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Cardio vs resistance training for fat loss

cardio vs resistance training for fat loss
Which is better for losing body fat, cardio or resistance training? In this post I’ll discuss the benefits and short comings of both and give you my suggestions which might be of benefit to you and your circumstances.

Losing body fat is about burning more calories than you are consuming. However when looking to burn calories you want to be able to target the calories stored as body fat. Of course some of the calories burnt will also come from carbohydrates consumed and stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver depending on the type of exercise you do. For example if you were to do steady state cardio you will burn both fat and stored carbohydrates with a higher percentage coming from fat. If you where to do HIIT you will burn both fat and carbohydrates, with more now coming from carbohydrates and if you where to lift weights you will use more carbohydrates than fat initially, although you do have a limited amount of carbohydrates stored so over time this will gradually shift to more fat being used. However the story doesn’t end there, keep reading……..

Cardio and fat loss

There’s no doubt that cardio workouts can be great for your heart and lungs and it’s possible to burn a good amount of fat per calorie as energy depending on the length of the session and to a certain degree the intensity used, but it only burns calories mostly at the time of your workout. The danger then occurs for those that then do many, many hours of cardio in order to burn more fat cells and too much cardio can lead to muscle loss. You can end up burning fat, carbs and even muscle for energy. On top of that if you are on a calorie restricted diet and not stimulating your muscles enough, you will lose even more muscle mass, which is not a good situation to be in.

This is why you also can’t go by the scales and you shouldn’t look at weight loss as body fat loss, they are two different things. Also to note, muscle weighs more than fat. This is where research can be misleading when they say the subjects lost more weight (not just body fat). Use the mirror, not just your scales. Research generally also isn’t a long term study and rarely do they follow up with those who did lose weight to see what happened to them 12 months down the line. These subjects lost both body fat, water and muscle and you only really want to be losing the body fat.

Another big issue for using only steady state cardio for fat loss, is that a 30 minute workout only burns about 200 calories, increasing the intensity or duration may see more fat calories being burnt, but as you do so the loss of muscle will slow your metabolic rate down. This is what makes steady state cardio become less effective over time as you try to eat less to create a calorie deficit, train more, eat less, train more, then eventually quit as it becomes impossible to lose weight without starving yourself and over training. Then now you have a slowed down metabolism and go back to eating the way you did before you started working out and so you are in a worse situation than you started with and gain more weight than you began with.

The other issue with long cardio sessions is the increase in the stress hormone ‘cortisol’. If you are already stressed, doing cardio will increase your cortisol levels even more and this leads to even more muscle loss and fat gain – see more about cortisol here.

For the record, low intensity workouts mainly use the most sustainable and slow burning energy source (body fat) as it doesn’t require energy quickly. To burn body fat you also need oxygen for it to be converted for use as energy. Low intensity workouts don’t use a lot of muscle energy (muscles need oxygen to create energy). HIIT or lifting weights, uses more oxygen,  therefore with low intensity steady state cardio there is plenty of oxygen left to help burn body fat, hence why you burn more fat while doing steady state…however, both HIIT and resistance training can burn more after your workout as it needs oxygen post workout continuing it’s fat burning process and a HIIT workout can be as short as a 10 or 15 minute session (see about EPOC here).

With HIIT you workout at very high intensity for a short period, usually under 30 seconds, but best to do 15-20 seconds at a harder intensity, followed by a rest of around 30 seconds to 2 minutes and repeat the process. These are intense short workouts that get your heart rate up high which boosts your metabolism, improves your insulin sensitivity helping you burn more fat. Combined with the EPOC effect mentioned in the link above can be used to reduce body fat effectively. HIIT is however very intense and therefore you should work your intensity up over a period of time and only do it 2-3 times per week at most.

One thing HIIT won’t do however is build muscle like resistance training, even if doing HIIT kettlebell type workouts. Although for many these types of workouts can give you great all around benefits and create an anaerobic and aerobic workout if setup and done correctly. However ideally you want to build more muscle and this is where resistance training can help.

Resistance training and fat loss

There are a number of benefits when it comes to resistance training, such as helping improve your strength, tone your muscles, improve the look of your physique, improve your mobility, stability, stamina, balance, posture, increase bone density and of course help with fat loss. Resistance workouts tend to be of low impact, while some types of cardio like running are high impact, however care must still be taken to do the exercises with the correct technique to avoid injury.

Both men and women can benefit and if you are trying to lose body fat you won’t get big bulky muscles doing resistance training while trying to lose body fat. Building big muscles required a high protein diet that also has more calories than you are burning to be effective enough to allow optimal feeding and compensation to occur, if you are looking to lose body fat then the excess calories won’t be what you will be doing (or at least it shouldn’t).

What resistance training will do is stop muscle loss and even potentially build some muscle while you are trying to lose body fat. The important part is that you are not losing muscle while you are losing body fat. Building even just a small amount of extra muscle will increase the fat burning process by raising your metabolic rate. Muscle needs energy just to exist and is therefore known as active tissue and burns more calories to maintain itself.

On top of that the workouts themselves can help further with fat loss. Resistance training actually burns a lot of calories during and after your workout, especially true when you work more muscle groups in a single session, such as an upper/lower split or better still a full body routine.

Resistance training can also elevate your metabolism for 24-48 hrs after your workout. It isn’t by a huge amount per hour, but over 24-48 hours it still adds up.

Remember that if you do resistance training, you may not see as much weight loss. Weight loss, not fat loss, why? Muscle weighs more than fat, so by not losing muscle and possibly gaining more muscle, it may seem like you aren’t progressing in your fat loss endeavour, but that’s where the mirror comes in, forget the scales and use the mirror not the scales.

The only real downside to doing some resistance training, is that it does require more recovery than most other types of exercise.

So which is better for fat loss?

If you haven’t guessed by now, in my opinion for long term fat loss resistance training has the edge over cardio only routines. To effectively lose weight and keep it off you need to do more than just reduce calories and burn it off when working out. As mentioned earlier and to reiterate, while this will undoubtedly remove unwanted fat, it can often lead to a slowdown in progress and even stop as your body adapts to low/moderate cardio activities, get’s better at trying to retain its current fat stores, slows your metabolism down and leads to muscle loss.

However to truly get the best fat burning process you can, why limit yourself to just one type of training. Do all types, either separately or combine them in one workout. This approach gives you the benefits associated with each training method, while negating most of their drawbacks.

Before I carry on, It needs to be said that fat loss goals will vary for different people. For instance if you are obese or suffer any health issues and need to lose 40, 50 or 100+ pounds then you’re not going to be able to do HIIT workouts like someone who has just 10-15 pounds of excess body fat. Nor are you likely to be able to lift weights if you have joint issues. Much advice on how to work around this I have already written about on this website/blog in other posts.

Also exercise will only help burn a small amount of your total calories, increasing muscle mass will help, but the most important part is sorting your diet and the amount of calories you take in. This is the number one priority and biggest game changer in any plan to lose body fat (see nutrition).

Back to the post…… combining cardio and resistance training will help you lose the most body fat and allow you to retain muscle and for the long term.

Steady state cardio is great for the heart and lungs, HIIT can also help in this area and also boost your post workout metabolic rate, while resistance training will also boost your metabolic rate and increase muscle mass, which helps burn even more calories again.

Both HIIT and resistance training are able to reduce the amount of carbohydrates you have stored and use them for energy during your workout and therefore excess carbohydrates are less likely to be converted to fat as they are needed to replenish the glycogen used during these types of exercise. However it is not a good idea to get carried away and do long bouts of HIIT or resistance training and deplete your glycogen stores, why? well even though you will start to burn more fat, your body will also start to breakdown muscle to use its amino acids content for energy also and as already stated you want to retain or build muscle to aid fat loss, not hinder it.

However, let’s not make our workout plan complicated. So for a…..

Beginner: consider doing an upper body/lower body resistance workout and cardio as follows:

Monday: HIIT cardio 15-20 mins
Tue: Upper body resistance workout
Wed: Rest
Thurs: Steady state cardio 30-1hr
Fri: Lower body resistance workout
Sat: Rest
Sun: Rest – or maybe a gentle walk/swim


Do a full body routine, rotating between a full body resistance workout and various cardio sessions, for example:

Monday: HIIT cardio 15-20 mins
Tue: Rest
Wed: Steady state cardio 30-1hr
Thurs: Rest
Fri: Full body resistance workout
Sat: Rest
Sun: Rest – or maybe a gentle walk/swim

To learn more about how to implement these types of workouts, please see the Workout section.


As you progress you could give metabolic training a go, see here for more info.

For more advanced trainers consider:

My combo training here.

Some notes on resistance training

Ideally you need to apply a moderate to heavy(ish) weight/load to apply enough stimulation to build muscle. Please refer to my Muscle development and strength gain section. While light weights will help maintain and create a small growth it really won’t be enough to help you get stronger and build muscle. You also need to hit all major muscle groups, don’t just do some chest and arm training (guys) and legs and bum training (ladies), do all the muscles of the body evenly each week.


When looking to lose body fat you need to understand it’s not just about weight loss, it’s about fat loss……This is where research can often mislead people, as they mainly go by results based on weight loss, which includes fat, muscle, water…… To truly measure the effectiveness of the research they need to check fat loss and muscle loss and over at least a 12 month period to see if the weight lost is actually just fat and that the trainer has maintained that loss.

So to summarise, for the best solution to fat loss, use steady state cardio, HIIT, resistance training weight and most importantly don’t forget about your nutrition (put nutrition in your number one spot for fat loss).

You may also want to see these post/articles:

Warm-up and cool down
Measuring body fat
Body fat
Three areas of body fat
Help in losing weight over 40
How do I get a flat stomach
Cardio controversy