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Strength vs. Cardio: A Weighty Debate

LES MILLS BodyPump

By Kelly Spivey, ND and Matt Sutherland

It’s an age-old question for anyone getting started in the gym: “Should I focus on weights or cardio?” The strength vs. cardio debate has divided many aspiring bodybuilders or spinners in their pursuit toward a healthier lifestyle.

To answer that question in more detail, we need to agree that there’s no one single recommendation we can make for any population. If you’re an athlete, the answer isn’t clear-cut and depends on what sport you play. If you’re rehabilitating an injury, the answer may depend — rehabbing a heart attack requires seriously different training than someone recovering from knee surgery, for example.

Instead, let’s focus on the vast majority of the population — because America could really do better. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a little over half of American adults meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobics. Less than a quarter of us meet the guidelines for strength training.

So, let’s start there: Regardless of what workout you do, you need to be doing something — preferably most days of the week (at least three times a week), or 150 minutes of moderate physical activity. If you ramp it up to be a bit breathless, 75 minutes per week of intense exercise will suffice. Bottom line, find something you like to do. 

As to what you can get out of either workout, there’s a lot of misinformation out there on the Internet — peer-moderated forums, Reddit, and the like. Some are half-truths while other nuggets are flat-out false. Let’s dive into a few.

Strength vs. Cardio Myths, Busted

Myth #1: Cardio helps you lose more weight than strength training

False Factor: Somewhat false

Cardio is great for a lot of things — increasing longevity, regulating glucose, and strengthening your heart’s ability to pump blood and oxygen. It also does burn more immediate calories than lifting weights … but that’s not the full story. Strength training also burns calories, but it also increases your metabolic rate well after you’ve left the gym. This afterburn accounts for an average of 60 more calories through the next day. That’s not much, but it’s enough to indicate the myth is busted.

However you choose to burn calories, none of it matters toward weight loss if you’re eating more than you burn. That’s why nutrition is a much more important factor in weight loss than what type of exercise you’re performing.

Myth #2: Cardio makes you lose muscle

False Factor: Surprisingly false

It’s amazing how many cardio athletes are so adamant about this, but it’s pretty wrong. The idea is that too much cardio will burn muscle as well as fat. But unless you’re a serious distance athlete, this probably isn’t the case. That being said, resistance training is still the king of muscle hypertrophy. 

Aside from the obvious benefits of resistance training — increasing muscle mass and getting stronger — it can also strengthen your bones and joints

Your brain might think you can power through muscle loss, but your body and time say otherwise. After age 30, the average male loses 30% of their muscle mass over their lifetime. That means you’ll be more susceptible to falling or breaking a bone.

Even if you’re crazy about cardio, it’s important to perform some sort of strength training — either through bodyweight exercises, weight lifting, or band resistance training — twice a week to maintain muscle mass,  improve any postural imbalances and prevent injury.

Myth #4: You can’t combine strength and cardio into one workout

False Factor: Completely false

If you’re lifting — really lifting, and not just playing games on your phone in between reps — then you’re also taxing your cardiovascular system. And you can easily kill two birds with one stone by increasing the intensity of your workouts. There are three main ways to do this with strength training: add weight, add more reps, or incorporate power moves.

If you’re a more cardio-focused person, it’s easy to turn your cardio workout into a circuit training session by incorporating a few rounds of sit-ups, pushups, squats, or other bodyweight exercises. 

There are also a number of workout routines that incorporate the two, namely:

  • Les Mills BodyPump, which uses light to moderate weights and high repetition volumes to get lean, toned, and fit
  • “Bootcamp” / military-style workouts
  • Circuit training

Myth #5: Exercise isn’t fun

False Factor: False. Patently false. Couldn’t be further from the truth. 

The number one thing that people should take away from this is that there are so many different ways to exercise that you can’t possibly lump them all together into one “miserable” category. 

Instead of forcing yourself into an exercise routine, find things that you already like to do and incorporate them into a targeted plan. Maybe you’re not the type to pump iron or run a marathon, but there’s still tons of ways to dance, stretch, box, bike, swim, row, or play your way into physical fitness. 

So, to come back to our original question: is strength better than cardio, or vice-versa? Whether you’re lifting or running, kettlebelling or swimming, it doesn’t matter — as long as you’re having a good time doing it and you’re achieving your goals.


photo courtesy of LES MILLS