Whenever I start training someone, I always ask the same question:
“What are you currently doing for exercise?”
If weight loss is their goal, the answer remains the same: cardio. Whether it’s the elliptical, treadmill, or cycling, we go for the same default answers for our fat-burning needs. I’ve got an upcoming client right now that’s doing exactly that, devoting an hour to the elliptical multiple times per week.
Does it work, though? Do those hours on the treadmill count for something in losing weight, or would it be better to pump weights, instead? Which approach can better help us burn the belly fat and fit into our skinny jeans? Let’s take a look and find out.
Cardio vs Weights: Which Burns Better Now?
During the actual workout, aerobic exercise wins out over weight training for calorie burning, hands down. I know that I burn 230 calories in 30 minutes on the elliptical, getting a good sweat in there. Not too shabby, right?
Here’s the thing, though: when cardio ends, so does the calorie burn. There’s no net gain on your body’s metabolism, which keeps that fat-burning engine going all the time. So that’s no bueno.
Weight training, on the other hand, can boost your body’s metabolism. Building larger muscles gives a slight boost to your metabolism, even burning fat (instead of carbs) as fuel (Source). Take that, treadmill!
Some sources also see strength training as a sign of other healthy habits. If someone lifts weights regularly, they’re also more likely to be active in daily life: taking the stairs at the office, going for walks on the weekends, and doing more heavy lifting around the house (Source). All of these things burn more calories than inactivity. Therefore, the weight-training people must be the better weight *loss* people, right?
The answer, of course, isn’t quite so cut and dry. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed a group of 162 middle-aged, overweight women for two years (Source). Half lifted weights twice a week, while the others read brochures about aerobic exercise. While the non-lifting women saw a 21 percent bump in belly fat during that time, the weight-lifting women also saw a rise in the same area (no pun intended). Both groups gained weight, even if they lifted weights!
This begs the question: if both cardio and weight training are insufficient for weight loss, what’s the solution to the weight problem?
The Best of Both Worlds
The answer, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is both. By alternating weight lifting sessions with aerobic exercise, you get the metabolism boost of bigger muscles with the calorie burn of regular cardio. A Korean study found that participants who followed this alternating pattern lost more abdominal fat than their cardio-only counterparts who also trained six days per week (Abstract). I employ the same strategy with my client Deborah, who’s seen a drop in inches around her midsection since we incorporated running with her weight lifting regimen.
I know what you’re thinking by now: exercise six days a week? That sounds intimidating as hell. You’re right, too. If I thought I’d had to go from zero exercise to six days a week in one go, I would’ve just stayed obese. Luckily, we’re going to start with something a bit easier to handle. Here’s what you do:
Start with adding one day of exercise a week. If you’re currently doing one day of cardio every week, add in a day of weight training or vice versa. Starting your workout routine from scratch? Do one day of each. Group exercise classes would be a great place to start, since the routine has already been planned for you.
Master this new exercise pattern for three weeks in a row, then add another day of exercise per week. After another month, add another day, then another, until you get to five or six days per week. Little by little, your body will change. Just keep on taking that next step (and eat right, too!).