You see it all the time. People with weight loss goals spending countless hours on the cardio equipment, all the while the weight rack sits untouched, and collecting dust.
The preconceived notion for most people is that weight training is reserved for those who have goals of gaining weight and looking huge. They feel that picking up some dumbbells would not be conducive towards their ultimate goal of losing weight. The idea of cardio has become directly correlated with looking lean and shredded, with weight lifting reserved primarily for “bulking up”.
Seeing as this belief system is quite common amongst new gym goers, I’d like to dive a little deeper into these theories and go over the positives and negatives of both cardio and weight training as it relates to losing weight.
WHAT DOES CARDIO DO FOR YOUR BODY?
It’s true. When it comes to burning fat, there’s nothing that comes anywhere close to the fat burning potential of cardiovascular activity. Whether it’s steady state, high intensity interval training (HIIT), circuit based, etc… cardio will definitely provide you with the most short-term weight loss benefits. Now, understand that the key word here is “short-term”. Although it can be incredibly effective at burning fat in the moment, it’s important to be aware of the signal you send your body when you’re constantly prioritizing cardio in your program.
Regardless of what you’re doing.. swimming, biking, running, etc… you have to understand that our bodies are constantly working to adapt and become more efficient at that activity. This is the reason we get “in shape” and over time become able to perform at a higher capacity without getting as winded and tired. While this seems like it would be an obvious benefit, we have to think about what we’re ultimately trying to accomplish. When you’re body becomes adapted to a certain type of training, it effectively becomes much more efficient at utilizing its calories. Not only will you burn less calories as you become better at the activity, your body will also begin to slow your metabolism in an attempt to preserve fuel and nutrients. While this is extremely beneficial for an athlete trying to increase their performance and work capacity, it may be counter productive for someone looking to shed excess body fat (especially if you’ve got quite a bit to lose).
Now let’s look on the flip side: WHAT SIGNAL IS WEIGHT TRAINING SENDING TO YOUR BODY?
When you lift weights, you are sending a signal to your body that you are trying to add and preserve muscle. Since muscle is a more expensive tissue to maintain, your body will effectively begin burning more calories, and ramping up your metabolism in order to build and sustain that tissue.
This is why lifting weights is such an effective weight loss strategy. Although you may not be burning as many calories from the activity itself, over time weight training will result in a much faster metabolism than simply doing cardio by itself. It will also allow you to continue progressing without the continual plateaus that come from excessively performing cardio in an attempt to shed body fat.
SO DOES THIS MEAN I SHOULD NEVER DO CARDIO?
Absolutely not. Cardio has many tremendous benefits for our longevity and overall health. For many, running, swimming, biking, etc.. is a very enjoyable hobby that can also provide tremendous mental and emotional benefits.
The point of this post is definitely not to bash or demonize cardio. I do cardio regularly and thoroughly enjoy the way it makes me feel. A good sweat helps me think more clearly, feel more energized, and puts me in a much better mood overall. I simply want to make sure that those who strive to lose weight understand that it is NOT the most effective way to reach their goals. cardio should be utilized as a supplementary tool, but should by no means be the primary strategy for dropping those extra pounds.
If you really want to see sustainable, long-term results, you need to be strategic about how you’re implementing cardio into your program. Regardless of what your goals are, whether it’s to shed body fat or gain muscle & size, I would ALWAYS rank weight training at the top of the list. The benefits are tremendous both for your long-term health as well as any performance or aesthetic goals you may have.
If you have a goal to lose weight, here’s a few key takeaways and recommendations for implementing cardio in your program:
1) Begin weight lifting 3-4 times per week if you aren’t already. Focus on getting stronger on your core movements: squat, deadlift, press variations, row variations, dips, pull ups, etc..
2) Begin tracking your NEAT (Your non-exercise activity). Get a step tracker and become more conscious about how much you’re actually moving on a daily basis. You’d be amazed at how sedentary a lot of us are without even realizing it.
3) Start by setting step goals for yourself before incorporating any additional cardio. If you’re averaging 4,000 steps per day, set a goal to walk an additional 2,000 each day. Take a 20 minute walk each night before bed. It doesn’t seem like much, but I promise it makes a big difference in your overall calorie expenditure.
4) If your progress begins to plateau, begin incorporating 2-3 days of HIIT cardio after your workouts. These sessions should only be 10-15 minutes long when starting out. I typically recommend doing intervals on a treadmill. Begin with 20 seconds of an intense pace, followed by 40 seconds of walking to allow your heart rate to come down. Repeat this for the full 10-15 minutes.
5) Alternate different training modalities every few weeks. If you’ve been running on the treadmill for the past three weeks, try the stair stepper, rowing, or biking to mix things up. This will keep your body from adapting to one specific style of training.
6) If your progress begins to slow, experiment with different lengths & intensities of cardio. Try switching to some LISS (low intensity steady state) or MISS (medium intensity steady state) for a few weeks and see how your body responds. I recommend starting with as little as possible to elicit change. This will give you much more room to work with down the road. Start with 15-20 minutes, and increase duration over time.
I hope this helps! Always remember that this is a marathon, and not a sprint. The more strategic you can be going into a weight loss program, the easier it will be to lose that weight & keep it off for good.