What’s better for burning fat: Cardio or Strength Training?

Most people, when putting together a workout routine to help drop the extra pounds, lean towards cardio. But is sweating it out on the treadmill really the most effective way to burn fat?  The answer might surprise you.

First, and this is extremely important, when I refer to “strength training”, I’m talking about heavy lifting. Ladies — throw away the 5-lb dumbbells. They’re a complete waste of time, and aren’t going to help you build muscle, burn fat, or look better. When I refer to strength training, I’m talking about “heavy lifting”. I’m talking about seriously pushing your muscles to their absolute limits.

Strength training burns calories for up to 36 hours after your workout

Unlike cardio, the extra calorie-burn from heavy lifting continues to stack up long after you’re done. In fact, studies show that after a 60-minute strength training session, your body will burn as much as 10-calories-per-hour more than it would otherwise, for as much as 36 hours after. While this doesn’t sound like much, that’s an extra 240 calories a day, or almost 1,700 calories a week (that’s enough bonus calories to cover an entire cheat meal once a week!).  Crunch the numbers further to realize that people who do heavy-lifting 4 to 5 times a week are dropping an extra 2 to 3lbs of body-fat per month, compared to people who focus only on cardio!

Note that, in fairness, HIIT-based cardio has a similar effect, but most people who do regular cardio lack the discipline and the physical stamina to do HIIT regularly. Even experienced athletes find they hate the discomfort of HIIT, and focus on more traditional cardio. (And thus lose the after-burn affect).

Strength training increases your metabolism

Muscle is a fat-burning furnace, and the more you have, the faster and easier your body can drop pounds. While cardio may burn more “calories per minute”, strength training has a cumulative effect. (Meaning: The more you do it, the faster your metabolism becomes, and the easier it is to lose weight).  In fat, most people who’ve been through a lifetime of yo-yo dieting often find that they’ve burned off most of their muscle, and traditional weight loss methods no longer work very well.  Adding muscle is the solution to repairing the metabolic damage from a lifetime of fad-dieting.

Strength training will make you look the way you want to look

Any time I see “fit / healthy” people, I can tell which ones do strength and which ones focus only on cardio. The ones who do strength (whether men or women) have a tight, toned look, while the people who focus only on cardio tend to look soft and weak.  People trying to lose weight who focus only on cardio essentially end up looking like a smaller version of their flabby self (yes, you can be skinny and still look flabby).

I experienced this myself — after reaching my goal weight, I found I still wasn’t very happy with how I looked. I still felt (and looked) flabby, despite fitting into size 30 jeans and size-small t-shirts. I was what the fitness world refers to as “skinny fat”. Once I incorporated heavy lifting, I found I started to love the way I looked, and I found my fat burning ability was significantly increased. (Melanie went through the same experience, and found that strength training was an effective workout from a calorie-burn perspective, while simultaneously giving her a tighter, more toned look).


Ladies: Strength-training won’t give you bulging muscles

This is an extremely common misconception.  The “body builder” looking women with bulging muscles that you see on magazine covers are typically on very high doses of testosterone, they are often using steroids, and they’re eating massive quantities of food in order to get that look. Strength training all by itself won’t give females giant, bulging muscles (men either, for that matter). Females lack the testosterone needed for that.  It will, however, tighten your arms, thighs, stomach, and butt, whereas cardio itself will leave those areas just as flabby as they are now.

The conclusion?  Strength training for fat-burn wins. Every time.

If your goal is fat loss, strength training is far more effective, in terms of immediate calorie burn, post-workout calorie burn, increasing your metabolism, and ultimately giving you that fit, toned, healthy-looking body. Many professional swimsuit-models (both male and female) don’t do any cardio at all, in fact, and focus entirely on heavy lifting.

While I’m certainly not suggesting you shouldn’t do cardio, I AM suggesting that given the choice between the two, strength-training, in the form of heavy lifting, ought to be your priority.