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The long-lived debate surrounding cardio and strength training has crossed many headlines over the years, causing confusion amongst gym-goers looking to shrink their waistline. While they both host many benefits for the body, the suggestion of why one should be used in place of the other, especially when it comes to fat loss, is a conversation that won’t entirely die down.
Although both forms of exercise have their time and place within a goal-oriented fitness regimen, to reap the benefits from this dynamic duo means they both must be consistently utilized.
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 training is more effective for fat loss.
With that said, let’s iron out the details of why these training methods complement each other (and your physique) and when it may be necessary to separate the two.
Here’s where the core of this debate lies: 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 training workout; creating a steady stream of opinions on why you should be choosing one exercise method over the other.
Jeff Cervero, a registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist with over 26 years of experience, explains it this way: “In general, low intensity, long-duration aerobic workouts burn more calories than weight-training during the actual workout.” On the flip side, high intensity, anaerobic training, such as weight training, can elevate your metabolism long afterward due to an “afterburn effect” called EPOC or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.
“EPOC translates to the number of calories that are expended to recover after an exercise session is over,” Cervero says. “The impact of EPOC depends more on the intensity of an exercise than on the duration of it.”
Lower-intensity, aerobic-based workouts, such as jogging, do not elicit much EPOC. “Once the workout is over, the caloric expenditure ends; Whereas, when a high-intensity, anaerobic training session is finished, the caloric expenditure continues,” says Cervero. This process is very helpful for burning fat at rest.
With that said, if your primary fitness goal is sustainable fat loss, Cervero recommends including a combination of strength training plus cardio. The combination of the two (performed on the same day or not) will help your body burn more calories post strength training, and burn more calories during session on your cardio days.
Better together, cardio and strength training offer the body both medicinal and physical benefits that reach beyond fat loss. “Cardio is great for heart health, and helps lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer,” says Cervero.
Strength training, especially when performed consistently, helps build muscle mass (and strong bones) that decreases with age. “Weight training can slow this process and help improve your overall quality of life,” he adds. Add mental health perks such as reduced anxiety and depression to the many benefits both cardio and strength training provide and you’ve got one impressive combo.
The benefits of both training methods are unmatched, but there are times when one may be prioritized over the other. This is dependent on individual goals. For example, “A competitive weightlifter should prioritize strength training for building 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 increasing strength and power,” says Cervero.
In this instance, Cervero recommends having a separate cardio day designated for active recovery and incorporating light movement on a non-weight-training day.
Even when you need to separate cardio from strength, you’ll still experience the benefits of both as you rotate them according to your goals.
The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you’ll burn. “Muscle is metabolically active, meaning it burns more calories at rest than body fat.” Says Cervero. 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 within 24 hours an extra 96 extra calories in comparison to fat tissue.” If your routine is cardio-dominant, and you still haven’t reached your fat loss goal, building lean muscle via strength training is key.
The most important thing when it comes to exercise Cervero says is making time for it. “The best type of exercise is highly individualized, and the best time to exercise is always one that you can most adhere to so it becomes a lifelong habit,” he says. The takeaway? Find a training method that meets your personalized goals; one that you enjoy to ensure a lifelong commitment to exercise.