Weights vs. Cardio for Weight Loss
Interesting question. From my background knowledge and research to date, the statement,
whereby "resistance training is as effective as cardio training for fat loss" is only correct in a
"time relevant" context.
During an exercise session, cardio training potentially utilizes a higher volume of calories
when compared to resistance training. However, when the cardio training session ceases, so
too does the calorie burning effect (or soon after depending on EPOC state). Alternatively,
resistance training has the potential to gradually and progressively increase muscle mass and
therefore increase basal metabolic rate (the calories required by your body to maintain basic
operations throughout the day and night). Much like putting a bigger engine in a car, more
fuel is needed for daily operation
Therefore, to lose fat relatively quickly (i.e., several weeks) and to a greater initial extent,
cardio training is essential for the high calorie consumption. In the long term, however, to
keep the fat off and decrease the susceptibility to gain fat, resistance training and an increase
in muscle mass is required (not to forget the equally, if not more, important nutritional and
So, if the aim is to increase calorie utilization, lose body fat and keep the fat off, incorporate
both cardio training and resistance training into your program.
Several points in regards to this:
1. On reading an increase in muscle mass, many women automatically cringe
and picture the muscle bound women in body building magazines. Remember,
those women are professional athletes. They have an incredibly strict training
and nutritional regime designed specifically for putting on a high amount of
muscle and many are blessed with great genetics.
2. Some preliminary research has found that, in regards to resistance training,
while men increase in lean body mass more than women, women tend to loose
more visceral fat (fat around the body’s organs) than men.*
3. Apart from the benefits of long term fat utilization, resistance training
increases bone loading, a key component in minimizing bone loss and
delaying Osteoporosis, a major concern for many women of all ages.
4. A final point, I used the term fat loss rather than weight loss as weight can
change depending on muscle mass, fat mass, hydration, last meal intake, etc.,
and as such, few people (weight competitive athletes and power athletes)
desire actual weight loss, many truly desire a decrease in body fat. I hope my
presumption was correct. If not, then we have a different ball game, as
resistance training can actually increase body weight by increasing lean body
mass (even with fat loss).
In terms of addressing some of the current theories in regards to cardio versus weight training
controversy, one popular theory is, “One can burn more calories in a good set of squats than
in a 45 minute aerobics class.”
I agree that the potential for one person to burn more calories in a good set of squats than in a
45 minute aerobic class or even a 30 minute run does exist, just as one can burn more calories
walking than running. The reason is the intensity of the session. Squats can have a very high
metabolic demand from both the muscle and neurological demands for energy, and I would
expect someone to burn more calories doing four sets to failure with a heavy load than
someone in a low intensity aerobic class with little desire and/or experience or a fit individual
plodding along at a slow jog, which barely increases his/her heart rate. With this in mind,
however, scientific research that transcends to the general population when considered in
relative terms finds most cardio-based training sessions to have higher calorie utilization and
MET ratio than recreational weight training (see references below).
Interestingly enough, I tried to compare the effects of resistance training to aerobic classes
and running with a colleague in 2000. We measured heart rates during and for the first 60
minutes following weight training sessions, aerobic classes and treadmill and road running
For the resistance training sessions, we would perform three sets of eight to 10 RM of a lower
limb lifting (Deadlift, Squat or Lunge), upper body pushing (Bench Press, Loaded Push Ups,
Loaded Dips) and upper body pulling exercise (Bent Over Row, Loaded Chin Ups, Neutral
Grip Lat Pulldown), alternating the lead exercises every session for six weeks.
On average, both of us had heart rates over 200 beats per minute when performing the
Deadlifts and Squats, which would drop back down to around 120-140 bpm during the two-
minute recovery, The lowest heart rates were for the Bench Press (138-148 bpm) with resting
heart rates dropping down to 104-112 bpm (when this exercise was performed first). These
sessions were literally "throw up sessions" where we went for maximal effort. Heart rates
were generally back to resting levels within 20 minutes but would be higher than usual when
performing sedentary activities like walking up/down the office stairs. Both of us had similar
results when running on the road or treadmill for 30 minutes flat out (the average weight
training session went for 28 minutes). We maintained average heart rates of between 158 and
170 beats per minute, and our heart rates dropped to the pre session limit usually after an hour
(sometimes not). In the aerobic classes, we differed the most. My partner participated in
classes at a local gymnasium, whereas I instructed at the gymnasium where we worked. My
heart rates average 155-162 beats per minute during my energy burner classes whereas my
partner's heart rates averaged 120-158 beats per minute.
Overall, we calculated that significantly more heart beats were taken from the cardio training
sessions than the other two; however, my partner started to show signs of sympathetic
nervous system overtraining with the weight training periodization whereas I likewise
showed signs of sympathetic nervous system overtraining from the treadmill/road running.
In regards to heart rates and expected calorie utilization (through which there is a linear
relationship) during the session and as part of EPOC, the running activities were a clear
favorite. However, we had no blood or gas analysis measures, so critical factors like
metabolic/hormonal status, the true number of calories utilized, what fuel source provided the
energy, etc., were never determined. Using the above example, aerobic exercise classes for
me would be expected to achieve substantial calorie utilization but not for my partner. We
both agreed that the neurological demands were higher for my partner during resistance
training than they were for me (his relative load for both exercises was higher than mine).
Conversely, I placed more demands on my neural system when running (my speed was
approximately 1.3km/h faster).
In terms of clinical efficacy, over the last 10 years as a Physical Training Instructor for the
Australian Armed Forces, training soldiers who range from elite athletes to desk bound
sedentary soldiers to those recovering from all manor of injury and surgery, I can attest to the
need for an individualized formula for any client goal, including fat loss. With this in mind, I
have found the greatest potential for fat loss and maintained fat loss to be in those who
perform both anaerobic/aerobic conditioning and resistance training. It is the subtleties of the
exercise prescription and training dose that varies.
General Point: The ability and desire of the average individual to perform high
neurometabolic resistance training exercises, which require near maximal efforts with
substantial loads for an extended training period (i.e., months to years), is questionable.