Which one burns more calories, cardio or weight training?

Let’s say you want to lose weight, and you want to do so in the fastest way possible. Is it hours on the treadmill? Sprints up a hill? Could it possibly be squats and bench presses? I’m going to guess that you have assumptions on what might be best for you. Lets break down the difference between these three contenders and let you know which will give you the most bang for your buck
Meet today’s contestants:
• Cardio: Pretty much anything with relative low intensity that you can do for a prolonged period of time that elevates your heart rate. Regular aerobics, going for a three mile jog, running on a treadmill for an hour, using the elliptical for twenty minutes, etc.
• Interval Training: When you decide to run, bike, use the elliptical, etc. with varying rates of speed and intensity. Sprinting for 30 seconds followed by 90 seconds of jogging, and repeating this cycle for 20-30 minutes.
• Weight Training: Whenever you lift weights or do body weight exercises, often times in a cyclical nature.
There have been hundreds and hundreds of studies done on this stuff (yay for science), and it’s certainly something that I’ve put considerable time into researching as well as it’s my job to figure out how to get in shape most efficiently. I will have a decision for you by the end of the battle. However, before we get there, there’s ONE thing that needs to be made crystal-clear:
If you are interested in getting in shape, the MOST important thing you can do for yourself is adjusting what you put in your mouth.
Your diet is responsible for 80-90% of your successes or failures, even if you spend ten hours a week exercising, that still leaves 168 hours for you to mess things up. If all you care about is losing weight, the fastest path to success is with a freaking kick-ass diet. Keep your total number of calories under control, cut out the junk food, give up soda, and start eating REAL FOODS: veggies, fruits, and lean meats. So you’re on board with the whole “eating right” thing but you still want to exercise to burn more fat. Let’s break down each competitor:
Cardio is the most basic thing you can do when it comes to burning calories. Let’s talk science: if you burn more calories than you consume in a day, you will lose weight. Step on a treadmill, run three miles, and you’ll burn around 300 calories. You don’t need any special weights, have extensive knowledge of any difficult exercises, just a pair of shoes and your legs. This is why the majority of people who start exercising do so by just running a treadmill or elliptical for hours: it’s tough to mess up, and it’s pretty mindless.
Now, here’s my problem with cardio: it can be really boring! Running outside is a different story, but I’d rather spend time doing something else than spend two hours on a treadmill. Secondly, in terms of getting in shape, it’s definitely not the most efficient form of exercise. Lastly, although it trains your heart to be in shape by remaining at a higher level of operation while exercising, it doesn’t train your heart to prepare for moments of extreme stress because it never really has to deal with rapid changes (explained in the next section).
So why isn’t cardio efficient when it comes to burning calories? There’s very little Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) with cardio, which means you only burn calories when running; not much happens afterwards.
What IS good about cardio? The thing about cardio that makes it better for almost everybody, other than it’s easy learning curve, is that it’s very low impact – your body can go for hours and hours, day after day, and not get worn out. If you have the desire and willpower, you can burn calories all day long.
High-Intensity Interval Training
When it comes to efficiency in burning calories, high-intensity training is leaps and bounds ahead of cardio. Why is that? EPOC, dude, EPOC! That stuff I was talking about before. Essentially, when you do high-intensity interval training (HIIT), your body and metabolism function at a higher rate of burned calories for hours and hours afterwards. What does that mean? It means you’re burning calories while sitting on your butt re-watching Lost Season 5 this
So, how the heck does that work exactly?
HIIT constantly forces your heart to adjust to changing conditions: sprints, jogging, sprints, jogging, up hills, down hills, etc. Your heart learns to operate outside of its norm, and your body learns to adapt to these changes. All of this changing and sprinting kicks your metabolism into high gear for hours after you finish exercising. This cant be bad right?
A study from the University of New South Wales followed the fitness and body composition changes in 45 overweight women in a 15-week period. The women were divided into two groups and assigned interval or continuous cycling routines. The interval “sprint” cycling group performed twenty minutes of exercise, which repeated eight seconds of “all out” cycling and then twelve seconds of light exercise. The continuous group exercised for 40 minutes at a consistent rate. At the end of the study, the women in the interval group had lost three times the body fat as the women in the continuous exercise group. (An interesting note: the interval group’s loss in body fat came mostly from the legs and buttocks area.)
Now, the bad thing about HIIT is that it takes your body quite a bit of time to recover, and you can really only do it for 20-30 minutes at a time before you get too exhausted to continue. The other bad thing about HIIT? Your body will hate you after just 20 minutes.
Weight Training
So if cardio is decent for burning calories while you exercise, and high intensity interval training is more effective because it burns calories both during and after exercise, where does weight training come in? Alwyn Cosgrove, a fitness expert whose opinion I highly respect, wrote a great article discussing the Hierarchy of weight loss loaded with numerous studies highlighting the benefits of weight training in comparison to cardio. This is the best part:
Overweight subjects were assigned to three groups: diet-only, diet plus aerobics, diet plus aerobics plus weights. The diet group lost 14.6 pounds of fat in 12 weeks. The aerobic group lost only one more pound (15.6 pounds) than the diet group (training was three times a week starting at 30 minutes and progressing to 50 minutes over the 12 weeks).
The weight training group lost 21.1 pounds of fat (44% and 35% more than diet and aerobic only groups respectively). Basically, the addition of aerobic training didn’t result in any real world significant fat loss over dieting alone.
Thirty-six sessions of up to 50 minutes is a lot of work for one additional pound of fat loss. However, the addition of resistance training greatly accelerated fat loss results.
These are the lessons I’d take from this: what you eat is the most important thing when it comes to weight loss, aerobic training helps but not nearly as much as you’d think, and weight training when combined with the two is the most effective method to dropping pounds.
Now, what kind of exercises are best suited for this type of weight training for weight loss Here are my top exercises that recruit the largest number of muscles (squats, lunges, kettlebell swings, burpees, inverted rows, pull ups, and push ups). Do any of these exercises sound familiar? By doing these types of exercises in a circuit without stopping, keeping your rep ranges in the 8-12 range, your body will get a super workout, you will build muscle, and you’ll burn calories at an accelerated rate for reportedly up to 38 HOURS after your exercise.
Is it that cut and dry?
Nope. Sure, if you keep the variable time as a constant, like 30 minutes of exercise, doing “metabolic resistance training” (a fancy term for weight lifting circuits) burns more calories than high intensity interval training, which burns more calories than straight cardio. However, due to the stressful nature of Weight Training and HIIT, you can really only do those activities for 30-45 minutes before your body gives up and needs a few days to recover. Cardio doesn’t have as nearly as stressful an impact on your body, so you can go for hours and hours and hours and do it again the next day (provided your body is in shape)..
My decision on what you should do certainly depends on your fitness level, how much time you can devote to exercise daily, and what you actually LIKE to do. Remember: else, your nutrition is king. Eat poorly and none of the above matters. Eat right, eat real foods, and exercise, and you’ll get better. Here is my advice to you:
Do cardio if:
• You really enjoy the treadmill or elliptical, or you just really like running
• You have all the time in the world
• You’re just getting started and don’t really know what you’re doing and you need to improve your cardiovascular system
Do HIIT if:
• You don’t like lifting weights, but you still want to burn calories as quickly as possible
• You only have a limited amount of time every day
• You like pushing your body to its limits.
Do circuit weight training if:
• You want to build muscle while burning calories
• You like burning calories while sitting on your butt.
• You’re not afraid of lifting weights.
• You want to get functionally strong and change your body


One thought on “Which one burns more calories, cardio or weight training?

  1. Your article on ” which one burns more calories – cardio or weight training” really helped me understand the REAL differences in what they can & cannot do to benefit weight loss, muscle gain & a stronger heart. I noticed that this HIIT is all the buzz in the latest fitness magazines I bought, but I did not know anything about HIIT. thanks Kelly!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s