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Cardio vs Resistance Training: Which wins the Fat-Loss Battle?

Looking to maximise your fat-loss but not sure what is the most effective type of training? Team Grenade athlete and personal trainer, Vinny Russo, gives his opinion to help you reach your 2018 goals.

In terms of losing body fat, which form of exercise (cardio or resistance training) holds the upper hand? They both have their benefits, as with both cardio and resistance training combined, you will increase your lung and heart strength, your overall body strength, reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, reduce stress, burn body fat, improve your hormonal profile, improve your ability to recover, etc. just to say a few. But which one is OPTIMAL for overall body fat loss and staying lean? My answer, which I will thoroughly explain, is RESISTANCE TRAINING!

Look, cardio is a great way to burn some calories and is needed in the overall fat loss scheme, but should be performed at a MINIMUM. Cardio is an aerobic exercise that reduces body fat as well as muscle mass. When you lose muscle mass, your natural BMR (basal metabolic rate) slows down. Once this happens, this means your body will burn fewer calories at rest and per day.  See, the amount of your lean body mass is directly correlated with how many calories you use up each day, and how lean you can ultimately become.

Cardio is a stress put on the body, and our bodies adapt to stress very efficiently. What does this mean? Well, let’s say you preform 30 minutes of cardio 3 times per week. At first, this is difficult, then as time goes on and you train at the level more and more, the body will slowly start to adapt to this specific stress and it will become easier to accomplish. When this happens, you basically become adapted to that stress you put on your body and you don’t get the same effect as you did when you initially started off. When you perform cardio religiously, your body will adapt to reserve as much energy as possible. When you become “conditioned” the only thing left to do is to add more cardio to see any form of further results. This process will continue as you adapt to the more time you put into your cardio, leaving you setting aside over an hour (plus) just to complete your cardio - Let me explain why this happens. It’s the same reason why drastic cuts in calories are never a good thing in terms of dieting. As your body adapts to reserve calories, it suppresses your metabolism. For those of you who like to run for hours on end, here is the energy adaption response to cardio: The body over time will adapt and become more fuel efficient.  It will learn to burn the fewest amount of calories possible in an attempt to be successful (success = being able to run further and longer on as few of calories as possible).

With long distance running, fat becomes the major source of energy, so your body will become extremely good at figuring out how to store and hold onto body fat. Now if you were told to stop cardio completely, you may say “Hey, doesn’t this mean I will be burning less calories per day, which in turn means I will gain fat?” The answer is no, as your body will have already downgraded its metabolism, so it’s burning fewer calories per day then you actually think it is. The only way to get your metabolism back would be to get it acclimated to a higher caloric intake by feeding it with more food (more calories in) and cutting cardio out (less calories out). Once this takes place and you get back to a maintenance, you can manipulate food intake to help you lose body fat and implement an effective training schedule that will add lean muscle to your body. This leads me to why you should choose resistance training over cardio if looking to burn body fat.

In my opinion, a major facet in getting lean is by incorporating some form of resistance training to your life. This will help add lean muscle tissue to your body which will increase your overall metabolism. How does adding muscle to your frame lead to having an upgraded metabolism? Well, the more muscle you have on your body, the more metabolically active your body becomes. This means that more calories are burned per day due to the extra muscle mass. In layman terms, the more lean muscle you have on your body, the more calories your body burns by doing nothing! Muscles eat up calories as they are very active and need the calories to keep the tissue active. So if you have more lean muscle on your body, then you will actually need to eat more food to keep the newly acquired muscle mass. Yes, this means with a higher caloric intake, you can enjoy those foods you have been staying away from as they normally would put you over your daily caloric limit. Resistance training helps with this as it upgrades your metabolism by literally adding more muscle to your body. When you resistance train, your body realizes it needs to be bigger, stronger, and the muscles need more of the fibers to compensate for the STRESS put on via the weight-bearing movements. The body’s adaptation to this stress is to add more muscle mass to your body. Another benefit to having more muscle mass is that you are expending energy (calories) during the weight training, you are getting the benefits you would from cardio as you heart rate is increased and your body uses calories to help the muscle recovery from the workout (basically its cost the body energy to repair itself).

In the overall scheme of things, you need to do what you love to do. I’m not writing this article to influence you to change your life or to persuade you to abandon cardio completely and just “pick up weights and put them down.” If you love to run hours on end, then by all means, keep doing your thing. This is just my view on which form of exercise is most effective for fat loss. Like stated before, they both have their benefits, both are great for your overall health, and they should be used as tools in your life, not as necessities. You don’t have to choose one over the other, I know I don’t! I do more resistance training than cardio, but still use cardio as a tool in terms of the goal I am looking to accomplish. You too are able utilize both to reap the benefits of each, you just need to be smart in the way you go about programming them.

Please just do me one favour if you choose to incorporate both. Refrain from doing cardio before you weight train! Excessive Cardio before you weight train has to be one of the most counter-productive situations you can put yourself into. If you want to use a spin bike or a light jog to warm up the body and get the blood flowing for a few minutes, that’s perfectly acceptable. But to engage in a 40 minute low-intensity, steady-state cardio session, or do your high intense interval cardio before you weight train leaves me at a loss for words.

Here’s the question I would like to ask those of you who choose to do this. Why would you want to deplete your glycogen levels and fatigue your body before you actually weight train? The reason why I ask that specific question is because when you do extensive cardio before weight training, less weight will be used per exercise, which means your maximum output/effort is not up to its potential. Isn’t the purpose of training with weights to progress and get stronger and push more weight or do more reps? Just ask yourself, “Why would you want to deplete your glycogen levels BEFORE you try to build lean muscle tissue?” When you weight train, your body will use up the glycogen you have stored for energy. This will aid in increasing the volume and intensity of your workout by providing the body with the energy to do so. The more weight you can push/the more reps you do/the more intense the workout is, the more you will benefit from the workout. When people choose to do their cardio beforehand, they deplete the glycogen they have stored. If for some reason this is the only time you have in your day to do your cardio, then I would leave cardio out and add more intensity and less rest time while resistance training. By increasing the intensity, and decreasing the time-in-between set, this can be considered a cardio session of its own. Instead, preform your cardio on a day of its own, very early in the morning so you have time to fuel up before you train in the gym later on in the day, or preform it AFTER you weight train so you use that stored glycogen for the resistance to ensure 100% intensity to build the desired lean muscle tissue.