Optimizing Fat Loss: Cardio vs. Resistance Training
“Cardio”- Term commonly used to describe steady-state cardiovascular exercise done at between 65% and 85% of max heart rate. Usually done by jogging, biking, elliptical, etc.
“Resistance Training”- A system of using loads to create a training effect. This can be done with weights, bands, bodyweight exercises, etc.
When it comes to fat loss these are generally the two types of exercise that come to mind. However there is an overwhelming “popular” consensus that in order to lose fat, “you need to do your cardio.” I chose my words very deliberately, so understand that just because it is a common belief, does NOT necessarily make it the truth. This article will take a look at both forms of exercise and try to determine which form of exercise is best for fat loss.
Steady state cardiovascular exercise is thought to be optimal for burning fat. This is indisputably true. This aerobic form of exercise uses fat as its primary source of energy. While you are doing this exercise, you are certainly burning up your fat stores as the fuel. Resistance training is the opposite. While resistance training, you are working hard and then recovering, which allows the body to use its preferred energy source, carbohydrates which are in the blood stream and stored in the muscles.
So that means cardio is better? Case closed? Not even close. What these text book explanations of what is happening at a given moment during exercise miss is how many of these calories and being burned, and more importantly, what is going to be the reaction by the body to these forms of exercise.
We know that aerobic exercise burns a higher PERCENTAGE of fat during exercise. This does not account for the total AMOUNT of fat used as the energy source for that bout of exercise. Who cares if you were burning 60% fat during exercise if you only burned 300 calories of fat total in an hour of exercise! Going strictly by this method of fat loss it would theoretically take you 11 hours of steady state cardio to burn 1 pound of fat! Does that even sound close to reasonable? Added to the frustration is that once you hop off the trusty elliptical machine, the workout ends, so does the increased caloric expenditure!
Compare this with resistance training. Depending on the intensity of training you are going to work a lot harder! This means more total calories used during the exercise session. The percentage of fat burned will be lower, no question about it. But the total number of calories will be higher. It takes more out of the body to lift heavy stuff than it does to walk along casually.
But Alwyn Cosgrove, author of The Science of Fat Loss, would point out that it’s ridiculous to look at what’s going on during exercise. It’s what happens after exercise that really tells the truth about which form of exercise is better for fat loss. He says that “looking at weight lifting, during the workout, that we could conclude that weight lift is the worst way to build muscle. During weight lifting the muscles are broken down and get weaker. If we stop there, as we do in looking at aerobic exercise, one would certainly think that the fastest way to broken down, weak muscles is through weight training.” What happens next is where the magic occurs and the muscles build themselves back up stronger and larger than before. This holds true for fat loss too.
It’s not what happens during the exercise, but after. After aerobic exercise nothing happens. After resistance training the body is in recovery mode and keeps the metabolism raised anywhere from 24-48 hours post exercise. Seeing as how your resting metabolic rate accounts for up to 75% of the calories you burn daily (with a high percentage coming from fat I might add), this is a nice thing to have elevated. Resistance training, despite what it looks like DURING exercise, also builds muscle. Muscle mass in itself burns fat. It takes the body more energy, calories burned through your metabolism, to maintain muscle, so the long term effect of resistance training also leads to more fat being burned by the body.
So please, if you’re like most of us and only have a certain amount of time to dedicate to working out per week, do yourself a favor and ignore the calling of the “fat burning zone” on the treadmill and do some heavy tri-sets if you really want to burn fat!