If you’ve been interested in health and fitness for any length of time, this is a question that you’ll almost certainly have come across. You’ve maybe even asked it yourself. You probably recognise the need for both, but may not fully appreciate the benefits of them in a fat loss context, or even which should be done first in your workout. This article offers a deep dive into the merits of both. We aim to help you put the cardio vs weights question to bed so that you can strategically use both for fat loss.

Cardio Vs Weights: Which Is Better For Fat Loss?

When it comes to general health, a well-rounded training programme should include both cardio and weights. Being stronger, even by just 1% is going to make your life easier and reduce chronic pain. But strength alone isn’t the main goal. Especially if that means you’re huffing and puffing going up the stairs. If the purpose is to be healthy and fit, cardiovascular training definitely has its place. It’s impossible to be too well-conditioned, after all.

Specifically in terms of weight loss, both cardio and weights expend energy. That means your body is spending calories to do the work. So since weight loss requires a calorie deficit, both cardio and weights can help create it.

However, cardio and weights create a deficit in slightly different ways. While cardio is likely to create more of a deficit during the session due to the extended heavy breathing, weights will likely burn calories even after the session is over through a process called EPOC. This stands for Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption. This is also known simply as “afterburn”. The body uses up around 5 calories to consume 1L of oxygen, so doing any exercise that gets you out of breath will boost the number of calories burned.

Should Cardio And Weights Be Done In The Same Session?

Some people, and some trainers, will schedule cardio in the same session as weights. It’s extremely common in some sports, like CrossFit for example. There’s absolutely no problem putting them in the same session, but be aware that intense cardio is likely to have an impact on your strength performance.

Imagine trying to do maximal efforts on incline sprints, and then straight after it doing heavy back squats. It probably wouldn’t be your best effort. Even if you did these movements the other way around - squats then the sprints - you’d still struggle to put in your best performance. And frankly, it would feel disgusting either way!

While using cardio to prepare for a weight session is common in many gyms, there’s a more optimal way to prepare your movement pattern for lifting. Simply doing the same lift, but at lighter weights, prioritising compound lifts over single-joint exercises. You could keep the cardio at the end of your session for cooling down and minimising soreness over the next few days.

This relates to fat loss indirectly; if you’re too sore to move after a big session in the weights room, and you spend the next 3 days lying on your couch, moaning - you’re likely going to lose out on the calories you could be burning through NEAT. Although telling everyone how sore you are for the next 3 days because you forgot your cooldown might burn a small number of calories!

What’s NEAT And How Does It Relate To Fat Loss?

NEAT is an acronym. It stands for Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. It’s about how many calories you burn when moving around, but not through planned exercise. This is responsible for around 70-80% of your daily calorie burn, also known as your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure).

If you can keep your NEAT high, you’re likely to burn far more calories. This could be as simple as walking the dog, walking rather than driving to local places, and even a thorough cleaning and tidying up at home.

What Type Of Exercise Is Best For Fat Loss?

So now we recognise that cardio is best saved for a cool down after the weights session, or have its own dedicated training slot where you can really focus your efforts on moving with intent. Cardio has been given a bad reputation by lifters over the last few years, but it’s a vitally important part of maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle.

There is no “best” cardio. You can choose anything at all that you enjoy doing. That might be high-intensity workouts, like running or rowing sprints, spin classes, or circuit training. Or it might be lower intensity workouts, like walking or gentle swimming. The purpose of cardio isn’t just to increase your caloric expenditure, and help you to lose fat, but to improve your cardiovascular fitness, promote wellbeing and release feel-good endorphins. That might be alone, in a group fitness class, or even playing a sport.

A word of caution if fat loss is the goal though. Be careful not to do excessive amounts of cardio, or training cardio relentlessly to chase that calorie burn. And too much cardio, without enough weight training or insufficient protein, can increase the risk of muscle loss. Consider the muscle definition of marathon runners compared with sprinters. Both athletes perform cardio, but they have totally different physiques.

All the women who have figures that you admire almost certainly have some degree of muscular definition. Maintaining muscle mass, and adding to it will give you both the toned physique we all so admire, but will also burn more calories while at rest.

HIIT vs LISS

High-intensity interval training packs a big punch when it comes to calorie burn. The short sharp training sessions deliver a significant amount of calories burned per hour compared with low-intensity steady-state exercises, such as walking. However, HIIT is certainly more taxing on the body and it may be that you can do less of it, or you need to take more breaks than you would with low intensity steady state.

If the goal is fat loss, work on finding a form of cardio that you enjoy. By picking something that you like doing, and look forward to, you’ll be more likely to show up consistently. Consistency is more important for losing body fat than beasting yourself in a killer circuit once in a blue moon and then taking ages to recover from that session.

Does Muscle Tissue Burn More Calories Than Fat?

While exercise does burn calories, it’s probably the least interesting or beneficial thing it does. There is a laundry list of benefits for both cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength and endurance that come before fat loss.

Muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat. Dr Cedric X. Bryant, the chief science officer from the American Council On Exercise, says the research into this field suggests that a pound of muscle may burn 6 or 7 calories per day. While this may not sound like very much it is still 3 times more calories than are burned by a pound of fat. If you are aiming to burn more calories and lose body fat, this will be much easier if you have more muscle tissue.

Cardio Vs Weights For Fat Loss

The reality is that while cardio and weight training can both create a calorie deficit, and therefore can both help you to lose body fat. However, when you consider the number of calories burned through exercise of any kind - both cardio and weights - it’s inefficient, and frankly, can be quite demoralising.

Exercise is brilliant, and movement is a gift. But as a method of consistently creating a calorie deficit, there’s a lot left to be desired. Calories are what matter when it comes to fat loss, so the most strategic way to lose body fat is to focus on food rather than exercise. By choosing foods that have a lower calorie value in the first place, you’re not left having to work out to “burn off” calories.

Putting your attention on making nutritious choices that make your body feel great, and support your goals is key. Your food will fuel your workouts, and the quality of your food choices matter. Too much though, and you risk having to “work it off” and that’s not the best use of your training session. Keep food quantities high enough to give you energy, but not so high that you gain body fat.

Conclusion

Both cardio and weights can help you lose fat. However, it’s really the least valuable thing they will do. Cardio and weights both have health benefits that relate to physical fitness, heart health and lung capacity. They can boost your mood, improve your focus and even improve your memory. If you work out in an environment with others, the benefits can be social, and you can make incredible friendships. If you work out alone, you learn the importance of discipline and reap the massive benefits to your self-esteem. If you’re new to lifting, and you’ve not yet felt the way it can empower you, be assured: it’s coming. Losing body fat is an absolutely valid goal, but it’s really just a fraction of the benefits of cardio and weight training, which together, make you feel physically unstoppable. And that feeling of being able to run through walls is what keeps you coming back to the weights room.