Cardio vs. Weightlifting: Everything You Need to Know
Transforming your body and your health is no easy task, and there are various hurdles to the process. One of the most common struggles is knowing what to do. Regular exercise is excellent, but what does that actually mean?
The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends that adults exercise for at least 150 minutes of “moderate to vigorous-intensity” aerobic activity per week. They also recommend “muscle and bone strengthening” exercises at least twice per week. This indicates that a good balance would be thirty minutes of cardio workouts five times a week, with weightlifting two times a week. They also note that exceeding these recommendations is great, too.
While this is a strong start, more advanced fitness enthusiasts might be exceeding these recommendations and not seeing results, or they might be doing only one of those two recommendations. Sometimes the more comfortable we get in the gym, the more we step away from the health recommendations and do our own thing. So, you might be reading this and thinking, “I’m really into weightlifting, and I don’t need to add cardio workouts,” or perhaps you’re a seasoned runner thinking, “Wait, I should be lifting weights?”
Cardio vs. Weights
Cardio people and weightlifting people are often two sides to the same fitness coin. Their way is the best way. The cardio vs. weights crowd fails to realize that both weightlifting and cardio workouts have incredible health benefits and can complement each other nicely. If you love running or cycling, adding in some strength training sessions can make your cardio workout better and more enjoyable.
If you’re a beginner and looking for a straight answer, you won’t find it. You’ll get different answers from different people depending on their experiences and their goals. We can save you some time and tell you that incorporating both is your best bet, but if you need further convincing, let’s check out the pros and cons of choosing only weightlifting or only cardio.
Only Weightlifting: Pros and Cons
- Gain lean muscle and strength
- Change body shape
- Increase metabolism
- Functional fitness (makes daily tasks easier)
- Quicker workouts
- Potentially less sweaty
- Need equipment, more challenging to do while traveling
- The risk of injury increases with heavier weights
- Potentially burn fewer calories than cardio
Lifting weights can transform your physique, and with that, it can transform confidence. By applying stress to your muscle fibers, you’re encouraging your body to synthesize more protein into new muscle fibers. Increasing your muscle mass boosts your body’s resting metabolic rate, making you burn more calories with less effort.
It’s slightly less convenient to head to a gym every day than to simply put on some running shoes and head out the door. Plus, it can be expensive to purchase equipment for your home, but some people enjoy the gym atmosphere.
Working hard and moving heavy objects in the gym is sure to increase heart rate, too, and while not as significant as steady-state cardio, there are cardiovascular benefits.
Only Cardio Workouts: Pros and Cons
- Little to no equipment
- Higher calorie burn
- Better for the cardiovascular system
- More sweaty
- Risk of over-use injuries
- Takes longer
- It can be challenging to maintain motivation
- If you stop, your results go away pretty quickly
If cardio is the only way you want to work out, you will be doing your heart and your wallet a favor. You will also be burning lots of calories, which can lead to significant weight loss. The problem is some people who have been running for a long time start to accumulate some belly fat (sometimes referred to as “skinny-fat”). This can be attributed to higher levels of cortisol thanks to excessive cardio workouts.
While there’s nothing quite like a good sweat session, impact and overuse can cause injuries that make it necessary to stop to heal and potentially lose a lot of progress.
Both means of exercising have lengthy lists of benefits and some annoying drawbacks, but sometimes you have particular goals. In these cases, one method might be the answer.
Benefits of Cardio Workouts
Better for Quick Weight Loss and Fat Loss
We do not advocate for quick means of weight loss as they often include restrictive, crash diets and insane amounts of cardio that might make the weight come off quickly, but it often returns just as fast. Quick fixes just do not make for lasting, healthy lifestyle changes. That being said, we’re not naive, and many people want to know, “how do I lose weight quickly?”
If you want to notice changes on the scale and in the way your clothes fit as quickly as possible, cardio workouts are your best bet. You can burn a significant number of calories in an hour-long session. Coupled with a modest reduction in the calories you consume, you could notice significant changes in one to two weeks.
Better for Burning More Calories
People that like to be really accurate on their calorie input and output might care less about what exercises they’re doing and more about how much energy they’re using.
If you’re trying to burn a certain number of calories per workout, cardio workouts are a good option. Not only is it easier to track how many calories you’re burning (about ten calories per minute while running), but cardio is also typically more efficient for burning calories.
Better for Your Heart
Exercising for your heart? Choose cardio workouts. While weightlifting is sure to have your heart pumping, your heart loves nothing more than steady-state cardio. Keeping your heart rate between 120 and 150 bpm for thirty to ninety minutes is the most efficient way to stretch the heart’s left ventricular cavity, leading to a lower resting heart rate, lower exercising heart rate, and an overall healthier heart.
Benefits of Weightlifting
Better for Lasting Weight Loss
If you’re not looking for a quick fix and you want to make lasting changes, weightlifting might be a better option for you. Earlier, we mentioned that lifting weights increases lean muscle mass, which in turn helps you burn more calories. This increase in muscle mass and metabolism can change your body shape and composition. However, beyond that, the changes will last longer.
When you stop doing cardio, your fitness level can drop in as quickly as a few days. Muscle, on the other hand, takes about three weeks to start breaking down. The good news is that when re-starting either workout program, it’s easier to get back in shape and gain what you lost back—be it fitness level or muscle mass—thanks to muscle memory.
Better for Adding Muscle
Changing your body shape and composition won’t happen through cardio workouts alone. Sure, you will likely slim down. But if you’re after a buff, strong body, or you want to add feminine curves, weightlifting is your best bet.
If you’re newer to the idea of weightlifting, you might be scratching your head at the mention of feminine curves. “I thought lifting made women bulky?” It’s an old-school way of thinking that is still very much alive. However, even if a woman wants to get bulky, she will struggle and have to work very hard to achieve that goal. So, don’t be afraid of the weights, ladies.
Which is Better for Your Mental Health?
One of the best ways to clear your mind is to exercise, so which kind is best for mental health? Many research studies prove that regular physical activity can improve mental health and reduce symptoms of:
The answers will vary from person to person—you need to find an exercise program you enjoy in order to see these mental health benefits. For some, that means cardio workouts, and for others, weightlifting. You could also find a combination of cardio and strength exercises that suits you.
In fact, most people can benefit from a cross-training program that includes both cardio workouts and weightlifting. You can tailor your program to meet your specific goals—if you’re interested in weight loss, include more cardio. If you’re trying to build muscle, your program should place more emphasis on lifting.
Benefits of Cross-Training: Combining Weightlifting and Cardio Workouts
Combining weightlifting and cardio workouts is the ideal way to maximize each exercise’s benefits and reduce some of the negative things about them. By finding a good workout split, you will be able to:
- lose weight
- build muscle
- change body composition
- improve cardiovascular health
- increase strength and functionality
- reduce your risk of injury
- prevent boredom
- improve mental health
There are various ways to combine weightlifting and cardio to find the sweet spot and make the most of a short workout. Two ways to do this are performing supersets and doing circuits.
Super-setting is a technique where one set of an exercise is performed immediately after one set of a different exercise. For example, a superset of dumbbell rows and lat pulldowns would look something like this:
Perform ten dumbbell row reps before immediately sitting down at the lat pulldown machine and performing ten reps. Rest for thirty seconds before performing the rotation two to three more times.
Circuits are a workout technique where each exercise is performed consecutively with little to no rest in between. The key is to design your circuit to include exercises with varying muscle groups to avoid excessive fatigue. For example:
Perform fifteen reps of each exercise, in this order, without resting: shoulder raises, squats, tricep extensions, deadlifts, bicep curls, calf raises, bent-over rows, and crunches. Rest for thirty to sixty seconds before repeating the circuit two more times.
How to Fit in Both Cardio Workouts and Weightlifting
Whether you’re a beginner or you already have a workout plan you like, changing your routine to squeeze in more exercise can be intimidating and feel impossible. There are many ways to maximize your efficiency. Consider these options that are all one hour or less per workout:
- Five days a week, perform a thirty-minute cardio workout. Two to five of those days add thirty minutes of weightlifting.
- Five days a week, perform a thirty-to-sixty-minute circuit to combine a cardio workout with weightlifting.
- Three days a week, perform a fifty-minute cardio workout. Three days a week, perform thirty to sixty minutes of weightlifting.
There are endless possibilities and ways to make it work. Sometimes it takes rearranging and starting your schedule from scratch to realize you really do have time.
Should I do Cardio Before or After Weights?
So, you’ve strayed from your old cardio vs. weights ways, and now you’re convinced that cross-training can help you achieve your goals while also cutting back on the annoying parts about each kind of exercise. Now you need to know—should I be doing cardio before or after weights?
Unfortunately, this is another question with multiple answers. Most depend on your goals. If your focus is on cardio, you should perform the cardio workout first. If your most interested in weightlifting, perform that first. Here’s why.
Cardio Workouts Before Weightlifting
If you’re trying to reach cardio goals like running for ninety minutes or improving your mile time, enter these workouts fresh. Lifting weights fatigues your muscles, and you might feel tired quickly when you start running.
Even if your emphasis is not on cardio, you still might want to do your cardio before lifting weights because it is an excellent way to warm up your muscles and increase your heart rate before you get to lifting. (Hint: warming up should be the first thing you do, regardless of what workout comes first.)
Weightlifting Before Cardio Workouts
If lifting as heavy as you can is the goal, you might want to get your lift over with before you move on to doing a cardio workout. That’s because you don’t want your muscles to be fatigued from a run before trying to achieve a personal record.
A Note about Core Workouts
When talking about lifting and cardio, it’s worth noting that including core workouts is essential for your overall fitness and functionality. You can fit core work into your workouts however you see fit, and you can add it after any workout.
Do your core workout after your weightlifting or cardio workout because your core integrity is critical to your form, whether you’re running or lifting. Exercising with a fatigued core might increase your risk of injury because your form is compromised.
The question of what’s better, cardio vs. weights, is as old as it is widely debated. Answers vary based on an individual’s goals, but often, the quickest way to achieve and maintain fitness goals is through a combination of weightlifting and cardio workouts.