The big fat debate: weight lifting or cardio?

Once upon a time, if you asked a fitness professional how to lose weight, they'd reply with four simple words: get on a treadmill.

Cardiovascular work was the go-to option for anyone who needed to lose weight.  Whether it was running, cycling, rowing or even walking, any exercise that tested your stamina over a long duration, rather than your strength over a short one, was seen as the fat person's friend.

Ask that same professional today, however, and the answer might not be so cut and dry.

There's a raging debate in the fitness world about whether weight training isn't actually more effective at bringing about fat loss than cardio work.  Annoyingly, there isn't a clear answer.

People talk about wanting to achieve weight loss, but what they really mean is fat loss.  They don't want to lose lean muscle, which would slow their metabolism and make them look less athletic; instead, they want to drop the blubber. 

The maintenance of muscle mass should take precedence over the loss of body fat.  Any training regime you embark on to lose fat and get lean should have been built with maintaining your lean muscle mass in mind. 

So, what are the arguments for and against cardio and weight training? 

Cardio 

Pros 

  • Very high calorie burn during session
  • Low barrier to entry - many different activities can be incorporated
  • Excellent low intensity options for fat loss i.e. walking
  • Little need for rest in comparison to weight training

Cons 

  • Most people will use running as default cardio, but over running is a common problem, resulting in injuries and strains 
  • Difficult for very unfit people to get into, excepting at very low intensity 
  • Moderate to intense sustained cardio is not ideal for hormone balance, especially for those with high cortisol levels
  • Extremely difficult to create a balanced physique through cardio alone

Weight Training

Pros

  • Increases muscle mass quickly
  • Causes a sustained spike in metabolism, which means you burn calories long after the exercise is over
  • Low barrier to entry for the very unfit 
  • Offers the ability to grow muscle and lose fat simultaneously 

Cons 

  • Higher barrier to recovery (e.g. a four-hour walk is great whereas a four-hour weight session would be counterproductive) 
  • Lower caloric burn in comparison to cardio (minute by minute, not over time) 
  • Lots of bad information on the market, leading to poor results
  • Can increase hunger significantly, so discipline with diet becomes a factor in success

All in all, weight training seems the best.  Weight training simply offers most of the health benefits of cardio, while most of the fat loss benefits of cardio can be achieved simply through reducing caloric intake.

However, that does not mean people should design a fat loss program around weight training instead of cardio.  It sounds obvious, but the question at the heart of the debate is false: no one has to do one or the other.  The best recommendation? Cycle between between both cardio and weight training