The debate over whether you should do cardio or lift weights to lose weight never seems to end. Gather 20 trainers and ask them what they think, and they’ll all give you different answers and plans for weight loss. The thing is, when it comes to fitness, very few things are universal.
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Experts have explained that the best workout to burn fat and lose weight will depend on variables such as whether your body burns fat more efficiently with steady-state cardio or more high-intensity forms of exercise.
According to two trainers, Alex Harrison, PhD, CSCS, a sports performance coach for Renaissance Periodization, and me, an NASM-certified trainer, this is how both cardio and strength training play a role in weight loss.
The Benefits of Lifting Weights For Weight Loss
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Regardless of your fitness goals, I think every person can benefit from adding strength training into their workout routine. According to a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “The general benefits of strength training for both men and women include an increase in bone mass and lean mass, improved body composition (due to decreased fat mass), cardiovascular fitness, strength, and an enhanced sense of well being.”
“For purely weight loss in the short-term, or even medium-term (a few weeks or a month), the answer is: it probably doesn’t matter,” Dr. Harrison told POPSUGAR. “But in the long-term, if you had to pick one, weight training is almost certainly better because of your increased muscle mass and its ability to continue to burn more calories at rest,” he explained. According to Dr. Harrison, most people don’t actually want to lose weight because they’ll end up losing both fat and muscle. Instead, he said, most people want to lose fat and maintain and build muscle.
Strength training is also one of the best ways to boost your metabolism. Because you’re building more muscle, which is more metabolically active than fat and requires more energy, you’ll be burning more fat and calories than if you had less muscle and, as a result, losing weight.
Although everyone is unique and responds to exercise differently, I generally recommend starting with three days of strength training and one to two cardio sessions a week. There are a variety of ways to set up your workouts; you can make them specific to a muscle group (arms, back, legs, glutes) or do a full-body workout. “For the super dedicated folks, I’ll have them do six days per week of lifting with only light cardio on their one ‘rest’ day,” Dr. Harrison said. If that won’t work with your schedule or feels like too much, too soon, Dr. Harrison said to do four days of strength training per week, focusing on full-body workouts.
The Benefits of Cardio For Weight Loss
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As I stated earlier, ask any trainer and you’ll quickly realize that the strength training to cardio ratio will vary from person to person. Dr. Harrison typically recommends one day of cardio for people who are lifting six times a week, whereas I like to typically start clients off with just three workout sessions a week. With that split, two days would be strength training and one day would be cardio. Other weekly formats I suggest are three days of strength and two days of cardio or four days of strength, one day of cardio, and one day of active recovery (like yoga or walking). Some examples of cardio I recommend to my clients are jumping rope, doing a 20- to 30-minute run, cycling, and swimming.
Cardio is a great way to mix up your strength workouts without taking a day off (rest is important, though!), and it can also help you burn fat when done in a fasted state. This happens around eight to 12 hours after your last meal. “Benefits of fasted cardio include increased breakdown of fat cells for energy and use of energy from fat cells instead of carbohydrates from a meal or from glycogen (the body’s most usable storage form of carbohydrates),” Perri Halpern, MS, RD, a clinical dietitian at The Mount Sinai Hospital, told POPSUGAR in a previous interview.
Other Things You Should Focus on If You Want to Lose Weight
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Losing weight isn’t just about what you do at the gym. In order to really see results, you should be physically active and you should also focus on your nutrition. There isn’t one perfect weight-loss diet, which is why you should work with a registered dietitian who can provide you with proper nutritional guidance to support your goals.
I also recommend making sure you’re finding ways to manage your stress, since stress has been found to contribute to weight gain. Don’t forget that getting an adequate amount of sleep is also important to managing stress and losing weight.
I can’t stress enough that fitness is complicated and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, especially when it comes to weight loss. Both strength training and cardio play important roles in helping you lose weight. If you aren’t sure how to design a balanced cardio and strength program, try this four-week beginner’s workout plan — it’ll get you started on the right foot.
This article first appeared in PopSugar.