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Is it Better to Lift Weights or do Cardio to Lose Weight?

author image Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson is a personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise and has extensive experience working with clients as well as teaching. Thompson holds specializations in longevity nutrition and muscle management for runners. He began writing in 2004.
Is it Better to Lift Weights or do Cardio to Lose Weight?
Cardio and strength training both have fitness benefits. Photo Credit: 4774344sean/iStock/Getty Images

Fat loss is one of the most common reasons people exercise. It's no wonder that a hotly debated and studied topic is what form of exercise will help you lose the most weight. Generally, all exercise can be divided into two main categories: strength training -- with weightlifting as the most common form -- and cardio. Which form will make you lose the most weight is not an easy question to answer.

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Confusion Over Fat

Balance out your cardio exercises with weight lifting.
Balance out your cardio exercises with weight lifting. Photo Credit: fatchoi/iStock/Getty Images

When it comes to weight loss, a common source of confusion is the word "fat." It's important to note that there is a big difference between dietary fat and body fat. The fat that you eat, dietary fat, is burned as fuel while the fat that collects around your midsection is your body's way of storing all excess calories regardless of what food they come from. When you aren't exercising, your body operates on about a 50/50 split between carbs and fat. Cardio, however, makes your body burn more of that dietary fat. Frustratingly, this does not necessarily mean that you're losing more body fat.

The After-Burn Effect

Lifting weights will help you burn calories.
Lifting weights will help you burn calories. Photo Credit: Fuse/Fuse/Getty Images

It's true that you can burn excess calories, which will reduce your body fat, by going for a run -- but that effect only lasts for a few hours. Weightlifting, however, will force your body into a highly desirable state called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Sometimes called the after-burn effect, this refers to the fact that a well-designed weightlifting program will cause you to burn excess calories for up to 24 hours after your workout.

Cardio Style

Try high intensity interval training.
Try high intensity interval training. Photo Credit: Estudi M6/iStock/Getty Images

A major factor to consider when designing your cardiovascular program is exactly what type of cardio you'll be doing. The common steady-state cardio, running at the same pace for a prolonged period, may not be the best option. Instead, high intensity interval training, or HIIT, has become increasingly popular as a weight loss option. HIIT has the potential to not only burn more calories than steady-state but to do so in about half the time.

The Right Lifts

A young woman doing barbell squats.
A young woman doing barbell squats. Photo Credit: Antonio_Diaz/iStock/Getty Images

Not all weight lifts are created equal. If your goal is to lose weight, stick to large compound lifts like barbell squats. These exercises activate the most muscle fibers, which will make your body burn more calories for fuel, helping you get rid of that excess fat. Bench press, deadlifts and military press are also compound lifts that can jump-start your metabolism.

Finding the Balance

Exercise classes can help you switch up your routine.
Exercise classes can help you switch up your routine. Photo Credit: Mike Powell/Digital Vision/Getty Images

For maximum benefits, try to combine cardio and lifts by keeping your rests between sets to around a minute to keep your heart rate up. One way to do this is to use a circuit program. Chain several compound exercises together, hitting all major muscle groups, moving quickly between each.

Keep in mind, though, that lifting will not give you the heart-health benefits of cardiovascular training. Because of this, you may want to include both methods in your weekly routine. For example, you could lift Monday, Wednesday and Friday while running Tuesday and Thursday.

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