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January 07, 2022 8 min read

Weightlifting and cardio both burn calories, but is one better for fat loss?

Ask any weightlifter and you’ll likely hear 'too much cardio eats into your hard-earned muscle mass!'

And truth be told, cardio might not be the silver bullet to fat loss you think it is.

Read on to find out whether weightlifting or cardio is the better choice for cutting fat depending on your current fitness, workout preference, and body type.

tape measure around fit womans waist with flame background fat loss

How The Human Body Burns Fat

Weight loss is a common fitness goal for people trying to get out of an overly sedentary lifestyle and bodybuilders in their cutting phase.In both cases, one axiom defines the routine: burn more calories than you take in.

Add to that diet crazes such as no-carb, no-fat, paleo, or fad diets and it’s clear that our understanding about dieting and weight loss is at best confused and at worst wrong and actively contradictory depending on who you talk to.

Luckily, science can shed some light on the issue.

One study on a theory called the carbon and nitrogen redistribution theory claims that scheduling meals when your muscles are in need of nutrients causes the body to replenish muscles with nutrients rather than storing energy as body fat.

According to that theory, it’s not exercise’s calorie-burning ability we should be focused on when we want to cut body fat.

We should really be positioning our biggest and most nutrient-laden meals after hard workouts when our bodies are repairing muscles. 

Interestingly, the author of the study on carbon and nitrogen redistribution mentions that “respiratory ventilation during high-intensity aerobic exercise amplifies the competition for post-meal carbon and nitrogen against adipose tissues.” Adipose tissue is the scientific term for body fat.Of course, even if we accept this theory of fat loss, monitoring calorie intake to some degree is still necessary. Waiting until after your workout to scarf down a triple cheeseburger and fries isn’t going to make it the optimal to eat to speed up fat loss and increase muscle gain.

What About Macronutrients?

Carbohydrate, protein, and fat are referred to collectively as macronutrients.

If you aren’t already tracking your macros as part of your overall fitness program, you should get on it ASAP.It’s a fantastic way to make sure your body is getting everything it needs to build muscle and keep the rest of its various systems running as smoothly as possible.

But is tracking macros enough to lose weight?

In some cases, yes. Let’s say someone goes from eating lots of processed foods with empty calories to more whole foods that fit their macros better.

There’s a dietary program called 'If It Fits Your Macros' (IIFYM) that involves eating what you want as long as that food is giving you the amount of macronutrients you need. But going overboard or making miscalculations that allow for too much bad stuff to enter your body is easier on IIFYM, although many people do find success with this arrangement. 

Does Cardio Consume Nutrients Differently Than Weightlifting?

A report on the findings of a panel of sports nutrition experts explains the necessity of carbohydrates this way: “athletes have an unequivocal need to consume high-carbohydrate foods to enhance muscle glycogen storage and deliver carbohydrate to muscle during strenuous exercise.”

From this information, one could conclude that steady-state cardio or sustained high-intensity cardio requires more carbs. Then again, so could a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session or a weightlifting routine with heavier weights.

Does this transfer to carb consumption happen sooner with cardio exercise?

It depends. A high-intensity cardio workout usually involves having an elevated heart rate for an extended period. Infrequent runners, swimmers, or people who tend to do more weightlifting probably haven’t conditioned themselves enough to sustain high-intensity cardio for amounts of time significant enough to cross over into carb territory.

Likewise, someone who isn’t used to weightlifting isn’t going to start burning serious amounts of calories the first time they hit the gym.

Heck, it may take months to build up enough strength to keep at the weights long enough to burn a significant amount of calories.The types of exercise that come to mind when you hear the word ‘cardio’ are not activating the same muscles as most weight training exercises.

For example, running three miles is going to exhaust (and build strength in) your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Squats and lunges will target those same muscles, but those are going to be lower intensity exercises unless they’re in a HIIT routine.

Cardio Or Weight Lifting? Pick What You Like

There’s one simple rule when it comes to choosing the right kind of exercise for shredding fat: pick the kind you like better.Your body might be naturally geared toward running, swimming, or cycling. Naturally lean people have a hard time bulking up.

On the other side of the spectrum, bulkier people tend to dislike running and other forms of cardio because running with more weight on their frame makes that kind of exercise more high-impact. 

Sticking to your routine is easier when you enjoy the exercises in your routine.

Wanting to look good and feel healthy in your body is a great goal, but you aren’t stuck with one type of exercise to achieve it. People who hate running shouldn’t force themselves to run a couple of miles every day - they’ll be looking for any excuse to quit.

Know what you’re naturally built for and good at.What if you aren’t really either type? A large number of people aren’t, or else they don’t know which type they are because they’re new to fitness in general.

Try everything.

Whatever you have the resources to do, see if those kinds of exercises are the kind you want to be doing for the long term. Don’t listen to those fad diet commercials: there’s no pill or surefire method to cut all that fat off in a matter of weeks.You’re going to be doing these exercises for months and you’ll have to continue them to keep the fat off once it’s gone. Some people prefer sports to stay active while others like the gym. A few prefer to alternate between the two. Whatever your method, make sure it’s an activity you enjoy doing or you won’t keep doing it.

Consider Your Opportunity Cost

If you’re starting from zero and want to lose weight, cardio exercises like running, sprinting, swimming, and sports are great entry points. Some gym rats, powerlifters, and dedicated weight training aficionados stay far away from cardio because it can cause the body to burn muscle as an energy source.

We already mentioned how cardio can be a great exercise for the lower body.

It’s also great for your cardiovascular health. But while you’re getting those benefits, the muscle groups in your upper body aren’t working nearly as hard as they would be if you were lifting weights. 

So dedicating too much time out of your workout schedule to outright cardio can cost you, especially if a sculpted upper body is one of your fitness goals. Keeping in mind what we already know about diet’s impact on fat loss, cardio such as sprinting or jogging can have especially deleterious effects if you’re on a seriously limited diet to lose weight.But if you could combine high-intensity exercise with some cardio, you would be in a good position to shed fat and build or at least maintain muscle while boosting your cardiovascular health at the same time. That’s where high-intensity interval training comes in.

The Value of a Plyometric HIIT Workout

Very broadly speaking, the weight training exercises people use to build muscle mass do a great job at wearing down muscle tissue and encouraging growth through a repair process called hypertrophy.

A HIIT routine is more than simply doing both forms of exercise.

They generally use variations of exercises that incorporate explosive energy for cardio alongside either bodyweight or weighted resistance training.

This explosive energy is used for exercises called plyometrics.

Combining plyometric movement with lifting exercises in a routine with very brief break periods is effective because it prevents your muscles from becoming acclimated to the exercise.

You can build your body’s tolerance and put on muscle mass.

If you don’t prefer running, swimming, sports, or other types of cardio that you can’t do at the gym, a plyometric HIIT routine is the workout for you. Squats, push-ups, deadlifts, and plenty of other exercises have plyometric variations.

You could also mix plyometric moves like tuck jumps in with more straightforward weightlifting exercises like biceps curls or bench presses.The steady-state equivalent of HIIT workouts is called high-intensity intermittent exercise - and there’s evidence it might be the most effective kind of exercise for weight loss.

How Long Slow Distance Helps

Even if you’re trying to maintain muscle mass, some steady-state exercise will help build endurance. Your cardiovascular system will be stronger after repeated HIIT workouts, but you also want your strength to be able to last for longer than a half-hour workout routine.

Steady-state cardio helps condition your body to keep working under small amounts of weight.

It’s a fundamental part of building functional strength. The last thing you want is to put on all the muscle you want and shed that fat and still get winded helping your buddy carry furniture.

Calories Are Still King

If you want to cut fat, you need to operate at a calorie deficit. Whether you use cardio or weightlifting to create that deficit, your body is going to convert stored fat to energy to get you by.But when you switch from low-intensity workouts to higher intensity ones, your body gets energy by metabolizing glucose stored in your muscles directly. Metabolism also plays an important role in procuring long-term energy. 

Weightlifting boosts your metabolic rate for this glucose.In that sense, it’s better for keeping fat off, particularly if you pair your weightlifting with a low-fat diet.

Can You Target Belly Fat?

man shirtless holding his belly

Many beginners try sticking lots of ab workouts in their weekly routine when they want to lose belly fat. But research shows that abdominal exercise alone isn’t enough to shed belly fat.In that regard, cardio of any kind might be more effective for beginners who are likely to be capable of completing a low- or moderate-intensity cardio for longer than they can run through reps of strength training exercise with weights heavy enough to burn serious calories. 

Cardio Vs. Weightlifting: Calories Burned

Numbers published by Harvard Medical School indicate that 30 minutes of moderate-intensity running (a 12-minute mile) burns more calories than vigorous weight lifting for the same amount of time.

A 185-pound person burns around 252 calories during half an hour of vigorous weight lifting while that number will be in the neighborhood of 336 calories running 12-minute miles for half an hour.To put those numbers in perspective, Harvard also says that carrying golf clubs for half an hour will burn 231 calories. From a calorie standpoint, cardio is probably going to burn more - but neither one is burning more calories than you’d find in most deli sandwiches.

What does that mean for those concerned with getting rid of body fat and keeping weight off once it’s gone?

The trick is to keep at your physical activity of choice and make sure you’re following a healthy diet with all the macronutrients you need. Looking after your general wellness this way will prompt your body to store energy in accessible ways rather than fat and give it less fat to metabolize.You might be able to get skinny running and doing other forms of steady-state cardio, but you can’t build muscle that way. Although you can build strength with weight training, conditioning your body for sustained resistance and endurance is harder without cardio.

Cardio Vs. Weightlifting For Fat Loss

HIIT workouts are a great way to blend cardio and weightlifting in a single workout routine. Steady-state cardio might be a no-go for most lifters, but a couple of days a month will improve your endurance and your cardiovascular wellness as well. 

Many people detest cardio for a variety of reasons, but cardio in tandem with strength training and a healthy diet is the best way to burn fat and keep it off.