Weight Training vs. Running: What's Really Better for Weight Loss?

Both running and weight training can help you reach your weight-loss goals.
Image Credit: VioletaStoimenova/iStock/GettyImages

Losing weight can be tough, no matter what tactics you're using to shed the pounds. It's only natural to want to know the best, safest, most efficient ways to see the numbers on the scale go down.

Plain and simple: Weight loss happens when you burn a greater number of calories than you take in. This forces your body to break down and use the extra fat you're carrying, which results in dropping pounds. That means you want to burn the max amount of calories efficiently, in a smart, responsible way. (And be smart about the calories you're taking in, too!)

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There's long been debate over whether cardiovascular exercise — such as running — is more effective than strength training when it comes to weight loss. Right off the bat, the instantaneous calorie burn from running is greater than that of weight training. However, the answer to which is better for long-term weight loss isn't so simple.

Read more: Discover Your Ultimate Weight-Loss Workout Plan

Creating a Calorie Deficit

The number of calories you burn every day includes how many you shed through physical activity, as well as what's called your metabolic rate, or the calories your body requires to function. Generally speaking, you're going to want to burn 500 to 1,000 more calories than you take in every day to safely lose 1 to 2 pounds a week, which is called a calorie deficit.

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To support your weight-loss goals, you'll need to make adjustments to increase both calories burned through exercise and your metabolic rate.

Running for Weight Loss

Running allows you to burn a significantly high number of calories very quickly. "If you're running consistently for a half hour, that's 30 minutes of straight activity," says Duane Carlisle, strength and conditioning coach for RSP Nutrition. Depending on the intensity and mileage of the run, you burn calories long after a run, too.

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The exact number of calories running will burn depends on a few factors, including your body weight, your pace and the incline of your miles. According to MyPlate, a 150-pound man will burn about 590 calories in 60 minutes jogging at 5 mph.

Weight Training for Weight Loss

Lifting weights doesn't burn as many calories as running while you're participating in the workout. "If you're doing traditional weight training (not circuit training), you're spending some time lifting and then resting between sets," Carlisle points out. "The average output per minute will be less than if you were doing constant activity," like running. According to MyPlate, a 150-pound man burns 220 calories in 60 minutes of light weight training and 440 calories during an intense session.

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But building more lean muscle means you'll burn a greater number of calories throughout the day, even after your workout is long over, because it takes more calories to maintain muscle tissue, according to the American Council on Exercise. As a result, you increase your metabolic rate and burn a greater number of calories even when you're resting. For example, 10 pounds of muscle burns 50 calories a day, whereas the same amount of fat burns 20 calories a day, Christopher Wharton, PhD, certified personal trainer and professor at Arizona State University, previously told LIVESTRONG.com.

"That means as you're replacing fat with muscle, that tissue is burning calories at two-and-a-half times the rate it was when it was fat," Carlisle says.

Read more: How Fast Can You Lose Weight by Weightlifting?

And the Winner Is...

If you look at the numbers, running is a more effective workout than weightlifting when it comes to calories burned per minute. However, it's important to keep in mind that while running helps you burn more calories on the spot than pumping iron, you'll reap different long-term benefits.

For example, a July 2019 study published in JAMA Cardiology found that a type of fat — pericardial adipose tissue — decreased in patients who did weightlifting but not in those who worked on their endurance with aerobic exercise such as running. While the sample size of the study was small, experts found sufficient enough evidence to promote a combination of both endurance and weight training — and Carlisle agrees. To maximize weight loss, he suggests incorporating both into your workout. This way, you'll burn a high number of calories with running and speed up metabolic rate with weight training.

"You can mix and match each week, or even put some cardio and weights in the same session," he explains. Also, don't discount factoring in the level of enjoyment you get from each. "If you hate one or the other and aren't as likely to do it, then do the other! Doing something is better than doing nothing."

Read more: How to Lose Belly Fat With These 7 Cardio Workouts

Where to Start

If you're just kicking off a fitness routine, begin with three workouts per week, suggests Carlisle. "If you're starting from scratch, three sessions is enough to see results that will keep you motivated, especially in weeks two through four when it gets tough," he says. This format leaves you with more rest days than training days, so exercise will feel less overwhelming. But even less frequent workouts are still better than nothing. "If you go from doing nothing at all to even just one time per week, you'll still notice a difference."

As always, it's best for beginners to consult with a physician or a certified personal trainer to get recommendations tailored to you and your body. Once you set some goals, you've made the first step toward a healthier, happier lifestyle — whether you're a cardio fiend or a weight-room fanatic.

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