Figuring out the most effect exercise program for the goal of losing body fat can be challenging. The first step is knowing why the body makes fat, understanding how the body gets rid of fat, and that you can’t target specific areas to lose fat. After that, it’s time to make a plan and get started moving. In terms of the best way to get rid of that fat, there is a ton of conflicting information on which is the best route for fat loss: Cardio or Strength Training. Each style has its own benefits and drawbacks in the quest for getting rid of fat.
Cardio is Better
Cardiovascular workouts such as running and cycling may intuitively seem like the best exercise style for fat loss. We usually think of cardio as burning the most calories, and more calories burned by exercise should mean more weight loss.
In terms of calories burned during the exercise itself, cardio definitely has an advantage. Cardio workouts can be broken down into two main types: Steady State and High Intensity.
Steady state cardio exercises are usually of moderate speed and intensity, and are longer in duration, and work on improving endurance. This includes walking and jogging on treadmills, elliptical and arc trainer workouts, low resistance cycling, and others.
High intensity cardio would be of a higher speed, intensity, and resistance, but lasting for shorter time periods. By increasing the intensity, the same amount of calories can be burned in much less time.
Steady state cardio workouts can burn a significant number of calories, if you stay on them for long enough time, but that is basically where the benefits for fat loss end. Personally, if you can do a workout for an hour straight and barely break a sweat, it’s not the best workout for you.
Hopping on the elliptical and reading a book can be a great way to get some low-key steady-state exercise, and build up long lasting healthy habits. But it probably isn’t going to be effective to burn off a whole lot of extra fat. A shorter and higher intensity session is going to give you more bang for your time, you’ll feel pretty awesome after.
Strength Training is Better
Most people think that weight lifting doesn’t burn as many calories, and can’t possibly lead to the amount of fat loss that we want. While it’s true that you won’t burn that many calories during the strength training routine itself, the benefits of resistance based workouts don’t stop there. Strength training’s impact on fat loss happens after the session is over.
By performing resistance-based exercise, strength training can work improve long term fat burning by increasing muscle mass. Having more muscle mass can lead to an increase in Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). And if you want to build more muscle mass, remember, don’t slam those weights! This means that your body will continually burn more calories throughout the day, and not just for the first day or two after a session. This is beneficial for fat loss because the body continues to tap further into its energy stores of fat, even while at rest.
Up to 36 hours after completing a strength training workout, the body experiences a metabolic spike, and continues to burn calories as the body rests. While it may not be a large number of calories, even a small amount adds up over the days, weeks, and months, if your routine is consistent. And of course, these are extra calories that your body is burning on its own, without additional exercise time: free calories! While this also does happen to a small extent with steady state cardio, you would have to put in more time at a higher intensity to get a similar result.
One potential downside of using strength training for fat loss is that it may be harder to tell if it’s working. As you’re losing fat through weight training, you’re also gaining muscle mass. It’s important to remember that with this strategy, the scale may not be your friend. Muscle is denser so if you took an equal size of both, muscle ends up weighing more than fat. If you’re only relying on a scale and your total weight to tell if you’re losing fat, you may want to look into other methods of tracking your progress.
The Answer is Both
Because everyone is different, biologically and in terms of what you like, there really isn’t one perfect or definitive way to lose fat. Incorporating a combination of cardio and strength into your program, and even into the same workout, seems to be the best way to stay healthy, and keep a balanced weight. Trying out something like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can unlock the best of each.
Biking is Really the Best Exercise
In the words of a trainer friend and colleague of mine, the great Michael T. Williams, “Have you ever seen a fat guy on a bike? No.”
For my clients that ask me for just one exercise to do to lose weight, I generally recommend the bike. Whether you’re taking a spin class, biking outdoors, or trucking away on a standard exercise bike in the gym, biking is the best of both world. You can turn up the intensity by increasing the resistance and by speeding up. Turning that dial to raise the resistance simulates hills, and acts as strength training to help build muscle. Picking up the pace brings you into that higher intensity cardio zone and raises your heart and breathing rates.
Just Do Something!
But don’t just trust me. Everyone is different and reacts to food and exercise in varied ways. Try out several programs and routines, and find what works best for you, your body, and your goals. And don’t forget, health and fitness does not exist in a vacuum. Everything you do and eat affects you, so make sure you’re also eating well and having fun along the way!