What's better for fat loss, strength training or cardio? I can't tell you how many times I've been asked this question from new clients. And you know what, I'm not surprised.
If it were up to some of the magazines and blogs out there, we'd be on the treadmill for hours at a time bored out of our minds. Thankfully, there seems to be a recent shift toward performance-based goals and more of an emphasis on strength training. Regardless of your views towards CrossFit, I believe we owe them a big thank you for getting more weights into the hands of the mainstream population.
Now before you get your panties in a bunch, I'm not saying cardio is bad. Cardio (in the right quantity) is extremely beneficial. Not only can it assist with fat loss, but it's also beneficial for overall heart health, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, hormonal profiles, recovery time, etc. (1)
I for one love a good hike, cycling and the occasional death-by-Stairmaster session. Yet you have to know your goals and how much is appropriate.
Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over yet expecting different results. We've all heard this and agree, yet we continue to do more and more cardio expecting our bodies to suddenly transform into the lean and athletic physiques we desire.
We (especially women) are programmed to believe that we must stick to dumbbells less than 10 pounds and perform dozens of reps on end so that we can "tone" our bodies and avoid getting big, "manly" muscles.
Ladies, if that's the line of thinking you believe please restrain from picking up your children once they pass the 10-pound mark. We wouldn't want you getting "too big."
Okay, sarcasm aside, you can see how this whole myth of bulking up makes no sense. Think you're getting big from lifting weights? Guess what, that's fat you need to lose, not muscle. Women don't possess the levels of testosterone needed to develop the freakishly large bodies that the media has you imagining. In fact, women have about 15 to 20 times less testosterone than men do (2).
I'm not trying to be mean here (or pick on female bodybuilders), but rather to make an obvious point and put to sleep a fear that seems to be embedded in many women. It pisses me off that women are still afraid to lift weights. I'm not pissed at them; I'm pissed that we still see this crap being promoted everywhere. Worse yet, is the fact that some of the most popular magazines promote and further perpetuate this thinking. Know why? Because that's what sells.
There is no such thing as toning. Ladies, if you want to get a "toned" body, you need to increase muscle mass. That "toned" look you're going after is achieved by increasing muscle mass and reducing body fat. You can do cardio all day every day and you'll never achieve the look you want if you don't have enough muscle underneath that fat layer that you're working so hard lose.
Furthermore, if you're slaving away on the treadmill all day and starving yourself, you're body isn't going to have the fuel it needs to build muscle. Carbs are your friend. Protein is your friend. And lifting heavy ass weight is your friend. Try to fight your body and it will fight you right back.
Cardio is a tool to assist when your goal is fat loss, but it shouldn't be your only tool. In the right quantities and at the right intensity it can definitely help. There is a big difference between a 20-minute HIIT session a few times a week and spending 1-2 hours on the treadmill every day.
So what's better for fat loss -- cardio or strength training? The answer, both! Take that with a grain of salt though. Think of strength training as your base. You can build upon that base by supplementing with cardio, but never rely solely on it.
Wondering where to start and how much cardio you should be doing?
My recommendation is to start with a couple short HIIT sessions and make sure your diet is 100 percent in line before you start adding additional cardio. The exact amount you should be doing varies by the individual, but more often than not I have my coaching clients reduce their cardio and first make sure their nutrition is on-point before we layer on additional time. You may start with a one or two 15 minutes sessions and go from there. Again, there is not "right" starting point.
Get to know your body by playing around with your cardio length, intensity, method etc. and see how it reacts. Make sure you're not overcompensating for a bad diet with extra cardio. Remember, less is more here. If you're still not making progress, or you simply want someone to figure it out for you, you can hire a coach like myself and then simply execute the plan.
Lastly, remember to have fun with it. Hate the treadmill? Fine, go for a hike! Is the weather bad? Why not try some jump rope or kettlebells? The options are endless. When cardio is correctly paired with a solid strength training program you'll have yourself a recipe for successful (and sustainable) fat loss.
This article originally appeared on www.ProShapeFitness.com
1. "Physical Activity Guidelines." Health.gov. Office of Disease Prevention and Healthy Promotion, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.
2. Baechle, Thomas R., and Roger W. Earle. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008. Print.