Cardio/Endurance Strength Training

The Great Debate: Cardio or Weights?

Exercisers seem to fall into two distinct “camps” – the strength trainers and the cardio lovers. The strength trainers are pushing the free weights, resistance machines and barbells, whereas the cardio lovers are on their ellipticals, stair machines, and treadmills, and having fun in Zumba classes. So which is really better?

The answer is – both are important! Health and fitness are all about balance: a balanced diet, work vs. recovery, balanced expectations, and a balance of cardiovascular and strength training.

If you fall into one camp, it can be challenging to cross over – because of misguided information about what is most effective to achieve a particular fitness goal such as weight loss or muscular development, or just feeling out of your element with that “other” kind of exercise.

A balanced program of strength training and cardiovascular exercise is essential for overall health and longevity, but also specific fitness goals as well. Whether your goal is weight loss, or better yet, improvement in body composition (less fat, more muscle), or to complete an endurance event such as a 5k, 10K, marathon, triathlon or obstacle race, you’ll find that a balanced cardio and strength training program will get you there more efficiently and successfully.

Weight Loss/Body Composition

The number of calories you burn during exercise depends on your body weight and the overall intensity of the workout.

Cardio training burns more calories per session; but increases cortisol levels which can lead to retaining fat stores, especially in the mid-section, if you consistently overdo it.

While strength training burns fewer calories in a session of the same duration, you’ll burn more calories in the hours following a weight training session compared to a cardio workout. Some research has shown evidence of resting metabolism staying elevated for up to 38 hours after strength training, while no such increase occurred with cardio. Strength training also improves your body composition – meaning you’ll have more muscle tissue, and less body fat – which is far more important and realistic for your health and appearance than a number on the scale.

Cardiovascular Endurance

Clearly, if your goal is endurance (running, cycling, swimming, hiking, etc) cardio training is going to get you there. But even if you’re not training for a marathon, cardio is essential. It makes your heart stronger, so it doesn’t work as hard to produce each beat; it lowers blood pressure; lowers cholesterol; and produces greater lung capacity. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide – so do what you can to keep your heart healthy!

Why should you strength train if your goal is endurance? How about stronger muscles, tendons, and connective tissue, resulting in fewer overuse injuries and muscle strains (think shin splints, runners knee and hamstring strain). Not only that, but including strength training into a lifelong exercise routine will help you prevent many of the injuries associated with bone loss and muscle deterioration as your body ages.

So which should come first?

Ah, the age-old question…If I’m going to do my cardio and strength training on the same day, which should I do first?

Ideally, you should do cardio and strength on different days. This allows your muscles to recover and keeps your body “guessing” what it’ll be asked to do next. If you do need to fit both in on the same day, most experts advise that strength training should come first. The two theories behind this are:

  • If you do cardio first, you’ll use up much of the energy source needed for strength training, and this will over-fatigue your muscles so that lifting weights becomes harder and injury risk increases.
  • By performing strength training first, you’ll deplete stored carbohydrates in your muscles, thereby forcing your body to turn to stored fat for fuel during the cardio workout.

Nevertheless, there’s no concrete research proving these theories. Ultimately, it comes down to your own fitness goals. To get the most out of your workout, perform the exercise that is most important to your goals first, when you’re not as fatigued. If your goal is overall improvement, then just finish your workout with the type of exercise you like best.

Bottom line – it’s better to be consistent than stress over the few extra calories you might burn by doing each type of exercise in a particular order. Think about your goals and plan your workouts to reach them. You’ll be amazed at the results you’ll see when you combine both cardio and strength training in your routine!

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Beau Kjerulf Greer, Prawee Sirithienthad, Robert J. Moffatt, Richard T. Marcello & Lynn B. Panton. EPOC Comparison Between Isocaloric Bouts of Steady-State Aerobic, Intermittent Aerobic, and Resistance Training. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 2015 Volume 86, Issue 2, pp. 190-195.

Melby, C., Scholl, C. Edwards, G., Bullough R. Effect of Acute Resistance Exercise on Post Exercise Energy Expenditure and Resting Metabolic Rate. Journal of Applied Physiology,  01 October 1993.

Schuenke, M.D., Mikat, R.P. & McBride, J.M.  Effect of an Acute Period of Resistance Exercise on Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption: Implications for Body Mass Management. European Journal of Applied Physiology, March 2002, Volume 86, Issue 5, pp 411–417.

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