One of the most common questions that people have when they’re looking to lose weight is, "should I lift weights or do cardio for the best calorie burn?"
It makes sense to want to spend your time working out doing the routines most efficient for burning calories to reach your weight loss goals faster. Both cardio and weightlifting offer unique benefits that can support increased calorie burning.
The number of calories burned during a 30-minute exercise session will vary based on factors like individual body weight, the type of activity being done, and the intensity of the exercise.
In general, cardio burns more calories than resistance training during exercise. Although weightlifting has unique benefits due to its positive effects on muscle mass and increasing your resting metabolic rate.
Let’s go over some of the benefits of both cardio and weightlifting for fat loss.
Cardio is Easy to Track
For individuals that are numbers oriented, cardio can be a convenient style of exercise to track caloric expenditure. One of the most common ways to do cardio is on a gym machine and most machines track the number of calories burned during exercise. This can help simplify the weight loss process for many people if they know they need to burn a certain number of calories per day during exercise.
Cardio is Affordable and Convenient
Cardio can be done with minimal equipment, making it a very affordable exercise option. If you’re able to elevate your heart rate during an activity you can be doing a form of cardio. Activities as simple as running outside or jumping jacks can be forms of cardio exercise.
Cardio is Time Efficient
Cardio can be a very time efficient style of exercising that can yield big benefits. One style of cardio, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is characterized by its short all-out bursts of activity followed by rest periods. In one study, as little as 3 HIIT sessions a week consisting of about 10 minutes of high-intensity exercise for a total of 30 minutes including warm up and rest periods was shown to improve aerobic capacity.
In a systematic review comparing a HIIT workout to Moderate Intensity Continuous Training (MICT), HIIT and MICT both induced positive effects on body composition but HIIT required 40% less training time commitment.
One thing to note about HIIT style reps and training is that while it can be effective and time efficient, it does require high intensity making it difficult for many people to consistently implement in their program. A HIIT interval requires individuals to push themselves to the upper ceilings of their train VO2 max.  The VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can use during exercise, it’s considered the gold standard measurement for classifying cardiovascular fitness. Research has shown that people may find HIIT training less enjoyable than steady state or medium intensity training.
Weight Training Elevates Your Metabolism
An advantage of weightlifting is that research shows that it can raise your resting metabolic rate. The resting metabolic rate is the number of calories burned while at rest. While this elevation in resting metabolic rate from weightlifting only amounts to a small fraction of your total energy expenditure, resistance training may still be an effective modality to support weight loss and improved body composition.
Weight Training Improves Overall Body Composition
Another advantage of weightlifting is that research has shown it to be effective for improving body composition, in the form of increased lean muscle mass and decreased fat mass. [10,11,12] The end goal for most individuals looking to increase their caloric expenditure during exercise is to increase weight loss and improve body composition. Resistance training can be an effective form of exercise for reaching these goals.
Summary: The Perfect Blend
Research has shown that exercise routines that combine cardio and lifting may be beneficial for improved body composition and energy expenditure. [13,14] Rather than picking one style over the other, both cardio and strength training have complementary benefits that when combined can help accelerate your ability to reach your goals.
Additionally, CrossFit is one style of training that has become a go-to for many people because it combines both strength training and cardio. With this style of training, you’re able to develop multiple facets of athleticism while burning calories. Research on CrossFit style workouts have found that they can contribute to a significant amount of daily activity energy expenditure. And CrossFit can be an effective training style for modifying body composition.
Here's a sample workout that combines weightlifting and cardio:
"The Big Three"
- Warm up with 10-15 minutes of light cardio
- Complete 3 rounds of the following exercises:
- 300-meter run
- 30 bodyweight squats
- 30 push ups
- 30 dumbbell or kettlebell swings
- Cool down with 10-15 minutes of light cardio and stretching
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