I seem to have this same discussion with women each week. Is cardio better for weight loss or is it resistance training?
First, let’s just clear something up, shall we?
I’m beginning to get tired of explaining ‘weight loss’ to women and what this actually means. So, for today’s discussion, let’s stick to the two common goals that I hear from women in terms that make more sense.
If you want to slim down and tone up, your goal should be ‘fat loss’. Possibly muscle building too, which is great.
If you want to maintain your weight and improve longevity, your goal is “health”.
Because ‘weight loss’ is often in opposition to ‘fat loss’ and toning. When you exercise for fat loss, chances are the scale won’t move BUT you’ll be wearing 1-2 sizes smaller in no time.
So, let’s ditch that generic, confusing term of ‘weight loss’!
If Your Goal Is “Fat Loss”
I have two very different schools of thought on this one, specifically because I’ve seen what happens to my own body and what happens to my various clients.
For years, we’ve been told that cardio is the ‘gold standard’ for fat loss. In fact, one study from Duke University found that when 119 sedentary individuals did cardio regularly for 8 months, they lost more weight than those doing resistance training or nothing.
Seems legit, right?
And, in fact, this is very common!
Cardio exercise is a great way to boost energy burn and, yes, fat loss…at first. If you’re starting from nothing, cardio is perfect.
However, as you continue to do only cardio, your body becomes more efficient at burning energy. Meaning, the more cardio you do, the less energy you burn. Hence why so many people plateau on cardio-only programs.
For women who have done the cardo stint for a few months and have plateaued, it’s time to add in some serious resistance or strength training!
And THIS will boost your fat loss big time. But, be warned, while your clothes will fit a lot better, your weight will increase slightly. Do NOT be alarmed! Pay attention to your measurements and the feel of your clothes.
In fact, just go ahead and toss out that scale. It is doing nothing but making us feel bad about our bodies when they’re these strong, fierce entities that keep us doing things we love.
If Your Goal Is Maintenance and/or Health
This is where it gets fun! At least in my opinion.
Now your body is healthy, and you’re at that point where you’re happy with things. Now is not the time to stop exercising. It is time to switch things up!
For fat loss maintenance and longevity, cardio plays less of a role. If you started from nothing (sedentary) and moved through to boosting fat loss after a plateau, you’re kind of already here.
For this goal, cardio 2-3 times a week is great but it doesn’t have to be full out crazy cardio! Do anything that gets your heart rate up. Go for a long, brisk walk. Try cross country skiing. Ride a bike.
But, most importantly, keep strengthening your muscles. I strongly suggest slowly increasing the weight you lift. This is one of the best ways to keep your insulin levels low, use up extra energy, and build strong bones and muscles. You need all this as you get older to stay healthy.
How you fuel your body matters too.
The more cardio you’re doing, the more healthy carbs you’ll need to eat. This doesn’t mean big Subway sandwiches or a lot of pizza or pasta. It just means ensuring that you fuel your muscles with enough glucose from good quality carbohydrates to sustain your workout.
Choose sweet potatoes, gluten-free whole grains, carrots, beets or potatoes. Eat them 3-12 hours before a workout (12 if you work out first thing in the morning like me).
For fat loss, remember the 80/20 rule – 80% of your focus should be on good quality whole foods and 20% on exercise.
If strength is your game, carbohydrates matter less (but they still do matter so don’t drop yours too low!). You can fuel a strength or even HIIT workout with a high fat / low carb diet without a lot of issues. I strongly suggest you never drop your carb intake to below 15% of your daily diet, though. Muscles need glucose for fuel and your brain is strictly a glucose-burning machine.
How Often Should You Exercise
Honestly, there is no set-in-stone requirement. I highly advise my clients to be active every single day. Take active recovery days 1-2 times per week and go for a walk, swim, garden or play with your kids for an hour in the backyard. The rest of the week, vary your routine to make sure you’re hitting the cardio and strength training needs for your goal. And make sure to work each muscle group 2-3 times per week!
Journal of Applied Physiology, Dec 2012: Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults
Harvard Health Publishing: Want to live longer and better? Do strength training.
Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology: Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines
Harvard Health Publishing: 7 tips for a safe and successful strength training program