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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  • Heather

    Hi I started do weights with HIIT I do weights three days a week and HIIT three with one day just walking the dog my question is, how do I avoid muscle bulk? I want to have slim lean tone no muscle bulk.

  • justinf

    This was very informative thanks. But not everybody LIKES exercising I think the best way to lose weight is push yourself no matter what kind of exercising you do. Only a certain few like the “burn” but you gotta do it to see best results

  • Keshia N. Hooks

    OMG…I LOVE THIS POST!! I’ve recently made the choice to be healthier and so far I’ve lost 8lbs in 30 days!! Yay Me!! I’ve been doing aerobics but I’m starting to get bored and didn’t know what to do next….This article has given me a little direction on the steps i need to take. Thanks so much for sharing!!

  • Jake

    Good article, and I agree with almost all of it, but as an avid weight lifter, I often hear people talking about how high impact weight lifting is, and I think that is very very misleading. Let’s say a 200lb man dead lifts 400lbs (an intermediate level weight). This weight is lifted in a smooth controlled form and distributed over his body fairly evenly (on two feet, held in two hands, etc). He might lift that weight a few times in a set. Now consider the impact on the knees and lower back that the same 200lb man experiences running. Force = mass * acceleration. Running is way higher impact than lifting, and considering you do this to your knees and back over the course of miles instead of just a few reps, running wears you down way faster than lifting. Every time your foot hits the ground, some part of your body has to absorb the force. I always hear people who don’t lift talking about how dangerous lifting is, but I hardly ever actually see anyone in the gym hurt themselves, however I do often hear of runners having knee and back problems. I think there is a big misconception out there when it comes to what is safer for you.

  • J.b.

    I am a 20 year old girl who started out weighing 100 kgs.

    From May until December this year i lost 18 kgs. I did this by cutting most carbs and sugars from my diet. In addition to this i did weight training. I did very little cardio (personally cardio has never helped me. I ran for a little less than a year without much of difference).

    So a workout for me would be warm up with cardio, and then free weights such as goblet squats, lunges, and squats with barbells and deadlifts, and kettle bells.

    I have changed my workout plan little by little not to let my body get used to it, but it is always within resistance training.

    I think it is very personal what works for you or not. But this is what helped me.


  • Parm

    Can you vary it?

    So every week you do at least one session using the weights approach because strenght and muscle mass is important.

    But also alternate the other 2-3 training sessions, so one week you do cardio and the other you do interval training.

    Would that work?

  • Steve_T

    I don’t like waiting either!

  • Jbean

    I love running outdoors but hate treadmills. I don’t mind lifting, but prefer that in the comfort of my home – so I invested in a weight bench, 3 pairs of free weights, a jump rope, a yoga mat, and a barbell, and plan to lift every other day at home, and run every other day with 1-2 days off on the weekends – I think weight lifting is empowering, once you get into it and see what it does to your body, those of you who hate lifting will become more and more addicted to it. I think it’s worth trying!

  • Claudia

    When I used to properly workout, I loved to run. Nothing beats bashing the ground and the wind in my face for me. I did a bit of weights and HIIT, however, I never realised push-ups with just body weights counted as weight training. One small fact which has just motivated me to push some out. =D

  • http://www.patronsaintofpoopydiapers.wordpress.com Jeni

    I’ve been reading about a billion sites on this topic today and this hands down is the most informative and logical. My search for answers ends! hurrah. Thanks NerdFitness!!

  • James Othwell

    some one said that following the natural rules of pareto 80/20, cardio should be 80% and weights /hiit should be 20% of the total exercise time. if you break this rule , youre not going to last long or simply you are not pushing yourself hard enough. so 2 days a week i do weights with hiit or circuit weights and 4 days i do steady state cardio. seems to be working for me magically

  • Emile

    This was an amazing article, I usually get bored after just the first paragraph, but I went all out on this, thanks for the tips and references. Good Piece…

  • Igor Alessandro Conte

    First of all, sorry about my english, I am from Brazil and student of english, so… I have started to run 2 years ago, I am running 10km in 60 minutes (something about it). I hurt my ankle by two times playing soccer (you know that Brazilians love this), now I am returning to play about 5 years after. I have to admit that I like Cardio exercises, but I have to lose weight fast and to get stronger, to do this two activities (run and play soccer) that I love. So I started to go to the gym and I am doing day with cardio, day with weight training. I have passed with a nutritionist too, but I am facing dificulties to lose weight, so now I am here!

  • sfdg

    you are all freaks. NERDS!!!!!!!!!!HAHAHA

  • Brigita

    Any girls here who wanted to lose weight. If u follow this link you will able to lose weight but if you want to lose weight fast you are not able to lose weight fast by following this tips. Regards, (Kaip sumažinti apimtis)

  • SiLenTuce808 .

    I need to find me a good affordable diet lol eating healthy is kinda hard on the wallet.. For real tho

  • Deb

    GREAT ARTICLE! One problem…I can’t do the fat burner high calorie loss excersizes because of my knees and back problems. I’m in my early 50’s. Female, I HATE running, recently quit smoking about 4 mo ago and gained 15 “extra” pounds. I was playing at working out before that for about 4-5 years, going to the gym 1-2 a week with a trainer…never running though…since Jan 9th, I have maintained a gym visit 3 times a week, 15 min on treadmill at 3.8 speed on 4 incline then weights for legs and arms the next 20-30 min, 3 reps of 12 each machine (about 5 machines) I’ve lost about 1.5 lbs in 30 days! AHHHH! I eat well and stay under 1300 calories a day (most days) I don’t drink soda) trying hard to stay away from the starches and chocolate, but I’m making huge strides in that area…I need tose 7 lbs by the 22nd. HELP ME.

  • Brian Babu

    Man, I love this article. I love this part out of all ” you’re burning calories while sitting on your ass playing Modern Warfare 2 or re-watching Lost Season 5 “.

    I am doing HIIT ( 1(walk):1(sprint) ratio for 15 mins & 1(walk):2(sprint) for another 15 mins) first and then proceed to circuit training with weights as mentioned in the bizzy diet with high reps (20 – 30 or more reps) after that steady cardio for recovery 15 mins!

    My diet used to depend more on whole wheat but am thinking of replacing one of the meals with fruits and add some veggies as well! I take a protein shake right after workout and a fat burner in the morning and before workout!

    In your opinion, how does my training, diet and supplementation look? Any thoughts? :D

  • quantumeyez spiral

    weights burn the most in my personal experience

  • quantumeyez spiral

    but i tried spin class for the first time last week and it was amazing

  • Sam Draper

    Ive always tried to ignore the whole diet thing, and didnt think it was ‘really’ that important. So i weight trained for 3months, lost 3kg’s. I wasnt getting the results i wanted. So i added cardio to my routine (for only a week i may add) and it was unbearably horrible and incredibly boring. So i turned to dieting, (the Paleo) for a week so far, trained as normal (minus the cardio) and i have lost a further 6kg’s. I look great and feel great.

    Evidence is there, i will not be so naive again.

    What annoys me is my gym buddy (who i work with) refuses to diet, so at lunch, while im eating Paleo food (Curried Lamb Stew <3 my fav) he chooses to eat 4 donuts, a pint of chocolate milk and (in what can only be described as bucket) copious amounts cereal, and wonders why his body fat pecentage isnt going down. Due to his lack of 'results' he does more, and more, and more cardio. Thinking that that is the answer (he still has no results)

    Love the site guys :)

  • Morgan

    Weights Weights Weights I say! I’ve never needed to get on a treadmill because Weights and body weight work gives me all of the calorie torching I need!
    Female 5’9 150lb

  • bean

    Very newly started on the IIFYM diet and starting weight training once my dumbells arrive! Very excited that I can do this – I DESPISE cardio, I have asthma and weak knees so running just kills me after 30 seconds!

    Thanks nerds!

  • Shak

    Great article! However, can anyone advise on whether I am doing this right or not. This is my workout as below:

    Bench Press – 3x 10 reps

    Seated Row – 3x 10 reps

    Straight Bar for Arms – 3x 10 reps

    Tricep Rope – 3x 10 reps

    Shoulder Press using DB – 3x 10 reps

    DB Squats – 3x 10 reps

    I am doing the above twice a week at a heavy-ish weight for me and takes 20 mins to do the above then a 2-3minute rest and do the same again so in total i spend 40 mins on weights. Between each 10reps I have a 30 seconded rest and then do another 10. this is doen twice a week and 1 days cardio. is this a good workout or is ti too much??

  • Shak

    Just to advise I am doing this for fat loss.

  • ron

    Thanks for a great article. You tell it well and to the point.
    Yes, you are a rare one to mention that diet is king… I certainly agree with that.

    I like running but I will start doing lunges and stuff like that… builds up strength for the quads and buttocks.. just too plain lazy after a 5k run.

  • a heare

    I am 25 yrs old and i am 5’7 at 155lbs i want to lose weight. i love running and do it three times a week for at least 30 mins and incorporate intervals. but i cant seem to drop the weight its depressing me! i dont have a lot of time and eat pretty healthy…what do i do??

  • abraham

    thought cardio was the best way to lose body fat. probleme was i had to eat very VERY SMALL portions! couldnt handle the strenious diet and ive gained double my weight! have been despair for long time until i decided to get a grip kick my fear of lifting weight off my mind. feeling good results especially during rest time i feel my body “working”, can flex and see muscles its amazing. its pushing to be consistent lift more and lift heavier. i dont care about body fat now all i want to see is muscles and have a rock hard body. i eat foods i cook only. i never buy cooked food outside or go to restaurant or buy any kind of process foods i make exceptions for sweets only when i feel like eating chocolate which i dont eat everyday. i eat fruits vegies brown rice pasta chicken canned tuna boiled or fried eggs and red meat. weight lifting became an obsession i never want to stop training but i have to take a break and rest to let my muscle build. its hard during rest period because i feel like i havent done enough my body should be exhausted

  • abraham

    lol 4 donuts pint of chocolate etc etc. better go to the gym alone than working out with such dude
    keep up the good work.

  • Guest

    I drink only water, and a lot of it, and eat a non processed diet. Meaning anything I eat does not come from a bag/can/box etc. I make my own juice from a combination of fruits and veggies for breakfast, eat a salad (NO DRESSING) and fish, chicken, or beans/lentils for lunch, eat a similar dinner to lunch, and snack on things like Greek yogurt, almonds, veggies, etc. for snacks through out the day. I go to the gym in the morning and at night. I start with about 20 minutes of cardio, but being on cardio machines bore me. I then do about an hour to an hour and a half of weight lifting. Monday and Thursday I do legs. Tuesday and Friday I do core and back. Wednesday and Saturday I do arms and shoulders. Sundays I do not go to the gym, but I never take a break on my eating. I’ve been doing this for about a year and have lost 30 pounds. I wasn’t terribly big to begin with, I just wanted to be more tone and muscular.

  • Tracy