What’s better – Resistance Training or Cardio, ending the debate once and for all
The first question we should ask ourselves in the debate ‘what is better for us – resistance training or cardio’, is what is my actual goal?
If your goal is simply to run/swim/bike long distances and you don’t have an aesthetic focus or any injuries then of course that is where your training emphasis should be (although even endurance athletes perform body weight or low weight resistance training for injury prevention etc).
If your goal is to get strong AF and look relatively lean, but you don’t really care whether you are huffing and puffing coming up the stairs, then you don’t need to set food on a single cardio machine ever, if you are managing your diet well.
If your goal is to be the most well rounded athlete, but how you feel and look is secondary to you (let’s say you are a competitive CrossFit athlete), then you are probably going to need a rather high amount of both – cardio and resistance training to achieve your goal.
However, this article is not directed towards any of these goals.
This article is for the majority of our clients, and probably people like you and me, who want to:
→ Look lean and toned, achieving and maintaining great body composition and a low body fat percentage
→ Have good physical strength and muscular balance to perform everyday life tasks with ease, prevent injuries and age in a healthy manner
→ Maintaining a good baseline health, including cardiovascular health and blood pressure.
If these goals sound like you, keep reading (and even if you fall into one of the former categories you may want to dig into why it might be worth broadening your horizon, but feel free to skip to the summary and recommendation section at the bottom of the page).
Before I get into the definitions of each one of the categories, their benefits and drawbacks, answering the most common questions on the topic and then lastly dissecting a few studies on the topic, you might wonder why can’t we have
→ Great cardiovascular fitness
→ Be super strong
→ Look great
→ AND be healthy??
Isn’t that what people like CrossFit athletes and the like train for?
Truth is that:
1. The training volume, and particularly intensity, for competitive CrossFit athletes is usually so high that it could not be considered “healthy” for the majority of people, taking its toll on joints, tendons and so on, but more importantly also on a hormonal level. After all they train to be “athletes”, so for the sport. And just like a Basketball player does not prioritize health and aesthetics as highly as performance, neither do CrossFIt athletes. Only few people can handle that amount of cumulative stress on the body without showing any negative effects (and those are usually the ones you see performing at a high level). For the “average” individual the amount of training stress + life stress and often paired with insufficient diet usually leads to a cortisol overproduction, not only resulting in progress stagnation and sleep impairment, but more often than not weight retention.
2. That means when it comes to aesthetics, performance and longevity we need to accept that we can have a good baseline of all three areas, but we cannot expect all of them to be optimal at the same time. If you want your aesthetics to be top notch (for example lean like a bodybuilder), you can expect your health and energy levels to take a hit from that (ask any bodybuilder). If you want your health to be optimal that would include carrying a little bit of body fat and not engaging in any too strenuous exercise. And same goes for performance (whether CrossFit or otherwise). If you want to be a top level athlete, chances are your health is going to suffer somewhere and you need to eat in a way that fuels your performance, not in a way that keeps you as lean as possible.
This methodology, coined by in3 nutrition, is called the “triangle of awareness”. Therefore, setting your main focus is the first step in determining what training method is right for you (1).
Now that we have that cleared up, let’s put some definitions behind each one of the training methods and see what their benefits or disadvantages are.
1. Resistance Training
Resistance training is defined as “physical exercise specializing in the use of resistance to induce muscular contraction which builds the strength, anaerobic endurance, and size of skeletal muscles.” (2)
The resistance can be as little as bodyweight resistance (that includes calisthenic training), to resistance bands, free weights, machines, “weights of opportunity” (for example when chopping wood), weight vests and of course barbells…
→ helps with increasing bone density, muscle, tendon and ligament strength and toughness and improving joint function
→ reduces potential for injury (as increased muscle mass and balance leads to prevention from falling, faster reaction times etc.) and increases postural corrections (for example after sitting at a desk all day working on strengthening your posterior chain muscles)
→ increases metabolic function (due to increased BMR through more lean body mass)
→ improved cardiac function in regard to anaerobic capacity (or even potentially aerobic capacity depending on modality)
→ Resistance training raises cortisol levels, but also increases testosterone and growth hormone (which is a desired effect, yes ladies for us too), which in turn offset cortisol and help build muscle and burn fat at the same time.
→ May initially lead to gain weight, as “muscle weighs more than fat”
→ Overtraining (for example too heavy too often) can lead to stress fractures, joint pain, extreme muscle soreness, excessive stress on the nervous system (particularly in the lower rep ranges) and without sufficient recovery also lead to negative hormonal adaptations
In combination with the right dietary approach regular, periodized strength training (progressive overload with regular rest days and deload weeks) has shown to be incredibly beneficial for changing and maintaining great body composition, i.e. increasing lean body mass and achieving anywhere from a toned and lean look to looking muscular and buff, depending on how it is applied. Applying rep schemes and exercise selection according to liking and goal (are you also wanting to get strong or just build muscle?), in a way that neurological fatigue is minimized and we find our minimal effective training volume or optimal recoverable training volume is a safe way to ensure you can and should safely incorporate resistance training into your training for the rest of your life.
→ If your main passion/sport lies somewhere else, incorporating resistance training into your schedule a minimum of 2-3 times per week is a great way to work on injury prevention on help you improve your “actual” sport (for example if you are a runner, strengthening your ankles, lateral movement strength and upper body can be very beneficial for your runs as well and make sure you are not sustaining any injuries)
→ If you are simply set on improving body composition, resistance training should be your main focus point. Incorporate it anywhere from 3-6 times per week in your schedule, depending on how much time you have and you can consistently commit to. Training frequency will also determine your body part split. (If you are looking for a great selection of training programs check out our membership site “the BoomBoom Elite”)
→ Don’t go too heavy too fast! This will only lead to injuries in the long run. Do focus on progressive overload, however small increments that are safer and more sustainable than getting injured two weeks into your training, just because your bro lifted more.
→ On the other hand, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself either, but make sure it is a realistic manageable weight for you and remember to check your form regularly (for example in the mirror or by filming or have someone check your form for you).
2. Cardiovascular Training
Cardiovascular training , in a very broad sense, it refers to any activity that increases your heart rate (3) for a prolonged period of time.
By doing a cardiovascular activity you can improve both, the function of your heart, lungs and circulatory system and because of that the American College of Sports Medicine recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate- intensity cardio on most if not all days of the week. (4)
However, we should differentiate between multiple facets of cardio, because technically that could include anything from walking to doing sit ups to sprinting…
High Intensity Interval Training is usually characterized by work portions at 85-100% of your maximal heart rate, followed by either complete rest periods or lower effort rest periods. Most of the time, the higher your work effort, the longer your rest interval will be (for example 95-100% effort, i.e. max effort sprint, near max effort Clean & Jerk, 60s Jump Squats to failure… should mean longer rest periods than the same performed at 85% effort, where you could even continue the work at about 60% in your rest periods such as a jog back in between sprints or a row in between your sets in a longer CrossFit WOD).
→ High caloric output in a relatively short amount of time.
→ Increases anaerobic and anaerobic capacity and VO2 max while having the potential to build muscle at the same time, if resistance is used (however to a lesser degree than pure hypertrophy training)
→ more variety than during LISS (often more appealing to neurotypes 1 and 2A)
✋If you are wondering about the “after burn effect” please refer to the end of the post for details.
→ High Stress on joints and tendons
→ Potentially higher Risk for injury than isolated resistance training and LISS, because of the usual “competitive’ class setting or “time pressure
→ Higher cortisol release through HIIT than during resistance training, therefore at high frequency and in combination with high overall stress/cortisol production, HIIT training can lead to an over-production in cortisol, resulting in weight retention, lack of sex drive, sleep disruptions, moodiness…
High Intensity Interval Training of any sort is a great way to improve VO2max, burn a relatively high amount of calories in a relatively short amount of time and potentially build or at least retain muscle at the same time (depending on modality and resistance). However, it is highly stressful on the body and can cause the body to produce large amounts of cortisol, putting the body in sort of a ‘fight or flight’ mode. There is also an increased risk for injury as movements are often executed “as fast and/or as heavy as possible” and therefore quality can suffer.
Once or twice a week do put in maximum effort and really push yourself to the limit. Otherwise, learn to pace (for example EMOMS or more time controlled settings like that), learn to read the signs your body gives you (how much have I slept today, how am I feeling today, how stressed am I already) and learn that for body composition goals and general well being it is important to manage OVERALL stress well (and includes training)
→ Incorporate occasionally as ”finishers” to your strength training or on non-lifting days
→ You should not initially have to rely on HIIT to create the caloric deficit.
→ When you first get started with HIIT make sure you focus on form ABOVE all else
→ Build up your aerobic base first before jumping into HIIT
Can be too strenuous in an already dieted stage and lead to increased cortisol levels, hence weight retention, sleep issues, stalling progress, hence why LISS is often the preferred form of cardio for bodybuilders particularly closer to their show.
If you are short on time a 20 minute HIIT workout is often better than not moving at all that day.
Generally speaking, focusing on creating a caloric deficit through diet and engaging in regular resistance training to build lean muscle and supplementing with either form of cardio occasionally according to preference and overall life stress is the best way to achieve and maintain body composition goals.
If HIIT/CrossFit/Orange Theory/F45 etc is your absolute passion, but you still want to improve your body composition try reducing your high intensity work (for example from 5 or 6 days per week to 3-4 days per week) and supplement with more accessory and skill work on the other days as well as incorporating more activities that activate the parasympathetic nervous system such as going for walks, taking more full rest days etc.
3. Low Intensity Steady State Cardio (LISS)
Low Intensity Steady State Cardio (LISS), is any (primarily) steady, aerobic activity, such as walking, hiking, jogging, swimming, cycling at a sustained relatively low heart rate (roughly under 60-75% of your maximum heart rate).
→ You can do a good amount of LISS without it being to strenuous on your nervous system or your muscles.
→ You probably burn more calories doing LISS than you would think, particularly if you keep incorporating it multiple times throughout the day (for example 3×10 minute walks after your meals)
→ Often has a calming effect and can help with mental health (e.g. anxiety)
→ If in the right setting it can be done as a family (e.g. nice walk/hike with kids on the weekend) and can even be performed with elderly, obese/overweight and sometimes even partically injured individuals
→ If done in excess it can be very stressful for joints, ligaments, tendons etc do to the high repetition of a particular movement.
→ If this is the only training modality, it can also easily lead to muscular imbalances due to the monotony.
→ It takes more time to burn the same amount of calories as a HIIT training session, and in addition to that your body adapts rather quickly to the stimulus. That means in order to keep burning the same amount of calories each time you would have to continuously increase your efforts.
→ Often perceived as “boring” by some more people, primarily individuals that fall in neurotype categories 1 and sometimes 2 A (check out our neurotype blog to learn more about this)
LISS has gotten an unnecessary bad reputation over the last few years with the increase in popularity in HIIT. However, from a health perspective, everyone should include some form of LISS in their daily lives, even if it is just in the form of walking. Additionally, LISS is a great tool to increase energy expenditure without putting too much stress on the body, enabling fast recover while interfering minimally with your strength gains. It is an excellent training method for bodybuilding contest prep, when dieting down to very lean levels and also for highly stressed individual that should work on reducing accumulated stress.
→ Aim for 8-10k steps every day, for benefits on blood flow and recovery, blood pressure, metabolism… Often times it is easier to split this up into multiple smaller walks than routinely doing one big walk (e.g. getting up every hour for a drink, parting further away from the grocery store or the office…).
→ Additional LISS cardio can and should be incorporated according to personal preference or should be swapped for HIIT when you are trying to increase parasympathetic activity (basically to help your nervous system calm down if you are a highly stressed individual), to help with hormonal balance, as active recovery days
→ LISS can be a great additional tool for fat loss when you have already created a substantial caloric deficit through diet and regular resistance training, particularly when including HIIT would drive cortisol too high and could potentially lead to weight retention. So towards the end of a contest prep or photoshoot prep this would be our preferred form of cardio to increase the caloric deficit.
→ Unless you are someone who thoroughly enjoys LISS, it is not NECESSARY for achieving body composition goals. Through the right dietary approach, regular strength training and reasonably activity on a daily basis you can achieve far greater aesthetic results than through cardio alone.
Setting Some Things Straight
1. If you have more muscle, do I really burn more calories?
Essentially yes. But it is not just because your total daily energy expenditure increases (it increases about 15-25 calories per pound of muscle, which is really not that much), it is more because adding more muscle will make it easier to get even leaner and harder to store fat by increasing your ability to store glycogen in the muscle (about 15-20g per pound), which means you can eat more carbs before storing them as fat. And by being able to consume more carbs you will be able to keep your metabolic rate elevated because the conversion of our thyroid hormones T4 to T3 (which help regulate our metabolism) depend on carb intake and cortisol levels, according to world renowned Strength and Nutrition Coach Christian Thibaudeau.
He also says that having more muscle makes you more insulin sensitive and that also helps with fat loss, because the quicker insulin comes down the more time our bodies spend time mobilizing fat as fuel. (5)
2. I am sure I am producing a caloric deficit through nutrition and HIIT/ LISS cardio. I lost weight that way in the past. Why am I holding on to weight or even gaining some fat if the calorie equation is where it’s really at?
Let’s assume you actually are in a caloric deficit. – A possibility is that a prolonged extreme calorie cut (or just having been dieting for too long) and/or excessive exercise set off an ‘alarm system’ in the body thinking it needs to fight for its survival. When his happens our body reduce energy demands and stores fat, because survival is now a priority. Once you get to that point it is very hard to lose fat, no matter how much more you reduce your calories or increase your energy output. At this stage it is important to take a step back, send your body the message that ‘it is safe’ (usually by increasing food and reducing exercise until homeostasis is regained) and then try to get back to a more moderate sustainable deficit with regular diet breaks while building lean muscle mass.
3. What’s the deal with the afterburn effect after each training method? Is that really a thing and if so where is it highest at?
The afterburn effect is also referred to as EPOC (excess post-exercises oxygen consumption) and is the energy that your body needs to get back to its pre-workout state. In order to get that energy it can use oxygen or stored energy to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate, which is what fuels our cells). Tedd Keating Ph.D., C.S.E.S., associate professor of exercise science at Manhatten College says “ Your metabolism stays up for a period of time after exercise.” (6), but he emphasises that it is only estimated to be about 6-15%of total calories burnt while exercising. So for example if you burnt about 300 calories during your workout, the “afterburn” would only be about 18-45 caclories (that is something like a couple of berries). This applies to all forms of exercise, but intensity does play a role in terms of what end of the spectrum your calorie burn would like (LISS possibly more towards the 6% and HIIT or a strenuous lifting session more towards the 15%, so 10 berries vs 15 or 20…).
Additionally, he also stresses that this “afterburn” effect usually drops off about 2 hours after your actual training session and does not go on at that rate for 24-48 hours, contributing to overall energy output very, very minimally. This does not mean that RECOVERY and replenishment of glycogen storages etc does not go on for that long, it simply means in terms or increased energy expenditure we won’t be seeing much after that time, no matter the modality.
Some studies on health
1. Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors
A study on the effectiveness of aerobic, resistance and combined training on cardiovascular disease risk factors the following markers were assessed
→ blood pressure
→ cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF)
→ muscular strength
→ body composition
→ blood glucose and blood lipids.
The 69 sedentary, obese adults with elevated blood pressure were given one of three 8 week training programs (3x per week, 60 minute sessions of either just aerobic training, just resistance training or 30 minutes cardio, 30 minutes resistance training + aerobic training – NOT HIIT!).
What they found was: Combined training showed significant reductions in blood pressure, increase in CRF, increase in upper and lower body strength and lean body mass. Aerobic training only showed increases in CRF and reduced body weight through fat mass. Resistance training only increased upper and lower body strength and waist circumference. (6)
2. Aerobic vs. Resistance Exercise
In another study on aerobic or resistance exercise or both in dieting obese older adults reversing frailty and preventing reduction in muscle and bone mass induced by weight loss was evaluated. Participants were given a weight management program and one of three exercise programs over the course of 6 months. Measures were:
→ physical performance test
→ frailty measures
→ body composition
→ bone mineral density
→ physical functions.
What the found was: Physical performance increased the most in the combination group, body weight decreased by 9% in all exercise groups and lean mass reduced less in the combination and resistance groups than in the aerobic only group, as did bone mineral density. (7)
3. Effects of Strength or Aerobic Training
In this study the effects of strength or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate and peak oxygen consumption was tested among 65 moderately obese individuals (19-48 years old). The three categories were diet only, diet and aerobic training or diet and resistance training. Both training methods (3x per week) were supervised and designed to be isoenergetic (same calorie expenditure).
What they found was: After 8 weeks the average amount of weight lost (9kg) was the same in all groups, however, the strength training group lost significantly less lean body mass than the other two groups. Peak oxygen consumption increased the most in the aerobic group. Resting metabolic rate declined the same in all groups.
4. Effects of HIIT vs. Steady State Training
The Effects of High Intensity Interval Training vs Steady State Training on Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity were tested in 55 untrained college aged subjects over 8 weeks. They were either assigned 3x per week steady state cardio on a bike, Tabata or Meyer training (the latter are HIIT protocols).
What they found was: There were significant increases in VO2max and power during Wingate testing, with no significant differences between groups. It was suggested that the results indicate that although HIIT protocols are time efficient, they are not superior to steady state training. (9)
5. Effects of HIIT vs. Moderate-Intensity Training
In a meta analysis the effects of high-intensity interval training vs. moderate-intensity continuous training on body composition in overweight and obese adults aged 18-45 years old was tested with direct measures (such as whole body fat mass) and indirect measures (e.g. waist circumference).
What the found was: Both HIIT and steady state cardio elicited significant reduction in body fat mass and waist circumference. There were NO significant differences for any body composition measure, but HIIT required less training time commitment.
Granted, none of these studies directly examined HIIT vs resistance vs LIIS, but overall there are several conclusions we can draw:
→ Resistance training should be the foundation of your training regime in order to facilitate lean body mass, injury prevention, healthy aging… If another sport is your main focus, resistance training should still be incorporated as a supplementary training method.
→ To elicit fat loss, you should not have to rely on cardio alone to create a caloric deficit. The right dietary approach, resistance training and being moderately active throughout the day should lay the foundation of your weight loss.
→ Cardio can absolutely serve as a great tool to help with fat loss and should be implemented according to liking, but also lifestyle and stress levels.
→ Note that excessive HIIT cardio may not be the optimal training method for you if you already lead a very stressful life or you are already deep into your cut, it may in fact hinder your weight loss. In these cases it often pays off to exchange HIIT for LISS.
→ Keep in mind that calories burnt in any training session are relatively small compared to the amount burnt the other 23 hours of the day, and the marginal difference between “after burn” calories etc is even smaller.
→ Studies focusing on health and longevity (reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors and reducing bone fragility and loss of muscle mass) suggest a combination of resistance training and steady state cardio.
Lastly, it should be mentioned that the positive effects of simply staying active outside of the gym – like walking more places, taking the stairs, going to the pool with the kids, standing at your desk… cannot be underestimated when it comes to health as well as calories burnt.
Most people’s weight loss and overall health would benefit much more from hitting 8-10k steps every day, than by incorporating 1-2 20 minute HIIT sessions every week.
This blog is written by Lisa Franz, a Boom Boom Performance Nutrition Coach. Lisa has her BEXSc (Bachelors of Sports and Exercise Science), CF-1, NCI (Nutrition Coaching Certification), Hormone Specialist Certification, Yoga, Massage, and still working on more. She’s forever engulfed in the science and study of the human body, which shows in her passion filled coaching and writing. Click Here Now to Apply For Coaching, With Lisa.