Cardio or weights for fat loss? If your primary goal is fat loss, shouldn’t you just focus on cardio and hold off on the weight training? And if they say you can’t gain muscle when you’re in a calorie deficit, why bother lifting at all – why not just follow your diet and do cardio and then start lifting later? This is a very common question and always an area of great confusion. I believe that’s because the answer is somewhat counter-intuitive…

It’s obvious that weight training helps build muscle, but most people don’t realize how much lifting helps to burn fat nor do they consider the huge list of fitness and health benefits that come from lifting.

Most people associate cardio with burning fat and weight lifting with building muscle, so if the goal is fat loss, on the surface it doesn’t seem like lifting weights would be the priority.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that you can’t gain maximum muscle when you’re in a calorie deficit, so many people wonder if lifting would be a complete waste of time when you’re dieting.

The truth is quite the opposite. Weight training is the best kind of training you can do when you’re dieting for fat loss.

Although you’re unlikely to build a lot of muscle when your calories are reduced below maintenance, the weight training is absolutely vital for keeping the muscle you already have.

Weight Training: Vital for Maintaining Muscle While Dieting

Without weight training, your risk of losing lean body mass while dieting in a deficit is greatly increased. If you lose muscle, your metabolic rate drops and this begins a downward spiral where your body composition actually gets worse and it gets harder and harder to continue losing more fat at the same rate.

Also, it’s important to know that it is possible to develop muscle when you’re in a calorie deficit for fat loss, you simply won’t gain muscle at the maximal rate, and you won’t gain muscular body weight – it requires a calorie surplus for that.

It’s very difficult to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, except for: 1. Beginners 2. People with good (mesomorph) genetics 3. People using enhancements 4. People who lost muscle and are just regaining it (muscle memory).

Furthermore, it usually requires a special type of “body recomposition” program where weight training is combined with a cyclical diet that alternates between short periods of calorie surplus and calorie deficit (not a continuous deficit). The net effect over an extended time is increased muscle and decreased fat.

But just because you’re unlikely to gain much muscle while pursuing fat loss – at least not muscular size or body weight, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be weight training.

By weight training during a fat loss program, you will develop muscle in the form of a harder, firmer, more shapely physique and you will avoid the dreaded “skinny-fat” syndrome that happens to so many people when all they do is diet and cardio or diet alone.

Assuming your goal is better body composition (less fat and more muscle), if you could only do one type of training, it should be weight training (or resistance training of some kind). Resistance training is the number one most important type of training for improving your body composition.

If your time is limited, the ideal strategy is to make weight training your first exercise priority, and fit in cardio as time allows, preferably intense cardio, which is the most time efficient. You would depend primarily on your nutrition to achieve the deficit for fat loss.

Weight Training Burns A Lot Of Calories! Calorie Burning = Fat Loss

Here’s what most people seeking fat loss don’t consider when they think about weight lifting: Cardio is not the only way to burn calories. All exercise burns calories, and the more intense the exercise, the more calories you burn in a given time. If weight training is intense and uses big muscle group compound exercises, it can burn a lot of calories – sometimes even more than cardio!

Moderate and intense cardio can burn a lot of calories as well, so both types of training – resistance training and cardio training – help burn fat.

You should stop thinking that only cardio is for fat loss and start thinking that burning calories is for fat loss.

Regardless of the type of exercise, if you burn more calories and that increases your calorie deficit, you will lose more fat.

The difference between cardio and weights is that weight training gives you many fitness and body composition benefits that cardio can’t.

Cardio does not help you retain your lean body mass; in fact too much cardio in a deficit with NO weight training can increase risk of muscle loss, so without weight training your body composition could get worse while dieting, not better.

It’s best to look at nutrition as the primary driver of fat loss. Weight training is the number one exercise priority, while cardio is second in importance. Adding cardio on top of a good nutrition and weight training program will increase your calorie deficit even more, so you could look at cardio as a “fat loss accelerator,” but not necessarily the main engine.

When you think about weight training, it will help you appreciate how beneficial it is when you look even beyond burning calories and building muscle and you learn and remember all of the benefits, both for improving body composition as well as fitness and overall well-being.

Body Composition Benefits of Weight Training:

  • Increases lean body mass
  • Improves your body shape and appearance, even if you don’t gain pounds of lean body mass
  • Makes your muscles “hard” (cardio and diet alone can give you a “skinny fat” body where you weigh less but your physique is soft and mushy)
  • Maintains lean body mass when you are eating in a deficit for fat loss
  • Decreases sarcopenia (loss of muscle that occurs automatically with age if you don’t counteract it)
  • Burns a lot of calories, especially if you use compound big muscle group exercises like squats, presses, deadlifts, lunges and rows, and keep rest periods brief
  • Increases metabolism acutely after the workout (most people believe the “afterburn” effect only comes from cardio, but weight training can also increase metabolism for hours after the workout)
  • Increases basal metabolism (if you gain a lot of lean body mass, this increases the calories you burn at rest)

Fitness and Health Benefits Of Weight Training:

  • Increased muscular strength
  • Increased strength of connective tissue and tendons
  • Resistance to injury (during sports, recreation and everyday living)
  • Increased bone density
  • Cardiovascular improvements – not only blood lipids but blood pressure improvements as well
  • Increased self confidence and self esteem
  • Improved quality of life and independence especially with age
  • Longer life
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Increased flexibility (weight training with a full range of motion makes you more flexible, not less. “muscle-bound” is a myth)

I’m sure the list of benefits could go on even further, this is just what I could think of off the top of my head.

Bottom line: Weight training and cardio training work well together for fat loss as well as all-around fitness and health, and the ideal program uses both.

But weight training is exercise priority number one, even when your primary goal is fat loss. Unless you’re training for endurance sports,never put cardio or aerobic training above weight training.

– Tom Venuto,

Author of Burn The Fat, Feed the Muscle.

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tomvenuto-blogAbout Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of Bodybuilders and Fitness Models and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution, which was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine, Muscle and Fitness Magazine, Ironman Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Sirius Satellite Radio, ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community for inspiration and transformation

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