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Cardio Vs Strength Training - for weight loss

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

What is cardio?

Cardiovascular exercises shortly called as cardio, is any rhythmic activity that raises your heart rate to your target heart rate zone. This is the zone where you burn fat.

Most common cardio examples are walking, running, swimming, cycling etc.. Even household chores like sweeping, mopping etc.. can be classified as cardio.

Benefits of cardio:

Cardio is also referred as aerobic exercise. The term 'aerobic' means 'with oxygen'. This means your muscles need continuous supply of oxygen to perform the activity. To supply oxygen as per muscle's demand our lungs and heart function more than resting time. This increases heart rate and respiratory rate. Hence cardio strengthens our heart and lungs.

Few known benefits of cardio are:

  • Improves heart function and cardiovascular health.

  • Improves lung function and respiratory health.

  • Improves sleep quality.

  • Reduces risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

  • Lowers stress, improves mood, relieves stress and depression these by enhances psychological health.

  • Improves your body's ability to use fat as a source of energy, burns more calories and hence aids weight loss.

What is weight training?

Weight training or resistance training or strength training is any physical movement in which you use your body weight or equipment to build muscle mass, strength and endurance. Weight training also known as anerobic exercises refer to activities that are not fueled by oxygen supply but the glycogen stored in the muscle. The word 'anerobic' means 'without oxygen'. Usually these exercises are fast and intense that they cannot be sustained for a longer duration like cardio exercises and they need quick burst of energy. Dumbbell curls, squats, lunges, push-ups all these are examples of weight training.

Benefits of weight training:

When we do weight training we actually overload muscle tissues and cause micro injuries. When the muscle recovers it rebuilds itself even more stronger than before. These are the few benefits of weight training:

  • Increases muscle size, strength and endurance.

  • Increases bone density.

  • Helps in improving cardiovascular health.

  • Promotes greater mobility and flexibility.

Cardio vs weight training which is better for you?

Its important to combine both cardio and weight training for all fitness goals and for all ages even. But how much of cardio versus strength training one should do? Answer to this question purely depends on individual's fitness goal and health condition. If your fitness goal is to improve muscle strength and endurance you should be doing more of weight training than cardio. If your fitness goal is to loose weight doing cardio more will be an ideal choice. But everyone should incorporate both weight training and cardio in their workout routine irrespective of their fitness goal.

Cardio vs strength training for weight loss:

Weight loss being the most driving motivation for exercise, its important to discuss which form of exercise warrants maximum weight loss. People usually aim for weight loss but the ideal fitness goal should be fat loss. A lower percentage of body fat is the better determinant of health rather than body weight. Ideally one should aim to get fit rather than loosing weight. The 5 components of fitness are cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. Body weight is not a determinant of fitness but body composition matters. So ideally one should work to reduce fat percentage and increase muscle mass for better body composition.

Why should you improve body composition and not just lose weight?

When you loose weight it doesn't mean that you are only losing fat. You may be loosing muscle mass too. This happens especially when people follow too restrictive fad diets to lose weight rather than focusing on balanced diet and exercises. You could have heard that cardio is best for weight loss. Definitely yes, cardio helps you to burn more calories per session than weight training and results in weight loss. But is the weight loss caused by cardio purely a fat loss? Not exactly. When you exercise body needs calories. It will burn fat for calories and along with fat, it also burns muscle proteins to fuel the workout. When the muscle mass decreases the body composition is further compromised as the fat percentage of the body may still be the same. Muscle tissues are known to burn more calories even when you are resting. If your muscle mass is low your body's ability to burn calories during rest goes down. This can contribute to weight plateau. That is people lose weight initially but their weight loss stops at a point and body becomes resistant to lose weight further. Hence its important to do strength training along with cardio to promote lean muscle mass.

Why to include strength training in weight loss journey:

While cardio burns more calories per session, weight training increases calorie expenditure post workout. Excess post-workout oxygen consumption (EPOC) is the amount of oxygen your body consumes after exercise. Weight training increases EPOC significantly while cardio do not have significant effect on EPOC. Hence our body burns calories post weight training resulting in more calorie burn after the workout session. Also weight training increases our resting metabolic rate for 48 - 72 hours. This means you burn more calories post weight training when you are at rest. But cardio do not provide any such benefits. A study found that weight training increases RMR by 9 % in men and 4% in women. Though weight training and building a little bit of muscle won’t make your metabolism skyrocket, but it may increase it by a small amount. Also weight loss is a long journey and requires consistent workout for months and even years. Weight training makes your muscles stronger so that you can perform cardio better and for a longer period of time and it also reduces risk of injury.

High intensity interval training (HIIT) :

HIIT involves short bursts of intense exercise alternated with low intensity recovery periods. Researches suggest that HIIT burns 25 to 30 % more calories than other forms of exercise. HIIT may also boost your metabolism more than weight training and cardio. But HIIT is not for all. HIIT demands more strength and endurance than traditional cardio. People who just started exercising will not be a good candidate to try HIIT as it can result in injuries. HIIT definitely results in greater calorie burn in shorter period of time and hence can be a good option for weight loss.


Cardio helps in burning more calories per session while strength training helps you to perform cardio activity better with good intensity for a long duration of time. Strength training is crucial to protect and improve muscle mass. Hence its important to include strength training in weight loss workout routine. American college of sports medicine (ACSM) recommends more than 150 minutes of moderate to intense cardio activity per week and its important to include at least 2 sessions of moderate to intense strength training per week. If your goal is to loose weight its advised to select compound exercises like squats, lunges, burpees etc.. that involves multiple muscle groups and hence burn more calories. People with prior exercise experience and basic fitness level can consider HIIT (High intensity interval training) as it burns more calories in shorter period and results in better weight loss than steady state cardio. HIIT is a big no for freshers.

- Sangeetha Duraiswamy

B.P.T., C.S.P.T., M.I.A.P., M.B.A. (HRM)

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