Weights or cardio for fat loss:  which is better?

Short answer?  Weights.  Long version:  read on.

Last week, I invited readers to send me their top 5 fitness and fat loss questions.

I received an avalanche of incredibly good, well thought-out questions (thank you!) and am going to respond to one of the most common today.

“Deana” asks:

Is it better to lift weights or cardio for Fat burning?

Great question Deana and one that surfaces frequently.  With so many trends coming and going in fitness, we can be left scratching our heads wondering which way is up!  And the same is true of the the old “cardio vs. weights” for fat burning question.

Intensity is Queen of the Prom:  Remember EPOC

lani_weightsBefore we go any further, remember that what you want to focus upon most focus is intensity when it comes to fat loss.

EPOC, or excessive – post – exercise – oxygen consumption, is the situation which we want to create to maximize calorie burn, which can translate into fat burning, provided we are keeping mindful of the overall energy balance with caloric intake. (See EPOC parts 1 and 2 for more information and background).

Simply put, EPOC represents the oxygen consumption the body uses to return to its pre-exercise state.  It uses a certain degree of oxygen in the recovery process.  Thus the term “post – exercise oxygen consumption”.

There are many physiological mechanisms and processes that are responsible for an increased metabolic rate following exercise.

These include:

1) oxygen replenishment,

2) phosphagen (ATP-PC) resynthesis (fancy speak for part of the fueling process),

3)  removal of lactic acid, increased circulation of the blood, and

4)  deeper breathing (greater oxygen consumption)

Long short, when looking to increase our calorie deficit through the use of exercise, it is not the calories burned during the exercise that matter so much as those burned post-exercise session.

Let me give you an example. Have you ever jogged for 30 minutes?  Yes, it was challenging, you got some good cardiovascular training in, and your leg muscles, back, abdominals were challenged, and to some degree the upper body as well.

Now let me ask you a similar question.  Have you ever sprinted – run as hard as you could?  How long could you do that before your muscles burned too much to continue, you ran out of air – essentially, all was spent?

Not near as long as the jog.  But the sprint is what delivers an “afterburn” or EPOC effect far superior to the slow jog –

Which workouts do you do that give you the biggest challenge?  By challenge, I mean that which gives you muscle – burning, push-to-the-limit intensity.  There are several reasons for this providing the best return in calorie demand.

And what does a sprinter’s body look like?  Lean and well-muscled.

Weights Or Cardio?

With the above as background, let’s get back to get back to the heart of Deana’s question.  As you can see, I find it best answered within the context of the initial portions of my response.

Weight training creates a higher intensity demand on the body than does traditional long-slow distance “cardio”. This is evidenced in the fact that you can keep one sustained far longer than the other.  If you are really challenging the body with resistance, and taking the shortest rest stops you can for recovery, you will place a deeper workload on the body that you will with 45 minutes on the moderately paced treadmill or jog.

As you  have probably already figured out, if you really step up the intensity on the cardio so that you cannot sustain it as long – which is what you do with interval training – then you have crossed over into the EPOC threshold and created a deeper demand for the after effect.

At the same time, weight training will allow you to gain muscle mass slowly over time, which translates to a higher resting metabolic rate.   This is to your advantage when it comes to burning calories.

My Recommendations

First: If you want to optimize your ability to reduce body fat stores, the first thing you need to do is look at your nutrition.  Remember,  You Can’t Outtrain a Bad Diet.  See also “It’s The Calories, Honey!”

Next, create a workout schedule that makes you work hard and challenge your muscles.  Look for the indicators:  deep demand to the musculature, lactic acid buildup (“the burn”), and an increase in oxygen demand.  And remember that training with weights is one form of resistance training;  other techniques using the body as weight can do this for you as well.

You can use a very successful combination of resistance training and interval training, which is short-burst cardio for optimal EPOC impact and your best shot at muscle building as well as human growth hormone release, which is another important element in optimizing your weight and fat loss quest.  And remember that weight training is one form of resistance training;you can also create resistance with the use of your body weight.  Either way, the demand must be powerful enough to elicit the intensity responses that I’ve described above.

What If You Had To Pick One?

If you had to pick one over the other for increase the energy demand toward your goals of weight (fat) loss, resistance exercise would take the prize every time.

© Lani Muelrath 2009 All Rights Reserved

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