Lifting weights or cardio? Which is better?

Highlights:

  • Introduction 
  • Let’s make the question more specific
  • Benefits of strength training
  • Benefits of cardiovascular training
  • Applications of both

 

Introduction

Any fitness, health or nutrition professional will be very well accustomed to hearing the question “which is better – lifting weights or cardio?”. 

I am no exception to this and have been faced with the question countless times. As a young, spry exercise scientist, I would anxiously jump right in listing off the benefits of each modality whilst in more recent years, I take a more specific and purposeful approach. 

First, the question needs to be asked – “What is your goal?”. This will give you a more purposeful lens to look through when reading this article. 

In the remainder of this piece, I will define both types of training, highlight the benefits of each, and finally outline the applications for which each is most beneficial.

 

Man weight lifting a barbell with weights in a gym, dark colors

 

Let’s make the question more specific

Any practitioner worth their salt will always ensure that they have a very specific question before attempting to provide an answer. If they didn’t, information and advice would be very generic and not very helpful. Imagine a doctor providing one type of medicine as the “best” regardless of the medical condition. 

When we look at this question, “lifting weights vs. cardio?”, it is absolutely essential that you add a couple of factors when seeking an answer.

  • What is your definition of strength and cardiovascular training?
  • What are your physical capabilities 
  • What is your goal?
  • What type of exercise/training do you enjoy? 

Adding these to your question could now look something like this for example;

“I have fallen out of training for the past two years due to the pandemic. I have lost muscle and gained some fat. What would be the best training type to start with, to effectively reverse this process, lose fat and gain some muscle?”

 

Strength training and its benefits

Strength training involves the resistance, concentric (e.g. bicep curl), eccentric (e.g. the loading part of a squat) and/or isometric (not moving at all) against a force. To be effective, it will need to exert the muscle to the extent that damage and inflammation will occur. It is this process that will then stimulate the adaptation, or muscle and/or strength improvements. 

 

Let’s dive into the benefits of this type of training. Many people have been unfortunately misguided into the belief that it is a training only for bodybuilders and those that want to be “buff”. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Research emerging around resistance training is showing that it can be beneficial for a number of population groups including: 

  • Young adults 
  • Healthy and injured athletes 
  • Middle-aged adults (Suchomel et al., 2018)
  • Elderly (Bautmans et al. 2009)

 

Woman and man working out doing weighted pushups in dark room

 

Yep, all of the above groups have shown very positive results to a regular resistance training routine, including: 

  • Increased strength and muscle mass
  • Enhanced functionality and mobility 
  • Improved injury prevention 
  • Improved insulin sensitivity 
  • Enhanced fat loss 
  • Reduced risk of injury and falling (elderly)

 

Cardiovascular training and its benefits

The dreaded treadmill, is what you’re probably thinking, right? However, cardiovascular, or cardio, training is anything that involves an increased reliance on oxygen. It usually involves any exercise, not just running, that brings us above 50-60% of our VO2 max. That fancy measure is simply our maximum oxygen uptake (the greatest amount of oxygen we can inhale and utilise at per minute) and it is largely influenced by our fitness and training levels i.e. an intercountry GAA player would have a higher VO2 than a habitual gym-goer.  

Cardio has been a long-time staple in fitness, weight loss and athletic domains. It really is the basis of any exercise that will cause you to hyperventilate or breathe more heavily. It doesn’t just need to be 60 minutes running on a treadmill, staring at the wall. Other options include running in nature, playing basketball with the kids, dancing with your partner. 

In terms of the benefits of this exercise, there are also ample. While it is often used as a simple calorie burner, it is important to understand it provides some longer-lasting health impacts as well, including: 

  • Improved HDL cholesterol levels 
  • Improved insulin sensitivity 
  • Improved anxiety and depression markers 
  • Enhanced fat loss (when used and implemented correctly) 
  • Improved physical fitness (VO2max)

 

Woman running happy and healthy through the forest

Applications of strength and cardio training

The applications of these two training modalities often overlap, and most individuals will benefit by regularly engaging in a balanced combination of both cardio and strength training. Many of us have fallen out of our routines over the past two years, and as a result, our fitness levels have dropped and muscle mass reduced. Therefore, both types of training will have beneficial results whether you are an athlete, parent and professional or otherwise. 

More specifically, progressive strength training should be the priority of those individuals with a goal of lean mass gain (muscle) or increased strength and/or power, such as in the example we used earlier. It should also be the priority for athletes who are rehabilitating from an injury, especially if it is a muscle-related injury. 

A complement of cardio training to any strength programme will provide positive results in almost every case. For those simply looking to improve their fitness and increase daily activity levels, without knowledge or means to begin strength training right away, cardio is a good first port of call.

 

What Now?

It is important to capitalise on your learning from this article. You want to start being more active? 

Great, try some of the following activities to get you cracking: 

  • Create a specific goal (performance, body composition, health)
  • Identify what exercise type is most important for that goal
  • Set a plan for days each week that you’ll exercise
  • Check out our recipes portal for fueling and recovery options

 

Conclusion

Whatever your goal, I do hope that it is now apparent that both exercise types will provide and support your progress. It is crucial though, to be more specific when you ask the question of “which is better”, identify your true goal, and then compare the two types of training based on how they can help you get there.

I hope this article helped, please let us know below!

 

References

Bautmans I, Van Puyvelde K, Mets T. Sarcopenia and functional decline: pathophysiology, prevention and therapy. Acta Clin Belg. 2009 Jul-Aug;64(4):303-16. doi: 10.1179/acb.2009.048. PMID: 19810417.

Suchomel, T.J., Nimphius, S., Bellon, C.R. and Stone, M.H., 2018. The importance of muscular strength: training considerations. Sports medicine, 48(4), pp.765-785.