your routine. Lifting weights may not burn as many calories as cardio does during the workout itself, but there are multiple reasons why it can be more effective for your fat and weight loss efforts both during and beyond your workout.


Have you heard of something called EPOC? It’s post-exercise oxygen consumption, also known as the “afterburn” effect.

After you train, your body has to work hard to return itself back to its normal homeostatic state. In doing so, your body uses energy. This means that your body will continue to burn calories for a set amount of time after your workout.

After an aerobic, cardio-based training session, your metabolism can stay elevated between six and eight hours. After a strength training session, your metabolism can stay elevated for a whopping 24 to 48 hours afterwards!

Though cardio may burn more calories up front, strength training is how you’ll continue to burn calories throughout the day and beyond. Think about it – if you’re hitting the weights every other day and your EPOC continues to burn up energy for the following 48 hours, your metabolism will remain consistently elevated.

Lean Muscle Mass and Your Metabolism

As mentioned, a caloric deficit is required to lose fat and weight. That deficit will likely come from a reduction of calories in your diet.

There’s a small issue, though. A caloric deficit can make it extremely difficult for your body to build lean muscle and change your body composition.

If you continue to lift weights while you’re cutting calories, you maintain your lean muscle mass – and especially avoid losing it. This is important because more lean muscle mass burns more calories to maintain it while you’re at rest. Just like EPOC, you want your RMR (resting metabolic rate) to remain as high as possible. In other words, you spike your metabolism while doing little to nothing! It’s estimated that, for every pound of lean muscle mass you have, your RMR is boosted by between 30 and 50 calories.

In a nutshell, it takes more energy to maintain muscle than fat. The more lean muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolism is.  

Blast Body Fat

Building lean muscle mass with strength training can help you lose body fat mass. In the short run, you’ll lose inches and lean out, giving you that “fit” and “toned” look. In the long run, this will also lead to weight loss. But be aware that the number on the scale may not drop as fast as you’d like it to. This is normal and expected.

Have you ever heard that a pound of muscle weighs more than a pound of fat? Well, it doesn’t – they weigh the same. Muscle mass, however, is more condensed than fat mass. This means that a pound of muscle mass will look a lot smaller than a pound of fat mass. This is also why people who have a high percentage of lean muscle mass tend to weigh more than they look like they do.

The scale doesn’t differentiate between what is muscle mass and what is fat mass. While you continue to strength train as you’re working towards weight and fat loss, don’t pay as much attention to the scale. The number will gradually go down, but the way your clothes fit and how many inches you’ve lost will tell a better story.

Why Cardio Can Sidetrack You

Aerobic cardio isn’t a bad thing. In fact, there are amazing benefits to making cardio a regular part of your routine, from boosting your VO2 max and strengthening your heart to helping you recover more quickly from an intense bout of exercise.

When it comes to weight and fat loss, there’s a big reason why it may inhibit your efforts.

Have you ever gone for a long run or stint on the elliptical, then wanted to immediately stuff your face with high-carb and high-fat foods? This is because your body just burned through all its glucose and glycogen stores to supply you with the energy you needed to get through the workout.

Your body will burn through all its glucose and glycogen (sugar/carbohydrate) stores first to produce energy. Sugar and carbohydrate cravings are your body’s way of telling you that you need to replenish these stores as quickly as possible.

When we try to lose weight and fat, we often think that we need to work as hard and for as long as we can to burn more calories. But that’s not the case. You need to burn calories to lose weight, but it’s more important as to WHERE those calories come from.

Think about this. If you’re trying to lose weight, would you rather be burning calories from sugar or fat?

Fat, for sure.

The higher your heart rate is and the longer your heart rate stays at this level, the more sugar/carbohydrates your body needs to burn to sustain it. This is because your body needs a quick source of energy to maintain that much exertion - and that’s where glucose comes in.

What if you did aerobic cardio with less exertion at a lower heart rate? You’d be burning more calories from your fat stores, but you probably won’t be burning a ton of calories.

Strength training is a form of interval training. While you’re knocking out a set, your heart rate spikes. You’re burning carbs so your muscles have the energy to perform the movement. After you’ve finished your set, you need to rest. This will bring your heart rate down to a zone that taps into your fat stores, causing you to utilize energy from them. Paired with these metabolic benefits, strength training can be the most effective, and efficient, way to boost your weight and fat loss efforts.

One last thing…

Long-distance aerobic cardio performed at a higher intensity creates a HUGE amount of stress on your body. This means that it can spike your cortisol levels. If you’re consistently doing this type of training, and especially if you’re not taking the time to rest and recover, your cortisol could remain chronically elevated.

High cortisol levels can boost your sugar burn during exercise AND at rest because it can increase your blood glucose levels. When this becomes chronic, it can promote fat storage – particularly around your belly. In other words, chronically elevated cortisol because of too much cardio can completely hold back your fat loss efforts. 

Other Reasons to Lift

Along with the metabolic benefits of strength training, there are tons of other reasons why it’s so beneficial for your health. Paired with helping you feel great and look your best, lifting weights may:

  • Reduce your resting blood pressure.
  • Decrease your risk for heart disease.
  • Strengthen your heart.
  • Increase your bone density.
  • Improve your circulation.
  • Balance your cholesterol levels.
  • Assist in controlling your blood sugar levels.
  • Boost your neuromuscular efficiency and coordination.
  • Improve your balance.
  • Correct your posture.
  • Increase your energy levels.
  • Help you sleep better at night.
  • Help you manage stress and reduce anxiety.
  • Decrease risk of diabetes and obesity.
  • Improve strength.
  • Boost fitness and life performance.

Keep in mind that strength training isn’t all about finding a new one-rep max every day. There are plenty of different ways to lift weights, and your program can be catered to your goals, limitations and interests.

Pairing exercise with a healthy diet is the best way to streamline your weight and fat loss efforts. Are you looking for guidance when it comes to your programming? We can provide you with a customized training program that’s catered to your health and fitness goals. Even better, we’ll coach you along the way to help you stay motivated, accountable and successful. Schedule your complimentary health solutions consultation today to learn more.

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