Resistance Training vs Cardio - Which Is Better for Fat Loss

Hey, Mit here and today I want to talk to you about what the optimal workout method for fat loss is.

For some reason, there’s still this notion that the way to shed the unwanted fat is to do endless hours of cardio – e.g. jogging on a treadmill or using the elliptical or stationary bike.

Lift weights to build muscle and do cardio to shed the fat, right??

Well… no, not exactly.

How weight loss actually works

The idea that jogging directly causes fat loss is a massive misconception. In order to understand why cardio is not the end-all-be-all solution to your weight loss problems, you first need to understand how weight loss works in the human body.

For you to lose weight, there is one simple condition that must be met: you need to be eating less calories than you’re burning on average. This is the age-old concept of energy balance, and it governs body weight manipulation.

Obviously, there are 2 sides to the equation – how much energy you consume (in the form of calories from food) and how much energy you expend. Consume less energy than you expend, and you WILL lose weight. While the first element, your caloric intake (and where those calories come from), IS very important, in this article we’ll be focusing on the second one – your energy expenditure.

Your TDEE (or total daily energy expenditure i.e. the amount of energy you expend in a 24-hour period) is comprised of 4 elements: resting metabolic rate, thermic effect of feeding, exercise activity and non-exercise activity thermogenesis.

Your RMR (or resting metabolic rate) is the amount of energy you burn in a 24-hour period if you were to lay in bed and do absolutely nothing – you’re breathing, your heart is beating and your cells are doing the bare minimum to keep you alive, but that’s about it.

Your TEF (or thermic effect of feeding) is the amount of energy you expend for digestion, absorption and assimilation of ingested nutrients. Your EA (or exercise activity) is the amount of energy you expend to perform purposeful exercise. Your NEAT (or non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is the amount of energy you expend to perform activities that are NOT sports-like exercise – e.g. moving around the house, fidgeting and pacing, housework, carrying groceries, etc.

All of these elements make up your total daily energy expenditure. Usually, RMR represents around 70-75% of sedentary people’s TDEE and around 60% of physically active people’s TDEE. TEF represents around 10% And physical activity (i.e. EA + NEAT) represents 15% or less of sedentary people’s TDEE and 30% or more for active people’s TDEE.

Keeping all of this in mind, we can now delve into why cardio might not be your best bet for fat loss.

Firstly, since your RMR represents the majority of the energy you expend, it makes sense to keep it high if you’re trying to create a caloric deficit. Well, what you need to know is that muscle is metabolically active – it burns calories just to “exist”. Meaning the more muscle you have, the higher your RMR is.

And while it’s unlikely that you’ll build muscle in a caloric deficit, lifting weights WILL help you preserve as much muscle mass as possible – while you would lose a lot of muscle (and experience a subsequent drop in RMR) if you were to only do cardio.

Secondly, higher-intensity exercise activity (i.e. lifting weights) not only helps you expend energy during the activity – it also creates a higher demand for energy after the activity. This happens because higher-intensity exercise activities induce an increase in something called EPOC (or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption).

Basically, the demand for energy continues to be elevated after the activity to help make up for the energy deficit created during the activity itself, meaning you continue to expend more energy.

This is why resistance training – and not cardio – should be the prioritized training method for fat loss.

Does this mean steady-state cardio is useless for fat loss?

Absolutely not. It just means that you should look at it as another tool in your toolbox. More specifically, steady-state cardio is a great way to increase your energy expenditure while avoiding the negative impact that HIIT (or high-intensity interval training) can have on your performance in the gym.

If you decide to do both resistance training and cardio to aid your fat loss efforts, there are a couple of ways you can go about it.

One way would be to do your resistance training and your cardio on separate days. This will ensure that cardio isn’t impeding your performance in the gym, but then again, it might mean that you need to work out 5-6 days per week, so it’s not very time efficient.

Another way would be to do them in the same day. If that’s the case, ideally you would lift weights in the morning and do your cardio in the evening, giving you at least 6 hours in between to rest and recuperate. In the real world though, few of us can afford twice-a-day training. That’s why the more practical option would be to lift weights first, and immediately after that do cardio. This should be most people’s go-to approach.

Note that doing cardio first and then lifting weights is not a good idea as it will likely impede your performance AND your focus during your workouts – and lack of focus during resistance training can lead to mistakes – and injuries.

In conclusion...

Both resistance training and cardio have their place in your fat loss arsenal.

That being said, you should prioritize resistance training for the best results and add in cardio when you need to increase your energy expenditure further.

Finally, don’t forget that working out is half the battle – you still have to be on top of your nutrition to make your fat loss efforts successful.

Of course, if at any point you feel like you need a helping hand to guide you through the maze of body transformation, do click the button below!