Whether you’re just starting a weight loss journey or you’re tackling the dreaded weight loss plateau — adding exercise to your routine is a great way to support your weight loss efforts. No matter if you’re new to exercise or a seasoned pro: Exercise requires commitment. In exchange for fitness, you invest time, sweat, and maybe even a little bit of courage. Stepping up to a new exercise machine may not be the stuff of horror movies, but it’s certainly a little bit scary. You’ll want to be sure you’re getting the best returns possible. Which raises the question: Should you focus on cardio or strength training when it comes to weight loss?
Fortunately, this is a question weight loss researchers have looked into, and the answer is ... well, both types of exercises can help. But understanding how each one works will allow you to better realize the full potential of both.
Cardio vs. strength training: What’s the difference?
First, the basics: Cardio exercises are those that focus on raising your heart rate. You should be breathing heavily while you do them. Running, bicycling, and swimming are prime examples. Strength-training, on the other hand, focuses on movements that involve your muscles to build and strengthen them. You might be lifting weights, using elastic resistance bands, or doing body-weight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups. By overcoming the resistance, you tone and build muscle.
Although exercise alone is unlikely to get you all the way to your weight loss goal (see The 80/20 Rule for Weight Loss to understand why), regular sweat sessions do offer a host of benefits that make it easier for you to stay on track.1 Working out may improve your mood, help you fight off cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, and generally help prevent a weight-loss backslide.1 Read on as we discuss the different benefits of strength training vs. cardio for weight loss.
Benefits of strength training
Compared to fat, muscle is a firm tissue. So when you build more of it, you give your body a more toned look. But muscle is also more metabolically active — which is to say, it burns more calories than fat does, even at rest. Without even moving, research suggests a pound of muscle burns about six calories per day, while a pound of fat burns about two.2 So the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn while sleeping or sitting at your desk.
Improve your bone density and reduce your risk of osteoporosis
But the rewards of strength training extend well beyond weight loss. According to a review from researchers at Tufts University, adding two to three resistance workouts to your weekly routine may deliver a broad range of benefits, including better bone density, less risk of osteoporosis, deeper sleep, and stronger feelings of vitality.3
Maintain muscle mass and keep your metabolism firing
One reason it’s difficult to maintain a strong physique is that muscle naturally shrinks as you age. After you hit the age of 30, without maintenance, you lose 3-8 percent of your muscle mass per decade.4 Muscle loss can not only slow your metabolism, but it can also affect your balance and stamina.5 The less muscle you have, the more susceptible you may be to injury and general soreness, so something as simple as adding dumbbells to your workout may help you feel more physically comfortable and strong.
Benefits of cardio
As the name implies, “cardio” exercise revs and strengthens your cardiovascular system, which ultimately may help protect you from heart disease.6 This happens through a variety of metabolic processes: as you exercise, your body will first use glucose, or blood sugar, for fuel. By engaging in cardio exercises for longer periods, your body can eventually tap into stored fat for energy.
Reduce visceral or "belly" fat
Behind your abdominal wall lives a kind of fat called visceral fat, and it’s particularly bad for your health. It packs into the space around your organs and puts stress on your cardiovascular system.7 By reducing it, you can simultaneously shrink your waistline and improve the health of your heart. That’s where cardio is helpful: After compiling the results of 35 studies, a report in the journal Obesity Reviews determined that heart-rate spiking exercises were consistently better than strength training at burning visceral fat.8
Increase your daily calorie burn
Another benefit of cardio: Increasing your heart rate is simply a more efficient way to burn calories.9 For a 185-pound person, 30 minutes on an elliptical machine will burn 400 calories.10 Try these activities to include more cardio in your day:
- Pace while on the phone, rather than sitting or standing.
- Take the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator.
- Park farther away to get some extra steps.
- Wear a fitness tracker and challenge yourself to be a little more active each day.
Strength training vs. cardio: Which is better for weight loss?
Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between weights and cardio. You can have both — and you absolutely should. Combining the workouts is not only the healthiest option, but it’s also the most effective way to support your weight loss efforts.
Here’s proof: Researchers from Curtin University in Australia asked a group of overweight and obese men and women to begin an exercise routine that consisted of cardio, resistance, or a mix of both.11 Each group worked out for 30 minutes, five days a week. (The mixed-workout group did half cardio, half resistance at each workout.)
At the end of three months, each exercise group had dropped an average of just over an inch from their waistlines. But the cardio/resistance group shed the most abdominal fat and the most overall weight. While the cardio-only group lost 2 pounds and the resistance-only group lost 0.2 pounds, the cardio-and-resistance group lost 3.5 pounds.
The reason? Cardio burns more calories during the workout, and resistance helps you maintain or gain muscle. As a result, having more muscle means you'll be able to burn more calories. With the muscle you build from strength and cardio workouts, you’re also able to run, swim, and bike faster and longer — thus further increasing the efficiency of your sessions. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that every adult get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of exercise each week, and not surprisingly, the organization specifically calls out the importance of keeping a couple weekly resistance training sessions on your schedule.12
If losing 3.5 pounds — the number achieved by combining cardio and resistance training in the Curtin University study — doesn’t sound impressive, it’s worth noting that the subjects earned that weight loss without changing their diet at all. By supplementing your exercise with healthy, portioned-controlled meals, you will likely see a greater impact on the scale.
The bottom line is that by combining cardio and resistance, you’re taking advantage of your body’s short-term and long-term energy burning systems. A mix of both cardio and strength training can not only help support your overall health, but also your weight loss efforts.
If you’re ready to supplement your exercise routine with healthy meals that don’t take hours to meal prep or plan — Jenny Craig can help. Learn more about our most effective and holistic program ever — Max Up!
 https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/gim/core_resources/Patient Handouts/Handouts_May_2012/The Skinny on Visceral Fat.pdf
Clint Carter is a reporter with more than a decade of experience in health, nutrition, and fitness, and his stories have appeared in Men's Health, Women's Health, Shape, and other fitness-driven magazines. His reporting is driven by the belief that foods are rarely ever "good" or "bad," but rather, their value depends on how they fit into an overall diet. His favorite meals are those consumed at a campsite, and much of his time is spent cycling and hiking around his home in New York's Hudson Valley.
Favorite healthy snack: Sardines and avocado on toast.
Reviewed by Briana Rodriquez, RDN
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
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