Today I look into an issue that reaches almost religious zealotry in fitness circles. This is whether weight training for weight loss and overall health is better or worse than cardio. Many people believe that weights make you stronger/bulkier and cardio makes you healthier/thinner and that’s all. I think this is probably too simple. Most people probably recognize that there are benefits of both, but if pressed for time end up largely leaning one way or the other.
I’ll admit that my bias is that I want very badly to determine that cardio sucks and all you need is weight training for weight loss and general health, but we’ll see what evidence is out there.
Some Science of Weight Training Vs Cardio
In this study presented in BMC public health, researchers performed a twelve week randomized trial of 64 participants. In the study, they assigned people to a control group (presumably doing nothing), a cardio only group, a resistance only group, or a combination group.
The results were unsurprising in that the best protocol was a combination but their conclusion in summary did not really address which of the two (cardio or resistance) were substantially better than the other or if they were even statistically different.
In another study , published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, participants were similarly grouped into cardio only, resistance only, and combination. This study ran longer (approximately 8 months) and the results were that cardio was the most time efficient way of reducing fat mass/body mass and (shockingly) a program that consisted of resistance training increased lean mass.
In a study published in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine , 30 obese women were randomly selected and put in a control group, a cardio group, and a resistance group for 6 weeks. I liked this study because they eliminated what will probably always be a clear winner- a combination group. They were testing various indicators such as HDL, LDL, blood pressure, triglycerides, as well as weight and BMI.
Their conclusion was that, although both groups lost weight, the cardio only group was superior in terms of reducing risks of cardiovascular disease by lowering the participants’ numbers in their bio markers.
Weights, Cardio, or Both?
I stopped summarizing studies at three out of frustration. There is a big problem with trying to dig into almost any subject these days. The reality is that many issues are far too complex to distill down to any simple answers. I started looking into this with the hope of finding a definitive group of studies that clearly demonstrated greater weight loss, cardiovascular/respiratory benefits, and other bio marker benefits of weight training. In truth, the more you look into it, the more you find contradictions, bro-science (do you even CrossFit, bro?), and conclusions that what is best depends on your goals.
Although the “depends on your goals” answer is the most nebulous/ frustrating answer out there, in this case it might be true. From what I can tell cardio does burn more calories per minute and lead to overall great weight loss. The problem is that the weight lost can be a lot of muscle loss too. Weight training can prevent muscle loss, improve strength (duh) and seems to strengthen joints and bones. Both have biomarker benefits like increasing insulin sensitivity, raising HDL, lowering LDL, reducing blood pressure and relieving stress but depending on the study you read the effects of the different modalities can be different.
As much as I hate to say it, perhaps cardio is not stupid. It looks like doing both is the best. Despite that, I’m going to roll with my boy Brandon and if pressed for time I will do weights over steady state cardio. Cardio may still be better in terms of overall numbers, but weight training for weight loss is still a viable option in my humble opinion.