So you’re getting started with your fitness routine and are feeling confident, excited, and possibly just a wee bit nervous over it all. This is all new to you and while you do feel intimidated, you’re certainly not going to let that stop you from moving forward.
But you keep going back to the same question over again: should you be focusing more on cardio training or strength training?
If your primary goal is to tone up and lose fat, you probably naturally gravitate towards cardio training. This is what many women do as they believe that cardio training = calorie burning and weight lifting = muscle building.
Since muscle building is not what they’re after, that leaves cardio training, right?
The fact is, as you’re about to see, weight training otherwise known as strength training is actually the best form of exercise you could be doing.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading. I’m going to prove it to you.
But First…Getting Past The Fear
Before I begin even discussing the benefits of strength training over cardio training with you, I want to first address this underlying fear that many women have. It’s the fear that prevents them from walking into the free weight section and picking up a weight (well, apart from having those beefy burly guys surrounding them in some cases!).
That fear is the bulk.
Ask any woman on the street what she thinks will happen if she lifts heavy free weights and she’ll probably tell you that she’ll start to get bulky and look more manly.
This is the number one belief that many women have and sadly, it’s completely incorrect. Some of you reading this right now may have already done your research and realize that this isn’t the case. If so, great news for you – you’re one step ahead of the game.
For the rest of you, I want you to remember one key factor: you have a miniscule amount of testosterone compared to a man.
This makes all the difference in the world. If the truth be told, most men don’t build muscle ‘easily’. While the odd ones will without a doubt, most have to work hard. They’re in the gym4-5 days per week while also ensuring they are eating a very high calorie diet to match this.
For a woman to build bulky muscles… it’s darn well near impossible. You just don’t possess the hormonal environment to support that large of muscle mass gains in a short time frame.
If you ever see a woman walking around that looks a little manly or bulky, there’s a good chance that she’s spent years working hard at her body and has basically dedicated her life to it. She eats high calorie foods (then likely goes through periods of ‘cutting’ aka fat loss’) and this is something that most women just never even think about doing. Could you purposely think about overeating 500 calories a day to gain weight?
Didn’t think so. But if you want lots of muscle as a woman, it would be a necessity.
So put the fears of getting bulky muscles to rest. I promise you that you could lift the heaviest weight that you could muster up and you would not be seeing your muscles grow quickly in a week’s time. It takes years. You are always in complete control. If you ever noticed you were getting a little too muscular for your preference, it’s easy, just slow down on the weights. Eat a few less calories and your problem is solved.
Believe me when is say challenging yourself and lifting heavier weights is what you want to be doing.
Weight Lifting Versus Cardio Training: Metabolic Advantages
The first thing you’ll want to look at when comparing the two training modalities is how weight lifting impacts your metabolic rate. When it comes to seeing progress, your metabolism is everything. While you will burn calories exercising and those are still important, if your workout actually helps boost your metabolic rate so you burn more calories all day long, that is where the real gold is.
This is precisely what weight lifting helps you do. Now, don’t get me wrong. If you do high-intensity interval cardio sprint training, you will receive a similar effect. So it’s not that you can’t get this benefit from cardio training, you just need to know how to structure your workout accordingly in order to get this benefit.
If you’re currently doing those slow, steady-state sessions where you just go at one pace for the full dreaded hour, you aren’t doing much for your metabolic rate. As soon as you step off the piece of cardio equipment, your metabolism is going to revert right back to normal again.
Because weight lifting can be such an intense form of exercise and you are creating those tiny microtears in the muscle tissues, this means that it’s going to take extra energy to rebuild those tissues back up, thus the repair process (which happens over the coming 24-48 hours) has you burning up calories faster and seeing those better results1.
Weight Lifting Versus Cardio Training: Cardiovascular Conditioning
One question you might be saying those are ‘what about heart health?’
If you are someone who has the goal of boosting your cardio fitness – of not being so winded when you walk up the stairs – you might think that doing cardio training is a must. You just won’t see those benefits from weight lifting.
Ahh, but you will! Here’s the real deal: structure your weight lifting workouts in such a way that you quickly move from one exercise to the next without too much rest in between and you’ve got an interval cardio session on your hands.
If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to do this. Find a large room and perform walking lunges all the way across the room. Once you’re at the end, rest for 30 seconds and then lunge back again. Do this five times.
Now see if you aren’t gasping for air and feeling like that was one of the hardest cardio workouts of your life.
The truth is that you can most certainly reap great cardiovascular benefits2 from doing strength training – just as good as you can from cardio training so put this notion to rest. You don’t need cardio training. All of you cardio addicts out there who secretly hate doing it can rejoice as I just gave you permission to stop.
Weight Lifting Versus Cardio Training: Long-Term Fat Loss Results
Since most of you reading this are here for one thing and that is fat loss, it’s imperative we talk about the long-term fat loss results factor.
The good news is that strength training is not only going to help you lose weight faster, but it’ll also help you keep the weight off better as well.
When you do cardio training (and remember, I’m talking traditional steady-state cardio training here for the most part), you’ll burn calories while you’re doing that training. These extra calories can go on to help you lose bodyweight for sure. They create a calorie deficit and a calorie deficit is what you need to see long-term results.
This said if you want to keep maintaining that calorie deficit, you need to keep doing that cardio. So consider it a lifelong thing you’ll need to be doing. If you do reach your goal body weight, you’ll then have a choice of either cutting back on your food intake compared to what you were eating previously (which caused you to gain weight), or keep doing that cardio training so you can eat a bit more food and burn more calories.
On the flip side, weight lifting works a bit different. We already spoke about how weight lifting will help boost your resting metabolic rate for 24-48 hours after you do it. What we haven’t discussed though is the fact that weight lifting can also cause you to permanently burn more calories3.
If you are able to build a few pounds of muscle mass, this muscle mass tissue will now become very metabolically active, helping you raise your resting metabolic rate permanently (or, for however long you maintain the muscle).
So if you, for example, lost 20 pounds of fat and gained 15 pounds of muscle over two years of your training program, you’d end up with a daily calorie expenditure (resting metabolic rate) that is much faster overall. This allows you to eat more food each day without risking weight gain.
Ever wonder why some men can eat so much and not gain weight? It’s because they have that higher level of lean muscle mass tissue.
Weight Lifting Versus Cardio Training: The Boredom Factor
Let’s talk boredom. If you’re doing steady-state cardio training, you probably know all about this. Clock watching until your time is up – does that describe you?
While there are certain things you can do to make cardio training more interesting, for the most part, it is relatively boring. This doesn’t bode well for long-term adherence.
The real secret to getting in shape and looking great is adherence. You can have the best workout program in the world, but if you don’t do that workout program regularly, you aren’t going to be seeing very good results.
So boredom is an important factor to consider. If you’re always bored, this is not a good equation.
With strength training, the possibilities are literally endless. There are just so many ways that you can structure your strength training program that there is no reason you should ever feel bored. If you keep it constantly changing, you’ll always be doing new and interesting things and this will only make you want to stick with it and keep coming back for more.
Even if right now you feel like you aren’t interested in strength training, it may just be because you haven’t found the right mix of exercises to perform. There are so many different exercises out there so don’t give up hope. Consult with a personal trainer if needed who can show you the ropes and help you find a training plan that is right for you.
Weight Lifting Versus Cardio Training: A Model Of Progression
Finally, it’s also important to consider progression. Nothing will crush your motivation in the gym faster than putting in the time and not seeing results. Yet sadly, this is what so many people are constantly doing.
They hit the gym daily and work hard, but come back week after week, not looking much different. This is especially typical of the so-called ‘cardio bunnies’.
In order to keep seeing results from your training program, you need to keep changing it up. You need to keep giving your body a reason to change, meaning you need to continually challenge it to do new things.
Weight lifting is what will help you with that. There are so many different variables you can alter:
- Exercises performed
- Weight lifted
- Number of sets performed
- Number of reps performed
- Amount of rest taken
- The tempo of the exercise
- Range of motion of the exercise
- Hand or foot position used during the exercise
- Type of external resistance utilized
- Set up of exercises within a workout routine (supersets, tri-sets, etc)
You have so many ways to add more challenge that this far outdoes that of cardio training, where you really only have increasing total time/distance or increasing speed. Eventually, those get old and you can’t increase either much more and that’s when you’re setting yourself up for the dreaded progress plateau.
So keep these points in mind and start putting more time in the weight lifting section of the gym and less time in on the cardio machines. While there is a time and place for cardio training if you really want it, you’ll simply get far more ‘bang for your buck’ spending that time doing weight lifting instead. Weight lifting is how you transform your body, not just become a smaller version of your current self.
Shannon Clark holds a degree in Exercise Science from the University of Alberta, where she specialized in Sports Performance and Psychology. In addition to her degree, she is an AFLCA certified personal trainer and has been working in the field for over 15 years now, and has helped others of all ages lose weight, build muscle, and improve their physical performance. She’s been featured in Bodybuilding.com, Muscle & Strength Hers and Oxygen magazine.