It’s a question that never seems to get answered — what’s better for losing weight: cardio or weights?
Google that, and you’ll get millions of hits and enough articles to fill the Library of Alexandria telling you to do both. And yes, you’ve found another article that will tell you both can be beneficial for losing weight.
But, and this is a but bigger than J-Lo’s, if you could only choose one in the cardio vs. weights debate, it should be lifting weights.
Yep, if you have 10, 20, 30, 40 pounds of weight (or more) you want to lose, do not hop on the treadmill. When your ultimate goal is fat loss, the most important form of exercise to focus on is lifting weights. Period.
Why is lifting weights superior to cardio when fat loss is your goal?
Any decent fat loss program should have two goals you focus on:
- burning fat; and
- retaining muscle
Before you read any further, there are a couple of things you need to know:
- There is a difference between fat loss and fat burning. I detail that difference in this article.
- Your metabolism isn’t what you think it is. And to understand why you’ve been screwing up and not losing fat for years, you need to read this article as well.
I know, I know, here I am, some dude on the Internet asking you to read shit he’s wrote. But the truth is, if you don’t understand what’s in the two articles above, you’ll never get off the fat loss struggle bus.
Alright, now that you’ve read those two articles, let’s dive into why lifting is crucial to fat loss success.
The First Law of Fat Loss
The first law of fight club is that you do not talk about fight club. Luckily, there’s no fighting in fat loss (except for fighting your self-destructive tendencies). But there is a super important fat loss law. And here it is: nutrition drives fat loss; workouts support it.
Achieving your fat loss goal won’t happen if you don’t make nutrition your main focus. If you can live by that law, you’ll succeed with your fat loss goal.
The Second Law of Fat Loss
Now, the second law of fat loss states: to keep your most metabolically active tissue (aka, muscle), you must send it the right kind of stimulus. What does this stimulus do? It tells your body that it needs your muscle to stick around.
You know what doesn’t send that message to your muscles? Cardio. And I’m not making that shit up. Science has proved this.
In 2015, researchers reviewed dozens of weight loss studies. They compared studies that were diet only, exercise only, & diet + exercise programs. Here’s what they found:
The combination of diet and exercise (specifically lifting weights) were more effective than diet or exercise only programs in reducing body fat and retaining muscle mass.”
Why is that the case?
Because lifting weights sends a signal to your body to preserve the muscles you’re using. “Bro, we got a ton of weight here we’re pushing around. Might be a good idea to keep this muscle around in case we need it.”
Here’s the kicker, cardio by itself doesn’t create the same stimulus. This means your muscles never get that “stick around” message.
So when you combine endless amounts of cardio and super low-calorie intake, guess what happens? Your body has to get the energy to fuel your long cardio from somewhere. And where does it go to get that energy? Your muscles.
Your body does this by breaking your muscles down and converting the amino acids they’re built on into glucose. If you were strictly after weight loss and didn’t mind losing muscle, then sure, who cares. Muscle be damned!
But if you want long-term weight loss success, you have to lift weights.
“So why is keeping muscle around important anyways?”
Well, if you read the 2nd article I mentioned above, you’d know that both fat and muscle need calories to exist. But let me assume you didn’t read said article above, which means I need to explain myself real quick.
Your fat cells require ~2 calories per hour per pound to live.
Your muscle(s) require ~6 calories per hour per pound.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that muscle burns 3x more calories than fat. And this is the reason why preserving muscle is so important. When your goal’s fat loss, lifting weights isn’t about burning calories. It’s about keeping the muscle you already have.
Eventually, to keep making progress with your fat loss goal, you need to consume fewer calories. But if you lose muscle while doing that, you’re gonna have to consume even less food. And who the hell wants to eat less food and feel hungry all the time?
Outside of avoiding ridiculous levels of hunger, there’s another reason why muscle retention’s a good idea.
Muscle Loss Leads to More Fat Gain
Before the world imploded in 2020, researchers found that those who lost muscle during an extreme diet had a much larger chance of weight regain due to increased appetite.
That research makes sense.
If you lose 10 pounds of muscle and then go back to eating the way you did before starting your diet, your metabolism would be lower. And guess where those extra calories you’d be consuming now would go?
Yep, straight to your fat cells. And it’s this mistake right here that’s kept many people yo-yo dieting for years.
Lose the weight -> go back to old habits -> regain more fat -> lose more weight -> go back to old habits -> regain more fat
Here’s the good news: if you retained that 10 pounds of muscle, your metabolism would be much higher after you finished your diet. And how would you keep that muscle? Simple: by lifting weights.
Ding ding! So it’s clear then, lifting is better than cardio. So you never have to do cardio again.
Well, no. Cardio does have some benefits for you.
Cardio Isn’t Bad
I know, I spent a thousand words telling you why lifting weights is better than cardio. And I’d much rather get an enema from a soldering iron than run for miles and miles on a treadmill. But putting my personal feelings about cardio aside, I can’t run from the fact that cardio is good for you.
It can be a good tool during a fat loss phase. However, as I explained above, too much cardio and no weight training will lead to muscle loss. So you need to find a balance between the two.
My solution: start lifting, then worry about cardio later.
But here’s something you might not know. Cardio can help you build better muscle.
What delivers energy to your muscles? Your blood vessels. Your capillaries (aka, blood vessels) are like the road(s) you drive on every day. Fewer roads lead to traffic jams. But the larger your transportation network, the more vehicles you can put on it.
Building muscle adds more stops to your capillary network. And if you want that new muscle to work well, you want more capillaries. And how do you get more capillaries?
Cardiovascular exercise is how you encourage your body to build more capillaries. The more you stress your cardiovascular system, the more roads it needs to build. And the more roads (capillaries) you have, the faster you get nutrients to your muscles.
If your body can take in and use more oxygen, then your muscles will recover more efficiently. Meaning, you’ll be better at getting rid of the waste products created via exercise. And, most importantly, you’ll recover better after your workout.
Lifting weights is the only way to grow bigger biceps, triceps, lats, pecs, and every other muscle in your body. But steady-state cardio has one muscle that it can build, your heart.
Steady-state cardio increases the stroke volume of your heart. The larger your heart’s stroke volume, the more blood it can fill with and then pump out with each beat. (This adaptation, however, doesn’t happen with HIIT training.)
Alright, so what does a heart with a larger stroke volume mean for muscle gains?
Well, first, if you have more blood flowing into your muscles, you’re going to be able to do more work. Increasing your capacity to handle more reps or weight means you’re going to push your body to new levels.
And this is where steady-state cardio benefits your lifting game.
Better cardiovascular conditioning means:
- Improvement in your ability to utilize your body’s energy stores;
- Increased ability to clear metabolites and waste products that can prevent you from getting more work out of your muscles; and,
- Aids in promoting faster recovery from your workouts
You’ll still get cardiovascular benefits from lifting. Especially if you’re new to lifting weights or are restarting lifting after a long break.
Cardio Doesn’t Mean You Have to Run
Most people will hop on a treadmill or head outside and starting running for cardio. But if you hate running, here’s my advice, don’t run.
Use the elliptical, hit the bike and imagine you’re Lance Armstrong, swim laps in a pool, or hop on a rowing machine. If you hate running, don’t run. It’s that simple.
I loathe running. But to get the benefits of cardio, I crank a treadmill up to its highest incline and walk for 30 minutes. That’s a guaranteed way to leave the gym soaked in sweat.
You can also do fun shit for cardio. Go play basketball for an hour. Or play air guitar around your living room (bonus points if done in your underwear).
Or if you’re tight on time and cardio isn’t feasible with your busy life schedule, you can get cardio benefits by:
- taking the stairs vs. the elevator
- going for a walk or hike on the weekends
- running hill sprints
- or getting outside and playing with your kids.
Yes, cardio can help you. It can also be a great tool in a fat loss plan. But it shouldn’t be the first and/or only tool you use. When you’re trying to lose fat, lifting weights is the most important tool in your arsenal.
As my good friend Aadam says, “eat for fat loss; train for muscle and strength.”
Key Points to Remember in the Cardio vs Weights Battle:
- Nutrition directly drives your fat loss.
- But strength training is the most important form of exercise you can do because it preserves muscle better than cardio.
- And by maintaining muscle mass, you’ll improve your body composition while maintaining more of your metabolism.
A few follow up Questions:
“What if I can’t make it to a gym? Am I just Sh*t out of luck?”
No, You can preserve the muscle you have now by doing bodyweight exercises — if that’s all you have.
So do what you can with what you have. Keep more muscle around.
“Should I skip cardio then?”
Cardio has its place and comes with huge benefits. You can get many of those benefits from doing cardio once a week every 4-6 weeks every few months; it doesn’t have to be an every week thing.
But find other ways to get your heart rate up like basketball, jumping rope, swimming, biking, hiking, or running away from zombies.
“Should I do cardio or weights first?”
Weights first, cardio second.
“But Joey the gym bro said I’ll lose my gains if I run.”
Well, your first mistake was listening to anyone form New Jersey. How do I know Joey is from NJ? I just do. Trust me.
And contrary to what Joey the Jersey Shore reject told you, cardio won’t kill your gains. At least if you don’t abuse it. So keep your cardio sessions to 1-2x a week.