Weightlifting or Cardio?
by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA, PGCert. (Sport & Exercise Nutrition) // British Army Physical Training Instructor // S&C Coach.
Those who are interested in exercise, or even those absolute beginners may wonder whether it is more beneficial to follow a program of resistance training or concentrate on cardiovascular training.
In this article we look at the benefits of both and whether they effect fat and testosterone.
We shall cover the following:
- Cardio training
- Resistance training
- Fat burning
In the most basic of forms, focusing on resistance training would mean that you would either use bodyweight exercises such as the push-up, pull-up, or sit-ups.
Bodyweight exercises are sometimes referred to as calisthenics. Or you may consider going to a gym to use equipment such as barbells and other weight-based machines to specifically target muscle development, growth, and strength.
Alternatively, cardio training may consist of running, skiing, swimming, or cycling.
The goal is not necessarily to improve muscle growth (although muscle adaptations would occur, meaning the involved muscles would develop and improve) but to improve your V02 max, and ability to train for longer and become faster.
One extreme of resistance training (or weightlifting) would be preparing for a powerlifting or bodybuilding competition, whereas for cardiovascular training it would be to compete in a marathon or ironman.
Cardiovascular (cardio) or aerobic exercise is a very popular school of training, after all, it is completely free of charge and requires minimal equipment or facilities.
Sports and activities considered aerobic are any form of running, cycling, swimming, or endurance exercise/sport. It is a type of exercise that is popular worldwide and can be easily done without prior training. It is as easy as opening your door to go out for a jog or joining the local swim club to perform laps in the pool weekly.
Aerobic exercise can be defined as activity that uses many muscle groups which can be maintained for a continuous amount of time. If we think about running, you will note that you are using lots of muscles in your legs, arms, and shoulders, furthermore, it is not just one movement and then you stop, it is continuous and rhythmic.
One particular benefit of aerobic exercise is that it will greatly improve your cardiovascular conditioning, so your cardiovascular system will operate better – and this is something you will feel in daily life.
It will make physical labour easier; it will afford you a steadier resting heart rate and allow your lungs to perform better and improve your breathing.
How does it work?
If you continue to pursue aerobic exercise it will improve your aerobic capacity. This means the rate that the cardiovascular system can supply oxygen to the muscles will increase as will the capacity in which those muscles can use the oxygen effectively to power your movements.
Continued aerobic exercise will improve this capacity and utilization. The outcome will be benefits such as a reduced heart rate at rest and during exercise, easier workloads, and improved recovery times. Essentially, your performance will improve so you can train or compete to a higher level.
Because of this, aerobic exercise is a prized weapon for any person’s fitness and well-being. Most sports performers, combatants and military personnel must endure regular aerobic exercise in the form of drills, ruck marches, running miles and much more.
This is because many sports require your body to perform continuously for a long period of time and have a certain level of endurance and stamina.
Through aerobic exercise you can train your heart and lungs to operate more efficiently for longer. This will give you the physiological capacity to press on and dig deep after a consistent period of physical exertion.
Cardiovascular endurance is essential in boxing or mixed martial arts; many people pride themselves on their capacity to keep going especially when the body and the mind want to quit.
Marathon runners, triathlon athletes and ironman athletes are praised for this trait, as they take this to the brink of what is humanly possible.
It should be weighed in along with all the physical benefits of cardiovascular exercise that battling adversity is one of the greatest strengths you can develop as a person.
Benefits of Cardio
- Improves oxygen rich blood supply to the body
- More oxygen means you’ll be less fatigued
- Improve function of the heart, and protects against heart disease
- Improves artery elasticity which helps with blood flow
- A good level of cardiovascular exercise helps protect you against diabetes and some forms of cause
- Cardio makes you feel good! It stimulates the production of endorphins which naturally enhances your mood
- Reduces blood pressure
- Favorable effects on cholesterol levels (LDL and HDL)
- Improves workout efficiency
- Increases nitric oxide
Weightlifting is using force to either move weight or push against resistance. By doing so it has physiological effects of the body which includes an increase of muscle size, strength, body composition, hormonal response and even the cardiovascular system.
While we have discussed that cardio training is essentially free, resistance training can also be free or very cost effective.
You can utilize your own body weight, or you can use things around the house such as bottled water, tin cans or filling a rucksack and doing pull ups, squats or push ups.
If you wanted to spend a little money, resistance bands are widely available as are weighted vests and offer a great way to provide more resistance than body weight alone at a cheap price.
Obviously, many people may like to start with bodyweight exercises but then yearn for something more and want to train using weights.
Weightlifting equipment is quite expensive, very large and obviously heavy. Not everyone has the space, the money, or the capability to store such equipment and may opt to join a gym.
By doing so, a person can increase the resistance and train to a variety of methods to achieve different outcomes through physiological adaptations, but what are these outcomes?
Generally speaking, we can break this down in to four areas:
- Maximal Strength
- Hypertrophy (size)
How does it work?
As we have stated,weightlifting makes changes to the body such as muscle growth, strength improvements and hormonal response amongst others.
By manipulating variables, you can train your body to either maximise size, strength, power, and endurance.
There will always be overlaps, i.e. training for strength will result in increased muscle size, but not as much as if you were training purely for hypertrophy.
What are the variables?
By changing the intensity (weight lifted), the volume, speed of movement, muscle groups and frequency as this can affect fatigue.
Look below to see a snapshot of how you may wish to train depending on the desired outcome:
To train for maximum strength it is advised that the larger muscle groups are activated which involve multiple joints.
This includes squat, bench press, military press, and the deadlift (the compound lifts). These exercises employ the most amount of muscle and stimulate hormonal changes which are beneficial.
Fewer reps are required, so anything from 1 up to a maximum of 6 per set and perform 3 to 6 sets at a higher intensity (weight) while your movement through the exercise should be fast.
Again, like strength training we have similar training prescription for developing muscular power, the larger muscle groups are to be employed, the number of sets is the same, but the exercises are different.
For power you need to perform the Olympic lifts such as the jerk, clean and snatch. Reps range from 2 to 5 and the weight is slightly less but the speed of each lift is fast.
If you want to train and look like a bodybuilder with huge, sculpted muscles you need to increase your reps starting from 6 to 12 and reduce the intensity slightly so you employ moderate loads.
While you still need to include the compound lifts, you will also need to isolate muscles too, this would mean doing calf raises, bicep curls and other smaller muscle groups. The speed of your reps needs to be controlled and slower than if you were training for strength or power.
If you are involved in a sport such as soccer, rugby, football, basketball, rowing, or hockey, you will need to be able to sustain less force over long periods of game play which is in part require power and strength, but also stamina.
In this case you need to train for endurance, by doing so you need to increase the number of repetitions per set. Ensure you train over 12 reps at a slightly less weight than what you would do for hypertrophy at a controlled tempo.
Again, like with hypertrophy it is best to hit many muscle groups incorporating compound lifts with isolation exercises, particularly those muscle groups that are most active during your sport.
- Your training plan should be progressive, this means that in ordfer for your body to adapt and improve, the stresses should increase over time. This can be in the form of more reps, more sets or more weight lifted.
- Exercise the larger muscle groups before the smaller groups during your exercise routine. For instance, train squats before biceps.
- If you are employing both power and strength in a session, do the power exercises first.
- Rotate the agonist and antagonist muscle groups in a session. I.e Perform push and pull exercises.
- Balance the upper body and lower body muscle groups during your training plan.
- Do around 3 to 5 exercises per session and 3 to 6 sessions per week.
- Always warm up and cool down.
Benefits of Resistance Training
There's some great benefits to be gained from resistance training:
- Keep muscles strong and active. Adults lose around 3% to 8% of muscle mass every decade after 30.
- Healthy joints from lifting weights can reduce pain caused by muscle and joint weakness. Strength training is often advised by medical professionals to treat joint weakness
- Bone density can be developed through weight training. It is important, as it will prevent osteoporosis in the long term and prevents general injuries procured from brittle bones and weak joints
- Weightlifting is great at controlling your weight, by both promoting fat loss and the development of muscle mass
- Decreases resting heart rate and reduces blood pressure
- Improves the capacity of tendons and ligaments
- Reduces the risk of injury
- Improves work capacity
- Can have positive effects on your well-being, by reducing stress, anxiety while being able to improve confidence, mood, and mental well-being
Benefits of Both
- They both give you the means to scale in confidence by reaching goals and breaking your perceived limits.
- They can both be great in improving motor co-ordination, depending on what exercise or sport of either resistance or cardiovascular it is that you’re doing
- Exercise of either type does a great job at improving blood flow to your brain, this is another way that blood circulation can reduce tiredness, and remove some of that work fog – and mental fatigue
- They both can be used as good outlets for coping with stress
Weightlifting vs Cardio for burning fat
Two different exercise styles with two different outcomes, but which is better for managing fat mass?
Doing weightlifting increases your resting metabolic rate (the number of calories ‘burned’ while at rest to maintain tissue and essential body functions) because resistance training increases muscle tissues.
More muscle requires more calories, and more importantly muscle tissue has a higher calorific need than fat. By adding just 1.4kg of muscle to your body increases your daily calorie requirement by 15%.
Furthermore, during exercise, that muscle burns even more calories that can be up to 10 times the amount during rest.
Therefore, lifting weights burns a lot of calories, and then the gained muscle burns more calories while just at rest by raising your resting metabolic rate.
Weightlifting is a good way to help manage your fat mass.
A study from 2012 found that overall, aerobic exercise had a greater effect on reducing fat mass than resistance training. The study from Duke University also found that aerobic exercise was also more efficient at shedding those unwanted pounds by requiring less time per exercise session to do so.
However, while aerobic exercise is very effective at reducing fat mass, for elderly people, results show that they can benefit more from resistance training to combat muscle wastage
Concurrent training is when both types are combined. This is a great strategy for the elderly to maintain and improve muscle health.
However, a published article featured in the BMC Public Health Journal found that over a 12 week period, a training program of both resistance training and cardio provided greater fat loss benefits than sticking to once mode or the other.
Weightlifting vs Cardio for testosterone
Testosterone is responsible for many physiological functions in both genders, as such, maintaining a healthy level of testosterone is key to good health, particularly as we age as our natural production reduces with time.
There’s documented evidence that shows resistance training is effective at increasing testosterone levels in both men and women, old and young. It appears the most beneficial form of training is when the larger muscle groups are exercised (the compound lifts), with heavy weight and larger volumes.
Testosterone levels then tend to return to the baseline figures approximately 30 minutes after training.
A 12-month study measuring the effects of aerobic exercise amongst 100 middle aged men found no increase of testosterone production.
It has been noted that men who are endurance trained suffer from chronically low levels of testosterone which may be a result of overtraining syndrome.
Furthermore, research found that aerobic exercise caused cortisol levels to rise which would inhibit muscle growth and suppress the immune system while stimulating weight loss.
The Institute of Sports Sciences of the University of Physical Education in Poland conducted research into the effect of high intensity interval training (HIIT).
This would comprise of intensive interval cardiovascular training followed by intensive strength training circuits which lasted for 60 minutes over 3 sessions per week.
Not only did their physical capacity increase but also their testosterone levels.
Both Cardio and Weightlifting are suggested by health professionals and sports science researchers.
There are those on either side which proclaim that one is better than the other, and that can be gauged in a variety of compared measurements, however, in the breadth of the discussion of exercise, what is sure is that both are preventative of disease and declining health.
In addition, they are both pursuits that force adaptions that are physiological in nature, improving the physique and health of a person. Routines are incorporate aspects of both are encouraged and plentiful in the fitness community.
In the same train of thought, being a purist or passionate pursuer of one discipline in one of those types of exercise modalities is not specifically a bad thing and can be quite healthy in isolation.
We can see that if you want to burn fat, the most effective and efficient way is through aerobic exercise, alternatively, to improve testosterone levels you should look at a more resistance training focussed plan.
Everyone has their preferences in sport and exercise, and we at Military Muscle want you to be animated in your own investigation of what suits you and your lifestyle.
Don’t be afraid of trying something new, learning new movement patterns is an essential part of being human.