Cardio or Weightlifting: Which is Better?

Let’s correct some just flat out fitness myths and lies and find out what really works when it comes to cardio and weights (strength training). Maybe you have heard some of these cliches: Ladies, don’t lift weights too often or you will bulk up, you’ll grow a mustache, and your boobs will disappear. Men, ditch the cardio and hit the weights hard until your veins are bursting and you need a hernia repair. My favorite as of late is: cardio exercise is BAD for you and will make you gain more weight than eating a cheeseburger!

Okay, so maybe some people don’t take it to such extremes, but actually, some do.

Before we get into into detail with each one of these, let me give you the short answer on these:

Women can lift and strength train. So can men.

With most weightlifting and strength routines, men will put on muscle, and perhaps a little bulk, and will not need to bench press 450 pounds to accomplish this.

With most weightlifting and strength routines, women will put on muscle, but most likely not bulk up like men. Women typically do not experience muscle gains like men, mainly due to hormonal differences in the body.

Participating in cardio exercise is not the same thing as eating a cheeseburger. In fact, if done right, it is good for you.

Which is better: Cardio or strength training? We can dissect this all day long, but both can be beneficial. It’s all about balance. Everyone should probably do some level of cardio and some level of strength training. The appropriate balance should be based off each individual’s goals and fitness level.

So, in a nutshell: Lift some weights (or do push ups and burpees if you like that sort of thing) and do some sort of cardio. Or do them both together. That’s the short answer.


Here’s the long answer:

First off, let me say that fitness industry trends tend to take little pieces of small studies and proclaim them as the Gospel. One example is the demonization of static stretching which has come about in recent years. This study here and this other one here found that static stretching (holding a stretch for 20 or 30 seconds) has a negative effect on exercise. What is the negative effect? About 2 centimeters in vertical jump height when tested after performing static stretches as opposed to warming up with a light run in one study. With these studies (and others) people went bonkers. STOP STATIC STRETCHING. Warn your neighbors! Trainers, warn your clients! Apparently that 2 centimeter is a HUGE deal. And, honestly, for Olympic athletes it might be, but for the rest of us, touching your toes for 20 seconds before a workout is probably not going to kill your routine. However, you may be committing fitness sin (at least this year). Consider yourself warned.


Back to cardio:

So, recently cardio has got a bad wrap. It is the new static stretching. Cardio produces stress on the body, it damages your joints, and it’s bad for your heart. That’s what people are saying. But is that really true?

Well, sort of, not really, some of time. If you do anything chronically over an extended period of time, it can be harmful to your body. Hey, if you breathe too much – all the more pollutants and allergens you’re taking in, right? Sit at a computer too long and you’ll get carpel tunnel and have posture issues. Too many rounds of golf can lead to hip replacement surgery. Prolonged periods of standing can cause stiffness of joints and muscle fibers leading to knee pain, back pain, and other issues. Sit too long, you’re screwed. Stand too long, you’re screwed. Play too much, your screwed.

When it comes to running and other cardio activities sustained for prolonged periods of time, research is showing that it can actually be damaging to the heart. Potentially. This study found that, “long-term excessive sustained exercise may be associated with coronary artery calcification, diastolic dysfunction, and large-artery wall stiffening.” WOW! There is a BUT though. The study goes on to say, “this concept is still hypothetical and there is some inconsistency in the reported findings. Furthermore, lifelong vigorous exercisers generally have low mortality rates and excellent functional capacity.”

The problem is, the fitness world is taking studies like this one and cherry-picking the findings. CARDIO EXERCISE IN EXCESS CAN POTENTIALLY BE DANGEROUS has turned into AVOID CARDIO AT ALL COSTS. Again, warn your cousin, sister, brother, and workout buddy! If you see your friend stepping on an elliptical machine, tackle him to the ground and restrain him so he doesn’t hurt his heart. If you bare witness to someone strapping on running shoes, hit her with a tranquilizer dart and lay her down – she’ll thank you later for sparing her of arterial calcification.

Or you could take a sane approach (I know, what fun is that?) and apply a little common sense. Realize that yes, excessive cardio activity such as running ultra marathons or cycling for long endurance races over extended periods of time could potentially put excessive stress on the body; but going for a jog, playing a sport, or going for a bike ride around the block probably won’t kill you. It will probably even be beneficial.

Let’s not forget the benefits of cardio (or “aerobic”) exercise, which have long been established, such as the following:

It reduces metabolic syndrome (increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels), as found in this study.

It reduces fat while maintaining fat-free mass such as bones and muscle fibers, as found in this study.

And then there’s the biggy: Aerobic exercise reduces mortality and premature death which was found in this study of over 40,000 people, and this one, and this one.

So, if you are into things like living longer, cardio might not be all that bad.

Effective ways to incorporate cardio training:

Okay, so cardio is still generally regarded as “good for you,” but how effective is it in burning calories and burning fat? Can you step on a treadmill or elliptical machine and get the results you want?

Cardio, or aerobic activity in it’s true sense can be a way of burning fat, but there are more effective ways of burning fat such as interval training, which is bursts of intense effort during the course of an exercise routine. Another concept is circuit training, which essentially involves strength training at a pace that works your cardiorespiratory system too (more on circuit training in the Strength section of the article). Traditional aerobic activity such as jogging at a moderate-steady pace can accomplish a little calorie burn, but some would call the amount of fat and calories burned negligible. However, training at intervals of high-intensity can burn more calories and improve fitness levels on a more substantial level. Research on interval training is still emerging, but studies are finding that interval training techniques can improve aerobic fitness levels, improve anaerobic fitness levels (the body’s short-term energy system used in activities such as sprinting), has a dramatic effect on insulin sensitivity, and burns abdominal fat more efficiently than steady pace cardio. Another big benefit of interval training is that you can burn as many or more calories in a shorter period of time compared to straight aerobic activity. Finally, when participating in interval training, the body experiences a higher level of excess postexercise oxygen consumption, known as EPOC – in other words, you burn more calories while you rest!

Section summary:

Cardio probably won’t kill you if done effectively and in moderation.

Long-term studies have shown tremendous benefits of cardio exercise.

New studies have shown a possibility of negative health effects with excessive cardio training.

Interval cardio seems to be an efficient way to burn fat and maximize results in less time compared to steady aerobic activity.


Okay, onto Strength Training…

I’ll be honest. I love strength training. I enjoy doing push ups, pull ups, bench presses, and squats. I even like doing burpees (yeah, I just said that). Give me some good music and some weights and I’m a happy guy. But, in order to be fair and objective I wanted to provide some evidence of risks involved with weightlifting and strength training, partially to be fair to Cardio, and partially to just prove the evidence wrong.

The trouble is, it is hard to find many legitimate articles and publications which argue against strength training. Most arguments against strength training are on blogs where someone is presenting anecdotal evidence. At one time, some studies advised against strength training for adolescents and children, but more recent research suggests that benefits of strength training for even youngsters outweigh the risks.

I even tried searching for risks associated with bodybuilding and powerlifting – sort of the extreme realm of the spectrum on strength training. Even with these sports, the risks involved seem to deal more with supplement abuse, eating disorders, illegal steroid use, etc. There’s not a lot in the way of damning the exercise routines themselves, when done correctly. Though it’s difficult to find published literature on the matter, risks of lifting too heavy or too-much-too-soon include bone fractures, ligament tears, tendon tears, fainting, acute and sudden high blood pressure, and incontinence. Chronic conditions such as arthritis can occur with prolonged training with heavy weights combined with the large amount of body mass that bodybuilders and weightlifters carry on their frame.

But, for most people that aren’t gearing up for an Olympic powerlifting competition or trying to compete for Mr. Olympia as a competitive bodybuilder, the risks are few (if any) compared to the benefits. Numerous studies like this one and this one point out the benefits of strength training.

Strength training, or resistance training as it is often referred to, can be any exercise that requires a force production between the body and a form of resistance. Examples include:

Bodyweight resistance – push ups, pull ups, squats, dips, burpees, etc.
Free weights – dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, or other heavy objects.
Resistance machines – pulley or lever machines such as chest press, lat pull down, leg curls, or leg extensions often found in gyms.
Resistance bands or tubing – rubber-like material used to create resistance during exercises.

And below are some of key benefits of strength/resistance training according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine:

Improved cardiovascular efficiency
Beneficial hormone and cholesterol adaptations
Decreased body fat
Increased metabolism (burn more calories at rest)
Muscle growth
Increased bone density
Increased coordination during activities
Increased endurance
Increased strength
Increased power

So, weightlifting and resistance training are not just for athletes and bodybuilders. Any man or woman looking to improve his or her fitness level, body composition, body fat percentage, endurance, or anything related to physical performance should probably be doing some sort of strength training. Feel better, look better, perform better, and be healthier. Win, win, win, and win.

I disclosed that I might be a little biased on promoting the lifting heavy things since it’s what I truly like to do. But strength training is not just something I am hyping up because I like it, and it’s not something only meant for hard-core fitness enthusiasts. The American Heart Association, The Department of Health and Human Services, and The Center for Disease Control and Prevention all recommend strength training at least twice per week. Look online and you’ll see that just about every genre of fitness and every fitness trainer advocates some form of strength training.

Section Summary:

Strength training is a safe and effective form of exercise for almost anyone.

Highlighted strength training benefits include lean muscle gains, burning fat, increased metabolism, and improved body composition.

Strength training is way better than cardio (just kidding).


Strength Training and Cardio: A Pretty Darn Good Combo

Okay, so you may have guessed, personally I prefer weightlifting and strength training to cardio. That said, I do not ignore cardio exercise. Sometimes I do it in between strength training days, sometimes I do it before or after my resistance workouts, or sometimes I make it a part of my routine by combining cardio with strength training in a circuit training fashion.

How should you train? It depends largely on your goals. If you plan to run a 10K sometime soon for the first time, you’re strength training days will most likely not be greater than your cardio/running days. If you desire muscle gains, you are going to be doing more weightlifting than running. You get the idea.

What if your goal is simply to lose a little (or a lot) of weight and improve your body composition? You’ll want to incorporate a balance of cardio and resistance training. There are several ways to do this; one of the most efficient ways is with circuit training. Circuit training involves completing a series of several exercises in a row with little or no break between sets of exercises. You can complete a total body routine, strengthen all of your major muscle groups, and improve your cardio health – all in one workout.

Here is one way to complete a circuit training session:

Warm-up and stretch – 5 minutes

1. Push ups or chest press (Chest exercise)
2. Squats (Quad/glut exercise)
3. Shoulder press (Shoulders exercise)
4. Deadlift (Hamstring exercise)
5. Dumbbell row (Back exercise)
6. Side Lunge (Quad/hamstring exercise)
7. Dips (Arms exercise)
8. Calf raises (Calf exercise)

Complete the entire circuit a total of 2 or 3 times. Switch from one exercise to the next with little or no rest. Once one circuit is complete, rest and drink a little water for about 1 minute, then do another circuit. Take small breaks and hydrate if needed throughout the workout.

Cool-down and stretch – 5 minutes


To conclude:

Both cardio and strength training are important fitness techniques with an array of benefits.
Which is better? It depends on your goals and what you want to achieve.


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