Cardio versus strength training. Which is the best for weight loss, fitness and toning?
Long gone are the days when the men pumped iron in the gym while the ladies in headbands and leotards did grapevines and jazz moves in a class next door.
These days it’s a more mixed approach to exercise, because women are cottoning on to the fact that strength training isn’t just for the boys. In fact it’s an essential weapon in the battle of the flab!
So what’s best for losing weight: cardio or strength work? Answer: Both!
Cardio, aka cardiovascular exercise, is anything that gets your heart rate up, makes you feel sweaty, and gets more oxygen pumping through your blood.Running, cycling and aerobic classes, like zumba, are all examples.
Government guidelines suggest adults should do two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week for health.
“Cardiovascular exercise is a fantastic way to improve your health and fitness,” says top fitness trainer Gavin Walsh.
He has actors and celebs on his client list and runs a fitness boot camp business.
“Your heart and lungs will benefit immensely from consistent cardiovascular exercise,” he tells us. “It is especially important for beginners, as it thickens the tendons and ligaments in joints in preparation for higher intensity exercise.”
Fitness instructor Jane Simons agrees: “The benefits of cardiovascular training are numerous: you will get huge health benefits, improved circulation, increases in bone density (to help combat osteoporosis), improved sleep and reduced anxiety levels. Cardio also increases your energy levels, as long as it’s not done to excess.”
She says there are so many activities you can do like swimming or indoor cycling that you are bound to find something you love, or something to do with friends, and will therefore stick to, which is the key to any type of exercise.
A Bit of Both
Strength training is any exercise that helps the different muscles in your body become stronger and more powerful. It can be through using weights, or even your own bodyweight like press-ups and squats. It can be resistance-based, using different bits of kit like elastic gym bands or gym fit balls.
If you want to help tone muscles and strengthen bones strength work is vital; it’s also key to losing weight.
Adam Hawkey, senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at the University of Wolverhampton, says: “By doing strength or weight training you are looking at increasing your muscle tissue. The more lean muscle tissue you have the more calories you burn.
“One kg of muscle burns 50 extra calories a day, whereas 1kg of fat burns just three calories a day.”
Personal trainer Victoria Jones says: “In my experience, weight training is more effective for fat-loss than cardio. You are likely to see the best results if you increase your metabolic rate; this is what strength training does.”
She says cardio work aids fat loss when on a calorie controlled diet but the effect on body shape and size is minimal unless you’ve never done it before.
“I would always prioritice weight training first and foremost, leaving cardio for recovery days when my muscles need to be stretched and I want an energy boost!”
For maximum benefits, both types of exercise should be carried out regularly. However, that doesn’t mean you have to do one or the other, says Gavin.
“It is possible to do both at the same time and this is called metabolicconditioning. Combining cardio and strength exercise is a very effective fitness and fat loss tool.”
The good news is that metabolic conditioning workouts are much shorter because of their intensity.
He warns though that “metabolic conditioning is hard work and perhaps not for exercise beginners”.
Metabolic conditioning is training your body to work at a high intensity for a short period of time. Any intense work you do for up to seconds will be of this nature. This is then followed by a short recovery period before you repeat several times.
“There has been a lot of research done on weight training versus cardio and most experiments show weight training to be better for fat loss and short sharp bursts of high intensity cardio to be better than steady state cardio,” says Victoria.
Gillian Reeves, Virgin Active’s national group exercise manager says: “At the moment the fitness trend is towards shorter more high intensity workouts where you push yourself a bit harder but not for as long.”
The After Effect
Another plus to strength training is that your body is still burning calories when you’re sitting on the sofa watching TV after your workout!
“This type of exercise often causes you to burn more calories after the session has finished, unlike the slow boring cardio that most people do,” according to Victoria.
“After all types of exercise you will burn calories,” says Gillian. “With strength training you are switching on more of your muscle fibres and raising your metabolism so there’s more active tissue in your body.”
Victoria says it pays to work hard as calories are needed to repair the muscles after a tough workout; therefore you are burning more calories – even on the days you don’t even go to the gym!
Weights don’t mean big and butch
The experts say you need to use a bit of weight if you want to lose a bit of weight.
“Guys always lose more weight in training than girls because they lift heavy and work hard,” Victoria says. “So many women are afraid to be strong for fear of getting big muscles. Let me tell you now that the weaker you are, the fatter you are likely to be.
“Women don’t have the levels of testosterone required to get bulky, so the sooner we stop being worried about being judged in the gym and start working out properly the better.”
“It’s not all about lifting weights – strength training can be using your own body as resistance or bits of kit,” says Gillian. “I get worried when I see someone doing pure cardio every day, pounding the treadmill – it breaks your body down.”
Weights don’t mean big and butch continued…
Adam, who is also a leading member of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, says: “For the gym goer I’d recommend an hour or so of cardio with some resistance training two or three times a week.”
He also recommends post menopausal women do strength training to help ward of osteoporosis.
Gillian says: “People need to do a mix of both types of exercise. I recommend three cardio sessions and two strength sessions a week.”
So, a mix of strength and cardio is the ideal exercise combination to help burn calories. Remember though, if you are trying to lose weight, what you eat is just as important.