What Burns More Calories: Cardio, Intervals, or Weight Training?

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Fat loss is at the front of everybody’s mind these days, even storm troopers.

Let’s say you want to lose weight, and you want to do so in the fastest way possible.  Is it hours on the treadmill?  Sprints up a hill?  Could it possibly be squats and bench presses?  I’m going to guess that you have assumptions on what might be best for you.  In today’s royal rumble, I’m going to break down the difference between these three contenders and let you know which will give you the most bang for your buck.  The results, which certainly aren’t unanimous, will surprise you…

Meet today’s contestants:

  • Cardio: Pretty much anything with relative low intensity that you can do for a prolonged period of time that elevates your heart rate.  Regular aerobics, going for a three mile jog, running on a treadmill for an hour, using the elliptical for twenty minutes, etc.
  • Interval Training: When you decide to run, bike, use the elliptical, etc. with varying rates of speed and intensity.  Sprinting for 30 seconds followed by 90 seconds of jogging, and repeating this cycle for 20-30 minutes.
  • Weight Training: Whenever you lift weights or do body weight exercises, often times in a cyclical nature.

There have been hundreds and hundreds of studies done on this stuff (yay for science), and it’s certainly something that I’ve put considerable time into researching as well as it’s my job to figure out how to get in shape most efficiently.  I will have a decision for you by the end of the battle.  However, before we get there, there’s ONE thing that needs to be made crystal-clear:

If you are interested in getting in shape, the MOST important thing you can do for yourself is adjusting your diet.

Your diet is responsible for 80-90% of your successes or failures.  As I’ve said previously, even if you spend ten hours a week exercising, that still leaves 168 hours for you to mess things up.  Doh.  If all you care about is losing weight, the fastest path to success is with a freaking kick-ass diet.  Keep your total number of calories under control, cut out the junk food, give up soda, and start eating REAL FOODS: veggies, fruits, and lean meats.

Got it? Good.

So you’re on board with the whole “eating right” thing (w00t), but you still want to exercise to burn more fat.  Let’s break down each competitor:


Cardio is the most basic thing you can do when it comes to burning calories. Let’s talk science: if you burn more calories than you consume in a day, you will lose weight.  Step on a treadmill, run three miles, and you’ll burn around 300 calories.  You don’t need any special weights, have extensive knowledge of any difficult exercises, just a pair of shoes (or a pair of Vibrams) and your legs.  This is why the majority of people who start exercising do so by just running a treadmill or elliptical for hours: it’s tough to mess up, and it’s pretty mindless.

Now, here’s my problem with cardio: it can be really boring!  Running outside is a different story, but I’d rather punch myself in the crotch than spend two hours on a treadmill.  Secondly, in terms of getting in shape, it’s definitely not the most efficient form of exercise.  Lastly, although it trains your heart to be in shape by remaining at a higher level of operation while exercising, it doesn’t train your heart to prepare for moments of extreme stress because it never really has to deal with rapid changes (explained in the next section).

So why isn’t cardio efficient when it comes to burning calories? There’s very little Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) with cardio, which means you only burn calories when running; not much happens afterwards.  If you want to read about how cardio doesn’t really burn any extra calories, you can read this fascinating article from NYT which is loaded with studies and references on the subject at hand.

What IS good about cardio? The thing about cardio that makes it better for almost everybody, other than it’s easy learning curve, is that it’s very low impact – your body can go for hours and hours, day after day, and not get worn out.  If you have the desire and willpower, you can burn calories all day long, like the guys in Born to Run.

High-Intensity Interval Training

When it comes to efficiency in burning calories, high-intensity training is leaps and bounds ahead of cardio.  Why is that?  EPOC, dude, EPOC!  That stuff I was talking about before.  Essentially, when you do high-intensity interval training (HIIT), your body and metabolism function at a higher rate of burned calories for hours and hours afterwards.  What does that mean? It means you’re burning calories while sitting on your ass playing Modern Warfare 2 or re-watching Lost Season 5 (not that I’m doing this currently, or anything like that).  You can read all about HIIT here.

So, how the hell does that work exactly?

HIIT constantly forces your heart to adjust to changing conditions: sprints, jogging, sprints, jogging, up hills, down hills, etc.  Your heart learns to operate outside of its norm, and your body learns to adapt to these changes.  All of this changing and sprinting kicks your metabolism into high gear for hours after you finish exercising.  To quote Mark’s Daily Apple, a site that I love:

A study (PDF) from the University of New South Wales followed the fitness and body composition changes in 45 overweight women in a 15-week period. The women were divided into two groups and assigned interval or continuous cycling routines. The interval “sprint” cycling group performed twenty minutes of exercise, which repeated eight seconds of “all out” cycling and then twelve seconds of light exercise. The continuous group exercised for 40 minutes at a consistent rate. At the end of the study, the women in the interval group had lost three times the body fat as the women in the continuous exercise group. (An interesting note: the interval group’s loss in body fat came mostly from the legs and buttocks area.)

Three times the amount of fat loss and half of the exercise time? Sounds good to me.  If you sift through the rest of Mark’s article, you’ll find reference after reference discussing the benefits of varying your speed and intensity over straight normal cardio.  Now, the bad thing about HIIT is that it takes your body quite a bit of time to recover, and you can really only do it for 20-30 minutes at a time before you get too exhausted to continue.  The other bad thing about HIIT?  Your body will hate you after just 20 minutes.

Weight Training

So if cardio is decent for burning calories while you exercise, and high intensity interval training is more effective because it burns calories both during and after exercise, where does weight training come in?  Alwyn Cosgrove, a fitness expert whose opinion I highly respect, wrote a great article discussing the Hierarchy of Weight Loss loaded with numerous studies highlighting the benefits of weight training in comparison to cardio.  This is the best part:

Overweight subjects were assigned to three groups: diet-only, diet plus aerobics, diet plus aerobics plus weights. The diet group lost 14.6 pounds of fat in 12 weeks. The aerobic group lost only one more pound (15.6 pounds) than the diet group (training was three times a week starting at 30 minutes and progressing to 50 minutes over the 12 weeks).

The weight training group lost 21.1 pounds of fat (44% and 35% more than diet and aerobic only groups respectively). Basically, the addition of aerobic training didn’t result in any real world significant fat loss over dieting alone.

Thirty-six sessions of up to 50 minutes is a lot of work for one additional pound of fat loss. However, the addition of resistance training greatly accelerated fat loss results.

These are the lessons I’d take from this: what you eat is the most important thing when it comes to weight loss, aerobic training helps but not nearly as much as you’d think, and weight training when combined with the two is the most effective method to dropping pounds.

Now, what kind of exercises are best suited for this type of weight training for weight loss?  According to Alwyn, exercises that recruit the largest number of muscles (squats, lunges, kettlebell swings, squat thrusts, burpees, inverted rows, pull ups, and push ups).  Do any of these exercises sound familiar? (cough, NF beginner body weight workout and NF advanced body weight workout, cough).  By doing these exercises in a circuit without stopping, keeping your rep ranges in the 8-12 range, your body will get a super workout, you will build muscle, and you’ll burn calories at an accelerated rate for reportedly up to 38 HOURS after your exercise.

Want some more literature about how weight lifting is better than intervals (and way better than cardio)? Check out Alwyn’s interview on the Death of Intervals over on Jason Ferruggia’s site.  When it comes to performance, these fitness guys are two of the best in the business: no bull****, just results.

Is it that cut and dry?

Nope. Sure, if you keep the variable time as a constant, like 30 minutes of exercise, doing “metabolic resistance training” (a fancy term for weight lifting circuits) burns more calories than high intensity interval training, which burns more calories than straight cardio.  However, due to the stressful nature of Weight Training and HIIT, you can really only do those activities for 30-45 minutes before your body gives up and needs a few days to recover.  Cardio doesn’t have as nearly as stressful an impact on your body, so you can go for hours and hours and hours and do it again the next day (provided your body is in shape).

Medhi over Stronglifts highlights this uber-important fact in a great post called Why HIIT Is NOT Better For Fat Loss.  Essentially, because you can only do so much HIIT or weight training, you can only burn so many calories before your body wears out.  If time isn’t a factor for you, and you don’t mind spending more time in the gym on a daily basis, you can burn way more calories doing steady cardio than with just 30 minutes of weight training three days a week.

Judge’s Verdict

My decision on what you should do certainly depends on your fitness level, how much time you can devote to exercise daily, and what you actually LIKE to do. Remember: above all else, your diet is king.  Eat poorly and none of the above matters.  Eat right, eat real foods, and exercise, and you’ll get better.  Here is my advice to you:

Do cardio if:

  • You really enjoy the treadmill or elliptical, or you just really like running
  • You have all the time in the world
  • You’re just getting started and don’t really know what you’re doing

Do HIIT if:

  • You don’t like lifting weights, but you still want to burn calories as quickly as possible
  • You only have a limited amount of time every day
  • You like pushing your body to its limits.

Do circuit weight training if:

  • You want to build muscle while burning calories
  • You like burning calories while sitting on your butt.
  • You’re not afraid of lifting weights.

Honestly though, this is just the science-y stuff.  Ultimately, I just want you to be happy and healthy, which means it’s up to you to find a great combination of the three methods above that keep you smiling and keep the weight off consistently.  Luckily, there’s no 100% perfect way to get in shape, so find something that you love and stick with it.  If it ain’t workin for ya, take some advice from this post and see what kind of results you get.

If you’ve spent months doing steady-cardio, try varying the speeds and intensity every once and a while.  If you’re afraid of lifting weights, give it a shot once or twice a week and see if the weight starts to come off quicker.  Try adding some basic cardio into your weight lifting routine on off days to knock off a few more calories.  Most importantly, eat better!

What say you, nerds?  Are you a cardio lover?  Weight-lifter for life?  Where have you seen the most success?

Let’s hear it.



picture: Waihey

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  • Scott S

    This was a great article, very informative. I have always been a fan of weight-lifting but try to work in some cardio. I am a big guy of 315 lbs so that makes cardio tough but I will get there.

  • http://blacknwritereviews.wordpress.com/ BlacknWriteReviews

    I started as a runner, and got to a plateau, started lifting but I wasn’t seeing the effects. Now I’m at a cross-roads and am not sure what to do, I want to get back into running, but I also want to get rid of this belly fat.

  • Justin

    I actually lift weights and inbetween each set, instead of resting, I do some form of cardio (I.e. jumping rope, running in place, jumping jacks). It takes anywhere from 1 hour to an hour and a half to cpmlete, so in my opinion you are getting the benefits of all three areas mentioned above.

  • justin

    There are a couple of programs that deal with inside training hiit such as insan***

  • kristen

    Great article. …I do the tredmill for a half hr a day and go right to the circuit training after…I feel better then ever and im down 50 pounds in almost 4 months….had the lap band surgery in november! Really changed my life! Thanks for the info!

  • bmiller107

    If you’re female, unless your genetically programmed, you won’t bulk up with using more weight. Your legs, arms, etc. should actually look smaller if you add muscle than without.

  • bmiller107

    Sometimes your muscles will retain water after weightlifting so if you’re looking at the scale every day this might be the problem. Try the weightlifting for a month or so and see how your clothes fit you vs. how much the scale goes up or down. I’d even add in another day of weight training using the circuit method described in the article. When you add muscle, you may not lose off the scale but your body will look smaller because muscle is more compact than fat.

  • Ronald Jackson

    It’s all personal preference. You said “I’d rather punch myself in the crotch than spend two hours on a treadmill” – yeah, that’s about how I feel about weight lifting. Picking stuff up and putting it down I find boring as hell. That said, as for cardio being “not as good” as HIIT or lifting, it depends on how you cardio. In the study group you mentioned “Thirty-six sessions … for one additional pound of fat loss”. They’re doing it wrong. That’s a net of about 100 calories per session. I do 7-8 TIMES that in a 65 minute session. Sure, if you’re getting 100 cals an hour, lifting or HIIT is definitely better. If you actually GO on the elliptical instead of stroll along, you get better results.

  • Shaerod

    I work out 5 to 6 times a week: weight lifting on: Monday Tuesday Thursday and Friday 8 to 12 reps 3 sets, HIIT on Wednesday and Sunday. I am roughly 135 pounds and am about 5’4. I take a multi vitamin, eat around 1745 calories a day while eating mostly healthy ( I will admit I do slip up here and there, I am a server and lack self control when it comes to boneless wings of the Honey BBQ variety) I also take a pre work out and drink my recovery drink right after my work out. This all being said I sometimes find myself feeling kind of sick (light headed and squeamish) around an hour after. What am I doing wrong?

  • J’adore Le Sucre

    Thanks for this article. Super helpful!

  • http://www.blog.sparetireannihilator.com/ Spare Tire Annihilator

    I’ve just gotten to the point where I actually enjoy running on my cardio days. I’m looking at it as preparing myself for HIIT in the near future. I’ve tried the most popular DVD program out right now, and it works, but for what I want nothing comes close to classic weight lifting, cardio and eating clean especially. Everybody responds differently to different training, but everybody responds the same to a clean diet.

  • Sporttster

    I just started working out again on Feb 12th and have upped the intensity quite a bit since then. I do around a hour give or take 6 days a week. Start out on the Elliptical for 23 mins with 4 or 5 times doing HIIT on it. Then I do weight training after that, atlernating days upper body/lower body. And a couple times a week I do straight cardio only. Elliptical for 23 mins then treadmill for another 20-25 for a avg of 400calories. I use Myfitnesspal to keep track of calories. So far I’m seeing slow results but I wasn’t in the greatest shape to begin with. I am tightening up in firmness though, that I can tell, but the belly is still there so far but it’s only been 2 months 10 days too. Gotta give myself some time to let it work.

  • Sporttster

    Are you doing a cool down afterwards?? Also, make sure you’re having enough calories. 1745 might be a bit light. I know if I push it a bit too hard on the treadmill and don’t get a cooldown I feel funky for awhile after.

  • Sporttster

    I work out at Planet Fitness and you’re so right. I see so many people just going for a morning stroll on the treadmill. I hope they aren’t expecting great results from that! I can get 100 calories on it alternating fast walking with a short jog in around 10-12 mins time.

  • Jennifer

    I have a question, my dietitian recommended that whilst dieting (4 days of protein diet and 3 days of carbohydrate diet) I do hip extensions (floor hip extensions and hip extensions while lying down) using ankle weights in order to lose the fat in my thighs, she also said that after every set I should do a minute of fast walking on the treadmill. however, I’m afraid that would expand my thigh muscles, rather than make me lose the fat, what do you think??

  • Julian Rickards

    I cycle in to work and home again, 5 days/wk, and currently am building up to the distance I ended up at last fall, 23km ea way (55-65min ea way). I’ve also started to go to the gym for weight training, 3x/wk. I am 5’8″, ~175lbs so I’m not too bad but I have some belly fat I’d like to get rid of. I think I’ll try a HIIT routine for part of my trip in to work, maybe only on mornings after an upper body weight routine instead of after a lower body weight routine.

  • Kumquat

    Idk about the “weight lifting” cuz I hate that. But I do LOVE weight training (aka exercises that build muscle where you dont necessarily need weights!)

    -I have an important question, though: Does weight training burn FAT?

  • Garrett Cooper

    Good article! I lost 60lbs (started at 205, I’m a bit over 5″8) from doing an hour on the elliptical 5-6 day a week and eating very healthy. I’ll fluctuate or let off on eating well from time to time. Put on about 15 over the last 6 months so looking at changing it up. Think I’m going to focus more on weights each day with just a few cardio days to keep it up.

  • luke

    ummm you say above burning calories and building muscle at the same time, i was almost certain that its impossible to lose weight and build muscle at the same time so whats the point in that?

  • luke

    basically im finding it hard to find the motivation to lift weights when i know im not gonna build muscle, if im trying to lose weight, what do you think?

  • Sarah Nuckols

    My Husband and I do a combination of cardio, HIIT and body weight exercises, we have reccently added in 24 poound weights to the end of our work out, where we do 24 front flies at 24 lbs, and 24 barbels at 24 pounds. it seems to work for us.

  • jdbaird

    I won’t go through my whole workout regimen, but I hit a wall in weight loss doing just cardio, I started at 246 and I got stuck at 230 for like 3 months going to the gym 4x’s a week 40 mins a day. So I tried intervals and am now down to 215 it kick started me back up again. I’m going to incorporate weights soon in order to get down to my weight goal of 205. Then I’m going to try to maintain there and build some muscle.

  • Jenna Dwyer

    I’ve always been a runner. I feel at home on a treadmill. However, recently I got a personal trainer and he introduced me to weight lifting. I official now love both! Lucky girl!

  • peter

    I don’t know where my exercise routine falls. I do planks, pushups, ab exercises, leg kicks in pushup position (not sure how it’s called), squats, stair climbing… I do sorts of exercises not found on the net like pulling myself on one arm on the door frame, pulling against the sofa (which I think engages the triceps and abs), doing sort of dips w my palms on the edge of the kitchen table, and so on. I vary my exercises. Like this day, I do things that tire my shoulders and arms, and then the next day I do squats and planks. Coupled with diet, I lost weight already in the past 2 months, including the tenacious fat in my midsection, although there’s still some belly fat and those pesky love handles.

  • Tim

    My favorite excercise is running 5K as fast as possible. Preferably running faster every 1k. This means I’m exhausted after the run and I’m always trying to get a better time. Where does this fit in considering the above article?

  • Susan

    I have been doing cardio for two months now I’ve lost 120 pounds but not much fat or at least it looks that way it seems it dong matter if I do bikes or treadmill I burn the same calories except when I do row machine that is a real calorie burner so I’m real frustrated I’ve lost all this weight and still look fat I’ve just bought a set of 8 pound fumbells I know not very heavy but got to start somewhere hopefully I’ll see something other than just pounds off the scale with the dumbells

  • Liz Ray

    Thanks so so much for this science-backed, easy to understand article! Very much appreciated!

  • Mari Tautimes

    I loved this post. I’ve recently lost 50 lbs with diet and cardio. I have 50 more lbs to tackle and now that I feel more comfortable at the gym and that my husband is helping me, I started weight circuit training this week. Because I am not enjoying it as much as I enjoy running, and I knew weight training was more effective, I decided to look up articles to remind myself of the “whys” of weight training when I came across this article. I love losing weight, getting healthier and getting stronger overall so knowing these stats will absolutely lend to greater enjoyment for me knowing I’ll achieve greater and more efficient results.

    I loved your “…punch myself in the crotch…” line. I usually say I’d rather shank myself in the eye than do “x”. I’ll have to add your line to the list of “things I’d rather”.

  • Shanny

    Just came across this post today. I enjoyed reading it very much. I’ve noticed a lot of men replying. What would you suggest for a female. Getting back into fitness again. Have always done cardio but very little weights. Do you think I would see more weight loss (fat loss) by doing more weight lifting and which ones should I focus on.

  • mou

    how about if i do it like that , one week cairdo HIIT with squate and deadlift and one week weights lifting .. i like both but as i used to be soccer player i like every thing about running, i also fine with weight but the only think i dont like is to have huge buddy full of muscles, i had big body before in past 10 years then i stopped then all turn to be fat , this is why i just want fitness body tone and abs is my goal , any concern ?

  • Hardik

    My boddy is little faty and I want to build muscle by exercises at home…
    Suggest me which type of exercise I have to do ?? Cardio or workout? ?? My age is 21.. give me advise and exercises.

  • Nick

    Do them all, mix them up, incorporate them together in workouts! Keeps the fitness regime exciting and challenging! Its what I did when I got bored of simple lifting routines followed by a boring jog! :) brings much better results as well!

  • Zara

    Hi, I have recently started to walk in my treadmill every morning for 30 mins ( I have it reclined). I am looking to change this now to HIIT on mon, we’d and fri and do strength training with dumbells on tue, thur and sat. Would you be able to direct me to where I could get info for doing this from home?
    Thanks in advance and keep up the great work you are doing. X

  • Justin Bustamante

    Do all three and eat right. I lost 50 lbs in about a year by doing that. Just stay consistent and dedicated. Then after you’ve lost the weight, do what you like and you’ll pretty much maintain.

  • pjkemnintz6

    can you do both run and workout. I enjoy doing both

  • Smiles1

    I am currently on a 3 month super shred diet. I completely changed my diet to eating to feed my body not stomach or taste buds. I eat fruits veggies lean meat egg whites.. I can have 1350 calories a day (which is difficult sometimes). I work out 5-6 days a week between 45-75 min depending on the workout. I’m doing weight training and aerobics. Each month is different focusing on shedding weight or building muscle. I lost 32lbs in 4 weeks. I started this overweight and it is difficult and almost impossible at times. However, after 12 weeks following the diet no cheating (really feeling hard at times) and working out 5-6 days a week I went from 5’6 female 252lbs to 175lbs in 3 months. I say circuit training done right with diet will get you where you need to be. In my opinion. Best to luck to anyone losing weight it’s so hard but so incredibly worth it :)

  • Hanna

    If you want to really feel good while working out go to http://www.stringerworld.com and pick up a nice 100% stringer. Check it out!!!

  • Pawan

    My trainner’s logic for not letting me do weight lifting was that it will make my body fat hard and i will not be able to lose it so he put me on only and only on cardio like treadmill, bicycling etc which make me really boring.. i didn’t lost more than 1 kg in 3 minths….yes thats true. I love weight training
    And now i m looking forward to join a new gym.

  • Dizz

    One thing that wasn’t stated in the cardio study was the intensity. Most of the time I visit a gym, I see people strolling instead of running on a treadmill or reading a book on the bike. They think this is cardio. If you can read, you aren’t working hard enough. I have a feeling this is what the study was based on.

    I prefer running outside to a dreadmill. I run at the fastest speed I can maintain…. fast walk up a hill if I need to, or sprinting down a hill. I would like to see results for this kind of running. Max sustained heart rate. Now that I can maintain a run… I am beginning to add in intervals.

  • Simone Costa

    I love HIIT! It is very tough but so worth it. I do it for 30 min, 4-5 days a week. I love specially burpees and squads!

  • Cyn

    I think I want to combine the HIIT on my incline trainer/treadmill and some of the body weight exercises that you mentioned above. You are right Diet is king so I will mostly focus on that. The only other question I have is if you can do 20-30 minutes of HIIT first and then body weight or vice versa every day with maybe two rest days.

  • Alex

    I really like weight training, especially compounds exercises with big weight, and for aerobic I like to swim. HIIT I hate more than anything. So, I absolutely agree with people who say that you should do what you enjoy, because HIIT I’ve never been able to do for more than a week, whereas swimming and gym, if I have enough of free time, I can just do it almost everyday. In fact, I tend to become addicted to it, it just makes me generally more happy. After every workout or swimming session I just feel very content, despite being exhausted, whereas after HIIT or, for example, running I just feel extremely tired and that’s all.
    Also, the diet is crucial. If you don’t limit your food consumption you’ll never loose any weight no matter how hard you work, because the more you exercise the more hungry you get. And the worst thing is that if you stop exercising for a while you will just start gaining weight like crazy. This is what happened to me – I had to stop working out for quite a long time because of wrist injury and now I’m trying to get back on track and let me tell you it is really hard, having all those extra fat on me plus low muscular and cardiovascular tone.