Cardio Vs. Weightlifting For Fat Loss: Who Wins?


Your Goals Are Long-Term

Some people are convinced that you need cardio in your program. Many people believe (although I blame marketing wizardry for this!) that cardio needs to be in EVERY program. I mean, just take a look in most gyms: it’s cardio machine frenzy!

In fact in most cases, the cardio area is usually 10x greater than that of the free weights area. But it’s not just cardio machines, the act of weight training itself has been turned into a form of cardio: all these wonderful types of circuits. You know, all that high reps, low weight, feel the burn stuff? It’s a no brainer; I think it’s safe to say that many people today are hooked on the cardio to achieve their goals. You are probably reading this and thinking: yes it’s pretty clear this guy hates cardio. Let me put your mind to rest, I don’t hate cardio, but from my experience many people are using cardio for completely the wrong purposes.

It’s not a surprise that today you see huge queues of people in almost every gym lining up to join the ranks of the treadmill fanatics. Everyone is so desperate to shed those extra pounds that every time you step into the gym, the first thing you hear is the constant roar of synchronized marching legs on the treadmills. Well, that’s ok. But as a coach, let me share some insights into why cardio should come last on your list when it comes to loosing fat, building size and, building strength. I am not saying remove it completely. But, it might just give you some new things to think about at the end of this article.

Firing Up Your Calorie Burning Furnace

When it comes to shredding fat, you need to burn more calories than you take in. That’s pretty standard stuff. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. The question is: what is the best way of burning those calories? Most people will probably say cardio is. Well, it really depends. Are we talking the short-term or the long-term? In the short-term then sure, it’s a good way to burn off some extra calories in a short space of time. But bluntly put, in the long-term cardio is a terrible solution for fat loss.

Marketing has done a great job of convincing you that cardio is the best way to shred those extra pounds by burning a huge number of calories in a short space of time. But what it fails to show you is the main catalyst in all of your fat loss efforts: muscle. Even if you are not interested in packing on huge amounts of muscle or becoming incredibly strong, you still need a decent amount of muscle on your frame to manage fat loss in the most optimal long-term way possible.

Building And Preserving Muscle Is Everything

I can understand why lots of people are cardio crazy; it’s a great way to burn a ton of calories in a short space of time. That’s got to be a great thing, right? The two most commonly performed ways of cardio are LIT (low intensity) and HIT (high intensity). I am guessing these terms are not new to you because everytime you type cardio into Google, you become bombarded with articles comparing the two. Well don’t worry; I am not going to extensively compare the two because it just won’t address your long-term problem (and it’s been done to death!).

“The question is then: what do you do over the long-term?”

Assuming you know what HIT and LIT is, the major finding you will come across online is that HIT burns more calories DURING and AFTER exercise. You might have come across the term: afterburn? This basically just means that after HIT, your body’s oxygen consumption remains high. This requires calories, so more calories continue to be burned AFTER exercise. This is all pretty standard stuff and is one of the primary reasons why HIT has become so popular for fat loss. A lot of people fall for this afterburn effect and utilize HIT as their primary method of trying to loose fat. The problem is, the afterburn effect is just a short-term occurrence. The question is then: what do you do over the long-term?

The afterburn effect of HIT sounds great: if it’s easier to burn calories DURING and AFTER exercise then it seems a sure fire way of being able to accelerate fat loss. While this might be true, many people can run into problems if they use this method as their only way of trying to lose fat. The problem with the afterburn effect is that it’s only short-term. In fact, so short-term it’s not even that great for fat loss. Elevated calorie burning is not going to stay in a permanently elevated state after HIT. Another problem with HIT (or any cardio for that matter) is that you don’t just burn calories and in turn fat, but also MUSCLE. Something you really don’t want to do! This is even more of a problem if you are on a calorie-restricted diet and you don’t prioritize weightlifting in your program.

Fat Loss 1.png

  • This graph represents the ‘afterburner’ effect after LIT and HIT cardio. As you can see, the effect is longer after HIT. This means, HIT allows for a longer, temporary increase in calorie burn after exercise (A) over LIT (B). But typically, this only lasts anywhere between 10-48 hrs before returning to normal resting levels. Not great if you are looking at fat loss over the long-term.

In my experience, many people who want to shred the pounds tend to go cardio crazy and couple this with a low calorie diet. I can understand this thinking: after all, for fat loss you need to burn more calories than you consume. The problem is, many of these people fall into the trap of thinking: right, cardio is the best way to burn a lot of calories. As a result, their entire program consists of hammering away every day at the cardio with little focus on weightlifting. Even if you’re sole goal is too loose fat and your not really interested in building lots of muscle, without any weightlifting program you are going to run into a few frustrating problems in your fat loss journey. In the short-term you are burning calories. With the cardio you are doing coupled with a lower calorie diet, your calorie intake will be less than the calories you use (= fat loss). If you prioritize HIT over LIT in your program, then your calorie burn will be slightly elevated temporarily after you exercise. But ask yourself this question: what will happen when I am not exercising and over the long-term? This is a question that slips a lot of peoples minds.

⇒What you need to know is that muscle is what burns calories. Without muscle, you would never burn calories. Simply put, your muscle is your metabolism. The more muscle you have the more calories you are going to burn. Even at rest. Think of it this way:

⇒ HIT allows for a temporary elevation in calorie burning after exercise (afterburn). More muscle will provide the same effect, but for longer (long-term afterburn).

Not only will more muscle help you burn more calories, it will help you keep the fat off in the long-term. If you are someone who just does lots of cardio, low calorie diets and very little weightlifting then what you are essentially doing is slowly killing your metabolism over time (burning off lots of muscle). So, what happens when you stop doing cardio and come off these low calorie diets? Well, you will tend to rebound pretty quickly in weight.

Why? Without any muscle your body simply has no way of burning calories.

Unless you can perform cardio 24/7 (unlikely!) or maintain a heavily calorie restricted diet (miserable!), then your body is simply going to find it very hard to manage a favorable energy balance (a one that doesn’t lead you to gaining the excess pounds back). Let’s just say that with very little muscle, you are going to find it very hard to lose fat and more importantly, KEEP IT OFF in the long-term. By having more muscle on your frame, not only will you be able to burn more calories at rest (when you are not exercising) and increase your capacity for fat loss, but also you will be able to keep it off in the long run.

Fat Loss 2.png

  • This graph represents changes in resting metabolic rate (calories burnt at rest) over time during the fat loss.
  • “A” If someone was to prioritize cardio (coupled with a low calorie diet) over a well-designed weightlifting program, they are likely to loose a lot of muscle as they try to loose fat – as indicated by the massive drop in resting metabolic rate.As they loose muscle mass, their resting rate significantly drops, making it harder to burn more calories at rest. This makes fat loss harder over time and makes it difficult to keep it OFF
  • “B” represents someone who prioritizes a well-designed weightlifting program over cardio (coupled with a calorie reduced diet) to loose fat. You will naturally still loose muscle as you drop calories, but the muscle loss will be much less (as seen by the smaller drop in resting metabolic rate). By keeping the resting metabolic rate preserved (maintaining a high degree of muscle) during your fat loss journey, you will continue to burn a larger amount of calories at rest and also, make it easier to keep the fat away in the long-term. This is the ideal situation.

Building Muscle Is Everything

Some of you might be thinking: o, he is a weightlifter he is biased. Of course he is going to favor weightlifting! The fact is weightlifting is not only essential if you want to gain size and strength, but also, if you are looking for optimal fat loss. Cardio (HIT or LIT) is fantastic for improving cardiovascular fitness, no doubt about it. But when it comes to fat loss, weightlifting is king. Contrary to what most people will tell you, cardio is not needed and not optimal for ensuring those excess pounds disappear. When it comes to fat loss, it’s not just about burning off those calories; it’s HOW you burn them. If you are prioritizing cardio over weight training for fat loss, then yes over the short-term you will burn calories and, loose fat (provided your diet is in check). But over the long-term without a great weightlifting program, you will loose too much muscle. In the long run, this will simply make it harder for you to continue to burn calories, loose fat and, to keep it off.

Fat Loss 4.png

  • Represents all the benefits of prioritizing a well-designed weightlifting program over cardio during fat loss. By building and preserving as much muscle as possible, you maintain a higher resting metabolic rate, burn more calories at rest, potential for fat loss is great and, it’s easier to keep fat off in the long-term. Cardio  WILL NOT provide the same benefits.

If you are stepping into the gym for the first time looking to lose those pounds, you might be tempted by all the high tech cardio equipment. Losing a ton of calories in a short space of time certainly seems appealing. Especially when you are determined to lose the fat. But if you ask me, this is the worst way to start your journey. If you are new then the chances are, you don’t have much muscle mass to begin with. This should be your priority. Yes, cardio will increase the number of calories burnt (but ONLY in the short-term).

What you want to do is to focus on building more muscle, making sure your capacity to burn calories in the long-term and at rest, remains HIGH. This will make it much easier to optimize your fat loss efforts. Definitely include cardio for cardiovascular health. But, when it comes to fat loss, weightlifting will provide all the benefits cardio will never be able to. If you ask me, the key to optimal long-term fat loss is building and preserving as much muscle mass as possible over time, not how many calories you burn in a single session through HIT or LIT cardio.

If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below!


2 thoughts on “Cardio Vs. Weightlifting For Fat Loss: Who Wins?

  1. Great article as usual…

    Does body fat %, more specifically someone with low body fat %, have an easier time remaining leaner than someone with a higher % of body fat or are we talking about total muscle mass volume? Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi sliceoflife11, thanks for the feedback!

      In regards to your question, its all about your ‘total muscle mass volume’ (as fat doesn’t burn calories). The more muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate, the more calories you burn at rest and thus the easier it is to keep the fat off.

      As a leaner person with a lower body fat % percentage it depends. As a natural its generally harder to maintain a significant amount of muscle mass so in most cases, it would be probably be harder maintaining leaness.

      But its hard to compare two people on the basis of just body fat percentages without knowing their workout history.

      Liked by 1 person

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