Cardio or Weights for Fat Loss?
This post is a guest post by Ben Leeder, online coach. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (links below).
About the Author:
“My name is Ben Leeder, and I’m an Online Coach, trying to help people achieve goals they didn’t think they even could. Health and Fitness can be a very overwhelming place to be. I hope my work helps put you at ease a little. Good Luck!”
Should you do Cardio or Weights For Fat Loss?
Fat loss should be all about efficiency: You want to do the least amount of work possible while making the most amount of progress possible.
Let’s call this Ben’s Law Of Fat Loss Efficiency (or BLOFE for short).
While exercise has so many incredible benefits and you certainly should be exercising, using it for fat loss breaks my law of efficiency.
Allow me to explain – This is based on the 3500 calorie rule that states a pound of fat contains 3500 calories and so, to lose a pound of fat you need to create a weekly deficit of 3500 calories or 500 calories per day.
You can a) create this deficit via exercise, or b) create this deficit via food, remember my law of efficiency (BLOFE)?
Well, trying to burn 500 calories through exercise isn’t very efficient.
For instance, let us use the general rule of 100 calories burned per mile, you would have to run about 5 miles to burn 500 calories.
Let’s assume you run an 8-minute mile, this would take you about 40 minutes.
So a 40-minute run. EVERYDAY. I can think of at least 10 things I’d rather do, three of which involve very pointy objects.
But, bare this in mind, weight training burns even fewer calories than cardio. The calories burned during a lifting session can range between ~70kcal–300kcal depending on a number of factors like experience level, the amount of weight lifted, training volume, load, the intensity and length of the session, exercise selection, and the length of the rest period between sets.
But, for the sake of this example let’s assume you burn ~300kcal per lifting session (you’re most definitely not burning this amount, but let’s pretend you are), you would need to weight train every single day at a very high intensity. Not only is this approach not conducive to muscle retention–a point I’ll return to later–but it also increases the chance of injury and overtraining.
The ‘exercise for fat loss’ approach presents another problem many people struggle with: adherence.
Are you willing to engage in very intense exercise every day? Probably not. Especially if you’re starting out and are extremely unfit or, you know, have a life.
On the other hand, it’s far easier to cut a few hundred calories by making small, yet attainable dietary changes.
Here’s an example many of you can relate to. A Grande full-fat latte from Starbucks is 228 calories.
Two lattes every day is 456 calories.
If you swapped the full-fat version for the nonfat version, you cut the calories by over 50% (~260 calories) .even better, drink you know, how God intended (full fat) – and add a tiny splash of milk and you’ll reduce the calories by a whopping 90% (~20 calories).
I don’t know about you, but making small adjustments to my diet is way more appealing than trying to burn the same amount of calories through vigorous exercise every day. It also abides by my law of efficiency (BLOFE).
So Do You Even Need to Exercise for Fat Loss?
At this point, if you’re someone who believed exercise was the crucial factor for fat loss you’re probably having a mini-breakdown questioning if your entire life up until this point has been a lie–uh, yes, probably.
You’re probably also thinking “if I can lose fat just by eating less, why the hell should I exercise?”
Ultimately, the goal of every sensible fat loss diet should be twofold: Preserve muscle, and burn body fat.
While cardio has many benefits, it’s not great for muscle retention in a deficit.
This isn’t me saying cardio is bad by the way.
Well not entirely, anyway.
The reason cardio’s gotten such a bad rap is because people abuse the hell out of it.
I mean, if you’re eating in a calorie deficit, weight training multiple times per week, also running hundreds of miles per week, and hell, just throw in some CrossFit and weekly Zumba classes because f*ck it why not? Is it any surprise you feel awful and struggle to stick to your plan? That was rhetorical, the answer is no.
Think of cardio like an add-on.
Cardio is a strategic tool used in certain situations to help fat loss along.
There may come a point in a diet when reducing food intake further can lead to adherence issues. By adding in some weekly cardio, you can continue eating adequate amounts of food while ‘increasing the deficit”.
Similarly, instead of creating the entire deficit from food, you may prefer a 50/50 split from cardio and diet.
Something worth mentioning even though it’s not directly related to the topic at hand is the role of physical activity in weight maintenance. Losing fat is only a small part of everyone’s goal. The ultimate goal is to lose fat and keep it off for good.
And while exercise alone isn’t very effective for fat loss, higher amounts of weekly physical activity is an important factor in weight maintenance.
So, how to incorporate cardio?
if you decide to at all, will depend on a number of factors like your personal preference, likes and dislikes, and what works best with your schedule.
My personal approach to cardio for clients is:
- Preferred: Daily walking; hitting a targeted number of steps or minutes
- Optional (depending on the client): steady-state or HIIT
My go-to ‘cardio’ is walking. Most people, no matter their fitness level, can walk with relative ease every day.
A 30-minute run, for example, can be very difficult and unpleasant for someone who’s just starting out, and if they’re really overweight it can put a lot of undue stress on their knees. A 30-minute walk, on the other hand, is much easier and can even be enjoyable.
Of course, walking, despite all its benefits, has one glaring drawback: time.
Some people may not be able to walk the recommended 7-10k steps per day. In which case, other forms of cardio need to be considered.
You should also have the right gear and listen to your body to determine how far you should go. And just as you need the right running shoes for running, hiking boots for hiking or pickleball shoes when playing pickleball, wearing the right footwear during your training is advised. And never squat in running shoes.
Steady-State VS HIIT – Which form of cardio is better?
Here’s a bullet-pointed list on what you really need to know:
- Despite HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) being the golden child of the fitness world, it isn’t better. So pick the one you prefer.
- If you’re short on time, HIIT can be a great way to get your cardio done in a time-efficient manner.
- HIIT is not superior because of EPOC (Post Exerise Oxygen Consumption) – that is nonsense.
- If you’re deep into a cut and energy is low, HIIT can negatively affect energy levels, performance, and recovery so it should be programmed with that in mind.
- Regardless of what you prefer (HIIT or steady-state), choose low-impact forms of cardio over high-impact. For example, the StairMaster, cycling, or elliptical would be preferable over activities like running or sprinting.
We’ve covered a lot, so here’s a quick summary:
- If your goal is fat loss, your diet comes first and your training supports it (remember this “Eat for fat loss; Train for muscle”).
- Strength training is of the highest importance during a fat loss diet because it preserves muscle better than cardio. By preserving muscle mass, you’ll improve your body composition and preserve your metabolic rate.
- Contrary to what your local meathead told you, cardio won’t automatically burn all your muscle off or lead to strength loss, just don’t abuse it.
- Walking is going to be the most complementary to strength training as it’s low impact, low intensity and won’t interfere with your strength training.
- If you enjoy traditional forms of cardio (like running) and want to continue doing it, then no more than 1-2 cardio sessions per week lasting between 20-40 mins.
- HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) can be useful if you’re low on time.
- Choosing low-impact cardio will be better than high-impact cardio (cycling or elliptical versus running; the same rule applies to interval training).
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