The simplest piece of advice for people who want to lose weight is to ‘eat less, do more cardio’. In most cases, being overweight is a product of consuming more energy than is burned which is why it’s important to address the problem through both diet and exercise.
However, for people who want to sculpt a muscular physique the goal is not just to lose weight, it’s to lose fat. In this post, we will discuss the difference between weight loss and fat loss and get to the bottom of the question: which burns more fat – cardio or resistance training?
Weight loss vs fat loss
What you need to know to get the best workout
Weight loss is just a matter of reducing the number you see on the scale. That loss can be of anything – fat, muscle, water – it all counts. Fat loss, on the other hand, is much more targeted.
What exactly is this far we’re trying to burn off?
We all have a layer of fat beneath the surface of our skin. This varies in thickness depending on which area of the body you’re looking at, but most of us concentrate on the fat covering our:
This is because these are the regions with high potential for muscle definition.
The thicker the layer of fat, the less muscle you can see
It’s important to understand that muscle fibres lie below the layer of fat, so the thicker the layer the less visible the muscle is through the skin. Building definition therefore requires a dual approach of reducing the obstructive layer of fat and increasing the underlying muscle mass.
With this in mind, we need to consider what fat actually is before we figure out whether cardio or weight training is better for burning it off.
Fat represents energy stored by the body for later use. It doesn’t matter if you’re into spin bikes, rowing machines or treadmills, it’s important to have some fat reserves because fat is necessary for hormone production and other bodily functions, so our goal should never be to rid ourselves of it entirely.
A lean and healthy physique sits at around 10-12% body fat for men and 20-22% for women. Dipping much below these levels can cause serious health complications.
Cardio exercise = demand for energy = reduced fat
To reduce fat, the body needs to be put under a demand for energy so that it uses its reserves. We can trigger this process through plenty of hard, sweaty exercise. But which is more effective at burning fat – cardio or weightlifting?
In-session fat burning
How does cardio affect fat loss?
Cardio exercise gets your heart pumping faster and your lungs drawing in more oxygen. This in turn burns off calories. Some best known forms of ‘cardio’ are:
This puts a demand on your body for energy and is a good way of burning stored fat.
How does weight lifting affect burning fat?
Weightlifting, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same thermodynamic intensity as cardio so you burn fewer calories in a session.
Important things to remember:
- 30 minutes of cardio will burn hundreds of calories
- Weightlifting will only burn off 25-35% of this (The exact numbers will depend on your age, gender, weight, fitness levels)
- For effective fat loss you need to think of doing energetic workouts beyond the single 30-minute session and consider the impact of training on your BMR
What’s BMR and what’s it got to do with workout out whether weights or cardio burn more fat?
BMR = basal metabolic rate
Your BMR is the minimum number of calories your body needs to function before it turns to its energy reserves.
It doesn’t include calories burned during exercise or used for everyday tasks, such as housework. BMR is affected by a variety of factors including age, gender, and body composition. While there is not much we can do about fixed factors, like age or gender, we can increase our BMR by changing our body composition.
BMR and muscle mass have a huge effect on your weight loss
Building muscle mass has a lasting effect on your metabolism because of the nature of muscle cells demand energy for growth and for maintenance. Fat cells, on the other hand, are stored calories that take a minute amount of energy for maintenance. This is why body composition – not just weight – is important.
Where can you get a BMR test?
Accurate BMR tests are available in many gyms and health clubs, however, they’re often expensive. Alternatively, BMR calculations can be done by entering your details into an online calculator (use the one in the link, or just Google ‘BMR calculator’).
Tracking BMR with smart tech
You can also use tech like activity trackers and smart scales. These methods won’t be as accurate, but they will give you a rough idea.
Gathering such data can be useful for tracking your progress, however, don’t let it distract you or get too hung up on fluctuations in the numbers.
Striking the balance between cardio and weight for burning fat
take a holistic approach to fitness – one of cardio, weights and diet.
So, which is better for fat loss? Cardio or weightlifting?
The answer is that both are necessary if you want to achieve a defined physique. Cardio will intensely burn fat while you’re in the gym and weightlifting will produce lasting metabolic effects. For a balanced week, plan to do 2 cardio sessions, 3 weightlifting sessions followed by a small amount of cardio (e.g. 15 mins on the treadmill), and take 2 rest days.
Cardio Vs. Resistance Training And Nutrition
Finally, it would be remiss of us to talk about fat loss without mentioning nutrition. No amount of training can undo a bad diet. Eating for muscle building is a delicate balance between feeding muscle growth and restricting excessive calorie intake, as any unused energy will be converted into fat.
You must therefore take a holistic approach to fitness – one of cardio, weights and diet.
References & Further Reading
- New to all things cardio? Check out the NHS exercise guide and start off the right way.
- Christie Aschwanden – Most effective cardio workouts, according to science
- NCBI – The Role of Exercise and Physical Activity in Weight Loss and Maintenance
- Matthew A. Nystoriak* and Aruni Bhatnagar – Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise
- Aaron Kandola – What are the best exercises for weight loss?