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What’s better for fat loss, cardio or strength training?

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What’s better for fat loss, cardio or strength training?

woman lifting weight. runner

I hear that question a lot, and I see a lot of fellow trainers/coaches debating it a lot.

In my opinion and experience, that question isn’t worth answering flat-out, it moreso deserves a bit of a different perspective for a response.

To start, what would I define as ‘the best’ routine?

Here’s what I’d recommend for anyone looking to live a high quality of life, for a long time:

  • Strength train 3-4x per week
  • Put your HR thru it’s paces regularly
  • Accrue a couple hours of Z2 cardio weekly, and aim to spend at least one 30 minute session exploring Z’s 4 and 5
  • Walk 90 minutes daily
  • Eat maintenance calories and prioritize protein

^That, for many, is not going to happen. Not ongoing. So we don’t need the best, we will settle for ‘better’.

Let’s look at the components.

STRENGTH TRAINING

  • Adds/preserves muscle 
  • Increases bone density
  • Muscle is needed if tone/definition is the goal
  • Makes one more durable and resilient 
  • Burns calories
  • Massive carryover to most any sport/hobby/athletic endeavor 
  • More muscle on frame = burning more calories at rest

CARDIO

  • Improves heart health 
  • Improves cholesterol
  • Improves blood pressure
  • Lowers resting heart rate
  • Burns calories
  • Affords one the luxury of doing more stuff without their conditioning dictating what they can or can’t do (eg theme park days keeping up with the kids/grandkids)

Which one is better?

Neither. They are both extremely beneficial, and serve similar but different purposes. Pitting one vs the other is the wrong angle to approach this from.

Rather than “Which one is better?” instead ask “How much of each should I work in routinely?”.

If you want to enjoy a high quality of life, have increased longevity, feel good, and look good, you SHOULD be doing both cardio and strength training, regularly.

Example: If you’ve got 4 days per week to workout, do a little of each.

Spend half of each session doing both.

OR

2 cardio twice per week and 2 strength days per week

OR

Do full body circuits where weight is lighter and rest is shorter, so you’re keeping your HR up while also lifting weights effectively.

As you can see, there is no best. Both are equally as important, just different.

Also worth noting each carries a ‘cost’.

Hours of cardio and/or strength training weekly = increased hunger, increased fatigue, increased wear and tear, decreased energy.

This is in large part why I’m hugely vocal about walking as THE thing one should pull into the mix first, outside of food, for fat loss.

Walking more has very little impact on hunger, fatigue, wear and tear, energy like the others do.

What I DON’T do, though, is say walking is the best and that’s all you should do.

The point at which one is lifting and doing cardio routinely, and they want to add more of something, walking is my pick for them. 

“Movement outside of exercise” is the other way to look at walking. When not exercising, how much are you moving? Increase THAT, and fat loss happens much easier, all other things equal. And it happens without being hungrier or more worn out like if you added more of one of the other. 

If everyone accrued 90 mins of walking daily, overweight/obesity statistics would look drastically different. 

Walking (NEAT), strength training, and cardio, each should have a place in one’s routine, if the goal is long term health and fitness, plus a favorable body composition.

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