Weights vs. cardio: Your guide to the perfect body

Written by mike robertson
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Dispel the cardio myth and lose fat with strength training

Weights vs. cardio: Your guide to the perfect body
You might think cardio is your only path to a lean body, but don't leave the weights behind--they're a key component to trimming fat. (BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images)
— Alwyn Cosgrove, fitness expert and author

You run and you run, and you don't shed a pound. It's one of the leading emotional pain points for people who exercise. All of that effort and so little reward, but why is that? Simple: Cardio is not the fastest way to lose weight, and it's certainly not the only way. There is a solution, though, which will allow you to spend less time in the gym and see even better results.

You've heard: You can't burn fat with strength training

Far too many people are focused on how many calories they burn while they’re in the gym, but this is shortsighted.

Stop focusing on how many calories you burn in the gym and instead focus on how your body expends calories outside the gym. You burn calories throughout the day regardless of what you are doing, but exercise helps increase the rate at which you burn those calories. With most forms of traditional steady-state cardio, you expend calories while you’re exercising, but once you stop, you quickly go back to your normal metabolic rate.

Strength training, however, builds muscle, and more muscle helps you burn more calories -- even when you’re doing nothing but sitting on the sofa.

"Strength training is a critical component of any program than emphasises long-term fat loss," said Alwyn Cosgrove, co-author of the book "The New Rules of Lifting." Think of it like this: Muscles are “thirsty” from a metabolic perspective. The more muscle you have, the more fuel you are constantly burning. This is the advantage strength training offers if your goal is to lean out. A treadmill or cross-trainer is often seen as the quick fix to shed body fat, and they are certainly useful if your goal is to improve cardiovascular health, endurance or simply to burn some extra calories, but strength training is a powerful ally."

You've heard: Resistance training makes women bulky

This myth just won’t die and, unfortunately, it’s horribly misguided.

And to prove it, just go to any muscle gym in the country and see how many 12 stone men with pencil-thin arms and a beer gut are in the gym multiple days a week, trying to get “big” or “huge.”

Clearly something isn’t working. It takes a lot of work both in and out of the gym to get big or bulky. You not only need to be dedicated to your training, but you need proper nutrition if you’re serious about putting on size.

"There is a big misconception about what causes bulk. Bulk isn't muscle; it is muscle covered by fat," said Mike Roussell, author and nutritional consultant. "So if you feel that you are too bulky, then it is important to fine-tune your diet to lose the excess fat -- not give up weight training."

Women have a distinct disadvantage if the goal is to put on size. They have about one-tenth the testosterone of males, and testosterone is a key component in the muscle-building process. So even if you’re working out just as hard as a man, lifting the same amount of weight and gorging on calories, you still won’t see the same results with regard to muscle building.

Women can, though, build muscles. Instead of big and bulky, they will be the type of long and lean muscles many women desire.

You’ve heard: Weight training limits athleticism

If your goal is to move and look like the Hulk, then feel free to continue performing body-part splits and hitting every machine in the gym. Those machines have their place, but they are not indicative of every weight-training routine.

If your goal is to look, move and feel like an athlete, you need a different approach. "Elite athletes need their body to function as an efficient unit. Splitting the body into parts like legs, chest, back and biceps will not meet that goal," said Wil Fleming, performance coach. "Instead, focus on big-bang movements that utilise multiple muscle groups -- both the prime movers and the smaller stabilisers."

The premise here is simple: Stop isolating body parts and pumping away mindlessly on the machines. Focus on big-bang, compound, multi-joint exercises. Hire a trainer or coach and learn how to squat, deadlift, chin and overhead press safely and effectively.

The only reason your athleticism will be limited in the gym is if you follow an ineffective program or one that’s designed for “show” versus “go.”

You’ve heard: Running is the best way to get fit

It’s not that running as an exercise is bad, but it puts a fair amount of stress on your muscles and joints. Recreational runners can have injuries caused by weakness in the core and hip-stabilising muscles. The better plan is to take time to develop the muscles of your core and hips first instead of jumping off the couch and running three miles.

For the hip stabilisers, start off with basic single-leg exercises like split-squats, lunges and step-ups. For the core, exercises like front planks, side planks and bird dogs will help get you stronger and more stable, making you much less likely to injure yourself when you do decide to run that 5K.

Some people need activities that are a bit more joint-friendly, as the pounding caused by running on a treadmill or pavement is simply too much. If you like more traditional options, a dual-action exercise bike or rower will not only engage a ton of muscles, but take some of the stress off your joints as well.

If you want newer (and possibly more exciting) variations, consider kettlebell swings, medicine ball or barbell circuits, Prowler pushes, or even battling rope variations.

There are many different ways to get into shape, and while running is great, it’s just one option you have at your disposal.

What we've said

Strength training can help you lose body fat and is likely a quicker ticket to better fitness than just plain cardio exercises. It also won’t limit your athleticism, but more likely improve it, and women can derive tremendous benefit from resistance training without getting bulky.

For those of you who like to run, it is one way to improve your fitness, but definitely not the only way. As with any program, though, you have to put in the work. It’s time to get into the gym.

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