Fat loss is at the front of everybody’s mind these days, even stormtroopers.
If you want to lose weight, and you want to do so in the fastest way possible, what’s the best strategy?
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 each contender and let you know which will give you the most bang for your buck.
The results, which certainly aren’t unanimous, will surprise you [cue the dramatic music]…
Meet today’s contestants:
- Cardio: Pretty much anything with relatively low intensity that you can do for a prolonged period of time that elevates your heart rate. Regular aerobics, going for a 3-mile jog, zumba, 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 bodyweight 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. Believe me when I say your diet is responsible for 80-90% of your successes or failures.
As I’ve said previously, even if you spend 10+ hours a week exercising, that still leaves 168 hours for you to mess things up thanks to your food. 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. You can learn more about the NF nutritional philosophy here.
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.
This is called a caloric deficit.
Step on a treadmill or put on your running shoes, 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 go for run.
Because this activity has one of the lowest barriers to entry, many people start exercising by just running a treadmill or elliptical for hours: it’s tough to mess up and there’s nothing tricky involved.
There are a few challenges with cardio: Although running outside or going for a long walk can be delightful, spending time on a treadmill or elliptical trapped in doors can be boring or miserable unless you really enjoy it.
(that being said, if you LOVE cardio, by all means keep doing it).
Secondly, cardio certainly helps with improving your heart health, training your heart like a muscle to be in shape by remaining at a higher level of operation while exercising. However, because you’re doing a consistent form of exercise, you’re not really training to prepare for moments of extreme stress because it never really has to deal with rapid changes (explained in the next section).
Lastly, in terms of getting in shape, it’s definitely not the most efficient form of exercise. Why? 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 a good fit for many, other than the low learning curve, is that you can do lots of it.
Whether you’re walking or going for a slow jog or hiking, you can do cardio everyday for hours and hours, burning calories and so on.
Also, plenty of forms are cardio are just plain fun. Whether it’s dancing or hiking or ultimate frisbee, or running on a treadmill (if that’s your cup of tea), if you enjoy it, keep doing it!
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High-Intensity Interval Training
Next entering the ring, we have high intensity interval training: varying your speed and intensity with regards to your efforts while running, biking, etc: jog for 30 seconds, sprint for 30 seconds, jog for 30, sprint for 30, etc.
When it comes to efficiency in burning calories, high-intensity training is far ahead of cardio.
Why is that?
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 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.
Okay, so that sounds great.
What’s not so great about interval training? When you do something like HIIT, it can take your body quite a bit of time to recover, and you might only be able to do it for a few minutes at a time before you get too exhausted to continue.
Your body might also be increasingly sore the next day compared to if you did a similar amount of cardio in the same amount of time.
Lastly, you’re probably reading this article because you’re interested in losing weight efficiently…but picking this over cardio if you hate HIIT might be enough to get you to change your vote,. That’s up to you.
As we discuss in the NF Academy, the best workout routine and diet plan is the one you STICK WITH!
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 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 strength training when combined with the two is the most effective method to dropping pounds.
Why is that true? When you strength train, you’re actually breaking down the muscles in your body. Strength training, be it with weights or bodyweight movements, recruit tons of muscles and cause you to burn significant calories during your workout.
Now, after you finish training, after you go back home and sit on your couch and catch up on Netflix, your body’s metabolism continues to operate at a heightened pace as you rebuild your muscles stronger than before. This can continue for upwards of 36 hours after you finish training.
Of course, there are many other positives and negatives to strength training too:
On the PRO side, if you have a limited amount of time and you are looking for the most efficient workout, strength training gives you the most bang for your buck.
Strength training also helps you build the physique you’re looking for, can help keep you injury-free and healthier and happier throughout the rest of your life (picking up groceries, yard work, playing with kids, etc.).
On the CON side, if you don’t know what you’re doing or have bad form, you can open yourself up to injury as you’re doing more aggressiveness movements than going for a walk (though plenty of people get hurt running too due to poor form).
Also, if you just don’t enjoy strength training, it might keep you from exercising too, and the best exercise plan is the one you follow.
If you’re interested in getting started, but not sure HOW to strength train, or you’re worried you’re doing it wrong, confused on where to start, and want demonstrations and workout plans to follow – either IN a gym or at home with just your bodyweight training…
The Nerd Fitness Academy might be what you need, it has more than a dozen workout routines – both for the gym or training at home, meal plans, boss battles, and the most supportive community on the internet.
Check it out if you’re looking for a one-stop shop that removes all confusion with getting started with strength training and tells you exactly what to do based on where you are.
We also have free routines here on Nerd Fitness like the NF beginner bodyweight workout that you can do in the comfort of your own home!
Is it that cut and dry?
Like everything with health and fitness, you could read anything anywhere and there’s probably study out there that tells you what you want to hear.
Although I’m a HUGE fan of strength training and swear by it, the rest of the story needs to be discussed. Let’s don our mathlete hats (you have one, don’t you), and dig into the stats:
When you keep the amount of time constant (say 30 minutes), YES doing a 30 minute strength training circuit will burn more calories than HIIT, which will burn more calories than 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 could need a few days to recover.
Steady state cardio, especially with things like an elliptical or walking isn’t nearly as strenuous on the body, and we’re designed to move at low speeds for a long time, which means that depending on your level of fitness you could walk for hours and hours or run for miles and miles and then do it again the next day.
Yup, that means you might actually be able to burn more calories with cardio than strength training, if you only strength trained for 30 minutes but then went for an 8 hour walk around the city! It depends on how often and for how long you exercise or do cardio.
These are also stackable too – if you start with strength training, and then go for a walk or a jog after, you can get the benefits of both. It really comes down to your preference, how much free time you have, your goals, and your amusement level of one of these routines.
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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, diet is 90% of the battle. Eat poorly and none of the above matters. Eat right, eat real foods, and exercise, and you’ll get better.
Here is my advice: do what you love. And don’t do what you don’t like. I don’t like running or doing ‘cardio’, so I don’t do it! I focus on strength training, gymnastics, hiking, and walking.
The choice is yours, and yours alone. So try them each one and decide if they’re enjoyable and helping you reach your goals.
Do cardio if:
- You don’t mind the treadmill or elliptical
- You really like running, or biking, or Zumba, or dancing
- You have enough time to make the effort worth it
- You are trying to build a healthy habit and just get started with something
Do HIIT if:
- You don’t like lifting weights, but you still want to burn calories as quickly as possible
- You want to give your heart a good workout
- You only have a limited amount of time every day
- You like pushing your body outside of its comfort zone, forcing it to adapt – a good thing
Do circuit weight training if:
- You want to build muscle while burning calories
- You want to strengthen your muscles and joints and stay injury free.
- You like burning calories while sitting on your butt.
- You’re okay with getting started with strength training, be it in a gym or at home with bodyweight training.
Ultimately, I just want you to be happy and healthy, which means it’s up to you to find a one of or a combination of the three methods above that keep you smiling and keep the weight off consistently.
There’s no 100% right way to get in shape, but there is a wrong way (doing nothing!), so find something that you love and stick with it.
You can question your assumptions with regards to getting healthy and losing weight, and you don’t need to do something you dislike if you can put the time in to find something you enjoy.
If you’ve spent months doing steady-cardio and you’re not enjoying it or not getting results, try varying the speeds and intensity every once and awhile.
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!
And you if you just want to be told exactly what to do, including what exercises to do, how to eat, and be supported by a community of people like you, we got you covered there too.